Matthew Mehan is the director of educational applications for Hillsdale College in Washington, D.C., and assistant professor of presidency for the Van Andel Graduate School of Government. He can also be the writer of two kids’s books (each illustrated by John Folley): Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals and the lately printed The Handsome Little Cygnet. He spoke with City Journal affiliate editor Daniel Kennelly about his books and the state of youngsters’s literature.
Tell us about The Handsome Little Cygnet. Is it a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling?
Yes, however with a up to date twist. Set in Manhattan’s Central Park, the story follows a father and mom swan and their child cygnet as he tries to know what he’s and who he’s meant to be. Unlike the unique Ugly Duckling, this little swan begins figuring out precisely what he’s and who his mother and father are. But because of some complicated and ugly spray-paint—basically vandalism of Central Park’s Gapstow Bridge—our plucky little cygnet will get confused. How he comes again to what he’s meant to be—that’s the core of this touching story.
Why did you resolve to set the story in Central Park, within the coronary heart of the nation’s densest city space?
While there’s the Ugly Duckling echo, I can’t say it was just for that motive. I additionally needed to provide New York City a bit of pick-me-up. The guide has that really feel of town, with landmarks and vistas of Central Park and the encompassing skyline. Between Covid-19, riots, crime, and Bill de Blasio, it simply appeared like New York wanted a bit of love. I even disguise a couple of N95 masks within the refuse of the ugliest place our little cygnet wanders into!
I additionally needed Manhattan and Central Park for a deeper thematic motive. The guide’s theme of identification—making an attempt to determine what we’re so we are able to turn out to be who we are supposed to be—entails two issues: first, our nature; second, some clever work to make that nature really thrive. Think of a rose bush (nature) and some lattice work to prop it up (artwork). That’s what it means for a cheerful lady to turn out to be a thriving girl, for a boy to turn out to be not simply an grownup male, however an actual man—nature and artwork. Well, within the press and din of a metropolis filled with artifical buildings, bridges, and roads, there’s Central Park, a fantastic combination of nature and artwork. That’s why we characteristic each wildlife discovered within the park (nature) and monuments, bridges, and sculptures discovered within the park (artwork).
What units your books—The Handsome Little Cygnet and Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals—aside from modern kids’s literature?
Poet and critic James Matthew Wilson referred to as Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals the twenty-first-century’s first kids’s basic. If you’re eager for the hopefulness of one thing new however that faucets into deep and previous traditions of literary and creative magnificence, then illustrator John Folley and I could have a couple of books for you.
Do you suppose that’s an underserved market?
I don’t need to dunk on modern kids’s literature, however sure. Many books are lovely, however the messages are facile or ideological. Or simply as typically, a children’ guide may have an honest message, however be hokey or poorly written. And so many have art work that simply radiates a type of despair of ugliness. Ugly artwork and poor writing inform a baby that they don’t seem to be worthy of magnificence.
Identity in children right this moment is an issue partly as a result of a lot of the artwork, books, cartoons, and media we put earlier than our subsequent era provide both a chaos-culture message or chaos-culture pictures. A key phrase in The Handsome Little Cygnet is “careful.” The father swan needs his little cygnet to be filled with goodly care. So a lot of right this moment’s kids’s literature is profoundly careless.
What are you able to inform us about your subsequent guide?
Each guide up to now has taken up a form of grand theme: Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals took up the theme of disappointment and the countervailing want for friendship and loving zeal. The Handsome Little Cygnet took up the theme of identification and the confusion of chaos tradition, with nature, artwork, and, in the long run, familial and transcendent love and magnificence because the antidotes. Our subsequent guide will take up the theme of anger, one thing each kids and adults want some clever assist controlling.
Photo by Matthew Mehan (2021)