Category Archives: Classics

Mean Girls of 1974: Thoughts running through my head while reading Judy Blume’s Blubber for the first time

 

I’m not sure why I never read Blubber when I was a kid. But the other night I finally picked it up and yow. While I can’t say it’s an enjoyable 153 pages, it’s brilliant and fascinating on multiple levels, from the details of everyday suburban life in the 1970s to the jaw-dropping brutality of the fifth-graders at the center of the story. The novel is definitely worth a read, if only to remind yourself that while many aspects of childhood have changed (these kids have an unsupervised lunch period at school, for instance, giving them the perfect opportunity to torture Linda) other things remain the same: Nice fifth grade girls from nice families can seem totally normal while being secretly sadistic torturers. It is psychologically dead-on.

I don’t usually mark up my books, but I did it this time because 1) I knew I was never going to read Blubber again and 2) It’s the kind of book where you find yourself muttering out loud. Circling sentences and scribbling things like “Holy Shit!” on the newsprint-soft pages of an old paperback with an Uni-Ball pen can be oddly satisfying.

Tracy Wu!

Tracy Wu, Jill’s best friend, is depicted as utterly unexotic. Daughter of local physician Dr. Wu (naturally), Tracy collects stamps, eats hot dogs and lives in fear of getting on bully Wendy’s bad side — just like Jill. For a book written in the 1970s, this is totally refreshing.

It’s only much later in the novel that Tracy gets called a “chink.” Because it seems to come out of the blue, it seems that much uglier. Very effective.

The ubiquitous bum costume

A lot of kids show up at school on Halloween dressed up like the homeless “bums,” complete with smudgy faces and bundled-up bandanas tied onto sticks. In fact, the hobo costume is so common among her peers that Jill deems it “nothing original.”

I remember dressing as a bum too. It was a very easy costume to pull off. Sometimes I’d just dress up like a bum for fun, even when it wasn’t Halloween.**

Young kids, sharp knives

Jill and her little brother (I think he’s nine) carve their own pumpkins every year.  The jack o’lanterns usually turn out somewhat lopsided but nobody loses a finger and it is NBD.In my own household, this was the first year I let my 13-year-old carve our pumpkin all by herself. For this, I felt like I deserved a “daredevil mom of the year” award.

Jill is no bookworm.

If you ask me, there are WAY too many middle-grade books featuring earnest, deeply bookish protagonists who serve as stand-ins for the authors’ younger selves. For most kids, It’s impossible to relate to these nerds.

Blubber‘s Jill, on the other hand, is an all-around mediocre student who gets Cs in social studies and struggles in math. It’s the mean girls, Wendy and Caroline, who are the star students.

Who’s afraid of fifth grade girls?  Me.

Chapter 11 is when the torturing of Linda goes from nasty to horrific. The girls make Linda recite “I am Blubber, the smelly whale of class 206” before they allow her to get a sip of water, use the bathroom, eat lunch or get on the bus. Bullying becomes a group activity the girls look forward to because it makes school life less “boring” for everyone. Blume lays bare the ugly truth that for some kids, sadism can be fun.As a desperate survival tactic Linda even starts to volunteer these words before anyone makes her, in the hopes of appeasing her tormentors. This sounds like something straight out of a Maoist re-education camp.

And nobody gets expelled?!

Just when you think it can’t get worse, shit gets even more twisted. The girls hold Linda down and force her to show the boys her underpants.

Then the girls pinch Linda’s nose closed and force-feed her a piece of candy that they tell her is a chocolate-covered ant. Wendy keeps her hand over Linda’s mouth “so she couldn’t spit anything out.”  Linda gags and vomits.

She is going to need years of therapy but these girls don’t even get detention.

Where are the adults? Ha!

Blume wrote Blubber years before Columbine, National Bullying Prevention Month, the movie Heathers or helicopter parenting. The adults in the book are absent, useless and blissfully oblivious to Wendy’s well-supported reign of terror. Although at one point it’s pretty clear that Linda has told her mother something about being picked on (she starts getting driven to school to avoid the bus) we never actually see her mom and the woman never raises a stink.

