Tag Archives: Central Park

Into the Woods – Sondheim, Lapine, Talbott

Last night I saw Into the Woods in the park–Central Park, to be precise. At the Delacorte–muy terrific show. So tonight I read the illustrated adaptation by Hudson Talbott from the show by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. This is so not a children’s book. First, the fairytale is a nightmare–funny but horrible. Second, the mash-up of all those Brothers Grimm stories is perverse. The wolf is a lascivious, lecherous, mangy carnivore–although Red is easily his match. Cinderella is plagued by Commitment Phobia, well-placed as it turns out. There are a couple of sassy gay princes, both ADD when it comes to monogamy. Rapunzel is a bit of a slut and gives birth to twins–magic beans or fertility drugs? Beanstalk Jack is trapped in pre-adolescence and has a somewhat weird fixation on his pet cow. The Baker and His Wife are just bourgeoise. And the Witch–ahh, the Witch is a bitch. She’s very satisfying, until she loses her powers in a Glamour makeover. Poof.

The illustrations in the book are rich and divine. The Giantess in the performance is a lot more fun, though. The bookish one shouts in ALL CAPS and wears a purple peasant dress with white cap sleeves. Not scary. All the lyrics are treated like verse story, which works, even if I did hear the tunes in my head as I was reading them. The good lines are intact. “I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” the Prince tells Cinderella when confronted with his infidelity. You can find just about anything you want in these woods.  

I would not necessarily toss this in the kiddy pile as I did, never having vetted it first. Fortunately, it failed to capture anyone’s imagination until the 4-year-old was a bit more mature. And the book is missing the leering and sexual innuendo of the acting, so it is at worst PG.   In the end, no happy ending, everything is wrecked, most of the players are dead, homicides have been ruthlessly committed, children are orphaned, the witch is banished (a real loss, she is deliciously wicked), magic seems to have fled. A few survivors straggle out of the woods and begin to tell a story…”Once upon a time, in a far-off kingdom…” Maybe not such a far-off kingdom. Life is uncannily similar to those woods.

INTO THE WOODS. Adapted and Illustrated by Hudson Talbott   Sondheim, Lapine, Talbott | Scribner 2002

The Chalk Girl – Carol O’Connell

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Every year, on the anniversary of a little girl’s suicide, someone draws a chalk figure–the outline of a small body–on the flagstones beneath the private school where she landed after a plunge from the roof. The school’s longtime caretaker leaves it there all day, cleaning the patio at nightfall. Phoebe Bledsoe, a descendent of the school’s founder, lives in a cottage on the grounds on New York’s Upper West Side, witnesses this annual reminder of a child nearly erased from memory and communes with her own ghosts. Chief among those haunts is her school friend Ernest who was strung up in a tree in Central Park, when Phoebe was eleven, and left to die.

As The Chalk Girl opens, a startling swarm of rats attacks tourists in Central Park, terrifying and eventually consuming an elderly school group leader. A small red-haired girl, who knows an astonishing amount about the anatomy and habits of rats, attaches herself to the group with open arms and a big smile but is grubby, filthy and rebuffed. Rats and red rain fall from the sky and the fairy child claims her uncle has turned himself into a tree. Carol O’Connell has created another Mallory mystery, full of weird goings on, distinctive characters and murky motives.

Kathy Mallory, the damaged runaway who was fostered and tamed by a beloved New York City detective, is the brilliant and somewhat lawless star of these books. She has become a homicide detective herself, a remarkably effective one. But she is a cold, efficient and unstable woman whose skills as a computer hacker and ability to psych out and intimidate bad guys solve cases even as they keep her colleagues at a distance. When bodies are discovered suspended from trees in burlap bags, Mallory (she refuses to let anybody call her by her first name) and her partner Riker set out to find the red-haired kid who may be a material witness to murder.

The Chalk Girl is just plain good. O’Connell doesn’t even give you time to fasten your seat belt before she hits the accelerator. It’s a wild ride but all a reader has to do is hang on. The events and characters are intense, surprising, funny and appallingly nasty. The grubby kid is a key and Mallory locates her, recognizing an unusual psychological pattern, Williams syndrome, immediately. As the child attaches herself to the aloof detective, more bodies are found in trees, old felonies seem to relate to the latest atrocities, the money trails of influence and extortion that devil city politics and preoccupy the wealthy are revealed and many suspects for numerous crimes surface. Throughout, the twisted character of Kathy Mallory keeps thing more than lively. Mallory could be the original model for the damaged heroine of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo–badly impaired emotions, high-functioning sleuthing, inspired and slightly scary tactics. 

