Seth Lerer

Long Lost James Thurber/A History of Childrens’ Lit

James Thurber, “The 13 Clocks” (New York Review Children’s Editions, 2008)Seth Lerer, “Children's Literature: A Reader's History” (University of Chicago Press, 2008)

It wasn’t a dark and stormy night. Most likely, it was a long, boring summer afternoon at my English grandparents’ Oxfordshire country house. I would have been rambling around the motionless house—where the ticking of an antique clock in the kitchen reverberated through several rooms—looking for a means of entertaining myself. Up two twisty flights of narrow stairs, there was a small garret attic with a large bolt on the outside of the door. Slide the bolt across, click it down and swing open the door, and step into a room lined wall to wall with books. Books! Hundreds of them! For a child like me, the type who had to be told to stop reading in the car so that I wouldn’t make myself sick, it was as rich and mysterious as entering Aladdin’s cave (another story I read in a book I found in that room, the One Thousand and One Nights). And it was on one of my afternoons in this attic that I found the most magical book of all, James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks.

The copy of the book I found there was an old paperback, faded and tattered, that had once belonged to my aunt. It was a book full of dark and stormy. Beside the lilting, poetry-like prose of the story, it had fantastical illustrations in a muted palette of blues, purples and grays. It had obviously been much loved and much read, and I tore through it immediately. Best of all, it was actually two books in one—turn the book upside down, flip it over, and in the back half was The Wonderful O, also by Thurber, a delightful if less enthralling counterpart to the first story.

Then imagine my despair when I returned home that summer and discovered that it was impossible to purchase my very own copy of the book. Not only was the combo 13 Clocks/Wonderful O edition only published in the U.K., both it and the American version of The 13 Clocks had been out of print for years. So even as a so-called adult, I felt a thrill when I heard earlier this year that would be re-issuing the original American edition of illustrated by Marc Simont. In a new introduction, prose and graphic novelist calls The 13 Clocks “probably the best book in the world,” and rereading it for the first time in a decade, I found it difficult to disagree with him. Ronald Searle, who illustrated the English edition, provided over-the-top illustrations perfect for the absurd, fantastical elements of the tale, but Simont’s simple, flat watercolors capture its quiet lyricism. And while I missed the nostalgia-inducing qualities of my old paperback copy, the new hardcover is a keepsake, with a rich red fabric spine and beautiful title-page illustration of a gloomy castle overlooking a peaceful hamlet.

* * *

The 13 Clocks is a subversion of many of the features of the traditional fairy tale. A valiant prince, initially disguised as a ragged minstrel, rescues a beautiful, bewitched princess—but everything else is somewhat out of the ordinary. The prince, Zorn of Zorna, is aided in his quest by the Golux, born of an ineffectual witch and a drunk wizard. The princess, Saralinda, performs half of what Zorn must do to rescue her. The magic is strictly of the ridiculous variety: when the Golux’s powers fails to start the castle’s dead clocks, Saralinda tells him to use logic instead. “If you can touch the clocks and never start them, then you can start the clocks and never touch them,” the Golux says. “That’s logic, as I know and use it.” Saralinda holds her hands a short distance from the clocks and they whir into life.

Much of the appeal of the book, a key feature of what should have been its staying power, lies in its ability to transcend the children’s-adult lit divide. Akin to one of its chief attractions is a linguistic playfulness that permeates nearly every line. Like the character of the Golux, who introduces himself as “the only Golux in the world, and not a mere Device,” the book’s cerebral qualities are not there merely to tickle the intellectual faculty. They draw you into a world where words mean at once many things and nothing at all. From Gaiman’s introduction, again: “While all books are filled with words, this one was different: it was filled with magical, wonderful, tasty words.” Words are the true magic and power of the story. Simply mentioning the Todal, the amorphous evil that threatens to “glup” the Duke, causes a lock of a castle guard’s hair to turn white (maybe he should have gone with ). And the evil Duke has Saralinda so enchanted that the only thing she can say in his presence is, “I wish him well.” One imagines this is as much to avoid hearing what she would say to him if she could as to keep her from conversing with eligible bachelors.

Thurber lived in Connecticut but wrote The 13 Clocks in Bermuda, and there is a subtle post-modern, post-colonial quality to the work. A definite breakdown between signifier and signified runs throughout the language. Is it really necessary for the Golux to assert that he is the only one in the world? It’s a self-evident assertion: what on earth is a Golux, anyway? Furthermore, he wears an indescribable hat—it can be seen, and felt, but not described (the story goes that Thurber, who had gone blind by the time he wrote the book, knew the illustrations were right when Simont was unable to describe the hat he had drawn). The prince fulfills a prophecy by having a name that both begins with X and doesn’t; in the beginning of the story, he poses as a minstrel named Xingu. And at the end of the story the enraged Duke throws the Golux’s self-assertion back at him, shouting, “You mere device! You platitude! You Golux ex machina!” This may be over the heads of most children, but it’s practically uproarious for a former lit major.

