TPR Challenge #8 - James Thurber

Tomorrow is our annual Halloween Bash, so I have been swamped this week with such pressing matters as making costume contest prize ribbons and planning a spooky menu and rearranging the deck furniture to best accommodate the 50-some people expected to descend around 4 PM local time.  I did take the time last night, though, to read James Thurber's Many Moons (mostly as a step in the process of cleaning off my desk; I later found it was a week overdue.  Bollocks). 

It is a sweet picture book (recently re-illustrated by Marc Simont of Nate the Great fame) about a gravely ill Princess Lenore and her request for the moon.  Her father, the king, knows that his wise men can get whatever he asks, so he orders his Lord High Chamberlain and his wizard and his mathematician to get the moon for her, and each insists it cannot be done.  In classic fashion, the jester then enters the scene and recognizes immediately that it does not matter what the wise men think; it only matters what Lenore thinks.  So, with her guidance, he crafts a moon for her out of gold and strings it on a gold necklace.  She loves it and is instantly made well by the gift.  That evening, the king is frantic trying to find a way to hide the rising moon from his daughter.  He knows that if she sees it, she will realize the one she wears is fake and will fall ill again.  Once again, the wise men are consulted, but no one offers an acceptable solution.  And once again, the jester knows who to ask:  Lenore.  As it turns out, she has seen the moon and is not troubled.  She compares it to the flowers in the garden and other "renewable" resources.  She has "picked" a moon, and a new one has simply grown in its place. 

The writing is strong (you just gotta love a children's book that uses surfeit in the first sentence!), and I like the quiet message it sends about the wisdom of children and our all-too-easy ability to over-think simple truths.  I also like Simont's watercolors here.  They show a depth that is not as evident in his line drawings and that you often don't see in watercolors at all.  Dreamy and airy are often words applied to this medium, and a few pages could be described as such, but overall, the layers of color reveal a confident touch and add a great deal to the story.  Much as I love these illustrations, though, I was quite surprised to learn the original 1943 edition, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin, won the Caldecott Medal.  It seems terribly odd that they would take a book that won the highest award for children's literature illustrations and re-illustrate it.  However, I like the new look, so I won't complain.  But I will keep my eyes open for an original copy.

James Thurber is a fitting follow-up to E. B. White as they were friends, coworkers at The New Yorker, and frequent collaborators.  His 1955 TPR interview offers several examples of his great wit and warmth.  He answers almost every question with an anecdote about a colleague, a friend, or some experience of his own.  Perhaps the most notable thing I learned of him (and perhaps I should have already known it) was his all but crippling vision deficiency.  What this revelation has caused me to understand is how different his definition of "writing" had to become.  He comments in the interview, "I still write occasionally - in the proper sense of the word - using black crayon on yellow paper and getting perhaps twenty words to the page.  My usual method, though, is to spend the mornings turning over the text in my mind.  Then in the afternoon, between two and five, I call in a secretary and dictate to her.  I can do about two thousand words."  This is a mind-boggling feat: to have something so clearly lined out in your mind as to be able to simply dictate two thousand words at a time. It makes me feel that everything he created should be viewed as even more valuable just due to the sheer effort it required of him.

The Thurber I really wanted to read was The Wonderful O, but it was marked as "in storage" in our library.  I must find out about this secret storage place and see if they will allow me to try a little more Thurber. 

Oh, and as a means of recording literary happenings in my world, this blog would be remiss if it didn't at least mention that I drove 2 hours to hear Margaret Atwood speak on Wednesday.  What an amazing, hilarious, and intelligent being she appears to be.  Well worth the drive, the late night, and the fog on the mountain.  Now, I'm even more interested in getting my hands on Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.


  1. How nice to stumble across someone on the internet reading Thurber's amazing children's stories. His use of language is so magical, these are some of my favourite books ever. Can I also recommend 'The White Deer' by the same author. If it's not in the library you should be able to get a second hand copy cheaply on Abe books or similar.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, Leila. I also just read The Thirteen Clocks by Thurber and found it wonderful in totally different ways. My kids aren't yet ready for it, but when the time comes, I hope I'll remember to get it in front of them. The introduction by Gaiman was equally as good as the book, too!