Words on Words: Two questions are posed to readers

3 mins read

Two questions for readers are posed here, first of all…

Happy Hannukah Corduroy, coming this October, and the spring 2010 release of Happy Easter Curious George, got me thinking about the issue of classic franchised children’s book characters and holidays. These titles are great, but why stick to the run of the mill, usual suspect sort of holidays?

What about holidays with literary connotations or philosophical depth? For example, with the recent Robert Burns 250th anniversary getting so much press, was an opportunity missed in not coming out with Eat Your Haggis Curious George? I know what you’re thinking. Curious George is a monkey, and therefore almost entirely a vegetarian, and the idea of him being goaded to eat a dish comprised of minced heart, lungs, and liver of a sheep or calf mixed with suet, could be construed as not being 100 percent tasteful.

Yet still, aren’t there larger issues here, and if classic franchised children’s book characters don’t lead the way who will? Consider Yom Kippur. At first blush the Jewish Day of Atonement might seem a forbidding topic for Curious George, but George is a curious monkey, and his curiosity has previously resulted in hospital bills, radiology bills, and the unintentional theft of property such as balloons. Perhaps the concept of atonement would resonate with him. So what do you think? Which untapped holidays would work here, and which is the world not quite ready for?

And furthermore…

Entering a book is a bit like entering the ocean, one hopes for soft sand and a smooth gentle slope, a seamless drawing in, a comfortable suspension of disbelief, but there is always the chance of a sudden wave occasioning a wallop and a step backward. Nothing occasions a more precipitous retreat, in my view, than ironically meaningful names.

This morning, as I was stepping into a young adult book due out shortly, I encountered a butler named Mr. Niceley, who is mean, and a guardian named Mr. Saint, who is evil. I took a few steps back and reconsidered.

“Why,” one can’t help wondering, “is this happening? How do these patently ironical names help the book?” The tradition of meaningful names is of long standing, true. Few modern readers could plumb the naming depths of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, for example, without a copy Of Graves’ The Greek Myths at hand. Also, there is no question that apropos names can be done well. Mary Nash’s Mrs. Coverlet books are filled with wonderful characters like Miss Eva Penalty, and Mr. Bouncer, the vitamin salesman. What makes some instances so charming, and some so jarring and ill advised? Is there a pattern? Let me throw this out for discussion. I would say that apropos names can break either way, the result being a matter of touch and skill, but that ironic names are almost uniformly unfortunate. What do you think?

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