Nature and art: discussion on the city

Matthieu Méhan is Director of Academic Programs at Hillsdale College in Washington, DC, and Assistant Professor of Government at the Van Andel Graduate School of Government. He is also the author of two children’s books (both illustrated by John Folley): Mr. Mehan’s Slightly Amusing Mythical Mammals and the recently published The beautiful little swan. He spoke with City newspaper associate editor Daniel Kennelly on his books and the state of children’s literature.

Tell us about The beautiful little swan. Is this a story by Hans Christian Andersen The ugly Duckling?

Yes, but with a contemporary twist. Set in Manhattan’s Central Park, the story follows a father and mother swan and their baby swan as he tries to figure out what and who he is meant to be. Unlike the original Ugly Duckling, this little swan is starting to know exactly what he is and who his parents are. But because of a confusing and ugly spray paint – essentially the vandalism of Central Park’s Gapstow Bridge – our brave little cygnet is confused. How he gets back to what he’s meant to be is the crux of this touching story.

Why did you decide to locate the story in Central Park, in the heart of the densest urban area in the country?

While there is the Ugly Duckling echo, can’t say it was just for this reason. I also wanted to give New York a little boost. The book has that city feel, with landmarks and views of Central Park and the surrounding skyline. Between Covid-19, riots, crime, and Bill de Blasio, it just seemed like New York City needed a little love. I even hide some N95 masks in the garbage of the ugliest place where our little cygnet walks!

I also wanted Manhattan and Central Park for a deeper thematic reason. The theme of identity in the book – trying to understand who we are in order to become what we are meant to be – involves two things: first, our nature; second, clever work to make nature truly flourish. Think of a rosebush (natural) and a few trellises to support it (art). This is what it means for a happy girl to become a fulfilled woman, for a boy to become not only a grown man, but a real man – nature and art. Well, in the press and the din of a city full of man-made buildings, bridges and roads, there is Central Park, a beautiful mix of nature and art. This is why we present both the fauna found in the park (nature) and the monuments, bridges and sculptures found in the park (art).

What Defines Your Books—The beautiful little swan and Mr. Mehan’s Slightly Amusing Mythical Mammals– outside of contemporary children’s literature?

Poet and critic James Matthew Wilson called Mr. Mehan’s Slightly Amusing Mythical Mammals the first children’s classic of the 21st century. If you yearn for something new but tap into the old and deep traditions of literary and artistic beauty, then illustrator John Folley and I might have a few books for you.

Do you think this is an underserved market?

I don’t want to dabble in contemporary children’s literature, but yes. Many of the books are beautiful, but the messages are easy or ideological. Or just as often, a children’s book will have a decent message, but be hokey or poorly written. And many have works of art that exude a sort of hopelessness of ugliness. Ugly art and bad handwriting tell a child that they are not worthy of beauty.

Identity in today’s children is an issue in part because much of the art, books, cartoons, and media that we bring to our next generation deliver either a cultural message of the chaos, or images of the culture of chaos. A keyword in The beautiful little swan is “careful”. The father swan wants his little swan to be full of good care. Much of today’s children’s literature is deeply negligent.

What can you tell us about your next book?

So far, every book has picked up some sort of big theme: Mr. Mehan’s Slightly Amusing Mythical Mammals tackled the theme of sorrow and the need for friendship and loving zeal out of balance. The beautiful little swan picked up on the identity and confusion theme of the culture of chaos, with nature, art, and ultimately family and transcendent love and beauty as antidotes. Our next book will tackle the subject of anger, something both children and adults need a shrewd help in controlling.

Photo by Matthieu Mehan (2021)

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