Brain Pickings

A Child’s Calendar: John Updike’s Little-Known Vintage Book, Updated to Celebrate Diversity

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Delightful verses for every season and every child.

As a lover of little-known children’s books by famous authors of “adult” literature — such as previously uncovered gems by Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, James Thurber, Carl Sandburg, Salman Rushdie, Ian Fleming, and Langston Hughes — I was delighted to find out that John Updike, who counted among his accolades such high honors as two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, a National Medal of the Arts, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, was never too big to write for children.

In 1965, he penned a lovely volume of children’s verses for every day of the year, the young reader’s poetry equivalent of Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom. Titled A Child’s Calendar (public library), it was originally published with illustrations by Nancy Ekholm Burkert and reissued in 1999 with tender artwork by Trina Schart Hyman. In fact, it was that beautiful later edition that reminded me of this gem, after a recent study found that contemporary children’s literature is sorely lacking in diversity — Hyman’s illustrations, depicting children of various and mixed ethnicities, offer a heartening antidote.

Here is a sample taste of some of the wonderful verses and drawings, starting with a seasonally appropriate choice:

JULY

Bang-bang! Ka-boom!
We celebrate
Our national
Independence date,

The Fourth, with
Firecrackers and
The marching of
The Legion Band

America:
It makes us think
Of hot dogs, fries,
And Coke to drink.

The shade is hot
The little ants
Are busy, but
Poor Fido pants

And Teddy dozes
In a pool
Of fur she sheds
To keep her cool.

AUGUST

The sprinkler twirls.
The summer wanes.
The pavement wears
Popsicle stains.

The playground grass
Is worn to dust.
The weary swings
Creak, creak with rust.

The trees are bored
With being green.
Some people leave
The local scene

And go to seaside
Bungalows
And take off nearly
All their clothes.

JANUARY

The says are short,
The sun a spark
Hung thin between
The dark and dark.

Fat snowy footsteps
Track the floor,
And parkas pile up
Near the door.

The river is
A frozen place
Held still beneath
The trees’ black lace.

The sky is low.
The wind is gray.
The radiator
Purrs all day.

To appreciate the Hyman’s intentional diversity upgrade, here is some of her artwork (top) compared to its counterpart in the Burkert edition (bottom):


Another noteworthy revision in the 1999 edition is that it accommodates a less religious notion of spirituality. The second verse of the April poem in the original edition reads:

Each flower, leaf
And blade of sod —
Small letters sent
To her from God.

In 1999, it becomes:

Each flower, leaf,
And blade of turf —
Small love-notes sent
From air to earth.

Of the five children’s books Updike wrote in his lifetime, A Child’s Calendar is the only one composed entirely of original material. The others — three adaptations of Warren Chappell’s music series, The Magic Flute (1962), The Ring (1964) and Bottom’s Dream (1969), and A Helpful Alphabet of Friendly Objects (1995) — were based on existing work.

To take grown-up delight in Updike, see his meditations on the meaning of life and why the world exists, and his soul-stirring poem on the death of his beloved dog.

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