Pullman’s New Trilogy, for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages

books_philip_pullman_09761-jpg-50d08From NPR:


And from The Guardian


Shortly after the publication of The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman gave a reading at the Harvard Coop.  My children dragged me to the event–it was only a few months after volume one of His Dark Materials had appeared–and there he was, seated on a kid’s chair, surrounded by a dozen children, ages 6-12.  For close to 90 minutes, he talked about stories and what it was like to write them, while answering questions from the band of true believers and diehard fans.  It quickly dawned on me that Pullman’s magic derived in part from how seriously he took his readers, talking to them without a touch of condescension.  I felt not a touch of embarrassment about being an adult intruder on the enchanted circle, because he treated my question, asked only because there was one awkward pause near the end, with the same respect that he showed for the children.  Many years later, I was not at all surprised when I read the following

There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book. In adult literary fiction, stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness… The present-day would-be George Eliots take up their stories as if with a pair of tongs. They’re embarrassed by them. If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do. We need stories so much that we’re even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won’t supply them. We all need stories, but children are more frank about it.

And it also explained why he led the charge against age-banding for books:


Mr Pullman told The Daily Telegraph: “I don’t mind anybody having an opinion about my books. I don’t mind a bookseller deciding they are for this age group or that, or a teacher giving one of my books to a child because they think it is appropriate.

“But I don’t want to see the book itself declaring officially, as if with my approval, that it is for readers of 11 and upwards or whatever. I write books for whoever is interested. When I write a book I don’t have an age group in mind.

“I have had letters from children of seven who say they have read all the way through His Dark Materials and they have an astonishing knowledge of it. But not every child is the same. A child of nine might be tentative and unsure about reading, and to give them a book that says 9+ will reinforce their sense of failure. The book should be suited to the individual child.”

As someone who still tries to read at a 25 year-old-level, I applaud his effort.


Image result for npr norse mythology

Who else but Neil Gaiman could become an accomplice of the gods, using the sorcery of words to make their stories new?  The author turns Norse myths into addictive reading for young and old, with high-wattage retellings that preserve the monumental grandeur of the Nordic universe but also turn it into world that is up close and personal, full of antic wit and dark intrigue. 

That’s what I wrote after previewing the book last fall, and the pantheon of Nordic gods finally feels familiar to me, after many attempts to try to understand their dark universe.  For more on the volume and on Neil Gaiman and his appreciative fans, read Sarah Lyall’s piece in the New York Times on February 13.

Belle and Beast As the New Superheroes


“Beauty and the Beast” is simply the next puzzle piece in Disney’s broad-picture plan to reviving its old IP as live-action films. The studio has already ushered six live-action remakes into theaters, including two films from “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Jungle Book.” Disney has had success so far, with only two of the six films not having earned more than $500 million world-wide.

And here’s to the many other Beauty and the Beast stories from around the world


Beauty and the Beast by

Thoughts on Banned Books







Below the link to Perri Klass’s NYT op-ed on “Banned Books Your Child Should Read,” with its shrewd concluding advice to parents:

When your children read books that have been challenged or banned, you have a double opportunity as a parent; you can discuss the books themselves, and the information they provide, and you can also talk about why people might find them troubling. 



This week I have been preparing a talk about Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929, a book that was among the first to be banned by the Nazis.  The impulse to write about the novel came from an invitation to an academic conference on Remarque, and it was intensified by Donald Trump’s declaration that Remarque’s book was his favorite novel.  When had he read it? I wondered.  In high school, no doubt, as many in that generation had.  My interest in Remarque’s novel is now driven in part by the question of how it came to be enshrined as  required reading in US schools.  (I’m hoping to track sales figures for the last 80 years in this country.)  All Quiet on the Western Front was high on the list of books banned by the Nazis, and it was among the first to be thrown on the flames created by throwing a match on gas-soaked logs in Berlin on May 10, 1933.


For a list of the American Library Associations’s list of the top 100 banned/challenged books in the first decade of this century, click the link below:



Mark Twain’s Fairy Tale for His Daughters

That Mark Twain translated Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwelpeter, a famous German children’s book published in 1845, always comes as a surprise to me.  It should not be a surprise at all that this born storyteller made things up for his daughters, and now we can get a glimpse of what he made up in “The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine.”

One night nearly 140 years ago, Samuel Clemens told his young daughters Clara and Susie a bedtime story about a poor boy who eats a magic flower that gives him the ability to talk to animals.

Storytelling was a nightly ritual in the Clemens home. But something about this particular tale must have stuck with Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, because he decided to jot down some notes about it.

The story might have ended there, lost to history. But decades later, the scholar John Bird was searching the Twain archives at the University of California, Berkeley, when he came across the notes for the story, which Twain titled “Oleomargarine.” Mr. Bird was astonished to find a richly imagined fable, in Twain’s inimitable voice. He and other scholars believe it may be the only written remnant of a children’s fairy tale from Twain, though he told his daughters stories constantly.

