Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas
For the book, see Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas (book).
1977 US TV special
Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas is a 1977 TV special based on the children's book of the same name by Russell Hoban. Directed by Jim Henson, it features a cast of Muppet characters. It was produced by The Jim Henson Company and premiered on CBC Television.
In 1977, Muppets creator Jim Henson produced a one-hour television adaptation of the story filmed in Toronto. The special first premiered on CBC on December 4, 1977 with a U.S. premiere the following year on HBO on December 17, 1978. The special later aired on ABC and Nickelodeon in the 1990s. The special features several original songs written by songwriter Paul Williams.
The special utilizes a number of different puppetry methods. The main puppets used are the usual Muppet hand puppets, but the characters are frequently represented by marionettes as well. It also utilizes the bunraku and Black Theater techniques. This is also one of the first Muppet productions to use radio control puppet effects, designed by Faz Fazakas.
Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas also featured extensively platformed-up sets, all created with great attention to detail. Jim Henson explained:
Emmet Otter was the first time we had gotten into those kind of elaborate sets where we had floors in the interiors and we would take a wide-angle shot with characters coming up through holes in the floor. Or we'd cut into the set and remove the floor and have the characters moving through space in waist shots. That was the most elaborate production we had gotten into at that point. Frog Prince had been platformed-up and The Muppet Show was always platformed-up, but in Emmet Otter... we'd go right into a scene. We'd have the whole set in three dimensions... rigged so we could pop parts and come out through the openings, which is really time consuming...
The original special featured an introduction by Kermit the Frog, who also narrated certain scenes (in the 1978 release), and made an appearance near the end delivering closing remarks. The Jim Henson Company sold the rights to the Muppets (including Kermit) to The Walt Disney Company in 2004 (namely their branch in The Muppets Studio), and Kermit's scenes and narrations were thus omitted from the special's 2005 DVD.
The 2018 releases of the special on Blu-ray and DVD reinstate Kermit's scenes, but not his narrations.
Following an introduction by Kermit the Frog, the story tells of Emmet Otter and his Ma, a widow who scrapes by on the small amount of money she gets from doing laundry and that Emmet gets from doing odd jobs around their home in the town of Frogtown Hollow despite both of them often being cheated. Some of the people who cheated them are Old Lady Possum and Gretchen Fox (the wife of Mayor Harrison Fox) of Waterville. While going into Waterville for some window shopping, Ma and Emmett reflect on Emmett's father's life, including his unsuccessful attempt at selling snake oil. As Christmas approaches, they hear of a talent contest in the nearby town of Waterville with a grand prize of $50, and separately decide to enter to buy store-bought presents for each other: an elaborate guitar for Emmet or a piano for Ma. However, in a twist on The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry, they must sacrifice each other's livelihood for the talent contest. Ma hocks Emmet's tools for dress fabric while Emmet turns Ma's washtub into a washtub bass for a jug band. Emmet assembles Wendell Porcupine, Harvey Beaver, and Charlie Muskrat as the Frogtown Hollow Jubilee Jug Band.
Emmet and Ma each do an excellent job (despite Emmet's jug band having to frantically change songs after another contestant performs their song, Bar-b-que), only to be defeated at the last minute by a rock and roll band called The Nightmare, which comprises a hoodlum gang from the fairly distant town of River Bottom made up of Chuck Stoat, Fred Lizard, Howard Snake, "Pop-Eyed" Catfish, and Stanley Weasel. However, as the Frogtown Hollow Jubilee Jug Band sing a song together on the way home (more accurately, both of their talent show songs together after Ma realized they fit together), they are overheard by Doc Bullfrog (owner of a local restaurant called the Riverside Rest) who hires them to sing for his customers. Kermit concludes the special with Emmet, Ma, and the gang playing in front of Doc Bullfrog and the customers.
- Jerry Nelson as Emmet Otter, Doc Bullfrog, Melissa Rabbit, Stanley Weasel and Yancey Woodchuck
- Frank Oz as the performer of Alice Otter and the voice and performer of Chuck Stoat
- Marilyn Sokol as the voice of Alice Otter
- Jim Henson as Kermit the Frog, Harvey Beaver, Howard Snake and Mayor Harrison Fox
- Richard Hunt as Charlie Muskrat, Fred Lizard and George Rabbit
- Dave Goelz as "Pop-Eyed" Catfish, Wendell Porcupine and Will Possum
- Eren Ozker as Gretchen Fox, Hetty Muskrat, Mrs. Mink and Old Lady Possum
The special features several original songs written by songwriter Paul Williams. Paul Williams had previously worked with the Muppets on The Muppet Show and would go on to collaborate with the Muppets by writing all the songs for The Muppet Movie and The Muppet Christmas Carol. The song "Brothers In Our World" was later covered by My Morning Jacket for the special Muppets cover album Muppets: The Green Album.
