Parents' Choice

A Lifetime Achievement Award for Lloyd Alexander

Parents' Choice is honored to present its first Lifetime Achievement Award in Children's Literature to Lloyd Alexander for a body of work that includes The Prydain Chronicles, the Westmark series, and The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen.

We pay homage to Lloyd Alexander for enriching the imaginative and spiritual lives of children of all backgrounds everywhere.

This tribute was written by Kemie Nix

Lloyd Alexander's study wall is running out of space, since it is covered with awards, including two National Book Awards. The author calls his study "My Box," and the small room is chockablock full of awards and mementos from devoted fans. One such memento is a mobile of characters from The Prydain Chronicles. Made by a young fan, long-since grown, it now dangles precariously from an overstuffed bookcase.

Although Alexander reserves a fair amount of desk space for the manuscript he is currently working on, the rest of the desk is a jumble of keepsakes, which he calls "my little things." He enjoys having these things, including his Newbery Medal for The High King, close at hand while he writes.

Everything is covered with a patina of age and smoke and a few cobwebs. In The Book of Three, Alexander describes Dallben's study: "There in Dallben's chamber, moldering tomes overflowed the sagging shelves and spilled onto the floor amid heaps of iron cook-pots, studded belts, harps with or without strings, and other oddments." He knew whereof he spoke, as he was describing his own study - especially the oddments.

One of Alexander's worst fears is that the beautiful Janine, whom he met and married in Paris while finishing his WWII tour of duty, will have one of her home-improvement attacks (one of which involved taking down a chimney with a tack hammer -from the bottom), and will "attack" his unguarded study. Besides having an innate desire to be always at home (his mother once reported his constant plea on any childhood outing was, "I want to go home!"), he now worries during any long absences that Janine will decide to clean his study. He precludes this horrible fate by leaving his study as little as possible; he certainly never leaves the house for long except under extreme pressure.

Although Alexander's favorite place for his body is his study, his spirit roams freely around the world and through the ages. He is more comfortable in the past. Even when the setting for one of his books is an imaginary kingdom, it is always reminiscent of a time and place in the past.

For example, the setting for The Prydain Chronicles is fifth-century Wales; the setting for The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen is eighth-century China. Interestingly, of the thirty-five books he has written for young people, only one is set in this country in the 20th century. His newest book, published this spring, is set in his own Philadelphia childhood-which, of course, will be ancient history and exotic to young readers. Technically, the setting of his first book for children, published in 1963, Time Cat, could be called the present, but the main characters, Jason and his cat, Gareth, are hurled into the past after just three and a half pages.

Within these thirty-five inimitable books, certain facets of his personality appear and reappear, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. Lloyd Alexander is definitely a wordsmith and lover of words. From the publication in 1965 of his first picture book for children, Coll and His White Pig, through his latest in 2000, How the Cat Swallowed Thunder, he subscribes to Beatrix Potter's philosophy that children like strange and enticing words.

For instance, in the former book, as Coll dashes to the rescue of a cornered mole, the stag he has been riding cries, "A gwythaint! ... One of King Arawn's messengers! It will carry news of us to the Land of Death. Ah, Coll, your quest is ruined. Ruined for a mere mole!" Such language is heady yet typical matter for his picture books.

Favorite themes appear in different guises in his work. In a recent interview, he acknowledges that the physical journeys in many of his stories are metaphors for life's journey. In The Prydain Chronicles, for example, " Taran's quest is a metaphorical journey in which we learn how to be genuine human beings." In the Westmark series, his anti-war trilogy, he delves deeply into the problem of staying human under the corruptive influence of war. His hero, Theo, does become horribly corrupted, but with the greatest difficulty, he is ultimately able to heal his spirit. (Although Westmark, the first book in the trilogy, won the National Book Award, it is the middle book, The Kestrel, that is Alexander's strongest anti-war novel.)

