MAY 8, 2021
IN THE DARK DAYS leading up to the 2020 election, Jack Zipes, professor emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota and one of the world’s foremost experts on fairy tales and books for children, started in his retirement a new publishing house, Little Mole & Honey Bear, that aims to bring back from obscurity out-of-print children’s books that address political issues, such as the rise of fascism. Such books, often published in the 1930s and 1940s, are strikingly resonant with our contemporary political turmoil. But these are not dourly pedagogic books. As Zipes says in the mission statement for his press, these are books that “celebrate the poetic power of fantasy and illustrate how writers and illustrators have used their art to generate hope in their readers.”
In the immediate aftermath of the election, I had a chance to sit down with Professor Zipes over Zoom and talk about his new publishing venture and the first two books to come out from his press: Yussuf the Ostrich by Emery Kelen and Keedle, the Great by Deirdre and William Conselman Jr. Both beautifully told and illustrated, the former is about an Ostrich serving as a courier of secret messages for American forces in northern Africa during World War II. The latter concerns a young bully drawn in the style of a childlike Hitler who must be resisted. Accessible and attractive, these books speak to contemporary readers about maintaining courage, dignity, and hope in the face of violence and political chaos.
JONATHAN ALEXANDER: Professor Zipes, I don’t want to put you on the spot, but you’ve been one of my intellectual heroes for a long time, particularly as somebody who is really interested in popular culture and the rhetorics that inspire or provoke people to think differently about their world. Your work has certainly been hugely important for me and for a number of folks. I’d love to know how now, in retirement, you came to create this new publishing venture.
JACK ZIPES: Okay, so I retired from the university in 2008, and I continued to travel. I’ve lived in Europe, in three different countries for long spells, Italy, Germany, and France, and sometimes the UK. And so I did a fair amount of publishing with Princeton University Press. I edited a series there called Oddly Modern Fairy Tales.
So up until about 2016, my time was taken by editing and doing other ventures, but I have always been also a book collector, and I visit anything and everything, like flea markets, antiquarian bookstores, used bookstores, and so on. And I have a somewhat miraculous collection of old books that go back to the early part of the 19th century, but also books at the beginning of the 20th century.
I also have a very good relationship with the University of Minnesota Press. Doug Armato is the director of it, and I went to Doug and I said, “I have these old books that I really want to publish and would you be open to distributing these books?” And he said, “Sure, we’ll give it a try.” And he thought I would only want to do one book a year or one book every two years. At any rate, we agreed to do a book about a humpback pony, Fearless Ivan and His Faithful Horse Double-Hump. It’s a famous fairy tale from the 1830s, a poem, but has been translated into prose, and I rewrote everything.
We published a few more books and eventually Doug told me, “Look, we have to slow down.” And I said, “Damn, I’ve got to find somebody … these books have to come out. I’m approaching my 80s now.” That’s when I decided to try to publish some of these old children’s books myself.
And so I discovered that there was a distributor called Itasca, which distributes to Barnes & Noble and other large bookstores. Itasca does do a fairly good job and doesn’t charge so much money, so I said, “Okay, now I need a name for a new publishing house,” and I called it Little Mole & Honey Bear. My wife is Little Mole and I’m Honey Bear. So the first books that I published came out last September (2020), and one of them is called Yussuf the Ostrich and the other is called Keedle, the Great. And they are really remarkable works by people nobody knows, and that’s part of my mission: to bring back these amazing but forgotten books.
That’s great. Let’s start with Yussuf the Ostrich, which I loved.
That’s a wonderful book, written by Emery Kelen (1896–1978), who was one of the greatest political caricaturists of the time, a Hungarian, Hungarian Jew. He worked for the League of Nations for 10 years. He fought in World War I, and after World War I he went to Munich and studied art there, having already studied art before the war, but really finished his work in Munich and became a sports caricaturist in 1921.
And then in 1921, he got a job with another Hungarian by the name of Alois Derso. He was a little older than Kelen, and they became best friends. They began a business in the 1920s of going to conferences for the League of Nations and were invited into the special meetings to draw cartoons and caricatures of the sessions. That lasted into the 1930s.
Kelen and Derso did amazing caricatures of Hitler and many other figures of the time, such as Mussolini and so on. Often, they mocked them, and so they had to get their asses out of Switzerland in 1938 and went to New York. There, Kelen married and had a child. Both Kelen and Derso started working for the United Nations, and Kelen became director of television and radio there. And during the 1940s, he wrote Yussuf, but he also did a book with his wife, Aesop’s Fables, beautifully illustrated. And he also did work for UNESCO and wrote beautiful books for children that explained what UNESCO was all about.
So I discovered this particular book here, Yussuf, at an antiquarian bookstore about three or four years ago. And I was just shocked, shocked that these books are so relevant today. And they are really quality books, we’re not talking junk. I knew that I couldn’t find any of the rights to the books since all of the people were dead, so I was worried about rights for publishers, but I desperately had to find all about Kelen. I discovered that he had given all of his illustrations and papers and so on to Princeton Library, and I was able to track down his daughter, who is alive and lives in Olympia, Washington, and after I did research on him, I flew to New York and then went to Princeton, stayed with some friends of mine. And once I had completed that research and so on, I finally found a way to contact her, and she was excited, a lovely person, and I gave her $2,000 for the rights to the work, and that’s how Yussuf came out.
