Grandma’s wallpaper in “Sailing to Cythera” is no doubt patterned after The Embarkation for Cythera (1717), a famous painting by Jean-Antoine Watteau that depicts the elegant antics of players from the commedia dell’arte. In any event, actual or imagined voyages to mystical Cythera—geographically, the southernmost of the Greek Ionian Islands—have abounded for centuries in Western (especially French) art, literature, and mythology. For that reason, it is fitting that the island’s name is incorporated into the title of Nancy Willard’s fanciful collection of stories about Anatole’s quests for adventure and mythic transformation.
Indeed, familiar mythic archetypes and paradigms show up conspicuously in these pages: wise old men, nurturing earth mothers, dark woods of adventure, frightening obstacles, talking beasts, hard-won treasures, and the eternal return of the questing hero. While Willard’s intended juvenile audience may not recognize these literary models as the conscious and premeditated products of Willard’s craft, her young readers will already be acquainted with her essential themes, character types, and plots from the folktales and fairy tales that they have known since earliest childhood. In “Gospel Train,” for example, Anatole nearly misses the “midnight special” train departing from the afterworld, a potentially fatal misstep redolent of the familiar Cinderella story. All this is well-plowed ground...
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Nancy Willard’s highly literate books of poetry and prose for young audiences have garnered her an unbroken string of awards and honors, including a 1974 Lewis Carroll Shelf Award for Sailing to Cythera and Other Anatole Stories; in 1973, the collection was also named one of the fifty best books of the year by the American Institute of Graphic Arts. The critical and popular success of this volume has spawned such sequels as The Island of the Grass King: The Further Adventures of Anatole (1979), another Lewis Carroll Award winner, and Uncle Terrible: More Adventures of Anatole (1982). Further, Willard won the prestigious Newbery Medal in 1982 and a Special Honor Book Plaque from the Society of Children’s Book Writers in 1981 for A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers (1981), a book of poems for children.
These awards (and the many others that her books have attracted) attest the high regard in which Willard is held by both her audience and critics. In noting Willard’s accomplishments and contributions to her art, such critics most often cite the sensitive manner in which her works, at their best, create an imaginative world where a pervading sense of magic blends effortlessly with a reverence for concrete, even homely detail. This unlikely fusion of fantasy and reality poses no real dichotomy for the author herself: Willard has asserted that “there are two kinds of truth—the scientific answer and the imaginative answer. And we need both of them.”