Fun and Fantasy

Illustration by Ernest H. Shepard

Trash-picking: It’s one of life’s great joys. The pickings are pretty good where I live, too. My neighbors throw away perfectly good stuff, if you ask me, and some of them take the trouble to separate things they think someone else might want and set them gently near the curb in a little box that says FREE on it.

Yesterday we walked past a free box on someone’s front step that had some books in it. I can never resist looking at free books, and I usually take one home (though those Little Free Library things tend to have disappointing selections, don’t they?). This time I helped myself to Fun and Fantasy, an anthology of folk and fairy tales compiled for a children’s series called Through Golden Windows, published by Grolier in the 1950s. I reached for it instinctively because it has one of those pastel midcentury hard covers with the illustrations printed directly on it. Gorgeous. Plus, there’s just something so appealing about an old book of “wisdom,” like a medical manual or a history book or, say, a collection of children’s stories, which tend to be about the lessons life has to teach us. I’m always imagining a book like this, once it’s old and dated, will be rich with irony, and sometimes they are, but I usually come across some things that surprise me, too.

For instance, Fun and Fantasy is more than 60 years old, but I see from her introduction that by 1958, modernity was already getting on editor Bernice E. Leary’s nerves. She writes about “today’s curiously complicated world,” where “material things are assuming increasing importance” and “global and continental distances are shrinking from weeks and days to hours and minutes.” The right books, she instructs, can help ease confusion and overwhelm by providing company and a better understanding of oneself, an escape from reality and also “the courage to face reality.” I agree with her on all counts.

I don’t have children, and I also haven’t been especially drawn to the symbolism of fairytales as an adult—at least not until a few years ago, when my family was going through something very painful and I was able, as if for the first time, to find comfort and magic in them. The last fairytale I read and wrote about on this blog was called Bony-Legs, and it was based on Baba Yaga, a scary witch from Russian folklore. It was almost exactly a year ago that I got it, right after the pandemic had started and we were newly housebound and deeply spooked. I ordered it from a small local bookstore and got it via “curbside pickup,” still a new idea then. I was so distressed and unable to concentrate on much that I mined that little thing, all 40 pages of it, for something that might help or comfort me. And you know what? It didn’t let me down. In fact the story and artwork were so reassuring that I pulled out two of the illustrated pages and taped them to the wall behind my desk, where they still hang. In the drawings, the little girl who is the story’s heroine is smiling as she fixes the witch’s gate and feeds her cat—acts of kindness and ingenuity that later in the story help her escape the witch and get home safely. I sit at my desk and look at the pictures every day.

A whole year later I’m still here, warily eyeing the news and trying to stay well. I wish I could think of something useful to say on this shitty anniversary, some wisdom or lesson I could share with you, but I don’t know. Some days I feel okay and other days I feel dragged out and half ruined; even in my better moments I’m pretty unwise. I do find it interesting, though, that I’ve happened upon another book of fairytales a year later, almost to the day. There must be something in them that I still need.

My new book of fun and fantasy contains excerpts and condensed versions of several stories, and many of them are old ones. Hans Christian Andersen and Rudyard Kipling are in here, and so are versions of The Forty Thieves and Icarus and Daedalus, Cyclops, Aladdin, and Alice in Wonderland. Baron Munchausen, harmlessly pompous, narrates his extravagant travels in the first person: “The lively fancy of your young minds will find no difficulty in following me from tropic climes to lands of ice and snow.” Some of the book’s contemporary stories are pretty wonderful too, colorful and inventive. I find I like being reminded of unicorns and still enjoy spending time with kings and wizards, even waggish ones by James Thurber.

It’s always sort of astounded me to think of adults writing stories for children; I guess it struck me as odd to consider writing for a reader who was unlike you in such a fundamental way. That’s because I used to think childhood was like the old country, a place you couldn’t return to. But I was wrong. Childhood goes on and on. And right now, the kid who is still alive inside me needs some company and understanding, not to mention a little escapism.

She and I are alike that way.

Illustration by Enrico Arno