• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 18/Grade 12, 16/Grade 11, and 14/Grade 10.

    Contact me at becky(dot)farmschool(at)gmail(dot)com

  • Notable Quotables

    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "‘Never look at an ugly thing twice. It is fatally easy to get accustomed to corrupting influences."
    English architect CFA Voysey (1857-1941)

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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  • Copyright © 2005-2016 Please do not use any of my words or my personal photographs without my express permission.

This way to the egress

PZ Myers has the creation museum carnival up and running. It looks like a terrific round-up of articles, which I look forward to reading the rest of the week post-4H, and I’m pleased that my little entry (the previous post) could be a part of it. Many thanks to Dr. Myers for the rounding up, and for the original idea, to John McKay, whose blog is named after Farm School’s favorite cockroach (here too).

Now back to the fairgrounds…

P.S. If the humbuggery of Ken Ham’s efforts has your interest piqued, you should enjoy this, too. But then again, Phineas T. knew he was a humbug.

I typed this all by myself with my opposable thumbs

I shouldn’t even be here posting, because we’re getting ready for the big 4H Beef Club weekend — achievement day, interclub show, and sale. (No, Laura doesn’t have to sell her heifer calf; only the steers get sold, heading straight to their doom and little wrapped packages. One reason an older friend of hers and longtime 4H member suggested a heifer over a steer.)

I’ve been reading andhearing again a fair amount this past week about the new creation museum in the U.S., since opening day is slated for Monday.

So it was a tonic to read Red Molly’s thoughts on the subject, especially in conjunction with homeschooling (HT Alasandra, and also for the reminder about the John Wayne Centennial today, for which my kids are gleeful).

Even more interesting to learn that Red Molly’s post is part of tomorrow’s, erm, creation museum carnival to be hosted by one of my favorite science bloggers, PZ Myers at Pharyngula, which, by the way, has some of the best online prehistory/evolution reading lists in a variety of categories — “for the kids”, “for the grown-up layman”, “for the more advanced/specialized reader”, etc. (scroll through the comments for more titles).

Whether or not Monday is a holiday where you are, go visit a natural history museum (scroll all the way down for related links). Of special note,

Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, Drumheller, Alberta (which offers home school discounts)

Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Ontario

Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, Ontario

American Museum of Natural History, New York City

Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago; the travelling Charles Darwin exhibit opens here on June 15, 2007 (through January 1, 2008) and has its ownwebsite

Museum of Science, Boston

Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center, Woodland Park, Colorado

Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology, Abiquiu, New Mexico

Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, Wyoming

National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi, Kenya

the grandaddy of them all, the Natural History Museum, in London, England

and the great-grandaddy — the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin aka the Naturkundemuseum aka the Humboldt Museum of Natural History in Berlin, with collections — more than 20 million zoology specimens, more than 3 million palaeontology specimens, and more than one million mineralogy ones — that date back to the establishment of the Prussian Academy, in 1700, and the Bergakademie (Mining Academy) in 1770. Celebrated for its Brachiosaurus brancai, the world’s biggest mounted dinosaur skeleton. Thanks to the great grandaddy OC for the reminder.

Additional links:

The Charles Darwin Has a Posse sticker page. Because you can never underestimate the power of a well-placed sticker or bookmark. As I noted in my 2005 Posse post, “As Darwin himself said, and as you can be reminded daily from a bookmark, ‘Doing what little one can to increase the general stock of knowledge is as respectable an object of life as one can, in any likelihood, pursue’.”

Understanding Evolution website, created by the University of California Museum of Paleontology; lots of resources for educators and children

Darwin Day Celebration website, with links, events, and other items leading to a celebration of the great man’s bicentennial on February 12, 2009.

The Darwin exhibit is no longer at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC — it’s opening at the Field Museum in Chicago (see above) on June 15 — but the website remains, with a good list of resources, some for kids.

The PBS Evolution series also has a niftywebsite, with some projects and links for “Teachers and Students”

American Association for the Advancement of Science

Verlyn Klinkengborg’s New York Times column, August 2005, Grasping the Depth of Time as a First Step in Understanding Evolution

Darwin Correspondence Project, based at Cambridge University; according to the project’s website, “The main feature of the site is anonline database with the complete, searchable, texts of around 5,000 letters written by and to Charles Darwin up to the year 1865. This includes all the surviving letters from the Beagle voyage – online for the first time – and all the letters from the years around the publication of Origin of species in 1859.”

