Julia W(oolfolk) Cunningham Essay - Critical Essays

Cunningham, Julia W(oolfolk)


Julia W(oolfolk) Cunningham 1916–

American young adult and children's novelist and editor. Cunningham, whose controversial Dorp Dead! is considered the first existential novel aimed specifically at a young adult audience, writes fiction that is complex, sophisticated, and rich in symbolism and psychological meaning. While Dorp Dead!, which deals uncompromisingly with evil, is generally conceded to be a beautifully written novel, it is considered by many critics too grim to be suitable for the age group for which it was written. Strong elements of fantasy, allegory, and gothic romanticism flavor Cunningham's fiction, with the medieval French background of some of her stories attributable to her stay in France in the 1950s. Cunningham is a unique figure in young adult literature, writing both realistic and symbolic stories that emphasize the absolute importance of individualism and self-realization. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 1.)

Aileen Pippett

[Dorp Dead's] Gilly Ground was a lonely orphan boy who decided to stay that way. He felt tough enough to stand many more blows from fate. He obeyed the orphanage rules but would make no friends, muff at games and pretend to be stupid. At last the orphanage gave up on him and sent him to work for Kobalt the ladder-maker, a surly giant, who lived by the clock and who kept a mud-colored dog too dejected to wag his tail. Through the dog Gilly learned that Kobalt was cruel, not just hard-hearted….

This is a grim tale with an exciting climax told in Gilly's own words after he escaped from Kobalt. Now broken out from the cage he had built about himself, he has given up the idea that people can live without love. In the future he will have friends and fun; he will even learn to spell—which is the only clue to the odd title, a hidden joke that explodes into a laugh at the end of this enthralling book. (p. 26)

Aileen Pippett, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 25, 1965.

Judith Crist

[Dorp Dead] is the story of a boy who discovers himself, who basically comes to grips with that most contemporary of problems, the isolation of the individual. It is told within the near-classic framework of the story of the orphan who survives and escapes maltreatment to find love, but it is told in frank, literate terms in the lingo of today's youngsters. And it has, as an additional dimension, a touch of the Gothic tale, a tinge of terror and a shade of romanticism, as it evolves as a fast-moving, first-person, present-tense adventure story that never descends to the sensational….

"Dorp Dead" is Gilly's final message to those who would build cages for the young—Gilly is a bad speller, with his non-conformity extending to the sequence of letters…. But however Gilly spells, he speaks for his contemporaries in their terms.

And this is the distinction that Miss Cunningham brings to a field that this season brims with excitement in the area of non-fiction but brings little in the way of either imagination or even simple literary, let alone literate, adventure to a particular age group of children who, having learned to cope with books, should proceed to revel in them. Here is one author who has recognized the sophistication of young readers geared to an age of television and films—and shows that a book can be as hip and as exciting and far more memorable. (p. 5)


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Barbara Wersba

["Viollet"] is a Gothic tale, in the true sense of the word, set amid the ruins of a French castle, and as ominous as a thundery sky. Presiding over the castle and its famous vineyards is the Count de la Tour, an aging and unworldly nobleman. As harvest time approaches, three animals learn of a foreman's plans to murder the Count and usurp his dynasty…. The empathy that unites these creatures is superb—the author having been wise enough to keep their world separate from the human. Because of this, the animals' rescue of their beloved Count is credible; and when the four finally spend an evening together, graced by Viollet's first public (and sober) performance, the reader is genuinely touched.

If the best children's books speak to the adult in the child, and the child in the adult, then Julia Cunningham's work is of this genre. Her prose is sensitive yet uncompromising…. (p. 40)

Barbara Wersba, in The New York Times Book Review, Part II (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 6, 1966.

Short, tense, piercing, remarkable, [Dorp Dead] is a book that stands alone. It uses no magic-machinery, but possibly something of symbolism; yet this may after all be no more than the grotesqueries of the child's eye-view….

[After] peaks of nightmare (good stuff of climb and hunt at ordinary schoolboy reader's level), brightness ends the scene, and starts a new beginning for [Gilly]…. The writing of all this … gives the book an intense completeness—something, too, of the sustained compulsion of a dream. (p. 1141)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1967; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 30, 1967.

Margery Fisher

Dorp Dead is a fable, sensational in plot and severely concrete in detail. The reader must give substance to the hero (an orphan boy bent on freedom but incapable of recognising it); he must make his own mental picture, from hints, of the house where the boy enters into apprenticeship with Master Kolbert the carpenter, and imagine the utensils and clocks and walls of this house where he meets danger to mind and body. The approach through deliberate anonymity is just what is needed to drive the story onward emotionally. (p. 1070)

Margery Fisher, in her Growing Point, March, 1968.


