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Archive for the ‘Classic (Prior 1950)’ Category

Although Eric Knight was the author of many well-written books, he will always best be remembered for the classic tale of a boy and his dog: Lassie Come-Home. I’ll review this beloved story tomorrow. Save the date: December 12!

PERSONAL BACKGROUND

5.1.2Born 1897 in England, Eric Knight was the third of four sons born to Frederic Harrison and Marion Knight, both Quakers. According to Wikipedia, Knight’s father was a rich diamond merchant who, when Eric was two years old, was killed during the Boer War. His mother then moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, to work as a governess for the imperial family. Knight was raised by an aunt and uncle and attended school part-time as a child. His mother later settled in America, where Knight joined her at the age of fifteen. There, he graduated from the Cambridge School of Latin in Massachusetts and also pursued art at the New York National Academy of design. Two of his brothers died in 1919, on the same day that they enlisted in the National Guard.

Chelsea-Collies reports that Knight’s varied career included service in the Canadian Army during World War I, along with spells as a newspaper reporter, university lecturer, and Hollywood screenwriter. His first love was newspaper work and over the years he worked for several. He started as a copy boy and worked his way up to writing feature articles for the Syndicate Bureau. He was also a respected film critic for the Philadelphia Public Ledger. For a short time, Knight even dabbled in film writing in Hollywood, where he became a favorite of the legendary filmmaker, Frank Capra.

Married twice, Knight had three daughters. His second marriage was to Jere Brylawski in 1932 with whom he settled on a farm in Pennsylvania. However, shortly thereafter, the couple gave up both their farm and their dogs to move to Hollywood so that Eric could pursue a film writing career. Knight took American citizenship in 1942 shortly before his death at the age of forty-five. As observed by Chelsea-Collies, there’s no telling what else Knight might have accomplished if his life had been longer.

WRITING BACKGROUND

When the couple moved to Hollywood, Knight purchased a female collie puppy that was to be a Christmas gift to his wife. However, Chelsea-Collies notes that it quickly became apparent that the puppy Toots was to be his dog alone. Knight spent every spare moment training her and was continually amazed by her eagerness and quickness to learn. While traveling on book tours Knight delighted in showing Toots off and her repertoire of tricks became famous. The two of them became inseparable. When Knight was away, Toots would sit patiently by the stone wall in the front of their house, awaiting her master’s return. Toots is considered the main inspiration behind Knight’s most enduring novel: Lassie Come-Home.

The Lassie Family Website notes further came while on a trip to Knight’s English homeland during the Great Depression. The entire country was enduring hard times, forcing many people to sell their belongings, including beloved dogs. After his return home, Knight and his wife relocated to New York. It was here that he began to write Lassie Come-Home. Much of the story is felt to have been drawn from his own childhood memories in England. This lush countryside was the setting for Lassie’s adventures. Knight also grew up in the mill towns where stories of “come-home” dogs were common.

EricandLassieonsetWebThe short story first appeared in the December 17, 1938 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. It was so popular that the John C. Winston Publishing Company picked up publication rights. The full-length novel has been published in over 25 languages and remained continuously in print.

Unfortunately, Knight did not live long enough to witness the legend he created. The novel was filmed by MGM in 1943 as Lassie Come-Home with Roddy McDowall in the role of Joe Carraclough and canine actor Pal in the role of Lassie. While Knight visited the movie set, where he met the original Lassie, he never saw the finished product. In 1943, as part of World War II, he was killed in action while on board a transport plane that crashed in the jungles of Dutch Guiana.

The movie went onto inspire seven other movies, a radio show, a long running television show, countless books and artifacts, and a great love for this dog called Lassie. Indeed, thanks to Knight, collies and the character “Lassie” will forever be linked. In 1994, proof of Lassie’s positive breed influence came when Eric Knight was admitted to the Collie Club of America Quarter Century Club Hall of Fame!

Eleanor Estes is well-recognized for writing memorable family stories, among them the Pye stories. With Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye, Estes adds pets and mysteries to the mix. Although her unhurried style may not appeal to all, I’ve come to treasure these innocent stories of a close-knit family in a small town.

