A quest for knowledge through the lens of picture books. Focusing on the mythological, the spiritual and the socially progressive in stories and storytelling.
The revolution will be illustrated.
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This is a Maynard Moose book, so of course it begins with a
warning: "This book contains Moose grammar, spelling and usage, all of
which has been known to scrumble up the human brain."
This is the fourth
Marynard Moose book - a trilogy no longer - and the fourth I've reviewed, and again the boundaries of
the tale get pushed further back, this time as far as the outer reaches of
space, where Mother Moose makes her home amongst the constellations and things get a trifle on the metaphysical side.
There's a creation story at play, which sets the tone of what is to come: "The whole universe come from the kitchen of Mother Moose," says Maynard, hovering over the non-sleeping form of Little Moose, his favorite cousin. "Is one thing to make a universe out of Thick air. But to make a universe out of Thin air, you got to stir and stir and stir."
In the world of Maynard the Moose and Willy Claflin's imagination, counting sheep is not just an excercise in self-induced monotony, but the ticket to an adventure, as the insomniac-laden Little Moose is transported out the window and through space, "up and up into the dark night sky, where the warm winds blow and the stars all sporkle and blink," and then from there to the house of Mother Moose, floating above the cosmos and filled with a wood burning stove and all the accoutrements of coziness, the place where the stories come from.
I like the unpredictable quality of the Maynard Moose books, and I feel that with each book the narrative gets more and more loosened up, freer to go in any direction Maynard feels like taking it. Most of the book is taken up with a more conventional back-and-forth between Little Moose and her parents and teachers, then suddenly, apropos of nearly nothing, off we fly on the back of a sheep wearing a football helmet!
I have now posted reviews for three Maynard Moose books, all written by the great Willy Claflin and illustrated by James Stimson. But who is this Willy Claflin, you have no doubt wondered all throughout the series. His website informs us that he was born before television, but I felt certain there had to be more to him. Willy is a professional storyteller first and foremost, who has only recently ventured in the realm of picture books. For me, that immediately made him interesting, and I became curious about the relationship between storytelling and storywriting. But first, I thought I'd start with Maynard.
Maynard the Moose has been telling stories to children and
adults for the past thirty years. He's very popular at the National
Storytelling Festival, even at the late night cabaret; and is always featured
in my performances for children. Although I'm not really a puppeteer, I'm a
storyteller. They heard Maynard, and came to think of me as a "puppet
How has he evolved over those thirty years?
Well, the puppet was a lot smaller than the current
one. He had a major growth spurt in the mid 90's, when he began performing
for larger audiences! And listening to Maynard's older recordings from the 80's
and early 90's, I can also hear how his voice grew much deeper as he grew.
His repertoire has also expanded. He used to do only
fractured fairy tales; but in the last few years he's taken to Greek Moosology,
epic doggerel Mooseboy Poetry, and tales of Moose life in the Northern Piney
Now how did the notion to do picture books first come about?
Was it something that was put forward to you, or something you actively sought?
It was something I'd often thought of, but up until a few
years ago, we couldn't figure out how to do it, given Maynard's unusual use of
language! Then I teamed up with artist James Stimson, and I felt that he
captured Maynard's spirit very well. We decided to add audio CD's, to help
the readers understand his personality, and included the Glossary of moose
words at the beginning to make his meanings clear. It's interesting
to see how James imagines the characters, and the collaboration has been
The advantage of having pictures, though, is also the
disadvantage. I mean, when you tell a story, everyone in the audience is imagining
it in their own way. This is the magic of storytelling: the audience helps
create the tale. With books, that particular magic is lost.
However, when the illustrator is someone as good as James,
much is gained. For instance, in Rapunzel, when the dwarfs charge all the
animals 25cents to see her, and set up the Punzel museum...I never imagined anything
near what James created - an entire Punzel Amusement Park! And James has
his own set of visual jokes and surprises to match Maynard's turns and twists
Sounds like some real symbiosis. I’ve heard that in other
cases, the writer and the illustrator barely interact.
It is indeed an interesting collaboration, and I am very
lucky. He is also helping me see that these tales need to be changed subtly to
make them suitable for children's books. The stories have, over the years,
become quite ironic, full of adult humor, and often have no
conventional resolution at the end. James helped me re-learn what is
satisfying to children, especially when it comes to tidying things up at the
conclusion, so everyone can live "happily for never afterwords."
In Rapunzel and the Seven Dwarfsyou make a very specific point that Maynard
can’t quite figure out what the moral of the story is supposed to be. It sounds
like maybe you yourself were likewise struggling to shape it into a
Well, Maynard is a very different persona from Willy. Willy
is opposed to morals at the end of stories. Rather strongly opposed, in fact. I
feel that putting a moral at the end of a tale narrows and limits its meaning.