[Dorp Dead] tells of a boy's growing toward maturity as he changes his concepts of security and freedom…. Told in the first person, the style of the narrative is unrealistic, for most children would not use such beautiful language. This is one clue that indicates the book goes beyond mere "reality of presentation." (p. 261)

Dear Rat … is a tremendous spoof on a hard-boiled detective story….

[Macaroon] is a more subtle and gentle animal fantasy…. Viollet is a rather sinister animal fantasy…. It combines some elements of both Dear Rat and Macaroon, but does not have the humor of the first or the loving compassion of the second…. Fantasyand realism become too mixed in this story for believability. While the characters are clearly drawn, they lack focus. It is Viollet's story, yet the reader only meets her at the beginning and the end. One's sympathies are directed more towards Oxford, the hound, and Warwick, the old fox. (p. 348)

The controversial Dorp Dead … [is] allegorical in nature. Gilly Ground represents all youth caught between its need to be non-conforming and its need for security; Kobalt, the ladder maker, is evil, the epitome of all evil that would control and damage basic personalities. The Hunter whose gun has no bullets may represent love or the meaning of life…. The plot of this story is sinister, but evil is overcome, and the integrity of Gilly Ground's personality preserved. Viewed as realistic fiction, this story seems too evil and unbelievable. Seen as allegory, Dorp Dead becomes an exceptional book indeed. (p. 361)

Charlotte S. Huck and Doris Young Kuhn, in their Children's Literature in the Elementary School (copyright © 1961, 1968, by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers), second edition, Holt, 1968.

Paul Heins

It is certainly important and necessary at times to consider children's literature purely as literature. Questions of style, structure, and technical subtlety are as applicable to children's literature as to any of the other branches of literature. Julia Cunningham's Dorp Dead … may be considered as an exemplar of the Gothic novel; and one could learn much by comparing the structure of her story with that of Jane Eyre. (p. 77)

Paul Heins, in a speech delivered at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah, on June 18, 1969, in his Crosscurrents of Criticism: Horn Book Essays 1968–1977, edited by Paul Heins (copyright © 1977 by The Horn Book, Inc.),...

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May Hill Arbuthnot

Dorp Dead has the quality of a bad dream…. The realism of the beginning of the story occasionally fades into fantasy, but the plight of the boy, helpless for a time in the hands of a psychotic man, is startlingly real. This haunting story suggests that children in the grasp of cruel older people must put up stiff resistance if they are to survive. It is a memorable scare story that will give children chills up their backbones. (pp. 175-76)

May Hill Arbuthnot, in her Children's Reading in the Home (copyright © 1969 by Scott, Foresman and Company; reprinted by permission), Scott, Foresman, 1969.

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Eleanor Cameron

Dorp Dead, besides being taut and original, has guts and danger, a danger that possibly many a tender-hearted eleven-and twelve-year-old could not endure…. Certainly there is no niceness here. The treatment of brutality has nothing of the objectivity found in fairy tales…. The brutality in Dorp Dead is subjective, very slow, psychotic.

Throughout most of the book, the villain, Kobalt, thoroughly enjoys his sadistic treatment of both boy and dog—poor Mash, who he says must "learn to die"—but, of course, Kobalt is surely insane, and in the name of insanity one can go to any lengths one pleases entirely without motivation. Many of the teen-agers who are enthusiastic about the book...

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Sheila Egoff

In Dorp Dead Julia Cunningham … portrays life as she sees it, believing that, in the total experience, the unhealthy lip-licking kind of brutality that she has been accused of exploiting is actually inseparable from the realization of love and personal fulfilment of the young protagonist, Gilly: had he not been the victim of a sadistic adult, he would have become entrapped in a cage of self-alienation.

The disapproving critical reception of [this unusual novel] … suggests that while mediocrity is acceptable or at least tolerated, distortion for artistic reasons and anything pathological are not, even when they are used to widen the reader's vision of life and society. It is sadly apparent...

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Barbara Wersba

Comparisons may be odious, but compared to recent children's books, "Burnish Me Bright" stands out like a torch. There are all kinds of things wrong with it—illogic, melodrama, sentimentality—but from first page to last, the story glows….

It is unnecessary to reveal the chilling climax to this book, and equally unnecessary to state that its theme is the destruction of the innocent, those who are brave—or simple—enough to be "different." Suffice it to say that Julia Cunningham is no ordinary writer. Like her characters, she understands the substance of magic. (p. 26)

Barbara Wersba, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York...

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Sada Fretz

The author's previously evident talent for creating a scene or a mood is evident [in Burnish Me Bright], but the story has neither the psychological depth nor the compelling plot of her previous Dorp Dead!… The style of Burnish Me Bright, like the title, verges on the sentimental and the self-consciously "beautiful"; the plot, though well constructed, lacks wide appeal, and its miracles are unconvincing. Also, the familiar characters (the ailing-because-overprotected little girl, the heartless guardian, the witch-hunting villagers) live neither as individuals nor as archetypes. (pp. 158-59)

Sada Fretz, in School Library Journal (reprinted from the...

