Easter Bunnies and Other Critters

It’s impossible to avoid bunnies around the Easter weekend. No matter where you shop, chocolate bunnies stare you in the face. When my kids were young, we would organize a hunt for Easter Sunday morning, which would be followed by an Easter brunch. We planted clues around the house, and my daughters would have to follow the clues to find their Easter baskets. I put in a lot of work creating those Easter puzzles, but my kids always managed to find their baskets in short order. They were just too smart for me.
And the rabbits aren’t just inside the house this time of year. The live bunnies—properly hares—hop brazenly around my neighbourhood. Last year, I had a big buck hare that created a nest for himself in my front flower-bed. If I came down the sidewalk, he would grudgingly move, then wait for me to get lost before going back to his hollow. It’s around Easter that these hares begin to change colour, going from white to brown in the anticipation of spring. These critters really are fearless, which isn’t so good for them when the occasional coyote finds its way into the neighbourhood.
If you’ve had your fill of Easter bunnies, and you are looking for something new to read to kids or grandkids, I would recommend Burra Nimu, the Easter Bilby from Australia. What is a bilby? You’ll just have to check it out for yourself. My daughter put me onto this story last year, and it’s one worth adding to your Easter traditions. However you celebrate Easter, enjoy, and spread the love of story.

C. S. Lewis, A Good Friday Post

“Balder the beautiful is dead, is dead!” These are the words, according to C. S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy, that introduced him to the myths of the north. His love for what he called “that northern thing” persisted throughout his life, and formed the foundation for two of his life-long friendships—Arthur Greeves and J. R. R. Tolkien.
Many people know and love Lewis’ Narnia books; fewer know his Space trilogy, beginning with Out of the Silent Planet (1938). Fewer, again, know his Christian apologetics or his essays, and you might get a blank look if you start talking about Lewis’ scholarship. Perhaps this is the difference between Narnia fans and Lewis fans. Look here for a full list of Lewis’ works.
If you are going to grapple with Lewis as a writer, then you have to deal with him as a Christian. For some, this can be an uncomfortable exercise. A place to begin is Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (1955).  This is Lewis’ spiritual autobiography, which he wrote as he was writing the Narnia books. I always find this an interesting coincidence—his interest in writing a series for children may have been the catalyst that took him back to his own childhood. It’s here, in Lewis’ account of being a boy, where you can read about his discovery of the myths of the north, beginning with the words from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Balder the beautiful is dead, is dead!” These words resonated with Lewis, and they became the words he associated with joy, that fleeting sense he had growing up of the presence of the divine.
Lewis’ spiritual autobiography details his journey towards joy, and eventually his conversion to Christianity in 1931. However, if you want to read about the talk with J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson in September of that year, you have to find a copy of his letters. It’s a letter to Arthur Greeves dated October 18, 1931, in which Lewis details the evening with Tolkien and Dyson, and the experience on Addison’s Walk at Magdalen College. I’m including part of that letter below, but all of this to say that Lewis’ conversion to Christianity harkens back to his boyhood and the fascination with the figure of the dying god—a discussion that seems appropriate on a Good Friday morning.
“Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even though I could not say in cold prose ’what it meant’.
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths… “
Lewis, C. S. C. S. Lewis, Collected Letters, Volume 1: Family Letters, 1905 to 1931. Ed. Walter Hooper. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2000. Print.

