Many of us relish reading aloud to the munchkins in our lives. Rhythm and word choice in some books make them downright entertaining to read; Go, Dog. Go! and Noisy Nora were always two of my favorites. I just hope my little listeners had half as much fun hearing the stories as I did reading them.
There are also those quietly understated classics that have stood the test of time. I remember the determination of The Little Engine That Could from my childhood and later read the beloved book to nieces and nephews. Robert McCloskey’s beautifully illustrated stories – Blueberries for Sal, One Morning in Maine, Make Way for Ducklings – are timeless masterpieces.
Some books, however, fit into a category less often considered: stories filled with meaning for the reading adult as well as the listening child.
When I was young, the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books fascinated me. She was an eccentric lady with unexpected if not unorthodox methods for curing children of their bad habits.
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle devised a step-by-step solution for a little girl who refused to bathe. Her frustrated mother allowed the child to go unwashed, until one night when she pushed radish seeds into the dirt accumulated on her sleeping daughter’s arms and legs. The girl eventually began to sprout, never to balk at bathing again.
I never really allowed my students to sprout. But from that gentle if vegetative story, I realized that occasional creative solutions to classroom problems were often more effective than traditional punishment. Sometimes young people learn best from their own experiences – along with subtle adult orchestration, of course.
Little did I know one of my sister’s favorite stories would presage a shortcoming that has plagued my adult life. The Man Who Didn’t Wash His Dishes came home every night, fixed supper, washed and put away the dishes before settling down with his pipe and his cat.
Fatigue began to prevent his dishwashing so regularly that he was finally reduced to eating from soap dishes, vases, and – only in the 1950’s could this appear in a children’s book – ashtrays. When there were no receptacles left for his supper, he loaded the dirty dishes onto his truck and allowed a heavy rainstorm to clean the whole lot, vowing never to let the situation recur.
Been there, done that – unfortunately. The object lesson so clearly presented in my youth was totally lost on this future lackadaisical washer of dishes. I obviously needed, and still could use on occasion, a Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle intervention!
The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham were not part of my childhood reading list. However, I have since read many of Theodor Geisel’s stories – Dr. Seuss was his pen name – to children in my charge.
Geisel’s last book published during his lifetime, however, offers multiple levels of wisdom. The familiar rhyme and zany illustrations of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! are vintage Seuss, with a message applicable to all readers and listeners regardless of age.
A longtime teaching colleague reminisced that she often gave her graduating seniors copies of Oh, the Places You’ll Go as send-off gifts but could rarely read the entire thing without dissolving into tears.
The book contains advice uplifting and practical. Positivity and forward motion are as essential as problem assessment and occasional solitude in the face of the “Bang-Ups and Hang-Ups” bound to occur in life. But the brains we all have in our heads and the feet we all have in our shoes will lead us to any mountains we decide to move.
I read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince in German with my advanced classes several times. The charming fairy tale of the tiny royal, his beloved rose, and the unselfish fox appeals to innocent children, unpretentious as they are. Lessons also abound for adults by way of the amusing array of flawed grown-ups the Little Prince encounters on his travels.
My most important take-away from this slim volume has always been the illustration test the Little Prince used to assess the grown-ups around him. Because so many adults confused his boa-constrictor-digesting-an-elephant drawing with a drawing of a hat, the frustrated monarch had to make a second, more obvious picture.
He subsequently used Drawing Number One and Drawing Number Two to distinguish grown-ups with imagination and true understanding from those merely interested in golf and politics. The spirit of his drawings has been quite helpful in many dealings with my fellow grown-ups.
I cannot close without mentioning a book of essays written for adults. Robert Fulghum’s bestseller of the 90’s, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, refers to one of those essays.
He lists lessons from his childhood, truisms learned on the playground, advice children could easily give us – if we simply listened – from sharing to apologizing, from fair play to clean hands, from warm cookies and milk to afternoon naps.
Most any adult problem has a simple solution clear to any kindergartner who already knows the importance of cleaning up, not hitting, and flushing. Children naturally live balanced lives of dancing and singing and working and playing every day. They wonder and they look.
And all of us would do well to follow their example: when we go out into the world, the one we adults have unnecessarily complicated almost beyond recognition, we should hold hands and stick together…