Currently one of the niece's favourite books: I Want My Hat Back, written in 2011 by Jon Klassen. Even at a year-and-a-half, she's developed an appreciation for its rather black humour... must be the influence of her aunts! I Want My Hat Back is a fun picture book for young kids; come for the mystery of the bear's missing chapeau, stay for the dark twist at the end.
I first encountered Master Skylark as a child, reading a book of short stories which contained an exerpt from John Bennett's 1897 children's novel. The chapter featured was the one in which Nick and the St. Paul's boys' choir sing for Queen Elizabeth I on Christmas morning. I was particularly struck by the words spoken by Queen Bess to her court in this portion after Nick rebukes her mockery of him, stating that a boy who loves his mother will become a man who loves his country (M.S.- A Summary: Part II) This stuck in my head but I found the scene a little unsatisfying because reading the chapter by itself did not give me any kind of connection to the characters contained in it. It was several years later that I tracked down the book and read it in its entirety, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
The story is a compelling one for children; the tale of a young boy who makes a mistake and must face serious consequences for it. Treated harshly by his father, Nick takes up with a traveling band of players and temporarily has his head turned by the attention and florid praise which is heaped upon him for his singing. He soon learns, however, that fancy clothes and eloquent words can hide hide the soul of a blackguard. Nick is kidnapped and removed far from his family for almost a year. The fact that he is not ill-treated by Gaston Carew does not change the fact that the man has done a terrible, despicable thing. Nick is, as Queen Bess described him, stubborn and loyal, holding fast to his determination to return to his home- and mother- in Stratford. Luxurious clothes, flattery, and opportunities which he would not have had at home do not shake his determination to return there. While he eventually complies with Carew's demands- working at the theater and performing with the boys' choir- he never stops looking for an opportunity to escape despite the fact that he actually enjoys his vocal training at St. Paul's.
Gaston Carew is a complex villain, not entirely without virtues. By taking Nick from his home and refusing to release him, he has done a wicked, inexcusable thing- and he knows it. He is actually quite fond of Nick as well as in awe of his talent, and his rather rusty conscience tortures him by time over what he has done. Carew attemps to salve his conscience by purchasing fine clothes and other luxuries for Nick and promising himself that he will let the boy go... soon. It is always soon, when Nick has earned him enough money, but that actual day never arrives.
It's not difficult to understand the fear which motivates Carew's villainy. The life of a traveling player is a precarious one, and his is becoming rapidly less profitable. The theater troupe which Gaston works for is being outclassed and outsold by Shakespeare's brilliant work at a rival theater. Carew can see the writing on the wall; he fears poverty and what will happen to his beloved young daughter if something should happen to him- a not unlikely possibility, considering the time period and his lifestyle. Not that understanding Carew's motivations makes his exploitation of Nick's abilities any less despicable. In the end, Carew's personal failings lead to his eventual downfall. It is possible to feel pity for him as, in the shadow of the gallows, he begs Nick to take care of Cecily and almost desperately pleads for the boy to forgive him.
Master Skylark is also an early work of fan fiction about William Shakespeare, who is spoken of often throughout the book though he only physically appears in the last part to aid Nick in his queat to return home.The Shakespeare who aooears in Master Skylark is depicted as a quiet, thinking man who is also kindly and sympathetic. He is presented in contrast with his friend Ben Jonson, who is loud, jolly, and impulsive. In the novel, Shakespeare is a bit of a deus ex machina, rescuing Nick, dealing with his angry father, and providing the two children with Carew's hoarded money to support them comfortably. If I have a criticism of the book, it is this: everything wraps up a little too quickly and neatly. Nick's father turns too rapidly from being a harsh, judgemental man who has disowned his son, to being humble and repentant. We aren't really given a scene which explains this sudden turn in his character. I think that, had we been privy to the heated discussion/argument between Attwood and John Combe which seems to have been instrumental in changing Nick's father's mind, it would have made this transformation a little more believable. As it is, the only hint we have of Attwood's thought process is when he is sitting by the river and mutters, "O Absalom- my son, my son!" These are the words of King David, mourning the son who had sinned against him, but he still loved. Then, after a while, Attwood murmurs only, "My son, my son," suggesting, perhaps, that he is forgetting Nick's supposed sins and remembering only that he is his child. It's not much, though, and I really think a scene where the words of John Combe shock Attwood out of his righteous indignation would have been helpful. All in all though, Master Skylark is a good read, with more thought and depth to it than a lot of childrens literature. It contains moments of fun and levity, but also times of pain and darkness; there is a villain who is capable of kind acts, and a righteous man who is devoid of grace and mercy. In short, despite some flaws, there's a lot of human nature and wisdom to be found in its pages.
