Darkly Dahl

Roald Dahl is an author of controversy. He’s lauded for being a brilliant writer; he’s shunned because of his 1920’s upbringing and racist and antisemitic writings and comments. His children’s books are considered classics of literature; his children’s books are ignored by some who complain they are too dark for children’s literature.

Too dark? Let’s look at this.

Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother was eaten by a predatory wolf, Cinderella’s stepmother made her into a slave, Hansel and Gretl were abandoned (twice!) by their parents and taken in by a cannibalistic hag; the Little Match Girl freezes to death all alone. Is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Matilda darker than that? Not quite.  

There is some truth to it – in many of Dahl’s stories, parents, if not most adults, are seen as evil, or cruel, or incompetent providers – mean teachers, poor and ever-working parents, buffoonish adults who cannot see the plight of the child (Wonka is most definitely – well, Wonky). There are elements of racial bigotry (the tiny black (yes, they were black in the book) oompa loompas living on grubs; Germans always being fat gluttons, etc). But is this so far from other children’s stories? Not so much. Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events is also darkly humorous, and few are crying foul. Dr. Doolittle bleaches a man’s skin, rather than let a black man marry a white woman. Peter Pan’s stereotypical depiction of Native Americans is downright painful and offensive on many levels. Bigotry and stereotyping is nothing new, only that fact that we now call it what it is. 

One point to remember is that parents, quite frankly, are a pain in the neck to children. They love them, while at the same time resent them for setting limits, saying no, and dragging children kicking and screaming through the process of growing up. For Dahl – and millions of others – who grew up in British boarding schools, at the mercy of bullies they couldn’t escape and teachers who were allowed to whip children, the experience left a more lasting impression (Pink Floyd, anyone?). For those in Britain who grew up in World War II, who as children hid during the Blitz or were shipped out to board with strangers, it lends another level of abandonment and trust issues to children’s literature. There’s a reason behind a lot of the dark – and for British children, it’s a shared cultural memory. Is Fantastic Mr. Fox an allegory for the war? Possibly. 

Another point to consider is children are the hero of their own story. It’s fine if Daddy vanquishes the dragon, but children would much rather be the ones doing it. Tween and Pre-tween children desperately want to be seen as competent, able to impress grown ups with their abilities. Children want to be the hero, and they can’t do that if Mummy and Daddy are with them telling them no – hence the number of orphan stories, or children alone. They can’t rely on the adults with them, or the story won’t work. A story about a child who tried and failed, who gave up and lived with their perceived oppression, isn’t a story a child wants to read about. There’s no role model there, no hero, no inspiration, no one to pretend to be. So of course Matilda has to shine, and the Peach must kill James’s wicked aunts, even if he has to find kinship with a bunch of insects, and even wacky Mr. Wonka can’t miss the good that dwells in Charlie. 

Darkness, shmarkness. The world is a dark place, and childhood a relatively new invention. In too many places, children are still locked in war-torn places, famines, camps, drug violence, and abusive situations. Our lauded fairy tales of yore – right down to Mother Goose and Aesop’s Fables – hark back to far darker times.

 Let them read. If nothing else, darker literature provides the perfect chance to discuss empathy, fantasy vs. reality, and handling tough situations – including some of the tough times we’ve been through in the past year.

The Magic Finger

Danny the Champion of the World

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The Witches

The BFG

Matilda

James and the Giant Peach

Fantastic Mr. Fox

British Mysteries from Book to Screen

Today’s post comes to us from our Deputy Director Deb, who loves a good mystery!

Many devoted mystery readers began with Agatha Christie’s classic golden age mysteries featuring Miss Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot. I certainly did! These distinctly British offerings are a perfect gateway into the world of mysteries. And like so many other British mysteries, they have been made into marvelous television series, which you can watch using the library’s new streaming video service, Acorn TV. Or you can download the books in e-book or e-audio from the library’s website.

Here are some suggestions to get you started.

Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple are both well represented on Acorn TV and in our e-book and e-audiobook collections. Consider reading or listening to Murder on the Orient Express, The ABC Murders or The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Check out Acorn TV and watch Marple, Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime, The Agatha Christie Hour and Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Also try Christie’s classic locked-room mystery, And Then There Were None, considered to be the world’s best-selling mystery, available in e-book and e-audio and on Acorn.

The Agatha Raisin series by M.C. Beaton features a middle-aged woman who sells her London PR firm and moves to the country (the Cotswolds, to be precise), where, in true amateur detective fashion, she encounters—and solves– murders galore! Try the first book in the series, Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death, available in both audio and ebook. Or read any of the others—like so many long-running mystery series, it isn’t necessary to read them in order. Then watch Agatha Raisin on Acorn, a top pick for fans of cozy British mysteries.

One of my favorite village cozy series, also by M.C. Beaton, features the unambitious and charming policeman Hamish Macbeth who patrols the village of Lochdubh in the Scottish Highlands. I have listened to all of them on audio. The reader, Graeme Malcolm, imbues the audiobooks with such charm and personality that I’m betting you, too, will be hooked! We have more than a dozen titles available on e-audio, including Death of an Honest Man and  Death of a Gossip. Then check out Hamish Macbeth on Acorn.

