Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages



Curious George

Curious George
H.A. (and Margret) Rey

Curious George – that crazy little monkey whose ADD-like hijinks always got him into trouble. There’s alot of them, and as a kid I loved them all, and still can’t stop myself from flipping through when I come across one. But, as with many such series, it’s the first one that is the stand-out for our purposes here, that introduces the character that becomes iconic, the idea that lasts. The original Curious George – the one in which George comes to live with his great friend, the Man in the Yellow Hat. It’s quite the story to reflect upon and reconsider so many years later.

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The Tell-Tale Heart

The Tell-Tale Heart
Edgar Allan Poe

It’s such an incredibly effective image. The heart of the murder victim still beating beneath the floorboards, pounding in the ears of the killer until he is driven to confess his crime. Poe’s device to explore the crippling and maddening power of guilt is not easily forgotten, and sticks with us as readers. Indeed, it sticks with us as a culture whether we’ve read the story ourselves our not, the heartbeat in the eardrums a lasting symbol of conscience.

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The Velveteen Rabbit

The Velveteen Rabbit
Margery Williams

Pinocchio wants to be a real boy; the Velveteen Rabbit wants to be real, too.  Margery Williams’ first book for children is her best-known, still selling huge and seeing adaptation after adaption almost 100 years after its initial publication.

He’s not the most exciting of toys to appear on Christmas morning, and initially not paid a whole lot of attention. But over time he becomes the constant companion of his young owner, until the boy is diagnosed with scarlet fever and all his toys are marked for burning to eliminate further spread of the disease. Tears for the plush rabbit, a new stuffed friend for the boy, a magic fairy, and… A children’s classic.

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Green Eggs and Ham

Green Eggs and Ham
Dr. Seuss

Oh yeah, baby. This is the real deal. There’s so much Seuss to choose from, but this was the one that I went for again and again when I was first learning to read. Sam I Am’s ‘Would you could you’ and the always-ready ‘would not could not’ response have taught a whole lot of kids to read, and are contenders for any list of the most recognized lines in the English language today. Using only 50 different words and told entirely through illustration and dialogue, it’s the fourth-best-selling kids book of all time. 50 words – that ain’t many; The Cat In the Hat, for example, uses over 200 words. But Seuss was on a mission in this regard – the book arose out of a bet between the author and his publisher-friend who thought it impossible to write a coherent book using no more than 50 words.

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Grimm’s Fairy Tales

Fairy Tales
Brothers Grimm

Jacob and Wilhelm called their collection Children’s and Household Tales when it first appeared in Germany in 1812. We know it, of course, as just Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and you’d be hard pressed to find anything on this list that requires less of an introduction or justification. “Hansel and Gretel”, “Cinderella”, “Iron John”, “Rapunzel”, “The Brennan Town Musicians” – they are all in here, along with countless others less well known.

The Grimm boys collected and revised a wide array of stories, tales, myths, and folklore, essentially translating a whole lot of central Europe’s oral tradition to the page. And in doing so, they – with Charles Perrault – preserved much of the region’s cultural foundation that may very likely have otherwise been lost. Continue reading “Grimm’s Fairy Tales”

The Lottery

The Lottery
Shirley Jackson

When first published in the New Yorker, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” resulted in reams of hate mail and canceled subscriptions; decades later, it is one of the most well-known of American short stories, taught to high school students across North America and beyond.

At the start of summer, the residents of a small US town gather for the annual celebrations and rituals to make a good harvest, the most important being the lottery – a tradition increasingly abandoned by neighbouring communities. In all likelihood you’ve read the story and know the ending; but on the off chance that is not the case, I’ll say no more here. Read it.

Jackson was popular in her time, but since has been recognized as a major literary force, and an important influence on contemporary authors such as Neil Gaiman and Stephen King. Her stories are dark, often gothic fantasies drawn from a world careening between the holocaust and the Cold War. She largely refused, though, to comment on or even promote her work, shunning interviewers and critics and refusing the frequent invitations to comment on literary or world affairs that came her way.

“The Lottery” is what we all know Shirley Jackson for; but it’s only the start of an incredible body of work including stories, novels, and children’s books. Read it again. And read more of her. It’s worth the time.

Aesop’s Fables

Aesop’s Fables
Approx. 580 BCE

The Tortoise and the Hare, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, and the old saying “sour grapes” – these are only a few of the many many everyday references passed down for some 2500 years since they were first told to children in Greece by a local storyteller and slave.

Though some of the stories are undoubtedly much older, with origins in India, Sumer, and Egypt, it is Aesop who is remembered for his gathering of existing stories and composition of new ones to provide a moral education to children. Indeed, he was praised for his particular adherence to moral truth, held by many above the greatest of Greece’s poets and philosophers for his ability to capture the essence of wisdom without the need to dress it up in epic verse or lengthy philosophical ramblings.

You know the stories, many of them. But go back, read them all, and read them aloud. It’s worth it.

Puss in Boots

Puss in Boots
Charles Perrault

The Master Cat, the Booted Cat – these the traditional French terms for the character we all know as Puss in Boots. In the last years of the seventeenth century, Charles Perrault produced the now-world-famous tale of the trickster cat who wins wealth, fame and the hand of the princess for his all-too-common and all-too-broke master.

One in a collection of stories that also may have introduced the figure of Mother Goose to the English-speaking world, “Puss in Boots” has its origins in Italian stories of the mid-1500s and pops up in a wide range of other stories and productions, including Tchaikovsky’s ballet version of Sleeping Beauty.

Puss is a tricky one – as deceitful as he is playful, as much a rogue as a role-model, master of theft and lies and manipulation, he’s much-loved by the kids who hear the tale but has been often-condemned as a terrible influence upon young minds and young morality. Others, though, praise the story as a fairy-tale of the emerging middle class, a story in which it is not birth but work that gets the goods of wealth, power, prestige. Hmmm. Perhaps. But not the master’s work. Puss does it all for him, the efforts of the servant and the liberal use of theft and deceit being the means to transfer wealth from one undeserving layabout to another. Yeah, maybe it is a fairy-tale of the rise of capitalism after all.

The Yellow Wallpaper

The Yellow Wallpaper
Charlotte Perkins Gilman

A piece of fiction, The Yellow Wallpaper is also an important sociological text and a major contribution to the development of feminism. Based upon her own experiences, Charlotte Perkins Gilman writes her story as a series of journal entries. Confined to her room by a doctor-husband who has diagnosed her as hysterical, a woman cut off from work and social activity, forbidden even to read, descends into madness as the “cure” imposed upon her is only exacerbates her feelings of powerlessness. The exact nature of her initial illness, if indeed it is that, is never clear – there are allusions to a recent child, which may imply post-partum depression, but also the the distinct possibility that the “illness” was no more than emotional and psychological damage resulting from domestic isolation and patriarchal control. A reflection on mental health, a reflection on gender relations, a reflection on the infantilization of women by the medical profession – The Yellow Wallpaper is all these as well just a damn fine story.

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