THE ANIMALS

The Pye books appealed to me most of all the books by Estes due to their being about animals. In Ginger Pye, the family already has a pet cat. Gracie however belongs more to the mom than the children. For that reason, the idea of a buying a puppy from a neighbor proves attractive to Jerry and Rachel. Before this could happen, the two siblings first have to raise money to pay for the puppy. At first, nothing works and the deadline draws unbearably close. Then just when Jerry and Rachel finally have earned enough to pick up their puppy, they hear mysterious footsteps all the way home. Still, all seems well. Jerry even discovers that his puppy is smart enough to follow him to school. Except then during Thanksgiving Day, Ginger disappears. The only clue that the children have to the identity of the dog snatcher is that he wears a mustard yellow hat.

In Pinky Pye, the family set out for a summer of bird watching on Fire Island. At first, their adventures amount to exploring the beaches, dunes, and boardwalks. On their way home each day, poison ivy is their biggest concern. Then one morning the family wake up to the sound of news, thrashings, and beatings about of something. On the front door tangled in an old crab net is a tiny skinny kitten looking furious and bewildered. And so Pinky comes into the life of the Pyes. Like Ginger, she turns out to be remarkably clever in that Pinky learned how to type. Unlike Ginger, she doesn’t disappear. Yet something mysterious does capture the attention of the pets and the humans. That something is in the attic, where Uncle Bennie’s crickets and grasshoppers keep escaping or getting eaten. But the cats aren’t the guilty culprits. Some other mystery is afoot in the Pye household.

THE HUMANS

The humans in the Pye books also appealed to me. There is Mr. Pye, a famous bird man who is frequently called down to Washington for consultation. He’s married to Mrs. Pye, who has the notable distinction of being the youngest mother in the town of Cranbury. Then there are Mama’s grandparents along with her baby brother. The grandparents moved near to the family, so that none of them would be strangers to anyone. At three-years-old, Uncle Bennie is the youngest uncle. Finally, there are our hero and heroine, Jerry and Rachel, who are siblings and close friends. Even when the two disagree, they remain amicable.

In both books about the Pyes, the strong bond of family is clear not just through shared adventures mentioned above but also through anecdotal stories. These latter enrich our understanding of the Pyes and help to make the family memorable. For example, there is the most interesting way in which the parents were married. One day Papa decided to try to run up not down the escalator at a train station. As he reached the top, panting, he ran into a girl about to come down the escalator. Mama had seen her first opera and was almost floating in the air, she was so transported by the music. It was love at first sight. Then there are the grandparents. Grandpa didn’t mind the move to Cranbury, because he could tune pianos anywhere but could only own a boat in Cranbury. As for Grandma, she loved to feed her family. Also, if not for her and Uncle Bennie, a certain mystery might not have been solved. Uncle Bennie himself helps Jerry and Rachel raise money so that the two can buy a puppy. Later, when Uncle Bennie fails in his struggles to give up his blanket to prove that he is a big boy, the siblings encourage him to simply try again. As for Jerry and Rachel, there is much to learn about them too, such as the fact that at night they like to make up this one long story about a character who could turn himself into anything. They never go to bed without adding an episode.

THE STYLE

Now that I’ve hopefully sold you on reading the Pye books, let me talk about the style. On the complimentary side, I would call it leisurely and relaxed. It’s this casualness that allowed Estes to sprinkle in details about every family member. We learn that Papa is always ten books behind in his writing, Mama hoped during her summer vacation to read past thirty-nine of War and Peace, Jerry loved rocks more than birds, and Rachel desired to sleep on a train. All these details help me feel as if I were right there with the Pye family in Cranbury and later Fire Island. Alas, I could also describe the style as meandering and slow-paced. It’s this laid-back style that results in her main characters rambling at length about minuscule topics such as whether New York or Boston is more important. For the latter reason, the books never made it to the top ten of my favorite childhood books. At the same time, the books appealed to me enough as a child that I named two of my plush toys after Ginger and Pinky. 🙂 I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed rereading them these fall months to our family pets.

