Fat Books & Thin Women

Book vs. Movie: Howl’s Moving Castle

Book: This was my first Diana Wynne Jones and it was – well, I guess not quite what I was expecting. Sophie, a teenage girl who works for her stepmother in the hat shop her father ran until his death, doesn’t expect to have an interesting life because of her place in the birth order. The oldest child is never the one to go off on adventures, but the one to stay home. She’s turned into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste and leaves her home, finding refuge in the moving castle that’s been looming over her town. There she meets Calcifer, a fire demon, and Howl’s apprentice Michael. Sophie makes a place for herself as a cleaning woman, promising Calcifer that she will find a way to break the agreement he has with Howl that keeps him in the castle; in return, Calcifer will break the Witch’s spell over Sophie.

With Howl Sophie is living a more exciting life, but it’s still a quiet one. Jones has these fantastic elements to the story, like the door to the castle opening to four different places (one Howl’s birthplace, our world), Seven League Boots, fire demons being fallen stars, but these things often seem haphazardly thrown into the story. Some parts of the story aren’t sufficiently developed, so that Sophie and Howl’s declarations of love for each other at the end of the novel come as a surprise; these are characters who throughout the book may develop a certain respect for one another, but don’t show any growing affection until, bam, they do. The fight scenes are lackluster, Jones’s descriptions not adding any urgency or clear choreography to the scenes. Howl’s Moving Castle has countless intriguing and magical elements to it, but they all read as flat.

Movie: The animated film of Howl’s Moving Castle makes countless bizarre departures from the source material, and while the film may be good on its own, it was hard to watch after reading the book. Many of the changes made to characters and storyline are impossible to understand; for what reason does Howl’s apprentice, Michael, go from being 15 years old to a child? Why is the wizard Suleman changed into a woman and made the villian? Why does the Witch of the Waste turn from the villian into a goofy, often harmless old woman? Why does the door that in the book leads to Howl’s home country (in our world) lead here to night skies that Howl flies around in bird form? Why the war?

Visually, the film is stunning. In terms of plotting, nothing’s been gained by the filmmakers’ changes; the story doesn’t become any more coherent as a result of their retooling of characters and plotlines.

Winner: Book.

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Gushing: Roald Dahl’s Danny, The Champion of the World

It would be hard for me to choose just one of Roald Dahl’s books to label a “favorite,” but if I had to it would probably be Danny, The Champion of the World. When I was eight years old or whatever and read this novel for the first time I don’t remember being unduly impressed, but it’s a book that grows on me with the years. There are no witches, no giants, no speaking foxes, no chocolate factories, no glass elevators, just a father and his son, and that’s what makes this book so special. Unlike Dahl’s other children’s books this one is set firmly in the real world.

Danny’s mother died when he was four months old, and he’s since been raised by his father on a small plot of land on which they have a two-pump gas station, a one-car garage, and a gypsy caravan for living in. Danny starts school two years late, when he’s seven, because his father doesn’t want to send him off until he’s learned how to take a small engine apart and put it back together again; early on, his father says, “You know something, Danny? You must be easily the best five-year-old mechanic in the world” (15).

One night Danny wakes up to find that his father isn’t in the caravan, or in the garage, or in the outhouse. When his father gets home he reveals his greatest secret: that he’s a poacher and spent the night in Hazell’s Wood on an unsuccessful mission to steal a pheasant. The owner of Hazell’s Wood is this offensive, bloated, red-faced brewer who each year holds the best pheasant hunt in the country. It’s his one day of the year to feel important and liked by the people he wants to be in with, and for a bunch of very good reasons Danny and his father decide to pull off the greatest poaching expedition of all time.

Somehow the things I love about Roald Dahl I love even more when his story is so firmly set in our world. It’s not just that he can create these magical and awesome and funny stories about things like giants blowing dreams into children’s windows (the BFG makes an appearance in Danny, by the way), but that he can make the everyday seem just as funny and wonderful as a country full of loafing bone-crunching giants. Also that he never, ever censors this reality: I mean, he wrote this entire novel about a father and his son stealing pheasants. Of course Hazell deserves it – he’s the sort of person who digs tiger traps in his woods to catch poachers, risking breaking their necks to save his pheasants – and Danny and his father are clearly the moral victors here, but I can’t imagine most writers doing this.

Danny is a very funny book on top of all its other fine qualities, like when Danny tries to rethink poaching in the context of children’s games:

“Then how do we stop the keepers from seeing us?”

“Ah,” he said. “That’s the fun of the whole thing. That’s what it’s all about. It’s hide and seek. It’s the greatest game of hide and seek in the world.”

“You mean because they’ve got guns?”

“Well,” he said, “that does add a bit of flavor to it, yes.” (123)

Or when Danny is writing about his school and all its teachers, and brings up Mr. Snoddy, the headmaster:

He was a small round man with a huge scarlet nose. I felt sorry for him having a nose like that. It was so big and inflamed it looked as though it might explode at any moment and blow him up.

