Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Lloyd Alexander, before Prydain

Before Prydain, there was Time Cat, Lloyd Alexander’s first foray into fantasy fiction for young people (and a very entertaining read), but before that, Alexander wrote several memoirs which are all out of print and pretty difficult to find. Growing up, I can remember seeing them atop the flyleaf “Also By” list again and again: And Let the Credit Go (1955), My Five Tigers (1956), Janine is French (1959). I always wondered about these books, but I could never find one. And it’s gotten still more difficult. Recent searches on Bookfinder show that Alexander’s first published book, And Let the Credit Go, will set you back quite a bit of your own credit: anywhere from $90 on up to more than $300! Janine is French goes for upwards of $65; but My Five Tigers, at least, you can get for an affordable price: $15 and up.

So imagine my surprise when I came across a copy of My Five Tigers at Half Price Books recently. In fact, it was an original hardcover, published by Thomas Y. Crowell in 1956, with a pristine dust jacket identifying the copy as a second printing. Also interesting is the fact that, as a pre-Prydain book, the dust jacket blurbs talk Alexander up for his translations and memoirs alone, which offers a very interesting, and very different perspective on the man who would later become so famous for his fantasy. So, altogether a fantastic copy in rare condition for its age (just over fifty years old). The price? $3.00. No, I’m not kidding! Is that good fortune smiling down on me, or what?!

The book is a wonderful read, especially for fans of Lloyd Alexander, cats, humorous memoirs — or all three. The books is also charmingly illustrated by Peggy Bacon. In it, Alexander recounts how he became a “cat person” (a reluctant one at first) after returning to America with his new (French) wife, Janine in 1946. Settling in Philadelphia:
That first spring, while Janine set about getting the house in livable shape, I undertook to find a pet. Naturally, I chose a dog: an eight-months puppy from the local animal refuge. I named him Barkis — Barkis the Unwilling — and his conduct was enough to try the patience of the most unshakable dog-lover [...] One day he ran off and never came back. (p.2)
So, at Janine’s urging, they turned to cats. And over the ensuing 120 pages, Alexander recounts the adventures of daily life with their first five felines: Rabbit, Heathcliff, David, Solomon, and Moira (the only female). Each has his (or her) own unique personality, hangups, entertainments, and habits. All of it is delightfully shared with readers. (There is one sad story, but I will say no more than that.) The other thing I should point out is how well-written the book is. Alexander fans will know (and I wrote about this recently) that as good as his novels are, they can begin to feel a little — how shall I put this? — stale? recycled? Again, I mean only the gentlest criticism by this. But My Five Tigers feels very fresh and original! There are very few of the “Alexanderisms” we’ve all come to recognize (e.g., “vexed”, “took to his heels”, “his head swam”, “into the bargain” — sound familiar?).

Also, attentive readers might notice a few images that pop up again in Alexander’s fiction. For example, Rabbit likes to curl up next to an old Irish harp and occasionally pluck at the strings (p.7) — perhaps this helped Alexander to envision the relationship between Fflewddur Fflam and the great mountain cat, Llyan, for The Castle of Llyr. And then there’s the image of Alexander practicing the violin, the noise of which Heathcliff could not tolerate — “Balancing himself on his hind feet, he reached up and sank his claws into my knees. The more I played, the harder he scratched” (p.35). I can’t help but picture Sebastian and Presto from The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian.

So, if you can get your paws on it, look for My Five Tigers. It’s a charming, wonderfully entertaining (and short), book. Alexander fans will simply devour it like so much catnip. And now — any of you have a copy of And Let the Credit Go or Janine is French you could lend out? :)


  1. If you can get your hands on a copy (I refuse to lend mine--sorry) it is by far Alexander's best book. I am saying this as Alexander's biggest fan, just so you know where I am coming from. The whole thing is hilarious because Alexander can NAIL comedy--like when some Americans who thought they were humorous taught his wife a few English profanities and Lloyd had to explain to her what they had done. Hilarious. It is wonderful. I was curious what it was selling for, but it isn't to be found--at least at any of the places I've been looking. Maybe if I am ever starving I could sell mine. Then again, probably not.


  2. Hi Andrea! Thanks for the endorsement. I’m not surprised to hear Janine is French is wonderful (and have you read And Let the Credit Go too?). You’re right: it is hard to find. There’s one copy for sale that I know of — $89.00. Compare that to the $3 bargain I got for My Five Tigers and you’ll see what I’m up against!

    According to Worldcat, the nearest library copies are about 200 miles away from me, too! But maybe I could still get it through interlibrary loan. I’ll post about it if I can!

  3. You should DEFINITELY get it through library loan. No, I haven't read And Let the Credit Go, but after reading your post I am planning on making a small request from MY interlibrary loan.

    I just found your site. Do you read much YA fantasy/write about much YA fantasy, or do you stick to books geared for an older audience? Just wondering. Obviously I got the whole Tolkien thing. :)


  4. Andrea,

    I guess it depends a bit on how broadly you define YA. Of course, I have loads on Tolkien here, who is often considered YA, but the writing I do on him is at a pretty sophistocated critical level. He’s my primary interest. But I’ve also blogged about C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L'Engle, Alan Garner, Ursula K. Le Guin, J.K. Rowling, and of course Lloyd Alexander. All of those authors have been considered YA, though many of them also have books geared more for adults too.

