The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

Birthday

A very happy birthday to Eric Carle today, author and illustrator of so many delightful books, who is 84!

Carle was born in 1929 in New York to German parents but went back to Germany when he was six years old. After harrowing experiences through the war, Carle returned to America in 1952 where he got a job as a graphic designer for the New York Times and later at an advertising agency.

The work of Eric Carle is easily recognisable, his artwork and illustrations are unique and his books tell of nature and the world. Carle himself said that with his books  “I attempt to bridge the gap between the home and school. To me home represents, or should represent; warmth, security, toys, holding hands, being held. School is a strange and new place for a child…I believe the passage from home to school is the second biggest trauma of childhood; the first is, of course, being born…The unknown often brings fear with it. In my books I try to counteract this fear, to replace it with a positive message. I believe that children are naturally creative and eager to learn. I want to show them that learning is really both fascinating and fun.”

The way Carle makes his art is fascinating. I had never really thought about it before, I assume it was just paintings but apparently his work is created like a collage using hand painted papers that are cut and layered to form the images. There are also other techniques such as die-cut pages, and actual twinkling lights and noises in some books as well. All very high class compared to the felt puppets and faux fur I remember from my books.

My favourite book of Carle’s is of course The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I read this so many times as a kid it’s great. Yet another example of interaction and creative book creation, there are holes in the book, the pages are different sizes, it is amazing. It seems growing up Carle was familiar with different shaped books in Germany. I understand the reasons why but we need more books here that are weirdly shaped.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar was published in 1969 and the story behind it is rather cool. According to Carle, “One day I was punching holes with a hole puncher into a stack of paper, and I thought of a bookworm and so I created a story called A Week with Willi the Worm.” But how did we get to the caterpillar? Willi was a bookworm, but apparently poor Willi would not be a great protagonist as a green worm (poor Willi), then Carle’s editor suggested a caterpillar, which made Carle think of a butterfly and there you go. So in a sense we can all now say the very hungry caterpillar’s name is Willi. This must be made known to the world.

I must say, this was a fun review to write, short books, especially children’s books can bring out a silliness you really can’t get away with for big, long, serious books. If you don’t know the story of the very hungry caterpillar you may not want to read ahead, but even if it spoils it, which is will because there is nothing much else to talk about in there, then I half apologise and half demand you go read the book.

Published: September 29th 1994
Goodreads badgePublisher: Puffin
Pages: 26
Format: Picture Book
Genre: Children’s Picture Book
★   ★   ★   ★   ★  – 5 Stars

This is a story of suspense and tension. The main character of this story is born into a world in constant hunger and we follow him as he devours food at an alarming rate, never able to quench his hunger. Day after day he does nothing but eat, eating more and more as the days go by. He tries to be healthy in the beginning but as the days progress his hunger drives him to junk food and after all that cake and sugar and cheese…well, that’s right, he becomes ill. The suspense was amazing. Was this finally the way to stop this hunger machine before he ate through his world of food? Could this tummy ache be enough to stop his rampage on the food? Would there still be enough to support the remaining population? I had to read on to find out.

After having eaten so much this character had become so large he hides himself from the world. So large in fact he must built a house around himself to shield the judging eyes of the neighbours and those who come across him. Housebound, and living off the vast amount of food he’d consumed in his lifetime, this character is sheltered from the world. Until one day, after probably taking a good long hard look at what he’d become, had an instinctual desire to change himself, become a new and brighter person. After emerging slowly from his custom built house to this new world he was no longer a very hungry caterpillar, he was a beautiful butterfly (or he’d eaten himself into a food coma and was delusional about his true butterfly abilities. Either way).

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Birthday

Happy Birthday Maurice Sendak! It was a sad day when the world lost him last year, yet we know his stories will live on. So, in honour of his birthday, I am reviewing my favourite book of his, Where the Wild Things Are.

Maurice Sendak was born in 1928, the same year as Mickey Mouse, and he had an interesting life. His extended family were killed in the Holocaust which naturally exposed him to concepts of mortality and death, and he had health problems as a child. It was these health problems which confined him to his bed that developed his love of reading, and it was watching Disney’s Fantasia that made him want to be an illustrator (who wouldn’t that film was phenomenal).