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Virginia Haviland

Praise for the originality and the skillful, sensitive writing of the author for earlier work is due in complete measure again [for Burnish Me Bright]…. Poetry fills the writing—spare, evocative, intense—leaving a haunting blend of scenes brilliantly conceived and character relationships delicately limned. (pp. 386-87)

Virginia Haviland, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1970 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), August, 1970.

Adumbrated in words that are not childlike [Wings of the Morning tells of] an experience unlike that of most children—who, finding an inert bird by the roadside, assume it to be hurt or...

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Margery Fisher

Burnish me bright does not move on fashionable tram-lines but has the almost inconsequent unpatterned feel of reality in it. The author is wholly committed to her principal characters, a dumb boy grudgingly reared by a mean-minded widow in a small French village, and old Hilaire, once a famous artiste in mime, now living in an isolated, decaying mansion. The old man devotes the last of his strength to teaching the boy his craft and so gives him a new freedom to express himself and to help the chemist's frail little daughter to conquer her listlessness…. The indirect plea for charity shines through a text cut with economy out of a unique living language. Simple words carry a wealth of meaning, of landscape...

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Sheila R. Cole

A child finds a bird in Julia Cunningham's "Wings of the Morning."… She thinks it is sleeping.

The story raises more questions than it answers. It does not provide much that might help a child cope with his first encounter with death. In fact it does not face up to the issue at all. The prose is self-consciously poetic…. (p. 10)

Sheil R. Cole, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 26, 1971.

In a crumbling 11th century castle hedged with roses, the power of a young widow's gentleness tames a trio of thugs and repels a haughty baron [in...

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Paul Heins

[Far in the Day, the sequel to Burnish Me Bright, finds] the mute French boy who had been trained by the famous mime Hilaire,… part of Michael Duffy's Circus traveling the roads of Ireland. Although he endears himself to most of the members of the depleted troupe (the circus had seen better days), the mute boy, now dubbed Tallow, arouses the undying hatred of crass, brutal, corpulent Mme. Althea Creel—fortune teller and cook for the company…. Mme. Creel dominates the action of the story until she is outwitted by Tallow in a final scene fraught with suspense. Despite occasional lapses into melodrama and emotionalism, the narrative sensitively conveys the power of the human spirit to transcend...

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Barbara Wersba

"The Treasure Is the Rose" is surely [Julia Cunningham's] finest accomplishment. (p. 40)

There is great beauty in the writing—an aura of color and light, words shimmering on the page as if sunshine illumined them. But the author's consummate achievement has been to probe her characters to the point where we see the secret self that hides within all of them, waiting for someone to bring it forth. Yarrow, the youth who Ariane finally comes to love, is probably the most interesting character Miss Cunningham has ever created—and, upon several readings, her book becomes a pool into which the reader throws tiny pebbles. The rings continue outward. (p. 42)


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Paul Heins

Although the events of the narrative [in The Treasure Is the Rose] are skillfully articulated and suggest a medieval tale, the mood and style are redolent of a Pre-Raphaelite kind of romanticism…. The characters are exaggerated conventions; and the final effect of the story is one of emotional preciosity. (pp. 49-50)

Paul Heins, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1974 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), February, 1974.

The gray vacuum that is Gravel Winter's soul will remind you of the aloof presence of Gilly in Dorp Dead, but [in Come to the Edge] it is kindness more than cruelty which threatens the...

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Barbara Wersba

[In the world of children's literature Miss Cunningham is] an original. She [writes] with unabashed romanticism and her prose [has] an edge of steel. She [has] a charming sense of humor beneath which [lurks] despair. Most of all, she [is] able to write about childhood as though she had never left it.

["Come to the Edge"] deals with fear—and will therefore be meaningful to many children….

What Miss Cunningham has created—despite a few Gothic twists—is a parable about love and man's inability to accept it in the face of his own unworthiness. The fact that Gravel [the protagonist] does eventually learn to love and be loved, makes a moving ending; but even if the resolution had...

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Ethel L. Heins

Never a trendy writer, [Julia Cunningham] has chosen, probably by pure coincidence, a currently fashionable subject—an abandoned, abused boy. But her essential theme is far more profound, and it subtly pervades the brief, pointed story [of Come to the Edge]….

Disciplined, metaphorical writing adds its own rewards to a tense, mature, and thought-provoking story. (p. 449)

Ethel L. Heins, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1977 by the Horn Book, Inc., Boston), August, 1977.

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