Tuesday, May 7, 2013


NONE OF SYLVIA PLATH'S children's books were published in her lifetime, but she did see one children's poem in print: "The Bull of Bendylaw," which appeared in the April 1959 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

The Horn Book
is a bimonthly magazine devoted to the discussion of children's literature, along with reviews of children's books, acceptance speeches for major literary awards for children's writers and artists, and occasional poems and stories. The readership includes children's librarians, teachers, children's booksellers, and parents, all of whom use it as a guide for what to read and recommend to children. What that means is, any poem or story published in The Horn Book is likely to reach children through one of these authorities.

As I've discussed in my previous entries on Sylvia Plath, both Plath and her husband Ted Hughes were actively writing for children in the late 1950s. One of their interests was in folktales and ballads, and they each wrote poems drawn from those influences. When Horn Book editor Ruth Hill Viguers approached the couple, asking each to submit poems for consideration, they were able to send several animal poems, which drew on those traditional sources.

Viguers had heard of Plath through a neighbor, but it was when her own children came home from school to say that their English teacher, Mr. Crockett (who had also been Plath's high school teacher) had read Plath's work in class that she chose to reach out to the poet. Not long after meeting with Viguers, Plath sent her husband and her own submissions: "Both of us enjoy writing poems about birds, beasts, and fish, so we are enclosing one from each of us, about an otter and a goatsucker..." In a postscript, she adds "We're adding to the zoo a bull and a field of horses." Only the bull was accepted.

"The Bull of Bendylaw" draws on one of F. J. Child's ballads, and opens with the epigraph:
"The great bull of Bendylaw
Has broken his band and run awa,
And the king and a' his court
Canna turn that bull about."
Plath, however, associates the bull with the sea, and in her poem "The black bull bellowed before the sea," and the sea breaks forth and floods the kingdom. Not only can the king's men not turn the bull or sea back, but in the end
"O the king's tidy acre is under the sea,
And the royal rose in the bull's belly,
And the bull on the king's highway."
The poem was later included in Plath's Collected Poems as the first poem in the 1959 section, where the epigraph is relegated to the notes at the back of the book, and so in the long run, the readership for the poem ended up being adults, but Plath and editor Viguers obviously saw the poem as one that could be shared with children, making it a footnote to any discussion of Plath's writing for children.

I owe this entire post to the article in the Horn Book from 2005 by Lissa Paul, "Writing Poetry for Children is a Curious Occupation": Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, which I have cited for all of my Plath entries. And while I did go and see the Horn Book in the library, I was not allowed to take it out, and so the image of the cover comes from the excellent Sylvia Plath website http://www.sylviaplath.info/.

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Wednesday, May 1, 2013


IN 2000, FABER & FABER launched Faber Children's Classics, a series of books with uniform trade dressings that included works such as The Complete Nonesense by Edward Lear, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot, and Peacock Pie by Walter de la Mare. In order to round out the list with some exclusive titles, Faber took advantage of the fact that some of its most well known writers had little known children's books. One of the first books in the series was Sylvia Plath's Collected Children's Stories, released in 2001.

The book is comprised of Plath's two previously released children's books, The Bed Book and The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit, along with a new story, Mrs. Cherry's Kitchen.

Mrs. Cherry's Kitchen was first sketched out in one of Plath's journal entries from either 1957 or 1958 (I have found conflicting dates, and can't find the quote in the 1982 release of Plath's published journals). As quoted by Lissa Paul in her 1995 Horn Book article on Plath's children's work:
"Suddenly, Ted & I looked at things from our unborn children's point of view. Take gadgets: a modern pot & kettle story. Shiny modern gadgets are overspecialized--long to do others tasks. Toaster, iron, waffle-maker, refrigerator, egg beater, electric fry-pan, blender. One midnight fairies or equivalent grant wish to change-about. Iron wants to make waffles, dips point for dents; refrigerator tired of foods, decides to freeze clothes, toaster tired of toast, wants to bake fancy cake..."
Plath submitted the story to the children's magazine Jack and Jill, which had previously published one of her husband Ted Hughes's  stories, but she didn't have much faith in it. It was with disappointment, but not surprise that she recorded in her journal on January 26, 1958 that the magazine had rejected the story.

MRS. CHERRY IS A DOMESTIC GODDESS, who has a great appreciation for her modern appliances. She says things like, "'Thanks to our fine, shiny toaster...It's made us golden-bown toast each day without fail all these years.'" These kind of statements make her appliances proud, but it turns out it's not enough to keep them content. Each wants to do a job that another appliance does.

Unbeknownst to Mrs. Cherry, her kitchen is helped along in its daily tasks by two kitchen pixies with "long, unpronounceable names," who call themselves Salt and Pepper.

When the appliances come to Salt and Pepper and tell them of their dream to trade jobs, the pixies don't think it's such a great idea. "'It would mean a lot of extra work for us,'" they say to each other, but "'If we don't satisfy the kitchen folk, they may go on strike and stop work altogether. And then where would Mrs. Cherry be.'"

So they give their consent. Of course, they have to wait for Mrs. Cherry to leave the kitchen, which she does rarely. At last, a little before lunch time on the day set for the change-about, Sunny and Bunny, the twins from next door, come to tell Mrs. Cherry that their cat Fudge Ripple has had kittens. Mrs. Cherry goes to see them.

"And Whizz! Whirr! Bang! Clang!" The shirts go into the oven, unbaked plum tarts go into the icebox, the coffee percolator swallows ice cream, the iron tries making waffles. Unsurprisingly, they all fail miserably. What's worse, Mr. Cherry comes home for lunch unexpectedly, and sees all of the appliances going haywire. He runs out in a fright.

Salt and Pepper set to work making everything right, and by the time Mrs. Cherry has returned with Mr. Cherry, the mess is cleaned up and everything is as it should be.

DAVID ROBERTS'S ILLUSTRATIONS throughout the Collected Stories are excellent, as can be seen by the examples here. Unfortunately Mrs. Cherry's Kitchen is the weakest of the stories in the book, and it makes sense that it has never warranted a separate book on its own.

The background information for this post came primarily from the Lissa Paul article, but also from the book Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking: Motherhood in Sylvia Plath's Works by Nephie Christodoulides. This post and yesterday's also owes much to http://www.sylviaplath.info/.

COMING SOON: Sylvia Plath's "The Bull of Bendylaw"

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