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If Gorey and Sendak Had Illustrated Kafka for Kids

A hauntingly beautiful black-and-white adaptation of the beloved author in children’s verses.

Sylvia Plath believed it was never too early to dip children’s toes in the vast body of literature. But to plunge straight into Kafka? Why not, which is precisely what Brooklyn-based writer and videogame designer Matthue Roth has done in My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, and Giant Bugs (public library) — a magnificent adaptation of Kafka for kids. With stunning black-and-white illustrations by London-based fine artist Rohan Daniel Eason, this gem falls — rises, rather — somewhere between Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, and the Graphic Canon series.

The idea came to Roth after he accidentally started reading Kafka to his two little girls, who grew enchanted with the stories. As for the choice to adapt Kafka’s characteristically dark sensibility for children, Roth clearly subscribes to the Sendakian belief that grown-ups project their own fears onto kids, who welcome rather than dread the dark. Indeed, it’s hard not to see Sendak’s fatherly echo in Eason’s beautifully haunting black-and-white drawings.

Much like Jonathan Safran Foer used Street of Crocodiles to create his brilliant Tree of Codes literary remix and Darwin’s great-granddaughter adapted the legendary naturalist’s biography into verse, Roth scoured public domain texts and various translations of Kafka to find the perfect works for his singsong transformations: the short prose poem “Excursion into the Mountains,” the novella “The Metamorphosis,” which endures as Kafka’s best-known masterpiece, and “Josefine the Singer,” his final story.

“I don’t know!”
I cried without being heard.

“I do not know.”

If nobody comes,
then nobody comes.

I’ve done nobody any harm.
Nobody’s done me any harm.
But nobody will help me.

A pack of nobodies
would be rather fine,
on the other hand.

I’d love to go on a trip — why not? —
with a pack of nobodies.

Into the mountains, of course.
Where else?

In a way, the book — like most of Kafka’s writing — also bears the odd mesmerism of literary history’s letters and diaries, the semi-forbidden pleasure of which swells under the awareness that their writers never meant for us to read the very words we’re reading, never sought to invite us into their private worlds. Kafka wished for his entire world to remain private — he never finished any of his novels and burned the majority of his manuscripts; the rest he left with his closest friend and literary executor, Max Brod, whom he instructed to burn the remaining diaries, sketches, manuscripts, and letters. It was out of love that Brod chose not to, possibly displeasing his friend but eternally pleasing the literary public.

Though Kafka never wrote for children (in fact, one might argue, he never wrote for anyone but himself), My First Kafka transforms his surviving work into a fine addition to other notable children’s book by famous authors of “adult” literature, including Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, and John Updike.

Thanks, Sharon

BP

Pardon the Egg Salad Stains, But I’m in Love: Billy Collins Reads His Poem “Marginalia”

“We have all seized the white perimeter as our own and reached for a pen if only to show we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages…”

“Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself,” Mortimer Adler wrote in his timeless 1941 gem How to Read a Book, “and the best way to make yourself a part of it — which comes to the same thing — is by writing in it.” Medieval monks, on the other hand, used the margins of their manuscripts to issue entertaining complaints. The notes left in previously loved books give us a special glimpse into the secret lives of their former owners. Whatever their substance, marginalia — the notes we jot down as we wrestle with the text, caress the sentences, and see-saw with the author’s mind — are a critical part of the reading experience for those of us who live in books.

Beloved poet Billy Collins explores that intricate dance in his 2005 poem “Marginalia,” which appears in the altogether sublime anthology Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (public library). In this exquisite reading by Collins himself, found on his spoken-word album The Best Cigarette, the words spring to dignity with unequaled grace:

MARGINALIA by BILLY COLLINS

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive —
“Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” —
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
who wrote “Don’t be a ninny”
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
Another notes the presence of “Irony”
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
“Absolutely,” they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
“Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” “My man!”
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written “Man vs. Nature”
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird singing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page —
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil —
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet —
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”

Complement with Mary Oliver’s beautiful reading of “Wild Geese” and Maya Angelou reciting her iconic poem “Phenomenal Woman.”