His first illustrations were published in a textbook called Atomics for the Millions and he spent a lot of time illustrating other people’s works before beginning to write his own. He is quoted as saying “My gods are Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Mozart. I believe in them with all my heart”; but there were many other sources of inspiration from painters, musicians, authors, and a key influence was his own father and the stories he told him.

The impact of Sendak is clear when you look at what people said about him when he died last year. The New York Times called Sendak “the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century.”
Darling Neil Gaiman said “He was unique, grumpy, brilliant, gay, wise, magical and made the world better by creating art in it.” And even the delightful Stephen Colbert said that “We are all honoured to have been briefly invited into his world.” I wholeheartedly agree with them all. He did have other books, his final book, Bumble-Ardy, was published eight months before he died, and there was a posthumous picture book, titled My Brother’s Book, published in February 2013, 50 years after Where the Wild Things Are. It is hard sometimes to remember there are more books out there when Where the Wild Things Are is so loved and cherished.

Sendak wrote Where the Wild Things Are in 1963 and from a rocky and critically negative start it has grown to be one of the most beloved stories of all time. Author Francis Spufford said that the book is “one of the very few picture books to make an entirely deliberate and beautiful use of the psychoanalytic story of anger”, and I think this is entirely true, part of what makes it wonderful.

I am not sure how many of you have read Where the Wild Things Are, and it is a fairly short book so I probably will be giving a variation of a spoiler so here it is, the spoilers warning just in case because there is not a lot to cover. But even so, you should read the book regardless of me spoiling it a smidge.

Published: May 4th 2000
Goodreads badgePublisher: Red Fox
Pages: 37
Format: Picture Book
Genre: Children
★   ★   ★   ★   ★  – 5 Stars

One night Max puts on his wolf suit and makes mischief of one kind and another, so his mother calls him ‘Wild Thing’ and sends him to bed without his supper. That night a forest begins to grow in Max’s room and an ocean rushes by with a boat to take Max to the place where the wild things are. 

As a kid, I adored Where the Wild Things Are and I still do. I think everyone needs to read it at some point in their life (I am not telling you not to watch the 2009 film but…I am not 100% convinced about that yet, it made me slightly ill at ease and a bit grumpy when I watched it but I can see what they were doing. It looked nice, that’s something). The book had been adapted several times before the movie, including an animated short in 1974 (with an updated version in 1988) and a 1980 opera.

Where the Wild Things Are tells the story of Max, a boy who puts on his wolf suit and gets into mischief. He was a Wild Thing and so he goes and joins the other Wild Things, sailing away in a private boat until he reaches the land of the Wild Things where his many adventures can begin.

The absolute best bit I think is the ending, and all of it, and really what this whole story is. Sendak shows us the story of Max, but while it looks like we are looking from the outside, it is actually Max who is telling us this story, it is all from Max’s point of view. We see him take control of these Wild Things, he rules them, sends them to bed without supper, he becomes the one in charge. I certainly do not want to be psychologically breaking down this story because that is the first step to ruining something wonderful, but as clear as it is, it shows you the power of Max’s mind, and what is entirely possible if given half the chance.

We need to take a moment to mention the pictures, Sendak did the pictures himself and they are stunning. They are displayed filled with colour, but have a dark mystical element as well. There are pictures that sit on white pages, there are pictures that sit above text strips, and there are wonderful full page and two page illustrations that require no words at all; truly beautiful.

These images, as a lot of children’s illustrated books do, support the story, and tell the story so limited words are needed. There is an argument in the scholarly world that illustrations lead children’s minds and makes them unable to create images on their own but I think there are exceptions, this is one. You can still use the images Sendak gives you to create a fuller story, you can imagine the dancing and the sailing and everything, the illustrations are your starting point.

This is a beautiful book and a great story that lets you enter the world of the Wild Things; and if Max’ mischief isn’t enough fun, than the majesty that Sendak puts into the Wild Things through image alone is pretty darn amazing, I always wanted one based on those illustrations alone. A truly amazing story, by a truly wonderful person, author, and illustrator who wrote and illustrated many more books you should check out, and I think you should all experience Where the Wild Things Are if you haven’t.