- List of songs
- "The Bathing Suit That Grandma Otter Wore"
- "There Ain't No Hole in the Washtub"
- "When the River Meets the Sea"
- "Our World"
- "Riverbottom Nightmare Band"
- "Brothers in Our World"
On November 2, 2018, Varese Sarabande Records released the soundtrack on CD, and it released on LP on November 23, 2018. The soundtrack is at 26 minutes and 20 seconds in length:
- "The Bathing Suit That Grandma Wore" – 2:43
- "Jam Session – 1:07
- "Ain't No Hole in the Washtub – 2:11
- "When the River Meets the Sea – 2:30
- "Bar-B-Que (Jug Band) – 1:39
- "Carrots the Dancing Horse – 0:51
- "Bar-B-Que (Yancy Woodchuck) – 0:36
- "Dancing Rabbit Act – 0:44
- "Squirrel Acrobatic Act – 0:39
- "Our World – 1:51
- "Brothers – 2:03
- "Riverbottom Nightmare Band – 2:42
- "Our World-Brothers – 2:13
- "Our World-Brothers Club Reprise – 0:50
- "When the River Meets the Sea Reprise – 2:32
- "Born in a Trunk – 1:09 (Bonus Track)
In 2005, HIT Entertainment released a "Collector's Edition" DVD which featured several deleted or alternate scenes, as well as a "lost" song that was recorded, but never actually used in the special. Called "I Was Born in the Trunk", the song was written for the talent show scene and was performed by the Waterville music store owner. Due to the sale of the Muppets to Disney a year earlier, Kermit's scenes and narrations were omitted from this release.
On Saturday, December 12, 2015, a remastered version of the special's 1980 release had its cable channel debut alongside remastered The Bells of Fraggle Rock on ABC Family during its 25 Days of Christmas programming block. A 40th Anniversary DVD of the special was released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment on October 10, 2017, followed by a Blu-ray release on December 18, 2018. For the 2015 airing, as well as the subsequent DVD and Blu-ray releases, Kermit's introduction and closing scenes were restored.
In 2017, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the special, musician Matt Surowiec produced an officially licensed "tribute" album featuring all-new covers of Paul Williams' original songs from the special.
Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas received very positive reviews from critics. John J. O'Connor gave the special a very positive review in The New York Times on December 15, 1980 for its ABC airing: "Jim Henson and the Muppets are on a dazzling winning streak these days... Mr. Henson has produced and directed one of the most charming Christmas specials of the last several years... Once again, Mr. Henson's creations verge on the marvelous, perfectly capturing the Wind in the Willows aspects of Emmet Otter's story... These really are the nicest folk on the river – and on prime-time television." Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a score of 100% based on 8 reviews, with an average score of 8.4/10.
Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas was nominated for four Emmy Awards in 1981:
- Outstanding Children's Program, David Lazer (executive producer) and Jim Henson (producer)
- Outstanding Individual Achievement – Children's Programming, Calista Hendrickson (costume designer) and Sherry Ammott (costume designer)
- Outstanding Individual Achievement – Children's Programming, Paul Williams (composer/lyricist) for the song "When The River Meets the Sea".
- Outstanding Individual Achievement – Children's Programming, Tom Wright (lighting)
- Chuck Stoat, Howard Snake, and Old Lady Possum made cameos in The Muppet Movie. They are seen in the Rainbow Connection Finale.
- Some of the puppets made cameos in The Muppet Show:
- Mayor Harrison Fox's puppet was reused in several episodes that included the Woodland Animals including the "Bob Hope" episode (where he was in the "For What It's Worth Number" with unclothed versions of Old Lady Possum, James Badger, Will Possum, George Rabbit, and Nat Muskrat alongside a deer, a mouse, a toothless beaver, and a weasel), the "Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge" episode (where he alongside James Badger, Nat Muskrat, and Will Possum were repurposed for the "We're All Alone" song that also featured Billy the Bear, a Deer, a Beaver, and a Weasel), and the "Leo Sayer" episode (where he was featured in the "When I Need You" number with Billy the Bear, Mickey Moose, Harold Woodpecker, a beaver, a weasel, James Badger, and Crazy Harry).
