This Should’ve Won An Oscar: Rewatching Matilda

We’d never dream of doing an entire Matilda Week without rewatching the movie. Dare I say, this week was one part celebration of one of our favorite books and movies, one part commemoration of Roald Dahl’s 100th birthday, and one part excuse to watch Matilda again. Like us, the movie has aged very well and is a constant delight. Here were some of our thoughts as we watched it:

This Should’ve Won An Oscar

In general, I think the cinematography is A+. Every scene can be taken as a still shot and look like a piece of art. Danny uses a lot of overhead shots and creative angles when need be, and I appreciate that when Matilda’s younger, there are a lot of camera shots taken from her point of view

I Forgot About 90s Film Quality

Maybe my DVD isn’t ~digitally remastered but I’m shocked by how dull and fuzzy this is.

Truly, Truly Iconic Scene

A+++ Casting On Young Matilda

During our last blog meeting we went on a search for the younger versions of Matilda. Here is Caitlin Fein (one of the toddler Matildas) now:

And here is Mara Wilson now:

Good work, C.S.A.

#RIPMrsPhelpsTheLibrarian

Do you guys ever watch movies from the 90s and see an old person and think, ‘He/she is probs dead.’ Then feel really sad because it’s true? (This actress died in 2000).

Likewise, anyone who was a small child is now an adult. Obviously we know that Mara Wilson has always been roughly our age, but baby Matilda? You saw how old she is.

Harry Wormwood Is The Worst

“Listen, you little wiseacre: I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Harry Wormwood, the worst

Dark Matilda

You know, if this movie was cut differently, it could easily be a prequel to The Orphan or basically any horror movie which features a little girl as the demon. OH LOOK SOMEONE’S DONE THAT ALREADY. LIKE, MULTIPLE TIMES.

Plus, taking the magical powers out of it, even if you’re the loveliest teacher ever you don’t just get to KEEP THE KID THAT YOU LIKE. This movie definitely demands a dark recut.

Also Lissy Doll is a dead ringer for Matilda which is very Are You Afraid Of The Dark, if you ask me.

Michael Wormwood Is Dudley Dursely

And Matilda’s parents are Vernon and Petunia. Miss Honey is Dumbledore, but also Hagrid and Sirius.

Matilda is probably a Gryffindor but you can make an argument for Ravenclaw. Lavender is a Hufflepuff. I think Miss Honey has some Hufflepuff traits but she’s mainly brave, so Gryffindor.

Do We Think It’s Weird That This Is Set In The USA?

Roald Dahl is such a beloved British treasure that it feels kind of odd that this is set in the USA. I’m not exactly complaining because this movie is so perfect that I wouldn’t wish away any of it. I bet if this movie were made today there would be a big outcry about exporting it to the US and it would have been set in the UK instead.

To translate Crunchem School to the US system they had to create this weird public school that’s sort of like a bizarre private school. It all contributes to the storybook quality of the movie, so it’s fine.

Romper Room

I know what rompers are in modern fashion parlance but I always imagine those baggy calico overalls that Pigtail Amanda wears.

“You Chose Books, I Chose Looks”

Mrs. Wormwood’s taunt reminds me of something a snotty girl would have said in second grade. Also joke’s on her, Miss Honey is a fox and everybody knows it.

Cake By The Pound

“It’s hard for me to remember a specific cake.” Bruce Bogtrotter spittin the truth

I continue to think that chocolate cake looks like the best chocolate cake ever made (apparently the actor who played Bruce didn’t really like cake much, and Danny had his baker friend create a Magnolia Bakery-esque cake for the scene).

“I can’t look, is he going to puke?” – little Lavender’s delivery of this line is one of the best things in the whole movie, and that’s saying something.

Truncuhbull’s Not Wrong

Mrs. D. Mrs. I.
Mrs. F. F. I.
Mrs. C. Mrs. U.
Mrs. L. T. Y.

…why are all these women married?

This Score Is Perfect

Whether it’s the suspenseful music when they’re in Truncuhbull’s (ahem.. rightfully Miss Honey’s) House or the jaunty tune when Bruce is gorging on cake, this is a masterpiece and we’re retroactively annoyed about the missing Oscar. Did you ever notice that 90s kids’ movies, like Matilda, Home Alone, and The Parent Trap, had phenomenal scores, like filmmakers realized children could appreciate good things?

By the way, if you loved a movie in the 90s there’s an excellent chance David Newman was responsible for the score.

The 1972 Olympics

Trunchbull competed in the 1972 Olympics. This film was released in 1996. Ergo, the 2016 equivalent would be a principal who competed in the 1992 Olympics, which I can sort-of remember. Woof.

By the by, Trunchbull’s build is sort of a take on those poor East German athletes who were forced to take a lot of hormones, I think.

PeeWee Herman

… is in this??? I’m honestly not even including this as a thing you probably don’t know about Matilda. I’m just shocked I never noticed this.

Danny DeVito Is A Prince

You know the too-cute scene where Matilda dances around to Little Bitty Pretty One making objects move? In the behind the scenes footage, DeVito explains that Mara was a little nervous about doing that scene. He said “you know why? Because you’re the only one dancing” and made everyone on set – down to craft services – dance. I did some acting as a kid and a lot of adults just didn’t understand how kids think, but it seems like DeVito GOT IT and created a set that was every bit as magical as the movie.

I Don’t Think You’re Ready…

“Absolutely not, Molly” – My mother, Aisle 12 of Wegmans, 1995.

The Wormwoods have that peanut butter and jelly that is all swirled together in one jar and seriously they WOULD.

I Have Another Oscar Complaint

I want there to be a category for extras and bit players and I want it retroactively awarded to the children in Matilda’s class during the Trunchbull revenge scene.

We don’t need to talk about the special effects during that scene. They were doing their best.

Send Me On My Way

The closing scene is so perfect there’s nothing to say about it, so we’re just going to send you on your way.

