Thursday, September 24, 2015

BOOKS | New-Found Letter (Updated Feb. 2, 2017)

Boissevain Books Edition
of Kersti, 2010.
I have just come across an interesting letter from Hilda van Stockum dated December 15, 1995.

It is addressed to Jean Ann Sharpe has just surfaced of Bethlehem Books, which was going to print Kersti and St. Nicholas and had correspondence with the author about possible revisions.

In the end, the publication of Kersti dropped off the Bethlehem Books schedule. Boissevain Books picked it up instead.

The six HvS children collectively amended the book for several reasons listed below by HvS in the letter to Jean Ann Sharpe. HvS made changes starting on p. 59 of the original edition of Kersti and ending on p. 70.

Here is HvS's letter:
Dear Jean Ann, 
I wrote you some time ago but didn't send the letter as I waited to finish my correction of Kersti and St. Nicholas's ending, which I enclose now - but I lost the original letter in which I thanked you for the new books and the free copies and was enthusiastic about the new books. You are really wonderful in the cheerful appearance of the books.
You understand my spirit. May Massee [Viking's children's book editor] always wanted to show me as a significant writer. They [the books by Viking] got the prizes, but they are not always enjoyed by children - and you understand my approach - without pretensions - just colorful and friendly. So I am very pleased and so are my children.
Meanwhile I have been looking at Kersti, and it is a good book. Have you got it? The book was criticized on three points:
1. The Uncle Tom-ism of [St. Nick's] black servant, which soon after became non-u [today we would more likely say non-PC].  Actually, he was a Moorish servant from the Spain that St.  Nicholas supposed to come from (probably because Spain ruled Holland for so long. So I've changed him from Pieterbaas to Pedro - he calls St. Nicholas SeƱor - and I have left out the Negro characteristics - and Pedro is less servile.
2. The good children got no gifts. I agree with that now. I was young then [Kersti was published in 1940, when HvS was 32; it was the year that HvS's birthplace, Holland, was invaded; her first book was published six years earlier] and liked shocking people a bit. I also thought no child would identify with the good children. It was the librarians who were offended! Actually the story is better now, St. Nicholas performs a miracle, which is all right as it may be only a dream.
3. St. Nicholas boasts of reuniting cut-up and picked children. It's a true legend, but I have eliminated it. I think this has improved the story.
I hope you'll approve [of the changes]. May Massee should have spotted those things. She wasn't severe enough with me - but she was marvelous, the way she believed in me. I owe her a lot. As a writer I wasn't housebroken yet, when she got me. 
Have a lovely Christmas - you all deserve one. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

LIFE LESSON | Visit to the Dentist (1949)

Elisabeth is front and center, holding hands with her mother
Hilda van Stockum, c. 1949.
This is not about how to prevent a child's teeth from decaying. It is a suggestion about what to do if they do.

The obvious step is - take the child to the dentist. That seems simple enough. It's when you get there that the trouble begins.

No matter what you have told your child about the lovely chair and what the dear darling Dr. Dentist is going to do, the child may stampede at the last moment and become completely unmanageable.

There are two ways of dealing with this.

One way is to clap a cone of gas over the child's nose or use force in some other way. Sometimes that involves calling in some passerby to help hold down small waving limbs and is not without its danger - one poor dentist had his thumb bitten off that way. Besides, it is not particularly good for the child and though we may, at that point, care little what happens to the young thing, it is better to take the long view.

The other way is to appeal to the reason of the child. You could promise recklessly all you have if the child will just please, please open his mouth and sit still. This is not a good method, because though you are counting on his not remembering the promises in detail, the child's memory may prove embarrassingly accurate.

The idea of a reward is good, but it should be earned. Perhaps the method that worked with my four-year-old Elisabeth may work with other children.

Elisabeth was quite happy to go to the place her brothers and sisters had been going. Her head was filled with romantic stories of "pink stuff" that the dentist sprayed in your mouth and that tasted like cinnamon. She was absolutely unsuspecting of evil and sat down hopefully in the chair, which was in its highest position, her little shoes sticking out over the seat and the top of her head barely touching the headrest.

But when the dentist poked about with a sharp instrument, scraping off some tartar, she disliked the feeling. She became frantic with fear, insisting that she didn't want to be helped, she didn't want any pink stuff, and no dolls or lollipops. She was going home.

"She has got some big cavities that have to be filled - we'd better give her gas," said the dentist.

Perhaps I am sentimental about Elisabeth. She is my sixth child and very sweet and tractable after two willful and perverse children. I have always found she responds to reason, though courage is perhaps her least noticeable virtue. Taking a splinter out of Elisabeth's finger amounts to a major operation.

But, no matter what happens, Elisabeth always manages to impress you with her worth as a person. Even in the cradle, she was not just anybody, she was Elisabeth. The idea of knocking her out with gas horrified me. It seemed undignified, and with someone as sensitive and... let's admit it... cowardly as Elisabeth was then, it might have bad after-effects.

"Please let me talk to her a moment," I told the dentist. Being a kind man, he let me.

So I told Elisabeth first to stop screaming because nobody was going to do anything she didn't want. That calmed her down considerably and I could wipe the big tears from her cheeks with the bottom of her dress.

Then I said to her that there were holes in her teeth that were full of germs that had to be killed. I said that the pointed instruments were directed at the germs, not Elisabeth. If she stayed quite still and opened her mouth wide, the dentist would kill the germs without urging her too much,  but if she made a fuss it would hurt a lot.

I reminded her of the time she got soap in her eyes in the bath tub because she wouldn't hold her head back. All this was listened to solemnly by Elisabeth, who was becoming her old self again and breathing normally.

"The doctor wants to put you to sleep," I said. "But I want you to be a brave person. What do you want?"

"Be a brave perthon," she lisped.

"Well, then, you must open your mouth," I explained. ""Every time it hurts, you may put up a finger and the doctor will stop, won't you, doctor?"

The dentist nodded. He explained the instruments to Elisabeth and let her examine them. He told her what he was going to do. Then he started to drill.

At first, it didn't work well. Elisabeth kept putting her finger up as soon as the dentist turned on the drill. So I told her that we would see how long she could keep her finger down. We counted, the dentist and I, and and at first she put her finger up before the count of ten. Then, every time the dentist approached a sensitive spot, he counted very loudly to distract her attention. The second time we counted to 19.

A gleam of ambition glittered in Elisabeth's eyes. She was beginning to enjoy the challenge. She managed to bear quite a lot of pain. We counted to 20, 26, 30, 40. The dentist was amazed and said he wished all children would behave that way.

In the end, Elisabeth was so proud of herself and her record of countings ("How much was it all together, mummy?") that she was actually happy. The pink stuff sprayed into her mouth completed her happiness, and she peeped in the mirror to admire her "silver teeth".

The whole thing was topped off by a big balloon from Woolworth's and now she asks: "Mummy, when are we going to the dentist again, please?"

Instead of a nightmare memory, it became a valuable experience for Elisabeth. It has taught her that there is pleasure in conquering fear and pain. This is far more valuable that the fact that her teeth are filled.

[Elisabeth became an M.D. and a Dean-Director of the National Health Service in London.]