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Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

29 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Too-ticky’s Guide to Life: Wisdom on Uncertainty, Presence, and Self-Reliance from Beloved Children’s Book Author Tove Jansson

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“All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.”

Tove Jansson (1914–2001) is among the most imaginative, important, and influential children’s book creators of all time, an artist and writer of unparalleled creative vision and great sensitivity to life’s ineffable nuances. A recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award, she had the courage to turn down Walt Disney and build her own creative empire. From her beloved Moomins characters to her spectacular vintage illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit, her stories exude the metaphorical magic of Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh tales, the fanciful whimsy of Baum’s Oz world, the contemplative introspection of Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and the enchanting symbolism of Carroll’s Wonderland. Philip Pullman has aptly called her “a genius of a very subtle kind” and Neil Gaiman considers her work “a surrealist masterpiece.”

Tove Jansson in 1967 (photograph by Hans Gedda)

Jansson’s singular sensibility springs from her own unusual life. Born to an artistic and rather eccentric family from Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority, young Tove was raised by wildly creative parents — her father was one of Finland’s greatest sculptors and her mother designed books and postage stamps, illustrated book jackets, and created punchy political cartoons. Jansson completed her formal training in art and graphic design in various institutions across Sweden, Finland, and France, but the origin of her iconic Moomin characters was rooted in an affectionate family joke rather than in her formal training — while studying in Stockholm in her late teens and living with relatives there, Jansson would regularly sneak into the kitchen for treats; her uncle would tease her that a “Moomintroll” lived in the kitchen pantry, ready to breathe cold air down stealthy snackers’ necks.

Tove Jansson: self-portrait © Moomin Characters™

Moominvalley’s main protagonist, Moomintroll, is thus a self-portrait of sorts, but perhaps Jansson’s most interesting character is also the one based on the most intimate part of her life. Too-ticky, the sage of Moominvalley who solves even the most existential of problems with equal parts practicality and wisdom, was inspired by the love of Jansson’s life — the great Finnish sculptor and graphic arts pioneer Tuulikki “Tooti” Pietilä, Jansson’s spouse. The two women met in art school during their twenties and remained together until Jansson’s death more than six decades later, collaborating on a lifetime of creative projects — all at a time when queer couples were straddling the impossible line between anguishing invisibility and dangerous visibility.

Jansson and Pietilä crafting characters for the television adaptation of the Moomin series.

Although Too-ticky, clad in her signature red-and-white sweater, appears in a number of the Moomin books, her spirit blossoms most vibrantly in the 1957 gem Moominland Midwinter (public library), where “her common sense often restores order in the valley.” More than mere common sense, however, Too-ticky’s laconic sagacity and aphoristic reflections are full of invaluable wisdom on life.

The book tells the story of Moomintroll who, unlike his family that hibernated from November to April every year, wakes up early and decides to stay up through the harsh Scandinavian winter. He grows angry at the sun’s absence, angry at the raging blizzards, angry at those who seem able to enjoy rather than resent the season of snow and ice. It is a tale of learning to live with the vital discomfort of uncertainty, to get lost in order to find oneself, to surrender to the rhythms of life rather than agonizing in resistance.

Lost in the forest, Moomintroll comes upon a warm light emanating from a cozy hole someone had dug for shelter — “someone who lay looking up at the serene winter sky and whistling very softly to herself.” It is, of course, Too-ticky. When Moomintroll inquires about the song she is whistling, she replies, Whitman-like, with a wonderfully metaphorical answer:

It’s a song of myself… The refrain is about the things one can’t understand. I’m thinking about the aurora borealis. You can’t tell if it really does exist or if it just looks like existing. All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured.

This theme of uncertainty and of finding joy in questioning reality is a recurring one for Too-ticky. Echoing the first of Bertrand Russell’s ten famous commandments of teaching, learning, and life“Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.” — she offers comforting solidarity in Moomintroll’s lament that he doesn’t understand the snow:

I don’t either… You believe it’s cold, but if you build yourself a snowhouse it’s warm. You think it’s white, but at times it looks pink, and another time it’s blue. It can be softer than anything, and then again harder than stone. Nothing is certain.