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Matilda: The Book For Book Lovers

Roald Dahl was born 100 years ago today. He delighted so much in absolutes and extremes, I think he would have loved reaching such a nice, round, very-old age. Or maybe he just knew how delightful children find absolutes and extremes: so many of his characters are the worst (like Miss Trunchbull) or the best (Miss Honey) or otherwise the tallest or luckiest or poorest or … I don’t know, adrift in a giant peach, for example. Point is, nobody is ordinary or middling in the world of Roald Dahl. One of Dahl’s most extraordinary creations is Matilda Wormwood, the mischievous, telekinetic child genius of Matilda.

It’s funny: Matilda is unlike any child or adult I’ve encountered, but among my closest friends and favorite people I count a disproportionate number who once felt that they were just like her. I longed to be acknowledged as a kindergarten super-genius like Matilda, but something about her character made me feel seen.  If you identified with Matilda too, then you can already guess what I loved about her: not the mischief or the magic, but the transformative power of reading. Matilda is about belonging and overcoming, but it is above all a book for book lovers.

Matilda was the only character I remember putting voice to that frustration most child bookworms have: not being allowed to read enough. Matilda’s parents don’t think reading is important, but they also don’t think that Matilda is important; Matilda’s trips to the library are the largesse of their negligence. Mrs. Phelps, an elderly librarian who is just trying her best, directs Matilda to the children’s books then is astonished when Matilda makes her way through all of them in weeks.

When I was 7, I saw this as evidence that I was just as special as Matilda. I despaired during every second grade library trip. We were only supposed to get books from the picture book area, yet outside of school I had already blown through the Baby-Sitters Club and Nancy Drew and was on to Charles Dickens and Shakespeare. Now I realize that Matilda’s frustration is common to a certain type of kid. Almost every child who loves to read feels dismissed by teachers or parents who confine them to the “baby” books that are appropriate to their grade. I still remember my grandmother telling me that she used to check out so many books from the library that the librarian confronted her mother, insisting no child that small could be reading that much. This was in the early 1930s. Matilda was singular, but there sure are a lot of Matildas.

If you identified with Matilda as a young book lover, you probably related to her take on material that was a little out of her grasp. Look at her opinion of Hemingway:

Mr. Hemingway says a lot of things I don’t understand, especially about men and women. But I loved it all the same. The way he tells it I feel I am right there on the spot watching it all happen.

When I was re-reading Matilda I had to stop and go back over that sentence, because that was it. That was exactly how it was reading adult books as a small child. Sure, I followed the basic plot of Emma and Jane Eyre in fourth grade, but sometimes the adult’s motives and experiences were beyond my reach. I was good at reading, but I still hadn’t lived more than nine years. Still, isn’t that also how LIFE was when you were a small child? You couldn’t make sense of adults’ actions all of the time, but you still observed them.  It was so validating to read about another kid who could comprehend all of the words on a page, but not really get the subtext – yet still love what she was reading.  Plenty of A Midsummer Night’s Dream didn’t make sense when I was very young, but I knew enough to know that it was beautiful. It’s why Matilda whispered “it’s like music” after Miss Honey recited Dylan Thomas.

In the film adaptation of Matilda, the narrator says that authors cast out their books “like ships onto the sea.” I love that simile – authors work and dream and agonize, but they have little say over the fate of their books once they’re published. But like Matilda – and THROUGH Matilda – sometimes the right one drifts to you and takes you along:

The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.

Miss Honey Is Wonderful

We want to welcome you all to Matilda Week, and nobody is more welcoming than Miss Jennifer Honey. As children we adored this kind-hearted teacher who recognized each child as a full, complex and important person. As adults, we are even more touched by Miss Honey as a survivor of a traumatic childhood who keeps her soft heart after years of abuse. She is a lesson in tenacity, warmth and loveliness. Miss Honey is wonderful.

Miss Honey Is Kind And Soft
Miss Honey: so softspoken, she sits to speak to the class.

Miss Honey: so softspoken, she sits to speak to the class.

 

Fact: I adored my third grade teacher Ms. Cuthbert so much that when she invited her students to go to her wedding ceremony, I actually showed up. I sat near the back of the church with my parents and saw my teacher become Mrs. Hibbard. I watched in awe as one of my favorite teachers walked down the aisle in a gorgeous, puffy, 1993 gown, and wasn’t embarrassed at all to be there. Mrs. Hibbard was delightful, fun, and kind, but strict when she needed to be, and that’s exactly what you want in a teacher, and a teacher who will impact your life forever.

That’s what Miss Honey is. She truly cares about her kids as if they were her own, when she definitely doesn’t have to, especially given the environment of Crunchem Hall. She is so invested in her students and makes sure they are actually learning not only what was in their textbooks but about life itself. And she does it in a way that makes you feel like she’s more of an older sister, rather than an authoritative figure, making you more prone to listen and heed her instructions. She’s the kind of person that gave so much of herself to her class that she, too, would invite you to her wedding, and would give you a wink as she passed you while walking down the aisle.

Miss Honey Is Lovely

One day this summer I woke up from a dead sleep, thought “Miss Honey is my summer style inspiration,” wrote it down and went back to bed. I was right to think that. Miss Honey wears classic pastel dresses, understated makeup and has a non-dated hairstyle. Miss Honey is the teacher who keeps a tissue under her watch and that is so wonderfully specific. At one point in the movie she wears the best tortoiseshell glasses, although Book Miss Honey wears them all the time. Dahl never gets detailed about Miss Honey’s wardrobe, but I think the movie nailed it: she’s the kind of person who looks lovely first because it makes her happy to look nice, and second so that the children see that coming to school and teaching them matters to her.  Miss Honey has a “lovely pale oval madonna face with blue eyes and her hair was light brown.” It’s not so much important that she’s objectively pretty, but that the kids think she is — don’t you remember being 5 or 6 and thinking your favorite teacher was just the prettiest person in the world?

