Nov. 29, 2007


by Jane Kenyon

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Poem: "Coats" by Jane Kenyon , from Constance. © Graywolf Press, 1993. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


I saw him leaving the hospital
with a woman's coat over his arm.
Clearly she would not need it.
The sunglasses he wore could not
conceal his wet face, his bafflement.

As if in mockery the day was fair,
and the air mild for December. All the same
he had zipped his own coat and tied
the hood under his chin, preparing
for irremediable cold.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of C.S. (Clive Staples) Lewis, (books by this author) born in Belfast (1898), who grew up an Anglican, but he found religion cold and boring. He preferred the Irish, Norse, and Greek myths he read in storybooks. He created an imaginary world called Boxen and wrote stories about it. He said, "My two chief literary pleasures [were] 'dressed animals' and 'knights in armour.' As a result, I wrote about chivalrous mice and rabbits who rode out in complete mail to kill not giants but cats."

He became a teacher at Oxford, where he taught literature and mythology, and it was there that he met J.R.R. Tolkien, a devout Christian, and they would take long walks around the Oxford grounds, debating the existence of God. The morning after one of those walks, Lewis went with his brother to the zoo. He said, "When we set out [for the zoo] I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion."

Lewis went on to become a prominent Christian apologist in the world, recording a series of radio lectures about Christianity, broadcast during World War II. People gathered around their radios to listen to him during bombing raids. At the same time, Lewis was taking evacuee children from London into his house, and they all seemed poorly educated and unimaginative to him.

So he began thinking about how he could give contemporary children what he had gotten from the fairy tales he read when he was a child. One day, one of the evacuee children asked him what was inside the big wardrobe in his house, and that gave him an idea for a story about four children — named Peter, Susan, Lucy, and Edmund — who are staying at a country house during World War II when they discover a secret doorway in the back of an old wardrobe that leads to a land called Narnia. The first of seven books in The Chronicles of Narnia was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950). Today, the Narnia books still sell about a million copies a year.

It's the birthday of Louisa May Alcott, (books by this author) born in Germantown, Pennsylvania (1832), who started out writing these sensational stories about duels and suicides, opium addiction, mind control, bigamy, and murder. She called it "blood and thunder" literature and she said, "I seem to have a natural ambition for the lurid style." She published under male pseudonyms to keep from embarrassing her family. But in 1867, an editor suggested that she try writing what he called "a girl's book," and she said she would.

The result was Little Women (1868), which was based on her own family and her own experience as an aspiring writer. Alcott was disappointed at how popular Little Women became, because she was obligated to keep writing more books in the same vein.

It's the birthday Madeleine L'Engle, (books by this author) born in New York City (1918), who struggled to find any success as a writer with novels about ordinary families and ordinary situations, but after reading about the ideas of Albert Einstein, she wrote a science fiction novel called A Wrinkle in Time (1962), about a group of children who have to rescue their father from a planet where individuality has been outlawed. The book was rejected by 26 different publishers, who all felt that the book was too difficult for children but too fantastic for adults. But when it came out in 1962, the novel won the Newbery Medal, and it sells about 15,000 copies a year. L'Engle put a clause in her publishing contract that gave her publisher the rights to A Wrinkle in Time in perpetuity in the whole universe except for the Andromeda galaxy. She died this year.

Madeleine L'Engle said, "You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children."

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