Kicking Back with Children’s Classics


It’s time for a long overdue hello.  While I’ve got a review post in the works, I just wanted to take a quick moment for the classics in children’s literature, especially as publications and bloggers begin to roll out their Best of 2014 lists.  This is primarily due to the fact that I treated myself to a documentary double feature last night, both on children’s book creators, which served as a good reminder that as exciting and varied as children’s literature is today, contemporary books owe much to their predecessors: titles that pushed boundaries, treated kids like intelligent beings, and still can hold their own today.

The first documentary I watched was The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond ExpectationsThis film provides a charming look at the friendship between Norton Juster (author) and Jules Feiffer (illustrator) and how their classic The Phantom Tollbooth came to be.  Almost as wonderful as Juster and Feiffer’s personal stories is the commentary by figures, such as Marcus Leonard (children’s literature historian), David Hyde Pierce, Adam Gopnik, and Eric Carl.  I admit that I never read The Phantom Tollbooth as a child.  I came to it later in life and was utterly delighted by the way it played with language, its shameless use of puns.  For those of you unfamiliar, The Phantom Tollbooth is an Alice in Wonderland-ish tale of a boy who travels to another world characterized by language (Dictionopolis) and math (Digitolopis), where he must rescue the princesses, Rhyme and Reason.  Juster did not shy away from using challenging vocabulary or playing with the meaning of words, and as a result had a difficult time finding a publisher for his book; it was deemed inappropriate for children.  However, once it found its way to bookstore shelves, children adored it for its sense of fun and its challenges, raising the bar for “acceptable” writing in the realm of children’s literature.   Most importantly, the documentary highlighted how these things continue to resonate with children today.  It showed multiple generations at book signings and children cracking up over a turn of phrase or the realization that the dog with a clock in its side was a literal watch dog.

For its 50th anniversary in 2011, an annotated edition of the book was released, chock full of extras and insights by Marcus Leonard.  While the documentary is not available to rent, it is well worth the $10 for any children’s book or Phantom Tollbooth fan.  Also of interest may be Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker piece, “Broken Kingdom,” which also looks at the book’s 50 year history.

Speaking of anniversaries, my favorite book of all time turned 50 this year.  I am talking, of course, of the inimitable Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.  A beautiful, hardcover edition was published this year in honor of the occasion, which brings back the original (and best) cover and includes essays from a wealth of authors, speaking of the important impact Harriet had on their lives.  For a more detailed look at the book’s history and essays, take a look at the Publisher’s Weekly article, “Harriet the Spy Celebrates 50 Years of Sleuthing.”  Nothing will ever compare to Harriet.

Next up on my documentary binge was Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story. This movie was utterly fascinating.  I knew nothing about Tomi Ungerer except that I had shelved some of his books when I worked at the children’s bookstore.  He was a man who went from revered to shunned in the course of an evening by daring to illustrate erotica and anti-war posters after making a name for himself as a children’s book author/illustrator. He defied his audience by daring to expand it.  If anyone was unafraid to push boundaries, it was Ungerer, and his praises are sung by Maurice Sendak, Jules Feiffer, and Marcus Leonard among others.  I loved hearing all the things this strange, passionate, somewhat tortured man had to say.  Not nearly as lighthearted as The Phantom Tollbooth documentary, it does have a happy ending, and I found myself entranced the entire film.  This one is on Netflix, so do yourself a favor and stick it in your queue if you can’t watch it immediately.

Ungerer collage


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