Thursday, February 24, 2011

Paper Bag Princess / Mortimer / Love You Forever

The Paper Bag Princess Mortimer Love You Forever

I'm a great fan of Robert Munsch's picture books, which is a good thing since I am required to read one or two or three or four of them most days. Munsch uses key phrases over and over in his books, making them rhythmical and enjoyable to read aloud; and he often writes with the voice of a child, which is alternately hilarious and terribly moving.

The Paper Bag Princess is a feminist fairy story. A princess wearing only a paper bag rescues her prince from a terrible dragon, only to be told her clothes are revolting and her hair is a mess. She tells the prince where to go, calls off the wedding and says,' You are a bum!', which occasions hilarious laughter in my family (sadly, in the expurgated version at our local library, she calls him a toad, not nearly as naughty or funny).

Mortimer is a little boy who sings loudly when he is supposed to be going to sleep. It drives his family crazy, even his seventeen brothers and sisters – so much so that they call in the police. The police lecture him, then go downstairs; Mortimer starts singing again; and the noise sends everyone berserk. While they're all yelling at each other, Mortimer finally falls asleep.

In Love You Forever, a mother sings the same song to her son every night, 'I'll love you forever, I'll like you for always, As long as I'm living, My baby you'll be.'. As the boy ages, the mother takes more and more ludicrous steps to sing the song – such as boarding a bus in the middle of the night, letting herself into her son's apartment and singing over his bed – which are heart-warmingly ridiculous.

Near the end, she calls her son to say 'You'd better come and see me because I am really old and sick.' Her son comes, and she tries to sing '[b]ut she was too old and sick to finish the song', and he has to sing to her, instead. And then he goes home and sings to his own little baby, and every time I read it – which is most days – I choke up.

I find Love You Forever especially poignant because both my mother and my mother-in-law died before we had children, and I often feel that our kids missed out on the special experience of a grandmother's love. This book reminds me that whether or not they are living, our parents give us gifts – a special song, a prayer, a handful of stories, an ability – and it is up to us to recognise these gifts and pass them on. It also suggests that love endures, even after the death of the loved one; in fact, Munsch wrote the story in memoriam to his two still-born children.

PS – Munsch has a fabulous website here, where, among other things, you can listen to and download mp3 files of him telling a heap of his stories with sound effects! The Paper Bag Princess is here; Mortimer is here; Love You Forever is here.

PPS – Paul Mitchell recently wrote a very moving piece about the prayer he has given his daughter here.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Tuck Everlasting

Tuck Everlasting

'The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning...'. Thus begins Tuck Everlasting, a beautifully written book for older children which addresses the serious matters of life and death, loyalty and property, in the most thoughtful way.

The story centres on young Winnie, confined to a hot and dusty garden at the height of summer. Between one thing and another, she slips out the gate and into the woods owned by her family, and there stumbles upon a boy, Jesse Tuck, drinking at a spring. It transpires that the spring gives the drinker eternal life, and although the boy appears to be in his late teens he has lived for more than a hundred years. Winnie soon meets the rest of the Tuck family, and together they explore the pros and cons of eternal life versus the normal realities of living, maturing and dying.

Matters are complicated by a manipulative stranger who wants to market the water and make his fortune. When disaster strikes, Winnie has to decide whether to capitulate to the powers that be, or to defend the Tucks and keep them, and their secret, safe.

While there are elements of the story that I am not entirely comfortable with – a kidnapping and an act of violence justified by the need to keep the secret – overall the book is stunning. The author explores difficult questions with a deft touch, lightly dancing in and out of the issues in such a way that the reader never feels mired.

The writing shimmers and glides, and is rich in metaphor. No doubt violating every rule of children's books, which usually plunge straight into the action, Tuck Everlasting begins with a slow elegant description of the longest, hottest week of summer; then moves on to describe the road outside young Winnie's house.

This road was, from one direction, trodden out by cows, and the author describes its gentle meandering timelessness suggestive of 'slow chewing and thoughtful contemplation of the infinite'; this is the direction from which the Tucks appear. On the other side of the woods, the road belongs to people and runs efficiently from A to B; it is from this direction that the rapacious stranger appears. The book is full of such imagery which adds greatly to its depth.

The story is told from Winnie's perspective, and conveys the dreamy world that children inhabit. Most adults are shadowy background figures and the road, the woods and a toad are more real to young Winnie. Into this private world erupt the Tucks. Wise and innocent, thoughtful and silly, they are childlike and treat Winnie as an equal; for these qualities, they earn her loyalty and trust.

This latter quality is reflective of the author's tone. She trusts her readers with complex ideas, and ends with a bittersweet epilogue which brings the themes to their natural conclusion.

Intelligent dreamy children will drink up the story in all its rich fullness; intelligent dreamy adults will wallow in its language and metaphors. It is a book to read slowly, to oneself or aloud, savouring every crafted sentence and idea. Although written for children, it is one of those classics which adults too will enjoy, one which people of all ages will carry with them in word and image for many years after reading.