Culture

Mr. Mehan for the Rebuilding  

Matthew Mehan (portrait via Heights.edu)
An excellent animal adventure for families and readers of all ages

Consider, for a moment, entering into the entirely new world of Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals. (It even has a website, here.) We could all, after all, take a break from the real mammals. But not to escape. To rebuild. To give the young something better than what’s probably on their screens. Mr. Mehan is Matthew Mehan, a high-school teacher and a fellow at Hillsdale College’s D.C. campus, and he talks a bit about his creation here.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: When you first told me about your book, you said it “attempts to aid in the formation of the human heart.” How on earth can a children’s book have that kind of impact?

Matthew Mehan: Suppose you meet someone who hates roller coasters. “Why do you hate them? They’re so fun.” The answer might be something like this: “I got so sick on one once, and the memory alone makes me never want to get on one again,” or “my first girlfriend dumped me as we clicked our way to the top of one, so I just get sad on them now.” Emotional memory, emotional experience, and emotional association. Life — our choices, others’ choices, and our experiences — these will shape your passions one way or the other, and it’s better if you (and those who love you) have some hand in helping to shape those passions well. One way to do that is through art, which offers imitations of soul that a reader gets to experience. Good art can promote good motions of the heart, helping us love good things and shun bad things. It’s the heart of tragedy and comedy. Knowing all this, I’ve tried to offer aid to all readers, young and old, but in a very humorous and delightful way.

Lopez: Who/what are Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Animals?

Mehan: There are 26 of them, one for each letter of the alphabet. They are imaginary friends, frenemies, and pitiable enemies sprung from my brain. They are myths, images of the sorts of truths that don’t easily reduce to straightforward arguments. Two of these mammals, the letters B and D mammals, the bumbling and friendly Blug and the more complicated Dally, go on a kind of journey through this alphabetic menagerie of mammals, learning how to deal with sadness, anxiety, and loneliness through the art of friendship, joy, and even zeal.

Lopez: What do they have to do with Shakespeare?

Mehan: Everything! I’m a Shakespeare guy, and nobody teaches about the importance of friendship and well-formed passions like Shakespeare. I did my dissertation on the collaborative play The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore, written by Anthony Munday and Shakespeare, along with three other writers. It teaches a ton about friendship and the arts of liberty (another subtler theme in Mehan’s Mythical Mammals).

In studying that play, I sat back in wonder again and again because I realized that the writing of the play, the collaboration with several playwrights, was an image of the lead character, Sir Thomas More, who is a friend to all in the play, especially when they are given to despair and sadness. In one scene, he tries to cheer up his wife with images, jests, and wise old saws when she has a kind of sadness all too familiar in our day. [MORE’S SON-IN-LAW] ROPER: “Madam, what ails ye for to look so sad?” LADY MORE: “Troth, son, I know not what. I am not sick, and yet I am not well. I would be merry, but somewhat lies so heavy on my heart I cannot choose but sigh.” Shakespeare wants his plays to help people, as a good friend does, to deal with such emotions of the heart. Like a good devotee, I try to do likewise in M5. It’s loaded with little hints of Shakespeare throughout — the Bard buffs can have a field day. But it’s most like Shakespeare, I hope, in its active friendship offered to the reader.

Lopez: What do the animals have to do with wisdom?

Mehan: Mythical mammals are, well, mythical. Myth is a way we try to grapple with true and deep mysteries. What else is wisdom, but the contemplation of those deepest, truest mysteries. I hope my mythical mammals help one become more contemplative and more able to engage the truest myths, such as, say, the Book of Genesis or, more profanely, the truths embedded in the ancient myths of antiquity. Mythical Mammals tries to give the reader a chance to read on this deeper level — but only if they want to. The book can be read lightly, too!

The book should be first of all taken lightly. It’s all hypothetically speaking. Lighten up. Enjoy. That’s why I love the Blug. He’s obviously fat and heavy, but he’s super light and bumbles around on his little wings.

Then there is practical wisdom or prudence. Literature also helps with that, but that’s a whole other topic. Maybe I’ll just leave it at this one example of many: If you read about a tragic mammal, like the pitiable letter E mammal, the Evol, you might acquire some practical insight about how to avoid his tragedy. But there’s a great mountain of practical wisdom besides tragedy that I try to offer in fun and curious ways!

Lopez: What’s a “Hypothetical Alphabetical”?

Mehan: A cheap and tripping rhyme, for one thing! For another, I want readers to know that I’m putting forth trial balloons, like that buoyant yellow Blug on the books cover! The book should be first of all taken lightly. It’s all hypothetically speaking. Lighten up. Enjoy. That’s why I love the Blug. He’s obviously fat and heavy, but he’s super light and bumbles around on his little wings, light as can be. Poetry is a great place to handle heavy things lightly, hypothetically.

