Book Reviews & Essays on Literature

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The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder


This imprint: HarperCollins. The books in the series have been in constant reprint for decades. First published in 1940, this particular edition is from 2008.

One morning in March, with snow swirling and dropping like a thick veil onto ground that is already piled high with snow from last night, I remember a book I used to love when I was a little girl, living in South Africa: The Long Winter, part of the Little House series, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It is set in southeastern Dakota Territory in America during the severe winter of 1880 to 1881. I read the books in the series with not much understanding of log cabins, huge woods, green, waving prairie grasslands, or snow. It all seemed quite exotic. The wagons, oxen and farming I could deal with, since my grandparents were from a long line of farming stock. But where we lived it was semi-arid and hot, and  we didn’t have any woodlands, prairies…or snow. Snow was a thing found only in books.

The first time I saw actual snow, lying on the actual ground, and being actually touchable, was when I was an adult and went to Europe on holiday. I recall I was so anxious about spotting the first snow when we were on the Autobahn to Austria, that I mistook bales of hay covered in white plastic for heaps of snow.

The Long Winter in particular both frightened and intrigued me – How could it be that soft snow posed a danger? How could clothes freeze solid on the clothesline? Why was it painful to face a blizzard? How could you get lost and die in it – if it was so temporary that it all melted away? My little head just about fell off from all the bothersome questions. But I do remember the wonder I felt both at the story of survival, and at Garth Williams’ illustrations. He just about got the white curves of snow heaps perfectly with his soft pencil sketches – though I only realized that much later in life.

I remember my happiness and amazement when I read that book – such a simple little book, that has been part of my memories for so many years. And I also remember that when I did eventually see real snow, it was just like seeing an old friend that I’d met before in a book. Just shows you the impact a good book can have.


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Classic children’s literature

(Left: Hilda Boswell’s Treasure of Poetry. All the illustrations looked like they were set in Europe – who in South Africa used fireplaces? But I thought they were beautiful in any case, and could not stop looking at them.)

My love of reading and writing started with my parents reading to me; children’s poetry, like A Child’s Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson (1885), and Boswell’s Treasury of Poetry, and fairy tales, like the classic collections by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Wilhelm Hauff, Charles Perrault and the Tales of a Thousand and One Nights. From the fairytales I moved on to the best in the world of children’s literature, and never stopped reading. The illustrations in these children’s books were my start to a love of art and a sense of aesthetics. But it is the poetry that gave me my love for the words, the lilt and rhythm, playfulness and punning, and imagery and ideas of the English language. I was lucky – my parents were teachers and librarians, and not only did they read to my brother and me, but they read to us in four languages. (Continue reading…)

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The Return of the Young Prince, by A.G. Roemmers

The famous children’s book, The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, which is still copyrighted, has nevertheless been a frequent subject for fan fiction, adaptations, sequels and parodies. Argentine poet Alejandro Roemmers has written a fan fiction sequel to it, called The Return of the Young Prince, which will be published in English in hard cover later this year. (Read more about this derivative novel/children’s book.)

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Mary Poppins, by P.L. Travers

mary poppinsMary Poppins by P.L. Travers, 1934 & “Saving Mr. Banks”, 2013

The Mary Poppins books are not altogether sweet and cuddly, and neither was P.L. Travers. Both books and author were products of their times. The film Saving Mr. Banks is about the production of the 1964 Walt Disney Studios film version of the first Mary Poppins book, by the same name, and stars Emma Thompson (she of Nanny McPhee, talk about typecasting!) and Tom Hanks. The film centres on the life of Travers, shifting between 1907 with her childhood in Queensland, Australia, the 1961 negotiations with Walt Disney, and the subsequent making of Mary Poppins, starring Julie Andrews as the umbrella-wielding Nanny and Dick van Dyke (he of the mock Cockney accent) as the chimney-sweep, Bert. With its romanticized view of a middle-class family in 1910 London, UK, Mary Poppins is classic Christmas movie and TV fodder, along with The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, The Railway Children and other children’s favourites. But, there has always been a largely unacknowledged darker side to all these books. They all feature a missing, or withholding, parent or caregiver. (Continue reading…)