Coturnix’s book list for adults

Becoming Human website

Project Beagle website and theBeagle blog

Evolved Homeschooling blog — “A collection of evolution and science resources for the secular homeschooler”.

And finally, you can join the Friends of Charles Darwin, gratis.

Respectable history for a general readership: bad news and a bit of good news

I’m slowly wading through news from the past week or two and was saddened to read in The New York Times (registration is free or use Bug Me Not) that the wonderful American Heritage Magazine has suspended publication with the April/May 2007 issue, now on newsstands. Editor Richard F. Snow, who started in the magazine’s mailroom in 1965, told The Times earlier this month that the bimonthly magazine, owned by Forbes Inc., has been for sale since January, and “in the absence of a buyer … the publishers have decided to put the next issue, June-July, on indefinite hold.”

The good news is that at least for the present, American Heritage will continue to publish on its incredibly useful and informative (not to mention easy to navigate) website. Make use of it now while you can. You can, believe it or not, search the archives for articles in each and every print issue all the way back to the very first of December 1954, which includes the article on “The Writing of History: An English Authority Compares British and American Viewpoints” by D. W. Brogan. You can also revisit eminent American historian and first AH managing editor Bruce Catton‘s column, “Reading, Writing, and History” on the long-forgotten Cadwallader commotion. The AH website each day includes several features at the bottom of the page, including “today in history” and the quotation of the day. Today, the former includes the news thatin 1929, the Marx Brothers’ first film, The Cocoanuts, opened; in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge opened to traffic; in 1844, Samuel Morse sent the first telegram; and in 1830, the first American passenger railroad began service. The thought for the day is one of my favorite’s from Mark Twain: ““It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races.”

There’s also a link on the home page to historian Bernard Weisberger‘s “Funeral Oration for American Heritage“, published at History News Network [links provided by me],

Allow me to shed a sentimental senior tear or two for the dear, departed print version of American Heritage, executed by Forbes, Inc., for the crime of attracting only one third of a million (350,000 to be exact) regular readers. Whether the online edition is granted a full pardon or merely a reprieve seems unclear at this moment. It’s all rather personal with me. I’m one of the earliest contributors, with a piece on revivalist star of the eighteen-seventies, Dwight L. Moody, in the August 1955 issue, Subsequently I wrote a very large quantity of reviews and articles on assorted topics, the last (on political polling) appearing in 2000 — plus books for the then-independent American Heritage Corporation’s juvenile, text-book and mail-order book divisions [many of which grace the Farm School shelves], all long since sold away or terminated with extreme prejudice. But the magazine was my true home, a perfect haven for an academically trained historian who enjoys the challenge of writing respectable history for a general readership. From 1970 to 1972 I was on full-time staff as an Associate Editor, a personal way station on the road to leaving college teaching. Finally, from 1989 to 1999 I was a regular columnist, connecting today’s news with yesterday’s history, much as HNN does now.

But it’s those two years as Associate Editor that I recall most fondly. The company’s offices were then in the Fred F. French building at 45th Street and 5th Avenue, handy to the restaurants, theaters and tourist attractions of midtown Manhattan. Bruce Catton was still there, friendly but usually secluded in his office and working on his own projects, but also doing a smooth, professional job of doctoring articles referred to him by Oliver Jensen, the active editor. …

We had our squabbles, our jealousies, our complaints of the management and our share of the clashes between editorial and business departments. But I do not recall tension between the “picture people”–the highly competent pictorial research staff–and those of us on the “print side.” We all agreed on the concept of a generously illustrated magazine, with words and images mutually reinforcing each other, that took history seriously. We liked and respected what we did, and this is not mere nostalgia for golden days of youthful aspiration–we were all well past thirty.

It is, of course, exactly that seriousness which critics of the magazine denied. They said its wish to entertain short-changed its power to instruct. I’ll grant that there was a possible over-supply of drums and trumpets, “quaint corners of the past,” and Great White Males in those early numbers. (Oliver Jensen stoutly denied this.) But there was also plenty of food for reflection. What was more, the pages included many articles by rising and already risen stars of the academy–Britons like B. H. Liddell Hart, J.H. Plumb and D.W. Brogan, and Americans like Allan Nevins, Richard B. Morris, Daniel Boorstin, Carl Degler, David Donald, T. Harry Williams and Bernard Bailyn. The thinking was that well-told narrative reclaimed history, for many readers, from memories of abominable teaching in their elementary and high schools, and that the amalgam of words and images opened minds and doors to further exploration. Of course scholarly analysis and critical examination of sources is urgent and can even occasionally be made intriguing. But I personally thought that the separate existence of “popular” history was saving the field from the flight into specialization and distance from the common concerns of life that befell academic philosophy and what was once called “political economy” and was read by most educated people. I have taken that philosophy with me into the areas of television documentaries. History deserves and has many mansions. [Emphasis mine, too.]