Maurice Sendak Goodies

1983 Disney CG Animation of Where the Wild Things Are – it ends abruptly and seemingly in the middle but it is still rather cool

Maurice Sendak reading Where the Wild Things Are

10 Fascinating Interviews via Flavorwire

Another Interview

The Sword in the Stone (#1) by T. H. White

Birthday

Today is T.H White‘s birthday, the man who wrote the series The Once and Future King, about the legend of Arthur, Merlyn, and the knights of Camelot. Terence Hanbury White was born in Bombay in 1906, and was 32 when he published The Sword in the Stone, which was initially meant as a prequel to Sir Thomas Malory‘s famous 1485 Le Morte d’Arthur. Two sequels were published, The Witch in the Wood (later rewritten as The Queen of Air and Darkness) in 1939, and The Ill-Made Knight in 1940. But when the complete collection was compiled there were five stories in total and the order was altered a bit. The version of The Sword in the Stone included in the complete text The Once and Future King differs from the earlier version. It is darker, and White’s indirect experience of World War II had a profound effect on these tales of King Arthur, which include commentaries on war and human nature. This is certainly evident in the later books as well.

I knew nothing about T.H White and reading up on him he certainly was interesting, there are speculations he was a homosexual sadomasochist; into small girls; not a homosexual, all these things. Good ol’ Wikipedia has the theories and the references if you wish to explore his life a bit more, I’ll admit I am only here for the wonderful stories. He revised Sword in the Stone a few times, which resulted in a few stories being added and removed and all sorts of things. I read a couple versions and trying to figure out what went where and who was left out does your head in, so I won’t try and explain how that went down and what stayed in or not.

Published: December 2nd, 1996 (As part of The Once and Future King complete edition)
Goodreads badgePublisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 223
Format: Book
Genre: Junior Fiction
★   ★   ★  – 3 Stars

In old Merry England weather behaves. In the Castle of Forest Sauvage, Wart (rhymes with Art for Arthur) follows Sir Ector’s ‘proper son’ Kay, two years older. Wizard Merlyn, fewmets from talking owl familiar Archimedes, turns boy into perch, hawk, owl, stone, and badger for their lessons and stories – until King Uther dies without heirs.

The Sword in the Stone is the first book as part of what became ‘The Once and Future King’ series, and my first criticism is that I can see why there are sequels, you can’t get it in one book, and because White starts from the very beginning it would hardly do it justice. I read the version that ended up in the collection, so I don’t think I got to experience the lighter version as it were, but it was still great. This first story is about a young orphan named Arthur living in medieval Great Britain. Arthur is nicknamed Wart, and works as a page for his guardian Sir Ector. With his companion and foster brother Kay, he leads an ok existence, but the true adventure begins when he stumbles across Merlyn, a time travelling wizard, and Arthur soon becomes the student, alongside Kay, to Merlyn’s tutelage. Merlyn guides Arthur and teaches him about the world through magic, and trains him in the ways of the world.

So much of this book is setting up Arthur and his life as a child and his adventures, the known aspects of the story are not a main focus, instead we see Arthur and his relationship to Sir Ector, Kay, and the Merlyn. Kay does have a few roles to play in this early tale, and while Merlyn focuses on Arthur, Kay is not left out of the loop much, either that or Merlyn concocts some distraction to find some time to play with magic.

With Merlyn’s help, Arthur is turned into animals of all kinds to gain a sense of their life, and he has many adventures with other humans such as Robin Hood (Wood in the book) and Maid Marian, King Pellinore in his quest for the Beast, and many more. These adventures seem trivial and fun at first, but with Merlyn’s knowledge of the future, he is essentially training Arthur to be the King, teaching him about the world, nature, and man’s duty in the world.