It seems to me that true works of art, from simple
children's stories to great symphonies, express our humanity, in all of its
complexity, with all of its contradictions, revelations and conundrums. A moral
at the end of a story, from my point of view, turns a minor miracle into a
didactic tool, radically diminishing its significance. If you live with a
story for years, and revisit it from time to time, new meanings are constantly
emerging. In fact, I would go so far as to say that didactic art can't
really be art at all. Art exists for the sake of itself, to reveal who we are.
Maynard, however, comes from a Moose culture that highly
values moral lessons. According to him, mooses say that "a story without a
moral is just mindless entertainment - might as well just stay home and play
So part of the odd humor is the difference between me and
Maynard, especially to those who hear us live. The morals to Maynard's stories
are always quite bizarre. [For example, the moral of the story Turtle and Bunny from his live CD is: "The fastest person wins the race."]
Except in the case of The Uglified Ducky. In the original oral version, there was no tidy summing-up at
the end (everybody is a beautiful something or other, etc.) Instead, it
closes with the humorous observation that some us do, indeed, feel as if we've
been born into the wrong family.
Yes, there is a lobster in his pocket.
I lost the battle over the ending here, as I did in The Bully Goat Grim. Typically, I wanted the old (bizarre) Moose Moral
from the oral version: "Learn to recognize a double negative - it could
save your life!” But James fought for - and won - a pointed comment at the
close: "Demember - nobody likes a dubnoxious beasty."
In other words, I had to drop my focus on an ironic 'adult'
sort of joke at the end, and go with something that would give children a sense
of closure and fair play.
Do you think there’s a sense that the picture book medium –
just by virtue of being a physical product - is limiting the story?
It is a little like putting a butterfly in a glass
case. Stories are like living things, and the old ones feel almost like
autonomous spirits, making their way down through the generations.
I have often thought of jazz and storytelling as very
similar in certain ways. Not only are tales and tunes different every time
they're performed, but live performance allows for a whole variety of solos. The
best tellers, in my book, are the ones who can go off on extended tangential
asides--ad lib observations, riffs and extensions of the material, eventually
bringing things back to the narrative melody. Obviously, that's lost in a
The other issue, of course, is the pictures. It's great to
have a talented illustrator - a wonderful thing! But does it compare with
the hundreds of individual illustrator/animators in the minds of a live storytelling
But I have finally made peace with what happens when the
spoken word becomes the written word. They’re just different.
Do the stories you've turned into picture books continue
to live and change in your storytelling?
Yes, but they don't morph quite as much with the telling as
they used to, and I now even occasionally go back to the book and see if
Maynard is telling it "right."
What’s the future for you and Maynard?
I've thought of other projects. Worked on a TV pilot,
but nothing came of it. I also have a side career as a singer and guitar
player: Traditional roots music,
especially a capella ballads from the British Isles and Appalachia, which I
often sing together with my son. And there are other oddments and detours,
some of which are mentioned on my website…
For Maynard, his Piney Woods world will be the entire
setting for the fourth book in the series, The Little Moose Who Couldn't Go to
Who knows how many Maynard Moose books there will be? There
are two dozen tales in his repertoire, so we'll see... The future is
impenetrable, as my Buddhist friends say.
Watch Willy and Maynard in action in the video below!
This is the third Maynard Moose book I've reviewed, and it's
the best of the lot. With each book, the world of Maynard Moose becomes more
fully realized. It's really interesting to see how the look of this book
contrasts with - for example - The Uglified Ducky.
There’s no formula for what a Maynard Moose tale might
involve. With just three books, Willy Claflin and James Stimson have
covered a variety of artistic territory.
In this outing, Maynard the Moose tells the story of a mean,
vicious bully of a goat who terrorizes a poor family of bridge-dwelling trolls.
But the story doesn't just rely on this reversal of archetypes for its
punchline, but in the various ways in which the troll family attempts to outwit
this mean beasty.
The two-headed patriarch of the troll family can't stop
arguing with his other head about which tactic to take, eventually coming to
blows, and knocking himself, Maynard tells us, "unconshable as a
muffin." Meanwhile, the triple-headed momma troll begins discussing the
situation with herselves over tea, debating and discussing and
re-thinking endless propositions until sleeps takes hold, "because the
effect of too much process is soporific." But it is the single-headed baby
Troll who is able to think the most clearly about the situation, leading one to
presume that two heads is decidedly not better than one - much
What is it that the Bully Goat says everytime he crosses the
The Troll Family
"Beware, beware, the Bully Goat Grim! Nobody better not
mess with him!"
This is fairly typical
vocabulary for a Maynard Moose book, but the baby troll dissects the
sentence structure, realizes the presence of a double-negative in the Bully
Goat's speech, and thus deduces that what the Bully Goat must actually desire
is for everybody to mess with him!
This leads to a plan involving a pillow, a parachute, a case
of Random Hostility Syndrome, and an extremely clever turning of the so-called tables.
