Bruce Handy, who was an avid child reader himself and read to his own children from the time they were babies, brings an adult perspective to many of the best loved stories parents read to children and to those books that children read to themselves in his new book, Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult. The journey down memory lane is so enjoyable, I was prompted to order a couple of my own favorites so I could read them again with new eyes and a new understanding.
Good Night Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd, has been putting little ones to sleep since 1947. By 2016 it had sold over 26 million copies. 600,000 to 800,000 customers buy it every year. This year I was one of those customers, having bought the book for little Stella, the newest baby to join our family.
I love Goodnight Moon, but surely, I thought, Handy exaggerates when he calls it a “transcendent masterpiece. “ But no, after reading his analysis, I understand and agree.
You remember: it is a cataloguing of the contents of the bunny’s bedroom and a recital of bunny wishing them all good night: The magic of the story lies in these things.
In the great green room
There was a telephone
And a red balloon
And a picture of—
(turn the page)
The cow jumping over the moon.
[T]o a two-year-old, a bedroom—or any room—is an epic space, a Monument Valley of objects and details that glow with strange newness having not yet acquired the dull patina of familiarity that allows older children and adults to get on with their responsbilities.
As Handy points out this book may be the child’s first introduction to narrative. It differs from the baby books that simply present isolated pictures of dogs or babies’ faces or colors or shapes. The night-time ritual in Good Night Moon proceeds as the bunny wishes the objects in his room good night and the light fades. Finally the emphasis in the darkened room is on the window and the moon in the night sky
Goodnight noises everywhere—
Which takes us away from the indoor world of the known and off into the wide world beyond, paralleling the journey into sleep. . . .
There’s much more about Good Night Moon and its author in Wild Things, but I need to move on to The Cat in the Hat During the 1950s, experts believed that reading was best taught by the “look say” method, as Handy explains, “through brief sketch-like stories recounting bland suburban escapades and composed of carefully selected vocabulary words which were repeated bam bam bam ad infinitum, as if they were being shot out of a staple gun. Thus ‘Go, Dick, go!’ ‘Look Betty, look!’ and ‘See funny Sally! Funny, funny Sally.’”
If that brings it all back, I’m truly sorry. Can you think of a more perverse incentive to encourage children to learn to read? This is when Herb stopped paying attention, figuring he could do better on his own. I remember just being bored stiff. (“Look say” had been around long before the fifties.)
In 1954, Rudolf Flesch wrote a jeremiad attacking “look say,” and inspired by Flesch, the head of the educational division of Houghton Mifflin, challenged Theodore Geisel (Dr Seuss) to “Write me a story that first-graders can’t put down.” An oh, yes, he could only use words from an approved list of 200-300.
It wasn’t easy. Geisel claimed that he finally decided to use the first two words in the list that rhymed as the title and proceed from there. Those words were “cat” and “hat” and the rest, as they say, is history.
Handy devotes an entire chapter to Dr. Seuss, ending with Green Eggs and Ham, which was the result of another challenge, this time by Bennet Cerf, who bet Geisel $50 that he couldn’t write a story with only 50 words. He did.
Geisel himself, of course, is the illustrator of his stories.
Included in Wild Things, among others, are Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), E.B. White (Charlotte’s Web), C.S. Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia), Beatrix Potter (Peter Rabbit, etc.), A.A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh), Laura Ingalls Wilder (Little House books), Louisa Mae Alcott (Little Women), L. Frank Baum (Wizad of Oz), Beverly Cleary (Ramona the Pest, etc.). But these are only a few of the works discussed. A partial list in the bibliography lists over 40 works.
Handy notes that he had to leave out many worthy authors. One of the missing is my favorite author/illustrator, Peter Spier. (It is his books that are on their way to me now.)
If you are currently in a position to read to children (or with children), you really need this book. And this one: