Book of the Month

Each month we select a great work of literature and highlight the content, themes, and characters that we think make it a great story for young readers today. These essays remind us why it's never too late—and always worthwhile—to revisit the classics. 

May: THE Jungle Book

The latest issue of National Geographic magazine arrived at our house with a dazzling cover story on Yellowstone National Park – a wilderness mecca and animal kingdom if ever there was one in America, resplendent with grizzly bears and black bears, wolves and wolverines, elk and bison. Yellowstone is a wild place “filled with wonders—fierce animals, deep canyons, scalding waters—that are magnificent to behold but fretful to engage,” and the issue asks whether humans can ever make “negotiate” peace with wildness. As my sons thumbed through pages of glossy pictures of predators and prey, I sat nearby rereading a nearly 120-year-old copy of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which asks similar questions about man and nature, one of the most important of which is: What rules should we live by? Kipling, of course, did what no NatGeo explorer can do: he put words, some dripping with malice and others laced with wisdom, into the mouths of animals to tease our imagination but more importantly to teach us about ourselves.

Entering a Kipling book feels dark and mythical. A newspaper reviewer in 1895 rightfully called Kipling’s Jungle Books “weird and wonderful” tales that fascinate, which is why it has been the subject of many movie adaptations, including the most recent one released by Walt Disney and now currently dominating the box office. In his captivating tale of man-cub and beasts (published in 1894), Kipling’s delivers an account of a world that can be both lethal and fascinating.  Kipling conjures up a world where each individual must constantly be on guard against revenge to ensure continued longevity in a world where life can be bought, bartered for and taken. In that world, we learn, there are packs we are born into and laws that have been devised to protect us; there are shifting alliances and adaptations that can save us; there is danger but also care. Kipling’s fictional world is timeless, although for generations, people have read The Jungle Book and comforted themselves by assuming that their own times are far more civil, better educated, and more morally grounded.

One clear contrast between the modern world and Kipling’s jungle is the gradual dissolution of sacred traditions and ideal. Kipling’s characters mostly strive to live under the Law of the Jungle, “which never orders anything without a reason.” The most sacred rule of the jungle is that animals never hunt and eat man, outside of rare approved circumstances.  Under this guiding tenet, Kipling crafts a case study of behavior—of both men and beasts.

His animal “community” includes characters whose traits are familiarly human: a mother wolf prepared to fight to her death for a child who is not of her own body; Baloo the sleepy brown bear who has “no gift of words” but speaks the truth knowing that “learned wisdom” can protect the young; Bagheera the black panther who is a cunning, bold, and reckless creature who also knows how to listen to nature; Akela the pack leader who would save his wolf family shame by teaching them honor; Shere Khan, a Judas in the jungle, ready to betray anyone; and the gray apes who have no leader and no laws. Such types are as common among humans on the streets of any modern city as they are in Kipling’s nineteenth-century Indian jungle.

When Kipling places the gentlest of souls—a child—into this wild place, he introduces an implicit challenge to the Law of the Jungle. Kipling does not abandon this child, instead he offers paternal protection, hierarchy, charity, acceptance, inclusion, a home among “a free people” and brotherhood. In trying to make sense of the jungle’s unspoken rules, the child, Mowgli, discovers his own creativity and natural curiosity—and naturally tests the rules. But he eventually realizes he needs the protection of those same sacred rules to survive.

A powerful essay published in 2013 by Caitrin Keiper, asked whether elephants have souls. “[A] matter of conventional wisdom is the idea that human beings are on one side of a great divide while all animals are on the other, subjects of their instincts and our necessities and pleasures. What exactly the divide is, though, is difficult to define.” As Keiper points out in her essay, man has long been trying to understand what it is like to be an animal and how different—or similar—we are:

One of the major clues that elephants have something we would recognize as inner lives is their extraordinary memories. This is attested to by outward indicators ranging from the practical — a matriarch’s recollection of a locale, critical to leading her family to food and water — to the passionate — grudges that are held against specific people or types of people for decades or even generations, or fierce affection for a long-lost friend.

Despite their anthropomorphized traits, the animals are still animals; and Mowgli is still different. When he prepares to leave the wolf pack for the first time to escape the marauding Shere Khan, Mowgli experiences a heartbreak that brings tears to his eyes, a human capacity unknown to his animal brothers. He struggles with his love for the mother who has raised and protected him and worries greatly that he will be forgotten by his parents. The Law of the Jungle demands many things of its inhabitants, (even that some, like Mowgli, leave the jungle) but it also provides a foundation for these bonds.

Kipling, who spent several years of his youth in an unhappy surrogate home separated from his parents, reading voraciously and learning how to write, uses the animals in his imaginary jungle to remind us—and perhaps himself—of the same important truth: that we are not alone in our struggle to live honorably and wisely, and among friends and family (whether by blood or by choice). But for those relationships to thrive they need the support of broader sacred laws and rituals; without them, life really is a dangerous jungle.