- Fred Lizard was seen in the "Shields & Yarnell" and the "Dyan Cannon" episode.
- Emmet Otter, Alice Otter, Mayor Harrison Fox, Gretchen Fox, Doc Bullfrog, Yancy Woodchuck, Will Possum, Fred Lizard, Stanley Weasel, Chuck Stoat, Howard Snake, Charlie Muskrat, Harvey Beaver, and Wendell Porcupine appeared in The Muppets: A Celebration of 30 Years.
- Doc Bullfrog, Yancy Woodchuck, Old Lady Possum, George and Melissa Rabbit, and two squirrels appeared in the "Jim Henson's Musical World" concert at Carnegie Hall.
On October 21, 2019, it was announced that Bret McKenzie is writing the script and songs for a film adaptation of the TV special, which will be produced by The Jim Henson Company, Pacific Electric Picture Company, and Snoot Entertainment.
- ^Jim Henson's Red Book." "3/1-2/1977 – 'Recording Emmet Otter. Music in LA with Paul Williams.'" Posted March 1, 2012.
- ^The Ottawa Journal and The Calgary Herald TV listings
- ^"From the Creators of the Muppets". The HBO Guide: 13. December 1978.
- ^"HBO Soundtrack: The Muppets are coming!". The HBO Guide: 22. November 1978.
- ^Jim Henson: The Works, p. 199, 202
- ^Harnick, Chris (December 1, 2015). "It's December! ABC Family's 25 Days of Christmas Schedule Is Here". E! Online. Retrieved October 16, 2017.
- ^Emmet Otter's Jug-Band TributeArchived 2011-07-14 at the Wayback Machine, August 21, 2017
- ^O'Connor, John J. The New York Times, December 15, 1980
- ^"Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved June 19, 2021.
- ^"Bret McKenzie to Develop New Film Adaptation of 'Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas'". Film Music Reporter. 21 October 2019.
The Jim Henson Company
†Sold to The Walt Disney Company in 2004, ‡Muppet characters only; sold to Sesame Workshop in 2000
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Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas Photos
Emmet and Ma Otter are very poor, but they are very happy and talented singers. Christmas is around the corner, and they both want to get the other a very special present. The prize in the talent show is $50. Both Emmet and Ma get a song ready for the competition; Emmet forms a jug band, and Ma practices alone, to vie with the Riverbottom Gang.
Cast & Crew
for other uses, see Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas (disambiguation)
Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas is a one-hour Christmas special which first aired on the CBC on December 4, 1977 and on HBO the next year on December 17, 1978 with later broadcasts on HBO, and ABC in 1980.
Jerry Juhl wrote the script for the special, adapting the story from a book by Russell Hoban. Original songs were written by Paul Williams, and Jim Henson directed.
The special was adapted into a live musical stage show by the Jim Henson Company, which premiered at the Goodspeed Opera House in December 2008.
In this one-hour musical Christmas special, Kermit the Frog narrates the story of Alice Otter and her son, Emmet, who live along the river in the village of Frogtown Hollow. Ma and Emmet struggle to make ends meet through odd jobs and projects for neighbors and villagers, but this Christmas they dream of having enough money to buy each other a special gift. Known for their musical abilities, the Otters are encouraged by their friends to enter a local talent contest. The mother and son reminisce about Pa Otter, who serves as the inspiration for them to enter the show.
Without each other's knowledge, Ma and Emmet prepare for the contest in the hope of winning the fifty-dollar prize to buy Christmas gifts for each other. Emmet performs as a member of the Frogtown Hollow Jubilee Jug Band and Ma Otter sings a solo number, but both face tough competition from a hard rock group formed by a gang of woodland creatures who call themselves the Riverbottom Nightmare Band.
The special utilizes a number of different puppetry methods. The main puppets used are the usual Muppet hand puppets, but the characters are frequently represented by marionettes as well. It also utilizes the Black Theater techniques. This is also one of the first Muppet productions to use radio control puppet effects, designed by Faz Fazakas.
Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas also featured extensively platformed-up sets, all created with great attention to detail. Jim Henson explained:
“Emmet Otter was the first time we had gotten into those kind of elaborate sets where we had floors in the interiors and we would take a wide-angle shot with characters coming up through holes in the floor. Or we'd cut into the set and remove the floor and have the characters moving through space in waist shots. That was the most elaborate production we had gotten into at that point. Frog Prince had been platformed-up and The Muppet Show was always platformed-up, but in Emmet Otter... we'd go right into a scene. We'd have the whole set in three dimensions... rigged so we could pop parts and come out through the openings, which is really time consuming...”
