Beloved Children's Book 'Thirteen Clocks' Is Back James Thurber's decades-old, modern take on the standard fairy tale has just been reprinted. Weekend Edition's Daniel Pinkwater says if you like the The Princess Bride or Rocky and Bullwinkle's "Fractured Fairy Tales," you'll like this tale, too.
NPR logo

Beloved Children's Book 'Thirteen Clocks' Is Back

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Beloved Children's Book 'Thirteen Clocks' Is Back

Beloved Children's Book 'Thirteen Clocks' Is Back

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, the delights of a delightful child prodigy. But first, a delightful children's book. The story isn't new. It's been around for almost 60 years. But "The Thirteen Clocks" by James Thurber has been reprinted and now rereleased in hard cover by the New York Review of Books. Joining us now to talk about this new edition of a children's classic is our own classic Daniel Pinkwater, our ambassador to the world of children's literature. He joins us from his home in upstate New York. Daniel, thanks so much for being with us.

DANIEL PINKWATER: Scott, I'm feeling more classic every day.

(Soundbite of laughter)


SIMON: I'm glad to hear it. Yes.

PINKWATER: I want to make a little speech.


PINKWATER: I've been waiting and waiting to talk about this for a long time. But I wanted just the right book to come along to bring to the listeners. The New York Review of Books has been bringing out really fabulous books of the past, out of print. Some things I remember from my own childhood, some I never heard of. All of them are solid and genuinely good.

SIMON: Well, it's...

PINKWATER: I'm done now.

SIMON: It's beautifully done. This - "The Thirteen Clocks" is the only one that I've seen up close and personal. It's a fairytale...

PINKWATER: It's a modern take on the standard fairytale, OK. And if you liked "The Princess Bride," you're going to like this. If you like a book by Jules Feiffer, "A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears," you'll like this. If you remember "Fractured Fairy Tales" on Rocky and Bullwinkle, you'll like this. We suggest, read the beginning. We're not going to give away the plot, because it's all in the language with a book like this. And who wants to go first?

SIMON: You go first.

PINKWATER: I'll go first.

(Soundbite of children's book "The Thirteen Clocks")

PINKWATER: (Reading) Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle, on a lonely hill, where there were 13 clocks that wouldn't go, there lived a cold, aggressive duke and his niece, the Princess Sara Linda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts or to tear the wings from nightingales. He was six feet four and 46, and even colder than he thought he was.

SIMON: (Reading) One eye wore a velvet patch; the other glittered through a monocle, which made half his body seem closer to you than the other half. He had lost one eye when he was 12, for he was fond of peering into nests and lairs in search of birds and animals to maul. One afternoon, a mother shrike had mauled him first. His nights were spent in evil dreams, and his days were given to wicked schemes.

PINKWATER: (Reading) Wickedly scheming, he would limp and cackle through the cold corridors of the castle, planning new impossible feats for the suitors of Sara Linda to perform. He did not wish to give her hand in marriage, since her hand was the only warm hand in the castle. Even the hand of his watch and the hands of all the 13 clocks were frozen. They had all frozen at the same time on a snowy night seven years before. And after that it was always 10 minutes to five in the castle. Travelers and mariners would look up at the gloomy castle on a lonely hill and say, time lies frozen there. It's always then. It's never now.

SIMON: (Reading) The cold duke was afraid of now, for now has warmth and urgency, and then is dead and buried. Now might bring a certain kind of gay and shining courage. But, no, the cold duke muttered. The prince will break himself against a new and awful labor - a place to hard to reach, a thing too far to find, a burden too heavy to lift. The duke was afraid of now. But he tampered with the clocks to see if they would go, out of a strange perversity, praying that they wouldn't.

PINKWATER: (Reading) Tinkers and tinkerers and a few wizards who happened by tried to start the clocks with tools or magic words, or by shaking them and cursing, but nothing whirred or ticked. The clocks were dead. And in the end, brooding on it, the duke decided he had murdered time, slain it with his sword, and wiped his bloody blade upon his beard and left it lying there bleeding hours and minutes, its springs uncoiled and sprawling, its pendulum disintegrating.

SIMON: (Reading) The duke limped because his legs were of different lengths. The right one had outgrown the left because when he was young, he had spent his mornings placekicking pups and punting kittens. He would say to a suitor, what is the difference in the length of my legs? And if the youth replied, why, one is shorter than the other, the duke would run him through with the sword he carried in his sword cane and feed him to the geese. The suitor was supposed to say, why, one is longer than the other. Many a prince had been run through for naming the wrong difference. Others had been slain for offences equally trivial - trampling the duke's camellias, failing to praise his wines, staring too long at his gloves, gazing too long at his niece.

Those who survived his scorn and sword were given incredible labors to perform in order to win his niece's hand, the only warm hand in the castle. But time had frozen to death at 10 minutes to five one snowy night. 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.

SIMON: Daniel, the music in this book is extraordinary, isn't it?

PINKWATER: It's incantatory. It is always on the verge of breaking into poetry. And it goes on like this, listeners. It does not lose speed or disappoint. And I so admire this book.

SIMON: I'm very familiar with James Thurber, the humorist. I've never read a book he's written for children before. Now that I have, it seems to me there's no difference.

PINKWATER: Well, there's something very wrong, in my opinion, with making sure that every kid is going to know every word in a book before they see it, before they read it. This does take a bit of a stretch. It does take a bit of thinking. Referring to the dictionary is not always going to help with words like galix(ph) and zatch(ph). But the fact that - this may be the book where one learns that you can make up words.

SIMON: Daniel, thanks so much for calling this to our attention, and the whole series.

PINKWATER: It's an extra big pleasure, and I'm so happy to talk about these books and this book in particular.

SIMON: The book is "The Thirteen Clocks" by James Thurber. It's illustrated by Marc Simont and published, as we said, by the New York Review of Books Children's Collection. Daniel Pinkwater has written many fine books for children and adults, probably many farm animals. His forthcoming novel is "The Yggyssey." And to hear more about Daniel Pinkwater's picks, you can come to our Web site,

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.