Family Bonding, Poverty and Vagrancy in Children's Literature

Three European classics, Seacrow Island, An Episode of Sparrows and Krabat and the Sorcerer’s Mill explore difficult topics with profundity and sincerity.

Seacrow Island

Publisher: New York Review Books
Length: 256 pages
Author: Astrid Lindgren
Price: $17.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-05

An Episode of Sparrows

Publisher: New York Review Books
Price: $11.99
Author: Rumer Godden
Length: 264 pages
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-05

Krabat and the Sorcerer's Mill

Publisher: New York Review Books
Price: $17.95
Author: Otfried Preussler
Length: 264 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-09

Beloved children’s author Astrid Lindgren is best known for her fiery, unruly creation, Pippi Longstocking, the pigtailed and precocious menace who turned an idyllic Swedish neighbourhood upside down with her unusual shenanigans. But Lindgren’s ability extended far beyond whimsical madcap and she was capable of producing much more sensitive and subtle fare. Seacrow Island (1964) isn’t one of the Swede’s better-known works, but it's one of her most delicately poignant ones.

Seacrow Island is a story about a family vacationing on a Baltic island, with wide-spanning scenery of verdant foliage. The Melkerson family have four young children, who enjoy their getaway on the island but also find themselves rather bored without the company of other children.

When the father of the Melkerson family decides to rent out a cottage, they encounter Tjorven, a young boy, his older sisters Teddy and Freddy, and an offbeat little girl named Stina, who loves regaling the Melkerson family with many stories.

Lindgren’s story is typical of many European classics which lean toward slice-of-life narratives. Seacrow Island doesn’t try to do anything but simply capture the episodes in the lives of children for one summer and the author’s greatest attribute, her ability to sharply render the emotions of childhood nostalgia, is polished to a faultless degree here. Replacing the zany humour of her Longstocking franchise, Lindgren evinces a more subtle and charming wit that appropriates the kinds of discussions ones have over old family photographs.

Comparisons to the Bobbsey Twins series are not that far off; there's certainly the sense of camaraderie and adventure here that the Bobbsey series have been celebrated for. But Lindgren impresses upon the reader a disarming dreaminess that evokes Seacrow’s lush island of greens, blues, yellows, and reds -- the simple colours of kindergarten past that will be sure to tug at the heartstrings of nostalgics everywhere.

An Episode of Sparrows (1956) follows a similar trajectory as Seacrow Island, but walks a fine line between childhood innocence and the mores of adulthood. The British classic is, once again like Lindgren’s Seacrow Island, overshadowed by some of the more famed treasures of children’s literary classics, but it is also one of the genre’s most mature works.

Author Rumer Godden shapes a narrative about a young and lonely girl who tires of her drab and dour London urban living. Left in the hands of a caretaker by her negligent mother, Lovejoy decides to brighten up the spots of her city by planting a few small gardens. But these tiny endeavours bring larger hassles and the young girl finds herself the centre of much attention, including an older ruffian boy who, quite possibly, fancies her. Lovejoy’s escapades also draw the admiration of a motley crew of street children that the older, watching adults refer to as the “sparrows” in the novel’s title.

Far sadder and definitively more tender than Lindgren’s Seacrow Island, An Episode of Sparrows is unequivocally British in its “just get on with it” approach to life’s doldrums. At turns heartwarming and heartbreaking, Godden creates in Lovejoy – and the other children – a precocious resilience that refuses to give in to the caustic airs precipitated by war (Lovejoy plants her garden in the rubble of a war-torn church). It is also a spiritually-defiant paean to the attitudes towards poverty; Lovejoy and the street children struggle to defy both the world around them and the ones inside themselves. Their efforts to change their own lives by changing, in any small way, the lives of others, is the novel’s most powerful statement on the endurance of children in the face of hardship.

Sidelining the realism of either Seacrow Island or An Episode of Sparrows is Otfried Preussler’s Krabat and the Sorcerer’s Mill (1971). A German fantasy classic, Krabat relays the cruelties of childhood with a Dickensonian treatment of poverty. In Preussler’s tale, Krabat, a boy of 14, lives a vagabond life, shuffling from town to town and singing carols.

A strange and prophetic dream reveals to Krabat that a host of boys like himself are imprisoned inside a mill where they are ruled by a sorcerer who keeps them under command by his dark magic. Krabat takes heed from his psychic dream and soon finds himself at the mill where, with the help of an angelic young girl, he will endeavour to bring the supernatural mill to destruction and free the imprisoned children.

Preussler’s novel uses religious philosophies to illustrate the struggles between good and evil. It should be noted that one translated title of the German novel (at least for its adapted film version) is Krabat and the Legend of the Satanic Mill, and the sorcerer, in this case, can be seen as the devil incarnate -- a crippling authority figure whose political rulings have sounded the death knell for the plight of disenfranchised children.

Like Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows, Preussler perfects a sensitive study on the tenacity of young children, albeit in a surrounding of magic and surrealism. While his Krabat is no less persevering than Godden’s Lovejoy, his protagonist is saddled with the obstacles of symbolic design. It’s a narrative aimed squarely at children (as morbidly dark as it may be), but it reaches into the depths of a more mature contemplation on spiritual triumph, on the ability, through toil and strain, to see a forest for the trees.

All three children’s classics have been reissued by New York Review Books. Seacrow Island and Krabat feature NYRB’s lovely hardback designs with red cloth spines and colourful new cover artwork. Once before reissued in a hardback with a red cloth spine, NYRB reissues An Episode of Sparrows once more in an entirely new design separate from their Children’s Classics series.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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