Read the rest here, especially Mr. Weisberger’s thoughts on what led to the company’s demise.

From the Times article [links provided by me, not NYT],

The magazine has always been a bit of an anomaly among American publications.

The circulation is currently 350,000, or as high as it has ever been, and hundreds of those readers can still be reliably counted on to write in arguing about the true causes of the Civil War or, as happened recently, to point out that the author of a World War II article doesn’t know the difference between the M-1 rifle and the M-16, which didn’t come in until Vietnam.

American Heritage was founded in 1954 by James Parton, Oliver Jensen and Joseph J. Thorndike Jr., refugees from Life, who from the beginning broke most of the rules of magazine publishing. They determined not to accept ads, for example — on the ground that there was a “basic incompatibility between the tones of the voice of history and of advertising” — and instead charged a yearly subscription of $10, a figure so steep at the time that readers were allowed to pay it in installments. They also published in clothbound, hardback volumes with full-color paintings mounted on the front.

The format was an instant hit with readers, who instead of tossing back issues often shelved them in their bookcases, but it initially confounded the United States Post Office, which decreed that American Heritage could use neither the book rate nor the periodical one. That ruling was eventually overturned, but not until the magazine had almost bankrupted itself by paying for parcel post.

The first editor of American Heritage was Bruce Catton, a Civil War historian who wrote in the inaugural issue in December 1954 that “the faith that moves us is, quite simply, the belief that our heritage is best understood by a study of the things that the ordinary folk of America have done and thought and dreamed since first they began to live here.” In the beginning, at least, that meant a fair amount of WASPy nostalgia and a steady ration of stories about the Civil War. That inaugural issue, for example, includes a piece about a Union general who was falsely accused of treason in 1862, as well as articles about the country store, the Fall River steamship line and a lament by Cleveland Amory about the decline of New York men’s clubs.

Mr. Snow, 59, went to work in the American Heritage mailroom in 1965, when Columbia University insisted he take a little time off, and joined the staff full time when he finally graduated, in 1970. He has been there ever since, and in 1990 he became the magazine’s sixth editor, succeeding Byron Dobell. …

Mr. Snow has been at American Heritage long enough that he can remember when it was an empire in the mid-’60s, employing 400 people, with the magazine as a flagship for what was in effect a publishing company selling books, many of them by some of America’s best-known popular historians, by direct mail. He was managing editor in 1980, when the magazine ceased publishing in hardback (except for subscribers who wanted to shell out extra for what Mr. Snow now calls a “padded, leatheroid edition”), and in 1982 when, bowing to economic necessity, it began soliciting ads.

“We all felt very bad about taking advertising,” Mr. Snow recalled. “But it had the odd effect of making us feel we were in touch with the world. There was a sense of a living connection to a process that was actually sort of fun — or at least it was fun while we were getting ads.”

American Heritage remained more driven by circulation than by ads, however. According to Scott Masterson, a senior vice president at Forbes and president of American Heritage, the magazine was losing money when Forbes bought it in 1986 and then bounced back for a while. But in the late ’90s, Mr. Masterson said, it failed to reap the kind of profits that many magazines did, and after 2001 it experienced the same downturn that afflicted the magazine business in general and had trouble recovering.

Part of the problem was the Internet, Mr. Snow said. “We’re really a general interest magazine,” he said. “We don’t play to a history buff in any narrow sense — like the Civil War re-enactors, for example. They can go on the Web and get thousands and thousands of hits.”

Three years ago Mr. Snow and Mr. Masterson decided to embrace the magazine’s aging readership and rejiggered American Heritage to appeal more specifically to baby boomers, mostly publishing articles about things that had happened in their lifetime. The formula was an editorial success, Mr. Snow said, yielding articles like one that appeared in the February-March issue about the Wrecking Crew, an unheralded studio band that played on many hit records in the ’60s and ’70s. But it failed to provide the hoped-for bump on the business end. “Forbes has been very, very patient,” he said. “but basically they’ve been carrying us for a while.”

Read the rest here.