That’s an amazing journey …
Yeah, Kelen’s work is great, and I intend to do the Aesop’s Fable book and maybe the UNESCO book in the near future. He’s also highly significant, really worth paying more attention to.
That sounds wonderful, and I completely agree. I think both Yussuf the Ostrich and Keedle, despite the fact that they are so clearly set during the Nazi era or refer to the Nazi era, seem so contemporary.
And I can’t help but imagine you are inspired to republish these works by the recent presidency of Donald Trump, and to look and see what kinds of works would be useful for children to have at this time of resurgent fascism.
Yes, of course. You’re absolutely right. I mean, I discovered both of these books during the lousy Trump reign here in America, and that’s why they are the first two books I chose. I said, “They have to be out.” In fact, my goal was for them to be out right before the elections, and I did make that goal. My books did not change anything. Well, maybe a few people. I don’t know. But that was my goal.
It might be asking too much for a children’s book to change the course of politics, but I must say that, not only are these books adorable, but I can imagine them really influencing how a reader, especially a young reader, might think about topics such as bullying and living through difficult circumstances. Yussuf the Ostrich is a really nuanced character who has to navigate a lot of intrigue. He’s captured by a bully and then befriended by another kid, then captured by the Nazis while working for the Americans, couriering messages. But I think that what’s most moving is that, when he is finally released through the help of two dachshunds and escapes the Germans …
… wonderful dachshunds …
… it’s not evident that he’s going to be welcomed back by the Americans with open arms. There is a concern that he might’ve been a spy for the Germans; he could be a traitor. And obviously, no spoiler, but he clearly prevails in the end and is reunited with his friends and his mother, but still, that particular nuance is interesting, the mistrust that people have sometimes.
Yeah, definitely. They were suspicious that he got away from the Nazis and couldn’t help wondering, what is going on here? But then I love the ending; he doesn’t really realize how important he was and all he wants to do is get back to his mom. I love that ending. It is just amazing. He’s not interested in making the headlines of newspapers or being celebrated as a war hero or anything like that. He’s just interested in doing the right thing and getting home.
And eating some dates, he wants to eat some dates!
Oh, yes. Yes, the dates. That’s really great.
Keedle too is an amazing little book, with almost abstract art. But maybe what’s most interesting about Keedle is that it’s about a Hitler-esque bully, drawn like a little Hitler, someone who’s a bully and who grows up to be a bully and has to be defeated as a bully. There is one striking image in which you’ve got a tire and other industrial goods that are all going into a meat grinder that’s producing butter, which becomes the synthetic candy that Keedle loves to eat. And then at the end, as people are shouting him down and resisting him, he stuffs his ears with cotton, but the cotton doesn’t work because it’s synthetic. That is such an interesting little tidbit in the story. Was that a commentary on or a critique of industrialization?
Could be. I just love that it’s a bit ambivalent, but a really interesting drawing. Maybe it has a lot to do with how synthetic society is. That could be true. And it’s important that Keedle is presented as a bully, because that’s what he is. In other words, he could pass for any of the fascists like Trump who are ruling countries nowadays. They’re just bullies, ultimately small and petty. It’s just really a wonderful story. And the fact that he dies because he doesn’t have humor, that people laugh at him, he’s a laughable person, like Trump. I mean, Trump is so serious all the time and he has no sense of humor and no sense of compassion, and Keedle’s the exact same way — or Trump’s the exact same way as Keedle is.
They’re wonderful for children because they are about a common experience children face. What do you do with a bully? What do you do with those sorts of figures?
I can’t talk with you and also not mention a theorist and a writer dear to both of us, Ernst Bloch, who has been hugely important to you. It seems like Bloch is having a resurgence of interest right now. A lot more people are interested in his work and are finding it sustaining and nurturing, even. So I’d love to hear, just as a final question, any thoughts that you have about the ongoing importance of Bloch.
There are tons of books now coming out about hope. We’re living really at a time, at a cynical time, and Bloch wrote this three-volume major work, The Principle of Hope, which really drives that, if you don’t have hope, if you don’t find a way to cultivate hope, you’re going to really become depressed, go under, you won’t be able to be creative, and so on.
And so I’ve made every effort I can to get his message out. I’ve recently published this sort of literary biography of Bloch, The Pugnacious Philosopher of Hope, which is about his life and work. The other important thing about Bloch is that he wrote a book in 1934 when he was fleeing the Nazis, in which he was one of the first really to explain why people become fascist. He argues in this particular book (Erbschaft dieser Zeit, published in English as Heritage of Our Times, Polity, 1991) that when society or when a country, when people in a country move too fast, develop technologies, airplanes (and now television and the internet), and so on, and they change the world so rapidly, little people, mostly the masses of people, feel trampled on. And this explains to a certain extent why Trump has success or still has success with some people, people who sometimes feel trampled on, who can’t keep up with all the changes that very elite people are making in corporations, and so on. And so Bloch goes into that, and he really develops concepts, with regard to what was happening in Germany, because the communists and the socialists and the liberals didn’t work together. They didn’t realize what was going on with everyday people, the mass of folk, whereas Hitler and the Nazis realized what was going on more so than they did. To a certain extent, there’s a parallel. I hope we can learn from what Bloch learned.
Wonderful. Professor, thank you so much. I really do appreciate the chance to visit with you.