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Showing posts with label Maynard the Moose. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Maynard the Moose. Show all posts

8.26.2012

A Conversation with Willy Claflin

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 guy." 

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 Woods!

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 fascinating.

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 of phrase.

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 Dwarfs you 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 conventional resolution.

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 video games."

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 book.

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 audience?

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 Sleep.

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!

7.28.2012

The Bully Goat Grim (2012)



Written by Willy Claflin

Illustrated by James Stimson
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 less three.

What is it that the Bully Goat says everytime he crosses the bridge?

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!"

4.14.2012

The Uglified Ducky: A Maynard Moose Tale (2008)

As told to Willy Claflin

Illustrated by James Stimson

August House

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."

3.24.2012

Rapunzel and the Seven Dwarfs (2011)

By Willie Claflin

Illustrated by James Stimson

August House

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.


Poor Punzel
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 and inquire,

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!

Thus sayeth Maynard.
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