It was a pretty good book, especially some of the explanations and science behind why things are what they are. I think having Merlyn be a magical character who knew more than most was a great advantage because you had modern knowledge in the medieval setting. And White’s knowledge of the medieval era was excellent, his attention to detail about the sports, dress, and other aspects added to this sense of reality, however there are clear indications that no real effort was made for some aspects of historical accuracy, as well as the fact that Merlyn was a wizard, a wizard that experienced time backwards rather than forwards.

After accidentally starting an abridge version, when I switched to a full copy I realised a few good stories had been removed which I thought was a shame because in the version included in the complete collection they all kind of return in the end and come full circle so I am not sure how the edited text would have covered that.

The animal stories White explores when Arthur is transformed by Merlyn, are very sweet, and give you a great look at the inner workings of the animals and their lives. The way White explores the life and manner of the animals, and Arthur’s uneasy and new presence in there, it is pretty spectacular, it balances out the anachronisms. There is some realistic and detail science and observation evident, and manages to teach you things.

The Sword in the Stone is such a famous story and I did not know there was more than one, and waiting as I read to find the familiar scenes I knew was interesting because it is a very drawn out story. I guess in a way the extra novels means that it is not condensed into one, and there is no hanging unexplained conclusion about what happened, but it is interesting that the key moment is such a small part of the first novel in terms of pages. The effect of course would be seen in the sequels.

There was a Disney version in 1963, because there always is, and it is rather good. This only covers the first book and sticks to the general plot, and a lot of the fleshed out substance is removed, but a lot of the scenes are similar to what is found in White’s. Perhaps there are just some elements of this story that will be kept true, even if other aspects are reimagined.

So Happy Birthday T. H. White, and I thank him for writing this series. I know everyone upon everyone has done an Arthur story and made a version, or told a story about it, but I loved White’s telling. You get drawn into the life of this kid, who started out small and became so big. By the time I had finished all the books I was so enthralled and amazed it was simply divine. I do recommend that you read Sword in the Stone and the sequels because it is well written and as I say, manages to teach you about things you never really thought about before, not just about animals, but about humanity, war, education and even a little bit of history.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Birthday

L. Frank Baum, the mind behind The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was born today in 1856. Baum was the seventh of nine, and grew up in New York. He began writing at an early age, and with the help of a printing press his father gave him, he started publishing newspapers and small journals with his brother.

By the time Baum would come to write the story of Dorothy he was 46 years old and having tried many occupations before in newspapers, theatre, and even fancy poultry breeding which apparently was a thing at the time. The book became a best seller for two years after it was published, and was soon turned into a musical stage version. A lot of the novel was altered for the stage, including the removal of the Wicked Witch of the West, and was aimed at adults more than children. The plot is almost nothing like the original, though Dorothy landing on the witch ends up in there, as does the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Cowardly Lion, though the Tinman and Scarecrow look like characters in a horror film. A summary of this play can be read here.
There have been many adaptations of The Wizard of Oz in many formats (the book and musical Wicked and the film The Great and Powerful Oz the most recent), and Baum himself wrote many more adventures for Dorothy and the Land of Oz. Initially Baum only intended on writing the one book, but the popularity and request for more Oz adventures made him write more. In some ways it is a bit like the Chronicles of Narnia, each book looks at the same area, but different sides of it, and new characters and places are explored, but it is still Oz. Dorothy even goes to live in Oz for a while which would be interesting to read about.

Baum died aged 63, and the final Oz book, Glinda of Oz, was published in 1920, a year after his death. Other writers continued the Oz series though, most notably Ruth Plumly Thompson, who wrote another nineteen in the series. When I learnt this I was rather glad I only even knew of one book. Similarly to Black Beauty, I think the story is very nice on its own, but I do understand where more stories could be added and sometimes prequels can work better than sequels.

Out of all the stories of Dorothy people remember the original book the most, possibly trumped only by the Judy Garland movie in 1939. It is very hard to review this book without comparing it to the classic movie, but I will try my best not to do it as much. The movie is very different from the book in some parts, while other parts are the same. The book has a bit more danger and violence, though it is only mild.

