Law and Conversation

September 21, 2012

Happy Hobbit Birthday!

Happy 75th–not eleventy-first–birthday to one of my many favorite books, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit!”

Corey Olsen’s thoughtful essay from today’s Wall Street Journal points out what a deft job Tolkien did in creating Bilbo Baggins’s three-dimensional character with the conflicted heritage of the staid Bagginses and the fey Tooks. To tell the truth, I’ve always enjoyed “The Hobbit” far more than its epic sequel, “The Lord of the Rings,” in which I felt inevitably mired down in the battles of the third volume each time I reread it. I’m far more interested in the development of the characters and their relationships, which I felt TLOTR falls a bit short on but “The Hobbit” gets just right. Give us some more details about Aragorn and Arwen, please–inquiring minds want to know the basis for their attraction! But Tolkien tells a great story, interminable battles or no.

I haven’t yet read George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” series, sometimes described as “The Lord of the Rings” meets “The Sopranos,” but everything I hear or read about it suggests it’s enthralling. Readers, what do you think? If you’ve read it, and especially if you have some thoughts about it and the Tolkien books, please leave a comment. And if you’ve read Tolkien’s posthumously published works, including “The Silmarillion,” I’d also love to hear what you think. And while you’re at it, what will you have for Second Breakfast or Elevenses tomorrow to celebrate?

July 20, 2011

Three to read from Maurice Sendak, and how we create our families

The other day I added Maurice Sendak‘s “Nutshell Library,” composed of “Alligators All Around,” “Pierre,” “One Was Johnny,” and the immortal “Chicken Soup With Rice,” to my personal list of series books everyone should have read before the age of 21. If Sendak wrote or illustrated it, it’s hard to go wrong, in my experience.

“Where The Wild Things Are” is probably Sendak’s most famous book. Here are three more wonderful but not quite as well known books that Sendak either wrote or illustrated:

1) “The Wheel On The School,” by Meindert De Jong. This Newbery Medal winner for 1955 is a wonderful story of what children can achieve when they’re motivated and organized.

2) “Zlateh the Goat,” by Isaac Bashevis Singer. This earthy, timeless tale is suitable for children and adults alike. The Great Books Foundation has included it in its Shared Inquiry student anthologies for the early grades from time to time.

3) “The Bat Poet” and “The Animal Family,” by Randall Jarrell. The former, which I read only as an adult, is one of the best children’s books I’ve ever read. The latter, which I read many times as a child and loved, is also wonderful, though, contrary to John Updike, I think “The Bat Poet” is even better. For each, Sendak’s drypoint (?) illustrations perfectly enhance the story.

“The Animal Family,” which has to do with a family in the woods made up of a hunter, a mermaid, a bear, a lynx, and a boy who was a foundling, made me think about how many people create their own families, sometimes because they don’t have many close biological family members, sometimes because they don’t find their biological family members congenial or because they’ve grown away from them, and sometimes because they live far away. Naturally, that line of thought took me to musing about how social customs and practices have influenced the evolution of family law.

Though there’s great current popular emphasis on family, it seems to me that creating family-equivalents from unrelated friends must have a long tradition in the Americas and Australia, as Laura Ingalls Wilder recounts in her stories of Christmas and other occasions with the Boasts and Mr. Edwards in her “Little House” books. The alternative would have been a solitary existence–fine for some, but probably unbearable for most. Now as then, true friends are more valuable than rubies.

Marriage and adoption are the most common and accepted ways for those who aren’t related by blood to create families. In the last couple of decades, the law around the world has been rapidly changing to encourage marriage and permanent relationships by permitting marriage or civil unions between adult same-sex partners.

Though there’s great wisdom in current U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s famous quote, “It takes a village” to raise a child, courts and legislatures have understandably proceeded with great caution when considering claims for custody or visitation of minor children from persons other than the children’s legal parents. In my home state, for example, the Illinois Supreme Court has grappled with such issues in headline-making cases such as “Baby Richard,” in which the court reversed the termination of a biological father’s parental rights, and Wickham v. Byrne, in which the court invalidated the state’s then-existing grandparent visitation statute. In the latter case, the court found it troubling that the statutory standard, the “best interests and welfare of the child,” put grandparents on the same footing as the child’s parents. It felt that courts should second-guess parental decisions only when a child’s health, safety, or welfare was shown to be at risk. The statute has since been amended.

You can listen to an interview with Maurice Sendak here on NPR. Did Maurice Sendak’s works make an impression on you when you were a child? Have you reread them on becoming a grown-up, and if so, did they inspire you with any fresh insights?

July 18, 2011

Read This: Maurice Sendak

Bemused by the inclusion of such works as John Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy, James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and Erica Jong’s “Fear Of Flying” on a list of books that noted contemporary authors urged reading BEFORE the age of 21, I recently posted my own off-the-top-of-my-head recommendations for such a list.

