Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Appeal of the Miniature, Part 1

Budza is enjoying a new audiobook in the mornings before school, courtesy of iTunes this time: Mary Norton's The Borrowers. I think I didn't get into these (The Borrowers, The Borrowers Afield, The Borrowers Aloft, The Borrowers Afloat) until I was a page working at the Mary Riley Stiles Library in my hometown of Falls Church, Virginia, in the mid-1970s. In these books, small Folk called Borrowers live behind wainscotting and under floorboards, borrowing what they need from the house's human inhabitants. The Borrowers' parlor is papered with old letters, with the writing running vertically in stripes. Half of a manicure scissors is an all-purpose blade; a hat pin is a good weapon against an unfriendly mouse.

These books float my teeny weeny bottlecap boat in so many ways. It's exactly the kind of magic-just-under-our-noses stuff I really like in a fantasy (though I like my fantasy high and low and most altitudes in between, actually). What made it particularly appealing to me then and now was how well it fit with my obsession with dolls' houses, or, more properly, doll house sized miniatures and an invented culture of trolls and Wishniks.

This was the late 1960s when I was living in Magallanes Village in the Philippines. I would spent my allowance on troll dolls, either authentic Dam trolls or Wishniks. My friend Eleanor had trolls two, and we got together regularly for long sessions of trolls, sometimes acting out long story lines, sometimes sewing troll clothes. We made clothes from them out of scraps of felt and ribbon and sequins. I had a jester with a cap and bells. My mother gamely knitted one troll a shrug on tiny needles.

There was great satisfaction in taking an everyday object and finding a way to make it work at roughly 1:12 scale. Miniatures made for the doll house were always fun, and I was always on the lookout for good ones, which were coveted (especially because so few worked with the trolls' squat bodies), but there wasn't the same pleasure in the clever transformation of the ordinary thing into a troll artifact. A soap dish made a very credible bathtub, a small glass topped tricket box an elegant vitrine. I fashioned a bamboo newspaper rack from toothpicks, and made a pretend ham wrapped in brown paper and string.

You develop a borrower's eye, a habit of looking at objects with the view of someone very small. So it was frustrating to me that the recent Spiderwick movie didn't spend more time letting me see the house brownie's magpie-ish nest with its repurposed household detrius of buttons and fasteners and odds and ends.

About 13 years ago I started a project to create a troll-scale naturalist's studio, and it's been a delight to collect natural objects at the right scale, and find buttons or beads that work as anthropological objects. I commissioned a leafcutter ant's nest from a miniature maker in Florida, and she made the ants out of three poppy seeds, glued together. There is a bead that is just right for an ostrich egg, and some actual books of the right scale. I have made a credible elephant's foot umbrella stand with a pill bottle, part of a grey leather kid glove, and some press-on fingernails (not my idea, I got it from a book). A visit to a really out of the way museum in Maine allowed me to pick up an actual ammonite the size of a nickel, and a tiny piece of petrified wood. I am still waiting for the right display setting for everything. I'm picturing it as a length of tree trunk with doors.

Some good miniature reads:

Mistress Masham's Repose by T. H. White (Lilliputians in the bottom of the garden...plot is very Joan Aikenish and would appeal to fans of Lemony Snickett)

Decorative Dollhouses: Original Interiors for Twenty-Five Dolls Houses by Caroline Hamilton (Clarkson Potter, 1990)

And some nice student guides and activities around The Borrowers, from literatureplace.com.

Nice discussion of The Borrowers and Mistress Masham's Repose here at Crooked House.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Mapping Imaginary Places, Part 2

My own obsession with mapping the imaginary probably dates to my obsession with the Hugh Lofting book The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, and the description of how the doctor and his assistant, Tommy Stubbins, choose the destination for their voyage:

It was a tense and fearful moment--but very thrilling. We both had our eyes shut tight. I heard the atlas fall open with a
bang. I wondered what page it was: England or Asia. If it should be the map of Asia, so much would depend on where that
pencil would land. I waved three times in a circle. I began to lower my hand. The pencil-point touched the page.

"All right," I called out, "it's done."

We both opened our eyes; then bumped our heads together with a crack in our eagerness to lean over and see where we were to go.

The atlas lay open at a map called, Chart of the South Atlantic Ocean. My pencil-point was resting right in the center of a tiny
island. The name of it was printed so small that the Doctor had to get out his strong spectacles to read it. I was trembling
with excitement.

"Spidermonkey Island," he read out slowly. Then he whistled softly beneath his breath.

This was something like 1970, I think. We were living in Manila, where my father was posted with the US Foreign Service, and I'd just come back from home leave with a supermarket paperback edition of The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle. And reading about the blindfold-and-atlas game, I had to have my own atlas. I have it still.

