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).
What sets your books—The Handsome Little Cygnet and Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals—apart from contemporary children’s literature?
Poet and critic James Matthew Wilson called Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals the twenty-first-century’s first children’s classic. If you are longing for the hopefulness of something new but that taps into deep and old traditions of literary and artistic beauty, then illustrator John Folley and I may have a few books for you.
Do you think that is an underserved market?
I don’t want to dunk on contemporary children’s literature, but yes. Many books are beautiful, but the messages are facile or ideological. Or just as often, a kids’ book will have a decent message, but be hokey or poorly written. And so many have artwork that just radiates a kind of despair of ugliness. Ugly art and poor writing tell a child that they are not worthy of beauty.
Identity in kids today is a problem in part because so much of the art, books, cartoons, and media we put before our next generation offer either a chaos-culture message or chaos-culture images. A key word in The Handsome Little Cygnet is “careful.” The father swan wants his little cygnet to be full of goodly care. So much of today’s children’s literature is profoundly careless.
What can you tell us about your next book?
Each book so far has taken up a sort of grand theme: Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals took up the theme of sadness and the countervailing need for friendship and loving zeal. The Handsome Little Cygnet took up the theme of identity and the confusion of chaos culture, with nature, art, and, in the end, familial and transcendent love and beauty as the antidotes. Our next book will take up the theme of anger, something both children and adults need some artful help controlling.
Photo by Matthew Mehan (2021)