During the blog meeting where we discussed Matilda Week, we watched a clip of toddler Matilda making her own breakfast and pouring a glass of juice. Then they got to the moment when Matilda places a tiny flower in a vase and I think a scientist could have pinpointed the exact moment when both of our hearts broke (that’s what scientists do, right?). There was something so poignant about this little forgotten child not just surviving without help, but also making space for the little things that make life beautiful. I feel the same way when you learn about Miss Honey’s cottage: she has less than she deserves, but the lengths she goes to to make it neat and pleasant tell you a lot about her character.

Miss Honey’s house is “like an illustration in Grimm or Hans Anderson.” It is incredibly tiny and the water comes from a well outside. There are overturned boxes for chairs and a little camping stove to cook on. I used to imagine it would be like living in a child’s play fort. The cottage is less bleak in the movie, but both versions show that Miss Honey knows how important it is to find bits of loveliness in an ugly world. She also decorates her classroom with students’ artwork and bright colors, even though she has to hide it when the Trunchbull comes into the room – it’s that important for her class to be surrounded by loveliness.

More about Miss Honey's cottage here.

More about Miss Honey’s cottage here.

Miss Honey Treats People Like They’re Important

When I was 8 years old, I read Matilda and wanted to be the main character. Not so much levitating objects, I just felt positive that I was special and there was simply no Miss Honey to notice it. I devoured adult classics like Matilda did, but in hindsight I was, admittedly, ordinary. Except, of course, no child, no person, is ordinary. Miss Honey knew that intuitively and it influenced the way she treated every child in her classroom. If you look back and think of your very best teachers as a child (or your favorite babysitter or aunt or librarian), that is probably a quality they had: they looked you in the eye and saw a light that might not have been brighter or more beautiful than anybody else’s, but it was yours. Miss Honey notices that Matilda is unusually intelligent almost instantly. But she isn’t that teacher who only cares about the smartest or the most challenging pupils. Miss Honey writes easy words on the board for the more “average” kids and warns the whole class about the upcoming weekly test with Trunchbull. As they say in the movie, she “appreciates each child for who he or she is.” Miss Honey recognizes Matilda’s strengths not just as supernatural abilities, but as character traits that will help her throughout life: “It’s wonderful you feel so powerful. Many people don’t feel powerful at all.”

 

Miss Honey Is Stronger Than Her Past

Miss Honey is a survivor of trauma and lifelong abuse, and against the odds, she is much bigger than the worst things that have happened to her. After the deaths of her parents, Miss Honey lives under the control of her cruel aunt – the Trunchbull. It’s chilling how perfectly Dahl describes the invisible chains of an abusive relationship: “I became so scared of her I used to start shaking when she came into the room.” “Over the years I became so cowed and dominated by this monster of an aunt that when she gave an order, no matter what it was, I obeyed it instantly.” “I was by then so dominated by my aunt to such an extent that I wouldn’t have dared [leave.]. You can’t imagine what it’s like to be completely controlled like that by a very strong personality.”

Here’s where I get amazed. Miss Honey wanted to go to university and was only allowed to go on the condition that she come home early every day to work for her aunt. When she graduated, Trunchbill docked her pay because Miss Honey “owed” her for the expenses of her childhood. Miss Honey finds a house and rents it on 10p a week and leaves, while still working in her aunt’s school because she loves to teach. Her past makes Miss Honey’s smaller moments of bravery, like confronting Trunchbull about Matilda’s grade level or approaching Matilda’s parents, nothing less than astonishing. It frames all of her qualities – kindness, appreciation of beauty, empathy for her students – not as traits, but as CHOICES that she has made and worked for and cultivated. Most of us aren’t born with extraordinary gifts like Matilda, but the idea that anybody can live a life of kindness and beauty after surviving such darkness — that is the real magic in Matilda.

 

All The Best Beverly Cleary Names

Beverly Cleary – creator of the most complex and believable child characters, all-around Best Grownup – turned 100 years old yesterday. The Ramona books remain so relatable and fresh that it’s very hard to grasp that the author was born four years after the Titanic sank, before the U.S. entered World War I, with Woodrow Wilson as the president. I absolutely love Ms. Cleary, but we’ll deal with Ramona during a C+S Book Club at a later date. Today, I want to talk about one of my favorite things about Cleary’s books as an adult: my, can that woman name a character. In fact, if I were having kids, I just might look to Beverly Cleary for inspiration.

Beverly

Yes, Beverly. Here’s why. Names cycle in popularity, and there’s a roughly 100-year span before an old name sounds fresh again. Parents don’t tend to use names of their own generation (not so many babies today named Tiffany and Kristen). They also don’t use their parents’ names – these days, those would be Boomer names (see: Barbara, Debbie). Even grandparent names (Shirley, Norma) don’t sound ready to use, at least for less adventurous namers. You have to go to great-grandparents before a name sounds old enough to be ripe for reconsideration. That’s why there are so many 20-40 somethings named things like Emily, Laura and Rebecca: they were popular in the second half of the 19th century. And that’s why today, names like Evelyn, Hazel, Charlotte and Lucy top the girls’ Social Security name rankings.

Beverly Cleary was on the early end of the Beverly trend, so it may fall in the grandma name category and have to sit on the shelf for a few more decades. But Beverly has some things going for it: it’s almost identical to the trendy girl name Everly, it’s a three-syllable surname-name like the popular Delaney and Kennedy, short-and-simple Bev is a lot like the appealing Niamh/Neve/Liv … AND it’s shared by beloved children’s author Beverly Cleary.

Ramona

If you’re looking for a very usable name that nobody’s really using, look no further than Ramona. It was given to 233 baby girls last year, not even landing in the top 1,000 names. Yet it’s familiar, easy to spell and has an awesome namesake in one Ramona Geraldine Quimby. Ramona even has music cred, and would make a more spry choice for a fan of the Ramones than Sheena or Judi. There’s a Dylan song called To Ramona, as well!