In many ways, Too-ticky’s wisdom seems almost Zen Buddhist in nature. In addition to championing the ability to be at peace with uncertainty, she also advocates a minimalist approach to material possessions — when Moomintroll discovers, distraught and indignant, that someone is secretly smuggling things out of his sleeping family’s house, Too-ticky responds:

That’s nice, isn’t it? You’ve got too many things about you. As well as things you remember, and things you’re dreaming about.

Too-ticky is also a sage of the “slow churn” and wise champion of the idea that “anything worthwhile takes a long time.” (Janssen would certainly know — she wrote her first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, in 1939 and published it in 1945, but it was not a success; her first critical acclaim arrived in 1946, nearly a decade after she had created the Moomins, with the publication of Comet in Moominland.) When Moomintroll grows angry and impatient with the sun’s refusal to rise, Too-ticky reminds him that hurrying is a toxic way of trying to resist the present:

Don’t be in such a hurry… Soon now. Sit down and wait.

When the sun does appear, it flits across the horizon for a fleeting moment, only to set back down. Moomintroll is even more frustrated, but Too-ticky assures him that the sun, like the myth of the overnight success, follows an incremental rise to brilliance:

He’ll return tomorrow… And then he’ll be a tiny bit bigger, about like a piece of cheese rind. Take it easy.

The story is also a gentle primer on evolution. When Moomintroll, against Too-ticky’s instruction, opens her secret cabinet and finds a strange creature living there, he tells her it was “only a sort of old rat,” but she corrects him:

That was no rat. It was a troll. A troll of the kind you were yourself before you became a Moomin. That was how you looked a thousand years ago.

Moomintroll is so unsettled by the notion that he is related to a mere rat — an elegant allegory for why some people are drawn to such defensive fancies as Young Earth creationism — he storms into the attic to look for an old family album. Janssen writes:

Page after page of dignified Moomins, most often reproduced standing in front of porcelain stoves, or on fret-worked verandahs. Not a single one of them resembled the cupboard troll. “Must be a mistake,” Moomintroll thought. “He can’t be any relation of mine.”

Slowly, Moomintroll makes peace with Too-ticky’s knowledge:

He went down and looked at his sleeping Pappa. Only the nose bore some resemblance to the troll’s. But possibly, a thousand years ago.

There is almost a cosmology element to this undercurrent — a reminder that, however discomfiting this too may be to most humans, we are indeed a cosmic accident. Janssen traces the evolution of Moomintroll’s understanding:

Suddenly he felt very proud of having an ancestor. And it cheered him no little to think that Little My [Moomintroll's sister] had no pedigree at all, but rather had come into the world by chance.

But perhaps her most profound wisdom deals with our quintessential struggle to make peace with death, which stems from an inability to recognize the comforting interconnectedness of life. When the Lady of the Cold — the beautiful but formidable priestess of the Great Cold, capable of turning into an icicle any fool so bewitched as to look straight into her eyes — freezes the cheerful little squirrel Moomintroll had befriended, Too-ticky sighs:

It’s very hard to tell if people take any pleasure in their tails when they’re dead.

Death, too, is part of nature’s necessary cycles of growth and decay. When Moomintroll and Little My remonstrate the very mention of death, Too-ticky responds:

When one’s dead, then one’s dead. This squirrel will become earth all in his time. And later on still there’ll grow trees from him, with new squirrels skipping about in them. Do you think that’s so very sad?

Too-ticky’s greatest gift, it appears, is a certain quality of presence — the kind she cultivated in “her own private winter world that had followed its own strange rules year after year” — that allows her to feel one with the world. It is from that standpoint that, when spring finally arrives, she responds to Moomintroll’s accusation that she hadn’t comforted him during the long winter by offering assurance that spring will come, but instead focused on what the world had to offer right there and then. Too-ticky’s answer, emanating a kind of Emerson-like ideal of self-reliance, rings with extraordinary, if uncomfortable, poignancy:

One has to discover everything for oneself. And get over it all alone.