From Bruce Catton’s inaugural essay cited by The Times, “What They Did There”, American Heritage Magazine, December 1954:

The sun goes down every evening over the muzzle of a gun that has been a museum piece for nearly a century, and where there was a battlefield there is now a park, with green fields rolling west under the sunset haze to the misty blue mountain wall. You can see it all just about as it used to be, and to look at it brings up deep moods and sacred memories that are part of our American heritage.

Yet the moods and the memories are not quite enough, for Gettysburg battlefield—like any other historic site—is memorable not for its scenic and evocative qualities but because it symbolizes the struggles and the sacrifices and the terrible hopes of people in a great moment of crisis. The men who fought at Gettysburg are all gone now but once they were very much alive, contending desperately with a fate which was almost more than they could cope with; and as Mr. Lincoln remarked, the world can never forget what they did there.

It is precisely that question—What did men do there?—that animates every worth-while examination of the American past.

For history after all is the story of people: a statement that might seem too obvious to be worth making if it were not for the fact that history so often is presented in terms of vast incomprehensible forces moving far under the surface, carrying human beings along, helpless, and making them conform to a pattern whose true shape they never see. The pattern does exist, often enough, and it is important to trace it. Yet it is good to remember that it is the people who make the pattern, and not the other way around.

The editors of any magazine calling itself American Heritage must begin by stating the faith that moves them; and the faith that moves us is, quite simply, the belief that our heritage is best understood by a study of the things that the ordinary folk of America have done and thought and dreamed since first they began to live here. They have done and thought and dreamed some rather extraordinary things, as a matter of fact, whose true significance does not always appear on the surface.

For a great many of the things people do seem rather unimportant, at first glance. They sing tinkly little songs, or they give way to queer enthusiasms about race horses or steamboats or carved figureheads for sailing ships; they fall victim to fear and suspicion, and so work hardship on some of their fellows who are doing the best they can according to the lights that were given them; they paint pictures of Indians, or of fire engines, or of landscapes that seem to carry some important message in their play of light and shade and color: they dig for precious metals in forsaken pockets of dangerous mountain ranges, they drowse lazily about the cracker barrel in a crossroads grocery store, and sometimes a few of them strive frantically to get people to buy one brand of soap rather than another, or grow snobbish and form clubs so that they can live comfortably on a plane above their fellows. These things are not very important, probably, except that each one contributes its own bit to the heritage by which we live—and each one, therefore, is worth looking at, because in each one we see the enthusiasms, the foibles, the impelling drives or the wistful dreams of the men and women who have made America.

So we propose to look into all such things; and because the infinite drama of human life can come out most clearly when people are least conscious of drama, trying to handle the prosaic business of making a living on a day-to-day basis, we believe that we do not always need to go to what are supposed to be the great moments of history in order to show American history in the making. The fearful climax of Gettysburg compels the attention, to be sure. But Gettysburg would not have been what it was if there had not been generations of plain folk beforehand, laying out farms and working in shops and stores, quite unaware that they were on the high road to destiny but somehow living and working in such a way that when destiny came along they could meet it without batting an eye.

Our beat, in other words, is anything that ever happened in America. Our principal question is: What did men do there? Our chief requirement as we set out to tell about it all is that the things we talk about must be interesting. The games men have played and the songs they have sung, the delusions they have had and the victories and defeats they have experienced, the homes they have built and the clothing they have worn, the aberrations from which they have suffered and the soaring, inexpressible ideals they have served—all of these, in one way or another, go to make up the heritage which we as Americans have today, and all of these make up the field which we propose to cover in this magazine.

The fabric of American life is a seamless web. Everything fits in somewhere. History is a continuous process; it extends far back into the past, and it will go on—in spite of today’s uneasy qualms—far into the future. As editors of this magazine we can think of no more eternally fascinating task than that of examining this continuous process on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes we shall talk about great men and what they did, and sometimes we shall talk about the doings of wholly obscure people who made the great men possible. But always we intend to deal with that great, unfinished, and illogically inspiring story of the American people doing and being and becoming. Our American heritage is greater than any one of us. It can express itself in very homely truths; in the end, it can lift up our eyes beyond the glow in the sunset skies.


Into the woods

Tom and the kids went mushroom hunting for morels on Saturday. The haul came to about seven liters, including some whoppers (one below, in Daniel’s hands),

We had some for dinner that night, sauteed in cream with fresh chives from the garden (and organic sea salt from Brittany, so there goes the 100-Mile idea), and the next day I made homemade mushroom soup. The remainder I popped into the freezer, to enjoy the rest of the year.

