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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Hands-on Education, or Building Your Own Museum

May 15, 1937 World Museum diorama "

To Holling’s résumé of achievements — storyteller, illustrator, naturalist — I’d suggest adding "marketing genius." In the 1930s, he created the World Museum. This was a full-page illustrated feature that ran in U.S. newspapers.

Subjects included the Grand Canyon, a buffalo hunt, and covered wagons. Children were instructed to cut the pictures apart and assemble them into a diorama like those they might have seen in natural history museums. Pasting them onto cardboard or stiff paper made the dioramas sturdier.

Mary Mosier has exchanged notes with me and Joan Hoffman, docent at the Holling museum in Michigan, on this elusive subject. Ms. Mosier reports, “The UCLA Library also appears to have working drawings of some World Museum subjects in their collection of Hollings papers.” UCLA’s descriptions and other Ms. Mosier found include these subjects that appeared in the papers: Ancient Minoan bull jumpers in an arena, undersea exploration with divers in hard suits, tropical jungle plants with explorers in pith helmets, Buffalo Bill Cody (uncertain if this features the wild west shows or Cody's early life.), cavemen scenes, pioneers or tradesmen in Conestoga wagons, reptiles, Holland, Poland, Spain, China, France and India.” She is also uncertain if the national features focused on historic or contemporary scenes.

She comments, “From what little I have seen, the World Museum dioramas were exemplary examples of a type of educational play that seems to me to stem from the public museum dioramas of figures and specimens. Given his work [Holling did] for the Field Museum this seems very natural to me. The high quality and serious purpose that seems to be displayed in the examples of the World Museum I have seen are only what one would have expected from Hollings.”

Newspapers are becoming ephemera that are rarely saved. Making the archival task more difficult, the World Museum features are often referred to as “comic strips,” and reproductions are usually found in black-and-white.

Joan Hoffman has completed some valuable research, however. “The Hollings sold the World Dioramas to the Esquire Features Syndicate,” she states. “This feature ran for 52 weeks served by this syndicate, including 28 Hearst Syndicate newspapers. They were inserts in the Sunday edition; comics are on the back side. The Michigan Holling Collection owns eight different unassembled colored World Museums. They are each 15-1/2 x 20 inches.”

Youngsters were instructed to paste these onto brown paper to make them stronger, cut out the pieces and then assemble them, she explains. “When completed, they are three-dimensional like a curved stage with figures. Some are about different cultures, historic events, animals, etc. Holling firmly believed that children could make their own museums.”

“I have never seen these for sale on Internet,” she reports. “Ours were donated by Holling's two nieces. I have not photographed them. If you live in Michigan or will be vacationing here, I would love to show you the collection.”

In the digital world children now inhabit, it’s worth wondering some “hands-on” education like Holling’s dioramas might be worth reviving and updating for today’s world.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Book of Indians: Working from Points of Authenticity

I’ve eagerly anticipated reviewing The Book of Indians. But first I had to buy the book ($12, used, through Amazon). And read it, pushing aside other commitments. And doing some background investigation.

It’s necessary to begin by repeating that Holling and his wife Lucille were, among all their other qualities, authentic writers, illustrators, naturalists and historians. After marrying in 1925, they traveled extensively throughout the Southwest. (Holling’s first exposure had been a year-long stay in New Mexico after graduating college in 1923.)

Their work reflected their knowledge, as described by Hazel Gibb Hinman in her Master’s thesis in 1958. She reports that in 1929, they stayed at the Nine Quarter Circle guest ranch northwest of Yellowstone Park, helping design the buildings. Traveling that winter up to Alberta, Canada, they took a tepee for camping. (Going to search for tent poles, they came back to find tribeswomen had already set up their tent.) After returning to the ranch to finish their work, they went on to Lubbock, Texas, to paint murals. Then it was out to California, sketching and writing, with their Coleman stove, tent and camping equipment. Never staying overlong in one place, they drove back to Phoenix at rodeo time where they drew and painted, selling their work to finance their travels. (Ms. Hinman notes that in 1934 Holling demonstrated his fire-making skills at a luncheon lecture, starting a fire with two sticks in just seven minutes and so impressing a club member that he asked Holling to design his restaurant.)

That was just the winter of 1929, and all the while Holling and Lucille were making notes and sketches for two collaborative landmark books, The Book of Indians, (published in 1935 by Platt & Munk) and The Book of Cowboys (published a year later).

