Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Story of Babar

I remember reading The Story of Babar, by French author Jean de Brunhoff, as a young child. The cover was bright red and showed an elephant tipping his bowler hat. I suppose you either like elephants in bowler hats or you don't, but I could tell right away that this would be a good book.

Babar is a baby elephant, and his life in the jungle is idyllic. His mother rocks him to sleep in a hammock. He plays with all the other little elephants, building sand castles, tossing balls, and using his trunk for a water pistol. It looks like so much fun.

But then tragedy strikes. Babar is riding on his mother's back, when "an evil hunter" appears and fires his gun. The next picture shows young Babar standing over his dead mother. How could this happen?

I knew a little about death. At my church, a girl just about my age had been hit by a car, and my parents took me to the funeral home, where she was laid out in a small coffin with a beautiful doll. Both the doll and the girl had pink cheeks and dark hair. It was so mysterious and sad...but back to the story.

The hunter tries to catch Babar, but he runs away to a nearby town where he meets a very nice "old lady." She gives him money to buy a suit of clothes and invites him to live with her. She even gives him her sporty red car. When his cousins Arthur and Celeste come for a visit, he takes them to a pastry shop for a treat.

Meanwhile, back in the jungle, the King of the Elephants eats a bad mushroom and dies. In the picture, he looks very sickly and green. Eventually, Babar returns to the jungle and becomes the new king.

The plot and the pictures in The Story of Babar are charming and whimsical and delightful. But this children's writer did not tip-toe around the reality of death. Try as you may, you can't ignore the fact that there are two dead elephants in this book.

The death of Babar's mother is very sad--but as often happens in real life, Babar doesn't have time to stop and feel sorry for himself. He has to run for his own life.

Babar has to move past this horrible experience in order to first survive and then thrive. Though there are terrible things in this world (like evil hunters), there are also wonderful gifts, like the friendship of the old lady. In fact, it was tragedy that propelled Babar to his destiny--to go to the town and meet his benefactor and to gain wisdom and experience.

The death of the elephant king is also sad, and yet, once again, life must triumph. There will be a new king, and that king is Babar.

What we learn from Babar is that even when something terrible happens, we need to keep turning the pages. There is more of the story to come.

Jean de Brunhoff
Jean de Brunhoff was a French writer and illustrator. The Story of Babar began as a bedtime story his wife Cecille told their sons. The sons liked the story so much that they asked their father to illustrate it. Jean de Brunhoff created seven Babar books in all, and later, his oldest son, Laurent, followed in his father's footsteps and created more of the stories. 

Today, Babar is king of a media empire. He has starred in movies and an animated television series. He even inspired a musical composition by that whimsical French composer, Francis Poulenc. 

Children's writers nowadays are cautioned NOT to write about animals that talk and act like people. Brunhoff would have a tough time finding a publisher for Babar in the 21st century. We can only hope that writers and artists will blissfully ignore all these pompous, pain-in-the-rump "rules" of writing and continue to produce wonderful works of whimsy and lyrical beauty.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Good Writers, Great Writers

Leo Tolstoy
Good writers have it. 

Style. Elegance. Pzazz. Wit. Charm. The well-turned phrase.  An ear for language. An eye for detail. Punch. Verbal charisma.

Great writers may have it (see above) —or not. 

They may pen lyrical passages and then lapse into writing that is plodding, verbose, or second rate. But you probably won’t mind. You may not even notice. 

Herman Melville
Because for a great writer, it’s not so much about the writing. And it’s not about perfection. It’s about telling a great story.

I guess that’s why Melville can get away with several mind-numbing chapters about the history of whaling in Moby Dick. Or why Tolstoy can use enough character names to fill a phonebook. Or why Ayn Rand can insert a long political rant near the end of Atlas Shrugged.

Randy Ingermanson said that writers don’t sell books because they have no weaknesses. Books sell because of their strengths.

C. S. Lewis
I remember sunning by the pool years ago, reading Perelandra, by C. S. Lewis. I was in the part where the hero Ransom is floating on the golden sea of the planet Perelandra. And floating and floating and still floating. Up and down, up and down. I was getting bored and a little sea sick. 

I thought to myself, "Good grief, I can write better than this!"

J. K. Rowling
And then I laughed, because yes, I did realize the absurdity of that thought. First, because I can't actually "write better than that." And second--and more important, because Lewis is for me, a great writer. When I finish one of his stories, I am a different person. He has given me a glimpse of heaven or hell or of my own secret heart.

I should be so lucky as to "write better than this." Or even to come close.

Ernest Hemingway
A good writer may tickle your intellect. A great writer will touch your heart. 

A good writer will entertain you. A great writer will change you. 

A good writer will probably impress you with her virtuoso performance. 

A great writer isn't a show-off. He is a humble servant to the story he is telling.

Ernest Hemingway, Lewis Carroll, J. K. Rowling, John Steinbeck, Stieg Larsson, John Grisham, Kate di Camillo, Suzanne Collins, Stephanie Plum -- all are widely acknowledged as good writers. Which ones are not only good but great? 

Suzanne Collins
And who decides? Not your high school English teacher. Not your minister. Or your mother-in-law or your analyst or your BFF. Not the New York Times or Publishers' Weekly. It's your call. And mine. We choose. 

Or it might be more accurate to say that great stories choose us. They are speaking words of wisdom and enlightenment. They are calling us to come up higher. We just have to listen and respond.

"Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books."
        --The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,
                Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Happy Birthday, Oscar Wilde

The Irish writer Oscar Wilde is best known for his plays, like "The Importance of Being Earnest," and his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

But to me, he is cherished as the author of some of the most beautiful fairy tales to grace the English language, including The Selfish Giant and The Happy Prince.

High above the city, on a tall pedestal, stood a statue known as "The Happy Prince." The statue was covered with gold. It had sapphires for eyes and a ruby in the hilt of its sword. The statue had been raised in commemoration of a prince who had lived a happy life but was now dead.

A swallow, en route to sunny Egypt for the winter, befriended the Happy Prince. The prince confided in his new friend that he had lived his life in isolation and luxury, without a thought to the hardships endured by his subjects, but now that he was standing in the center of town, he could see how the poor people suffered.

Although the swallow was determined to leave for Egypt, the Happy Prince persuaded the bird to pluck the ruby from his sword and carry it to a poor woman with a sick son. The nights were growing cold, and yet the swallow felt strangely warmed by helping the woman.

Night after night, the prince pleaded with the swallow to carry his treasures to help the poor--even plucking out his sapphire eyes and stripping off his gold plating. Many hungry children were fed because of the generosity of the prince.

At last, the cold grew too severe, and the swallow lay dead at the feet of the prince. The statue--no longer beautiful--was torn down and melted for scrap, but the metal proved to be unusable. Both the metal and the dead bird were thrown in a trash heap.

God looked down on the city of the prince. He asked an angel to bring him the two most precious things in the city. The angel flew all over the city and returned with the dead swallow and the melted statue.

"You have rightly chosen," said God, "for this little bird shall sing forever in my Garden of Paradise, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me."

Happy birthday to one of my favorite authors, Oscar Wilde, born October 16, 1854. Unlike the Happy Prince, Wilde's life was short and often very sad. After serving a prison sentence, he died destitute at the age of 46. But much like the prince, he has continued to touch hearts long after his passing, through the lasting legacy of his stories.

A Statue of Oscar Wilde

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Lowest Form of Wit?

  • Did you hear about the guy who got a job as a baker because he kneaded the dough? ("Needed the dough"—get it? Snort, snort!)    
  • Why are fish so smart? They swim in schools! (Seriously, folks. I kill myself!)

These are the kind of jokes your children or grandchildren will tell you over and over, laughing with joyful abandon at their own cleverness. 

Jokes like these probably gave rise to the popular notion that “A pun is the lowest form of wit.” For too many years, English teachers have taught this heresy, falsely attributed to an assortment of famous writers, as an axiom.

I disagree. (And why are you not surprised?)

The fancy-pants name for a pun is paronomasia, a big word that by its utter pomposity, confers a bit of dignity on the oft-maligned pun. But either way, it means “a play on words"--an intentional confusion between two words that sound alike or between two meanings of a word. 

Puns go way back to the ancient Egyptians, Mayans, Chinese, and Hebrews--and continue right on up to some of the most recent languages on Planet Earth--computer languages. 

Even math geeks have puns.

  • There are 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary, and those who don't.
  • Old math teachers never die. They just become irrational.
  • The ratio of an igloo’s circumference to its diameter = Eskimo Pi

Sure, some puns make us groan, but some are really clever, amusing, literary, or even inspirational. Some of the coolest ones are in the Old Testament, but it's easy to skip right over them, because we don’t know the original language.

Adam’s name was a pun. In Hebrew, adam is the word for man, and adamah is the name for the ground. Remember the story of how God made Adam from the dust of the earth? The story is remembered in his name.

There’s an English language pun that goes like this: 
  • Need to build an ark? I Noah guy. (I know a guy. . .) 

But Noah’s name was also a pun in Hebrew, because his name sounds like the word for “comfort,” and his father Lamech said, “This kid will comfort us in the painful labors caused by the cursed ground.” So every time they called little Noah to dinner, they were reminding themselves that God would comfort them.

The Bible is full of names like this. Babel sounds like the Hebrew for “confused.” Isaac means “he laughs”; Jacob means “he grasps the heel.” And if you know the stories,  you will get the puns. 

Shakespeare was so fond of puns that Samuel Johnson complained about the Bard's penchant for punning in his "Preface to Shakespeare."

In Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Hamlet refers to his step-father Claudius as “A little more than kin, and less than kind.” What a great play on words—especially if you look at “kind” as a shortened form of “kindred.”

In Romeo and Juliet, when Mercutio tries to persuade Romeo to attend a ball, Romeo replies, "Not I, believe me. You have dancing shoes With nimble soles; I have a soul of lead So stakes me to the ground I cannot move." The pun is sole (of a shoe) and soul (the essence of a person). But the effect is lyrical and melancholy.

Comedian Fred Allen said, "Hanging is too good for a man who makes puns; he should be drawn and quoted."

Sometimes we just get too grown-up, stuffy, and literary to appreciate the joy of puns.

  • Two silk worms had a race, but ended up in a tie.
  • Some cannibals ate a missionary and got a taste of religion.

The lowest form of wit? It seems to me that the lowest form of humor is humor designed to hurt somebody, to make the speaker feel superior to the target. 

And as for puns--hey, if they're good enough for Shakespeare and the Bible, they're good enough for me. And in the right context, they can be funny or thought-provoking. Maybe, like blowing bubbles, they are one of those childhood pleasures we should never outgrow.