I hadn’t eaten wild mushrooms regularly until I moved here. I took Tom’s father’s and brother’s mushroom hunting abilities on faith, and when I was still around the next morning realized I was onto something good. I will say that having researched wild mushrooms in books and gone hunting with the men in the family, this is one subject where a book just isn’t a suitable teacher. Being able to see and touch something you’re going to eat that just might not agree with you is a darn sight better than a picture and description.

UPDATED to add:

For more information on mushroom hunting in general and morels in particular, see

The Great Morel website, along with its comprehensive links page (be sure to scroll all the way down) — including, for Angela, one on Wild Harvest, dedicated to morels, fiddlehead ferns, and wild leeks.

It must be Spring…

because it’s Carnival and fair time! In chronological order,

  • Doc announces that The Country Fair, complete with new look, will be up and running next month, with the first one of the year scheduled for Monday, June 18; submissions are due by Saturday, June 16. Tentative publishing dates for the Fairs are the third Monday of each month. See both of the previous links for how to submit an entry (or two) or even nominate a post you’ve enjoyed on someone else’s blog. (N.B. I’m having a bit of trouble with the Country Fair link, and if you are too you can always go through Doc’s blog or email until things are fixed.)

UPDATED to add: Dawn at By Sun and Candlelight is requesting submissions for her next Field Day, the Late Spring Edition, due by June 6th:

Let’s celebrate these final weeks of late spring, and share the world of nature around us. What’s happening in the garden, woods, fields, by the pond or the shore? How about through your windows or just a step or two outside your back door? Nature happens everywhere, in ways big and little. What does late spring look like where you live? I hope you will consider telling us, for our next Field Day will run on Thursday, June 7th, rain or shine!

When you riff upon a star

Last weekend a friend who knows me well enough to know that I don’t care much for the Shrek movies sent me a recent Time Magazine article by James Poniewozik, How Shrek Changed Fairy Tales. A few days later, in response to another friend, who thinks she might be a “prude” because she objects to such things as S&M in PG rated movies, I wrote, “I’ll go you one better [than being a prude]. As I think I’ve written before, I don’t even like the wink, wink, nudge, nudge, snarky asides meant for adults in what are supposed to be children’s movies; pretty much all that Shrek-type, Over the Hedge, and new Disney stuff. It infantilizes adults and gives kids adult material they don’t need, and I’m noticing that less and less is getting over the heads of my 9.5 and 8 year olds…”; the whole licensed product, product placement business is another annoyance I don’t put up with. So I laughed this morning when I saw that Roger Sutton at his blog Read Roger had written a post on Monday about the Time article, entitled Nudge nudge wink wink.

From the Time article [emphases mine],

Shrek didn’t remake fairy tales single-handed; it captured, and monetized, a long-simmering cultural trend. TV’s Fractured Fairy Tales parodied Grimm classics, as have movies like The Princess Bride and Ever After and the books on which Shrek and Wicked were based. And highbrow postmodern and feminist writers, such as Donald Barthelme and Angela Carter, Robert Coover and Margaret Atwood, used the raw material of fairy stories to subvert traditions of storytelling that were as ingrained in us as breathing or to critique social messages that their readers had been fed along with their strained peas.But those parodies had a dominant fairy-tale tradition to rebel against. The strange side effect of today’s meta-stories is that kids get exposed to the parodies before, or instead of, the originals. My two sons (ages 2 and 5) love The Three Pigs, a storybook by David Wiesner in which the pigs escape the big bad wolf by physically fleeing their story (they fold a page into a paper airplane to fly off in). It’s a gorgeous, fanciful book. It’s also a kind of recursive meta-fiction that I didn’t encounter before reading John Barth in college. Someday the kids will read the original tale and wonder why the stupid straw-house pig doesn’t just hop onto the next bookshelf. Likewise, Shrek reimagines Puss in Boots as a Latin tomcat — but what kid today even reads Puss in Boots in the original?