It is tough to sort it out in advance of the big reveal at the close but, fortunately, you don’t have to. The incidents are so entertaining—a few in an appalling way—that the story plays out like a movie. Fierce and fearsome Mallory has a soft side which she shoves out of sight at every opportunity. A tiny child is traumatized by her own kidnapping but game to keep trusting strangers, sharing her immense but quirky scholarship and her exceptional musical ability with anyone who crosses her path. The clues and malevolence form a thicket as dense as Central Park’s wooded Ramble, where the tree people are found. And O’Connell has pulled off another gripping read with a partly likable but endlessly fascinating heroine who always dishes out far more than she takes—and does it with admirable style.

The Chalk Girl (A Mallory Novel)  Carol O’Connell | G. P. Putnam’s Sons  2011

Last Child in the Woods — Richard Louv

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The blast of droning buzz saws woke me up. It took a few minutes to connect the noise with a dispiriting idea. When I opened the shutters, branches of the large tree in a courtyard two doors down were juddering under the assault. The workers took it down, branch by leafy branch, in a practiced system that prevented any errant limbs from falling on the neighboring concrete slabs, clusters of lawn furniture and massive barbecue machines. Urban tree removal. Doubtless, the owners of the rental brownstone were planning their own pave-over of a postage-stamp garden plot to simplify maintenance and create a recreational feature as a selling point for a former “garden apartment.”

Last Child in the Woods describes the shrinking of nature and of children’s encounters with it. Natural habitats are disappearing from our cities, suburbs and even rural areas. Kids sit in front of screens, getting fatter and stupider by the decade, completely oblivious to the natural world around them. Our children do not know much about animals, plants, eco-systems or seasons first-hand. And Richard Louv cites plenty of research to show they are poorer for it.

Time spent in nature has been shown to relieve symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), stress and depression, and increase student performance on tests. Nature is a cure for what ails us. Green architecture and urban/suburban planning not only preserve species but enhance the lives of the people who live in those forward-thinking places. It probably helps property values, too, but that’s not the point. “Nature-deficit disorder” is Louv’s point, a condition that impoverishes the soul, the imagination, the brain, the body and the planet.

We need nature, Louv argues, and we will not thrive or progress without it. Children are increasingly alienated from dirt, danger and discovery—and there are ways to expose them productively to all of those things so that they develop a delight in the natural world, the skills to protect themselves and the confidence to handle challenges. Kids who grow up isolated from nature have no affinity for the planet and its creatures and that is a profound deprivation.  

Louv was preaching to a choir of one in this reader. I was the homeschool mama who organized pond scum parties, horseshoe crab spawning surveys and nesting sea turtle tracking for small groups of excited city kids. We took our mini-sketchbooks and watercolor kits to parks as well as museums; we picnicked at sunset on the banks of the Hudson River. It wasn’t enough. Raising hermit crabs and swallowtail butterflies in the bedroom and caring for domestic pets isn’t enough either—but it’s something. A pale thing. Not all that intensely green but a little green. The electronic screens are going full-bore around here all the time–we need so much more.     

Swimming in a sea of cortisol is the encounter with the natural world most available to me these days. A walk down the unused bridal trail through the scarred old trees of the park is a calming antidote to that but it’s far too temporary. A vegetable garden, an old fruit tree, uninvited rabbits and deer, encouraged butterflies and birds might be a better life. A view through green or bare branches is surely an improvement over the stark vista of metal, plastic, concrete and the backs of buildings we have now.    

I used to wake to loud birdsong in the morning. Our apartment is next to Central Park, on an important East Coast flyover for migrating birds. We had butterflies along with the birds, visiting the courtyard gardens below and the plants on our wide window ledges. There was a pair of cardinals that made their nest every year in the lost tree or one of the other trees to fall victim to the passion for concrete and dollars. We saw orioles, blue jays, finches—and a sprinkling of more exotic birds all spring, summer and fall. No more.

The tree that was ripped into chunks, wood-chipped and carted away had a big nest in it, visible from our window. Its leafy branches provided us with shade and some privacy from the windows of apartments opposite. In the winter, it held glittering strands of snow. And now it’s gone. We are diminished. The ideas and examples of greening detailed in Last Child in the Woods are hopeful. They provide the rational excuse for what should need no explanation. If we don’t value nature and turn our children loose to encounter nature, they never experience what it is like to fully live.

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder    Richard Louv  | Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill  2005

Related post: The Tree by John Fowles