A funny thing about Mr. Snoddy was that he always brought a glass of water with him into class, and this he kept sipping right through the lesson. At least everyone thought it was a glass of water. Everyone, that is, except me and my best friend, Sidney Morgan. (103-104)

Of course Danny figures out why Mr. Snoddy has that inflamed nose and is such a careful hydrator!

Dahl gives us the good vs. bad, the poor vs. the rich, the first-time nine-year-old poacher being the one to figure out the Greatest Poaching Scheme of All Time, crawling around in woods, adventure, risk of “poacher’s bottom” (being peppered with buckshot on the retreat), but mostly this father-son relationship. Danny’s love for his father tumbles off every page of this book and I really, really love Dahl for writing this. And I’d like to thank whoever donated this book to my school’s library and made it possible for me to reread it. And I’d like to ask you to go to your library right now, this very second, and check out Danny, The Champion of the World: the greatest book of our time, or at least pretty high on the list.

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My Love Letter to Beverly Cleary

Maybe this isn’t the most nuanced statement, but whatever. Beverly Cleary is awesome, and she gets better the more I read her.

I grew up on Cleary. (Aside: some cats are fighting below my window, and they sound almost like people. When I first heard them I thought my host sister, Ava, was alerting me to her return from school.) Ramona, Beezus, Henry Huggins, Ribsy, Ellen Tebbits, and to a lesser extent Ralph S. Mouse, formed the backbone of my library when I was growing up. But unlike Roald Dahl, I didn’t reread Cleary’s books once I got old enough to read “grown-up books,” or whatever my eight-year-old self would label “old people books.”

And probably I would never have reread Cleary, and her books would have remained vague childhood memories of some mouse who rode a bicycle, or something, except that I made the fantastic decision (for my reading life, in any case) to put together an English-language library at my school. My moments of (frequent) doubt regarding this project are always assuaged when a new box of books arrives holding Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, or The Witches, or The Janitor’s Boy (by Andrew Clements, a first-time read, awesome), or Henry & Ribsy or The Mouse and the Motorcycle.

What strikes me now, what I don’t think I ever noticed when I was reading Cleary as an uncoordinated, chubby, leggings and wolf-imprinted t-shirt wearing eight-year-old, is how funny she is, and how spot-on her descriptions are. I should have written about this after reading The Mouse and the Motorcycle. In my endless dedication to actually getting books to my school in a timely fashion, I didn’t.

Lucky for me, then, and you (ha, ha) that I found a copy of Ribsy in the library yesterday. This is one of the Greatest Things to have happened to me in Macedonia, because Ribsy isn’t even one of the books I recruited for the library; one of my co-workers brought in a solid 100+ books over the school vacation. (Also including Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World. Yessssssss!)

Ribsy is written from the point of view of Henry Huggins’s dog, Ribsy. As I started to realize when reading about the adventures of Ralph S. Mouse, Cleary excels at writing about animals. She gives them enough human emotions and thoughts that you identify with them, but not so many that they ever stop seeming like animals; when she writes something like “Ribsy was what you might call a well-adjusted dog” (7) it’s funny because it’s such a human statement to make, but one that is entirely appropriate and correct given what we’ve learned of Ribsy’s friendly nature (keeping the mailman company, following Henry to school, greeting the milkman). Ribsy, who finds himself lost after hitting the power window button in the Huggins’s new station wagon and jumping out to chase a dog, travels through a world that is largely composed of smells (coffee, hot dogs, peanut butter sandwiches, that special boy smell possessed by Henry) and his attempts to find Henry by following those familiar sights (schools, mailman) that he associates with his boy and family.

Ribsy finds himself in the possession, briefly, of any number of people as he tries to find his way back to Henry. As the “mascot” of a second-grade class, Ribsy one day tries to chase a squirrel (brought in for show & tell) around the room. “Nothing that interesting had happened since Billy Amato had brought a live clam to school” (104). Cleary knows just when to leave something unexplained; the comic possibilities of a live clam in a second-grade class grows because it is mentioned so casually.

Near book’s end Ribsy ends up in an elevator, or, in his mind, “a small square room without windows” (168).

There was a whirring noise, and suddenly Ribsy had a feeling he had never felt before. He felt as if he was going up while his stomach stayed down. He did not like the feeling one bit. He did not like this strange little room. He wanted out right now. (168)

I am pretty sure that this is what a dog would feel on being left in a “frightening room that made him lose his stomach” (170). All of Cleary’s descriptions, like when Ribsy is trying to run away from the violet-scented bubble bath he’s been bathed with, are pitch-perfect.

Much of the reason I am so in love with Cleary, and Ribsy in particular (he’s always been one of my favorite characters of hers) is that he reminds me of my old dog, Sunny. Maybe she didn’t share his enthusiasm for boys, or playing football, or playing catch, but Cleary gets the essential nature of a mutt perfectly. Rereading Ribsy makes me feel a little closer to my own dog; in a perfect world, where dogs could tell us what they thought, I’m pretty sure they’d sound a lot like Ribsy.


Also, judging by this photo, it seems that Sunny was, like Ribsy, a “southpaw,” or “left-pawed.”