Published: October 3rd 2006
Goodreads badgePublisher: Signet Classics
Pages: 220
Format: Book
Genre: Junior Fiction
★   ★   ★   ★  – 4 Stars

A cyclone hits Kansas and whirls away Dorothy and her little dog Toto to the magical Land of Oz, where wild beasts talk, silver shoes have magic powers, and good witches offer protection with a kiss. But Dorothy has made an enemy of the Wicked Witch of the West. With her new friends the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion, they brave many dangers in search of the Wonderful Wizard in his Emerald City at the heart of Oz to ask him to grant each of them what they most desire.

Baum wrote in 1900, “the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernised fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.” And I think it lives up to this immensely; there are the heroes that can be identified with, and the villains that need defeating. This brings the wonder of the fairytale to life in a new way and in a magical land that is far from the reality of the real world.

The story opens on Dorothy, a young orphaned girl living in Kansas with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry and the scene is set. Baum describes Aunt Em and Uncle Henry as being grey, with sullen looks with a stern face and no reason to be merry anymore. The Kansas landscape is also described as grey, grey prairie on every side, the ploughed land is a grey mass, the house had turned grey, and even the grass was not green, burned by the sun to turn it grey as well.

This description makes Dorothy’s arrival in Oz so much more wonderful; the colours describes gives an obvious contrast to the life she saw at home. The sequence of getting Dorothy to Oz is a simple one: Uncle Henry feels a cyclone coming but before Dorothy could get herself and Toto to safety in the cellar with her aunt, a great wind shakes the house causing Dorothy to fall over. The cyclone arrives suddenly and picks up the house, with Dorothy and Toto still inside.

When the house lands, Baum shows us the difference of Oz compared to Kansas instantly, as the bright colours and sunshine are our first introductions. As Dorothy leaves the house we are then introduced to the Munchkins, the people who live in the land. When the house fell, the Munchkins called for the Witch of the North and it is through the Munchkins and the witch we are told a little about the land.

The Munchkins explain about the four regions and who lives there, while the Witch of the North explains that Oz is an uncivilised country, and as such it still has witches and wizards amongst them, four witches in total, two good and two bad. Having crushed one with her house, Dorothy has freed the land from one of these witches. Dorothy is given the Witch of the East silver slippers as a gift, slippers that hold magical properties but no one knows what they are.

The Witch of the North is introduced as a little old woman, and when Dorothy is faced with the prospect of living with the Munchkins forever, the witch uses her magic to find a solution; this is of course to go to the City of Emeralds and seek help from the Great Wizard, Oz.  What I found was interesting was that the slippers were not a key focus initially; in fact Dorothy puts them on the kitchen table at first and forgets about them. Only as she is about to leave she puts the slippers on mainly because her current footwear would be unacceptable for the walk she was about to do.

I enjoyed Baum’s descriptions in this book of characters and of the land; they are simple but very telling at the same time. He uses descriptions well and in the right places, so while the story may change quickly in some places, other parts are prolonged and drawn out. But all the while a lot of it does not delve into anything too deep and emotional; it has the air of practicality and doing what needs to be done.

Through her journey to the city Dorothy gathers companions by the way of a scarecrow, a tinman, and a lion, all choosing to come with Dorothy and ask the Wizard for their own desires. As the four travellers continue, they face many obstacles including deadly poppies, vicious Kalidahs (a monster with the head of a tiger and the body of a bear, oh my!), and a river.

The city itself is described as being beautiful, and Baum captures the feeling of its splendour well. The next stage in the journey begins when, upon meeting the Great Wizard, he gives Dorothy and her companions a mission, only then will he help them. The dangers and mild violence come from the Wicked Witch of the West herself, sending wolves, bees, soldiers, and crows after the group; these however are either killed or scared off by one of the party. The story with the Witch and Dorothy is so different from the movie is what makes it wonderful. There is a plan and a scheme from the Witch’s perceptive and she takes her time.

The act of getting Dorothy home is a long and complex process, we are shown almost all the regions of Oz, and Dorothy and her companions meet all three remaining witches in the land. There are many tasks and quests undertaken before Dorothy can get herself and Toto home, and it is through these journeys that Baum provides us with the fate of the companions and what is to become of them once Dorothy returns.

