January 18, 2018
(++++) FAMED AUTHORS REVISITED
One Fun Day with Lewis Carroll: A Celebration of Wordplay and a Girl Named Alice. By Kathleen Krull. Illustrated by Júlia Sardà. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.
Mr. Gedrick and Me. By Patrick Carman. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
There seems to be no end of ways to enjoy and re-enjoy Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and Kathleen Krull has come up with an especially clever one: a sort of “Lewis in Wonderland” story combined with “Through the Looking-Back Glass” in the form of biography. Scarcely a complete study of Carroll’s life, One Fun Day with Lewis Carroll lives up to its subtitle, especially the part about wordplay, by including many of Carroll’s invented words in Krull’s narrative and offering some of the oddities and grotesqueries of his books in the illustrations by Júlia Sardà. The unusual tidbits of biography that creep in here and there are used to further Krull’s storytelling design – for example, the fact that Carroll was the oldest of no fewer than 11 children gives Krull a method of introducing young Lewis as the leader of an adventure/parade featuring 10 younger children, some shown by Sardà looking like characters from Carroll’s not-yet-written books and some more closely resembling the characters in Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak’s 1963 fantasy that owes a considerable debt to Carroll’s work. Throughout One Fun Day with Lewis Carroll, Krull includes some of the 200-or-so words invented by Carroll, showing them in red so young readers know they can learn more about them in a back-of-the-book glossary. But anything overtly instructional is strictly downplayed by Krull in favor of assembling an interesting story for today’s readers – made up of snippets from Carroll’s life, such as the fact that “he encouraged pranks, such as climbing up a clock tower to strike the enormous bell at the wrong time of day.” Sardà’s illustrations complement Krull’s writing exceptionally well, making clear the straitlaced Victorian settings of Carroll’s reality while including within them sly visual references to the surreal versions of those settings that Carroll put into his books. Thus, for example, a perfectly proper Victorian tea party contains hints of the “Mad Tea Party” found in Alice in Wonderland, and an imagined scene of Carroll and three little girls in a canoe, flinging playing cards into the air, seems to emerge from the scene late in Alice in Wonderland in which Alice is subjected to a shower of cards. Krull describes Carroll as “the man who never forgot how to play,” and while that is a vast oversimplification, it is perfectly sensible in the context of this book – which, at the very end, offers two pages of additional, straightforward information on Carroll’s life, followed by a source list to which young readers can turn to learn more about the man and to read his two Alice books for themselves and enter a wonderland of their own.
The name of P.L. (Pamela Lyndon) Travers is far less known than that of Lewis Carroll, but the name of Travers’ most famous creation, Mary Poppins, is familiar just about everywhere. Mary Poppins (1934) and its seven sequels endure in multiple media today, admittedly thanks in large part to the 1964 Disney film that somewhat sanitized the title character by smoothing the rough edges with which Travers endowed her. Even when contemporary children do not know the Mary Poppins books themselves, they have likely encountered the character in some form in other books, because so many authors have found it irresistible to imagine the very proper British nanny in different situations and different guises. That is just what Patrick Carman does in Mr. Gedrick and Me, the thoroughly modern story of a family troubled by thoroughly modern issues that finds itself pulled back together and strengthened through the presence of a somewhat magical and not always explainable nanny. This particular nanny happens to be a man, not a woman, wears a jacket that seems to be made of pool-table felt, and turns up because of an Internet search. And the family has been shattered by the father’s death, leaving nine-year-old Stanley Darrow (the “me” of the title) and his two older siblings trying to cope with deep and largely unexpressed sorrow as their mother, an architect, desperately tries to keep her job by creating an important project for which her slimy boss intends to take full credit. This is scarcely a Travers setup, but there is no mistaking Mr. Gedrick’s Poppins relationship: he may not say “spit spot,” but he does say “a pinch and a twist,” “a flick and a sniff,” and similar phrases, and he does have a pointer (rather than an umbrella) that does a wide variety of surprising things, and he does possess a car named Fred (rather than a carpetbag) that seems to have infinite storage capacity. He seems to channel the dearly departed and dearly loved father so often that Stanley actually asks at one point whether Mr. Gedrick is magic, and gets the reply, “Magic is difficult to explain, Stanley. But the best kind is always for a good purpose.” And as with Mary Poppins, that explains exactly nothing. Mr. Gedrick also has the ability to take the kids into a museum that is not open – with the museum guard’s permission – and to cut out all the parts needed to assemble a treehouse in a particularly inviting tree in the back yard, and to produce yard gnomes one of which looks exactly like Mr. Gedrick himself, and much more. He also – and this is the central point of Carman’s book, which is aimed at readers around Stanley’s age – has a way of making all the kids, but especially Stanley, much more self-confident and much better at learning that even someone small can do big things (a statement that is one of Mr. Gedrick’s echoes of Stanley’s father). Unfortunately, Mr. Gedrick and Me has a significant flaw, and that is Stanley himself: his unfailingly upbeat personality, his overly easy interaction with Mr. Gedrick and with his surly siblings, his constant insistence on the bright side of everything, are at odds with the early-in-book portrait of a boy who is barely keeping himself together since his father’s death. Stanley is simply not interesting enough or challenged enough to provide Mr. Gedrick and Me with the sort of heart that Travers brought to her books and that Disney was able to pack into the simplified film version of Mary Poppins. The result is that Mr. Gedrick and Me is a (+++) book with some enjoyable scenes and some elements that are effective tributes to Travers’ work – but it is nowhere near as enjoyable as Travers’ books, and it never approaches their level of characterization, emotional involvement, or sense of the possibility of magic in everyday life.