At one point halfway through the novel, Jill does bring up the situation with her mother in a roundabout way, telling her that there’s a girl who “lets everybody walk all over her.” Her mother says exactly what you’d expect: “You should try putting yourself in her place.” To which Jill responds exactly the way you’d expect: She ignores it.

These days schools spend a lot of effort cooking up anti-bullying programs and kindness curriculums. But I can’t help but think that preaching this stuff to kids can be a waste of time.  The advice goes in one ear and out the other, and the next thing you know some poor kid is getting a chocolate-covered ant shoved in her mouth. I desperately want to believe in the recent studies suggesting that people gain empathy through reading fiction. As a book lover, I’m surely biased, but it makes sense to me. Reading Blubber, Wonder or The Hundred Dresses has got to be more effective than telling kids to “try putting themselves in other people’s shoes.” I think Judy Blume, at least, would agree.

What do you think?

**As a reward for those of you who actually read to the end of this post, please enjoy this 1979 photo of me in my “bum costume.” 

Have You Seen Ryan Gosling’s Tattoo?

This is not news —it was just news to me.

Ryan Gosling has a tattoo of The Giving Tree on his left arm.

After some intense googling, all I could find by way of explanation is an interview in Metro.co,uk where he says that his mother used to read the book to him and his sister when they were kids and this 2010 interview with Vulture, where we get the (false) impression that it’s a faux tattoo, for his role in Blue Valentine:

And your character has a tattoo of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree on his arm? That book is so fucked up; that story’s the worst. I mean, at the end the tree is a stump and the old guy just sitting on him; he’s just used him to death, and you’re supposed to want to be the tree? Fuck you. You be the tree. I don’t want to be the tree.

He says the story is “the worst.” So what gives????

At any rate, this little segment Jimmy Kimmel did on the book a couple years ago is priceless:

Louise Fitzhugh’s Lovable Little Hipster: Suzuki Beane

If you are a fan of Louise Fitzhugh and Kay Thompson  —and you have an extra hundred bucks lying around— you can find rare copies of this 1961 book, The Wonderful Adventures of Suzuki Beane by Sandra Scoppettone. A beatnik take on Eloise, it tells the story of a naughty little hipster who lives on Bleecker Street with Hugh, her Beat poet father, and Marcia, her spaced-out sculptor mother. The distinctively grotesque and scratchy looking illustrations (by Louise Fitzhugh) look straight out of Harriet the Spy.

I was hoping I could find a copy of it through the library, but no luck. Fortunately, you can read the whole thing here on Scribd.

Also, there’s this amazing 1962 pilot for a TV show (never made) based on Suzuki Beane. Totally worth watching:

 

Jenny Slate is my Children’s Books Guru

There are so many reasons to love Jenny Slate. The 35-year-old comedian-actress is funny, sexy, fiercely feminist, and just goofy enough that you feel like she could be someone you know. I loved her in Obvious Child (the 2014 indie film that flaunted both her ingenue radiance and raunchy potty mouth) and to this day I cannot order a sandwich without thinking about Catherine, her bizarre 12-part web series that is either totally unwatchable or the best thing you’ve ever seen on YouTube. (I guess you could call it normcore. Please try it!) Of course, Slate is also co-creator of the genius Marcel the Shell web series (and children’s books).

But what really sealed my fandom is that Jenny Slate is a vintage children’s book nerd. How did I learn this? Instagram.

Here’s her shout-out to the Dorrie the Little Witch series by Patricia Coombs. Which I only vaguely remembered and immediately ordered from the library because most of them are out of print:

Here’s a post with her childhood copy of Elmer and the Dragon:

Here, with Tomi Ungerer

A page from Sarah, Plain and Tall:

I have no idea what book this little mouse is from, so if anybody knows, please tell me in the comments:

Ok, I am clearly obsessed. I also did some Googling.

In a recent interview with New York magazine, she says she loves the 1980 book Emma by Wendy Kesselman so much she has it on display in her house where she can see it when she wakes up. (I still have to get my hands on a copy):

“It’s about an old woman who doesn’t love how she’s alone, and then learns to make herself not alone through art, and draws people into her life through art. It’s the fucking best thing.”

She told Jezebel she loves Ox-Cart Man and Miss Rumphius, both also illustrated by Barbara Cooney (I’ve written about Ox-Cart Man here).


