Monday, June 23, 2014


MANY YEARS AGO, in the early days of We Too Were Children, I invoked Rachel Cohen's superb book A Chance Meeting, which describes the ways in which literary lives are intertwined as one writer meets another, in some cases only once, in others in lasting friendships over many years, and that author meets another and so on, drawing a haphazard line through the history of literature. On We Too Were Children, the authors and illustrators might never have met in person, but one book leads to another, which leads to another, which often leads back to another book I have already covered. For example, Nancy Ekholm Burkert, who I most recently wrote about in relation to Randall Jarrell, I first wrote about over three years ago in relation to John Updike. Jarrell contributed translations of two volumes of fairy tales--Grimm and Bechstein--to a series spearheaded by Michael di Capua at Macmillan in 1962, something I discovered when I set out to write about Jarrell's other children's books. And it wasn't until one of those books was in my hands that I even discovered on the back of the book that it was part of a series, and that one of the other illustrious writers who had contributed to the series, in this case an introduction, was an author I had already covered, John Updike. A "chance meeting" indeed.

John Updike's introduction, entitled "Forward For Young Readers," graces a volume of three fairy tales by Oscar Wilde. Wilde published two collections of fairy tales in his varied career, many of the stories first appearing in magazines: The Happy Prince and Other Stories (1888) and House of Pomegranates (1891). As Updike reminds us, "Oscar Wilde wrote in a time when grown men wrote very seriously for young readers." Updike, who in 1962 was about to publish his first children's book, wrote his "Forward For Young Readers" just as seriously. He opens with a discussion of the etymology of the word "Fairy," which he uses to segue into the way in which Christianity drowned out pagan beliefs in Europe, leaving only fairy stories, "the substance [of which] is pagan wood, but the taste and glisten is of Christain salt."

In the modern age, fairy stories become necessary, Updike says, "For if men do not keep on speaking terms with children, they cease to be men, and become merely machines for eating and for earning money. This danger was not so clear until machines entered the world in force and began to make men resemble them."

Updike does manage to introduce the actual stories contained in the volume, "The Young King," "The Devoted Friend," and Wilde's most famous children's story, "The Happy Prince," teasing each one with a cryptic image central to each respective story. Then he warns us that the stories, unlike "so many modern books for children," do not "skip the subject of suffering. On the contrary: suffering is exactly what they are about....But," he goes on, "if you dare read them, you will enter a rich and precious world."

As with all of his writing, Updike brings to his introduction deep intelligence, visceral language, and humor. In some ways, his essay is more enjoyable to read than Wilde's overwrought stories. It is amazing to read in his attached bio that he was only thirty years old when he wrote it. "As the father of Elizabeth, David, Michael, and Miranda," he adds, "he has a special interest in fairy tales and storytelling." His own children's books followed in the subsequent few years.

Updike included "Foreword for Young Readers" in his first collection of nonfiction, Assorted Prose, but as near as I can tell, the essay is currently out of print. I have scanned the entire thing, and posted it below. If you click into each image, it should be easy to read. It's short, and worth it.

In addition to Updike and Jarrell, the Macmillan series of "marvelous tales" included introductions by Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Bowen, and Isak Dinesen, which I plan to write about in upcoming posts.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014


AFTER RECEIVING RANDALL JARRELL'S TRANSLATIONS for The Brothers Grimm, his editor Michael di Capua suggested that Jarrell try his hand at an original children's story. Intrigued, Jarrell took a notebook to the hammock in his backyard, and with a radio blaring, he composed his own fairy tale, The Gingerbread  Rabbit.

The Gingerbread Rabbit is a variation on the story "The Gingerbread Boy." In Jarrell's version, a young mother makes her daughter a gingerbread rabbit while her daughter is at school. When the mother steps out for a moment, the kitchen implements inform the Gingerbread Rabbit that he is going to be eaten. Frightened by the giant with "dozens of tremendous shining white teeth the size of a grizzly bear's," the Gingerbread Rabbit races out the door with the young mother in pursuit.

In the woods, the Gingerbread Rabbit meets a fox, who tells the rabbit that he is also a rabbit, and invites him into his den with the intention of eating the Gingerbread Rabbit. A real rabbit comes along just in time, and drags the Gingerbread Rabbit away. He brings the Gingerbread Rabbit to his burrow, where he and his wife, who have "always wanted to have a little rabbit of [their] own" adopt the confectionery bunny. The human mother gives up her chase, and decides she will go home and sew her daughter a cloth bunny instead.

