It’s always such fun to research authors/titles for a new project (see: Amanda’s vast quantity of mostly-untouched-since-created project lists), and back in December I decided that the best way to transition from my January Children’s Classics Event to my Ohio project was to find a children’s classic by an Ohioan. But I didn’t know what–was there anything out there that would both be at least 50 years old and by someone I counted as “Ohio enough”? Ha! A quick glance at my project map shows that the answer is a resounding YES. And being a little dense, I hadn’t caught onto the fact–until after hours of research–that one title was already on my Classics of Children’s Lit project list, James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks. The perfect book to transition from January’s event to February’s new project start. Mission accomplished.
James Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio December 8th, 1894 and raised there, ultimately attending The Ohio State University, although he didn’t graduate as he was unable to complete a required ROTC course due to poor eyesight.* While at OSU, Thurber wrote for the school newspaper and was editor of the humor and literary magazines. After leaving Ohio State, he was a reporter and columnist for The Columbus Dispatch. He would later work for The Chicago Tribune in Paris and Nice, France and for the New York Evening Post. In New York he would befriend E.B. White, who helped him obtain a job at the New Yorker, where he published the remainder of his career, until his death in 1961. Over his lifetime he published over 30 books, including short story collections and children’s books, as well as three plays, and his illustrations made the pages of The New Yorker and three books. Notable among these is his story collection My Life and Hard Times.†
The brambles and the thorns grew thick and thicker in a ticking thicket of bickering crickets. Farther along and stronger, bonged the gongs of a throng of frogs, green and vivid on their lily pads. From the sky came the crying of flies, and the pilgrims leaped over a bleating sheep creeping knee-deep in a sleepy stream, in which swift and slippery snakes slid and slithered silkily, whispering sinful secrets.
Chapter V, The 13 Clocks
It is a fairy tale, but not quite like any other I’ve ever read–a fairy tale with a knowing wink, a sly smile at the conventions of the type, but also something completely its own, something almost a poem, a celebration of language and sounds. I find it hard, in a way, to describe, but fortunately the edition I read has an introduction by Neil Gaiman, telling of his childhood introduction to the story:
It was funny in strange ways. It was filled with words. And while all books are filled with words, this one was different: it was filled with magical, wonderful, tasty words. It slipped into poetry and out of it again in a way that made you want to read it aloud, just to see how it sounded.
Neil Gaiman, Introduction to The New York Review Children’s Collection Edition (2008)
I myself read it twice, wanting to re-experience the magic of its words all over again. I read it without knowing anything about that story, and I think that all anyone needs to know to pick it up, is that if you wish to be delighted or enchanted, to experience the magic of words, this is a book to read. Reading it, I wondered why it is that it seems that it is only (or primarily) children’s books, children’s stories that allow us to see delight and wonder. It is as if we deliberately limit wonder, delight, enchantment to the age of childhood, relegating them to those not yet hardened by the world, but I can’t help but feel that we would all be better off if, all our lives, we continued to cultivate our senses of wonder and delight. Happier, certainly. All these “best of” and “must read” lists–they would all be better for including such lovely books as The 13 Clocks and the Moomin tales. (Happily, the infamous 1001 books You Must Read Before You Die list, does include the Thurber.)
Finally, to any Hobbit fans–have you read this? And if so, did you find certain scenes with the Golux reminding you of the riddles in The Hobbit? I didn’t notice it the first go-’round, but the second time through, I could hear Bilbo’s voice quite plainly. And for those who haven’t read it–does not “Golux” intrigue you? Go on, read it!
*In what will surely be only the first “it’s a small world” connections with this project, when my dad was in college (outside of-US: university) he boarded for a year at the house of a Mr. B–, who knew Thurber at Ohio State.