In 2011, Dave Goelz reflected on the special;
“Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas remains one of my top three projects of all time. I love the feeling of that Emmet Otter world. We built a 55-foot-long river that was about 10 feet wide and went all the way across the stage, and they built a radio-control rowboat for Emmet. It was so lovely and lyrical to see Emmet rowing his mom down the river. The idea that there was life along the river and that it was all interconnected was a great metaphor for people.”
The songs were written by Paul Williams, beginning a long series of Muppet collaborations that also included The Muppet Movie, The Muppet Christmas Carol, and Letters to Santa.
Writing for The Calgary Herald the morning after Emmet Otter’s first broadcast, Bill Musselwhite noted that the special stood out as a "bright gem" amongst other seasonal programming that "clutter up the screen" and compared the story to The Gift of the Magi with an ending that results in "something infinitely more precious." He went on to praise Paul Williams' music, the "beautifully crafted puppets", costumes, and recognized the sets and camera work as having worked "especially impressive" together. "The direction and camera technique are so good you have a hard time realizing that those aren't real animals in some Osark riverbottom." He concludes that the special, "may have been slightly advanced for the smaller children, but for everyone else it was a delight."
John J. O'Connor gave the special a very positive review in The New York Times on December 15, 1980 for its ABC airing: "Jim Henson and the Muppets are on a dazzling winning streak these days... Mr. Henson has produced and directed one of the most charming Christmas specials of the last several years... Once again, Mr. Henson's creations verge on the marvelous, perfectly capturing the Wind in the Willows aspects of Emmet Otter's story... These really are the nicest folk on the river -- and on prime-time television."
The remastered version of the special (without Kermit's voiceover) was paired with "The Bells of Fraggle Rock" for a series of screenings by Fathom Events on December 10 and 16, 2018.
For details on re-broadcasts and home video releases, see:
- Executive Producer: David Lazer
- Producer/Director: Jim Henson
- Based on the Book by: Russell and Lillian Hoban
- Writer: Jerry Juhl
- Music and Lyrics by: Paul Williams
- Muppet Creative Consultants: Michael K. Frith and Frank Oz
- Muppet Performers: Jerry Nelson, Frank Oz, Marilyn Sokol, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt, Eren Ozker; Jim Henson (uncredited)
- Settings designed by William Beeton
- Puppets by Don Sahlin with Caroly Wilcox, Dave Goelz, Mari Kaestle, Amy Van Gilder, John Lovelady, Marianne Harms, Rollin Krewson, Leslee Asch, Janet Lerman
- Special Muppet effects: Faz Fazakas with Larry Jameson
- Muppet clothes: Calista Hendrickson with Sherry Amott
- Set decoration: Stephen Finnie
- Sound effects: Dick Maitland, Barbara Wood
- Design services provided by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
- Produced in association with Parents' Magazine Films Inc. and Westfall Productions
Is Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas a Work of Genius?
It would be hokey to say that I’ve already received a heartwarming gift this holiday season: at long last, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas by Russell Hoban with pictures by Lillian Hoban has been reissued in a cheery new edition. Then again, hokey feels appropriate, considering we’re talking about a 1971 children’s picture book about the hardscrabble woodland creatures of Waterville who compete in a talent contest presided over by the town’s mayor, Harrison Fox. Emmet Otter and his Ma have entered the competition unbeknownst to one another in the hope of winning the $50 grand prize and buying something “fine and fancy” for Christmas this year.
It was “The Gift of the Magi” meets the Muppets even before Jim Henson got ahold of it for his 1977 television adaptation that cultivated a legion of fans which included Frances Gilbert, editorial director at Doubleday Books for Young Readers, the imprint that has now revived Emmet. Gilbert, who cherished a local library after moving from England to Canada as a child, recently recalled being “instantly smitten” by the movie in the late 1970s. But, she added, “Back then you couldn’t just rent or stream video, you had to wait—for years!” Maybe that added to the story’s charm. She finally found a VHS copy during her college years, and it was then that she realized the movie had first been a book, and “by the same creators of Bread and Jam for Frances, no less.” (The Hobans’ Frances the Badger series had been another childhood favorite.) When Gilbert got into publishing, she often thought it would be great to do a new edition. “Flash forward pretty much my whole career, and finally in 2015 I acquired the rights from the estates of the Hobans to republish the book … I wished I could go back in time and tell the four-year-old immigrant version of myself that one day I’d get to do that.” She celebrated by attending a live-stage performance of the text.
