Susan Cooper’s Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children

5C50926A-3B22-4343-AAC3-8376C6A2BB81You back already? I thought you were still rummaging ’bout our book sale. Ah, you found the pile of ARCs and duplicates we sell off every year to be benefit the Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow Fund for the Less Fortunate. And you found a copy of something you thought you’d never find? Most excellent! Just don’t let Maggie grab the coins from your purse! She’s a rather pushy corvid Now where was I? Ah, writing a review of Susan Cooper’s Dreams and Wishes…

We really should’ve reviewed Dreams and Wishes when it came into the Green Man years back, but several staffers claimed it for reading well before the mail room could log it in. And then one of our editors made off with it to her office to ‘see if it was suitable’ for review. I never even saw it again until Maggie and Liath began ‘piling various and sundry oddments on a table as we find them while organizing this rath (I beg your indulgence — I meant office, of course). If you see anything you like — and I believe there are a number of duplicate song glasses, various intriguingly empty boxes, and an antiquated faq or two — do take it with you.’ One of the items that I thought was lost was this book; Maggie, our resident corvid, found it. Liath offered to read it and give a review but I said, ‘No, I’ll do it.’ I really didn’t want it disappearing for another five years! And if anyone finds those tapes of Charles de Lint and Mary Ann Harris performing live, I’d appreciate it if you’d drop them by my office!

It’s fitting thatDreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children should appear today, as the mail today also held the one-volume edition of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. Yes, I could’ve borrowed the first edition copies in the Green Man library, but preferred a less valuable one for reading purposes — I’d hate to spill hot chocolate on those volumes! So I got a really cheap (less than ten dollars!) one-volume hardcover edition that I’ll be reading this winter. And that leads me very nicely into why Susan Cooper is really, really cool! Which is why, if you are a fan of Susan Cooper, you have to read this book. Dreams and Wishes is a collection of essays, starting with the Newbery Award acceptance speech in 1976 (‘Seeing Around Corners’), and other goodies.

I assume that you know who Susan Cooper is? No? Sigh… Oh, let’s let Margaret K. McElderry, her longtime editor and publisher, tell us about her: ‘ Susan Cooper is one of the small and very select company of writers who — somehow, somewhere – have been touched by magic; the gift of creation is theirs, the power to bring to life for ordinary mortals ‘the best of symbolic high fantasy.’ Where does such a gift originate? How is it manifested? These are questions never wholly answerable since they lead back to the mystery of birth, but they are immensely interesting to pursue, and the pursuit is infinitely rewarding though never concluded. The impact of Susan Cooper’s writing, like the impact of meeting her in person, sends one off on this pursuit, to seek the answers to the unanswerable, to gain insight and treasure along the way.’

Like Robin McKinley or Jane Yolen, Susan Cooper’s a writer who understands that writing for children doesn’t mean dumbing down your writing. Just consider her The Dark is Rising series, of which Grey Walker said in her review that it is ‘one of the most compelling stories I had ever read. The story compels me to this day, and I continue to reread it every few years.’ (Grey gets the credit for me deciding to read it this winter!) She also wrote other superb fiction including ‘The Silver Cow,’ a retelling of an ancient Welsh tale, ‘Tam Lin,’ and two charming tales about a wayward boggart, a sort of harmless goblin. Like the two other ladies, I doubt Susan could write anything less than outstanding fiction.

But neither Robin nor Jane write much nonfiction, so a more apt comparison would be to Ursula Le , who does write a lot of nonfiction, much of it collected in Dancing at the Edge of the World and The Language of the Night. Ursula is a more than accomplished writer of nonfiction. Is Susan as good as she? Oh, yes. Different, but just as good. Ursula’s writing has a more culture-over-individual feel to it, whereas Susan’s more skewed towards the individual — as can be clearly seen in her Dark is Rising tale (I prefer the latter). And these essays certainly ring as true to that leaning as a newly cast church bell! Just consider her words in ‘An Interview’ from this book:

I had to move away from [the Arthurian legend in Silver on the Tree] because it seems to me that the Arthurian legend is parallel to the Christian story of the leader who dies for salvation. Whereas what my books were trying to say is that nobody else can save us. We have to save ourselves. Silver on the Tree contains a reference to a poem that I remember my mother reciting to me. It’s about Drake being in his hammock, which recalls the local legend in Devon that Sir Francis Drake will come back to rescue England if we’re ever invaded again. Similarly, Arthur will come back, and Christ — they are saviors. I didn’t want to use that idea. The Arthur that I was using goes to Avalon, but saving the world is up to the people in it.

There’s much more to savor in Dreams and Wishes… ‘Seeing Around Corners’ is Cooper’s acceptance speech for The Newbery Award in 1976 for The Grey King, the fourth book in The Dark is Rising series. This essay explains in detail how Susan came to write this sequence. It also answers (sort of) that often-asked question: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ Also worth noting is her 1979 Parent’s Choice article, ‘Take Them to the Theatre,’ in which she which strongly argues that children are never too young to enjoy the theatre — including such ‘difficult’ playwrights as Will Shakespeare! The other essay that I’ll single out is her piece from 1989 called ‘Long Ago and Far Away,’ which was a talk she did at the Children’s Literature of New England Institute. In it, she looks at the nature of time, the history of Britain, and how that history, particularly the Arthurian mythos and related Welsh tales, took over her consciousness and now effectively form the essence of her fiction, especially the Dark is Rising material.

I could go on for some time, but suffice it to say that any lover of fantasy of a Celtic and/or Arthurian bent should read this book. Now, excuse me, as I’m off to read more of The Dark is Rising

(McElderry Books, 1996)

Iain Nicholas Mackenzie

I'm the Librarian for the Kinrowan Estate. I do love fresh brewed teas, curling, English mysteries and will often be playing Scandinavian or Celtic  music here in the Library here in Kinrowan Hall if the Neverending Session is elsewhere. I'm a violinist too, so you'll me playing in various contradance band such as Chasing Fireflies and Mouse in the Cupboard as well as backing my wife Catherine up on yearly Christmas season tours in the Nordic countries.

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