Friday, May 17, 2013

applying an elephant gun

The Mythopoeic Award nominees have been announced. I'm on the scholarship committee, and two or three of my choices in each category made the finalists. Reading through the preliminary list (not publicly announced) for the myth and fantasy category was particularly depressing this year, as it contained several anthologies, particularly on recent authors, filled with the most deadly dull, plodding, and straining routine academic essays. Most of them, of course, were from McFarland, though the worst one of all wasn't. I read enough of these that I began to worry if the problem was myself, but then I turned to the Inklings material and cheered up immediately. A lot of good stuff in that category. Fortunately, the other committee members seemed to agree, and none of the awful anthologies made the ballot.

But the experience did influence my proposal for a paper of my own for Mythcon this year. The conference theme is "the land and its inhabitants in fantasy," and B. had suggested I depart from Tolkien and give a paper on ecology in Dr. Seuss. The prospect of reading all of his children's books - I never have, not all of them - and combing them for environmental considerations (is the Cat in the Hat wasteful? Is Sam-I-Am? what about a tweetle beetle battle?) had potential, but the fact is that most of Dr. Seuss's explicit lessons in that realm - Horton, Yertle, the Lorax - are pretty heavy-handed, and well-known enough that they need no help from me. And I don't think I'd have time for that much research.

But I've noted that both scholars studying children's lit, and readers reminiscing about their favorite childhood authors, tend to ignore picture books, and I want to correct that, so my thoughts then turned to my earliest favorite author, one of Dr. Seuss's Beginner Books colleagues, P.D. Eastman. I picked his first three books, all of which were brand-new in my childhood and very dear to me, and one of which provided a catchphrase I still use today. Eastman practiced an equally zany but far more disciplined form of nonsense than Dr. Seuss, and he had some particular recurring themes in teaching children about the world that I find interesting.

And, I thought as I leafed through the books with this in mind, I can do this with the same determined and strained air of all those boring academic essays and thus, like Asimov with thiotimoline, exorcise the demon.

So here, just accepted, are the deliberately pompous title and abstract of my paper topic for Mythcon:

"Ecology, Environment, and Resources in Three Novels by P.D. Eastman"

P.D. Eastman is an important fantasy author too long neglected by scholarship. His first three titles for Random House's classic "Beginner Books" series - Sam and the Firefly, Are You My Mother?, and Go, Dog, Go - skillfully combine fantastic imagination and humor with a restrained pedagogical motive, inculcating in readers an appreciation of the place in their lives of the environment around them, both natural and artificial, with particular attention to identification with animals, understanding of traffic rules, and a knowledge of the uses and limitations of machinery. Comparison will be made to works by parallel authors including T.S. Geisel and William Pene du Bois. Eastman deserves the same degree of scholarly scrutiny and attention often given to authors for slightly older children, like Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman, and in this hour he's going to get it. N.B.: As this presentation will include the actual reading aloud of picture books, attendees are encouraged to dress for naptime and bring their own cups of water.

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