And also a book called I’m Telling You Now, illustrated by Lillian Hoban (of Bread and Jam for Frances fame):

She describes it as “this beautiful watercolor book about this boy who did all these things that he wasn’t supposed to do … but he was only curious.”

She kind of sums it all up in this interview with Vogue:

“I always wanted to be a children’s author and I have a really big library of children’s books. All the ones from when I was little, they are just so beautiful. I read kids’ books and they calm me down … I love all the Lyle the Crocodile books. I like Robert McCloskey’s books—One Morning in Maine, Blueberries for Sal, Make Way for Ducklings. I like Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, all the Barbara Cooney books, like Miss Rumphius and The Ox-Cart Man are really good. And I like Chris Van Allsburg, those books like Just a Dream and The Polar Express. I like the classics. They’re classics for a reason.”

In short, friends, she’s one of us.

Call it Roald McDonald’s: Roald Dahl’s Estate Goes for the $$$

In case you missed it, there was a big NYT story earlier this summer about how Roald Dahl’s literary estate is “aggressively seeking out ways to globalize, digitize and monetize his wackily wondrous works.” The piece focused on the (mostly disappointing) recent film, stage, and television adaptations of his works, like Spielberg’s BFG floparoo. But what really piqued my curiosity was the mention of the deals the estate has made with companies like McDonald’s. Yes, McDonald’s in the UK is selling Roald Dahl-themed Happy Meals. I found this image from the creative agency who helped put them together:

happymealboxes

Okay … I admit I would actually kind of love to get my hands on one of those Witches boxes (not for the McNuggets or whatever, just for the packaging). But really, if there was a kids’ author who revered good home cooking, it was Roald Dahl. This is the man who made us crave cold meat pies spiked with hard-boiled eggs buried inside like treasures and fresh fish caught in the fjords and fried that day still wriggling in the pan. Not to sound like a tsk tsking ninny but pimping out the books with McDonald’s?

Roald Dahl’s grandson Luke Kelly, who heads up the estate, also made a deal with the children’s clothing company Boden. Now, I do like the stuff at Boden (great PJs!) but there’s something that makes me feel sad about this collection. It’s so Cheeky! and Quirky!

screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-4-30-27-pmscreen-shot-2016-09-20-at-10-43-15-amHere’s a quote from Kelly who comes off sounding almost cartoonishly money grubbing: “We are really transferring from being a literary estate to being more of a story company.” That’s the kind of thing that you tell your investors, not the press.

Oh, and back to the McDonald’s thing…

One of my favorite books in the world is Memories with Food at Gipsy House, the cookbook/culinary memoir Roald Dahl wrote with wife Felicity Dahl. It’s out of print but totally worth seeking out. You could not ask for more comforting bedtime reading.fullsizerender-1

New York Fashion Week meets Moomin

I spent many happy and fulfilling years working at fashion magazines but eventually, enough was enough. Just look at these utterly terrifying pictures from last night’s Harper’s Bazaar fete for Carine Roitfeld and you’ll see what I mean.

I do still like to keep up with the collections, however, and I was eager to see what my old HB colleague Thakoon had up his sleeve after taking a year off to regigger his business. I guess it’s safe to say that I’ve been away from the fashion world for quite some time, because Thakoon’s very first look, a grungy-chic layered ensemble …

thakoon-look1

immediately made me think of Mymble from Tove Jansson’s Moomin books. Not just the tightly pulled topknot, but also the voluminous silhouette and black tights.

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Mymble has great style, as do all the Moomin characters.  They’re a crazy, colorful bunch, each with their own distinctive look, like the best fashion world personalities.

mymble3I started thinking about fashion people who have Moomin-world doubles.

With her blunt red bob, Fillyjonk is the late, great Sonia Rykiel:

sonia-fillySonia Rykiel

Dreamy, dapper and portly, Moominpapa is Alber Elbaz:

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-1-01-33-pm

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-12-40-47-pmThe chapeau-loving vagabond, Snufkin, is John Galliano:

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gallianoWhile Mymble’s Mother is blogger and streetstyle star Susie Bubble:

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Time for one last summer read? My Top 10 Kid Classics

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To my precious handful of Mrs. Little readers:

It’s been a long time, I know. I took an extended hiatus from blogging (reasons: work, kids, laziness, sloth) but I’m determined to get back on track. I’ve got some ideas cooking and I’ll be posting more regularly this fall.