The Book of Indians attempts a grand perspective on North American tribes people in 13 chapters: An introduction into the “types of Indians living in different kinds of country,” four chapters about the home life of children and eight chapters relating their adventures. The book is essentially divided geographically among People of the Forests and Lakes, the Plains, the Deserts and Mesas, and the Rivers and the Seas

There are six beautiful colored illustrations in the plein-art style of the Southwest, plus many, many sidebar illustrations of children, their homes, tools and weapons, graphic artwork, and animals. The sepia pen-and-ink style drawings make a reader linger and digest each detail of the small pictures in the margins.

A critical element of this children’s book are the cultural and historical distinctions made by the Hollings. The Native American nations were as different from each other as the European countries, and this is explained in the first chapter. Most dramatically, the Plains Indians changed radically from planters to hunters when horses were introduced in the 1600s. The horse might well have been the cultural equivalent of the Industrial Revolution in Europe.

I believe we can forgive someone writing in the 1930s about misconceptions that today would be viewed as culturally suspect. Columbus did not think he had arrived in India. (The Spanish term might originally have been hijos in Dios—children of God.) And when a tribes person died it’s insensitive to say “He went to the Happy Hunting Ground.” But these lapses are rare in comparison to the facts that abound: how teepees are constructed and how they evolved, tool-making, housing adapted to the environment, and plant life that forms lifestyles. Happily, the Hollings provide a glossary of 31 words any pre-teen child should be familiar with.

The Book of Indians is first and foremost educational — and of particular value to home-schooled children. The writing is generally expository, with touches of drama to make the lesson more amiable. The narratives of the children, who are the main characters driving each of the geographical sections, are somewhat two-dimensional. In this, Holling’s narrative ability developed tremendously in the decade until Paddle-to-the-Sea was published. However, the Indian children’s plotting and personalities do grow toward the end when Raven joins the whale hunt and almost drowns (pp. 109-110) and when the slave child Cedar Bough negotiates her freedom by finding a great cache of copper (pp. 115-118).

The success of Holling’s writing also lies in its simplicity. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Holling's Paddle-to-the-Sea has a Fog Index of 6.9, meaning 91% of everyday words we use are more difficult to read. His Flesch Reading Index score is 75.2, meaning 90% of other vocabulary is harder. (A Flesch score of 90-100 means the writing is understood by an average 11-year-old.) And no one complains because something is too simple. Or because it lacks entertainment. So generations return to Holling Clancy Holling’s remarkable writing — and his wife’s collaborative illustration — year after year.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Notes from Leslie, Michigan

It’s been a wicked winter in many parts of the country, but life has gone on apace in Holling’s hometown of Leslie. Joan Hoffman has been wonderful about keeping me up-to-date on events there. She wrote a few weeks ago, “The little country church that the Holling's ancestors helped build at Holling Corners in 1900 probably will close soon. Their average attendance has been only eight members and they are running out of resources…. I have a picture of one of the stained glass windows in memory of the Holling family.

Two of Holling's nieces came to Leslie not long ago. The niece from California, Patricia, was there to visit her 99-yr.-old aunt. The Michigan niece, Linda, brought along some things for the museum as she was downsizing her home, Joan reports. Among the items was the plaque presented to Linda in 2000 as the Leslie High School honored her uncle posthumously at a class reunion. “Linda accepted it on behalf of the family. The Leslie mascot for their athletic teams is the Blackhawk, which is what the figure represents,” Joan explains.

The California niece goes by the last name of Clancy now, according to Joan. “Her given name was Patricia (Pat). Holling actually suggested naming her Patricia, an Irish name to go with her maiden name Clancy. The family seemed to have a habit of changing names.”

A final news note has to do with composer, musician and scholar Andre Myers. Mr. Myers, a native of Ann Arbor, composed a piece for narrator and orchestra entitled “Paddle-to-the-Sea.” It’s on an album called “Magical Tunes and Marvelous Tales” A link to this album, performed by the Plymouth Canton Symphony, can be found at http://www.michiganphil.org/Media/CD.html. His work has been called “intense and lyrical…combining narrative drama, poetry, and color.” His performances have also been an educational event for school children. Joan recalls attending a concert in which Mr. Myers narrated the piece before an audience of hundreds of fourth grade children. She recalls that this was made more memorable by having lunch and a conversation with the composer.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Painting Graffiti on Grandpa’s Wall


Children are prone to writing and painting on white walls, but rarely do the kids go on to become professional illustrators. Rarer still is having their youthful artwork saved for posterity.