As for the alphabet, I wanted to frame the journey as a lesson in reading, how to read the book of life. I hope the book sharpens the reader to see things more clearly, with more wit! As “The Dally” poem puts it, “But if you are one keen of eye, / who sits and stoops in storms you’ll spy / the dodgy Dally dancing dry.” A keen eye, one that reads well? That’s water in the desert, right?

Lopez: What do you want everyone reading this to know about the Dally and the Blug?

Mehan: That they are friends — dearer friends by the end — and that a friendship like theirs takes real art.

Lopez: What’s the age range for this?

Mehan: I call it a family book. Like a Brad Bird film, it is geared to children . . . sort of. There is as much or more for the adults as there is for the kids. The official dust-jacket answer for the age range is roughly eight to twelve years old, middle-graders, essentially. But my littlest kids love the pictures and alliterative alphabet game that runs throughout the poems, and adults enjoy the depth you can draw out of the myths and satire peeking out from what only looks like a funny kids’ book.

Lopez: Why is your first book a children’s book?

Mehan: I might get in trouble with this one. The safe answer: I’m a school teacher, and I have a passel of my own kids. So writing a children’s — a family! — book was a natural fit. I also like something called pastoral poetry. It’s a kind of poetry too little practiced today, wherein the poet talks about very serious matter, but under a very lightsome aspect. Children’s beast poems seemed like a challenge: “Can I write fun poems for children that hint at much higher matter?” “Mythical” in the title is a serious claim. “Mildly Amusing” is too, but only because amusement is so important to do for your friends, and for your friends’ kids, too!

Lopez: What’s your pitch to kids?

Mehan: “Hi, kids. My illustrator and dear friend John Folley and I have spent years making a beautiful, mysterious, and amusing little world that you can explore. If you’re ‘keen of eye,’ then you might get more than amusement, but in any case, here is something special, something made with great love and effort, for you.” There is an authorial pose today of distance. I stuck my name in the title because I want children and adults to understand the book as an act of friendship. I mean that.

Lopez: Can every child handle words like “periegetic”?

Mehan: No. They can’t. In the “Note to All Children Readers” at the front, I ask everyone not to take themselves too seriously and “just flub the funky words” they don’t know. Now, I also have a very curious glossary in the back that, among other things, gives readers definitions of words they don’t know. So if they want to learn and build their vocabulary, Mr. Mehan’s Mammals is an SAT vocabulary builder, too. So many kids’ books are afraid to challenge a kid with something outside their comfort zone. I prepare and aid young readers, and the book encourages them to take on words they don’t know. But I don’t coddle them. That’s part of the meta-level lessons about sadness and joy the book has on offer. Dealing with difficulties and challenges is so very important for children to learn while they are young. The whole book is like a “periegetic song,” which means a traveling song, a song to cheer you up on a difficult journey. Such, in part, is life.

Lopez: What’s your pitch to parents?

Mehan: I’ve tried to write a book that aids parents in the education of their children, helping them with a big heaping dose of delightful liberal arts or, as a few Christian humanists like to call them, the arts of liberty, those artful skills needed for a flourishing, self-governing life of joy and friendship.

The book tries to help teach the art of friendship. It really is an art, and maybe a virtue. If friendship isn’t taught to kids, they’ll be lonelier for it.

And, especially important in the post-iGen, post-smartphone era, when anxiety in kids is spiking, and “social” media are thinning out friendships, my book tries to give kids images and ideas about how to counteract those forces of sadness and loneliness. The book tries to help teach the art of friendship. It really is an art, and maybe a virtue. If friendship isn’t taught to kids, they’ll be lonelier for it.

And parents might just find some friendly help for themselves as well! I took seriously the old rule that you should bring forth what is good, wise, and old alongside what is new and delightful. The book is an act of loving memory, for the young and the old.

Lopez: My impression is that the writing and the illustrating were a bit of a dance of a collaboration. How did it work?

Mehan: Illustrator John Folley and I talked for years about the project, eating lunch together at the Heights School. Eventually, we decided to try to practice, doing cartoons together, to see if we could get my ideas and his artistic talent to gel. It took about a year to work out the kinks, but we finally dove in. I would prepare big files with source images, ambience, tonal descriptions, even building-block poems that I wrote as preliminary steps to get to the final poem being illustrated. I’d also give a kind of scribble, we called them: essentially a cocktail-napkin version of what the mythical mammals looked like and how I wanted the image to be. Some of them were rejected as impossible! And two of them are in the glossary! John and I went back and forth, and eventually we had the image. It has been a wonderful friendship of collaboration. We’ve gotten to be much better friends through it all. And we are both so happy to have something to show our wives for all this work!

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review.

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