Nature and Art

From City Journal:

Matthew Mehan is the director of academic programs for Hillsdale College in Washington, D.C., and assistant professor of government for the Van Andel Graduate School of Government. He is also the author of two children’s books (both illustrated by John Folley): Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals and the recently published The Handsome Little Cygnet. He spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly about his books and the state of children’s literature.

Tell us about The Handsome Little Cygnet. Is it a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling?

Yes, but with a contemporary twist. Set in Manhattan’s Central Park, the story follows a father and mother swan and their baby cygnet as he tries to understand what he is and who he is meant to be. Unlike the original Ugly Duckling, this little swan starts knowing exactly what he is and who his parents are. But due to some confusing and ugly spray-paint—essentially vandalism of Central Park’s Gapstow Bridge—our plucky little cygnet gets confused. How he comes back to what he is meant to be—that is the core of this touching story.

Why did you decide to set the story in Central Park, in the heart of the nation’s densest urban area?

While there is the Ugly Duckling echo, I can’t say it was only for that reason. I also wanted to give New York City a little pick-me-up. The book has that feel of the city, with landmarks and vistas of Central Park and the surrounding skyline. Between Covid-19, riots, crime, and Bill de Blasio, it just seemed like New York needed a little love. I even hide a few N95 masks in the refuse of the ugliest place our little cygnet wanders into!

I also wanted Manhattan and Central Park for a deeper thematic reason. The book’s theme of identity—trying to figure out what we are so we can become who we are meant to be—involves two things: first, our nature; second, some artful work to make that nature truly thrive. Think of a rose bush (nature) and some lattice work to prop it up (art). That’s what it means for a happy girl to become a thriving woman, for a boy to become not just an adult male, but a real man—nature and art. Well, in the press and din of a city full of manmade buildings, bridges, and roads, there’s Central Park, a beautiful mixture of nature and art. That’s why we feature both wildlife found in the park (nature) and monuments, bridges, and sculptures found in the park (art).

More here.