Where there is a will there is a way

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Bill Peet's Autobiography

I have a new hero - I love dearly the work of Bill Peet. It just so happens that until recently, I didn't know the person behind the best stories many of us have loved throughout our lives. He generated The Sword in the Stone, Jungle Book, much of Cinderella - particularly the mice, wonderful scenes in Dumbo, a short movie adapted from an existing children's story, The Little House, much of Peter Pan - the list goes on but in particular my favourite children's books (in particular the masterpiece The Wump World, that was formative to my young brain about the environment).

Interestingly - in his autobiography he says that the wizard Merlin in the Sword in the Stone was inspired by Walt Disney himself - a real world wizard - even to the point of having the same nose. I watched Sword in the Stone recently, as I wanted to watch it as an adult with the awareness of its creator (my favourite children's book writer). The screenplay is masterful, and also very funny. The story is full of nature's lessons, with layers of meaning.

His autobiography was of course illustrated, each and every page. He made it as easy to process for the reader as a children's book, and you can get a great sense of the characters of his life from the drawings - including Walt Disney.

Very importantly, now I understand far more where this special, creative person came from. He played in woods and streams as a boy, drawing many lessons - but also drawing (literally and figuratively) the magic of those places.

Here is an important story from Bill Peet's autobiography - a lesson he learned from nature as a boy, from the creeks of Indianapolis. You can really see where the seeds of The Wump World were sown.

"They were much too alert to be taken by surprise, and if you came within ten feet of one he slipped away into the shadowy depths of the creek.
"I do remember catching one full-grown frog, and I remember it well because of a snake. The frog was swimming near the surface of the creek unaware that I was only a few feet away.

In one quick grab I had him by a hind leg. Then, at the same instant, a snake shot out of a hole in the bank and seized the frog by the head.
"Suddenly we were having a frantic tug of war with the frog caught in the middle.

"It was touch and go until I finally jerked the frog free. Then in a flash the snake was back in his hole.
"I thought [for] sure I had saved the frog from certain death until I plopped him back into the water and he went drifting downstream limp and lifeless."

"The snake was a deadly poisonous water moccasin, and his fangs had punctured the poor frog. All I had done was cheat the snake out of his lunch.
"It has always been difficult for me to accept nature's cruel ways of keeping a balance among the animals - all the savagery and the suffering, with so many being sacrificed for others to survive.

"Yet nature's merciless ways were never more cruel than the slow, silent death caused by poisonous waste spilling from pipes down in the creek, spreading a brownish purple scum over the water, where dead fish floated belly up and a nauseating stench filled the air.

"But I prefer to remember the life and beauty of the creek, the brilliant blue dragonflies darting among the cattails, the lazy mud turtles sunning themselves on warm rocks, schools of minnows flashing in and out of the sunlight, and the water striders gliding lightly over the glassy surface in the shade of the willows and sycamores."

- story from Bill Peet's autobiography

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