Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Food, Frolic, and the Fall of Rome

Although he was not to be found in the taupe-tinged atmosphere of Banana Republic, my trip to New York was otherwise full of tasty moments--haute Polynesian with Elizabeth, schnitzel with the Germany girls, Starbucks with Fuse #8, panini with Richard Peck, and Emerald City (Key lime) mousse on a yellow-brick road (made of chocolate) with Eric Carle. The theme of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art benefit bash was, in homage to their current exhibition, the land of Oz : Dorothy et al wandered through the crowd selling raffle tickets, and each guest received a pair of green-tinted shades. When I told an enquiring Peter Sis that the glasses would allow him to see all the party guests naked, he replied, "in this crowd, why bother?" Terribly ungallant, I know, but he did make an exception for one titian-haired publisher I won't embarrass here.

The party celebrated the inauguration of the Carle Honors, given this year to an artist (Rosemary Wells), an "angel" (philanthropist Helen Bing), a mentor (Carle's chief editor Ann Beneduce), and a "bridge" (Weston Woods' Mort Schindel). All, thankfully, kept their remarks brief and gracious; Rosemary Wells opined that while we were living in an era akin to the fall of Rome, "we have something Rome didn't: 'Eric Carle.'"

Well, can't argue with that (except to say that Rome had something we don't: Virgil). Not to pick on Rosemary, who was just being gracious, but her remark reminded me that we in this field do have a tendency to plump the importance of children's books up to a point that can seem self-deluding. As when Philip Pullman said, in his Carnegie Medal acceptance speech for The Golden Compass, "There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children's book." Balderdash. Old-timers may remember when Horn Book editor Ethel Heins and School Library Journal editor Lillian Gerhardt practically came to blows over this very issue. Literally: Lillian threatened, in print, to come up to Boston and hit Ethel over the head with a chair. Ah, those happy golden years.

22 comments:

JeanneB said...

Which brings to my mind at least a lovely idea -- Eric Carle illustrating the Aeneid. Can't you just see the reds in Dido's funeral byre?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the update on the night, Roger. The food alone sounds worth the trip!

rindambyers said...

A lovely quote from C. S. Lewis, very apt, here I would think:

"The child as reader is neither to be patronized nor idolized: we talk to him as man to man."

I think he means "man" in the sense of "mankind" or "human being" here...with no intention to offend feminist human beings....

In my humble opinion, I would qualify this quote somewhat in that writers ought to write for children not as children, as Lewis says, and not as adults either but...as the adults those children will someday, hopefully, become. This requires a peculiar and special kind of courageous imagination, I think on the part of the writer for children...an exercising of hope in concrete form...with inkstains, crumpled papers, headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome along the creative way with finally solid books for others to hold and smell and treasure...books for others to read and reread which I did as a child and still do as an adult with the Chronicles of Narnia.

Melinda said...

And then Pullman grabs Lewis and they both go wrestling across the room.

Roger, you know that Pullman is shooting off his mouth as he likes to. What do you expect from a guy who kills off God?

Though you yourself have been exasperated with adult lit being too highfalutin to really say anything well -- case in point, The Poisonwood Bible ... was that the book with three endings that got you riled up one month?

And in that speech you quoted, Pullman goes on to talk about letting the storytelling do the work, not literary pyrotechnics that calls attention to the author's technique.

Hey Rinda, how about writing for the kid you once were? Does that kind of retroactive stuff count?

Roger Sutton said...

I can't speak to the ending(s) of The Poisonwood Bible because I never got that far! It is true that Pullman went on to qualify his statement to more narrowly critique contemporary "serious" fiction, but even there I think of an article Jill Paton Walsh (who has written for adults and children) wrote for us a few years ago about why adults should not content themselves with reading books for children--that there are dimensions of adult experience that children's literature does not--cannot--touch.

rindambyers said...

Of course! One of the pleasures of being an adult--reading adult literature! But also the pleasure of being able as an adult to savor the children's literature you loved as child in new ways.

And Melinda, I fear, sadly, that getting to read a new good book for children wins out over my trying to write one for children with me--I am awfully addicted reader--can't get away from the pleasures of it.

Melinda said...

Rinda, I hear you on that.

(I should be writing right now, for instance!)

Anonymous said...

Since when are editors "mentors"? Editors are hired by publishers and paid to find and develop writers and artists. Calling them mentors sounds a bit grandiose. Maxwell Perkins, perhaps, but let's leave it with him.

Roger Sutton said...

I guess I would let "mentors" be defined by those who feel themselves mentored. Actually, the word gets thrown around so much these days that any grandiosity it might have had once is now stale, I think.

Anonymous said...

in other words, the beneficiary can define the situation. what if an author felt his editor was a saint? canonization occurs automatically?

Roger Sutton said...

I like Diana Wynne Jones's definition of "mentor" in her Tough Guide to Fantasyland, published by Firebird this month: "He will be several hundred years old and will probably have a long white beard; this will give him the right to be bossy, smug, tiresomely philosophical and infuriatingly secretive about all-important facts. You will be glad to see the back of the old idiot. Unfortunately, you won't have. He will reappear, smugger and bossier than ever, near the end of the Tour, just when you thought you were doing rather well on your own."

Anonymous said...

for the benefit of those who are not "old-timers," but old enough to know who Lilian and Ethel are: who was on which side?

Roger Sutton said...

Ethel felt that children's books were in the literary vanguard; Lillian believed they were twenty years behind.

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