Gilbert’s story is similar to mine: I loved the movie as a kid, discovered the book later, bought a first edition for my daughter’s fourth Christmas, tried to interest publishing folks in a reprint, and, when that seemed to go nowhere, settled for reading and writing about Russell Hoban. From various obituaries (Lillian died in 1998, Russell in 2011) and biographical notes at RussellHoban.org, I learned that he was born in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants in 1925. Art was his first muse, and after serving in the army during World War II, he began working as a commercial illustrator and storyboard artist. Hoban had married fellow artist Lillian Aberman in 1944, and together they had four children. Like any new parents, the couple became actively interested in children’s books and stories. Russell illustrated two mechanical books for children but found himself drawn to fiction. When he took up his pen again, he created a precocious badger who often needed nudging in the right direction. Bedtime for Frances, illustrated by the prominent illustrator Garth Williams, was published in 1960, and it became the first of seven successful Frances books written by Russell. From the second Frances on, the Hobans worked together, with Lillian contributing the art and Russell the words.
In 1969, the Hoban family decamped to London, for what was intended to be a sabbatical of sorts. Russell had always been inspired by the city. He told the Guardian’s Nicholas Wroe, “This image of Victorian London grew in my mind—heavy fog, a landlord and his wife toasting cheese on the gas ring and a newsboy running down the street shouting ‘dreadful murder in the Marylebone Road.’ I knew that London wasn’t there any more, but I wanted to be where that kind of thing was written.” That desire ultimately split his life down the middle. Lillian returned to the United States with the children, and he stayed abroad, where he would re-marry, father three more children, and start to write novels for adults that are, by turns, subversive, fabulist, and provocative.
An imperfect accounting of his output puts the number of books written at around 80. Emmet, by virtue of being my first, remains my favorite, although in the past few years I’ve read a dozen of his collaborative children’s books, including the Frances books, The Mouse and His Child (1967), and The Mole Family Christmas (1969), as well as many of the books he produced on his own, either for children or adults, such as Turtle Diary (1975), The Marzipan Pig (1986), and the novel for which he is possibly best known, Riddley Walker (1980).
By necessity I have purchased many of these books from secondhand booksellers online, but reading his expansive oeuvre has become increasingly easy. Since his death, publishers have clamored to restore his books to the frontlist. Between then and now, there have been straight reprints and/or new editions of Turtle Diary, Ace Dragon, Jim’s Lion, A Near Thing for Captain Najork, How Tom Beat Captain Najork, The Twenty Elephant Restaurant, Monsters, Tom Batifole, The Rain Door, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz, Kleinzeit, Pilgermann, and Riddley Walker. Some, e.g., TheMouse and His Child and The Marzipan Pig, were pinned to anniversaries, complete with new or invigorated illustrations.
Two of those reissues, Charlie the Tramp (2016, originally 1966) and Harvey’s Hideout (forthcoming 2018, originally 1969), have been undertaken by Plough Publishing, the publishing house of the Bruderhof, an international Christian community. At first, I was perplexed by this—I thought perhaps a Berenstain Bears evangelical switcheroo was afoot. In reality, said Plough’s Sam Hine, the house was responding to a request from parents “with old-school values” to bring back some titles that encourage family life, relationships between generations, and reading aloud. They reached out to librarians for suggestions of marketable books with this type of “universal appeal,” books that “people of all ages can enjoy.” The Hobans rose to the surface, along with Astrid Lindgren and Eloise Jarvis McGraw.
Frances Gilbert echoed Hine’s sentiments in discussing the Hobans’ appeal, 40 and 50 years on. “I think in many ways it allows us to fantasize about a gentler time. But [Emmet] is also a story about honesty and bravery and hard work and picking yourself up when you’ve been knocked down—and these are deeply timeless themes.” Incidentally, the titular characters of Plough’s Hoban reprints, Charlie Beaver and Harvey Muskrat, reappear as Emmet’s bandmates (Charlie on cigar-box banjo, Harvey on kazoo) in Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, a major plot point of which is Emmet’s decision to put a hole in Ma’s washtub to make a bass.