Potential drawback: it was used for the name of Kimmy Gibbler’s daughter in Fuller House. That’s not a bad association, and the show is not so popular that people will be like “oh, as in Ramona Gibbler?”. However, it could be the sign of future popularity – but not being in the top 1000, there’s a lot of room to grow before Ramona is a common choice.

Beatrice

Poor, beautifully named Beatrice, destined to a lifetime as Beezus thanks to her little sister. Beatrice is a major recipient of that 100-year trend I discussed above. It’s currently ranked at 601 in the U.S. (OK, hardly an Isabella or Emma situation), but in the early 2000s it was around number 1000. Actually, Beatrice was FAR less popular when the first Ramona book came out, and would have struck early readers as a funny, old-fashioned choice, like Gertrude or Bertha now. (Am I crazy, or is Gertrude a bit cute?) After taking a nap through most of the 20th century, Beatrice is back and ready to go, more of a neglected antique than a moth-eaten relic.

Good things about Beatrice: The great nicknames Bea, Bee, Trixie, and Betsy. Its use by Dante and Shakespeare. It sounds clearly feminine, but not frilly.

Bad things about Beatrice: nothing, really, except maybe that it was used in Divergent and may get more popular; also the unfortunate two-syllable pronunciation you sometimes hear (BEE-triss instead of BEE-a-triss).

Henry

Henry Huggins was the classic swell kid – a well-rounded but occasionally mischievous boy who loved palling around with his rescue dog, Ribsy (before rescue dogs were au courant). It’s exactly that image that has propelled Henry to number 33 on the charts. Henry can be the boy in jeans chasing his dog down the sidewalk just as easily as he can be a thinker (Thoreau), a king (I-VIII), or a ballplayer (Aaron). Henry has never been as ubiquitously popular as, say, Michael, nor as trendy as Aidan or Logan. And like Beatrice, it comes with nicknames: Hal, Harry (Prince Harry is, of course, a Henry), Henny and Hank.

Personal bias: one of my nephews and Favorite Humans I’ve Ever Known is named Henry.  We call him Hank for short.

Willa Jean

One of my coworkers has a little girl named Willa, and when she told me I think I may have swooned. Willa combines the best of new age-y nature name Willow, hipster granny names (Mabel, Harriet, Maisie), and the short-but-delicate girly names (Mila, Lila, Myla, Aria, Luna). User beware, Willa is on a steady climb from being obscure (given to only 30 babies the year we were born) to, if not trendy, at least fashionable (there were over 500 little Willas born in 2014). I can see Willa on a teen or an adult, but thanks to Willa Jean Kemp it’s easy to picture on a zwieback crumb-covered toddler.

Funny thing about the double-barreled name: it is really popular right now in the UK, where I’ve seen it described as an “American” thing. Uh-uh, guys. This is ALL on you: double names aren’t really a big trend in the USA. Jean is still a perennial middle name favorite, though, but if a family were using the name Willa today, they might consider a middle name more like….

Jane

Like Jane! It’s not quite as pervasive as today’s hot middles (Rose, Grace, I’m looking at you), but it’s still incredibly common because it just sounds so nice with so many names. However, Jane has so much substance and character that I’d prefer to see it shine in the first name spot. (As I mentioned in our Olsen twin character names post, it’s near the top of my Hypothetical Names List.) There are oodles of Janes throughout history, but my favorite will always be Miss Austen.

If you continued reading Beverly Cleary books into your later tween years, you’ll remember Jane from Fifteen, a novel about very 1950s teens doing very 1950s things.

Dorothy

Do you remember Ramona and Beezus’s mom’s name? Dorothy! Dorothy is one of those “why isn’t this popular yet” names, because it is right in the era of names that are coming back. Dorothy may remind you of the 1939 classic The Wizard Of Oz, but remember, it was based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s book. So, instead of picturing Dorothy on grannies who were born in the ’30s, try to see it on a little girl from the turn of the last century with one of those unnecessarily big hair bows and a pinafore. So cute, right? Dorothy’s another good one if you like nicknames: Dot, Dottie, Dora, Dory, Dolly and Thea. I can’t even deal with how cute.

Daisy

Ramona’s World was a little past my time, published in 1999, but it’s on my reading list as I work my way down the Ramona catalog with one of my nephews. In this book, Ramona is nine, she has a baby sis named Roberta, and her new BFFFL is neighborhood girl Daisy Kidd. It doesn’t get much better than Daisy, a flower name with a long history of use. I guess the most common complaint would be that it can sound a bit young, but I grew up with an old-fashioned nickname-name and it hasn’t hurt me a bit. My favorite way to get to Daisy: it’s a traditional nickname for Margaret, Marguerite and Margarita.

Susan

Susan (and Susannah) is right up there with Jane on my list of names I would totally bestow on a child some day. Susan has dignity and gravitas – and in the Ramona books, she also has boing-boing curls that are just begging to be pulled. (Whenever I wear my hair curly and people mess with it, I remember Ramona and the irresistible pull of the boing-boing curls.) Susan is still in the decline of its popularity trajectory, so you’ll have to give it another 30-50 years before it hits peak revival potential.

Susan Kusher was that girl who had her act TOGETHER. The girl in kindergarten whose dress was never messed up, and whose socks didn’t fall down, and who didn’t accidentally cry because the teacher didn’t call on her. I went to college with a Susan, and she had a lot of tidy headbands and sweater sets. If my name were Susan (but NOT Susie or Suzanne or Susannah, those are different), I wouldn’t get toothpaste on my shirt right before leaving the house or have a car full of dog hair. SUSAN, you guys. In terms that didn’t exist when Ramona The Pest came out, Susan is goals AF.

Austine

This is a fun one, isn’t it? It almost sounds almost like a modern trendy name, but Austine was the fun, scrappy friend in the 1951 novel Ellen Tebbits. The boy’s name Austin actually derives as a contraction of Augustin (as in St. Augustine, or Augusten Burroughs, depending on your frame of reference). So, I think the girls name Austine would be sort of a slimmed down version of Augustine/Augustina/Augusta. The –een names still read a bit midcentury (Kathleen, Colleen, Darlene, and so on)… but this is a neat name find, if nothing else.