BP

I Got Two Dogs: A Charming Children’s Book-and-Song by John Lithgow

“They’re not too smart, but they’re loyal and true.”

Joining the ranks of other famous creators who have penned lesser-known but lovely books for children — including Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, and John Updike — is actor and humanities-lover John Lithgow, who has actually authored a number of children’s books. But among his most delightful is I Got Two Dogs (public library), a charming book-and-song based on his own family’s two pooches, Fanny and Blue, illustrated by the prolific Robert Neubecker — a primer of sorts for the future readers of such high-brow canine celebrations as The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.

(Psst, John, perchance you should revisit the genius of dogs.)

Accompanying the book is a sing-along CD. Here is Lithgow’s terrifically goofy performance of the song:

For an equal-species-opportunity treat, pair I Got Two Dogs with the wonderful Indian folk art treasure I Like Cats, then peruse some grown-up Lithgow gold with his live-illustrated reading of Mark Twain’s taxonomy of the fourteen types of readers.

BP

The Big Box: Toni Morrison’s Darkly Philosophical Children’s Book, a Collaboration with Her Son

“Who says they can’t handle their freedom?”

In 1999, beloved author Toni Morrison teamed up with her son, the painter and musician Slade Morrison, and joined the ranks of other famous “adult” writers who penned lesser-known and lovely children’s stories. Together, they wrote The Big Box (public library) — the seemingly grim tale of Patty, Mickey, and Liza Sue, who are banished to live in a giant box because they “can’t handle their freedom,” having made no other transgression than the silly little disobediences and restlessnesses of which all children are “guilty.” No parents, teachers, neighbors, or fairy godmothers are there to rescue them from their cruel prison which embodies the curious duality of punishment and protection and illustrates our frequent, culturally chronic difficulty in distinguishing between the two.

The message, of course, is far less simplistic — the story, based on an idea Slade had when he was nine years old, which first appeared on the pages of pioneering magazine Ms. in 1980, deals with questions of morality, imaginative freedom, justice, and self-sufficiency. In the final scene, we see the three children break free of the box by their own ingenuity as the Morrisons pose the congratulatory question, “Who says they can’t handle their freedom?”

Conceptually, the book is reminiscent of Maurice Sendak’s insistence that children can handle darker, subversive themes and need not be cushioned into an artificial reality — something illustrator extraordinaire Sophie Blackall echoed in this fantastic interview. In fact, it is only recently that children’s literature became sugar-coated and euphemistic — throughout the lengthy history of children’s picture-books, from the Brothers Grim to Edward Gorey, authors have used the dark to illuminate the complexities of life.

The Big Box — the first of several such heart-warming mother-son collaborations — features art by the inimitable Giselle Potter, who went on to illustrate Gertrude Stein’s wonderful posthumously published alphabet book.

In an interview, Morrison addresses the underlying message and what the book is about:

The plight (and resistance) of children living in a wholly commercialized environment that equates “entertainment” with happiness, products with status, “things” with love, and that is terrified of the free (meaning un-commodified, unpurchaseable) imagination of the young. (Although children participate enthusiastically in the “love me so buy me” pattern, I think they are taught to think that way and that on some deep level they know what is being substituted.)

[…]

[The “box”] is a soft, familiar, comfortable, everyday “prison” into which children are metaphorically placed when their imagination is suppressed or programmed.

The children in The Big Box are surrounded by a kind of perfection — they have the newest and best toys, they are in comfortable settings with soft chairs, treats of all kinds, including a fancy television set — but much of it is fake (a jar of dirt, a butterfly under a glass, a recording of a seagull), the doors only open one way, and there are multiple locks to keep the children from getting out.

Complement The Big Box with other previously uncovered children’s gems by Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, and John Updike.

BP

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