Friday, May 20, 2016

A Fish Out of Water
by Helen Palmer

When I was a kid, I always liked reading the “About the Author” blurb at the end of a book – probably the budding quizzer in me wanted every piece of available information. One of my favourite childhood books was A Fish Out of Water and my version had no such blurb – or if it did it was on a long-lost dust-jacket. So I’ve written one myself:
Helen Palmer was born in New York in 1898. For 40 years she was married to Dr Seuss. They had no children – Helen was unable to. In later years she suffered from cancer and partial paralysis. For the last few years of Helen’s life, Dr Seuss was having an affair with the woman who would later become his second wife. In 1967 an ill, depressed and heartbroken Helen committed suicide by an overdose of barbiturates.
Maybe there was a reason there was no such blurb.

We’ll get to A Fish Out of Water shortly, but first a little more on Helen Palmer. In 1927, Helen married Theodore Geisel, known to friends as Ted, and later known to the world as Dr Seuss. Ted Geisel wanted to become a teacher but Helen, six years his senior, encouraged him to make a career from his artwork. She was his editor, advisor, business manager and inspiration. She co-founded the “Beginner Books” imprint - you’d recognise the Cat in the Hat logo – in 1957.

And yet, a decade later Helen was dead. Within a year of her suicide Dr Seuss remarried. His second wife, Audrey, is still alive and in her mid-90s continues to serve as president of Dr Seuss Enterprises. There seems little doubt that the younger Audrey provided a renewed inspiration for Dr Seuss, who was 64 when he married for the second time. His niece Peggy described Helen’s death as “her last and greatest gift to him”. Her suicide note speaks for itself:
"Dear Ted, What has happened to us? I don't know. I feel myself in a spiral, going down down down, into a black hole from which there is no escape, no brightness. And loud in my ears from every side I hear, 'failure, failure, failure...' I love you so much ... I am too old and enmeshed in everything you do and are, that I cannot conceive of life without you ... My going will leave quite a rumor but you can say I was overworked and overwrought. Your reputation with your friends and fans will not be harmed ... Sometimes think of the fun we had all thru the years ..."
She might have heard “failure, failure, failure” from every side, but few people have given the world more joy than Helen Palmer. She gave the world Dr Seuss. But for her prodding, he might never have gone beyond the cartoons he drew as a college student. And Helen Palmer’s name also lives on as an author herself.

But even there she remains in her husband’s giant shadow, for A Fish Out of Water in fact originated as a short story by Dr Seuss, titled Gustav the Goldfish. It was originally published in a magazine in 1950, with the trademark Seuss rhymes and illustrations. You can see a comparison here. A decade later, he gave Helen permission to revise the story to make it a suitable “Beginner Book”, which required a more basic vocabulary.

In hindsight, the absurd premise is pure Seuss. A boy buys a pet goldfish and, against the advice of the pet-store owner, overfeeds it. The fish quickly outgrows every vessel in which the boy tries to house it, until even the local swimming pool is becoming too small to hold it. At this point the pet-store owner, Mr Carp, dives with a mysterious toolbox and magically returns the fish to its original size.

The illustrations by P. D. Eastman – a protégé of Dr Seuss – bring a charming realism to the preposterous story. Eastman’s drawings are much truer to life than the zany art of Dr Seuss, and something about the realistic looking figures – the baffled policeman and the concerned fireman – make it easy for a child to put themselves in the position of the little boy, to think maybe this really could happen!

I had never heard of Gustav the Goldfish until researching this blog, and I don’t know if I’d have preferred the Seussian version as a kid or A Fish Out of Water. They each appeal in different ways. All I can say with certainty is that I loved A Fish Out of Water and that Helen Palmer, despite her tragic end, was no failure.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Mog and the Baby
by Judith Kerr

This is a story of woeful neglect and misplaced trust. It is a warning to new parents: be careful – be very careful – when choosing a babysitter. Because like the unfortunate Mrs Clutterbuck, you might come home to find your baby wandering on the road, in the path of oncoming traffic, without an adult in sight. Tonight’s bedtime story is Mog and the Baby, but a more apt title would be Mrs Clutterbuck and the Clusterfuck.

First, some background. This is the third book in the Mog series by Judith Kerr. When I was little I had Mog’s Christmas, and it was a favourite during the holiday season. Mog was depicted as quite the typical cat: grumpy, self-centred and always causing trouble. But the pictures were cute, and the story fun, and I loved Mog’s Christmas.

In Mog and the Baby, a young mother struggling to juggle the care of a baby and the running of a household wants a couple of hours to do some shopping. Is that so much to ask? So she leaves her baby with Mrs Thomas, presumably a neighbour, who owns a cat named Mog. Mrs Thomas has two kids, Debbie and Nicky, who have survived enough years to give Mrs Clutterbuck confidence in Mrs Thomas as a carer. But perhaps that was more luck than good management.