It was partly the maps in the beginning of A Wizard of Earthsea that inspired me in the early 1970s to begin the book that became The Spellkey. It started not with words, but with the map of an archipelago. I had hoped the book would feature its own map, but by the time it was published in the late 1980s the economics of children's book publishing made it difficult to dress most books up with the kind of maps that graced my editions of Tolkein and C.S. Lewis.

I'm grateful to Radiogirl for alerting me to this traveling exhibit of maps, "Maps: Finding Our Place in the Wold," coming to Baltimore's Walters Art Museum, and be sure to check out her own wonderful shop, The Interimaginational Institute for Fantastical Exploration and Cartography over at Etsy.

Shown: London during the Great Exhibition of 1851
by George Shove
ca. 1851; printed map on leather
The National Archives, U.K.
Fashion and map aficionados alike will enjoy this map of London on a glove created for the 1851 Great Exhibition.

[OK, London is not an imaginary place, but how cool is a MAP ON A GLOVE?!?!?!!!!]

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Mapping Imaginary Places

Today the Budza got out a series of maps he'd started drawing before school vacation week, in his after-school program. It's a continent-by-continent atlas of the planet Ravnica, which features in the evening storytelling between Bud and my husband. The evening routine consists of Bud reading his daily 20 minutes, then me reading a picturebook or two, or a chapter from something longer. Then my husband takes the next shift, and he and Bud take turns telling installments of various space operas and other flights of fancy.

Anyway, the maps he's drawn so far of the continents of Ravnica are quite elaborate. The maps are my favorite kind, with animals and fortresses pictured at a wacky outsized scale, as well as rivers and oceans. Details include lava monsters, gates made out of spiderwebs, and forests of evil tree folk.

I was reminded of another book up in the attic somewhere, that I need to bring down: The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manguel and Giani Guadalupi. You can page through maps of Wonderland, Oz, Middle Earth, Narnia, Earthsea and many terras far less cognita. In looking it up online, I discovered that after many print editions, it's now its own Wiki, which seems the perfect way for the meme of mapping the imaginary to spread to the furthest corners of the human imagination, like spiders ballooning with silk to colonize a volcanic island newly risen from the sea.

Then there's Storybook England, a website developed by the British tourist bureau. It's quite elaborate. There's an interactive map of England, and when you click on the name of your author, stars appear on the map. Click on those, and you zoom in to the locales of that author's books, and click again and a window pops up with information about the book. Really rather wonderful.

And for a real atlas of imaginary places, see this German website. And here a slightly obsessed Dutchman has posted scans of the maps from first French editions of Jules Verne, including this stunning map of Mysterious Island.

Obviously, I'm not done....more about imaginary places online in another post.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Moving Bookshop

Today was one of those rare days: the Budza had camp, it was a holiday, and my husband and I each had the day off from work. Whee hee! It was awful weather: high wind, lashing rain--and my husband had a terrible cold, but we weren't going to let THAT stop us. We dropped the Budza at school-vacation-week camp, stopped for cold meds and tea and a map (we lose maps of Massachusetts like some people lose socks), and steered the car up Route 1A to Marblehead, to have a long, uninterrupted book truffle without a restless child in tow.

Our true destination, Much Ado Books, would have been an even wetter drive. It turns out the owners of that store picked up a few years back and moved their shop to England. More specifically, to a 1370 building on the High street of the medieval village of Alfriston in Sussex. Lucky them!

Back in Marblehead, Massachusetts, the store's new owners are ensconced in different digs, and the store has a new name, Artists + Authors.

It's still a great store. There are certain signs that present themselves to the long-term connoisseur of the used-and-rare book store. A shop bell is usually, but not always, a good beginning. But, setting that aside, it's encouraging to find:

--a shop cat in old wicker chair (extra points for a cat door leading into a back room)
--multiple floors
--more than four corners per room
--entrire bookcases devoted to an obscure range of the Dewey decimal system, like ballooning or circuses
--A full bookcase devoted to books about books

Artists + Authors scores high on all counts. The shop cat, Dust Jacket, was extremely friendly and talkative and made us feel welcome. We spent a long time browsing, hitting mostly the children's books, folktales, natural history, biography, and mystery. We could have spent days more browsing, and as it was limited ourselves to a handful of titles. My husband came away with The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin, Henry Bates, Naturalist of the Amazons by George Woodcock, and The Arcturus Adventure by William Beebe. I contented myself with The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: Early Detective Stories by Hugh Greene, The Emperor's Snuff-Box by John Dickson Carr, Skeleton-in-Waiting by Peter Dickinson, and a new children's author I didn't know, Edward Fenton. They had three or four of his mid-century kids' books, but I limited myself to The Riddle of the Red Whale. I'm going to have to keep a lookout for The Phantom of Walkaway Hill.

