Books Magazine

John Updike: a Child's Calendar

By Winterthorn
JOHN UPDIKE was one of the most decorated American authors of the second half of the twentieth century. He won two National Book Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, three National Book Critic Circle Awards, two O. Henry awards, the PEN/Faulkner, the PEN/Malamud, the William Dean Howells Medal, and others. He published, depending on how you count, seventy books in his lifetime, comprised of novels, short stories, poetry, criticism, drama, and non-fiction. But most important to We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie, he also published five children's books. The first of those books to be wholly of original material (the others are adaptations and will be discussed in a future post) is A Child's Calendar (1965).
JOHN UPDIKE: A CHILD'S CALENDARA CHILD'S CALENDAR is a collection of twelve simple poems, one for each month. They attempt to be distillations of those months, ostensibly from a child's point of view. However, they seem more concerned with the sun, sky, and earth than most children probably are ("hot dogs, fries, / And Coke" yes; "The blushing, girlish / World unfolds" less so). As James Dickey wrote in his New York Times review "there is too much sense of clever over-simplification about [Updike's] verse; one is aware of the adult straining for the child's approval, and I should think that the child would also sense it."
Dickey did note that "A Child's Calendar is an attractive little book," which is something of an understatement, illustrated as it was in 1965 by Nancy Ekholm Burkert, Caldecott honor recipient and original illustrator of James and the Giant Peach. And Burkert was only the first Caldecott artist to illustrate the book, which was reissued in 1999 with illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman whose edition was itself a Caldecott Honor book.
What is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book as an Updike text arises out of the existence of the two editions. It is hinted at in a note in fine print on the copyright page of the Hyman edition: "The text for this new edition incorporates a number of changes by the author." Those changes, for the most part, deal with updating the text for modern readers, eliminating references to burst milk bottles in January (replaced by parkas) or ashes spread on icy streets in February (replaced by salt). While these "corrections" have some nostalgic interest, an ah-how-the-world-has-changed, they also reveal something about how Updike specifically sees the world as having changed. A change of "ice-cream cones" to "hot dogs, fries," or "The playground calls," to "Little League" seems unnecessary (not counting edits made to retain a rhyme, of course) as the originals would still hold interest for children today. Those changes suggest, perhaps, new observations of grandchildren instead of observations of his own children. But the most important change appears in "April."
The original in 1965 reads:
Each flower, leaf
And blade of sod--
Small letters sent
To her from God.
In 1999:
Each flower, leaf,
And blade of turf--
Small love-notes sent
From air to earth.
Why the elimination of God? Especially when the next two lines in both versions are "The sky's a herd / of prancing sheep," which in the original reads like an allusion to God as shepherd and His faithful as a flock, but in the second is just a hackneyed metaphor for clouds. And even more odd is the choice in the final verse to retain the cultural aspect of religion, "At church, they bring / The lilies in," after having so deliberately removing the Deity in the first part of the poem. All of this is further complicated by the poem for November, which contains in both editions the lines "Tall God / Must see our souls." Why eliminate God in the first instance, while not casting Him out of the book as a whole? Unfortunately, the simple children's text does not offer a solution.
THE MOST DISTINCTIVE ASPECT OF BOTH EDITIONS OF A CHILD'S CALENDAR is the illustrations. Nancy Ekholm Burkert and Trina Schart Hyman are simply two of the best children's book illustrators, and both of their interpretations of Updike's text have much to recommend them. Hyman took her cue from Burkert with both editions featuring a spot illustration on the page with the poem and a full page illustration on the facing page. Beyond that, Hyman truly put her own stamp on the material, but not without inserting other quiet homages to Burkert. The upper image above is Burkert's spot illustration for "December." The lower is Hyman's spot illustration for the half title.
Below: Nancy Ekholm Burkert, April (l.), Trina Schart Hyman, March (r.)
Below: Nancy Ekholm Burkert, February (l.), Trina Schart Hyman, November (r.)
Below: Nancy Ekholm Burkert, July (l.), Trina Schart Hyman, July (r.)
HYMAN'S EDITION is still in print, and I encourage everyone to track down a copy. I have posted all of Burkert's illustrations on my Flickr set here, but for those of you who don't also have access to the Burkert text, I've included an appendix below of all of the textual changes between the editions (hopefully that will format properly in whatever reader you're using). Updike, while writing copiously on everything, has done frustratingly little writing on children's literature (as near as I can tell). If anyone knows of anything that he's written that might be relevant, please let me know.
Coming Soon: Nancy Ekholm Burkert
APPENDIXJanuary: Milk bottles burst / outside the door.
   And parkas pile up / Near the door.
February: And ashes fly / From the old town truck.
       Though road salt flies / From the old town truck.
April: Each flower, leaf / And blade of sod-- / Small letters sent / To her from God.
   Each flower, leaf, / And blade of turf-- / Small love-notes sent / From air to earth.
June: The playground calls, / The ice-cream man, / And, after supper, / Kick-the-Can.
   There's Little League, / Hopscotch, the creek, / And, after supper, / Hide-and-seek.
July: America: / It makes us think / Of ice-cream cones, / And Coke to drink.
   America: / It makes us think / Of hot dogs, fries, / And Coke to drink.
September: Burning brush, / New books, erasers, / Chalks, and such.
         Drying grass, / New books and blackboard / Chalk in class.
        (Also "And" to "While" in third stanza)
November: In its distress
December: Downtown, the stores
        The toy-packed shops
All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

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