Circumstances favored Holling’s early painting, but the story begins with the Leslie Area Historical Museum in Michigan. In Joan Hoffman’s words, it was begun by a director who had to leave for reasons of ill health.

Three people now work to inventory Holling-related artifacts, art and writing. Among the first acquisitions were these murals. But Joan Hoffman puts the story best in her own words:

“Holling painted these two murals on the upstairs closet walls in his grandparents' Leslie home when he was 16. Holling was living there while going to Leslie High School. Years later, when that house was sold, the new owners wanted to remodel the upstairs [and] cut the two murals out of the plastered walls. The larger of the two included not only a portion of the plastered wall with the painting but the lath and studs as well. The owners kept these murals. When their daughter grew up, she and her husband bought the house and they continued to save them. The daughter, Lynnette Roberts, became a secretary at the Leslie middle school.

“Steve Hainstock wanted to start a historical society and museum in Leslie. Somehow he knew about these murals and mentioned to Lynnette about my interest in Holling. Through Steve's efforts, in 2007, these murals were given as a gift to the Leslie Area Historical Society and became the center piece of our first display. They were displayed in a glass case in the town's dressmaker's shop.

“Many things have changed since then. The museum is in a different location and it contains many of the area's historical treasures in addition to Holling. but one of the first things seen when you come through the museum door is those two murals Holling painted in October, 97 years ago.

“’The Fatal March’ may have been painted from personal experience. Holling wrote in one of his letters that he once ran away from home and got a spanking. Holling loved rail fences and nature's beauty as painted in ‘Autumn's Return.’”

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Memories of Experience Form the Writing

Writers are regularly told to write what they know. This was a fundamental in Holling’s writing and illustration, which more often than not was built on the basis of personal experience.

I was struck by this again in reading Hazel Gibb Hinman’s thesis The Lives and Works of Holling Clancy Holling (1958).

As a boy, Holling Clancy (his surname at birth) was raised in Jackson County and Au Sable in northeastern part of Michigan. Au Sable was populated by French-Canadian, Scandinavian and native American lumberjacks. You’ll remember that Minn, the turtle in Minn of the Mississippi was caught and befriended by Au Sable Indian boy.

Hinman says it was from boyhood experiences like this that Holling learned “the difference between the cloven ox hoof and the solid hoof of the horse, much as in the marginal sketches in the Book of Cowboys.” That difference was why oxen were used for pulling tree stumps and wouldn’t get mired in the mud. This is the sort of natural history most children today would not know if it weren’t for Holling’s books.

For reasons of his father Bennett’s health, the family moved to the ancestral farm in Holling Corners. Summertime in Holing Corners allowed young Holling the chance to listen to his grandfather’s hired hand, Arza Earl. Arza appears in Tree in the Trail as “the owner of the leather shop from whose porch is viewed the main street of Independence, Missouri: ARZA EARL MAKES HARNESS YOUR WORST MULE CAN’T BUST” is the dark sign at the top of the full-page illustration (above) in chapter 12.

The farm life is immortalized time after time in Holling’s writing. Papa Bennett, as his father was known, had a giant iron kettle he used for cooking feed for the hogs. It was so big, Hinman reports, that three or four children could hide in it when playing hide-and-seek. Once, after cleaning the kettle, Holling curled up in it and took a nap, Hinman says. This experience appears in Seabird as an exhausted Ezra finished cleaning the kettle used for cooking down the whale oil and “slid headfirst into an empty try-pot. His polishing rag gave the iron a silver sheen. Then he flopped into the other kettle…. Ah! That try-pot felt so warm, so snug—.” (page 26)

When the Clancy family moved to Holing Corners, the household good were packed in finely made wooden crates. A cousin later used the boxes to construct a fishing shanty on nearby Pleasant Lake. This idea contributed to Paddle-to-the-Sea as the little canoe is trapped in the ice. Fishermen pulling their shanties on runners freed Paddle-to-the-Sea and sent it on its way.

A biographer could have a field day tracking all of the references in Holling’s life to see where they appear in his books — a puzzle that still invites the close reader.

