Books NYRB

NYRB Reading Week: A 2in1 Special – James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks and The Wonderful O as Illustrated by Marc Simont

NYRB Reading Week: A 2in1 Special – James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks and The Wonderful O as Illustrated by Marc Simont

Initially, I just wanted to review The Wonderful O upon finding out that Honey from Coffeespoons would most likely be reviewing The 13 Clocks. However, as I was drafting my thoughts, I realized that I could not possibly talk about Wonderful O without reference to 13 Clocks, so might as well review two NYRB books at one go. Instead of photos taken from the books, I decided that the layout of this page would be peppered with wonderful Os and clocks in various hues, shapes, and forms – as a tribute to James Thurber’s genius.

Dates of Publication. If this would be any indication of whether the book should be considered a classic – then these two books would get the honor, hands down. Published seven years apart, 13 clocks was initially a Yearling book published in the year 1950 while Wonderful O was first published in the year 1957. Yet despite the fact that these are technically old tales, they have a timeless quality to the way they package once-upon-a-times that would never fail to delight both young and old alike.

Narrative Style. One of the things that struck me the most in both books is that the prose is so lyrical it is almost a crime to call it prose (it is really poetry masquerading as a book for children). And the glorious wit – simply puts modern literature (and adult fiction) to shame. While I would admit to having more laugh-out-loud moments with Wonderful O, 13 clocks manages to hold its own when it comes to engaging in word play, puns, and verbal fencing. But yes, James Thurber has a unique stamp in his storytelling that suggests he enjoys words, no, he relishes the cadence, the rhythm of the letters as they dance around his tongue before they are committed to and trapped in the page. It seems like a huge disservice if one does not read his narrative aloud to liberate them again as you see them dip, dive and do somersaults around children’s (and yes, adults’) eyes.

I am not certain though whether I would advise these books for beginning readers. Recall that this was written during a different period/sociocultural context – hence, some of the words while not really archaic, may be a tad difficult for very young ones to understand (unless they are extremely precocious). Thurber also has a Seuss-like quality with the way he makes up certain words, hence you are left wondering whether there is really a Todal or a guggle and zatch. My sentiment is that it is truly a read-aloud so that both parent and child (or teacher and student) could play hopscotch with the words and realize how meaning can be derived from the context rather than a literal word-per-word comprehension which would be a tad more difficult to manage. It seemed that my 8 year old daughter understood 13 clocks better when I read it to her as compared to her reading it on her own. The appreciation of the humor though, I believe, comes also with a certain level of understanding and maturity. Again, another reason why I think children’s lit is a kick-ass genre.

Of Princesses and Minstrels, Pirates and Poets. 13 Clocks revolves around this story of an evil duke who has murdered time (all thirteen clocks in the castle had been frozen at the same time, one snowy night, seven years before – thus it was always ten minutes to five in the castle); an enchanted princess, Saralinda, who is unable to say anything but “I wish him well” in the presence of the Duke; and a Prince disguised as a Minstrel who wishes to save the princess (and marry her of course, need I say that).

Like most fairy tales and adventure books, the prince/minstrel needs to carry out certain tasks in order to break the spell cast on the Princess. As is with most folk tales and reminiscent of oral traditions of story telling the tasks go like this:

“They were told to cut a slice of moon, or change the ocean into wine. They were set to finding things that never were, and building things that could not be. They came and tried and failed and disappeared and never came again. And some, as I have said, were slain, for using names that start with X, or dropping spoons, or wearing rings, or speaking disrespectfully of sin.” (p. 22).

13 clocks likewise has decidedly strange creatures such as the helpful Golux who speaks in riddles and tends to forget the things he just said the minute he said it. Upon meeting the minstrel for the first time, the Golux said by way of greeting: “ ‘If you have nothing better than your songs,’ he said, ‘you are somewhat less than much, and only a little more than anything.’”