A version of this article first appeared at Acculturated.com in May 2016

 

April: The Guardians

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This April, students in our Spring Historical Fiction Book Club will read John Christopher's classic dystopian novel, The Guardians.

Each summer during the 1950s and 60s, my grandparents would pack up their four kids in Tarrytown, New York, and begin the long drive north over the Canadian border into rural Quebec. For my grandfather, this time was a blessed annual break from installing backseats on the General Motors assembly line. For both grandparents, it was a time to return to the old ways and the old places—visiting the family farm, reconnecting with a massive extended family, and speaking French.

It was a break from real-life schedules and stresses; a break too from America. But there was never any notion of staying. In their teens, both of my grandparents came to America hunting for jobs during the Depression. Urban America was their home; but rural Canada still held a unique claim on their hearts. Both places had their challenges and hardships, their own brands of poverty, their distinct struggles to build a life and sustain a community.

I was reminded of these breaks—or “returns”—while reading John Christopher’s dystopian novel, The Guardians. Christopher (whose real name was Samuel Youd), one of the greatest British sci-fi novelists of his time, published the book in 1970, giving young readers an England of the future that has been broken into two separate societies—the “city” and the “country.” The populations live separate lives, reinforced by mutual contempt and wire fences (suggestive, perhaps, of the wall between East and West Germany).

Everyone has a “place,” whether it’s the city or the country. The city—referred to as the Conurb—feels urban and somewhat drab. Libraries are largely unused and letters hardly ever written. Most city folks spend their time immersed in a routine of 20-hour workweeks and watching entertainments such as live bloodthirsty spectacles on the “holovision.” They are permitted small doses of government-managed civil disobedience. There is enough food, but it is all bland. There is work, but it is uninspiring. There is a steady diet of amusements and happy crowds, but these function to eliminate the taste for purpose and inquiry. No one struggles (if they follow the rules), but life is static.

In this city, we find a young teen-age boy named Rob, the “only person under 50” who visits the crumbling library in the Conurb. His mother, who grew up in the country, somehow awakened in him a passion for inquiry, and he visits the old stacks to read the classics. Rob’s yearning to recover lost knowledge cuts against the grain of what passes for education: Schools where questions are asked in a manner that does not invite response; where the goal is to remind the public that they live in a “saner and more ordered world” than their fathers did; where safety is guaranteed by conformity. One can easily feel the similarities between the culture of the Conurb and the modern-day politically correct college campus, with its trigger warnings and phony riots and pseudo-radicalism.

In the country, life is more gentrified but no less “dull.” It is a strange mix of southern plantation life meets Victorian aristocracy meets the Amish. There are hunts and servants; there is little technology; everyone knows how to dress and exchange pleasantries. The bright lights and amusements of city life are entirely absent. Books are still found on shelves, but only on safe topics such as fly-fishing and the care of horses. All of the references in the books are at least half a century out of date.  Life in the country is calmer, but it feels like a museum exhibit.

Living in each place is certainly possible but life is aimless and uninteresting: no great causes, no jagged edges, no great individuals, no spiritedness or spirit. Into these parallel worlds, two boys and their ideals collide. Rob Randall, the reader, makes an impulsive decision to run for the country to look for a better life. He meets a boy named Mike Gifford, and their relationship sparks questions about rebelliousness and identity.

It is no accident that Christopher placed boys at the center of his narrative.  As a novelist he takes young minds seriously, believing that even a child can ask—and begin to answer—important questions about place and human purpose. And perhaps only a child can so easily come to question the world around him—seeing shortcomings to which adults have become blind. The Guardians offers young readers a look at two imperfect worlds and asks: Where would you choose to live? It’s an important question for each generation to answer.

“Being discontented is a part of being free,” one of the young rebels reminds us. The real gift of freedom—the one we give our children when we introduce them to new ideas and experiences, and new books—brings an understanding that although the world might be imperfect, it has need of people who are willing to question the status quo and to sustain the things that matter.

This article first appeared at Acculturated.com


October: The Trumpet of the Swans by E. B. White

E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan, published in 1970, is usually cast as a story about being different.  Set amid an almost-mystical natural world, the book illuminates the trials of a child (albeit one of the animal variety) with a handicap—a swan who cannot sing—who is nevertheless able to grow up and find true love. Its themes are moving, but conventional; they are feel-good themes, but not the deepest themes.

Or so I thought.  When I recently re-read the book as a (yes, alas) middle-aged mom, the story of the young swan prompted entirely different questions about what it means to be human. This short, half-forgotten classic is in fact a meditation on the relationship of parents to their imperfect children and a reflection on a son’s noble drive to recover his father’s sacrificed honor.

As in White’s two earlier classic fables—Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little—readers are introduced to animals with human abilities and emotions whose stories teach us how to grapple with the disappointments and challenges that beset all of us on the path from youth to maturity.