My recommendation is that you pick up the Pye books when you have hours to spare. In this way, the Pye books will both delight and entertain you. The Pyes are a family you’ll love and remember. As are their unique pets.

My rating? Bag them: Carry them with you. Make them a top priority to read.

How would you rate these books?

An American children’s author, Eleonor Estes’ books were based on her life in small town Connecticut in the early 1900s. Her book Ginger Pye won the Newbery Medal. Three of her other books were Newbery Honor Winners. Tomorrow I’ll review both Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye, two books which I have been reading aloud to my pets.

PERSONAL BACKGROUND

EleonorEstesBorn in Connecticut in 1906, Estes was the third of four children which also included an older brother and sister and one younger sibling. Her father was a bookkeeper for a railway and died when Estes was young. Her mother, who was a seamstress and storyteller, became the provider for the family. According to Laura Lowe, the family lacked money, but had an abundance of love, which resulted in Estes believing she had a perfect childhood in a perfect town.

Estes became interested in writing and books at a young age. She wrote her own stories as a child and after high school attended library training classes. In 1923, Estes trained at the New Haven Free Library, and eventually became the children’s head librarian there. Several years later, in 1931 Estes won the Caroline M. Hewins scholarship for children’s librarians, which allowed her to study at the Pratt Institute library school in New York and obtain her Master in Library Science. While there, in 1932, Estes married Rice Estes. Some sources refers to him as a fellow student and others as a library administrator. In any event, they both worked as librarians throughout New York.

Tuberculosis forced Estes to take a break from librarianship in 1934. While ill, Estes began writing a children’s story. After recovering, Estes and her husband did some traveling before she returned to her position at the New York Public Library. However, in 1940, she retired to write full-time and to finish the book she started while bedridden, titled The Moffats.

Laura Lowe reports that Estes had always been questioned about how she could write books for children without having the experience of raising one. To this, Estes apparently replied that she had once been a child and her stories were about those experiences. However, in 1948, the couple gave birth to Helena Estes. After that, Estes was also able to use her daughter as inspiration for new plots. In fact, her daughter inspired two of her children’s books, The Witch Family and A Little Oven.

A few years later in 1952, the couple moved back to the East coast, where Estes lived until her death. Besides writing and working as a librarian, Estes also taught at the University of New Hampshire Writer’s Conference. Estes passed away due to complications after a stroke on July 15, 1988 at the age of eighty-two. She died in Connecticut and was buried at Oak Grove Cemetery in her hometown of West Haven, Connecticut. At the time of her death, Estes had published seventeen children’s books, one play, one adult novel, and had contributed to several magazines.

WRITING BACKGROUND

I am holding up a mirror, and the scene reflected in the mirror is a true image of childhood, and the mirror, besides reflecting, also speaks and echoes the clear, profound, unpremeditated utterances, thoughts and imageries of children. I like to make children laugh or cry, to be moved in some way by my writing.

–New York Times

EleonorEstes2Estes’ best known fictional characters, the Moffats, are based on her hometown and her family. The Moffats live in Cranbury, Connecticut, which is Estes’ hometown of West Haven. She based the Moffats after her family, including patterning younger daughter Jane after herself; Rufus was her little brother Teddy. Embracing the Child notes that, “While there was a dependence on family for emotional security, her characters were able to spread their wings and grow their independence through their play and experiences in a safe neighborhood.” The Middle Moffat (1942) and Rufus M. (1943) both won Newbery Honors.

Taking a break from the series, Estes wrote The Hundred Dresses which was published in 1944. The manuscript began as thirty-two pages and took six months to write. While The Moffats were optimistic stories about growing up, The Hundred Dresses portrays the negative side of childhood. In her introduction to the 2004 edition of The Hundred Dresses, Helena Estes tells readers that she had once asked her mother for her reasons for writing the story. Estes told her daughter that when she was in school, during World War One, she had a classmate like Wanda. She wore the same dress every day and was teased for this. Just like Maddie, Estes was upset when the girl moved to New York City during the middle of the school year. Estes was upset that she did not get to tell the girl she was sorry for the teasing, especially since she herself knew what it was like to be poor and wear passed down clothes. She thought of the story as her way of apologizing and making others aware of the way their cruel words hurt others.

