The past four months since my last post have been dedicated to finishing and printing the two books I started working on in the beginning of this year: Milla in the Misty Woods and Blue Boy, which is currently on sale in a limited first-run edition at the William Morris Gallery. They are both looking for a publisher, which I realise might be a tricky process, since they are not the typical happy-bright-coloured-with-giant-font books that most parents go for. My books, both written in the form of a long poem, are slightly dark, slightly melancholic, and with a slightly philosophical edge. As someone who has a real allergy to cutesy pink children’s clothes and toys, I am equally repulsed by a lot of Disney-like books that cover the shelves of many bookstores. Perhaps I am a little weird. But I when I was a child, the first book I read by myself was a compilation of provocative poems and limericks by a Tadeusz Boy Żeleński: a poet, theatre critic, columnist, pro-abortion activist and a formidable translator of French literature. I devoured them as I did The Grimm Brothers. (My choice of childhood reading material wasn’t so odd if you compare it to Edward Gorey’s — a fantastic writer-illustrator, whose Ascending Peculiarity book I’m currently reading. He read Dracula at age 5, Frankenstein at age 7 and all of the works of Victor Hugo by age 8.) As for illustrations, this was the sort of pinkness I adored: surreal and menacing landscapes with fantastically scary figures by Antoni Boratyński.
I am glad that not everyone is into reading about a bunch of cheerful animals bouncing happily on a fluorescent green meadow. I am also glad that there are fantastic writers out there who give more credit to children’s capability of appreciating surreal artwork, complex characters and serious topics. As Pamela Warrick rightly pointed out in an article for The Los Angeles Times on Maurice Sendak, “children know (…) that life is risky business, that there is trouble in the world, and sorrow, fear and violence — especially violence.” Sendak himself was very careful to not be labelled as an illustrator of children’s books, saying that he didn’t write for either children or adults specifically. “I just write,” he said. His Outside Over There book is about a young girl named Ida, whose baby sister had been stolen by creepy hooded goblins. In order to rescue her sister, Ida must travel to the underworld and outwit the goblins.
Edward Gorey, mentioned earlier, developed quite a large following among readers of all ages, despite the macabre contents of his books in which, as he said it in an interview with Robert Dahlin, he had been murdering children for years (“Conversations with Writers,” Volume I, 1977). In the same interview he says: “People who have been reading my books for a long time often say that they’ve seen their children around the house with them. (…) Someone I know said quite seriously that The Curious Sofa was their child’s favourite book.” Given that The Curious Sofa is a dark a dark quasi-pornographic, quasi-horror story “about furniture,” this statement might be a little shocking. Or perhaps not. My appreciation of Boy-Żeleński’s book with its humorous language and playfulness, was hardly diminished by lack of understanding of the sexual references.
It is interesting to read that many of Gorey’s books were intended as children’s books, but they couldn’t be published as such, with the exception of The Wuggly Ump and three books written in collaboration with Peter F. Neumeyer.
Interestingly, neither Sendak, who was gay, nor Gorey, who called himself “asexual”, had children (the latter confessed to not actually having particular fondness for them). Edward Lear, another writer (as well as an illustrator and landscape painter) I am greatly fond of, didn’t have children either. Like Gorey, he specialized in nonsensical poetry and limericks but his stories, though devoid of Gorey’s gruesomeness, aren’t exactly sweet little tales with a happy ending. They all carry a certain level of melancholy, particularly palpable in The Dong with a Luminous Nose. The Dong, once happy and gay, is driven to insanity and starts wandering endlessly “through the dreary night” after his beloved Jumbly Girl sails away:
While ever he seeks, but seeks in vain
To meet with his Jumbly Girl again;
Lonely and wild — all night he goes,
The Dong with a luminous Nose!
The subtle sadness of his poems echoes the emotional turbulences of his life. When Lear was about seven years old he began to show signs of depression and later suffered from periods of severe melancholia which he referred to as “the Morbids.” In an introduction to Nonsense Omnibus, Sir Edward Strachey says: “Mr. Lear was by temperament melancholy; it was not the grave air assumed by a humourist to give his jokes more point, but a gentle sadness through which his humour shone.”
My Blue Boy isn’t a happy-go-lucky child either. He is a solitary, emotional boy, embarrassed by tears which frequently come to his eyes in unexpected moments. He doesn’t magically turn into an ultra-happy child at the end of the story. Instead, he learns that being emotional is not necessarily a symbol of weakness, but a necessary component of life and creativity.
The Boy then returned to his bench by the quay
To daydream and look far above.
From now on whenever his heart became blue,
The Shadow Man softly came into his view,
And said: “Blue’s the colour of love.”
To paraphrase Pamela Warrick, quoted earlier – there is sorrow in the world, and trying to conceal it from children, offering them paper-thin characters with fake smiles is not what I am interested as a writer and artist, or what I seek as a reader.