Louis, a young Trumpeter swan, is born without the ability to make noise. Being mute is a serious handicap for a Trumpeter swan since it is only with their voices that they find mates. The only thing worse would be for a swan to be born without wings.

Louis’ father helps his son by finding him a real brass trumpet.  A bird that can play a trumpet would be little more than a short children’s picture book in another writer’s hands, but White has Louis play the trumpet like Louis B. Armstrong. The mute becomes a musical magician. The problem is that his father stole the instrument. This act of paternal love is also an ethical lapse. And herein lies the drama of the book.

When White was writing in the late 1960s, helicopter parents weren’t swarming the suburban skies or managing their children’s extracurricular activities with the ruthlessness of hedge fund managers monitoring billion-dollar portfolios.  Louis’s father starts off like so many other parents—devoted, proud, and loving.  But a few weeks after his son’s birth, he is shocked to discover that his child might have a “defect.” Louis’s father—known, like other adult male trumpet swans, as a cob—is incensed. But then we watch him move from shock to anger to optimism and finally to avenging action.

The swan father believes his children should be healthy and fully functioning; fatherhood should be a fulfilling pursuit that reflects well on him:

Do you wish me to believe that I have a son who is defective in any way? Such a revelation would distress me greatly. I want everything to go smoothly in my family life…Fatherhood is quite a burden, at best. I do not want the added strain of having a defective child, a child that has something the matter with him…Why this is terrible…This is distressing beyond words. This is a very serious matter.

The father tests his son—again, and again, and again—to be certain that the problem is not one of poor education or lack of will. He finally ascertains—and accepts—that Louis simply has no voice, and he witnesses the sadness that descends on Louis alongside the realization that “fate is cruel.”   It is only when the father comes to see Louis’ condition through the eyes of his son instead of through his own feelings of frustration that he becomes what a father is supposed to become. He realizes he must instill hope in Louis:

 “Remember that the world is full of youngsters who have some sort of handicap that they must overcome. You apparently have a speech defect. I am sure you will overcome it, in time. There may even be some slight advantage, at your age, in not being able to say anything. It compels you to be a good listener. The world is full of talkers, but it is rare to find anyone who listens…therefore my son be of good cheer!”

Louis’s father, seeing how this handicap could cause his son to be judged unworthy by a potential mate, will not let nature’s slight stand.  “I am Louis’s father, and I’m not going to take this situation lying down,” he says. “And if I have to go to the ends of the earth to find a trumpet for our young son, I shall find it at last and bring it home to Louis.”

As the father heads to a music store in Billings, Montana, to find a trumpet, the urgency of his mission builds to a mighty crescendo, his resolution now promoted to a “noble” cause:

“Now is my moment for risking everything on one bold move, however shocking it may be to my sensibilities, however it may be to the laws that govern the lives of men. Here I go! May good luck go with me.”   With that the old cob set his wings for a dive. He aimed straight at the big window. He held his neck straight and stiff, waiting for the crash. He dove swiftly and hit the window going full speed. The glass broke. The noise was terrific. The whole store shook.”

Afterwards the father momentarily reflects on “the pain of having committed a crime” and of the loss of character and high ideals that comes with it, but atonement is replaced with certainty that his mission was necessary to secure his child’s future. The cob has taken on the garb of Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean. The trumpet is not bread for a hungry child but it is something the father sees as an equivalent—a needful thing that a responsible father must provide for his son. The father repackages his crime as honorable lawlessness, a kind of paternal fidelity that turns the theft into a “gift” that he bestows upon his son with “all my love and my blessing. ”

In a beautiful, climactic moment, Louis unexpectedly runs into the female swan he has loved from afar, to whom he was never able to call out to until the trumpet gave him his voice. He declares his intentions and plays “Beautiful Dreamer.” As his father predicted, his new voice speaks to her with love and joy, and Louis finds himself swimming in the deep rapture of hope and love returned. “In almost everyone’s life,” White tells the reader, “there is one event that changes the whole course of his existence.”  For Louis, this event is undoubtedly his father’s crime, which puts a stolen trumpet in his hand. But the father’s redemption of the son (giving him a voice) must be paid back by the son, who in the end redeems his father’s honor.

Louis realizes he has a responsibility to atone for these ill-gotten gains—to repay his father’s debts.  Louis finds work playing for admiring human fans, ultimately saving $4,691 to pay for the trumpet and the damage to the store.

But White doesn’t make the repayment of this debt easy, even though he is writing for children. Heading toward the store with Louis’ money in hand, the cob is shot by the fearful storeowner. Honor has a price.

White had faith in children and he believed children to be a worthy audience:

“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth…. Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words and they backhand them across the net.”

John Updike, reviewing the book in the New York Times, said White’s story “most persuasively offers itself to children as a parable of growing.” Growing up means learning the hard lessons of life, including the realization that even the fathers and mothers that love us—indeed, sometimes because they love us so much—are sometimes in need of redemption.   And that not every story has a perfectly happy ending. 

This article first appeared in Acculturated in October 2015.