Classiest Valediction Ever and an Ode to the Power of Stories



Today’s New York Times gives us the best possible valediction for the best possible President.  There are so many dense golden nuggets of wisdom in both the article about Obama’s reading and the transcript of the interview with him that it’s something of a challenge to choose.  All the things I’ve believed about the radiantly mysterious power of stories to promote curiosity, build bridges, foster empathy, and offer escapes into opportunity are stated here in ways that remind us of just how fortunate we were to have eight years of a President who was thoughtful, compassionate, judicious, and deeply intellectual.

In today’s polarized environment, where the internet has let people increasingly retreat to their own silos (talking only to like-minded folks, who amplify their certainties and biases), the president sees novels and other art (like the musical “Hamilton”) as providing a kind of bridge that might span usual divides and “a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day.”

He points out, for instance, that the fiction of Junot Díaz and Jhumpa Lahiri speak “to a very particular contemporary immigration experience,” but at the same time tell stories about “longing for this better place but also feeling displaced” — a theme central to much of American literature, and not unlike books by Philip Roth and Saul Bellow that are “steeped with this sense of being an outsider, longing to get in, not sure what you’re giving up.”

Mr. Obama says he is hoping to eventually use his presidential center website “to widen the audience for good books” — something he’s already done with regular lists of book recommendations — and then encourage a public “conversation about books.”

“At a time,” he says, “when so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify — as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize — is more important than ever.”

The Wisdom of Children’s Literature





In 1993, Maurice Sendak published WE ARE ALL IN THE DUMPS WITH JACK AND GUY, a book that took up the crisis of homelessness.  The book never sold well, perhaps because it was marketed to children and had the look of a book for children.  As Sendak told Stephen Colbert once, “I don’t write for children.  I write.  And someone comes along and says ‘That’s for children.'”


We are all in the dumps
For diamonds are trumps
The kittens are gone to St. Paul’s!
The baby is bit
The moon’s in a fit
And the houses are built
Without walls

Jack and Guy
Went out in the Rye
And they found a little boy
With one black eye
Come says Jack let’s knock
Him on the head
No says Guy
Let’s buy him some bread
You buy one loaf
And I’ll buy two
And we’ll bring him up
As other folk do

Are You There? It’s Me, Reality: Grit Returns to Young-Adult Novels

Ginia Belafante writes about the new realism in YA fiction, citing works like “All American Boys,” a novel by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, “The Hate U Give” by Angela Thomas, and “June the Sparrow and the Million-Dollar Penny,” a novel about an orphaned girl forced to move from the Dakota to South Dakota.  She adds:

In some sense these new realist novels are even grittier than their predecessors from the 1970s, even though children, especially in New York where crime rates were so high, faced greater perils then. The classic young-adult novel of that period typically dealt with characters managing the fracture of American family life — divorce, a mother’s new boyfriend and so on — but those characters most often enjoyed the comforts of middle-class life. Norma Klein’s Manhattan was as sophisticated as any Woody Allen would devise. Children today may finally be resisting the elusive insulation we crave for them.

It’s fascinating to me that we give children agency, suggesting that they set the agenda when it comes to YA fiction.  Possible, but it’s the adults who are writing the books.  I’m not persuaded that we “crave” the idea of protecting them from the hard facts once they hit the teen years.

Hamilton, Heartache, and Art That Tells the Truth without Destroying Hope


Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, is featured in the NYT, and he tells us about what drives him to make art: “The mission that I feel like I have is to figure out how you can tell the truth about how tragic and unfair life actually is without destroying hope.”

After the death of his sixteen-year-old son, Lin-Manuel Miranda sent him a demo recording of “It’s Quiet Uptown”–“For me, the beautiful thing about ‘Quiet Uptown’ is, it serves a ritualistic function—it takes us into the grief, and then it takes us out of it. And there’s nothing, there’s no other ritual that I know of, that can do that for me.”

I’m reminded of Lionel Trilling’s words, on the occasion of Robert Frost’s 85th birthday:

“And I hope you will not think it graceless of me that on your birthday I have made you out to be a poet who terrifies.  When I began to speak, I called your birthday Sophoclean, and that word has controlled everything I said about you.  Like you, Sophocles lived to a great age, writing well; and like you, Sophocles was the poet his people loved most. . . .  I think that they loved him chiefly because he made plain to them the terrible things of human life; they felt, perhaps, that only a poet who could make plain the terrible things could possibly give them comfort.”untitled


Shakespeare Explains the 2016 Elections

09greenblatt-blog427For many years, I pondered the need for the humanities. And Keats provided the answer when he wrote about negative capability: “Several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” And, after reading Stephen Greenblatt on how Shakespeare explains the 2016 elections, I feel more sure than ever that we need what Shakespeare possessed so enormously.

For his theatrical test case, Shakespeare chose an example closer to home: the brief, unhappy reign in 15th-century England of King Richard III. Richard, as Shakespeare conceived him, was inwardly tormented by insecurity and rage, the consequences of a miserable, unloved childhood and a twisted spine that made people recoil at the sight of him. Haunted by self-loathing and a sense of his own ugliness — he is repeatedly likened to a boar or rooting hog — he found refuge in a feeling of entitlement, blustering overconfidence, misogyny and a merciless penchant for bullying.

From this psychopathology, the play suggests, emerged the character’s weird, obsessive determination to reach a goal that looked impossibly far off, a position for which he had no reasonable expectation, no proper qualification and absolutely no aptitude.