fIf you’re looking for a new children’s book for Christmas, The Handsome Little Cygnet may be what you are looking for.
As the publisher’s description reads:
A swan must waddle before a swan can fly!
Manhattan’s Central Park seems an unlikely place for a family of swans to raise their baby cygnet, but family life is full of surprises, happy mistakes, and mysterious joys. Join Father and Mother Swan and their Handsome Little Cygnet as they paddle through four beautifully illustrated seasons in Central Park. Smile a lot — and cry just a little — as you follow the journey of a baby swan who grows up to learn what and who he really is.
From best-selling author and illustrator team Matthew Mehan and John Folley, this wonderful and surprising revision of the Ugly Duckling will please the whole family with beautiful prose and page after page of lush watercolor illustrations. Even enjoy a seek-n-find in the back of the book, learning about the landmarks and wildlife of Central Park, among other amusing mysteries.
Matthew Mehan, who wrote The Handsome Little Cygnet, is the director of Academic Programs for Washington, D.C., and Assistant Professor of Government for the Van Andel Graduate School of Government, and he took some questions about why he wrote the book.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why did you write a book about a cygnet? I confess, I’m from NYC, the first time you told me about it, I had to look up what it was. I thought it was a class ring. (Signet.)
Matthew Mehan: As the first page says, a cygnet is a young swan. The book is set in New York City’s Central Park, and swans do live there sometimes. And they’re the biggest, most beautiful birds that ever visit there. So that made it an easy choice. And I love giving young readers new words, so I put one in the title and defined it on the first page. In general, the book is simple and sweet, but I wanted an echo back to my last book, Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mammals, which had a whole glossary of words in the back. And I used a family of swans because I wanted to write a modern Ugly Duckling story with a prescient twist to help young readers and their families navigate the pitfalls of growing up in what I’ll call chaos culture, which tells them a lot of things about themselves, about their identity, that simply aren’t so. I wanted swans because they are noble creatures, full of beautiful dignity, something every child has in them. I wanted to offer a beautiful story that would also teach children (and remind parents) that each human being is worth much more than our chaotic world seems to say.
KJL: Why write children’s books?
Mehan: Some people think furnishing the inner life of the next generation with beauty, truth, and goodness is a task beneath them; they think it lacks seriousness. I see it as a vocation, to which I have been called, though I tremble at my unworthiness. Think about it. Families invite you into their home and their hearts. It is a great honor, and my illustrator John Folley and I try to be loving, friendly guests there. On a less personal and more political level, I’d just repeat my catch phrase, that a healthy politics requires a healthy poetics. If the next generation is misled, miseducated by poor, ugly, and false books, full of propaganda and sadness, then you will have a sick country, a sick city, and a sick politics. The literary tradition has often seen the poet as a dispenser of medicine for adults. Children’s book writers dispense vitamins, to help children to grow up healthy and need less medicine when they’re all grown up.
KJL: How are the imaginations of children being formed if screens run the day?
Mehan: With screens, children’s imaginations are not being formed to make images of their own, which is a necessity, if they are to govern themselves and live a good life. Instead, the screen, with 26 frames per second, impresses a great wave of images and hyperstimulation onto a child’s mind, rendering the imagination passive, weak, impressionable, irritable, and doomed to be the servant of whichever hyperstimulating propagandist comes into their feed (which is an ugly, bovine word, when you think about it). Story books, however, arrive in the mind and heart of a child at a more humane pace, and they ask the child to build, adapt, augment, and expand the words and images on the painted page. I’m a big Brad Bird fan, and so I love a good movie like The Incredibles 1 and 2, but I’m also such a big Brad Bird fan that I think his initial bad guy in Incredibles 2 is pitch perfect: Screenslaver. Screens enslave, if we are not careful. Books tend more to free the mind and soul.
KJL: Can parents say no to screens without depriving their children?
Mehan: Most parents, if they’re honest, know that the person being deprived when they tell their kids “no screens” is the parents themselves. It’s a harder road, but creating the space, away from screen hyperstimulation and (anti)social media — creating the home space where reading becomes a delight and a desired mode of entertainment (and instruction, if you pick good books!) — that’s a treasure that will enrich their children forever. But let’s not kid ourselves: It’s hard on parents. But it’s worth it.
KJL: Do you know children who like to read?
Mehan: Yes. Many. My own kids love to read. I’m now at the point where I’m asking them to read less: “Finish the dishes before you go back to that book.” It’s hard to keep a straight face when I say it, since I’m so happy they love reading.
Lopez: What’s the book’s message about parents?
Mehan: Yes, there’s something going on there. In the story, I do a few things with the mother and father swan that run counter to kid lit’s new normal. First, I have two very thoughtful, united, dedicated, calm, and prudent parents. That alone is a shocker, given the general trend to present the opposite of at least one, if not all of those qualities in parents in pop culture. Another reason I chose swans: They mate for life, like a happy mom and dad. But even rarer in children’s literature, I wanted to depict a strong father. So much of pop culture, and children’s art and lit especially, presents families with what I call the Bad Dad. The father is either absent, actually malevolent, or, more commonly, he is simply a bungler, an idiot, an appetitive goof with the self-control of a badly trained Labrador. In our book, Father Swan is loving and serious about helping his handsome little cygnet navigate the dangers of New York City. That is, The Handsome Little Cygnet is also a kind of image of loving parenting that might help parents be better moms and dads. Think about it: We are all human. If all we see are mess ups, parents who do things poorly, then we can tend to think, “Hey, I’m doing okay. At least I’m not a screw up like that Bad Dad, or that one, or that one, or that other one I saw on Netflix.” I wanted to present an image of parenting better than me, as a quiet little call to conscience. That’s one reason Amazon rates the book in the category of Parenting Books as well as Kid’s Lit.
Lopez: What’s the message for children?
Mehan: In one sense, the message is simply a beautiful story about growing up, trying to figure out what we are, so you can get on to the business of becoming who we’re meant to be. It’s a sweet little coming of age story. In another sense, it offers a rarer lesson — rarer than it should be — that our parents love us deeply and that this natural love is something we can rely on. That is, we should listen to our parents. Their advice is good. And we can grow by imitating them.
KJL: What’s the benefit of gifting The Handsome Little Cygnet to a child in your life?
Mehan: You will have given them something beautiful, delightful, and, quietly, enriching. There are over 20 gorgeous watercolors, lightly metered, musical prose, and even a seek-n-find of landmarks and wildlife found in Central Park. It’s a family book, which you can read to a child (or children!) in your life, as he or she (or they!) snuggle up close to you and share a honeyed drop of beauty in a crazy, mixed-up world. The book even closes around Christmas time, with the Christmas lights of the Plaza Hotel shimmering down on the Pond of Central Park and our family of swans. I will warn you, it has a reputation for being a bit of a sweet-hearted tear-jerker, but not for the kids — for the parents (and for the grandparents)!
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