Otis

It doesn’t get cooler than Otis. It’s got Otis Redding all over it, and is just the kind of vintage-y name everybody is looking for. It looks like it’s poised to enter the top 1000 next year, so while Otis is growing in popularity it is by no means there yet. Personally, I can think of hundreds of girl names I love but not quite as many boy names, simply because a lot of the classics lack character and I’m not at all into the trendy Jaden/Maddox/Landon  sort of thing. But Otis has both history and quirk, making a great match with the other Beverly Cleary names like Willa and Ramona.

Ralph

I think Ralph suffers a bit from midcentury burnout. And maybe also a bit from being a euphemism for “to vomit.” It’s not very popular right now (as in, not in the top 1000). But if you think about Ralph S. Mouse or Ralphie from A Christmas Story, it’s kind of cute, right? Like, if I actually picture Ralph on a small child it’s adorable. Besides, Alphie is all kinds of popular in the U.K., and it’s just a consonant away from Ralphie. You could always use the Rafe pronunciation, but that doesn’t feel easy, at least not in the U.S.

Honorable Mentions:

Picky Picky

Chevrolet

Mama From ‘All-Of-A-Kind Family’ Was Some Kind Of Genius: C+S Book Club

Sweep out the sukkah and check the china shepherdess for buttons, because it’s time for another edition of C+S Book Club! Rather than lamenting that Amy March is a total bitch, or revealing that Marilla Cuthbert was, in fact, a creepy church hag, today we’re going to talk about someone who is better than you and I could ever dream of being: Mama from Sydney Taylor’s All-Of-A-Kind Family. Mama was so clever and calculating that I almost wanted to call her an evil genius, but she was also the kindest, most chill mother in RL-4 chapter book history.

Look. I don’t have children. But I did read that one book about how our children would be classier if we raised them like French children, and I’ve seen some episodes of SuperNanny, which is a show about how our children would be classier if we raised them like British children from 1905. Plus I’ve read those articles that Facebook friends post about why children shouldn’t have technology and fast food, as well as those other articles that Facebook friends post about why children should have technology and fast food. And let me tell you: not a ONE of those so-called experts had anything on Mama. Case in point: her dusting scheme.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then chances are you didn’t read All-Of-A-Kind Family. If you did read it, the dusting ploy is seared in your memory along with chocolate babies and that time Henny got lost in Coney Island. (FREAKING HENNY, am I right?) The chapter was titled Dusting Is Fun, because it was 1951 and Sydney Taylor didn’t really have to try (honestly, what was her competition in children’s entertainment? The show Lassie. That’s it.). By the end of that chapter you, a grubby-faced 90s kid wearing a t-shirt decorated with puff paint, wished you were an old-fashioned child in the Lower East Side dusting for free. And for fun. That is how powerful Mama’s dusting plot was.

Ready for the scheme IN ITS ENTIRITY? Hold on to your pinafore. Mama hid buttons around the front parlor. By the way, their house only had like 4 rooms and one of them was a parlor used strictly for fancy decorations and pianos, that’s how high-class Mama was. Okay, so then the dusting girl had to find all of the buttons while she was dusting. Also Mama got straight-up sneaky with it, like those buttons were under table legs and piano keys. You had to DUST. IT. UP. If you found all of the buttons, you had done a good job dusting.

All right, let’s talk about the genius parts of this plan:

  1. The girls never knew how many buttons there were. Say you’ve found 5 buttons. You couldn’t just call it quits at that point, because maybe there were 9 buttons that day. You had to dust every damn thing, and only then could you be sure you had all of the buttons.
  2. Mama kept it fresh. Sometimes she’d bring out the buttons a few times a week, and sometimes she’d wait two weeks because what did she care, she had those little dusting girls under her spell and they would WAIT FOR IT. They’d wait for those buttons.
  3. In case you missed it, the prize was that you had done a good job dusting. Mama raised her kids to want to do a very good job at something because it feels good to know that you’ve done a very good job. Mama quarantined four children with scarlet fever in a spotless 4-room apartment during Passover; she knew that you didn’t get a ticker tape parade every time you did a damn chore.
  4. But Mama was the best ever because one week she hid a penny every day. Judging by how much candy the girls could buy for a penny, it was basically a dollar. Do you know how great it is to find a dollar when you’re cleaning? Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte and Gertie sure do.

Mama wasn’t all dusting and parlors, though. She also was really good looking. The girls introduced her to the Library Lady and they were so proud because even though she had, at the time, 5 children, she didn’t look like the other women in the neighborhood: “like mattresses tied about the middle.” Which admittedly sounds harsh, but you know exactly what they mean. I’m sure they’d all love Mama just as much if she were a lumpy mattress-lady, but the point is Mama had a whole bunch of kids and her figure and outfits were still on point.

While Mama enforced rules, she was lenient when it mattered. When Sarah made that big fuss about not eating her rice soup that one day, Mama stuck to her guns, but once Sarah had a few bites of the gross congealed soup she let her move onto something more appetizing. (I loved re-reading that chapter, because it so reminded me of when you’d get stubborn about something or throw a fit as a kid, and you wouldn’t even know why you were doing it, but you couldn’t will yourself to stop.) And when Gertie and Charlotte used their pennies to buy candy and crackers and ate them in bed, Mama played it like she had no clue, just because it makes kids feel smart and important having a secret.

The All-Of-A-Kind Family was medium-poor. They were second generation-ish Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side in 1912 long before their neighborhood became some sort of real estate holding for foreign billionaires. However, Papa had a scrap shop and they lived on one floor of a house instead of in a crowded tenement, so they were doing pretty okay. Mama was really good at being medium-poor. She was frugal where it counted, but she still allowed for splurges like a trip to Coney Island, or a treat when they went to the market.

