Collecting Rare Books and First Editions - The Short Story and The Private Library (Part IV)
By L. D. Mitchell
Hard by a great forest dwelt a poor wood-cutter with his wife and his two children. The boy was called Hansel and the girl Gretel. He had little to bite and to break, and once when great dearth fell on the land, he could no longer procure even daily bread. Now when he thought over this by night in his bed, and tossed about in his anxiety, he groaned and said to his wife, what is to become of us. How are we to feed our poor children, when we no longer have anything even for ourselves. I'll tell you what, husband, answered the woman, early to-morrow morning we will take the children out into the forest to where it is the thickest. There we will light a fire for them, and give each of them one more piece of bread, and then we will go to our work and leave them alone. They will not find the way home again, and we shall be rid of them. No, wife, said the man, I will not do that. How can I bear to leave my children alone in the forest. The wild animals would soon come and tear them to pieces. O' you fool, said she, then we must all four die of hunger, you may as well plane the planks for our coffins, and she left him no peace until he consented....
Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children's & Household Tales)
It is perhaps unsurprising that short stories are well-suited to children's literature. After all, the oral storytelling traditions from which short stories arose included tales considered particularly appropriate to children -- fables, parables and fairy tales, for example, have all traditionally been used to make moral instruction more palatable to youngsters.
Because short stories for children so often take advantage of folkloric elements, many of these (such as legends and tall tales) appeal as much to adults as they do to children. Do not, however, be deceived: short stories for children are every bit as challenging to write well as are short stories for adults. Authors who can do this consistently deserve their fame.
One such author was the great Danish poet and author Hans Christian Andersen. Feted by royalty, published in more than 150 languages, this former weaver's apprentice remains -- 135 years after his death -- one of the most beloved children's authors of all time. His numerous stories -- The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling and countless others -- have long since passed into the cultural memory of generations of children. (For a fairly comprehensive list of these stories, in their original order of publication, click here.) It is perhaps altogether fitting that the so-called "Nobel Prize for Children's Literature," awarded biennially by the International Board on Books for Young People, is designated the Hans Christian Andersen Award.
As may be surmised from the images, Andersen's tales have long proven well-nigh irresistible to a wide range of talented illustrators. But other authors also penned notable short stories for children. Among these may be numbered British Nobel Laureate Rudyard Kipling, one of those rare authors whose short stories for children have achieved as much fame as his short stories for adults (and who is known almost as well for his poetry!):
The first English-language writer to be awarded the Noble Prize in Literature (1907), Kipling -- like Chekhov -- had an enormous influence on the development of the short story as a literary form. Authors as diverse as Poul Anderson, Orwell (like Kipling, born in India) and Borges have all publicly acknowledged Kipling's influence on their own short stories. This influence notwithstanding, Kipling still causes many disagreements among critics, much of it driven by his critics' own political agendas.
Like Andersen's, many of Kipling's short stories have been (repeatedly) turned into radio, TV and film productions, and -- again like Andersen's -- many of these short stories have attracted some of the world's finest illustrators. François-Louis Schmied, for example, was one of the finest woodblock engravers of the Art Deco period. He achieved his first great success adapting Paul Jouve's illustrations for Kipling's Jungle Book.
Just as Kipling's reputation has often depended on his critics' own political agendas, so has the reputation of American author Joel Chandler Harris. Although the short stories penned by this gifted folklorist are widely collected, the fact that Harris based most of them on tales told by slaves has given many critics all kinds of problems. Most of this criticism appears to stem from the author's attempt to emulate as closely as possible the dialect of these tales as he first encountered them:
... Uncle Remus came around the corner of the house, talking to himself.
"Dey er too lazy ter wuk," he was saying, "en dey specks hones' fokes for ter stan' up en s'port um. I'm gwine down ter Putmon County whar Mars Jeems is -- dat's w'at I'm agwine ter do."
"What's the matter now, Uncle Remus?" inquired Mr. Huntingdon, folding up his newspaper.
" Nuthin' 'tall, Mars John, 'ceppin deze yer sunshine niggers. Dey begs my terbacker, en borrys my tools, en steals my vittles, en hit's done come ter dat pass dat I gotter pack up en go. I'm agwine down ter Putmon, dat's w'at."
Uncle Remus was accustomed to make this threat several times a day....
His critics notwithstanding, the short stories that Harris spun about Uncle Remus, Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and other such characters have, like the short stories spun by Andersen and Kipling, become part and parcel of the childhood of millions of delighted readers the world over.
According to literary critic John Goldthwaite, the Uncle Remus stories penned by Harris are "irrefutably the central event in the making of [the] modern children's story." Harris influenced everyone from Kipling and Milne to Twain and Faulkner. And, like Andersen and Kipling, his stories have attracted a host of talented illustrators (not to mention authors interested in re-telling Harris's tales in a more "politically correct" fashion).
Of course, these three authors, as good as they are, do not even begin to exhaust the collecting possibilities for children's short stories. We trust that you, loyal reader, will be able to uncover many more ....
The article by L. D. Mitchell was published in The Private Library. It is presented here by permission of the author. Thank you very much.
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