Moomintroll imbibes Too-ticky’s existential lesson. Soon, when his friend the Snork Maiden comes across “the first brave nose-tip of a crocus” shyly trying to push through snow, she suggests they put a glass over it to protect it from the frost at night. But Moomintroll objects:

No, don’t do that. Let it fight it out. I believe it’s going to do still better if things aren’t so easy.

Decades before the groundbreaking research on why cultivating grit is the greatest key to success, Jansson made the same point with great subtlety and wisdom.

Moominland Midwinter is an immeasurably wonderful read in its entirety, as are all of Jansson’s Moomin books. For another taste, see my favorite one.

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26 SEPTEMBER, 2014

What There Is Before There Is Anything There: Celebrated Cartoonist Liniers Confronts Childhood Nightmares

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An imaginative graphic novel about the quintessential childhood fear.

Children often wonder about why we dream, as do some dedicated researchers, but the question of why we have nightmares is as perplexing to scientists — some of humanity’s most intelligent grownups — as it is exasperating to kids. Indeed, nightmares, along with its sister fear of the dark, are among childhood’s most anguishing and common experiences, as exasperating to the child experiencing them as to his or her parents in their helplessness of assuaging them.

That’s precisely what award-winning Argentinian cartoonist and New Yorker cover artist Liniers (whose beloved Macanudo series was just released in English for the first time) explores in What There Is Before There Is Anything There: A Scary Story (public library) — a wonderful picture-book that brings dark humor to those familiar nighttime fears while taking them seriously, at once spooky and sweet in its solidarity of acknowledging that they are very much real, even if their objects are not true. One of the great injustices of childhood, after all, is the recurring experience of not being believed by grownups, not being validated in one’s fears and fancies and subjective truths simply because one is a child. Liniers refuses to negate the realness of those childhood fears and instead meets them with equal parts reassurance, imagination, and gentle wit, in a style reminiscent of Edward Gorey yet distinctively his own.

What There Is Before There Is Anything There, a treat in its delightfully spooky yet assuring totality, is translated by Elisa Amado and comes from Canadian independent picture-book publisher Groundwood Books, who also gave us the enormously heartening Migrant, a kind of Alice in Wonderland for the modern immigrant experience. Complement it with a very different take on the same subject in Lemony Snicket’s The Dark, illustrated by Jon Klassen.

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25 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Real Recipes from Roald Dahl’s Beloved Children’s Books

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From Willy Wonka’s Nutty Crunch Surprise to Bird Pie à la The Twits.

As a lover of both children’s books and unusual cookbooks — particularly those that bring literature and art to the kitchen, such as Salvador Dalí’s little-known erotic recipes, the vintage gem Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook, young Andy Warhol’s, illustrated cookery, the treats from the Modern Art Cookbook, and especially Dinah Fried’s magnificent photographs of meals from famous fiction — I was instantly smitten with Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes (public library): a compendium of recipes for treats that appear in Dahl’s beloved children’s books, affectionately compiled and made cookable by Dahl’s widow, Felicity.

For double delight, the recipes — ranging from Willy Wonka’s Nutty Crunch Surprise to Lickable Wallpaper — are garnished with illustrations by the great Sir Quentin Blake, who had previously illustrated most of Dahl’s stories (as well as Sylvia Plath’s little-known children’s book and the first Dr. Seuss book not illustrated by Geisel himself).

The concept for the cookbook came to the Dahls shortly before Roald’s death in 1990, as they were writing a memoir of sorts about the foods they loved. Friends kept suggesting that they should consider writing a recipe book for children, based on the many fanciful edibles in Dahl’s books. But whenever the idea resurfaced, Roald would bury his face in his hands and gasp to his wife, “Oh no, Liccy, the work! The thought daunts me!”

