27 Apr 2009

Once upon a time

My goodness it is hard to put this book down. We really struggle to only read one chapter at a time. And that my friends , is the rule for our family read alouds...all the family together; one chapter at a time.

James Thurber's The 13 Clocks is an exceptional fairy tale. It is a whimsically eccentric, superbly illustrated and beautifully written tale of princes, princesses, castles, evil dukes and mythical creatures. It is a tale of the Todal and the Golux, of zatches and guggles, of taverners, travellers, taletellers, tosspots, troublemakers and townspeople, of Jackadandies and Jack-o'-lents, of blobs of glup. It conceivably might be, as Neil Gaiman writes in the introduction, ' the best book in the world' (except for the obvious, of course...)

Here's Gaiman's introduction.

The 13 Clocks is written for children, but it's not really a kid's book. What other children's fairy tale story do you know that would say this:

The brambles and the thorns grew thick and thicker in a ticking thicket of bickering crickets. Farther along and stronger, bonged the gongs of a throng of frogs, green and vivid on their lily pads. From the sky came the crying of flies, and the pilgrims leaped over a bleating sheep creeping knee-deep in a sleepy stream, in which swift and slippery snakes slid and slithered silkily, whispering sinful secrets.
Did you read it out loud? Go ahead - it is an oral storyteller's dream of a read aloud...the perfect read aloud, perhaps.

The language is forever confounding: the grim duke is "six feet four and forty-six and even colder than he thought he was." It is full of phrases that will weave their way into your family's vernacular:

He will slit you from your guggle to your zatch...
Or how about:

You'll never live to wed his niece. You'll only die to feed his geese. Goodbye, goodnight, and sorry.

To the plot...

The cold and aggressive Duke of Coffin Castle lives with his niece, the beautiful Princess Saralinda. Within the castle walls are thirteen clocks that have stopped at "ten minutes to five". After many failed attempts to get them working again the Duke decides that he has killed Time.

Time lies frozen there.It's always Then. It's never Now.

One day a prince disguised as a minstrel hears about the beautiful Saralinda and decides that she is the beautiful maiden of his dreams. But in order to win her hand, the prince must complete an impossible task for the evil duke.

"I give you nine and ninety hours, not nine and ninety days to find a thousand jewels and bring them here. When you return, the clocks must all be striking five."

"The hands are frozen," said the prince. "The clocks are dead."

"Precisely," said the Duke, "and what is more, which makes your task a charming one, there are no jewels that could be found within the space of nine and ninety hours, except those in my vaults and these." He held his gloves up and they sparkled.
Does the prince success in his quest? Does he win the beautiful Princess Saralinda? Is there a happy ending? Does everybody live happily ever after?

Actually, I can't tell you - we're not finished. I do know, though, that we can't wait to find out.

With a story as wonderful and unpredicatble as The 13 Clocks, I know we won't be disappointed.

Our version of the book is a newly reprinted edition -part of the magnificent The New York Review Children's Collection. It is a pleasure to read and handle these beautifully produced hardback books - they're real bibliophile treasures.


  1. One chapter at a time - what an exercise in self-denial!

    How fast can I get to the library to check out a copy of this!?!

  2. Sounds like a hoot!! I hope I can find it here.

  3. I love Thurber! I'm glad you are having such a good time. I dreamed of aloud each night as my Mom did with us, but my son would disrupt and disrupt totally sapping the joy from it. My daughter and I still LOVE reading aloud and plan to continue "forever" [well or until she's too much of a teenager to relax and have fun with it!]


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