    My reading tastes tend to be pretty eclectic, yet there are whole areas of YA I haven’t explored. What about you, what sort of stuff do you read and enjoy?

  5. I'm pretty much a YA person. All those authors that you mentioned I would consider YA, except Tolkien. So maybe there is more crossover in fantasy than I would have expected. I get very frustrated when people claim they do not like YA because it is too juvenile.

    For example, my bro-in-law won't read Sabriel by Garth Nix because it is YA. Silly. He's missing out big-time on this one.

    Also, I just convinced my sis-in-law to read the Megan Whalen Turner series, The Thief, The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia. IMHO the most overlooked series EVER. Seriously, these books are brilliant and nobody seems to be talking about them. It took me months to convince my SIL to read them because they are labeled YA.

    What else do I like? Those fantastic YA girly fantasy books that in no way, shape, or form could be considered anything but YA. The Hollow Kingdom by Clare Dunkle is, sadly, getting overlooked but is one of my favorites.

    Let's see--I am watching the Twilight craze with interest since I am a BYU English (minor) grad, stay-at-home mom, aspiring author. The popularity of that series is just plain crazy but I can understand the appeal. Very fun reads (except maybe the third). I also find it interesting that Shannon Hale, another BYU grad stay-at-home mom author has won tons of awards and I don't like anything she has written.

    Sorry--I'm blathering on too long, but your blog is fantastic.

  6. Sorry--I'm blathering on too long, but your blog is fantastic.

    Don’t worry about it, hahae. This is an almost three-month old post, and nobody had commented on it before you (despite some other heavily commented Alexander posts I wrote), so I welcome your thoughts. And thank you very much for the kind words about my blog.

    So maybe there is more crossover in fantasy than I would have expected.

    I think so. Another couple of authors I forgot to mention before who are both YA and fantasy are Philip Pullman and Susan Cooper. And there are plenty of others. I am on the judging committee for the Mythopoeic Society Awards, one of which is the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature. Take a look at some of our past winners and see if any look familiar (note that these have to be both fantasy and mythopoeic in nature).

    I get very frustrated when people claim they do not like YA because it is too juvenile.

    Agreed! Just look at the broad appeal of Harry Potter for evidence to the contrary!

    The series that you mentioned, I must confess, I am not familiar with. Of course, there are so many books out there, and new ones being published every year, and so little time. What can one do?

    Did you read Lloyd Alexander’s most recent (and sadly, final) novel, The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio?

  7. Jason,

    I went to the mythopoeic website and lo and behold, Clare B. Dunkle's The Hollow Kingdom was a winner! So she wasn't entirely overlooked when it came to awards. Yeah!

    I am not surprised you haven't read the Megan Whalen Turner series--it just proves my point. Very few people (in a general sense) have even heard about it and it absolutely amazing.

    And yes, I recognized MANY of the authors and many are favorites of mine.

    No, I have not read the latest Lloyd Alexander. I was actually looking him up on Amazon to see if he had anything new when I found out he had died. I know, I know, I am totally out of it, but I have three children age four and under, so time is not abundant. I'm sure you understand.

    Other books I am curious if you have read:
    Illusion by Paula Volsky. I love it because it mixed my two favorite genres--fantasy and historical fiction.

    Elantris by Brandon Sanderson. My husband and I sharply disagree on the quality of this one. We read it because Orson Scott Card reviewed it and gave it rave reviews, but I didn't care for it much and my husband quite liked it.

    Interesting stuff. It is my kid's naptime though so I had better go be productive.

  8. [...] Clare B. Dunkle's The Hollow Kingdom was a winner!

    I had to look. 2004 was before I joined the committee, or else I would have been familiar with this book.

    I was actually looking him up on Amazon to see if he had anything new when I found out he had died. I know, I know, I am totally out of it, but I have three children age four and under, so time is not abundant. I'm sure you understand.

    Of course! But read Carlo Chuchio; I think it’s a fitting novel to conclude his very impressive career. I really enjoyed it. One of the relatively few of his novels (and I’ve read nearly everything he wrote) with a first-person protagonist.

    Other books I am curious if you have read: Illusion by Paula Volsky [...] Elantris by Brandon Sanderson.

    No, neither. Nor any Orson Scott Card novels either (e.g., the Enders books) — though I have read one of his short stories, “Fat Farm”. I’ve been hearing about the Paula Volsky, though. But haven’t read it.

  9. Read Ender's Game by Orson. I am not a huge Orson fan (another BYU grad), but I read Ender's Game to all my eleventh grade classes (when I was still teaching high school) and I've never met a student who didn't love it. Really one of those universally appealing and brilliantly written books that make you forget that sci fi is not your thing.

  10. I keep meaning to read it. :)

  11. I just finished Carlo Chuchio and loved it. It had all the best Alexander
    bright spots we expect--a charmingly underskilled protagonist, a strong
    female character, bumbling and competent friends, and words of wisdom
    disguised among the silliness and fast-moving plot. Entirely delightful.

  12. Exactly how I felt about it. A wonderful read, and sort of an all-in-one ‘greatest hits and themes’ of his entire career.