If I can have one quibble about Mama, it’s that she finally had a boy and she named it Charlie. Look. One of my favorite real-life little boys is named Charley. It’s a great name. PLUS Adult Charlie from the book is such a cool grownup. You spend the whole time hoping that he and the Library Lady will meet and hit it off and … well. You know the rest. (Also: another post about the Library Lady, maybe?). So it’s great that Mama names a kid after him. It’s just … Mama. Did you forget you already have a Charlotte? She’s going to have so much Middle Child Syndrome. On the whole Mama picked good names – Library Lady even said! – so I can’t be too annoyed. And at least she didn’t name him after Uncle Hyman.

Library Lady = the Miss Honey of this series.

If I have kids, I’m going to skip the parenting guide telling me to make my children be more French. I’ll bypass the naughty step. I’ll steer clear of the Facebook click-bait. As far as I’m concerned, the best parenting guide there is this one weird old chapter book with no real plot. If I am even 1/10th of the benevolent evil genius Mama is, I think my kids would turn out just fine.

 

Gritty, Dystopian ‘Little Women’ Plotlines

Remember Little Women? Of course you do. It’s the 1860s tale of 4 New England sisters – the bitchy one, the one with a complex gender identity, the social anxiety one, and the other one – learning about life, love, and saving your work in case of manuscript fire.

Except now that the C.W. is getting into it, Little Women is going to be more like this:

Little Women is described as a hyper-stylized, gritty adaptation of the 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott, in which disparate half-sisters Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy band together in order to survive the dystopic streets of Philadelphia and unravel a conspiracy that stretches far beyond anything they have ever imagined – all while trying not to kill each other in the process.

Okay, we can work with that. I read Little Women probably a dozen times as a kid, and I lived in the dystopic streets of west Philly. Here are some sample plotlines:

  • When the girls are sorted on … I don’t know, Sorting Day … in the burned-out shell of the Reading Terminal Market, Meg is a Carer, Amy is a Flouncer, Beth is a Die-er, but Jo… Jo is OTHER and must hide out in the garret of Aunt March’s house so The Faction doesn’t enlist her.
  • Aunt March’s house is, like, somewhere in Delco.
  • The girls from the ruling class all collect L.I.M.E.s, or ligament-installed mechanical elements. They’re like weird extra robot arms and legs. Amy, being poor, buys a sawed-off body part from the black market instead … until the schoolmaster throws it in the snow. Gritty.
  • Beth, a meek child, frequently steals away to Laurence II, the mega-computer next door where the brain and memory of Mr. Laurence were uploaded before he was captured by … Them. I guess.
  • “They” have maintained a ruling society that has cut the lower class off from the modern world, but Meg infiltrates at Sally Moffat’s ball on the Main Line.
  • Meanwhile, Jo must hide the burned control panel of the wire tap she wears to the event by standing awkwardly against the side of the room.
  • In a feral state of fear and mania, Beth beheads a hitchhiking robot that she meets on one of her few trips out of the home.
  • Amy has to conceal her radioactive superpowers that she acquires after she falls through a crystallized chemical layer while sludge-skating on the Delaware.
  • She is saved by Jo, who is still furious that Amy smashed the hard drive for her allegorical exposee on Them.
  • Dystopian Jo didn’t save her work in a second location, either.
  • And Dystopian Amy is still a bitch.
  • A group of young rebels, led by Jo and Laurie, meet in a secret cell in Manayunk. It’s up to Operation Pickwick to save the day.
  • Instead of being reasonably good at piano and an accomplished artist, respectively, Beth and Amy are an EDM D.J. and a computer graphic programmer.
  • With the underclasses and recent immigrants cut off from the health care system, Beth takes it upon herself to care for a struggling foreign family in the grips of scarlet fever. After beating the disease, she lives under a cloud of weakness and brittle introversion, until eventually relapsing and dying in her teens. Okay, so you don’t really have to change that one. Like I said, grit. Pure dystopian GRIT.

Okay, so this is not going to be good. And if it airs, I’m watching every week.

Marilla Cuthbert Was A Creepy Church Hag : C+S Book Club

If you’re Canadian, imaginative, bookwormish, or red-headed, chances are at some point you read and loved Anne of Green Gables. Published in 1908, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s story is a timeless tale of orphans and family and imagination and screwing up your hair and dreams and getting your friend drunk by accident and Canada and Canadians and will they/won’t they romance and child-buying. Especially child-buying. When Anne, a plucky carrot-topped orphan with a heart of gold, ends up in Green Gables, she brings love, light, and happiness to Matthew and Marilla, a brother and sister who are married or whatever. Not to ruin this children’s classic for you, but Marilla wasn’t a kindly old lady trying to give an orphan a new start in life. She was a creepy church hag. Here’s why:

Marilla Tried To Buy A Little Boy To Do Chores

When her brother-husband got too old to run the farm, Marilla did the only logical thing (if you’re creepy and also awful) – she bought an orphan boy to do chores. Or tried to, because she got sent an orphan girl instead. Like Target, the orphan asylum has a pretty liberal return policy, but to her credit Marilla does keep the kid.

There Are Church Ladies, And Then There Are Church-Hags

… and Marilla is the latter. She initially kept Anne on a trial basis, like a mail-order vacuum. Even after she made up her mind, she wasn’t so sure about Anne –  because as a neglected orphan/indentured servant, I guess Anne’s bosses forgot to teach her about Jesus. Keep in mind, Anne was 11 and had already raised two families of what I can only picture as 19th century Garbage Pail Kids, so I guess she didn’t have time for scripture. Sorry Church-Hag, but she didn’t. To her credit (?), Marilla tried to buy a pre-Christianized orphan: she specifically told Rachel that she didn’t want a “London street Arab.” When Anne screwed up her bedtime prayers because nobody had ever cared about her enough to tuck her into bed and teach her social norms, Marilla said “Don’t you know it’s a terrible wicked thing not to say your prayers every night? I’m afraid you are a very bad little girl.”  But later,  when Anne tells Marilla about her boring day at church, “Marilla felt helplessly that all this should be sternly reproved, but she was hampered by the undeniable fact that some of the things Anne had said […] were what she herself had really thought deep down in her heart for years, but had never given expression to. It almost seemed to her that those secret, unuttered, critical thoughts had suddenly taken visible and accusing shape and form in the person of this outspoken morsel of neglected humanity.”