There are a lot of nighttime sequences in this book, and I
think James Stimson really enjoys playing with light sources and shadows,
giving everything a full three-dimensional feel to it. The troll dwelling is
especially marvelous, worth an extra glance after the story is over. He
doesn't just illustrate the text of the story, but gives an insight into who
the trolls are and how they live. The Bully Goat is genuinely fearsome, yet the
two-page spread in which the animals of the forest drift "slowly down on
the morning breeze, saying Good Morning to the birdies and buggies and
busterflies" is filled with all the whimsy that the narrative describes.
At the end, it is Maynard the Moose who once again delivers the moral: "Learn to recognize a double negative!"
Maynard Moose again, telling his Mother Moose tales about the campfire, surrounded by all of his wildlife buddies, leaning in close for another good story. In Rapunzel and the Seven Dwarfs, I noted one of the big jokes at the end was that Maynard was not certain what the moral of the story was. In this one, not only does he know the moral, but he even leads off with it:
Do you ever feel like maybe you have been borned into the wrong fambly? Like maybe you feel like you are a little porcupine being raised by a fambly of kangaroos... Or maybe you feel like you are a little bunny rabbit being raised by a fambly of rhinoceroses... Well, this is the story of a poor moose who was raised by duckies.
The uglified duckling is not a duckling at all, but a young moose who inadvertently wanders into a nest of duck eggs just as they are about to hatch, to the incredulity of the returning mother. "Boy, that's the most uglified ducky I never see!" she exclaims.
The uglified duckling attempts to quack.
It might be nice if she loved the young moose regardless, but that is not the case. She has a job to do, and that's to teach these baby ducklings to survive in the world. She doesn't have time to spend on this grotesque duckling covered in brown fur who can't even master a little waddling. "This is waddle practice! This is not practice for trip and stumble!" she tells him.
Most of the story is comprised of these lessons, and the moose's inability to keep up. He can't waddle, he can't quack, he can't swim, and - most depressingly of all - he can't fly. He can only stare all forlorn as his adopted brothers and sisters fly off, leaving him "all d'abandoned and left alone."
It is only at the end, after he has wandered alone through the wilderness, that he comes upon a family of actual moose, and realizes his true nature. "And he is bounding joyfully through the forest ever still, happy to be the moose that he would be!"
The book is beautifully illustrated by James Stimson, and includes a glossary of "Moose words and their English equivalents." My favorite is "Quadrapedagogy: the state or condition of having four feet."
Not just a fairy-tale mashup, but also a story-within-a-story. We begin in the Northern Piney Woods, and are told that every full moon, all of the animals come out to hear the 'old Mother Moose Tales,' as related by Maynard Moose. James Stimson depicts the scene with much lushness, the flames of the small campfire glowing against Maynard's antlers, the full moon shining down from above, I could have spent the whole story out in these environs. Yet soon enough, we venture into the world of the tale.
Her hair was so long that it drag out from behind of her along the ground. It get dragged through mud puddles, and kids run over it on their bicycles, and it becomes distremely filthified - all full of sticks and twigs and little nastified wudgies of glop.
The whole story is told in this strange vernacular, what we are told it was translated from the original Moose. Certain words are listed in the glossary, should the context prove unclear. Filthified means, "repulsively and disgustingly unclean." Glop is, "mysterious, disgusting, foul-smelling sticky stuff."
In this story, she is locked away in a tower by a wicked witch, and when the handsome prince attempts to mount Punzel's golden hair - being a bit chubbified - he instead yanks her from the tower and sends her flying into the forest, where she meets the eight or nine seven drawfs: Clumsy, Snoozy, Cheerful, Fearful, Hyper, Hungry, Grizelda, Ambidextrous and sometimes Bewildered.
Once in the care of the eight or nine Dwarfs, her head is
shaved clean as a bowling ball in order than she may best untangle herself form
the clutches of the wooded branglebush, which also doubles as a keen way to
disguise her identity (in my opinion), but more plot-pertinent, allows for some
cranial nueromancy on the part of the dwarfs, who crowd around the shorn noggin
Mirror, mirror on Punzel’s head
Is the witch alive or dead?
Clumsy, Snoozy, Cheerful, Fearful, Hyper, Hungry, Grizelda, Ambidextrous and sometimes Bewildered.
From here, the story fairly gives way to Snow
White, albeit with Rhinocerous costumes and poisoned watermelons and the
creation of the Sleeping Punzel Museum and amusement park to house her camotose
self. Only 75 cents to see her! And is it the handsome yet chubbified prince who will thus awaken
her with a single kiss and prance on off into the sunset? Is it?!
Nope. It is a moose, of course.
And the moral of that
story is, if you have long, long goldie hairs that drag out from behind of you
along the ground, then you should always... um… The moral of the story is…
there ain’t no moral to some stories at all!