A Return to Red Riding Hood

Red Riding Hood is one of those characters that most people recognize. But many don’t realize how many versions of this story exist, and they think of it as a story that’s mostly for kids. It isn’t—not really.
The version with which most people are familiar is the Grimms’ “Little Red Cap.” It’s the version my students know, and the one that has Little Red eaten by the wolf and saved by the woodsman. Interestingly, “Little Red Cap” is actually two stories in one: the first in which Red is eaten by the wolf, and the second in which she and her granny trick the wolf into climbing down the chimney into a pot of boiling water. On the other hand, my students are always surprised when reading Charles Perrault’s version of the story, in which Red takes off her clothes and climbs into bed with the wolf. Granted, Perrault has something specific in mind with his story, but the scene comes no less as a shock.
The story gets adapted and retold endlessly in popular culture. From Disney’s 1943 short, Red Hot riding Hood, to the live action version from Fairy Tale Theatre, hosted by Shelley Duvall, to the Chanel No. 5commercial with Estella Warren, and Red’s appearance in Disney’s Into the Woods from 2015. And this says nothing about the many variants of the story in print, and the 2011 horror film by the same name. You can find my version of the story here.
What, then, is the fascination with this story? Bruno Bettelheim claims Red Riding Hood is a story about sexual readiness, while other scholars claim it’s a story about rape. Whatever the reason, the story speaks to primal fears and primal appetites—a far cry from that glass-slippered heroine who has as much a place within popular culture as her dark twin.
So you don’t have to go looking for it, I’m including here the moral from Perrault’s version of the tale. And yes, he includes a moral, just so we are sure to understand Little Red’s fate.
Children, especially pretty, nicely brought-up young ladies, ought never to talk to strangers; if they are foolish enough to do so, they should not be surprised if some greedy wolf consumes them, elegant red riding hoods and all. Now, there are real wolves, with hairy pelts and enormous teeth; but also wolves who seem perfectly charming, sweet-natured and obliging, who pursue young girls in the street and pay them the most flattering attentions. Unfortunately, these smooth-tongued, smooth-pelted wolves are the most dangerous beasts of all.”

The Potter Effect for a Potter Generation

Commenting on the Potter Effect in my last post, I suggested that it’s more than just a trend towards longer and longer books for children and young adults. It’s as much about how a generation of kids has learned to read.
The last few years have seen a more wide-spread conversation about the Potter Effect. Both ScientificAmerican and Psychology Todayhave published stories on how reading Harry potter will make you more empathetic and less prejudice. And these aren’t just opinion pieces. Recent studies on kids who read the Harry Potter books have brought scholars to similar conclusions, such as the authors of “The Greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice.”
The Harry Potter generation—and there is debate over what constitutes such a generation—have a particular approach to reading books. And before you get offended, defining a Potter generation is about a demographic; it’s not about fandom. Being born outside the generation doesn’t make you less of a fan.
I’m not alone in counting the Potter generation as those born between 1985 and 1990—those young people who were old enough to read the series as it was published. These are young people, my own kids included, who had the chance to experience the series as it unfolded. We can extend the dates to those born up to and including 1995, but these kids would be coming to the Harry Potter books late in the publication of the series.
The Potter generation has a particular way of reading fantasy, and even film. The series has empowered a generation of readers, but in such a way as to often place it at the centre of their personal reading canon. Such readers will begin with, move out from, and return to Harry Potter.
I’m not finding fault, and perhaps it’s no different than what I did as a teenager with Tolkien and Lord of the Rings. However, I teach children’s literature every year, and I see how students use the Harry Potterbooks as a reference point for other texts. For example, if a student comes to Tolkien’s The Hobbit for the first time, she might comment that the book doesn’t use magic the way the Harry Potter books do. That may be true, but Rowling couldn’t have written Harry Potter without having read Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin, MacDonald, Nesbit, or half a hundred others.
My point is that I teach texts in context, both historically and culturally. Many of my students read relationally, which means they understand books in relation to other books, but they are often unaware of the gaps in their own reading experience.
Again, I’m not finding fault; I’m just trying to learn how to teach people who, I think, read differently from me. And maybe their way is better. Last fall, I put Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets early in the term—my way of getting my students to begin with something familiar in order to incorporate those books into their canon that were less familiar. It seemed to make a difference, but I’ll have to try it several more times to be sure. Whatever its effect, recognizing the impact of the Harry Potter books on a generation has helped me to become, I hope, a better teacher, and to align myself more closely with those students who come through my classes every year.