* * *

A delight in the power of language and the tricks of the tongue are also at the heart of Stanford professor Seth Lerer’s It’s a thick scholarly tome, but also a charming read that revels in children’s imaginations and the timeless works that stimulate them. Lerer, a medievalist, takes an approach that focuses on the books children have read since ancient times, rather than on what adults have labeled “children’s literature.” He distinguishes “between claims that children’s literature consists of books written for children and that it consists of those read, regardless of original authorial intention, by children.” He details the ways in which many literary productions—Aesop’s fables, King Arthur stories, Robinson Crusoe—move back and forth between adult and child readerships. Here, there is no prescription for what children and adults “should” read, no shame in an abiding love of Little Women or Harry Potter. Lerer emphasizes the quality of good children’s literature that allows it to survive from one historical era to another, and to attract kids and grown-ups alike.

The book’s main attraction is its obvious delight in the subject matter: Lerer perfectly captures the love of literature that usually follows a voracious child reader into adulthood. He evokes the rituals and emotions of reading, describing the pleasures of re-encountering many books through reading to his now-teenaged son. Taking a chronological view of the subject matter, he starts the study in ancient Greece and Rome and continues through to and J.T. Rowling. The work sings through the Classical and Medieval eras, as it explores what and how children read during those periods, focusing especially on the evolution of Aesop’s fables. It has become an axiom that the Victorians “invented” childhood, treating children as special and unique instead of as miniature adults, but Lerer describes the ways that Romans almost revered children and childhood and how that influenced children’s reading. I particularly liked what we could call the revisionist sections, in which the author examines the crossover process for what are now quintessential childhood characters. For example, he writes that in the Middle Ages, “Robin Hood and adventure verse were thought of as corrupting to the child.” But beginning in the Renaissance, people began to see themselves as emerging from the Dark Ages and to construct earlier periods as humankind’s “childhood.” In that process, “medieval literature became children’s literature. It was associated with childishness, error, sloth, idleness and foolery.” Likewise, Robinson Crusoe started out as a novel for adults, an allegory of colonialism, but was quickly edited down into children’s books and rewritten as The Swiss Family Robinson.

Lerer seems most at home when he looks at the interplay between literature for children and adults, noting, for example, the Medieval love for wordplay or how textual marginalia—those weird pictures in a book’s margins—mock chivalry and class hierarchies. But he stumbles when he reaches the nineteenth century and much of what we now consider the classics, from The Wind in the Willows to Alice in Wonderland to Treasure Island. At this point, for some reason, Lerer decides that it is necessary to start classifying the books into “boys’” and “girls’.” He devotes whole chapters to “storytelling for a boy’s world” and “female fiction,” and from the nineteenth century on generally divides works into one of these two camps. For a study that, as he describes at the outset, emphasizes a focus on the reader and what actual children read rather than what adults thought they should read, this strikes me as supremely odd. In the course of these chapters, he takes no time to analyze the categories he has established or ask whether works were as divided by gender as they seem. Other studies, like Hilary Fraser, Judith Johnston, and Stephanie Green’s Gender and the Victorian Periodical, point out that many boys entered the magazine The Girl’s Own Paper’s knitting and sewing competitions, and that The Boy’s Own Paper had female correspondents and readers. As the type of exploratory child reader who would pick up any book whether it was marketed for boys or girls (and this type of marketing still dominates children’s lit), I would have enjoyed a more descriptive analysis of what children actually read, rather than a confirmation of adults’ proscriptive tendencies.

In the book’s introduction, Lerer reminds us of the episode early in The Little Prince when the narrator presents the adults in his life with a picture of a boa constrictor eating an elephant. When he asks them if they find the drawing scary, they reply, “Why should anyone be frightened by a hat?” The implication is clear: although Lerer spends another 300 pages in his discussion of children’s literature, it is only the children themselves who can really understand what makes these books so important and magical. Although I still find The 13 Clocks entertaining and pick up on more of the verbal puns than when I was 10, it’s hard to recapture the excitement and awe of that first encounter. Lerer understands this, and this understanding helps make his book so appealing. As he writes of child readers, “what their stories always tell us is that childhood is an age of the imagination, and that every time we enter into fiction, we step back into a childhood of ‘what if’ or ‘once upon a time.’”

Rachael Scarborough King is a freelance writer and a reporter for the New Haven Register.