As Cecily and Nick wander dazedly down the street away from his home, they suddenly hear a voice calling Nick's name. It is Susanna, William Shakespeare's daughter, and she runs up to the two children saying that her father has been searching for them all the way from London. She draws them into the house where they find Will Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and several other of their literary friends who greet Nick and Cecily joyously, having feared them lost. Will asks after Nick's mother and Nick tells him sorrowfully that he hasn't seen her because his father has disowned him and banned him from their home. Hot-headed Ben Jonson vows to go knock some sense into Simon Attwood but Will discourages this plan, pointing out that it will only cause more trouble and do nothing to reconcile Nick to his family. Johnson suggests that they take the children in, pointing out that Nick would be a valuable addition to the theater. Will asks Nick what he wants and the boy brokenly says that he wants to see his mother. This causes one of the Will's friends- John Combe, a local businessman- to go to the tannery to talk to Nick's father. Their meeting is a long one which apparently becomes heated, because when Combe emerges from the tannery he is dripping with vat liquor. Simon Attwood also exits the building, likewise dripping. He calls after Combe, however, and asks him to shake hands. Combe does so, then walks home with a smile on his face to change into dry clothes. Simon on the other hand, walks to the river and sits there for a long time, wrestling with his thoughts. After hours have passed, Simon gets up and goes straight to William Shakespeare's house, arriving while he and his friends are at dinner.
Nick and Cecily are also there; it is a merry party, but the laughter stops abruptly when Simon is shown in by a servant. The tanner finds himself the recipient of a lot of unfriendly glares. Will coolly asks him his business and Simon brokenly says that he wants his son. He asks Nick to come home- if not for him, then for his mother. Nick's warm heart is quick to forgive but he hesitates, asking his father if he will also make Cecily welcome. Simon agrees, saying that they don't have much but will take in Cecily as family, sharing what they have with her. The mood in the room has lightened considerably with the tanner's obviously humbled and heartfelt behaviour. Will and Ben Jonson confer, and then Shakespeare brings forth two heavy sacks. Will explains that after Gaston Carew was condemned, he met with him as requested. Carew sent his love to Cecily, begged forgiveness once more of Nick, and told Will of a place in his house where he had stowed away a cache of money in case of emergency. One of the bags has Cecily's name on it and the other has Nick's, addressed in Carew's handwriting. There is plenty of money in them to ensure that both the children can be well raised and cared for. A changed man, Simon asks forgiveness of Will, saying that he has often wronged him and Shakespeare warmly invites him to stay for dinner. Simon tells him though that he is going to go to his house and tell his wife that Nick is coming home. He does so, and for the first time in a long time tells her that he loves her. Nick and Cecily stay for a while longer at the dinner, Nick singing for the assembly when urged. Then he and Cecily make their way in the twilight to the Attwood's cottage, where his parents are waiting. At long last, Nick is reunited with his mother: And after a while, "Mother," said he, and took her face between his strong young hands, and looked into her happy eyes, "mother dear, I ha' been to London town; I ha' been to the palace, and I ha' seen the Queen; but, mother," he said, with a little tremble in his voice, for all he smiled so bravely, "I ha' never seen the place where I would rather be than just where thou art, mother dear!"