The Hobans’ children’s books do make us feel warm and fuzzy, but the truth is that while Russell was creating these characters, he was struggling with insomnia and the daily burdens of family life, as borne out in his papers, recently acquired by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University. Like many writers, he kept tabs on work started, finished, rejected, or sold in his diary—bound day-planner type diaries, one for each year. On occasion, he noted exactly how much time he had spent on a project per day, peppered with reports of errands and children’s activities he had attended to (piano lessons, driving lessons).
On his birthday, February 4, 1968, he recorded: “Forty-three years old today. Mouse + Child Reviewed (Adversely) in the NY Times Today.” In June, he mentioned a plan to relocate to London. On New Year’s Eve, he wrote, “A prosperous year but a dismal one for me.”
I visited the archive last month with the intention of viewing, if it existed, the original manuscript for Emmet. I uncovered two versions: a typescript from October 13, 1969, likely a carbon copy, on pale yellow paper, splotchy and blurred; the other an undated, 14-page typescript on manila paper, with his handwritten annotations. They were thrilling to behold, and hold. Even better, though, was the entry in Hoban’s diary for February 28, 1969: “Started EO.” Following on that, March 2: “Working on Emmet Otter can’t get beginning right.” He writes of “converting” Emmet into a Christmas story (which means that he hadn’t initially envisioned it as such!). He finished Emmet that March, and was pleased to record on May 9 that Alvin Tresselt, then the executive editor and VP of Parents’ Magazine Press, had selected Emmet for its book club in 1970.
But that didn’t happen, and here the record drops off a bit. What did happen was that on August 14, 1969, the Hobans sailed to London. For the holidays, they traveled to the French Riviera, where, it appears, Russell purchased his 1970 diary—it is French. It is also blank after January, and he did not take up his journal again until mid-1971, by which time his marriage was shattered. Hoban retained carbon copies of his correspondence, and his long letters to Ursula Nordstrom, the Hobans’ editor at Harper & Row, cover this painful era. What Russell and Lillian had ready or near-ready for publication, including Emmet (1971) and Egg Thoughts (1972) eked out, and they both continued to publish, but as collaborators, they were done.
In all, they had produced 26 children’s books together, said Elizabeth Frengel, head of research services at the Beinecke Library and curator of +The Art of Collaboration: The Children’s Books of Russell and Lillian Hoban, an exhibition that opens on January 19. Drawing from Yale’s three separate collections of Lillian’s and Russell’s papers, the exhibition will showcase correspondence, printer’s dummies, artwork, and unpublished manuscripts like “Television for Frances,” that for some reason, never felt right to its creators. Frengel shares my fascination with the Hobans’ work—in the recurrent themes of freedom, free will, and figuring out one’s place in the world, and in what she aptly termed the “existential underpinning” of their stories. They are children’s books, yes, but adults often enjoy them just as much.
Yale had acquired Lillian’s papers in 2013, but Russell’s seemed to be in limbo after his death. In February 2014, a notice appeared online at the Group for Literary Archives & Manuscripts blog, stating that his papers were “in search of a home.” That announcement startled me, as it’s not typically the way famous authors’ papers are exchanged. Then, silence. I wondered, and I worried. Two years passed before I read that Tim Young, curator of modern books and manuscripts at the Beinecke, had purchased them from Hoban’s widow via New York bookseller Glenn Horowitz. Because Lillian’s archive was already there, and because the Beinecke is actively collecting the archives of American children’s book authors and artists, said Frengel, it was a natural fit.
For Frengel, two pieces have stood out so far among Russell’s vast trove (he was not only prolific, but a notorious packrat). “When the Russell Hoban papers first arrived,” she said, “and they hadn’t been processed … I started to pull boxes off the shelf, and I opened the box that had the original mouse doll from The Mouse and His Child.” She then located, among Russell’s correspondence, a letter to Clifton Fadiman, about the wind-up toy and how it inspired him. It was “mind-blowing,” she said. Another treasure: the dummy for Bread and Jam for Frances. “It has a high fetish value for me.”
The Hobans’ books incite that kind of cult adoration. It is certainly true for me—and particularly at this time of year when I re-read and re-watch Emmet (a 40th anniversary version of the Henson special was recently released). I waited a long time to see Emmet restored to print, so this new edition is enormously gratifying. Even more important is the sense that not only are the Hobans getting their due, but that outstanding children’s books are, too—books of depth and beauty, about, as Gilbert said, listening to one another and finding harmony in our differences. “I can’t think of a more important lesson in 2017.”
The otter emmett
.Kermit Intros Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas
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