The Phryne Fisher series by Kerry Greenwood, featuring a glamorous private detective in 1920s Melbourne, is actually Australian, but close enough to fit in with our British theme. The supremely independent Miss Fisher has class, sass and the means to pull it all off! Try Cocaine Blues, the first in the series, or The Spotted Dog. The clothes alone make the series worth watching Miss Fisher on Acorn!

Ann Cleeves’ series featuring Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope is considerably darker than the other series in this post. DCI Stanhope is a solitary, obsessed, caustic, brilliant investigator near the end of her career working in northern England. Try listening to the first in the series, The Crow Trap, or read The Seagull. And be sure to watch Vera on Acorn TV.

Set in Ireland, the long-running Jack Taylor series by Ken Bruen has been thrilling readers (and now TV fans) for years. Taylor is a classic ex-cop turned seedy private eye prowling the underbelly of Galway. Try e-book or e-audio  Galway Girl or e-audio Purgatory and check out Jack Taylor on Acorn.

Broadening Your Story – People of Color in Children’s Literature

People of color have historically been under-represented in children’s literature. Thankfully, that has been changing in recent years. If you’re a black child, it’s important to see yourself represented positively in books. Equally important, it is important for white children to see positive representation of people of color. Here’s a list of books written by black authors that are available at your local library. These stories center, reflect and affirm the lived experiences of black children.

Sam Brown, writer for Bookstr summed it up perfectly, stating “Children’s books are powerful tools that help instill a sense of empathy in young readers. They are testing grounds for new ideas and exercises in ethics. Reading, at any age, teaches us that the experiences of other people are not only valid, but influential to our own lives. It’s for this reason that representation in children’s books matters”

Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry ; illustrated by Vashti HarrisonZuri’s hair has a mind of its own. It kinks, coils, and curls every which way. Zuri knows it’s beautiful. When Daddy steps in to style it for an extra special occasion, he has a lot to learn. But he LOVES his Zuri, and he’ll do anything to make her — and her hair — happy.

The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson ; illustrated by Rafael LópezThere are many reasons to feel different. Maybe it’s how you look or talk, or where you’re from; maybe it’s what you eat, or something just as random. It’s not easy to take those first steps into a place where nobody really knows you yet, but somehow you do it. Jacqueline Woodson’s lyrical text and Rafael López’s dazzling art reminds us that we all feel like outsiders sometimes-and how brave it is that we go forth anyway. And that sometimes, when we reach out and begin to share our stories, others will be happy to meet us halfway.

My Hair is a Garden by Cozbi A. CabreraAfter a day of being taunted by classmates about her unruly hair, Mackenzie cant take any more and she seeks guidance from her wise and comforting neighbor, Miss Tillie. Using the beautiful garden in the backyard as a metaphor, Miss Tillie shows Mackenzie that maintaining healthy hair is not a chore nor is it something to fear. Most importantly, Mackenzie learns that natural black hair is beautiful.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Boy by Tony Medina & 13 artistsThese short, vibrant tanka poems about young men of color depict thirteen views of everyday life: young boys dressed in their Sunday best, running to catch a bus, and growing up to be teachers, and much more. Each of Tony Medina’s tanka is matched with a different artist―including recent Caldecott and Coretta Scott King Award recipients.

Radiant Child : the story of young artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe – Jean-Michel Basquiat and his unique, collage-style paintings rocketed to fame in the 1980s as a cultural phenomenon unlike anything the art world had ever seen. But before that, he was a little boy who saw art everywhere: in poetry books and museums, in games and in the words that we speak, and in the pulsing energy of New York City. Now, award-winning illustrator Javaka Steptoe’s vivid text and bold artwork echoing Basquiat’s own introduce young readers to the powerful message that art doesn’t always have to be neat or clean–and definitely not inside the lines–to be beautiful.

The King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes ; illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-NewtonStarting kindergarten is a big milestone–and the hero of this story is ready to make his mark! He’s dressed himself, eaten a pile of pancakes, and can’t wait to be part of a whole new kingdom of kids. The day will be jam-packed, but he’s up to the challenge, taking new experiences in stride with his infectious enthusiasm! And afterward, he can’t wait to tell his proud parents all about his achievements–and then wake up to start another day.

Woke Baby by Mahogany L. Browne ; illustrated by Theodore Taylor III, and Woke : a young poet’s call to justice by Mahogany L. Browne, with Elizabeth Acevedo and Olivia Gatwood ; illustrated by Theodore Taylor III. Woke Baby is a lyrical and empowering book for all the littlest progressives, waking up to seize a new day of justice and activism, Woke is a collection of poems by women that reflects the joy and passion in the fight for social justice, tackling topics from discrimination to empathy, and acceptance to speaking out.

Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o ; illustrated by Vashti HarrisonSulwe has skin the color of midnight. She is darker than everyone in her family. She is darker than anyone in her school. Sulwe just wants to be beautiful and bright, like her mother and sister. Then a magical journey in the night sky opens her eyes and changes everything.

I am Enough by Grace Byers ; pictures by Keturah A. Bobo -This gorgeous, lyrical ode to loving who you are, respecting others, and being kind to one another comes from Empire actor and activist Grace Byers and talented newcomer artist Keturah A. Bobo. We are all here for a purpose. We are more than enough. We just need to believe it.

Now more than ever is the time to promote and share stories of all kinds. Know that the library is a place that welcomes everyone, following Cheshire Public Libraries mission statement “The Cheshire Public Library transforms lives and strengthens the community”.

Looking for more? Here are some other titles available from the Cheshire Library:

Women Who Rock

Veterinarian. Astronaut. Paleontologist. Actress. President. Everyone dreams up at least one career for themselves when they’re a kid or a teenager and the future stretches out in front of them like a vast, unending ocean. Me? You couldn’t tell from the basic Gap jeans and the guitars that lived mostly in the darkness of their cases, but I wanted to be a rock star.
I never ended up getting a record deal (big surprise), but I still enjoy music immensely. And lately, I find myself reading about music and thinking about the culture around music. It’s got me wondering where all the women are. Why are we so severely underrepresented in rock bands, and when we’re there, why are we only lead vocals or playing bass? Why do we often dress up in skirts and heels, but guys can throw on a black t-shirt and call it a day? Why aren’t more of us in the wake of #MeToo taking our anger to microphones and drum kits, screaming louder than those floppy-haired skinny emo boys whose photos plastered our bedroom walls before their predatory conduct towards underage female fans plastered the news? Or, perhaps more disturbingly, are we already screaming out to be heard, but the world just isn’t listening because a man hasn’t come along and validated our efforts yet?
On that distortion-pedaled, dropped-down-a-half-step note, here’s some titles to stoke your inner riot grrrl:

Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon
Noise rockers Sonic Youth might be a tough listen for some folks (coughs, averts eyes), but this memoir by bassist Kim Gordon is not. She details her time in the band, her life as an artist in New York, and her marriage to frontman Thurston Moore.
Did you know that the title for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came from Bikini Kill’s lead singer, Kathleen Hanna? Never heard of Bikini Kill? Then give a listen to this history of riot grrrl, the radical feminist punk uprising in the 1990s, the waves of which can still be felt today.
You might go, “Oh, that’s the woman from Portlandia,” but before her foray into comedy, Carrie Brownstein was best known as the lead guitarist for punk band Sleater-Kinney. (IMHO, their 2005 album The Woods is one of the best rock albums of the oughts.) Her memoir presents a candid and deeply personal assessment of life in the rock-and-roll industry that reveals her struggles with rock’s double standards.
If you don’t know Amanda Palmer from the dark cabaret duo the Dresden Dolls, or her solo albums, or as a crowdfunding pioneer, you’ll know her as the wife of Neil Gaiman. (How I wish I could eavesdrop and hear the bedtime stories they tell their child!) Part manifesto, part revelation, this is the story of an artist struggling with the new rules of exchange in the twenty-first century, both on and off the Internet, meant to inspire readers to rethink their own ideas about asking, giving, art, and love. Available from us in print and audiobook formats.

 

The Amazing Short Stories of Ted Chiang

Our sci-fi guy, Harold, has an author recommendation for you:

If I could only recommend one science fiction author to read this year, it would be Ted Chiang. Though Chiang has written only 14 of short stories and one novella, his works have been critically acclaimed. His short story collections are Exhalation and Stories of Your Life.

Chiang has been the recipent  of four Nebula awards, four Hugo awards, and won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (for his short story, “Babylon”).  His short story, “Story of Your Life,” was the basis of the film Arrival (2016). Exhalation was a Goodreads Choice Award in 2019. The New York Times named Exhalation one of the 10 Best Books of 2019. That’s a lot of awards that are, in my opinion, well deserved!

Chiang’s works are hard to describe since they are not conventional science fiction, per se. It’s a subtle distinction, but they are more fiction based on science than science fiction. President Obama, via Facebook, said that they are “a collection of short stories that will make you think, grapple with big questions, and feel more human. The best kind of science fiction.”

These are precisely articulated, well-crafted and thought-provoking stories. There are no rocket ships or cosmic battles. Instead, they expand upon and extend science, and technology that exists today. Two of my favorites from Exhalation are “Babylon”, a re-work of the Tower of Babel story, and “Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”,  about a merchant in ancient Persia who can travel through time to correct past mistakes.

Exhalation  and Stories of Your Life are available at the Cheshire Public Library as printed books.  Exhalation is also available as an ebook, and Stories of Your Life is also available as a downloadable audiobook. They are well worth reading. The film, Arrival, based on Chang’s “Story of Your Life”, is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.