A few weeks after his death, as Mrs. Dahl was making her way through the grief, she noticed a neat pile of papers in the corner of her desk. Listed on the sheets was every single food ever consumed in Roald’s books. Atop the pile was a note in her husband’s handwriting: “It’s a great idea, but God knows how you will do it.”

For Felicity, there was no choice but to do it.

In the introduction to this gem of a result, she lovingly remembers her husband’s relationship to treats as both a token of the quirky habits to which many writers are prone and a testament to his immeasurable, mischievous generosity of spirit:

Treats were an essential part of Roald’s life — never too many, never too few, and always perfectly timed. He made you feel like a king receiving the finest gift in the land.

A treat could be a wine gum lifted silently in the middle of the night out of a large sweet jar kept permanently by his bedside. It could be a lobster and oyster feast placed on the table after a secret visit to the fishmonger, his favorite shop. It could be the first new potato, broad bean, or lettuce from the garden, a basket of field mushrooms, or a superb conker. A different kind of treat would be an unannounced visit to a school, causing chaos to teachers and, I suspect, a great deal of fun for the children.

Here is but a sampler taste of the full spread of delights:

WILLY WONKA’S NUTTY CRUNCH SURPRISE
(From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)

Serves 8

You will need:

Pyrex bowl
small saucepan
8×10 inch shallow pan
wax paper

7 ounces semisweet chocolate, broken into small pieces
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter
5 tablespoons light corn syrup
3 ounces slivered almonds
6 plain vanilla cookies (Rich Tea biscuits are good) or graham crackers, finely crushed
1 ounce Rice Krispies
a few drops of vanilla extract

For the nutty crunch:

2 tablespoons water
½ cup sugar
2 ounces slivered almonds, finely chopped

For the chocolate coating:

7 ounces milk chocolate, broken into small pieces.

  1. Put the semisweet chocolate, butter, and corn syrup in a Pyrex bowl and place in a saucepan of simmering water. Stir occasionally until melted. (Or place the bowl in a microwave oven and cook on high for about 1 ½ minutes)
  2. Add the almonds, crushed cookies, Rice Krispies, and vanilla extract and mix well.
  3. Spoon the mixture into a shallow pan lined with wax paper. Press the mixture down firmly with the back of a fork, creating a level surface.
  4. Refrigerate until cool, then cut into bars.
  5. Once the bars are ready, make the nutty crunch. Begin by placing the water and sugar in a small saucepan. Cook over low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Do not stir, but occasionally swirl the pan around gently. Once the sugar has dissolved, increase the heat and stir constantly until the sugar caramelizes and turns golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes.
  6. Remove from the heat. Working quickly, add the chopped almonds, stir thoroughly, and dip one end of each bar in the mixture. Place the bars on a sheet of buttered wax paper to set.
  7. Melt the milk chocolate in a Pyrex bowl set in a saucepan of simmering water, or microwave as above. Once it has melted, remove from the heat and dip the other end of each bar in the chocolate.
  8. Let the bars cool on a sheet of wax paper.

FRESH MUDBURGERS
(From James and the Giant Peach)

Makes 10 mudburgers

You will need:

mixing bowl
grill or nonstick skillet

1 ½ pounds ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 to 3 tablespoons capers, drained
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten
relish (optional)

  1. In a mixing bowl, break up the ground beef.
  2. Add all the ingredients except the egg and gently mix together.
  3. Add the egg, mix thoroughly, and pat into mudburgers.
  4. Preheat the grill and grill for 4–5 minutes on each side, or fry in a nonstick skillet.
    Serve in a bun with a “revolting” garnish. Relish is ideal!