AS FANTASTICAL AS THE STORY SOUNDS, and as openly as it wears its folkloric origins, The Gingerbread Rabbit is built from Jarrell's own childhood, from material he had already mined in his poetry. At the age of eleven, Jarrell's parents separated. His mother returned to Nashville, Tennessee with his brother, while Jarrell remained with his grandparents at their farm in Hollywood. There, his grandparents gave him a pet bunny named Reddy. One traumatic day, the young Jarrell witnessed his grandmother slaughter a chicken. As he describes in his poem "The Lost World:"
[Grand]Mama comes out and takes in the clothes
From the clothesline. She looks with righteous love
At all of us, her spare face half a girl's.
She enters a chicken coop, and the hens shove
And flap and squawk, in fear; the whole flock whirls
Into the farthest corner. She chooses one,
Comes out, and wrings its neck. The body hurls
Itself out--lunging, reeling, it begins to run
Away from Something, to fly away from Something
In great flopping circles. Mama stands like a nun
In the center of the awful, anguished ring.
The thudding and scrambling go on, go on--then they fade,
I open my eyes, it's over...Could such a thing
Happen to anything? It could happen to a rabbit, I'm afraid...
Jarrell asked his grandmother if she could ever do such a thing to his pet rabbit, and his grandmother reassured him that she never would. Then, after a year on his own at his grandparents, it was decided that he should rejoin his mother and brother. Jarrell didn't want to go, and begged his grandparents to let him stay with them. His appeal was denied, and once he had gone back east, Reddy was slaughtered and eaten for dinner.

The Gingerbread Rabbit's fear of being eaten is Jarrell's childhood fear for his pet. And his wish to be adopted by a kind older couple, the real rabbits at the end of the book, is Jarrell's desire to stay with his grandparents. But in the picture book, these fears and wishes could be answered in a way they weren't in reality, with a happy ending.

WHEN JARRELL FINISHED the writing for The Gingerbread Rabbit, he turned his attention to the illustrations. His wife Mary wrote, "Jarrell rather assumed that the writer found some illustrations he liked, told the editor about it, and the illustrator would come running." After seeing The Rescuers by Margery Sharp, Jarrell settled on the illustrator Garth Williams without realizing that the illustrator of Charlotte's Web and Little House on the Prairie might not be an easy illustrator to hire. In the end, di Capua was able to convince the esteemed artist to take on The Gingerbread Rabbit.

With Williams in Mexico and Jarrell in North Carolina, all communiques were made through di Capua. In July of 1962, Jarrell sent the following guidelines,
"The rabbit himself ought to be very sincere and naive and ingenuous, so that his whole body and face express what he feels. The big rabbit ought to be handsome, secure and competent-looking; the mother rabbit should be delicate and demure and beautiful. The fox should be very smooth and flashy, like Valnetino playing W. C. Fields. The little girl's mother should be young (28 or so) and beautiful and kind, just the mother a little girl would want; the little girl should be something any little girl can immediately identify with."
Over the next few months, Jarrell finished writing his second children's book The Bat Poet, begun in the same hammock that had yielded The Gingerbread Rabbit. di Capua wanted Maurice Sendak to do the illustrations, and provided Jarrell with examples of Sendak's work. With Sendak's art as a point of comparison, Jarrel began to doubt his original choice of illustrator. In December of 1962, a disheartened Jarrell wrote to di Capua,  "If you could tell Williams how much I liked the pen-and-ink style of The Rescuers, and that I would be enchanted to have The Gingerbread Rabbit somewhat like that, perhaps he'd feel like it."

Whatever reservations Jarrell harbored that winter, when nearly finished illustrations for The Gingerbread Rabbit reached him in March of 1963, he wrote:
"I'm delighted with the drawings: the gingerbread rabbit's very cute and touching. The fox is wonderful, and the old rabbit in the colored sketch makes me want to be adopted by him...I believe Williams is getting quite inspired and will make a charming book."
The New York Times agreed. Of the finished product they said, "Garth Williams has drawn his landscape and personae in the best possible way, without "side" or innuendo, en punto." They said of Jarrell, "As always, [Jarrell's] prose here is straightforward, the tone is right, the learning informs subtly, the sensibility is in control. In short, the tale is in perfect taste."

The book, while now considered the weakest of Jarrell's works for children, resonated with readers as well. It remains in print today, a great accomplishment for a first-time children's book author. Without it, there might not have been the three books to come.

