Charting Children’s Literature: The Maiden on the Moor, Nungu and the Hippopotamus

There is no genre quite like children’s literature when it comes to the creation and sustenance of our most ethereal, elemental dreams. Even the most notoriously bookshy of us remember the tales of our childhood. Even if your favourite youthful adventure or fantasy is not in any book you know, surely it was told to you…whispered in your ear during a rowdy recess break, or murmured across a campfire. If parents allow themselves to release their grip on adult sobriety, they, too, derive an equal pleasure from reading to their children, as their children delight in the listening and the looking, the reaching out to touch ornately patterned pages.

I have never denied myself the joy of reading a child’s book, of immersing myself in the story, of delighting at the quality and expressiveness of the illustration — and I daresay I am the merrier for it. Deciding to embark on this feature sent me back to the bookshelves of my parents’ house, where I grew up, where I often return. Instinctively, I knew just where to find certain titles; memory drew me back to them unerringly. Others I discovered by searching, rummaging through stacks, disrupting fine layers of dust. The revelry of rediscovery was no less than the satisfied thrill of anticipation. I read; I reread. I traced out lines of familiar faces and places, amazed at how it all came back to me, wondering whether it ever really left.

Beginning now and continuing indefinitely (as far as the road may wind, hopefully), Novel Niche will feature two children’s books each month. Some of these books I read when I was in pinafores, thigh-high white socks and brilliant red ribbons. Some I savoured in a business suit and sensible heels. All are beloved to me, and I am pleased to share them with you.

The Maiden on the Moor, written by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Troy Howell. Published in 1995 by Morrow Junior Books, New York (an imprint of HarperCollins).

This tale first came to me at the age of 21 or so.

On a bitterly cold, windswept night on the moors, two shepherd brothers and their dogs stumble upon a barely-stirring raven haired beauty. Her mystery and fairness of face enchant the younger sibling, who carries her to his humble cottage home to protect her from the unforgiving winter chill. Lonely in the depths of his heart, the young and noble shepherd sings to his slumbering love, in the hope that she will awaken from her frosty reverie and consent to be his constant companion. Awaken she does, when the shepherd is asleep, but it is to take a surprising journey, one nigh-impossible to predict, with both devastating and uplifting results.

What enchanted me?

This book opens with a medieval English verse of “A Maiden on the Moor”, adapted by author Marilyn Singer. The rest of the tale is told in a gracious, gently lilting tongue. Howell’s art is expressively suited to this wintry fable of loss, love and redemption. His hand is at once light and constant; each brushstroke line adds to an interpretation of a landscape both subtle and powerful, peopled by souls governed as much by the magic of the moors as by the demands of their own hearts.

Lines for Life:

“In the evenings, when he returned from his flocks, he sat at her side. At first he, too, was silent. Then he began to talk of his life as a shepherd, his love for the moors. He told her how in the spring the pale yellow flowers perched like birds on the broom brushes. He spoke of summer’s shining days, its sea of heather, purple and green. But he did not speak of the sadness in his heart.”

This book would be best beloved by:

♣ someone who appreciates the beauty of a sad and happy ending, intertwined.

♣ all lonely hearts that long for love.

♣ all bewitched, bewitching maidens who know themselves.

Nungu and the Hippopotamus, written and illustrated by Babette Cole. Published in 1978 by Macdonald and Jane’s, London (now defunct).

I first opened these pages when I was 5 or 6.

An enterprising young boy, Nungu, sets off in search of the mischief-making hippo who has swallowed up the entire Umvuvu River, which once flowed right around Tubu Island in the heart of Africa. Nungu’s grandfather, a fellow Tubu islander, gifts Nungu a special hiccuping medicine, formulated to make Madam Hippo expel the stolen river from her tummy. Armed with this, a particularly tempting pumpkin and his personal store of courage, Nungu sets out with his faithfully lazy donkey Masheety, to find Madam Hippo and restore the Umvuvu to his people.

What enchanted me?

I must have puzzled and puzzled for hours over how an entire river could exist in the belly of a hippo, no matter how magnificent her proportions. Even though I was a wee sceptic, even then, Nungu and the Hippopotamus never failed to delight—it still does. I smile in admiration of Cole’s storytelling, as I contemplate Nungu’s heroic quest: who among us would have gone hippo-hunting in our youth? The author’s illustrations are fine, precise and brimming with charming detail. Each panel is a work of art.

Lines for Life:

“What will you give me in return for this water,” said Madam Hippo.

“Do you like pumpkins?” asked Nungu, as if he didn’t know.

Madam Hippo smiled a great wide smile. “It just so happens that there is nothing I like better,” she said.

This book would be best beloved by:

♣ an adventurous and enterprising spirit.

♣ a lover of fireside tales and folklores.

17. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Published in 2009. This Edition: HarperCollins, 2010.

Good first sentences can be utterly damning. They allude to the possibility of reading something that will spellbind us, something that, if it is grotesque, is so sublimely grotesque that we are rather glad we lost our lunch over it. (I can only imagine the Marquis de Sade grinning in glee at a well-heeled dowager’s protestation that The 120 Days of Sodom sent her scampering to church for shrift.) If the best part of a book, however, is its opening sentence, that seems to be a cowardly act—to sculpt nothing fine, save one or two arresting lines. When I opened Remarkable Creatures, therefore, and read

“Lightning has struck me all my life. Just once was it real.”

I was wary.

Civilly banished from their London home to the seaside town of Lyme, the unwed and not-particularly attractive Philpot sisters gradually learn to sift out what happiness they can, in their considerably reduced circumstances. Of the three, it is stoic Elizabeth who is drawn to beachcombing for fossils, an exercise she initially selects to occupy her days, free of the male attention she only occasionally craves. As she swiftly becomes enamoured of her fossil collection, particularly of the ancient fish skeletons she hoards, Elizabeth encounters young Mary Anning, the working-class daughter of Lyme’s debt-swamped cabinetmaker. A talented ‘hunter’ (in this context, fossil locator, gatherer and preserver) Mary allows Elizabeth into her own life, in its frequently impoverished yet deeply resilient reality. The two women grow up both alongside and apart from each other, and as their friendship is tested, severely, by bitter jealousy, by the arbitrary hand that assigns social class and station, and by one irresistible man, Elizabeth and Mary learn how much they can both withstand, and what causes them to shatter under pressure.

I’ve not read any other of Chevalier’s books, but after finishing Remarkable Creatures, I acquainted myself with the plot and concerns of each. I feel reasonably justified in remarking that the writer’s forté seems to be in her marriage of engrossing historical situations with finely considered characters. Though I had not heard of them before this reading, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot were real women. It is fascinating to contemplate how much of their lives, as presented to us on Chevalier’s pages, are directly sown from the long hand of history, and how much is invented, conjured out of the ether, to add pathos, verve, humour. Both Mary and Elizabeth are deeply likeable, frustrating and varied characters—no less than human renditions, in short, and we find ourselves caring for their everyday struggles, as well as their protracted longings, sooner than we might have expected. Much historical fiction too often relies on the richness of the situation it attempts to reanimate with prose—The Great Depression, the rise and fall of the Roman empire, the history entire of a small island—that it falters in its investment in people, in breathing life into the past through the vessels that are best suited to carry it—the inhabitants of the work, be they living or purely ghostlike.

It is maddening to read of the circumstances of women in this early 19th century British society, and worse yet to contemplate that the injustices endured by Mary, Elizabeth and others of their sex are still endured, oft-unrecognized, not given the illumination in art or sound policy-making, nearly as much as they warrant. Mary’s loneliness, denied a life of comfortable indulgence, with the financial prospects it affords, is starkly illustrated, in a conversation with the person who has captured and bewildered her heart.

“My life led up to that moment, then led away again, like the tide making its highest mark on the beach and then retreating.

‘Everything is so big and old and far away,’ I said, sitting up with the force of it. ‘God help me, for it does scare me.’

‘There is no need to fear,’ he said, ‘for you are here with me.’

‘Only now,’ I said. ‘Just for this moment, and then I will be alone again in the world. It is hard when there’s no one to hold on to.’

He had no answer to that, and I knew he never would.”

Chevalier’s depiction of the life and times in which the novel is set strikes one as being infused with accuracy, from the recollections of past-times, superstitions, customs and everyday minutiae. We feel as though we’ve wandered onto the set, perhaps, of a BBC production of  a period drama, replete with narrow, cobblestoned streets, home-brewed bottles of elderflower champagne, petticoats and workhouse-penury alike. Natural landscape is no less vividly portrayed than the man-made structures of the novel. The beach, for example, is its own character, in every right—it’s unforgiving nature, its mystery, secrecy, the pleasure of its unexpected treasures, and the peril of its capricious cruelties. Anyone who loves the sea deeply cannot help but be moved by Chevalier’s design of it, as well as appreciate the relevance of all that the ocean offers to Mary and Elizabeth, both tangibly and soulfully.

What I loved best about reading Remarkable Creatures is that it did not challenge me. Surely, this sounds like an extraordinary contradiction, but I think one might catch one’s death of illumination-depression, sipping from an eternal literary font of Kafkas, and Joyces. The read was absorbing without being daunting, entertaining without meriting a single furrow of my brow, and if not particularly earthshattering, then distinctly eye-opening. Otherwise, I would not be purposing to read more on the life of Mary Anning, and other women of the 19th century who have been overlooked (until now) in science, engineering and other heretofore-considered ‘masculine’ fields. This, to my mind, is the premier advantage of well-done historical fiction. It transports us, not simply during the hours in which we read it, but when we have turned the last page, then seek knowledge, context and more reading on that era, that set of unique circumstances, elsewhere. Remarkable Creatures has done this, and therefore, perhaps it is unfair to say that it has not challenged me. It has, after all, challenged me to learn more—and is this not one of the best pursuits?