Will Shakespeare and Nick go to Gaston Carew's house to get Cecily but find the house deserted, the servants fled. They find out that Carew's erstwhile henchman, Gregory Goole, showed up, packed his belongings and left, taking Cecily with him. Nick and Shakespeare spend several days searching London for a sign of Cecily, to no avail. Then, on the third day while Shakespeare is working on his play, Nick catches sight of Goole at a distance. Unable to summon Will, Nick gives chase and eventually catches up with Goole who is dragging a frightened Cecily along with him. Nick confronts Gregory who grabs hold of him and starts dragging him along, too. He creepily seems to have plans to sell the two children. Nick manages to attract the attention of some men passing by, asking them for help. Goole tries to push past the men, saying that he's the children's father but Nick calls him a liar and in the ensuing scuffle, the children get away and Goole flees the scene. Nick and Cecily go to a nearby inn to wait for Will Shakespeare to arrive to get them. Unfortunately, while there they see Gregory Goole enter the building, looking for them. Leading Cecily out of the inn, Nick desperately asks a carrier whom he overheard say he was heading out of town if they can hitch a ride with him. As it turns out, the carrier actually lives close to Stratford and knows Nick's father slightly. He offers to take the children all the way to Stratford once he's delivered his supplies. The two children hop on his wagon, escaping Goole and London.
After a trip to Oxford where Nick puts his voice training to good work, singing for their supper at a local inn, the carrier takes the children on to Stratford. Nick arrives with Cecily at the door of his parents' cottage almost a year after he left for- he thought- a day playing hooky from school. His father comes to the door and Nick greets him joyously. His happiness is not returned. When Nick disappeared, his father searched for him and was told that his son had gone off with a troupe of actors. Assuming Nick went willingly, his father- never a very pleasant person- has become completely embittered. He calls Nick a "stage-playing, vagabond rogue" and orders him from his door. Nick is frozen in shock, unable to move until a frightened Cecily leads him away.
Nick continues to live at Gaston Carew's house in London throughout the winter, continuing to perform with the St Paul's choir and the theater. He is give no further opportunity to escape, being always closely watched by Carew or his assistant, Gregory Goole. Then, one night in April, Carew decides to go out to a pub and he takes Nick with him. Once there Gaston gets involved in throwing dice with a very unsavoury character. They gamble for about an hour and the game becomes so intense that those around them pause their own gambling to watch. Unfortunately, the game starts to go badly for Carew. While this is happening, a man- an actor by his dress- strides into the pub; it is Ben Jonson, playwright and friend of William Shakespeare. Nick's sharp ears hear him say that he's going to meet up with Will. Jonson leaves and Nick, realizing that Carew is completely egrossed in his game, takes the opportunity to slip out of the pub and follow Ben Jonson.
Nick follows Jonson to a place where a group of men are enjoying a meal, in company with Will Shakespeare. Nick asks if he can speak to him and Shakespeare invites hm in. Nick tells his tale to the sympathetic audience and the upshot is that William Shakespeare agrees to take him back to Stratford. Later that night, another player who had been at the pub comes running with news for Shakespeare, and looking for Nick Skylark. It turns out that Gaston Carew accused the man he was dicing with of cheating; they fought and Carew stabbed the fellow, who then dies. Carew has been taken to jail by the watch.
Nick is staying with Shakespeare, who will soon travel to Stratford for the summer. In the meantime, he is working on The Merchant of Venice. An actor from Carew's troupe arrives to say that Carew, who is in Newgate prison, is asking to see Nick. Nick is reluctant to go, but the player urges him to honour the request of a doomed man. Nick agrees and they go to the prison which is a dark and terrible place. Carew, usually so elegant and put together, is disheveled and haggard. He has been condemned to hang, and he pleads with Nick not to hate him. The reason for this is that he wants Nick to promise to take care of Cecily. He tries to tell Nick something about money, but the prisoner in the next cell- who seems crazy- is making such a clamour that Nick can't hear what he's saying. Eventually Carew just asks Nick to get Shakespeare to come and see him. Gaston also tells Nick that he dreamed of him singing as he did when they first met and mourns that he will never hear him again. Moved with pity, Nick tells him that he'll sing for him now and does so, his clear, pure voice ringing through the dark, miserable passages of Newgate. As he leaves, Carew is still pleading for his forgiveness and his promise that he'll see to Cecily.
On Christmas Eve, the St. Paul's boys travel to the Queen's palace, Greenwich House, and spend the night so they'll be there to sing for Elizabeth and her guests in the morning. Two of these guests are the ambassadors from Venice and France. Nick is astonished and intimidated by the opulence of the palace, both excited and nervous about singing before the Queen's court. On Christmas morning, the boys' singing is greeted with great enthusiasm. The piece which brings the house down, however, is a duet sung by Nick and Colley (one of the other choirboys). And when Nick sings his solo part, it is so beautiful that Queen Elizabeth's fan falls from her grasp, forgotten. When the song ends, the Queen turns to the ambassadors: "Chi tace confessa--it is so! There are no songs like English songs--there is no spring like an English spring--there is no land like England, my England!" Afterwards, the delighted monarch calls to have Nick and Colley brought to her. Praising them for their song, she asks the two boys what they would like her to give them. Colley shyly says that he would like to stay at the palace and sing always for Her Majesty. Elizabeth, pleased by this flattering request, decrees that he will become a singing page in her court. She then turns to Nick and asks him what he would have her grant him. Nick tells her that he wants to go home. Finding this answer less flattering, Elizabeth at first mocks the boy, saying that he must think her extremely stingey, or his home must be a very famous place. The court titters at her words but Nick, stung by this mockery of his home, meets the Queen's eyes and tells her that, "I would rather be there than here." The Queen is displeased by Nick's answers and ends up dismissing him, turning back to Colley and saying "Thy comrade hath more wit." Nick answers quietly that Colley has no mother: "I would rather have my mother than his wit." This response brings Elizabeth around sharply:
"Thou art no fool," said she. A little murmur ran through the room. She sat a moment, silent, studying his face. "Or if thou art, upon my word I like the breed. It is a stubborn, froward dog; but Hold-fast is his name. Ay, sirs," she said, and sat up very straight, looking into the faces of her court, "Brag is a good dog, but Hold-fast is better. A lad who loves his mother thus makes a man who loveth his native land--and it's no bad streak in the blood. Master Skylark, thou shalt have thy wish; to London thou shalt go this very night."
Unfortunately for Nick, since everyone thinks that Gaston Carew's house is where he lives, he finds himself returned there which makes Cecily, who is genuinely fond of him, very happy. It also is a relief for Carew, though he suffers another bout of guilt over keeping the boy there when Nick so desperately wants to go home. He manages to overcome this spasm of conscience.
Master Skylark is the 1897 children's book by John Bennett which tells the story of Nick Attwood, a young boy growing up in Stratford in Shakespearean times. Nick lives with his mother, a gentle soul whom he adores, and his father, the town tanner, who treats Nick harshly. Nick is a dutiful son but, after his father forces him to work through a town holiday, he rebelliously decides to skip school and go to a nearby town to watch a troupe of travelling actors. While there, he meets the leader of the actors- Gaston Carew- who, having heard the boy sing, realizes Nick has a voice that can make him a fortune. Carew talks Nick into singing during one of their performances, and he is a smash hit. At first pleased with the praise and attention being heaped upon him, Nick suspects nothing when Carew urges him to spend the night with the troupe, promising to drop him off in Stratford when the actors take to the road the next day. It takes him a while to realize that, on the road, the actors have turned away from the direction of Stratford and are headed for London. Nick protests to Carew who shows another, darker side to his character, frightening the boy into silence as he is essentially kidnapped.
Once in London, Nick finds himself locked in Carew's house as the man tries alternately to cajole and bully him into cooperating with his plans. Also living at the house is Gaston Carew's young daughter, Cecily. She is a sweet girl who worships her dashing father and can't understand why Nick doesn't. Nick tells her that he wants to go home to his mother. Cecily trustingly asks her father if he'll take Nick back to Stratford and Carew lies, telling her that of course he will... soon. Carew dresses Nick in fine clothes and starts taking him to work at the theater he's affiliated with. This theater is struggling because crowds are flocking to William Shakespeare's plays, at the brilliant playwright's theater across town. This is one reason why Carew is so desperate to keep Nick; he knows that they need a new draw or soon they'll have no audience. He also changes Nick's name from Attwood to Skylark.
Carew arranges an audition for Nick with the St. Paul's boy choir. The gruff old choir director is sceptical of the abilities of an untrained country boy, but is blown away by Nick's voice and immediately offers him a spot in the choir. This is a paid position but Nick sees none of his salary, which is pocketed by Carew who, more flush with money than he's been in a while, spends recklessly. He is sometimes stricken with guilt over what he's done to Nick and thinks of sending him home, but always talks himself out of it, reasoning that he needs the extra money to assure Cecily is taken care of, if something should ever happen to him.
Nick is now living in comfort and luxury that he has never before known, and he loves his training at St. Paul's and the camaraderie with the other choir boys. He also likes Cecily quite a bit. But he misses his mother constantly and yearns to return home. All of London is talking of William Shakespeare, whom Nick knows slightly as they are both from Stratford and Shakespeare's wife Anne Hathaway, is a cousin to Nick's mother. Nick thinks that, if he can get to see Shakespeare, he'll help him get back to his home. Watching for an opportunity, one day at the theater when Carew is occupied, Nick slips out of a window and heads for the Thames, hoping to cross and get to the Globe theater. He almost makes it, but is unfortunately caught by Carew's assistant and returned to Gaston, who locks him up again as punishment and afterwards keeps an even closer watch on him. Soon after this, the St. Paul's choir gets news which causes great excitement: they've been commissioned to sing before Queen Elizabeth I and her court on Christmas Day!
OK, so this image isn't technically from a book, but from a story within a book: the fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red in Grimm's Fairy Tales (it's tale #161). In it, Snow White & Rose Red are two sisters living in a humble cabin in the woods with their widowed mother. One cold winter night, there is a knock on the door and Rose Red opens it to find a bear standing there. She is terrified, but the bear- who talks!- assures her that he means no harm: he just wants to come in and get warm. They take pity on him and let him lay beside the fire and the girls, losing their fear of him, brush the snow off his fur and eventually start to play with him. The bear returns to the woods in the morning but comes back to the cabin every night during the winter, he and Snow White and Rose Red becoming good friends. When the winter is over, the bear bids them farewell, telling them that he must go to protect his treasure from evil dwarfs who will be leaving their caves after the cold weather and seeking to take it. During the summer, Snow White & Rose Red are gathering firewood for their mother and happen upon a dwarf who has his beard caught in a tree he cut down. Catching sight of the girls, he angrily demands that they help him. They try but can't get his beard free. Rose Red offers to run and get help, but the dwarf shouts angrily that he doesn't want any other people around. Snow White pulls out her sewing scissors and cuts the end off of his beard, freeing him. Instead of being grateful, the dwarf rages at them for cutting his "beautiful beard" and flounces off carrying a sack of gold which he had hidden in the bushes. Who is this hostile dwarf? Where did he get the gold? Do Snow White & Rose Red meet up with him again? And what has happened to their friend, the kindly talking bear? If you read Grimm's Fairy Tales as a child, you already know. If not well, there's no time like the present.
Mother Carey's Chickens was written by Kate Douglas Wiggin in 1911. She authored many books for children, the most well-known of which is probably her Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm which she wrote in 1903. Mother Carey's Chickens follows the adventures- and misadventures- of the Carey family as, after the sudden death of their father, they move to a house in rural Maine where it is much cheaper to live. This part of the story is at least partly autobiographical; when Wiggin was quite young her family lived in Philadelphia. After the death of her father however, Kate's mother moved her family to rural Maine to live.
The name "Mother Carey's Chickens" is a pun on the Carey family name, and is also the folk name for the seabird, the storm petrel. According to folklore, Mother Carey was a sea witch who controlled the petrels, which were said to portend bad weather and marine disaster. Mother Carey appears in numerous poems and stories in which she frequently is portrayed as a wrecker of ships. In Charles Kingsley's 1863 book The Water Babies however, which is frequently referenced in Mother Carey's Chickens, Mother Carey is a fairy.
Kate Douglas Wiggin
Some people complain that the Carey family is unbelievably nice, unselfish, and brave in the face of adversity. There is a kernel of truth in this criticism; the Careys behave with unnatural nobility and patience in the face of their financial ruin. But there's a reason for this: Wiggin is providing a picture of an ideal family's response to tragedy and crises- they pull together, support and rely on each other. The Careys are in this way contrasted with two other rather failed family units: the Lords and the Hamiltons who, for different reasons and in different ways have become estranged and disfunctional. The Hamiltons are separated by distance and differing ambitions, while Mr. Lord's self-absorption and callous disregard for the emotional needs of his children has left them even more estranged than the Hamiltons, though they still live in the same house together.
In any case, the Careys are saved from being nauseatingly sweet by the fact that they possess active sense of humours, tempers, and various character flaws which they generally manage to overcome with the guidance of wise and patient Mother Carey. One joke which carries throughout the book is the saga of the hideous sculpture which was given to the family by their wealthy, well-meaning but taste-challenged aunt. This garish image of a young boy and a washtub is entitled "You Dirty Boy" and it is hated by the entire family. They can't get rid of it without offending their aged relative, however, so the children contrive at numerous "accidents" in an attempt to dispose of it. Unfortunately, the sculpture has more lives than the proverbial cat and keeps emerging unscathed, to the mystification and frustration of the Carey children.
Mother Carey's Chickens was adapted and made into a play in 1917 and this play was in turn made into a movie in 1938. I haven't seen it, but the plot summary which I read of it indicates that the story told in the film bears little resemblance to the book's plot. In 1963, Disney produced a musical film based on Mother Carey's Chickens entitled Summer Magic. It starred Hayley Mills, Dorothy McGuire, and Burl Ives. I have seen this- saw it before I read the book, in fact. It's... not the worst thing I've ever seen. A lot of characters have been cut out- including one of the Carey children- and the plot somewhat changed, though not nearly as much as in the 1938 film. On the plus side, I love Burl Ives in everything. I guess what I'm saying is that Summer Magic is watchable, but the book is a lot better.
Mother Carey's Chickens is a novel written in 1911 by Kate Douglass Wiggin. It is set a few years before that, in the 1890's. At the beginning of the book, "Mother" Carey is leaving her flock- children Nancy, Gilbert, Kitty, and Peter- to go and care for their father, a naval officer who, while in a distant port, has been stricken with typhoid. After some time has passed, the children get the devastating news that their father has died. Grief-stricken herself, Mrs. Carey returns home to comfort her children and figure out what they're going to do. While not rich, the Carey family has been living very comfortably in the city, with a cook and housemaid and the children in private schools. With the loss of her husband, however, Mother Carey will only have a small income from his pension. Adding to their financial difficulties is the fact that, before his illness, Carey had lent his brother a lot of money for a financial scheme which subsequently went belly up. The brother has had a nervous breakdown and there is no way that he's going to be able to pay the family back the money he owes them. The Careys can no longer afford the life that they've been living.
They have to let the servants go and, once the current term is over, there will be no more private schools. Even with these economies, it becomes evident that the family will not be able to afford to keep their house in the city. It is at this juncture that 15 year old Nancy remembers a holiday trip the family took to Maine when Peter was a baby. While traveling around, they stopped for a picnic lunch in the small town of Beulah, near a pretty property with a delightful yellow house which appeared to be completely unoccupied. Their father had loved the place on sight and, thinking of him and the house, she suggests that they investigate as to whether or not their dream home is still unoccupied. Remembering that time nostalgically, Mother Carey agrees, reasoning that it would be a lot cheaper living in rural Maine. Acknowledging that it's a long shot, they still send Gilly, who is 14, to Beulah by train to check on the availability of the yellow house. As it turns out, the house is still empty due to the fact that it belongs to Lemuel Hamilton, an American consul assigned to Germany. It was his grandmother's house until the time of her death, and has been empty since except for when his sons were in college and used it occasionally as a party house. Now that they are adults and have jobs- one in Texas and one in China- no one uses the place but Mr. Hamilton won't sell it, remembering the happy times he spent there as a boy. The caretakers of the house are sure that Mr. Hamilton will be glad to have the house lived in and cared for and offer it for a very reasonable rent, basically just enough to pay the taxes on the property. And so the Careys pack up and move to Maine.
To the children's dismay, they find out that their snobbish cousin Julia will be coming with them to Maine. The daughter of their uncle who has been financially ruined- and ruined them along with him- she is used to a much more luxurious life than her cousins and has always put on airs around them. However, with her father nearly bankrupt and totally bedridden, the decision is made to send Julia to live with the Careys in Maine. This leads to some tension within the family. Despite their troubles, the Careys are a plucky bunch who meet the challenges they face bravely, if not always cheerfully. They soon find their feet in Beulah and become an important part of the community there, having a lasting influence on the people of the town as well as others far away, like Mr. Hamilton in Germany. Led wisely and compassionately by Mother Carey, her "chickens" thrive and mature as they deal with the sorrows and joys which mark their new life in Beulah.