In the meantime, I wanted to link to this round-up of classic kids’ books, which I put together a couple years ago for Jenny Rosenstrach’s blog, Dinner, A Love Story. It’s got my suggestions for ten classic summer reads: All-of a Kind Family, Call of the Wild, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, The Great Grain, The Pushcart War, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and My Life and Hard Times.  If your kids are up for one last good book before school starts, check it out here.

9780804176309By the way, the amazing Jenny has just written a new book: How to Celebrate Everything. I haven’t gotten my hands on it yet but if it’s anything like her others, it’s going to be one of my go-tos. I don’t know how I would feed my family without her.

Most Endearing Windbag: The Old Cob in Trumpet of the Swan

Trumpet_of_the_Swan_CoverWhile Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little get all the glory, E.B. White’s third children’s book, The Trumpet of the Swan (1970), is relatively overlooked. And this is a crying shame! I loved it when I was eight, and now, reading it again, I realize there’s even more to admire.

As you may recall, the story is about Louis, a trumpeter swan who, born mute, compensates by learning to read, write and play an actual trumpet. Because he is a swan of honor, Louis feels obligated to pay for his instrument, which his father stole for him. So he takes on a string of jobs, including a camp counselor gig in Maine and a nightclub stint in Philly. Although the plot is admittedly daffy, White’s prose is at its most eloquent and luminous and the book is just very … soulful. John Updike, who reviewed the book for the Times(!), said it was “the most spacious and serene of the three [E.B. White novels] … the one most imbued with the author’s sense of the precious instinctual heritage represented by wild nature.”

Trumpet_stealBut what was my favorite discovery upon re-reading the book? The hilarious character of Louis’s father, a blustery cob who never uses one word when he could use ten. Here’s what he tells little Louis after he steals him the trumpet:

“I have been on a journey to the haunts of men. I visited a great city teeming with life and commerce. Whilst there, I picked up a gift for you, which I bestow upon you with my love and my blessing… Learn to play it Louis, and life will be smoother and richer and gayer for you!”

Trumpet_AmbulanceEven when he talks to himself, he’s dramatic and bombastic. This is from his over-the-top soliloquy toward the end of the book:

“Man, in his folly, has given me a mortal wound. The red blood flows in a steady trickle from my veins. My strength fails. But even in death’s final hour, I shall deliver the money for the trumpet. Good-bye, life! Good-bye, beautiful world! … I, who am about to die, salute you. I must die gracefully as only a swan can.”

Every time the bird opens his beak, it’s priceless. And when you remember that White co-wrote The Elements of Style — the writer’s handbook that commanded “Omit needless words” — it’s even better.

This is Freaking Me Out: Phantom Tollbooth Fans, Is it Just Me?

2014-06-10-SlenderMangraffiti-thumbLike most people I know, the first time I ever heard of the internet meme Slender Man was a few weeks ago when the news story broke about the two 12-year-old girls in Wisconsin who stabbed their friend to please the fictional character. The demonic Slender Man is said to be tall, thin, faceless and dressed in a black suit. Artists have rendered him in many different ways.

nyto-slenderman-tmagArticle2014-06-16-slendermanpeekaboo-thumbBut today when I was looking through The Phantom Tollbooth, I was jolted by this. Remember him?

Terrible_TriviumThe Terrible Trivium!

“He was beautifully dressed in a dark suit with a well-pressed shirt and tie. His shoes were polished, his nails were clean, his hat was well brushed, and a white handkerchief adorned his breast pocket. But his expression was somewhat blank. In fact, it was completely blank, for he had neither eyes, nose, nor mouth.”

Athough Tollbooth is not a scary book by any stretch of the imagination, this guy haunted me for years. And I wonder if Jules Feiffer’s drawing was the image my mind subconsciously triggered when I first heard about Slender Man. Is it just me?

[If this post is leaving a grim taste in your mouth, I apologize. Here’s a more pleasant Phantom Tollbooth-related realization to linger on.]