BUNCE’S DOUGHNUTS
(From Fantastic Mr. Fox)

Makes 12 to 14

You will need:

food processor (optional)
plastic wrap
rolling pin
two round cookie cutters, 1 ¼ inches and 2 ½ inches
large bowl

½ cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 pound all-purpose flour
½ tablespoon baking powder
½ tablespoon cinnamon
a large pinch of salt
2 tablespoons hot water
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup milk
vegetable oil for deep frying
sugar for coating

These are best eaten warm. The dough needs to be made and refrigerated for at least two hours before cooking, and will keep overnight in the refrigerator.

  1. Cream the brown sugar and butter until pale and creamy — this can be done using a food processor.
  2. Gradually add the egg until blended.
  3. Add the remaining ingredients. The dough should be fairly stiff but smooth.
  4. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours
  5. Divide the dough in half and return one half to the refrigerator.
  6. On a floured surface roll out the other half of the dough to a quarter-inch thick. With the cutters cut out as many doughnuts as possible, using the large one to cut the doughnut shape and the smaller one to make the hole.
  7. Gather up the scraps and roll and cut out as many additional doughnuts as possible. Repeat the rolling and cutting with the remaining half of the dough.
  8. Heat the vegetable oil to 375ºF.
  9. Fry the doughnuts in small batches, turning once, until deep golden brown.
  10. Drain on paper towels.
  11. Put the sugar in a bowl and add a few doughnuts at a time, shaking them in the sugar until coated. Serve immediately.

BIRD PIE
(From The Twits)

Serves 4 to 6

You will need:

large saucepan
blackbird (a black pastry funnel found in specialty cooks’ shops and mail order catalogs)
9-inch pie dish
rolling pin

¼ cup pearl barley
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 onion, finely chopped
1 pound turkey breast, cut into thin strips
12 ounces pork sausage meat
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage (optional)
5 ounces sour cream
5 ounces plain yogurt
1 level teaspoon cornstarch, mixed with 1 teaspoon cold water
½ cup chicken stock
2 eggs, one beaten, one hard-boiled and chopped
salt and pepper
2 ounces ham, chopped
9 ounces ready-made puff pastry or instant biscuit dough
1 egg yolk
8 parsley sprigs with the leaves pinched off or colored pipe cleaners

  1. Simmer the pearl barley in water for about 20 minutes, or until soft.
  2. In a large saucepan melt the butter and gently fry the onion until soft. Add the turkey strips and fry quickly until golden.
  3. Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the sausage meat. Mix well.
  4. Add the sage (if using), sour cream, yogurt, cornstarch mixture, chicken stock, and beaten egg. Season to taste with salt and pepper and mix thoroughly.
  5. Place the blackbird in the middle of the pie dish. Surround with the turkey mixture. Sprinkle on the chopped ham, followed by the chopped egg.
  6. Preheat oven to 400ºF
  7. Roll out the pastry to a circle 1/8 inch thick. Make sure it is at least one inch wider than the pie dish all the way around.
  8. Cut the extra one inch from the pastry in one long circular strip (it should be slightly larger than the rim of the pie dish). Brush the pie dish rim with egg yolk, press the pastry strip down onto the rim, and brush the strip with egg yolk.
  9. Lift the remaining pastry carefully (you can drape it over the rolling pin) and lay it over the turkey mixture. Cut a slit in the center and ease the blackbird’s beak through the pastry, taking care not to stretch it. Press the pastry down firmly along the rim and cut away any excess. Use a fork to crimp the edge.
  10. Glaze the pastry with egg yolk and scatter the pearl barely on top. Form a “worm” out of a strip of pastry, glaze it with egg yolk, and place it inside the bird’s beak.
  11. Refrigerate the pie for ten minutes.
  12. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the pastry is well risen and golden brown.
  13. Stick the stripped parsley stalks, or folded pipe cleaners, in pairs into the pastry crust to look like birds’ legs. If you like, singe the ends to look like toes.

Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes is deeply delectable in its entirety. Complement it with 11 rules for a perfect meal from the Futurist Cookbook, George Orwell’s dessert recipes, and the endlessly delightful Alice in Wonderland Cookbook.

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