There are so many great books that, in my opinion, everyone should read, preferably while they’re still kids, that, for the sake of manageability, I decided to limit my picks to series books (loosely defined, so that I included the entire body of some writers’ work, most notably Dr. Seuss). I also decided to expand the number of recommendations from three, my usual aim for a manageable blog post, to ten.

Even with limits, it still made for a post that was far longer than usual. And even expanding my usual number of recommendations from three to ten, the minute I finished writing, I thought of several more that really ought to be toward the top of any reading list for the under-21 group, which I then sneaked in at the bottom of my post.

Here’s yet another great series that everyone under 21 should read: Maurice Sendak‘s “Nutshell Library,” composed of “Pierre,” “One Was Johnny,” “Alligators All Around,” and the best known “Chicken Soup With Rice.”

These charming books, which come in a little box that small children can easily hold in their hands, combine the best of storytelling, poetry, and art. Whether you’re under or over 21, if you haven’t read them yet, go pick them up at your local library or bookstore. Check out their musical setting, too, from the Really Rosie TV special, by Carole King. ALL seasons, and all ages, are nice for reading Chicken Soup With Rice!

Sendak’s other books are also marvelous. Many, like the fairy tales collected by Andrew Lang and other great books written for young people by Sherman Alexie and Laurie Halse Anderson, deal with very dark themes, which has resulted in their appearing on the American Library Association’s list of frequently banned books with some regularity.

Please check back with me on Wednesday, when I’ll have three more recommendations for books by or illustrated by Maurice Sendak. If it has Sendak’s name in the credits, you just can’t go wrong!

June 24, 2011

My turn: Books everyone should read before 21

As I’ve mentioned, The Book Show on Britain’s Sky Arts media channel recently asked a number of distinguished author guests from its shows for their ideas on books that everyone should have read before the age of 21. The resulting list is worth perusing by anyone and tacking up on a bulletin board or refrigerator door.

But the list bothered me, chiefly for what I see as glaring omissions. Instead of including books that most of the broad range of people under 21 could read, the authors consulted focused on the far upper end of the range, including such admittedly great, but mature-themed, books as John Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy, James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.”

And the book prominently featured at the very top of the list? Erica Jong‘s “Fear Of Flying.”

“FEAR OF FLYING?” On a list of strongly recommended reading BEFORE turning 21????  What’s UP with that??????

Jong’s book is a fun read, I admit. But I’m not sure it’s a classic, and it probably isn’t for everyone. It’s certainly not a book for kids, which is what people 21 and under are, whether or not they’re adults in the eye of the law. As David Brooks writes in today’s New York Times, “The culture of childhood is being compressed. Those things which young people once knew at 18, they now know at 10 or 12.”

I know, and have known, many amazingly mature young people. Certainly, all of the books on the list, including the ones I’ve highlighted above, are capable of being read by mature teens and those in their early 20s. After all, Updike himself wasn’t even out of his 20s when he wrote the first “Rabbit” book. Speaking only for myself, though, and having read it only recently, well after my 21st birthday ;-), I’m absolutely confident I wouldn’t have appreciated it at that age.

So what’s the hurry? Why rush to read adult-themed books before turning 21?

The first two “Rabbit” books challenged me when I read them this year. “Ulysses” is on my list of difficult books to tackle. I’m all for pushing myself, and for others pushing themselves, to read challenging material. But given that everyone’s going to grow up–absent an unfortunate event–why skip over any joys of youth if you don’t have to?

In my adult view, one of those prime joys is reading children’s books and literature classified as young adult (YA). Though writers today generally target their books to specific age groups, I’ve seen a number of books from the 19th century (a literary period I love) that were written for general audiences but are now classified as middle grade (MG) or YA for library and bookstore purposes. (Some of Dickens’s works particularly come to mind.)

Today I’m providing an off-the-top-of-my-head list of wonderful, must-read books that should appeal to just about anyone in the under-21 reading range. The enormous bulk of material makes this a daunting task: it’s really, really hard to come up with a manageable list. For that reason, I’m expanding my usual self-imposed limit of 3 per blog post to 10. But I am limiting my recommendations here to series books, somewhat loosely defined, and excluding marvelous standalone works. If you’re over 21 and haven’t read some of these books–or if it’s been years, since you were a kid, since you’ve read them–do yourself a favor and go read or reread these great stories now.

1) At the top of my list is the entire oeuvre of Theodor Seuss Geisel, known to all as “Dr. Seuss.” My personal favorites are “I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew,” “The Lorax,” and “Scrambled Eggs Super.” The first two, along with “Sneetches,” “The Grinch That Stole Christmas,” and “Horton Hears A Who,” carry timeless, serious messages. I haven’t discerned any particular message in “Scrambled Eggs Super,” but, like all Seuss books, its verse and illustrations make up an amazing work. It’s just plain FUN, and, as all of us who love “The Cat In The Hat” should know, “It is fun to have fun!”

2) Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s “Little House” books. Written by Wilder and edited–some argue partly ghostwritten–by her brilliant, extraordinarily difficult daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, this fictionalized story of Wilder’s life realistically depicts pioneer life in the late 19th century U.S. Though the story of Wilder’s and Lane’s relationship and collaboration has already inspired a few biographies and scholarly analyses, there’s plenty of room for more. Legal topics raised by their lives and work include fascinating probate and copyright issues.

3) The Burgess Books For Children, by Thornton W. Burgess. These wonderful series stories of animals include the adventures of Reddy Fox, Sammy Jay, Billy Mink, Jerry Muskrat, Peter Rabbit, and many, many more.

4) Lucy Maud Montgomery‘s books, including “Anne of Green Gables” and its sequels, her lesser known “Emily” series, and the standalone, apparently rather little known “Blue Castle.”

5) L. Frank Baum‘s “Wizard of Oz” series.

6) Lois Lenski‘s books on American life, including “Strawberry Girl,” “Houseboat Girl,” “Cotton In My Sack,” and “Coal Camp Girl.” Like Wilder’s “Little House” books, these books realistically depict life in the mid-20th century, or the 19th century in the case of “A-Going To The Westward” (which is tragically out of print), or the 18th century in the case of “Bound Girl Of Cobble Hill,” for working people and their children in the U.S.

7) J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

8) C.S. Lewis’s Narnia chronicles.

9) L.M. Boston’s “Green Knowe” series, beginning with “The Children of Green Knowe.”

10) Andrew Lang’s fairy tale compilations in every hue of the rainbow, including “The Red Fairy Book,” “The Blue Fairy Book,” and so on.

For many of these books, including not only Dr. Seuss’s but also Lois Lenski’s and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, the artwork is integral to the stories. That leads me to wish again that more publishers would contract with artists to illustrate more currently published books.

As with any list, I’m certain to have left many fine candidates out. I’m already thinking that Beverly Cleary‘s series depicting Beezus, Ramona, Henry Huggins, and Ellen Tebbits, not to mention Louisa May Alcott’s series, Susan Cooper‘s “The Dark Is Rising” series, and J.K. Rowling‘s “Harry Potter” books are rather glaring omissions. And I see I haven’t included any great, classic science fiction series, or any graphic novel series. Well, that’s fodder for future writing!

What books would you include on a list that everyone really ought to read by the age of 21?

June 6, 2011

Books to read before you’re 21

Last week I wrote about some recently posted reading lists. One was from the Sky Arts UK program, “The Book Show,” which posted a list of Books To Read Before You’re 21. The program’s managers solicited ideas for that list from noted authors who have appeared as guests.

Here’s a view of my thoughts as I browsed that list:

1) Wow, what great books!

2) Gee, I’ve always considered myself pretty well-read, but I don’t think I’d read most of the books on that list before I was 21.

3) Hmm, I see a number of books on this list that I’ve read only recently, and it’s been a while since I turned 21.

4) Oh, dear, there are a number of books here that I haven’t yet read!

5) Hmmm again–I’m seeing very few books on this rather long list that I’d think would be suitable for or commonly read by kids under 10.  Maybe five or fewer for kids under 15. And not a single Newbery Medal winner!

The books on the SkyArts list include Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” John Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy, and James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Most of the others, like those, are very complex works that are suitable for adults and mature teens but not for children.

Given that this book list is for young readers–yes, 21 is still pretty young–I wonder why the contributors to that list didn’t include more children’s and YA literature? Were they zeroing in on 21-year-old readers to the exclusion of the 20 years in the rest of the category?

A tiny handful of contributors did recommend books for the younger set. There’s one Beatrix Potter story, “The Tale of Tom Kitten,” and one by Dr. Seuss:  “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” A.A. Milne’s “Winnie The Pooh” made it on, and so did T.H. White’s “The Once And Future King.” Certainly, Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” can also be read and appreciated by preteens.

To my disappointment, the contributor who recommended “Tom Kitten” apologized for her recommendation, saying she feared it would lower the tone. To the contrary! Those who haven’t read Beatrix Potter, Dr. Seuss, or Winnie The Pooh since they were children might not remember them well, but all of those works are complex, can be read on more than one level, and are as enjoyable for adults as for children. In fact, I’d include the complete works of both Potter and Seuss on any list of books that everyone should read before 21.

Readers, are you as disappointed as I am not to see more classics that can be read and enjoyed by young children on this list? Should everyone have read Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy before their 21st birthday?

Please rejoin me in a couple of days, when I’ll have three recommendations of my own (besides all of Beatrix Potter and all of Dr. Seuss) for classic books that everyone should read before turning 21. Hint: none are by James Joyce, John Updike, or Leo Tolstoy!

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