QUOTES FROM JARRELL'S LETTERS come from The Children's Books of Randall Jarrell by Jerome Griswold with an introduction by Mary Jarrell, and from Randall Jarrell's Letters, edited by Mary Jarrell. Additional background information came from Randal Jarrell: A Literary Life by William H. Pritchard.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2014


"EVERYBODY has read some of Grimm's Tales," writes Randall Jarrell in  his introduction to The Rabbit Catcher and Other Fairy Tales of Ludwig Bechstein, "but it is surprising how few people have read German fairy tales translated from other books." Jarrell sets out to remedy that with his second contribution to Macmillan's series of marvelous tales, three stories by Ludwig Bechstein.

Bechstein was a contemporary and ardent admirer of the Grimms. When they refused to allow him to produce an abridgment of their work, he chose to write his own book of fairy tales, which was published in 1845. Jarrell: "In his introduction to his book Bechstein calls the fairy tale 'the restless and homeless, floating bird-of-pardise of innocent tradition.'" Bechstein managed to catch that 'bird-of-paradise.' His volume outsold the Grimms' in Germany until the 1890s.

From the introduction through the translations, Jarrell's Bechstein is far more relaxed than his Grimm. Where the Grimm introduction quoted at length from a German poet and mentioned the H-bomb, the Bechstein introduction includes revealing intimacies: "I never heard anyone called a heavenly man before, but it's already become a family phrase in my family." Throughout the whole book, the reader can sense how much fun Jarrell is having.

The tales are "The Rabbit Catcher," "The Brave Flute-Player," and "The Man and the Wife in the Vinegar Jug." Jarrell says, "The stories, even down to their last bit of style, are as plain and homely as can be." But he means this as a compliment. His love for the stories is apparent. Except he takes especial care to make clear that the "Fisherman and His Wife" variant "The Man and the Wife in the Vinegar Jug," holds nothing to the original.

"THE RABBIT CATCHER" is of the variety of tales where a young suitor is set a series of impossible tasks in order to earn the right to wed the princess. When given the first task--to lead one hundred rabbits out to the fields, let them graze for the day, and bring every single one back--he asks for a day to think it over. As he is fretting over this challenge, a little, old lady gives him a whistle and tells him, "'Take good care of it, it will do a lot for you!'" With the whistle in hand, he agrees to the challenge.

But the king and princess are concerned that the boy might succeed. Each comes to him in the field in disguise asking to buy a rabbit, so that he will not have all one hundred when he returns. First he convinces the princess to kiss him in exchange for a rabbit, and then the king to kiss his donkey. But as each leaves, he uses the magic whistle to recall the bunnies, and at the end of the day he brings all one hundred in.

The whistle helps with the next task--to separate one hundred bushels of peas and a hundred bushels of lentils in the dark--by bringing a swarm of ants who complete the challenge, and the last--to eat a roomful's worth of bread in a night--by bringing "so many mice..that it was almost sinister."

Having completed the challenges, the king tries one last trick to try to cheat the boy out of the princess's hand: he must fill a bag of lies. But when the boy starts to say that he had made the king kiss a donkey, the king cuts him off, says the bag is full, and relinquishes his daughter.

"THE BRAVE FLUTE-PLAYER" tells of a musician who stops for the night at a farm, where he learns that the nearby abandoned castle is home to a treasure that no one can claim, because it is haunted and everyone who has gone in at night has never returned. Unafraid, the musician goes into the castle, and the farmer, left at home, can gauge how the musician is faring, because the sound of his flute drifts down to the farm.

At eleven o'clock, two men carry in a coffin and leave. The musician opens the coffin--the farmer is sure he is dead, because the music has stopped--takes out the little shriveled corpse, sets it by the fire, and soon it comes to life. The wrinkled, little man leads the musician to a room full of gold, and tells him if he can evenly divide the gold in two, half would belong to him and half would go to the poor. The musician divides the piles of coins, but there is one left over. He cuts it in half, making him the first to succeed in one hundred years, and the old man grants him the money. The musician begins to play, and the farmer is overjoyed at the sound.

"THE MAN AND THE WIFE IN THE VINEGAR JUG," as Jarrell said in his introduction, is a variant of "The Fisherman and His Wife." In this, it is a golden bird who grants each of the couple's escalating wishes, and for no apparent reason. And unlike the fisherman who is driven to each new wish by his greedy wife, here both members of the couple seem equally eager to first live in a cottage, then in the city, then as nobles, as king and queen, and at last as God. With that request, "Bang, all their magnificence went down to the devil, and both of them, the man and his wife, were back in the vinegar jug again."