Truth be told, the warning signs are there when Mrs Clutterbuck drops the baby off. “We’re going to look after it while she goes shopping,” Mrs Thomas tells her son Nicky, who is skipping school with a cold. “It’s trying to say puss,” she says when the baby makes a noise towards Mog. Notice anything wrong with Mrs Thomas’ words?

She calls the baby “it”. Twice. In front of Mrs Clutterbuck. She doesn’t call it by name, doesn’t even say “he” or “she”. No, just “it”. Poor Mrs Clutterbuck, she does seem uncertain, taking her time to put on her coat and leave. “Will my baby be all right with your cat?” she asks. What she is really wondering is: “Will my baby be all right with you?”

And that would be a valid question. Let me run you through the events that follow. While Mrs Thomas and Nicky are doing the lunch dishes the baby, completely unsupervised, overturns Mog’s food bowl and starts eating the cat food. “Look what it’s done,” Nicky says when he realises. (It, again).

So then Mrs Thomas decides the easiest option is to lift the top off the pram, sit it on the floor and stick the baby in there, hoping it might sleep. Then she runs off to get Mog and puts the cat in its basket right next to the baby, like some sort of supervisor. Seriously lady, Mog is a cat. You’re the only human adult in this house. Take some responsibility.

But instead, she goes off to do other things (read a magazine? sink a glass or two of wine?) and the baby climbs out and pulls Mog’s tail. Mog cracks the shits and pushes open a window to escape, the baby follows, Mog runs across the road and the baby follows again. Still no sign of Mrs Thomas.

The baby finds itself in the path of an oncoming car being driven by Mr Thomas, with Mrs Clutterbuck as a passenger. Has she really just been shopping? Is there more to this than meets the eye? Is it possible Mrs Thomas was neglecting the baby out of jealousy? Anyway, whatever the case, Mog accidentally knocks the baby out of harm’s way and is the hero.

And then the crowning insult. While Mrs Clutterbuck clutches her baby in relief, young Nicky says: “It’s a silly baby. It shouldn’t have run into the road”. A classic case of victim-blaming.

“Mog saved it,” says Debbie. (It, again).

“She is a very brave cat,” says Nicky. (The cat gets called “she” but the baby is “it”. You can see where this family’s priorities lie).

The upshot is that Mog gets a reward, nobody questions what the hell Mrs Thomas was doing that she let a baby run out of her house and onto the road, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Except for Mrs Clutterbuck, who presumably goes home to have a nervous breakdown.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Hairy Maclary from Donaldson's Dairy
by Lynley Dodd

I felt a natural affinity for Hairy Maclary when I was little. He was from Donaldson’s Dairy, I was from Coverdale’s Dairy. He was small and a bit scruffy. So was I. All he shared in common with his mates was location and species, but that was all they needed. Much like me and my primary school friends.

But I recently discovered something alarming about Hairy Maclary, something that I never would have suspected when I was a kid. We were from completely different kinds of dairy. Mine was a farm where cows were milked. His was a little shop that sells ice-creams and newspapers and bread and cans of baked beans that look like they’ve been there since the 1960s.

Did you know that? If you’re a Kiwi, you’re probably thinking: “Of course we did, you idiot”.

Because in New Zealand that’s what a dairy is – the kind of corner store Australians would call a milk bar. I learnt that a few years ago. And Hairy Maclary is a New Zealander. I learnt that in recent years too. Until now, though, I never put those two pieces of information together. I thought Hairy was a farm dog, like the one in Footrot Flats. Turns out he’s as much a farm dog as Brian Griffin.

Hairy’s creator, Lynley Dodd, confirmed it in 2014 in an interview with Fairfax. Or, to use her full title, Dame Lynley Dodd. So well-loved is the Hairy Maclary series that Lynley received a damehood in 2001.

There are currently only 52 dames in the New Zealand honours system, among them a former prime minister (Jenny Shipley), a former governor-general (Silvia Cartwright) and an Oscar-nominee (Jane Campion). For a children’s author and illustrator to be in such elite company is a serious honour.

But then, Hairy Maclary is a classic, so much so that it was the first bedtime story I ever read to baby Heidi. Not much happens plot-wise. Hairy and his friends go for a wander around town and run into Scarface Claw, the toughest tom in town. Then they all scamper home with their tails between their legs, literally.

So why is Hairy Maclary so enjoyable? In part it’s the pictures, the variety of the dogs, each adorable in their own way. But mostly it’s the rhymes and their easy rhythm, the fun of reading through the names of Hairy’s gang. Hercules Morse, as big as a horse. Muffin McLay, like a bundle of hay. Bottomley Potts, all covered in spots. Theophilus Tutts, who loves sniffing butts. Okay, I made that one up.

My favourite was always Schnitzel von Krumm, with a very low tum. And all these years later, the one I forgot about was Bitzer Maloney, all skinny and bony. Poor old Bitzer, I imagine he was always getting forgotten about. If you told me one of the gang would end up at the pound, I’d have Bitzer the skinny whippet a $1.25 favourite.

But the scruffy little star of this classic story, and the series that followed, is Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy Milk Bar.