Among the Forest People

January 26, 2011

Among the Forest People, by Clara Dillingham Pierson, is a charming book. Filled with small tales of denizens of a forest, the book teaches young children lessons on selfishness, bullying, kindness, humility, and other excellent values. Yet, in most instances, the stories are not preachy or overdrawn.

There were two stories which I found particularly amusing. The first one, “Mrs. Mourning Dove’s Housekeeping,” tells us that all of the other birds are aghast that Mrs. Mourning Dove’s nest is so untidy and seemingly unsafe:

“Really,” said one of the Blackbirds, who had flown over from the swamp near by, “I never should think of calling that thing a nest! It is nothing but a few twigs and sticks laid together. It is just as flat as a maple-leaf, and what is to keep those poor little Doves from tumbling to the ground I can’t see.”

There was much discussion amongst the birds and other forest denizens as to whether Mrs. Mourning Dove’s eggs would survive. And then the rumors started: the eggs had fallen through the nest; the eggs were on the forest floor; the eggs had been eaten up; there were no baby doves!

The story ends happily, with the neighbors admitting that Mrs. Dove is not a good housekeeper, which she freely admits herself, but that she is a lovely bird and is raising her children to be polite and proper. In the end, everyone is friends.

In “The Red Squirrels Begin Housekeeping,” we have a love story. Mr. Red Squirrel had been kept in a cage, but one day he was able to get free. He had no skill or training in how to live in the wild, and he was beginning to be very hungry, when PLOP came an acorn on top of his head. He was sitting under a maple tree, which of course did not make acorns! So Red quickly ate the acorn. He had barely finished that when from nowhere came a walnut down in front of him! He ate that, and these were rapidly followed by other nuts:

Next came a hazelnut, then a butternut, and last of all a fat kernel of yellow corn. He knew now that some friend was hidden in the branches above, so he tucked the corn in one of his cheek-pockets, and scampered up the maple trunk to find out who it was. He saw a whisking reddish-brown tail, and knew that some other Red Squirrel was there. But whoever it was did not mean to be caught, and such a chase as he had! Just as he thought he had overtaken his unknown friend, he could see nothing more of her, and he was almost vexed to think how careless he must have been to miss her. He ran up and down the tree on which he last saw her, and found a little hollow in one of its large branches. He looked in, and there she was, the same dainty creature whom he had so often watched from his cage. He could see that she was breathless from running so fast, yet she pretended to be surprised at seeing him.

A few paragraphs later, after Red Squirrel chatted with his benefactress, he asked her to marry him. She agreed, they set up housekeeping, and raised a family. Then in the fall, they began gathering nuts again, to get through the winter.

“Don’t stop to think how many you need,” said the little mother to her children. “Get every nut you can. It may be a very long winter.”

“And if you don’t eat them all,” said their hard-working father with a twinkle in his eyes, “you may want to drop a few down to some poor fellow who has none. That was your mother’s way.”

“When was it her way? What makes you smile when you say it? Mother, what does he mean?” cried the young Red Squirrels all in a breath.

And Mr. Gray Squirrel, a neighbor, tells the little red squirrels that their mom saved their dad’s life! it’s just a really cute story with a little moral about kindness.

Each tale in this book has a point, and most are made with care. Instead of being preachy, the book teaches with humor and by making the stories fun to read. I know that in today’s world it is not fashionable to give animals human voices and characteristics. However, that very technique is an effective teaching tool for small children, as I learned from personal experience. My children were much more willing to listen to a story about animals finding out how to behave than they were to hear me telling them not to be selfish, or to be kind, or to learn to think.

This would be an excellent book for a grandparent to share with a grandchild, or a parent to share with a child. It’s fun, funny, and charming.

Child’s Own Books

January 13, 2011

Book coverUsually, it is easier to develop short books for Project Gutenberg than it is to develop longer books, but sometimes short books can pose their own intellectual challenges. One such series of short books is the “CHILD’S OWN BOOK of Great Musicians” series (1915) by Thomas Tapper. These books have a couple of pages of illustrations so that the child can cut and paste those illustrations into the appropriate places to make a book and other places where the child can write a story about the musician.

Recently, we posted four books from this series. One book was on Bach (Johann Sebastian Bach: The story of the boy who sang in the streets). Another was on Haydn (Franz Joseph Haydn: The Story of the Choir Boy who became a Great Composer). Still another was on Mozart (Mozart: The story of a little boy and his sister who gave concerts). The fourth was on Beethoven (Beethoven: The story of a little boy who was forced to practice).

In each of these books, we produced an HTML file that shows what the finished workbook looks like, and a MIDI file that corresponded to an illustration of sheet music in the book (e.g., this minuet by Mozart). The MIDI files were produced by the DP Music Team.

The Mozart book project and the Beethoven book project have something that the other two book projects do not: a PDF file that shows what the workbook probably looked like before being finished, and that PDF file can be printed out to make a workbook that a child can fill in, just like the books sold almost a hundred years ago. Creating that PDF file was an interesting and challenging experience. The reason why the Mozart book and the Beethoven book project have a PDF and the others do not, is that these projects differ from the other two in that they had the two sheets of illustrations intact.

All in all, it has been an interesting challenge, especially the production of the PDF file, which was created in Microsoft Word. I learned a lot from it. Still, I am looking forward to working with longer, less challenging books.


October 20, 2010

Momotaro and retainers

In the same way that the classic fairy tale “Cinderella” has become part of Western culture, the fairy tale “Momotaro” has become ubiquitous in Japanese culture, with references to it cropping up in comic strips, movies, comedy shows, posters, anime, manga, advertisements, toys, and even government propaganda. There is even a Hello Kitty anime version of the tale available on DVD.

One illustrated telling of that story is Momotaro or Little Peachling, found in the Japanese Fairy Tale Series. This book tells the tale of an old couple that finds a peach, and from that peach pops up a little boy. They adopt him and he grows up strong and goes off to the island of the devils to take their riches. Joining him are three animals:

Then first a dog came to the side of the way and said; “Momotaro! What have you there hanging at your belt?” He replied: “I have some of the very best Japanese millet dumplings.” “Give me one and I will go with you,” said the dog. So Momotaro took a dumpling out of his pouch and gave it to the dog. Then a monkey came and got one the same way. A pheasant also came flying and said: “Give me a dumpling too, and I will go I along with you.” So all three went along with him.

There is a battle with a great multitude of the devil’s retainers, and then with the chief of the devils, called Akandoji. At the end Momotaro triumphs and returns to his adopted parents. There is a happy ending for everyone, except for the devils.

I had heard about the story for decades. This was the first time that I actually read it. Reading it as an adult, I had qualms about the legality of Momotaro’s actions. But then children don’t normally concern themselves with the property rights of devils.

%d bloggers like this: