Alison Lurie is the author of ten novels; a book of stories, Women and Ghosts; two memoirs, V.R. Lang and Familiar Spirits; and two collections of essays on children’s literature. Her most recent book is The Language of Houses. (April 2016)

Thomas Hardy: The Romantic Episode

Thomas Hardy, 1924; photograph by Ottoline Morrell
From time to time, instead of creating characters, writers have kidnapped real people and imprisoned them in novels. In the last century the preferred method was to write a roman à clef. You collected a group of relatives, acquaintances, friends, and enemies, gave them new names and sometimes different physical …

In the Air of Baxter’s Bridge

Charles Baxter, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2014
For over thirty years Charles Baxter has been not only a remarkably good writer, but a professional teacher of writing. To understand what this really means, let us assume that he has maintained a very modest schedule, giving only two fiction workshops a year, with an average of ten students, …

The Triumph of Fay Weldon

Fay Weldon, circa 1985
The image of an English woman writer of the first rank, for well over a hundred years, has been of a sensitive, well-bred, well-read person who is nevertheless somewhat nervous and unhappy, prone to mental and physical ailments and in extreme cases to self-destruction. Though she feels deeply, this woman’s …

The Revolt of the Invisible Woman

Claire Messud, Amsterdam, 2005
One common tactic of totalitarian regimes is the designation of certain ethnic, economic, or religious groups as “nonpersons” or “former persons.” These unfortunate individuals are then automatically deprived of the rights of citizenship; they can be fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, mistreated, and in some cases even …

‘Something Wonderful Out of Almost Nothing’

One of Maurice Sendak’s original drawings for We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, 1992; from the exhibition ‘Maurice Sendak: A Legacy,’ which will be on view at the Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia, June 10, 2012–May 26, 2013
Only a few people have been both great writers and great illustrators of children’s books. In the nineteenth century there was Edward Lear, and in the twentieth Dr. Seuss and—perhaps the most gifted of them all—Maurice Sendak. Sendak’s best-known work, Where the Wild Things Are (1963), shocked some adult readers at first; later it was recognized as a brilliant breakthrough. It gave graphic expression to what every parent knows—that kids are sometimes angry and even violent; and it proposed that these impulses could be explored and enjoyed rather than repressed and denied.

Who Is Peter Pan?

Mia Farrow pointing the way to Neverland in a television production of Peter Pan, 1976
A few writers have the kind of power that believers attribute to gods: they create men and women and children who seem to us to be real. But unlike gods, these writers do not control the lives of their most famous creations. As time passes, their tales are told and retold. Writers and dramatists and film-makers kidnap famous characters like Romeo and Juliet, Sherlock Holmes, and Superman; they change the characters’ ages and appearance, the progress and endings of their stories, and even their meanings.

Master of the Downbeat

Michael Redgrave as Jack Worthing and Margaret Rutherford as Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest, 1952
In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) Miss Prism says of her three-volume novel, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” When Miss Prism composed this work—presumably at least twenty-eight years earlier, before she unfortunately left it in a perambulator, and the …

Comedy in Bloom

Kate Winslet as Marianne Dashwood and Greg Wise as John Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, 1995
Even the best comic writers have had difficulty being taken seriously. Tragedy always wins more prizes and generates more serious literary analysis—though possibly fewer readers. This has not always been so: in the nineteenth century an important novel was expected to end happily for its central characters, though often after …

Widcraft

John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick (1984), according to many critics, was not only a brilliantly written tale of supernatural and sexual goings-on in a New England town; it was a lighthearted, occasionally heavy-handed attack on the feminist movement. To some readers the book proved that Updike hated women. Others, …

Do Schools Have to Be Boring?

Our view of what childhood is has always influenced how children are educated and what schools look like. Until the mid-eighteenth century boys and girls were often seen as miniature adults, as uncivilized imps of Satan, or, with John Locke, as blank sheets of paper on which a parent or …

The Message of the Schoolroom

As the popular cliché suggests when it describes someone as the “product of” a certain school or college, every educational institution, from a toddlers’ playgroup to graduate school, is a kind of factory. The building may resemble a well-landscaped country mansion or a rundown warehouse, but its function is the …

The Girl in the Tower

At first glance, most famous fairy tales seem so implausible and irrelevant to contemporary life that their survival is hard to understand. The story of “Rapunzel” involves a heroine with hair at least twenty feet long, and “Hansel and Gretel” asks us to believe that two children abandoned by their …

Pottery

In international folklore, one of the best-known tales is of a poor, hungry child who wishes that the family’s pot of porridge were always full. The wish is granted—and often more than granted. No matter how much is scooped from the pot, porridge continues to boil up, slopping over the …

When Is a Building Beautiful?

Today we expect nonfiction to be either comic or somber: to make us laugh, or to inform us, warn us, or terrify us with accounts of miserable childhoods or natural and political disasters. The idea that prose might be both casual in manner and serious in intent is almost forgotten.

The Lamp in the Mausoleum

In the imagination of most Americans, Canada is a blur. It contains a lot of pine trees, moose, and Mounties; its population is relatively small, its politics relatively polite. Canadians are honest and serious but slightly dull. Some of us may pity or scorn them for not having joined the …

Barbara Epstein (1928–2006)

Barbara Epstein, my friend and fellow editor for forty-three years, died on June 16. She did much to create The New York Review and she brought her remarkable intelligence and editorial skill to bear on everything that appeared in these pages. We publish here memoirs by some of the writers …

The Passion of C.S. Lewis

The film is remarkably faithful to the original. The computer-generated animals, including the traditionally domestic Beavers, who speak a kind of rural British dialect, are not too cute; Tilda Swinton, with a crown of ice and gray-blond dreadlocks, is elegantly scary as the White Witch. The transition from the …

Liberated Girls

An author who creates characters that become wildly popular, and take on a kind of independent life, may eventually tire of them and even turn against them, sometimes violently. Conan Doyle grew so weary of Sherlock Holmes that he had the famous detective murdered by the arch-villain Professor Moriarty. Later, …

The Royal Family

For over seventy years, Babar has been the most famous elephant in the world—and the most controversial. He has been praised as a benevolent monarch, an ideal parent, and a model of family affection, loyalty, justice, good manners, and civilized living. He has also been damned as a sexist, an …

The Good Bad Boy

Today, many people have the illusion that they know who Pinocchio is. They think that he is a wooden marionette who becomes a human boy; that he was swallowed by a huge fish; and that when he told lies his nose grew longer. (As a result of this last incident, …

God’s Houses Part II

Modern architecture was slow in moving into religious buildings, and the first important modernist churches only appeared in Europe and South America in the 1920s and 1930s. Some of them were designed by the most famous architects of the time, including Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier, and were remarkably innovative.

The Underduckling

In “The Ugly Duckling”—which generations of readers have recognized as an allegory of Hans Christian Andersen’s own life—the unattractive, awkward, low-born hero becomes a swan without any effort on his part. That ending, more than anything else in the story, makes it a fantasy. Andersen began life as one of …

The Oddness of Oz

The year 2000 is the centenary of a famous and much-loved but essentially very odd children’s classic: L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. Those who recall the story only from childhood reading, or from the MGM film, have perhaps never realized how strange the original book and its sequels …

On Edward Gorey (1925–2000)

Edward Gorey, who died on April 15, was associated with The New York Review of Books from the beginning. His fantastic and memorable cover illustrations were a feature of every anniversary issue; and in 1975 he contributed an ongoing serial, Les Mystères de Constantinople, whose heroine was thought by some …

Not for Muggles

Why are so many of the best-known children’s books British or American? Other countries have produced a single brilliant classic or series: Denmark, for instance, has Andersen’s fairy tales, Italy has Pinocchio, France has Babar, Finland has Moomintroll. A list of famous children’s books in English, however, could easily take up the rest of this column. One explanation may be that in Britain and America more people never quite grow up. They may sometimes put on a good show of maturity, but secretly they remain children, longing for the pleasures and privileges of childhood that once were, or were said to be, theirs. And there are some reasons for them to do so.

Bothered and Bewildered

Over the years I have met more than a dozen people who considered themselves to be witches and/or worshippers of a female deity, whom they usually referred to as The Goddess. They were of every age and social class, and of both sexes—though, as in the witch trials of the …