The Potter Effect and the School for Wizards

You may have noticed the buzz in the last week on the Internet about the Potter Effect. I have my own take on this phenomenon. According to The Booklist Reader, the Potter Effect refers to the trend towards longer and longer books for children and young adults. No harm in that. However, the Potter Effect is more far reaching than simply kid’s reading and demanding longer books.
This effect has to do with the way Rowling’s series has shaped the literary experience of a generation. I’ve said it before—Rowling is responsible for encouraging more people to read than any author in the last two centuries—save maybe Charles Dickens. This, too, is part of the Potter Effect. And now that we have a generation of people who have grown up with the series, we are seeing the Potter Effect playing out in other interesting ways.
Here’s an example. My children’s literature students are often surprised to discover that J. K. is not the only, and certainly not the first to include a school for wizards as part of her story. The claim I’ve heard regarding the originality of the Harry Potter books because of its use of a school for wizards is unfounded. Don’t get me wrong. I love Hogwarts, too. It simply wasn’t the first literary school for wizards. Here are my favourites.
1.      HarryPotter, J. K. Rowling
I don’t need to say much more. However, I will say that Rowling does a masterful job of introducing Hogwarts for the first time in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Harry’s journey by train, his arrival in Hogsmeade, and his trip by boat across the lake in the dark to the school plays on every child’s sense of excitement and apprehension around starting school.
2.      TheMagicians, Lev Grossman
I’ve written recently on Lev Grossman’s series. While more adult than young adult, this series is worth every page. Brakebills College is also a fresh look at the trope of the school for wizards. Highly recommended.
3.      PercyJackson and the Olympians, rick riordan
While technically not a school for wizards, Camp Half-Blood is a summer camp for demigods in training. I’ve always thought of Percy Jackson as Rick riordan’s response to Harry Potter. Did you know that both characters have black hair and green eyes? Check out the series. Again, highly recommended.
4.      The EarthseaCycle, Ursula K. Le Guin
For me, this is the original. I read A Wizard of Earthsea at age eleven, and I had never read anything like it before. The school on Roke Island is a place of magic and learning, its only drawback being it’s a school for wizards, not witches. In other words, this is a school for boys. Still, highly recommended.
A fantasy series with a school is a relatively common trope. The school story in children’s and young adult literature has a long history, going back to Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days. If you want a list of books or series that use a school for wizards, check it out on Goodreads.

A Return to Narnia

Yes, that is a real photo; and yes, you expect to see a faun carrying an umbrella next to the lamp-post.
After reading Lev Grossman’s Magician series earlier this year, I dove back into Narnia. It’s easy to slip back into Lewis’ world—just start reading, and there I am, following the adventures of Peter, Susan, Lucy, Edmund, and the rest.
I always feel I can jump in anywhere with the Narnia books. It’s not like reading Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. I can’t just jump in; I have to read the books in order—most of the time. But with Lewis, it’s simply a matter of picking my point of entry. This time I started with Prince Caspian, then I read The Horse and His Boy, The Magician’s Nephew, and now I’m reading The Silver Chair.
If you ever wonder about the correct order in which to read the Narnia books, there isn’t one—not really, at least according to Lewis himself. However, people have varying opinions on the matter. Publishers would have you believe The Magicians Nephew is first in the series. It’s not. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the first book in the series. You can read the books in the order you like, but Lion is first. It was first published; it’s the first introduction to the world of Narnia, and the first introduction to the children and Aslan. The Magician’s Nephew is a prequel—not the first book in the series.
Alister McGrath offers a compelling argument for the ordering of the Narnia books in his biography of Lewis, C. S. Lewis, A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. This is one of the best biographies on Lewis—if you want to find out more about the life of this Oxford don. You can watch a lecture by McGrath here:
While the Pevensie children are the central group of characters in the series, one of my favourites is Ewstace Scrubb. Here’s the opening line of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
“There was a boy called Ewstace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
Poor Ewstace. He has much to learn in this book—mostly about not being an ass, but also about being with other people and forming relationships. I sometimes wonder if Lewis took his inspiration for Ewstace from Ebenezer Scrooge.
While much of the criticism written about the Narnia books examines Lewis as a Christian writer, this isn’t the only way to read these books. Take one small example—Lewis is often funny as a writer. He’s at his best with Ewstace Scrubb. Ewstace is mouthy, argumentative, irreverent, and self-serving—at least until he meets Aslan on Dragon Island. After Ewstace is undragoned by Aslan, he’s less funny. And speaking of Aslan—the Great Lion is dangerous, awe inspiring, terrible, full of joy, gentle, and kind. But he isn’t funny.
Make of that what you will. I love the books, and I’ll keep reading them. I still laugh out loud as I read certain passages, and I maintain that Lewis knew how to be funny, in spite of the weighty seriousness that often pervades the series, especially The Last Battle.
I think Lev Grossman must understand this about Lewis, too. While the Magician books are dark, disturbing, and painful, there are passages and scenes that are exquisitely funny. But that’s the thing about humour. It’s often the leavening agent that turns the crushingly tragic into the recognizably human.