Yep. Marilla doesn’t even like church, but she’s still obsessed with it and tells small children that they’re “very bad” because nobody told them how to pray. And that, my friends, is a Church-Hag.

And Remember That Shit With The Brooch?

This is like 50% Marilla being a creepy church hag and 50% Anne being an idiot, so maybe you get the family you deserve. Anne gets all worked about about going to her first picnic and eating her first ice cream, and although picnics are uniformly less fun than you think they’d be (it’s seriously just eating, but outside), ice cream is awesome and she’s right to care so much. But Anne borrows Marilla’s brooch and leaves it on her shawl, and then Marilla thinks Anne stole it because orphans and heathens or something. So Marilla says Anne can’t go to the picnic unless she confesses to taking it. Anne gives a false confession under duress, and I can’t blame her because I would have confessed to murder when I was 11 if it meant I could get some Ben & Jerry’s. Still would. Then Marilla’s all “well, now you definitely can’t go to the picnic,” and Anne doesn’t know that picnics are lame yet so she is pissed. Then they find the brooch, and Marilla learns a valuable lesson that non-church hags never really need to learn in the first place: not to badger orphan children into confessing things they never did because you can’t keep proper inventory of your own stupid brooches.

She Uses Wine “Medicinally” … But We All Know What’s Up

Anne tries to give Diana raspberry cordial, but accidentally (or “accidentally”) rips into Marilla’s secret stash of currant wine instead. Marilla makes the following excuses and admissions:

  • “Well, this story will be a nice handle for those folks who are so down on me for making currant wine” – so, it’s known in the community that Marilla has a problem.
  • ” I haven’t made any for three years ever since I found out that the minister didn’t approve”- EVEN YOUR MINISTER, Marilla. Even your minister.
  • “I just kept that bottle for sickness.” – AKA withdrawal tremors
  • “[The currant wine] couldn’t have the least effect on anybody” – well, no, not if your tolerance is off the charts.

 

Bitch, If You Have Enough Money To Buy A Human Child, You Can Afford Puffed Freaking Sleeves

Damn, Church-Hag. I don’t know the going rate for a chore-orphan in the early 1900s, like how many toonies or whatever, but if you have that kind of money you can probably buy that kid the ugly dresses she wants. So you have to buy a few extra yards of fabric for the kid’s stupid sleeves? Most teenagers at some point will tell you that they “didn’t ask to be born” but seriously, Anne didn’t ask to be born, orphaned, leased out as a work-horse to human breeding farm Mrs. Hammond, so starved for human contact in an orphanage that she creates imaginary friends in the mirror like Tom Hanks on a deserted island with a soccer ball, bought by old married siblings by accident, and then given the worst dresses. Do you know what Marilla dressed Anne in before Matthew took pity on her and bought her those ass-ugly sleeves? Wincey. I Googled it. It’s basically burlap.

Like, did you spend so much buying your orphan that you have to dress her in bag material? That’s not just cruel, that is straight-up terrible budgeting. Get an accountant, Church-Hag. Maybe you could work out a budget to save up for a heart.

You Are The Company You Keep. Marilla’s Company Is Rachel Lynde.

You know those people who manage to insult everyone, but everyone makes excuses for them? That’s Rachel Lynde, Actual Worst Person In The World. So by association, Marilla is the Actual Worst Person In The World. Marilla may be your classic Creepy Church Hag, but Rachel is an even more insidious Church Hag – the normal-seeming gossipy kind who makes fun of orphans. Rachel doesn’t even like Marilla. She compares Marilla and Matthew’s living situation to getting used to being hanged – which, also, is Rachel some kind of idiot, because I’m 100% sure you don’t get used to that over time, you just get more and more dead. Rachel is the kind of mean old bag who meets a motherless child and says things like “She’s terrible skinny and homely. […]  Lawful heart, did any one ever see such freckles? And hair as red as carrots! ” That one got me in the gut, as a fellow skinny, freckly redheaded kid and also a human with feelings. But Marilla makes Anne apologize for calling Rachel out, because Marilla is a high-school girl who is friends with the queen bee because she’s too afraid not to be friends with her. Frankly if I want this kind of petty Canadian mean-girling I would just watch season one Paige and Ashley on Degrassi.

Oh. The other “company” Marilla “keeps” is the child she bought by accident, so that doesn’t really speak too well of her either, does it?

The Legacy Lives On

Despite her creepiness, Marilla has some good points. She does decide to keep Anne, and doesn’t do a totally awful job raising her, and Anne is so dense and weird that I can’t blame Marilla for getting frustrated sometimes. When Anne and Gilbert finally get their act together, they even name a kid after her (and honestly, that’s a whole other post — Anne And Gilbert: Shit Or Get Off The Pot, or alternately, Anne And Gilbert: When You Hate Someone It’s Probably Not Because You Secretly Love Them). Marilla was a creepy church hag, there’s no doubt about it, but she was at least a sort of crusty, lovable creepy church hag. In fact, if I ever buy a child to do chores for me, I hope I can be half of the owner-parent that Marilla was to Anne.

 

 

Life Lessons From Harriet The Spy: C+S Book Club

Welcome back to C+S Book Club! Last time around we focused on that total bitch Amy March, and now we’re celebrating another childhood favorite — Harriet The Spy.

Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet The Spy feels so current – controversial, even – that it’s hard to believe it turns 50 this year. Whether you were a nosy kid, an aspiring writer, or just fascinated by the world around you, Harriet The Spy spoke to a lot of us. Like all the best children’s books, Harriet The Spy was banned by adults couldn’t deal with how awesome it was, probably because it contained real talk contains real talk that adults don’t think 9-year-olds are ready for. In the case of Harriet The Spy, the lessons were lifelong.