This is the new world of fairy tales: parodied, ironized, meta-fictionalized, politically adjusted and pop-culture saturated. (Yes, the original stories are still out there, but they don’t have the same marketing force behind them: the Happy Meals, action figures, books, games and other ancillary-revenue projects.) All of which appeals to the grownups who chaperone the movie trips and endure the repeated DVD viewings. Old-school fairy tales, after all, are boring to us, not the kids. The Shrek movies have a nigh-scientific formula for the ratio of fart jokes to ask-your-mother jokes; Shrek the Third includes a visit to a fairy-tale high school where there’s a Just Say Nay rally and a stoner-sounding kid stumbles out of a coach trailed by a cloud of “frankincense and myrrh” smoke. More broadly, each movie gives Shrek and Fiona an adult challenge: in the first, to find love and see beyond appearances; in Shrek 2, to meet the in-laws; in Shrek the Third, to take on adult responsibility and parenthood (Shrek has to find a new heir to the throne of Far Far Away, or he will have to succeed the king). …

I feel like a traitor to my fellow parents for even saying this. These movies are made in part for me: a socially progressive, irony-friendly Gen Xer with rug rats. I thought Hoodwinked! and most of the Shrek series were hilarious, and God knows I don’t want to go back to the days of suffering with my kids through a long, slow pour of Uncle Walt’s wholesome syrup. But even if you ultimately reject their messages, old-school fairy tales are part of our cultural vocabulary. There’s something a little sad about kids growing up in a culture where their fairy tales come pre-satirized, the skepticism, critique and revision having been done for them by the mama birds of Hollywood. Isn’t irony supposed to derive from having something to rebel against? Isn’t there a value in learning, for yourself, that life doesn’t play out as simply as it does in fairy tales? Is there room for an original, nonparodic fairy story that’s earnest without being cloying, that’s enlightened without saying wonder is for suckers?

In fact, the strongest moments in Shrek the Third come when it steps back from the frantic pop-culture name dropping of Shrek 2 and you realize that its Grimm parodies have become fleshed-out characters in their own right. In August, Paramount releases Stardust, an adaptation of a Neil Gaiman novel about a nerdy 19th century lad who ventures from England to a magical land to retrieve a fallen star. The live-action movie covers many of the same themes as the ubiquitous cartoon parodies–be yourself, don’t trust appearances, women can be heroic too. But it creates its own fantastic settings (a seedy witches’ bazaar, a sky pirate’s dirigible ship). There’s a kind of surprise and unembarrassed majesty that come from minting original characters and imagery rather than simply riffing on our cartoon patrimony. In the end, that’s how you make magic.

All of which came to mind the other day when I added the “How and Why Wonder Book of Chemistry” to my recent post, because in looking for a link I could provide with the How and Why books, I found this from an online interview with children’s author Jon Scieszka (who said he “loved leafing through The Golden Book Encyclopedia and ‘How and Why Wonder Books’ and reading the back of cereal boxes and Mad magazine and Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos comic books”) in Pif magazine,

[Pif]: Your new book is kind of a way to introduce readers to Aesop. What do Aesop’s fables look like to the kid who’s read Squids Will Be Squids first? For that matter, what do fairy tales look like after The Stinky Cheese Man? How is the ginger bread man handling all of this?JS: Kids in general have a much more flexible intelligence than adults ever give them credit for. They may first read the Squid Fables and the Stinky Fairy Tales for pure entertainment, but when they come upon Aesop and the Grimm Brothers later, they get the connection between the old and the new. I’ve found that it’s more the inflexible adult mind that thinks every kid has to know all of the “classic” fables and fairy tales before they can understand these new versions. But if adults were to think back on their own experience, they might remember that they first heard modern fairy tales and fables through cartoons like “Rocky and Bullwinkle” and the old Warner Bros. cartoons and Disney and advertising before they read the “classic” versions.

I tend to think the riffs make more sense with a foundation of the classics; that there’s such a wealth and richness to the original fairy tales, available in infinite tellings and retellings; and that it probably wouldn’t hurt kids to let them develop their own sense of irony. But then a) I’m old-fashioned and b) that’s probably not news.

A brief, rather old-fashioned bibliography:

Shrek! by William Steig
Puss in Boots: The Adventures of That Most Enterprising Feline, a picture book retelling by Philip Pullman (yes, that Philip Pullman) and illustrated by Ian Beck
The SurLaLune Fairy Tale Pages
Andrew Lang’s “color” fairy books
The Jack Tales: Folk Tales from the Southern Appalachians, collected and retold by Richard Chase, originally published in 1943

Poetry Friday: The Hazards of Science

From our little old copy of The Arrow Book of Funny Poems, collected by Eleanor Clymer and published in 1961 by Scholastic, this poem seems appropriate in light of my last couple of posts. I’m about 12 hours early because Tom is pouring more concrete for a job near here tomorrow, and I’m sure the kids and I’ll be pressed into service before art lessons right after lunch.

The Hazards of Science
by Anonymous

A green little chemist
On a green little day
Mixed some green little chemicals
In a green little way.
The green little grasses
Now tenderly wave
O’er the green little chemist’s
Green little grave.