I also like the way that the Golux responds to minor setbacks that happen as they go about their adventures. According to him: “That’s another problem for another day… Time is for dragonflies and angels. The former live too little and the latter live too long.” (p. 46)

And there is also Hagga who sheds tears of sapphires, rubies, and emeralds; the scary Todal whose mere name can cause people’s hair to turn gray and the spies named Whisper, Listen, and Hark. How can you not love Thurber?

In Wonderful O, the grim, dour, and forbidding villains seem to have a charming childlike quality to their wickedness, I just can’t find it in my hard to hate them. This is how the villains began the story when they met up in this tavern where “a ponderous tower clock slowly dropped a dozen strokes into the gloom” – the conversation seems so silly while being villainous at the same time it can not fail to amuse:

“ ‘You look like a man with a map,’ whispered the man in black.

‘I am a man with a map,’ boomed Littlejack. ‘It is a map of far and lonely island, rich with jewels, sapphires, emeralds and rubies. I seek a man with a ship.’

‘I am a man with a ship,’ said the man in black.

‘And a crew to man her?’

‘And a crew to man her.’

‘Are you a man with a name?’ asked Littlejack.

‘I am a man named Black’ said the man named Black. (p. 2)

And so begins this fiendishly depraved partnership aboard the lovely ship named Aeiu (all the vowels except the O) as they sail to the island of Ooroo in search of hidden treasure. Black has this deep abiding hatred for the word O “ever since the night my mother became wedged in a porthole. We couldn’t pull her in and so we had to push her out (p.4).”

Armed with their axes, spades, and cudgels, they terrorize this little town Ooroo in the worst imaginable way possible (they are unable to find the jewels except “the blue of the water, and the pink of our maidens’ cheeks and lips, and the green of our fields”). With total impunity and darkness of soul, Black issued an edict to remove all words in books or signs with an O in them:

“And so the locksmith became a lcksmith, and the bootmaker a btmaker, and people whispered like conspirators when they said the names. Love’s Labour’s Lost and Mother Goose flattened out like a pricked balloon. Books were bks and Robinhood was Rbinhd. Little Goody Two Shoes lost her O’s and so did Goldilocks, and the former became a whisper, and the latter sounded like a key jiggled in a lck. It was impossible to read “cockadoodledoo” aloud..” (p. 9)

Things became worse as Black gradually took away the things that people (err peple) loved with Os in them including musical instruments, domestic creatures, flowers, architectural type, academic disciplines – so yes, this is the most horrid kind of villain ever created by this genius of a writer who just knows way too many wrds fr his wn gd. With this kind of chatic (chaotic) and seemingly-random, horrifying edicts, Littlejack and Black appointed a lawyer named Hyde as a Chief Clarifier – seeing how people are unaware of exactly what things are banned since “people could have pigs, but no hogs or pork or bacon; sheep, but no mutton or wool, calves but no cows” (p. 19). Hyde logically deduced that “collective nouns” must be spared “like food, and goods, and crops, and tools, and I should think, the lesser schools” (p. 24)

This particular scene is what made me laugh out loud when a gardener complained about his livelihood suffering a huge loss with his violets, hollyhocks and marigold all banned. Hyde expostulated that things are still fine and dandy because:

“ ‘Lilies are nice for livelihood,’ said Hyde, ‘and more alliterative. There are also lilacs and the like. I crossbreed certain things myself, with more success than failure. Forget-me-nots, when crossed with madwort, lose their O’s. I get a hybrid which I call regret-me-evers. Love-in-a-mist, when crossed with bleeding hearts, results in sweethearts’ quarrels.

A wOman is in grave danger because of the O in its plural and singular form – but they can be safe as a “maiden” or a “lass, or girl, or damsel, and as virgin and as spinster.” And yes, “Bride and wife are more than woman (p. 32).” I find myself reading the pages aloud – they simply prance around the pages begging to be freed.