The farm life is immortalized time after time in Holling’s writing. Papa Bennett, as his father was known, had a giant iron kettle he used for cooking feed for the hogs. It was so big, Hinman reports, that three or four children could hide in it when playing hide-and-seek. Once, after cleaning the kettle, Holling curled up in it and took a nap, Hinman says. This experience appears in Seabird as an exhausted Ezra finished cleaning the kettle used for cooking down the whale oil and “slid headfirst into an empty try-pot. His polishing rag gave the iron a silver sheen. Then he flopped into the other kettle…. Ah! That try-pot felt so warm, so snug—.” (page 26)

When the Clancy family moved to Holing Corners, the household good were packed in finely made wooden crates. A cousin later used the boxes to construct a fishing shanty on nearby Pleasant Lake. This idea contributed to Paddle-to-the-Sea as the little canoe is trapped in the ice. Fishermen pulling their shanties on runners freed Paddle-to-the-Sea and sent it on its way.

A biographer could have a field day tracking all of the references in Holling’s life to see where they appear in his books — a puzzle that still invites the close reader.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Lessons in Immortality

I believe Holling and Lucille have become immortal. That is, they’re people who live on long after their mortal remains are gone.

I received an e-mail this week from a woman who had read this blog and had some of the postcards illustrated by Lucille Webster Holling in 1941. Are they valuable as archival material? Perhaps not, but they complete the art and ephemera that the Hollings produced. More importantly, she asked me to put her in touch with Joan Hoffman at the museum so she could donate them to the museum. It might be helpful here to mention again that Joan Hoffman manages the wonderful little Leslie Area Historical Museum in Holling’s hometown at 107 E. Bellevue Rd., P.O. Box 275. Leslie, Mich., 49251; tel. 517-589-5220.

Another letter also arrived, reminding me of the fundamental value in their writing, illustration and love of the earth. The writer said, “I read Brad Fisher's article and the ending got me thinking more. I, too, have wondered about how the current generation is going to deal with the Holling's Houghton Mifflin series of books. I haven't been with enough young people to know. I see my five-year-old grandson looking at books. Many of them have sound and pages are turned with the movement of the child's finger. There are hundreds of children's books. Certainly it is a different time for children. Children also watch many fast-moving videos and shows.

“I would think that it probably depends on how the Holling books are presented and the child's experiences. Our grandson spends a lot of time outdoors when he is here. Many children don't that opportunity. We live on 43 acres with fields, pond, foot bridge over a creek, and woods. He watches wildlife, digs in the dirt and asks many questions. I think he will be able to relate to the Holling books when he is a little older. (I'll be very disappointed if he doesn't.)

“The Holling books have a beauty of their own in words and illustrations so I sure hope they don't get lost in today's technology, our hurried pace and lack of contact with nature.”

My thanks to these two benefactors who are keeping the Hollings alive in the face of a world that sometimes moves too fast and too impersonally.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Holling and the Caldecott at 75


The Caldecott Medal and Randolph Caldecott
 It can be intimidating to run your fingers over the spines of books on a bookstore shelf, trying to pick the most suitable purchase for a child. One seal of approval, however, is the gold foil medallion signifying a particular title is a winner of the Caldecott Award.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the prize created during the Great Depression. Like the Newbery Medal, created 15 years earlier and awarded by the American Library Association, the Caldecott is an indication of a “safe investment” for book buyers. The Caldecott is awarded by the Association of Library Service to Children to a winner and honorable mentions for the most distinguished contribution by an artist who is an American citizen or resident. The ALSC is a division of the ALA.

In 1942, as America entered uncertain times and became embroiled in war, Holling Clancy Holling was honored for his Paddle-to-the-Sea, published by Houghton Mifflin. The winner that year was Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey. Also receiving Honor prizes that year were An American ABC by Maud and Miska Petersham, In My Mother’s House by Ann Nolan Clark (author) and Velino Herrera (illustrator), and Nothing at All by Wanda Gág. (For older readers of this blog, let me ask how many of the 1942 Caldecott winners have you read?)

The medal is named for Randolph Caldecott, one of three influential children's illustrators working in England in the 19th century. The other two were Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane. The artwork is taken from Caldecott's illustrations for The Diverting Story of John Gilpin, which exemplifies his humor, vitality and sense of movement. The illustration shows John Gilpin astride a runaway horse, accompanied by squawking geese, braying dogs and startled onlookers.

Seventy-five years later, the Caldecott Medal is still an assurance of excellence in illustration.