Sometimes The Whole Truth Isn’t The Kindest Thing

This lesson is the hardest thing for Harriet – and it’s one that I’m still working on when I write. The sixth-grade jerks find some awful things about themselves when they read Harriet’s notebook (never have I been so indignant on a character’s behalf!). Harriet just wrote what she saw, but the unflinching honesty was a little unkind.

I discovered censorship in first grade. I was writing a story about two siblings fighting, and had the sister scream “I hate you!” at her brother during the argument. My teacher changed it to “I dislike you!”  I was furious – who, in a fit of childhood rage, has ever screamed “I dislike you!” at their sibling? I still believe that good writing requires honesty and authenticity. But when talking about real people, sometimes you have to soften your “I hate yous” into “I dislike yous” for the sake of real feelings.

Fitzhugh said it best: “Little lies that make people feel better are not bad, like thanking someone for a meal they made even if you hated it, or telling a sick person they look better when they don’t, or someone with a hideous new hat that it’s lovely. But to yourself you must tell the truth.” Observe honestly, think honestly – but smooth out the truth with little lies when you need to.

“There Is As Many Ways To Live As There Are People On The Earth”

One thing that huffy moms didn’t like about Harriet The Spy was the cast of wacky characters that Harriet spies on – people who resemble the weirdos and quirks that bona fide children run across all the time. There was the cat man, the family who owns the Chinese grocery, the grand Agatha K. Plummer.  Even your most mundane-looking families are all different from each other if you just watch them. Maybe it’s not so much these characters that set parents ill-at-ease, but rather Harriet’s assessment of them:

“Ole Golly says there is as many ways to live as there are people on the earth and I shouldn’t go round with blinders but should see every way I can. Then I’ll know what way I want to live and not just live like my family.”

See Everything. Write Everything.

We’ve all heard the advice to write what you know. It follows that the more you know about the more you can write about. If you want to be a writer, like Harriet, you have to keep your eyes and ears open so you can learn about all the ways there are to live. A book full of characters who live the way you do – because that’s all you know – just wouldn’t be very good.

Harriet didn’t just see everything, she wrote everything – on Ole Golly’s advice. Really, what a great thing to tell an 11-year-old (or an adult!) who wants to write. You may have a lot of faith in your memory, but it’s fallible. You have to write everything because you never know what details you might want to use someday. Besides, everyday practice – something we recommend for kids who want to master a sport or an instrument – is necessary for writing, too.

Know What You Like

Harriet eats tomato sandwiches every day. She wears her same weird spy outfit every day, too. And how about the Boy With The Purple Socks? It’s not good to be bullheaded and resistant to change. But if you like tomato sandwiches, you don’t have to switch to egg salad just because people think you should.

Be A Harriet. Be a Janie. Be a Sport.

Harriet broke and entered into homes with a notebook in hand, pretending to be an 11-year-old Mata Hari. Janie set up a science lab in her bedroom, conducting weird experiments and learning everything she could about chemistry and physics. Sport lived with his dad and singlehandedly ran the household – including the finances – while dreaming of becoming a baseball player. Harriet, Janie and Sport all do things.

There’s nothing more annoying – even in adulthood – than people who expect you to be impressed by what they plan to do. You know, the people who talk ad nauseum about how they’ll open a restaurant or write a great book, but don’t take the boring, grueling baby steps to actually get there?  People who want to do things aren’t impressive, people who do them are – even if they try and fail.  I’m impressed by the people who take those awful boring writing assignments in the hopes that they’ll learn something they can apply later, or the people working the grueling lab job on a hunch that it will put them into contact with the best researchers. Harriet, Janie and Sport were just sixth-graders, but already they were the type of people who did things. They did things that might look weird to other people, simply because it’s what they wanted to do.

Do NOT Be A Marion Hawthorne. Do Not Be a Rachel Hennessy.

Harriet said “If Marion Hawthorne doesn’t watch out she’s going to grow up into a lady Hitler.” Harsh words, but Marion wanted the entire sixth-grade class to follow her blindly. One blind follower was Rachel Hennessy, who hosts the Spy Catcher Club (and who kids only like because her mom makes good cake). There was a whole pack of kids who followed Marion, and unlike Harriet, Jane, and Sport, they didn’t actually do things – other than try to bring Harriet down.

Change Is Hard

Ugh. Remember how painful it was when Ole Golly left? Even before that happened, Harriet was mighty jealous that her nanny was palling around with the bicycle man. Harriet reacted to these situations like a normal kid would – she pouted and threw a fit. When you grow up, you get a little better at covering it up, but this was one of the most honest parts of the book and a good lesson: change is really hard, and over time your new situation becomes normal to you.

The City Is Your Friend

Harriet The Spy is a distinctly New York City book, but it describes life that’s familiar to any city child. When you grow up in an urban neighborhood, all you have to do is walk out your front door to find all kinds of life to observe. The city itself – the sidewalks, corner stores, and most of all the people – is a character in Harriet’s life.

More broadly, Fitzhugh speaks to finding the fascinating things wherever you are. I thought my city childhood was compelling, and like Harriet I found that the most ordinary-seeming neighbors were extraordinary if I looked closer.  Wherever you live as a child or an adult – a big city or a small town or the suburbs in between – there are a million things to notice if you just open your eyes, close your mouth and grab a notebook.

You Might Screw Everything Up And Lose All Your Friends

… and you’ll still be okay. This probably doesn’t happen so much when you get older (though it’s still possible), but remember those times in elementary school when you’d do one thing wrong, or have an argument with one friend, and all of a sudden it seemed like everyone was mad at you? When you get older, you can still screw up other things – there’s always something you can ruin, whether it’s a project at work or your tax return. If you give most things enough time, they’ll work out. In the meantime you have to fold up your pride, stick it in your back pocket, and try to make things right – and know that just because things went wrong doesn’t mean the world stops turning.