And yes the humor and wit are decidedly adult – a highly intelligent child would undoubtedly appreciate the word play, verbal jousting, and all this “puppybabble and pussyfret” – but there is a rhythm to the way the words are placed next to each other that they seem alive, real, and even more full-bodied than the characters themselves – that a teenager or a young adult could more fully appreciate. But then again, I could be wrong. If you have kids who read these two books, do let me know what their thoughts were.

Endings with Twists and Turns. It is amazing how Thurber manages to build new characters and scenarios as if calling them out by will. Instead of appearing loosely-woven, he manages it as if he is conjuring tricks from out of a hat – and yes castles from out of nowhere. How the townsfolk managed to regain their town back with a little help from the poet Andreus (and words like valour, hope, love and…. The last one I shall not reveal) – or how the minstrel-prince managed to find the jewels and the clocks strike five – are aspects of the book that you’d have to discover on your own. But mst definitely, these are tw bks that yu cannt pssibly miss ut n. The humour strips away all pretentiousness and niceties with just a celebration of absurdity and the textured feel of words spilling over the tip of your tongue.

The author James Thurber was born in 1894 (yes, he is from the 19th century, ladies and gentlemen) – yet his narratives still continue to tickle, prickle, and bristle his readers’ fannies.. err fancies. He has nearly 40 books published to his name, five of which are children’s titles, with Many Moons (published in 1943) being a recipient of the Caldecott Honor award. He is known as a cartoonist and ‘humorist’ (I didn’t know there was such a word – or a profession? I wonder how anyone can apply for this position). Click here to be taken to his bio.

Marc Simont, the illustrator was born in Paris in 1915 and is said to be the child of Catalan immigrants (as found in the jacketflap of The wonderful O). He is known as a political cartoonist and studied under his father before attending several art schools in France and America. Aside from his collaboration with Thurber, he is also said to have worked alongside Margaret Wise Brown – and has translated the poems of (my heart, be still) Federico Garcia Lorca among others. A detailed bio of the author and his sketches can be found here.

Book cover for 13 clocks –
Book cover for The Wonderful O –
Marc Simont’s photo –
Letter O images from the following
Images for the Clocks

The 13 Clocks by James Thurber

Amazon | Book Depository

The Wonderful O by Marc Simont

Amazon | Book Depository

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

12 comments on “NYRB Reading Week: A 2in1 Special – James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks and The Wonderful O as Illustrated by Marc Simont

  1. I was lucky enough to mooch an old edition of 13 clocks at Bookmooch recently. Can’t wait to read it now. I’ve glanced through it and the art is fabulous!


    • myragarcesbacsal

      What/Where is Bookmooch? First I’ve heard of it. I’d have to admit that The Wonderful O is my favorite of the two books, but 13 clocks is also as amusing and timeless.


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  3. Sadly, one of my regrets for the NYRB Reading Week is not having finished 13 Clocks in time to review it. Actually, I’m still in the middle of reading it now. But I’m relishing it, precisely because of the way Thurber dips into poetic language periodically in this book.

    I love your review of The Wonderful O! Now that I know what it is, it brings to mind Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. I’ll be sure to get The Wonderful O next as I am a big fan of Thurber.


    • myragarcesbacsal

      I shall look for Ella Minnow Pea on Tuesday (my weekly visit to the community library), if it’s as wonderful a read as The Wonderful O, I’d be glad to read it aloud to my eight year old. =)


  4. carolwallace

    The Thirteen Clocks has been one of my favorite books since I was a child and I am often tempted to tell people that I wish them well — but nobody would get the joke. Missed The Wonderful O, though, and I can’t wait to read it now! Thanks!


    • myragarcesbacsal

      Hi Carol, thank you so much for dropping by, and yes I wish you well as you go about your day (hahaha!). The Wonderful O is just plain brilliant, you see Thurber’s ginormous (is there such a word?) vocabulary – and the way he plays with words – just genius. Looking forward to reading your thoughts once you’ve read Wonderful oh so Wonderful O. =)


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  9. interesting, Illustrated by Marc Simont
    greetings by the proud owner of a cuckoo clock:
    Cuckoo Clock


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