In 1952, Estes won the Newbery Medal for Ginger Pye. LibraryPoint believes that, “The book is still popular today with kids because, for all the innocent joy of its story, the author never talked down to her audience. Young students are gripped by the mystery, and, through Estes’s evocative writing, they, too, can own Ginger and worry when she is taken. Like Beverly Cleary, author of the Ramona books, Estes had an understanding of what’s important to children when dealing with the funny and disastrous bits of everyday living.” In the sequel Pinky Pye, the family finds a small, oddly gifted black kitten on their vacation to Fire Island.

Estes received several awards during her career. Besides receiving recognition by the Newbery committee four times, Estes earned the Herald Tribune Spring Book Festival Award for Ginger Pye in 1951. For The Moffats, Estes won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1961. One year later, in 1962, she received the Certificate of Award for Outstanding Contribution to Children’s Literature. Finally, in 1970, she was nominated for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award.

Recognized a writer of family stories, Estes is considered by Wikipedia to have “shaped and broadened” that genre. Furthermore, in an article for The Horn Book Magazine, Eleanor Cameron included The Moffat books among “those that sit securely as classics in the realm of memorable literature”.

The story of a boy who receives a toy rabbit as a Christmas gift, The Velveteen Rabbit is a beloved classic by Margery Williams. I enjoyed this tale as a child and, although my reasons for enjoying it have changed, to this day I have never tired of reading it. No matter how many picture books and chapter books I outgrew and passed on in my youth, The Velveteen Rabbit is one I knew I’d always keep.

As a child, at least part of the appeal of The Velveteen Rabbit lay in its fantastical element. As its subtitle says, it’s a story about how toys become real. In that way, it’s akin to Pinocchio, another beloved literacy character who wanted to be more than a toy. And, in my earliest years, I wanted to believe that my toys could become real. Not that my imaginings were straightforward. Rather, they were a mix of various fantasies. There was the one where my toys would talk at night when I was asleep. Or the one where my toys could invoke revenge on me if I allowed them to get damaged. And the one where all my discarded toys would end up in the land of misfit toys. All of these jumbled in my head, along with the one about where my toys would become real because of my love. And if I were to qualify any of my toys under the latter stipulation, it would have to be a floppy gaudy green and pink plush dog. It’s hair is worn bare, an eye is missing, and various appendages have been taped to hold them together. For years, I slept with that doll. Today I still have it and it serves as my gravatar.

Eventually, I outgrew my belief that toys could become real. Then the appeal of The Velveteen Rabbit lay solely in its message about love: “It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” In Christian circles, the Skin Horse’s advice can be used to explain to new converts how we start out as babes in Christ but through trials and tribulations become mature adults. Amongst friends, the advice can be used to explain why differences and disagreements are to be expected. As much as we might dislike it at the time, it’s only those individuals who love every good and bad part of us who will become our best friends. In every relationship, the Skin Horse’s advice can be applied. Back in our dating years, my husband and I used to quote the Skin Horse’s various lines about being real as a sentimental but profoundly true way of expressing what growing old together would mean.

While rereading The Velveteen Rabbit this past weekend, I felt struck by a couple of critical questions. Barely two pages in, Williams rambles about how the mechanical toys felt superior to the others. They apparently had modern ideas. A jointed lion even pretended he was connected with the Government. I don’t know what I thought of these lines as a child, but now I’m sure that I completely understand them. Then there was the fact that after the boy got sick with the scarlet fever, all the toys in the nursery were to be thrown away. Immediately I wondered whatever happened to the Skin Horse? Yet these two questions didn’t diminish my enjoyment of The Velveteen Rabbit. As Williams rambled on about the expensive toys snubbed by our hero, I felt mostly empathy for how insignificant and commonplace the Velveteen Rabbit felt. With regards to the Skin Horse, I can only surmise that either he escaped the fate of being tossed or he too experienced a visit from the nursery magic fairy. Only we just hear of her visit to Velveteen Rabbit, because the book is about our hero.

