Monday, August 03, 2009

The 13 Clocks

Jessie Kornbluth, responsible for wide-ranging, engaging reviews on his Head Butler blog, writes today about Thurber's "The 13 Clocks," quoted here in its entirety (but I urge you to make his daily blog one of your frequent sources):

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Aug 3, 2009
Category: Children

The younger generation has no idea who he was, but once upon a time, James Thurber was a god. He wrote “Talk of the Town” and dashed off cartoons for The New Yorker, churned out books that became classics, had his work successfully adapted for Broadway and, just to fill his idle hours, published five books for children.

Well, not just any children. Smart, verbal children. The children of New Yorker readers. Kids who now might prefer Lemony Snicket to Harry Potter. That is, nine to twelve year-olds who understand that words can be funny, sentences can be ironic and evil doesn’t always come on the wings of bats.

Neil Gaiman, author of Coraline and no slouch at the kids’ book game, thinks The 13 Clocks is more than Thurber’s best book for children --- it’s “the best book in the world.” And not just for children: “I think you could learn everything you need to know about telling stories from this book.”

Thurber wrote the fable quickly in 1950. He’d gone to Bermuda to work on another book, but this one just poured out of him. He didn’t do the illustrations; one-eyed since a childhood accident, he’d recently gone totally blind. In this lovely, recently reissued hard-cover version, you’ll find the original Marc Simont illustrations. Smart kids will want to cut them out and frame them.

And the book itself? It starts like this:

Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile, and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales.

In this castle, where it’s always 4:50, will the Princess ever be rescued? Perhaps, for here comes Prince Zorn of Zorna, who calls himself Xingu. And now appears Golux, a wizard with a spotty memory and a bad habit of falling for his own tall tales. With his help, the Prince may find the 1,000 jewels required by the Duke. Then again, the Duke may slit the Prince “from your gurgle to your zatch.”

At the end, the Duke has a complaint: “This tale is much too tidy for my taste. I hate it.” Consider him a minority of one. And don’t make the mistake of thinking this book is only for kids.

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