THE RABBIT CATCHER'S BEAUTIFUL ILLUSTRATIONS were done by Ugo Fontana, a legend of children's book illustration in his native Italy. Fontana was selected this year as the first illustrator to be spotlighted in the annual exhibition 'The Lost Treasure' at the Bologna International Children's Book Fair. A 200-page bilingual book was released in conjunction with the festival. If anyone has this book and is trusting enough to lend it to me, I will happily devote a blog post to this amazing illustrator. To see all of his illustrations for The Rabbit Catcher, view my Flickr set here.

For information on Ludwig Bechstein, I consulted The Teller's Tale: Lives of the Classic Fairy Tale Writers edited by Sophie Raynard.

NEXT: Jarrell's Original Children's Books

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Tuesday, June 3, 2014


WHEN NANCY EKHOLM BURKERT'S picture book Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs was published in 1972, John Gardner writing in The New York Times said, "People who care about book illustrations have known for some time that one of the best illustrators to be found is Nancy Ekholm Burkert...[and] her new book...transcends her previous accomplishments." He then goes on to say, "Looking at [the illustrations], you wish they were the first pictures you'd seen in your life...Though...I would not wish that the first fairy tale I ever heard was a version by Jarrell. I find his version anything but faithful."

Gardner's harsh criticism, however, must be a minority opinion if the caliber of illustrators who have chosen Jarrell's text is any indication. In addition to Burkert, the legendary Maurice Sendak and the Caldecott-winning illustrator Margot Zemach have also taken turns illustrating the stories that originally appeared in Jarrell's The Golden Bird and Other Fairy Tales. The Brothers Grimms' tales are a children's book illustrator's delight, a chance to showcase her art the way that an actor puts his stamp on Shakespeare. And artists of Burkert, Sendak, and Zemach's stature can take their pick of translations, or even warrant new translations. But all three chose Jarrell, and through his translations created some of their best work.

LONG TIME READERS OF WTWC,MB, will remember how highly I revere Nancy Ekholm Burkert. Snow-White has become her legacy, appallingly the only one of her books (save her most recent) that remains in print. This is because the American Library Association awarded Burkert the prestigious Caldecott Honor for it, recognizing it as one "of the most distinguished American picture books for children."

The book in its first edition was 12.25" x 9.25" making it a little too big for my scanner. So my scans, as it seems are most of the scans available online, are slightly cropped. The good news is that you can easily see the illustrations as they are meant to be seen by buying the book now.

MAURICE SENDAK, who needs no introduction, was Jarrell's primary illustrator, illustrating three of Jarrell's four original children's books. In 1962, when Jarrell turned in his Grimm translations, editor Michael di Capua was so happy with them that he thought about commissioning a larger translation from the poet. di Capua approached Maurice Sendak about illustrating the expanded Grimm, but before the project progressed any further, Jarrell turned in his original story The Bat-Poet. di Capua convinced Sendak to illustrate the new book, and plans for a new Grimm were put on hold. When Jarrell died in 1965, the Grimm book had never begun.

Several years later, Sendak and the Austrian-born author Lore Segal started work on their own Grimm. Growing out of the earlier project, four of Jarrell's five translations were included: "The Fisherman and His Wife," "Hansel and Gretel," "The Golden Bird," and "Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs."

In his preparatory notes for the illustrations for "The Fisherman and His Wife," (the woman pointing at the rising sun above; right: preliminary sketches) Sendak wrote, "No fish! No hut! No palace! Her à la Grafina Potatska! Yes!" Grafina Potatska, an idiotic Polish count, was what Sendak's mother called his father when she was angry with him. The woman's expression is his mother's. The puppy on the bed is Sendak's golden retriever Io.

Sendak found that the more familiar tales were harder to illustrate. The single illustration for "Snow White" took over six months with several iterations. The illustration for "Hansel and Gretel" took two weeks. His goal with each illustration was "catching that moment when the tension between story line and emotions is at its greatest." For "Snow White," he focused on the conflict between the older generation and the young generation. For "Hansel and Gretel" he tried to capture the moment "the very second before she performs her fearless deed."

There are twenty-three other stories in Sendak's Grimm, entitled The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm and still in print. Sendak said of the book, "It was a watershed book for me, one that solved a great many technical and emotional problems...a hard job, which took many years of preparation and concentrated effort."

ON MARGOT ZEMACH'S DEATH, Maurice Sendak said, "Margot not only revivified the American picture book, but was one of the very few who helped elevate it to an art form." Awarded the Caldecott Medal in 1974 for her book Duffy and the Devil, she also received two Caldecott Honors in the 1970s. In 1980, Zemach published her rendition of Jarrell's telling of The Fisherman and His Wife. On its appearance, Kirkus Review said, "'If The Fisherman and His Wife' must be illustrated, let it be by Margot Zemach--who has the comic-cataclysmic range, the vigor, the intelligence for the task."