Finally, it is worth noting that the last line of Remarkable Creatures is as good as its first – maybe it’s a little better. I’m looking forward to hearing whether or not you concur.

3. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire

Published in 1995 by HarperCollins.

“To the grim poor there need be no pour quoi tale about where evil arises; it just arises; it always is. One never learns how the witch became wicked, or whether that was the right choice for her – is it ever the right choice? Does the Devil ever struggle to be good again, or if so is he not a devil? It is at the very least a question of definitions.”

I like stories that unravel myths, fairy tales, and moral fables. I applaud the successful taking of an origin story, turning on its head and shaking it, emptying its pockets of archetypal copper pieces, of stereotypical silver doubloons. We have all been fed a steady diet of literary truths, whether or not we’ve ever picked up a book of our own volition. They surround us, circling in the air. They are the nursery rhymes our mothers and fathers murmured as they tucked us into bed. They are the talismans, artifacts and artifices we wear around our necks: our religious symbolism, our ethnic pride, our clannish representations of belonging. Old truths, especially those about good and evil, either comfort or dismay us accordingly. Most people are not concerned with questioning or interrogating the truths we’ve been told about the nature of sin versus virtue. Most people would be profoundly uncomfortable with even the suggestion that good and evil can be mutual partners in a never-ending symbiotic tango.

Such people will probably reject the premise of Wicked out of hand… and will not get past the first few chapters. Those who do not—those who are willing to have their preconceptions challenged—will fare far better. For readers predisposed to an appreciation of magic with a distinct adult rating: this is your stop.

Wicked is scripted, at a cursory glance, on the barebones of the world contained in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The Land of Oz that we encounter in Maguire’s novel is of his own geographical hand, drawn with detailed cartographic attention to specifics, peculiarities, the crafting of a believable and compelling otherworld. Oz is a land of wildly disparate regions and territories: the vast, windswept deserts of the Vinkus, the industrially prosperous Gillikinese state, the marshlands and stilt-legged dwellings of Quadling County, the prairie stead of Munchkinland. All paths and roads, including those made of yellow brick, lead to the glinting urban landscape of the Emerald City, where very little is ever as it seems.

The novel’s main narrative hinges on Elphaba, a green-skinned, clever, antisocial girl born to the Munchkinlander couple of itinerant preacher Frexspar and his beautiful, restless wife, Melena Thropp. Elphaba’s story—her strange, largely friendless childhood in Munchkinland, her rebellious, iconoclastic years at Shiz University, her encounters with condemnation, curiosity, concern and confusion all – these inform the heart of the book, but are not on their own, as it were, their vital organ. The voice of the novel is contained in other major characters (and periodic narrators) as well: in the tragicomedic maturing of beautiful Galinda, in the wise, brash motives of Fiyero, in the restless longings of Melena, the surprising intelligence of Sarima, the love-struck earnestness of Boq. Wicked‘s five sections—Munchkinlanders; Gillikin; City of Emeralds; Into the Vinkus; The Murder and its Afterlife—span several generations. Lives are lost, friendships are won, friendships and kinships made, shattered, found in unlikely places. Wars are waged, both political and personal; victims and villains work together in close quarters. Maguire is no respecter of tidy, seamless resolutions, or neatly pigeonholed plots. Characters’ lives run messily into each others’. This is no singular tale of a warty witch wreaking vengeance on a Kansas ingénue, though if you look for that single-mindedly, you will doubtless find it. The novel leaves itself dangerously, (or wonderfully) ambiguous on many points about which most readers will likely yearn for specificity. You would be hard-pressed to not find a concern that didn’t prick directly and perhaps uncomfortably at your personal conscience in these pages.

What makes us human, and how do we advocate our superiority over animals? What about that pesky infidelity business, when confronted with the possibility of true connection—or just a really good meeting of bodies, if not minds? When does sex stop being sexy and start being just damned strange? Do we prefer our prettiest society girls with or without a sobering grip on reality? What are the ethical implications of endowing mechanical creations with limited sentience, and forcing them to do our bidding? What makes one girl beautiful, and another… reprehensible?

Perhaps the most intriguing question of all lies in just how much we’re willing to do for a pair of gorgeous, self-validating shoes.

“She dropped her shyness like a nightgown, and in the liquid glare of sunlight on old boards she held up her hands – as if, in the terror of the upcoming skirmish, she had at last understood that she was beautiful. In her own way.”