There are so many more characters and adventures in this book than in the movie it really makes the journey seem a lot more challenging, and puts a lot more emphasis on Dorothy and her friends in their actions and saving themselves. There is magic, but there is also a lot more simple bravery and saving oneself.

When Dorothy eventually returns home we are given the impression that her absence has been in real time, and it was not a dream. That is the best part; I often felt the movie made things too simple by simply having her wake up. The ending is abrupt, but the point is clear: it’s good to be home.

There is no indication of what happens now she has returned, whether things return to their normal grey selves or not, but this is where looking into the sequels helps if you wanted to know, it enables you to see what happens next to Dorothy and her family. It is definitely an excellent story, and one that has been loved by everyone, and often when something has been remade and recreated so often, it is nice to go back and see where it all began.

Happy Birthday Eoin Colfer

Birthday

Today is Eoin Colfer‘s birthday, the genius mind behind the Artemis Fowl series and a range of other wonderful books. Normally I would have a review but I have yet to finish the book so you will just have to wait, instead we will just have to look at the author who has written many amazing books, and who is also the man who was entrusted with writing another book to add to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers trilogy. When asked about writing this new addition Colfer said was “like suddenly being offered the superpower of your choice…For years I have been finishing this incredible story in my head and now I have the opportunity to do it in the real world…It is a gift from the gods. So, thank you Thor and Odin.” As I mentioned in the Douglas Adams post, I think it was an excellent choice, he has yet to go wrong in my eyes; and, he also wrote a Doctor Who story, I mean is there anything he can’t do?

Eoin Colfer (pronounced Owen) was born in Ireland and in 2001 published the very first Artemis Fowl book, and aren’t we very glad he did. This started off the worldwide attention and his Artemis Fowl series is still going strong with the latest book The Last Guardian released in 2012. There are also many other works away from Artemis such as The Supernaturalist, and The Half-moon Investigations, both possibly gaining sequels, as well as standalone novels The Wish List, and Airman. There is even, for avid Artemis fans, a rage of companion books that shed more light on the Artemis world, and Colfer is even part of a collaborative novel called Click that is described as “one novel, ten authors”.

In April, Colfer did a Virtually Live talk where he discussed his new book, and first book of a new series, W.A.R.P The Reluctant Assassin. The full talk can be watched here, it does go for 50 minutes but it is well worth it. Colfer discusses his new book, where he gets his ideas, as well as some very funny stories and even a little bit of magic. I have to say listening to his stories about writing in school were so inspiring and amazing, it was excellent. I always love listening to authors discuss their ideas and when they started writing or wanted to write, but listening to Colfer as he spoke about the way he created stories as a child was absolutely amazing to say the least.

W.A.R.P, which stands for Witness Anonymous Relocation Program, is his new series and the first book, The Reluctant Assassin, is about Riley, a orphan teenager living in Victorian London. I love when stories are set in the past, especially old London. There is something so great to read stories set in a real past, but with fiction in between it all. Riley is apprenticed to Mr Albert Garrick, an illusionist who uses his abilities to gain access to victim’s dwellings. However when the future and the past collide, Riley is unwittingly transported to modern day London, with Garrick alongside. In a modern day world, and with the help of a 17 year old FBI agent, Riley suddenly finds himself having to find Garrick and try and stop history from being rewritten.

Based on the summary of this first novel, I have to say I am super excited about this new series. I think the idea is creative; it does make me think a little bit of the weeping angels in Doctor Who which is not at all connected but interesting all the same, besides Colfer’s concept with most probably be less scary. With Colfer’s books, I trust that he will give us nothing but his best and create stories, characters, ideas, and worlds that we can engross ourselves in and stand by them long into the future; you only have to look at Artemis Fowl to know this is not only possible but very true.

So I would like to wish Eoin Colfer a very happy birthday, thank him for giving us not only giving the world the masterpiece that is everything Artemis, but all the other wonderful books he has written, and if you have not yet read anything by Colfer yet, I urge you to grab a copy of something, anything and bring yourself into the wonderful world and creations that Colfer has to offer.

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