Kirkus comments on Jarrell's translation as well, quoting his "well-chosen words....His is a less patterned telling than, say Wanda Gag's--richer in language, fuller in incident."

All of Zemach's illustrations for the book are brilliant, overflowing with energy and details that make the story her own. Unfortunately out of print, I have posted many more illustrations on my Flickr set here.

IN UPCOMING POSTS, I will further explore Sendak and Jarrell's collaborations as well as work by some of the other artists who have worked on Jarrell's children's books. For background information on Maurice Sendak's work in this post, I consulted The Art of Maurice Sendak by Selma G. Lanes.

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Monday, June 2, 2014


IN THE WINTER OF 1962, Randall Jarrell, the former United States Poet Laureate and recipient of the 1961 National Book Award for Poetry, was bedridden with hepatitis. Too tired to read his own mail, his wife Mary sat by his bedside opening and reading aloud the get-well cards and other correspondences that arrived each day. One of those letters was a note on Macmillan letterhead from a young children's book editor the Jarrells had never heard of named Michael di Capua. di Capua was planning a series of over-sized picture book collections of fairy tales with new introductions by literary stars such as John Updike, Isak Dinesen, and Elizabeth Bowen. Having noted Jarrell's repeated references to the Brothers Grimm in his poetry, di Capua wanted Jarrell to contribute a selection of tales from the Brothers' folktales. Energized by the prospect in a way he hadn't been for weeks, Jarrell sat up and asked Mary to bring him a copy of the complete tales in German. He chose five stories--Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs, Hansel and Gretel, The Golden Bird, Snow-White and Rose-Red, and The Fisherman and His Wife--and began translating while still in bed.

It is no surprise that di Capua thought of Jarrell for the Grimm entry to his series. Jarrell's poems include "The Märchen," the German word for folktales, which is subtitled "(Grimm's Tales)," "Cinderella," "The Sleeping Beauty: Variation of the Prince," and dozens of others that refer to the folk stories. Jarrell uses the tales to explore the ways in which childhood forges identity, but even more so, to understand how a person can live in the modern world of machines and atomic weapons, and still find a home and family. As he says in his introduction to the The Golden Bird and Other Tales:
"As you read the stories they remind you of what the world used to be like before people had machines and advertisements and wonder drugs and Social Security. But they remind you, too, that in some ways the world hasn't changed; that our wishes and dreams are the same as ever. Reading Grimm's Tales tells someone what we're like, inside, just as reading Freud tells him. The Fisherman and His Wife--which is one of the best stories anyone ever told, it seems to me--is as truthful and troubling as any newspaper headlines about the new larger-sized H-bomb and the new anti-missile missile: a country is never satisfied either, but wants to be like the good Lord."
The rest of Jarrell's introduction is devoted to a poem by the German poet Eduard Mörike, in which Mörike reads Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs to a child, and comes to the realization that he has a fairytale wish: to have his own wife and children. Jarrell never had children of his own, but helped raise Mary's two daughters from a previous marriage, so it is easy to imagine how Mörike's wish resonated with Jarrell.

IT WASN'T JUST THE SUBJECT MATTER, however, that attracted Jarrell to the Grimm project. He was also a greater lover of the German language. His wife Mary once said, "I came into Randall's life after Salzburg and Rilke, about the middle of Mahler; and I got to stay through Goethe and up to Wagner." Mary clearly felt that Jarrell's life could be defined by his German influences. As Jarrell himself wrote, "Till the day I die I'll be in love with German." But some of that passion relied on the mysteries of the language for him. He never spoke German, and understood it only well enough to labor through his translations with the assistance of a German/English dictionary. "My translations of the stories," he wrote in his introduction, "are as much like the real German stories as I could make them." Comparing them side-by-side with other translations of the tales, it seems that Jarrell was very faithful.

But when a reader chooses a version of the fairy tales to read, the illustrations are sometimes more important than the translations, and Jarrell was fortunate to have such an incredible illustrator in Sandro Nardini. While his paintings might be overly idyllic at times, the lush colors, and evocative Medieval setting of the stories make Jarrell's book beautiful to look at as well as to read. To see more of the illustrations from the book, head over to my Flickr account. And look for samples of other illustrators who have chosen Jarrell's text for their own versions of the fairy tales in an upcoming post.

FOR THIS POST, I consulted The Children's Books of Randall Jarrell by Jerome Griswold with an introduction by Mary Jarrell, Randall Jarrell's Letters editd by Mary Jarrell, Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life by William H. Pritchard, and "Jarrell and the Germans" by Richard K. Cross.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.