And, who knows, by the time Budza is old enough to enjoy a good long bookstore truffle himself, we might visit Much Ado in their not-so-new digs.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Dragons of the Watery Kind

The Boston Globe carried an article in today's Health and Science section (!) about a longtime hunter for the Loch Ness monster who has decided to hang up his sonar.

Well, that got me musing, very happily, on my 1995 honeymoon in the far north of Scotland, which included a stop at the tourist center in Loch Ness. I brought a lot of Loch Ness erasers back as souvenirs for colleagues at the publishing house where I work. And I also got thinking about Loch Ness, and Nessie-ish monsters, in various children's books.

The first one that came to mind was about an American Nessie. The Serpent Came to Gloucester by M. T. Anderson, with wonderful illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline. Ibatoulline's art is evocative the way Alice and Martin Provensens' illustrations always are. I'd like to stroll this Glocester sea- and dream-scape much as I'd like to stay in the Provensens' lovingly realized William Blake's Inn.

Then there's Susan Cooper's second book in her Boggart series, The Boggart and the Monster. For younger readers than the Dark Is Rising series.

And then Dick King-Smith of Babe fame has written The Water Horse, which is now a major motion picture, as they say, from Walden Media/Beacon Pictures. It's a cousin, I suppose, of my childhood favorite, The Enormous Egg, in which a boy hatches a triceratops with the help of a broody hen. In The Water-Horse,young Kirstie and her brother Angus find a mysterious egg capsule among the storm wrack on a Scottish beach, and before you know it they have a young water-horse in their bathtub.

You might try to find Ruth Chew's The Trouble with Magic, which I found in a trove of many other of her books in a used bookshop in Damariscotta, Maine. It has this wonderful cover. It's nearly impossible to find anything out about Chew, but I think--not sure why--she did her own jacket designs.

Meet Harrison Peabody -- a most unusual wizard.

He's short and tubby. He wears a funny hat and carries a magic umbrella. He pals around with a sea serpent named George. He can make the most wonderful magic -- sometimes.

When the wizard sets up housekeeping in her attic, Barbara and her brother rick discover that magic can also be a very tricky thing.

On the nonfiction side, there's Frederick Stonehouse's Haunted Lakes: Great Lakes Ghost Stories, Superstitions and Sea Serpents. Sounds like a perfect candidate for a summer lake house rental to me.

You can read more about the Gloucester Serpent's appearance off the Massachusetts coast in August 1817 in this archived article, "Marblehead Monsters!" from Marblehead Magazine. The wonderful serpent I've reproduced here is by Stephanie Hart McGrail.

Here Be Dragons 2008 Book Challenge

How cool is this?!

The folks over at the book blog Stray Talk are sponsoring a book challenge: read three books about dragons between January 1 and June 30, 2008. 

Well, I'm in. In fact, I have three I want to read or reread right now:

R. A. McAvoy, Tea with the Black Dragon (1983)
Elizabeth Willey, The Well-Favored Man (1994)
and Caroline Stevermer, Serpent's Egg (1988). 

There are lots of other good suggestions being posted by folks that have taken up the challenge. I hope to archive some of those titles over at anndowner.com, where I've meant for a while to start a dragon bibliography.

Next up: dragons of the watery kind.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Books from the Attic, Part 2

So today I finally did a massive purge of picture books (*sob*) from the Budza's bedroom bookcase, sorted them into box-for-attic, give-to-the-new-parents-next-door, and donate piles, and went up into the attic to search for some novels for Bud.

I pulled down the attic stairs and made my way up to the rows of dusty boxes under the roof--jazz magazines, yearbooks, photo albums, Christmas decorations. And books. Lots and lots of books.

As I opened boxes to try and find the books I had in mind, I could hear the sparrows twittering under the eaves, disturbed by a rare visitor, though they wouldn't in February have nestlings to defend. Sometimes in the summer, when we take down the panels over the vents to allow air to circulate, we find the remains of a nest, and some feathers.

I found some books to begin filling the shelf I'd cleared in the bookcase. I called down to the Budza and my husband and we set up a kind of fire brigade, handing books down the ladder. Soon we had a pile: the rest of my Laura Ingalls Wilder books, Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Great Glass Elevator), various paperbacks of the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander, some Alan Garner fantasies (starting with The Owl Service), some of The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper, and lots and lots of Tintin

I also brought down The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and Robert Lawson's Rabbit Hill. The Budza is an animal lover, and given how much he loves small, furry things I think he'll really cotton to the story in Rabbit Hill about the rabbit, Little Georgie, and the rest of the animals of the Hill. 

My edition may still include the offending character of the African-American cook, edited out of later editions. I don't remember that part of the book at all, but various websites devoted to the book mention it. So if I read this aloud to Bud, that will have to be a teaching moment.