The Velveteen Rabbit has been around since 1922. Since that time, it has remained a classic piece of literature through numerous adaptations in children’s theater as well as on radio, television, and the big screen. Every generation will have a chance to experience its beauty in one form or another. What are your memories of The Velveteen Rabbit?

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

A professional writer since the age of nineteen, Margery Williams achieved lasting fame at forty-one with the 1922 publication of The Velveteen Rabbit. It has remained a classic piece of literature through numerous adaptations in children’s theater as well as on radio, television, and the big screen. As I read scant online biographies, I discovered Williams was more than a one-book author.

PERSONAL BACKGROUND

MargeryWilliamsA native of London, Margery Williams was born in England in 1881 to successful and accomplished parents. Along with her sister, she received encouragement from her father to read and use her imagination. According to Wikipedia, Williams would later recall how vividly her father described characters from various books and praised the infinite world of knowledge that lay on the printed page. The desire to read, which soon transformed into a need to write, was a legacy from her father which would last a lifetime.

His death, suggests Wikipedia, proved to be a life-changing event affected all of her future creative activity. Her books contain an undertone of sadness, about which Pennsylvania Center for the Book notes that Williams believed that beautiful stories came out of sad tales because they depicted the essence of growth and change. Indeed, hearts acquire greater humanity through pain.

When Williams was nine, her family moved to the United States, first to New York, then settling on a farm in Pennsylvania. Here, Williams attended a Convent School until she was seventeen. After graduation, although her stories to date had been rejected, Williams decided to become a writer and shortly thereafter returned to England.

While visiting her publisher in England, Williams met Francisco Bianco, who was employed as the manager of one of the book departments. The couple married in 1904. When the couple became parents of two children, Williams suspended her writing activities to focus on motherhood. For a time, the family traveled back and forth across Europe, but finally settled in Italy, her husband’s home country. There, her husband fought for the Italian army in World War I.

WRITING BACKGROUND

As alluded to above, in 1901, Williams returned to her birthplace. There, she submitted manuscripts to a London publisher. A number of her children’s stories saw print, as did her first novel The Late Returning which was published in 1902 and aimed at an adult audience. None of her adult novels sold well.

However, her ambition to make a living as an author propelled Williams. In 1914, Williams wrote a horror novel, The Thing in the Woods, about a werewolf in the Pennsylvania region. The Thing in the Woods was later republished in the US under the pseudonym “Harper Williams”.

By 1921, the family received permission to return to the United States. Pennsylvania Center for the Book states that Williams found inspiration in watching her children play with toys and animals. She began to reminiscence about her childhood. While staying at home with her children, Williams also became interested in the work of Walter de La Mare, a poet she believed wrote clearly from a child’s point of view. She so greatly admired his work that she later wrote an essay “De La Mare” in honor of him.

The Velveteen Rabbit or How Toys Become Real was her first American work. While it remains her most famous, Williams did write numerous other children’s books. Her son becoming the namesake of one of them, 1925’s Poor Cecco: The Wonderful Story of a Wonderful Wooden Dog Who Was the Jolliest Toy in the House Until He Went Out to Explore the World. A return to more sober themes marks other popular works by Williams, such as The Little Wooden Doll, illustrated by her daughter. Each year, for the remaining two decades of her life, Williams produced numerous books and short stories. Most of them continued her preoccupation with toys coming to life and the ability of inanimate objects and animals to express human emotions and feelings.

However, Williams also interspersed her children’s books with novels for young adults. These all featured young people who were in one way or another alienated from mainstream society. One of those books, Winterbound, about two teenage girls who are called upon to assume adult responsibilities in caring for their young siblings, won the 1937 Newbery Medal.

In 1939, as her native Britain entered World War II, Bianco began to include patriotic themes and references to European history in her works. Her final book, 1944’s Forward Commandos!, was a story of wartime heroism, which included as one of its characters a black soldier. Wikipedia points out that acknowledging the contribution of African-Americans to the war effort was extremely rare in literary output of the time and that fact was noted in the book’s reviews.

As Forward Commandos! went on sale, Williams became ill. After three days in the hospital, died at the age of 63, having penned more than twenty titles.


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