Children’s books: memory, magic, lullaby, and how now is now.


I don’t think much about children’s literature. I haven’t read much …. oh, since I was a child. I’m not one of those people who gets all misty-eyed about childhood, but I recently ran across this lovely passage, at the very end of Laura Ingall Wilder‘s Little House in the Big Woods, and I wondered if I missed something on first reading, decades ago:


It’s still now now.

“When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, “What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?”

“They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,” Pa said. “Go to sleep, now.”

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.

She thought to herself, “This is now.”

She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”

LB. Easter Egg Roll.

Mary Pope Osborne and her husband at the White House, 2007.

One more reason to reconsider: I recently became acquainted with Mary Pope Osborne, author of the Magic Tree House series, which has sold more than 100 million copies and been translated into 30 languages – success by any standards, but there’s more. The popularity of the series surpassed that of Harry Potter as #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list in 2006 (and I’ve never read Harry Potter, either). The series has been awarded by the National Council of Teachers of English, the American Booksellers Association, and she also received the Ludington Memorial Award from the Educational Paperback Association and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Random House Sales Force.

Here’s what enchanted me in the video a friend sent me above. She based a children’s book on Ovid‘s Metamorphoses, and the sad story of the Alcyone, daughter of the god of the wind, and her drowned husband Ceyx. Alcyone returns to the sea each day, waiting for his return, and Aphrodite, at last taking pity on her, sends the divine messenger Iris to the house of Sleep (a.k.a. Morpheus) to arranges a nighttime visitation, to convince the grief-stricken queen her cause is lost. In Mary’s rendering, in her 1989 A Visit to Sleep’s House, the story turns a sort of lullaby, where “drowsy Sleep lives in a cloud-covered house.” All is quiet as “you walk up Sleep’s pathway” where “no owl calls out, ‘Who?’ / and no dog barks under the moon.” Wild animals, geese, cows, are similarly soundless. At last she sees Sleep, a shadowed figure wearing a nightcap, “lying on an old wooden bed” beside yours, and you fall asleep listening to the river that “whispers, Good night, good night.” The mini-reading begins around 34.00.

zimmermanSomewhere in my messy house, I have a big fat edition of Ovid, but I can’t find it. But I recalled that the sad story of Alcyone inspired another Mary – Mary Zimmerman, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow – in her remarkable play Metamorphosis. While looking for the fat Ovid, I found instead my slim paperback of the play, in which Iris calls Sleep “Mildest of all the gods, soother of souls, and healer of wearied and pain-wracked bodies and minds.” As a result, the inconsolable Alcyone gets a nighttime visit from the shrouded ghost of her husband. As he retreats to the sea, “She began to run to him; but as she ran, crying, a strange thing happened.” Then, in an Ovidian turn, the gods have mercy – she becomes a bird, and so does he:

For the dead body was changing, restored to life,
and renewed as another seabird.
Together they still fly, just over the water’s surface,
and mate and rear their young, and for seven days each winter
Alcyone broods on her next that floats on the gentled water –
for Aeolus, her father, then keeps the winds short reined
and every year gives seven days of calm upon the ocean –
the days we call the halcyon days.

And that is how Mary Zimmerman signed my book at Stanford, with two birds over the sea.

And now to bed.

Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.