Alexander Book CoversWhile Taran and Theo are young men of humble origins, Alexander went to the opposite end of the social scale when he sent his heroes on spiritual journeys. In The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen, the hero is obviously a prince. In The Iron Ring, the hero, Tamar, is a king. And what spiritual journeys they are! Prince Jen leaves his father's palace to travel to a legendary kingdom to learn from its noble sovereign how to rule. The kingdom is T'ien-kuo, which is Chinese for "The Kingdom of Heaven." None of Alexander's characters suffers quite the despair of Jen on what he believes to be his unsuccessful quest.

Tamar, on the other hand, doesn't volunteer for his journey. He loses a wager to the godlike King Jaya, who places the iron ring on his finger and sends him to his realm where Tamar expects to meet his death. When he finally arrives, Tamar, instead of succumbing quietly to his fate, argues with Jaya -a metaphor for arguing with God at the perceived end of life.

Another story with theological insights is The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha. The rascal Lukas has his head thrust into a bowl of water by Battisto. Lukas is magically cast into a sea (amniotic fluid) where he washes up on a strange shore-like the rest of us. Lukas is at first hailed by the inhabitants as king and "The Center of the Universe"-like the rest of us.

And this is only the beginning. Within complex plots, the theological ideas and moral implications of Alexander's books are quite astonishing. As a discerning librarian once told him, "You have never written a bad book." Competent, feisty females are another hallmark of this author's works. The princess, Eilonwy, was a liberated woman before the term was even coined. All of his active heroines, while imperfect, are enormously appealing. Aunt Annie, the heroine of his latest book, The Gawgon and the Boy, is an old woman who can no longer be active. She is, however, still a sister under the skin with her predecessors.

Gawgon and the BoyWhile certain other themes, such as love of music and animals-especially cats-and human love are repeated in Alexander's work, none of them appear in the same guise. He always stays fresh and original. While he usually loves to send his characters on adventurous quests, in his two latest novels, Gypsy Rizka and The Gawgon and the Boy, the characters stay put -sort of. They can never bear to stay put for long, so they will always have adventures, if only in their minds.

Lloyd Alexander's writings have widespread influence. For example, he was the 1996 nominee for the Hans Christian Andersen Award for the United States. He has also received many international awards, including the Austrian Children's Book Award and the Dutch "Silver Slate Pencil" Award for The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha. In addition, he earned the Norwegian Children's Book Award for The Town Cats, and Sweden presented him with "The Golden Cat Award" for his body of work.

Fans of Alexander can enjoy his works in eighteen languages and a variety of media. For instance, The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man was made into a major musical by the Shiki Theatrical Company in Japan. It not only toured Japan to great acclaim, it has also played at the National Theater in Beijing. The Black Cauldron was made into an animated feature by Disney, which also optioned Time Cat. A Chinese opera is being made of The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen.

The list of this man's honors goes on and on. Brigham Young University has built a new and quite extensive library. They are reserving a room in which to replicate his study, which he has agreed to will to them, minus the cobwebs. Lloyd Alexander's list of awards is certainly impressive, but the author's most important honors probably reside in the hearts and minds of his readers, now reaching new generations. A letter to Alexander told of a reader who had managed to wait until his son's seventh birthday before reading his cherished copies of The Chronicles of Prydain to the boy: "I cannot tell you the excitement we both felt as bedtime (and story time) approached. We'd talked for weeks about the books, and he rushed through his bath and into his pajamas. As we went into his room, he rushed ahead, saying, 'I'll get it down, Dad.' Reverently, he brought the book to me. I opened The Book of Three, and as I read the first chapter with my beautiful son's head snuggled against me, I was overwhelmed with an amazing feeling of wholeness, that everything had come full circle, that my life seemed so perfect and complete."

PARENTS' CHOICE is delighted to honor Lloyd Alexander with the first "Lifetime Achievement Award".

Copyright © 2009 Parents' Choice Foundation. All rights reserved.