My article “Hitting the Ground of Joy” (Horn Book May/June 2012) (1) takes a look at what Robert Louis Stevenson in his essay “The Lantern Bearers” (2)called “recondite joys,” which are singularly beloved by a few but obscure and even ridiculous to others. Because the Horn Bookeditors know their jobs, they trimmed a little bit off the end of the essay to give it a little more strength, but I thought it might be fun (instructive? not sure) to post the last two paragraphs here:
“The trouble with trying to find lanterns in these books is that writers have the bad habit of trying to make things fit together in a consistent and meaningful narrative. Blame Chekhov. Just because you have a gun hanging above the mantle, do you really have to use it? Things that we might at first be tempted to consider lanterns reveal themselves, by the end of the story, as symbolic of something, or foreshadowing something else. Even Harriet’s notebook is useful for something, which a smoldering and pungent fire hazard certainly is not. I wouldn’t argue for complete narrative chaos, but to say that one might do his homework by the glow of his bulls-eye lantern seems to be beside the point.
So perhaps we have to look for our lanterns in picture books, where joy is accepted at its face value and there just aren’t enough pages to tempt the writer to assign secret or transcendent meanings to things. Why does Jan Thomas’s Fat Cat absolutely have to sit on something (or someone)? Why does the narrator of I Must Have Bobo! want Bobo, anyway, and why is the cat so determined to have Bobo, too? Because sitting on your friends is fun, and Bobo equals joy, simple as that, as any self-respecting lantern bearer will tell you.” (3)
This essay is also where I reveal my very favorite book from childhood, although I don’t say it explicitly: Two P’s in a Pod, by Susan Terris (Greenwillow, 1977). Long and sadly out of print, even at the time I first read it, it’s one of the first books I remember that allowed me to get right inside the main character’s mind. It also introduced me to Anna Karenina (although I didn’t read that one at age ten). I’m working up a longer post on Two P’s because I think it deserves not to be forgotten.
1. See what’s in the May/June issue here. The full essay isn’t available to read online, but you can read Uma Krishnaswami’s essay on humor and multicultural literature. (My interview with Uma is here.)
3. My own interview with Jan Thomas. Look for a post soon about her visit to my library for El dia de los ninos/El dia de los libros, along with Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw.