The Sneetches

The_Sneetches_and_Other_Stories

Ah, Dr. Suess. What a fantastic writer! Many know that his real name was Theodor Suess Geisel, and that he drew political cartoons and even produced several short films before the fame of The Cat in the Hat or Green Eggs and Ham. If not, I taught you something new.

I love poetry. Perhaps you’ve seen some of mine or have read my post about Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Dr. Suess is the best poet for young children. Believe me: I have children and was once a child myself. Because of those two things, I have read some terribly crappy attempts at rhymes in books geared toward kids. Suess, on the other hand, wrote simple poetry with simple words and simple illustrations long before sight word/level reading stuff. And Suess didn’t suck.

As a parent, I say the true sign of excellence in youth material is whether I can watch or read it and not want to gnaw my own arm off just to get away. I can read Suess’ books repeatedly and enjoy them.

The Sneetches is no exception. The story follows a group of creatures who all look the same -except some have a star on their bellies. “…(B)ecause they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches/Would brag, ‘We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.'” Meanwhile, the Plain-Belly Sneetches are excluded, spending their time together feeling sad at being left out.

And that’s how they treated them year after year.

Why didn’t the Plain-Bellies just hold their own frankfurter roasts and ball games? Well, we get some clue as to the common sense of these yellow, birdlike animals when a stranger comes to their beaches and specifically addresses the left-out group:

“My friends,” he announced in a voice clear and keen,
“My name is Sylvester McMonkey McBean.
And I’ve heard of your troubles. I’ve heard you’re unhappy.
But I can fix that. I’m the Fix-it-Up Chappie.”

 

McBean builds a machine that can put stars on bellies, and charges $3 apiece. Then, when the original group is upset over the class-leveling, he builds another machine that removes stars (for $10 each!). Chaos ensues, expressed in my favorite stanza of the tale:

They kept paying money. They kept running through
Until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew
Whether this one was that one . . . or that one was this one
Or which one was what one . . . or what one was who.

 

It pleasantly tickles a literary nerve, doesn’t it? Sigh.

The last literary element that makes Dr. Suess the best is teaching a moral. The Lorax and such are more heavy-handed than I like, but The Sneetches gives us a gentle tap of reprimand.

After McBean literally takes all their money, he leaves. “They never will learn,” he laughs. “No. You can’t teach a Sneetch.” Seuss, meanwhile, tells us a different message:

But McBean was quiet wrong. I’m quite happy to say
That the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day….

 

Read Suess, even for yourself. Share this story with others. Then, perhaps, the world will remember that “…Sneetches are Sneetches/And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.”

Dinotopia

Amazon

There’s some odd, old lady part inside me that has always loved musty topics like geography, classical architecture, and steampunk-like metalworks. I loved spying on my dad when he played Myst and enjoyed watching The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen when it came out.

I’m not certain when or from where my parents purchased Dinotopia (James Gurney), but it quickly became one of my favorite children’s book. If you have never heard of nor looked at a copy, please do so. I feel that truly extraordinary books -ones that an author or illustrator clearly spent a lot of time on- are severely underappreciated.

Dinoptopia is one of those few works written and illustrated by the same person, and the art is FANTASTIC. The story is interesting as well; it reads like a juvenile Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson.

In fact, these stories begin very similarly. The first page of Dinotopia is made to look like a water- and ink-splattered journal entry from Arthur Denison. He describes a storm that he and his son (Will) are able to weather, though their boat and crew do not. They wash up on the beach of a strange land with ancient ferns, and are soon greeted by… a dinosaur?

Thus begins Arthur’s journey across an entire mysterious island with his son. One settlement is upon the treetops, like Lothlórien (Lord of the Rings). Another is around a volcano. The capital looks very like the capital city of Naboo (Star Wars -apparently fans were upset at Lucas for “stealing” from Gurney). My favorite city is one built over several waterfalls.

Many of the pages have “clippings” of leaves and flowers or sketches of dinosaurs supposedly drawn by Arthur.

There’s not much story besides chronicling. Now that I’ve read science fiction and fantasy novels, it reminds me more of journeying sorts. There is some mystery. They discover a mysterious portal, and Arthur is determined to travel through it.

I feel my paltry review cannot do this beautiful book the justice it deserves. Just go buy it; the artwork alone is gorgeous.

(Part of my reviews from Children’s Books.)

 

The Very Worst Missionary

TheVeryWorstMissionary

I haven’t been able to read an actual, physical book since…

Let’s see: how old is my youngest? And, how long was his gestation period? Divide by four, carry the two, add a year… Maybe we’d better go with a very safe date. When did the Berlin Wall fall again?

This uncultured gulf has been due to children, children, and housework. Lately, however, I’m pleased to confess that my free reading time has been spent catching up on the blogs that automatically fill my inbox with 45 daily posts.

Yeah, yeah. I know I need to cut back. I can stop anytime I want. It’s my life; my choice.

What does this rambling have to do with the title of my blog post tonight? It’s called “setting the scene.” For; I found out about a woman’s blog, and accompanying book, whilst reading through the Fractured Faith site. I think.

Point is, I read one post by Jamie Wright about how to edit the swearing in her published book and was laughing audibly (for you, M). Right there, on the spot, I ordered her book from the Amazon. After it arrived, I read it non-stop. You know, between feeding, cleaning, avoiding work, writing, sleeping, conversing, and living.

It took me a few days, but Jamie Wright’s book was FREAKING HILARIOUS.

Allow me, if you will, to quote some of my favorite passages:

“God will not be swallowed like a pill to cure herpes of your soul so you can run in a field of sunflowers with your hot boyfriend.”

 

“When you struggle in your forties with things that wrecked you at fifteen, I don’t think you’re supposed to say so out loud. It makes people uncomfortable.

“Everyone loves an underdog, but we prefer our stories of wrestling and redemption to be told in the past tense: I was depressed. I had anxiety. I felt insecure. I slept around… We’d rather hear from drunks when they’re sober, our depressed when they’re happy, our sick when they’re healed. We want to see wild horses broken and to believe in the hands that tamed them, because most of us hold our own dark places of wrestling with unbridled messes in our souls that sometimes spill over into life, and we desperately need to see that maybe we too can overcome the things that are ruining us.”

 

“The past lies beneath our beliefs like the soil of our soul. It’s the wet clay and dry bones and clumpy dirt, the grit and gravel, the small stones and loose sand, and the petrified turds that the adult formation of our faith must rest upon. Your history is like an inheritance, a patch of land that, though you may not have had much choice in its early cultivation, belongs solely to you.”

As you can read, she’s a conversational storyteller with an attitude; but one who says some deeply profound things in a relatable way.

This was worth the cost of actual purchase, plus more. You should get a copy, too.

Fair warning, however: if you are a prudish sort in terms of language, buy the book and follow her guide for editing. She’s unapologetic about some very common cuss words, but you’ll be able to black out the most egregious.

And, frankly, she makes it very clear that you can take her as she is or, simply, not. I consider myself very prudish over cussing, but found her profanity fit perfectly well with the dialogue of the writing.

Just Go to Bed

Bed
Amazon

It’s time, once again, to discuss one of my favorite children’s picture books. For those who’ve been here before, you know I’ve covered King BidgoodTinTin, and Where the Sidewalk Ends already.

After putting four rambunctious children to bed -and again, then two once more, and now one I need to carry up because he fell asleep on the couch- I somehow felt inspired to talk about Just Go to Bed, by Mercer Mayer.

Some books hit the golden mark for me: perfect word flow, good illustrations, appeal to their audience, and great message. This picture book, published waaay back in 1983, is just such a one for me.

In fact, it’s another nostalgic work because I owned it as a child. I listened to it on audiocassette, with the *ding* to turn the page, and the occasional audio effects that went with each page’s pictures. Reading that same copy (sans cassette) as an adult, I find it even more appealing.

The book begins with Little Critter outside. He’s playing dress-up. “I’m a cowboy and I round up cows,” he says. A calm father, with the toy lasso round his person, says, “It’s time for the cowboy to come inside and get ready for bed.”

Each page spread shows yet another step and/or excuse Little Critter has to get through, with Dad’s help. Dad, meanwhile, is clearly getting less and less playful and patient.

Bed Bath
Kinder Books

By the end, we see poor Daddy in his chair with his newspaper, exasperatingly pointing and saying the book’s title, “Just go to bed!” Mom is opening the door to see what’s up, bearing a look of surprise but understanding -or, maybe I just project myself into her furry critter feet now that I have experience.

It’s a very simple book. I mean, it is a children’s picture book. In a few pages and with a few penciled cartoon expressions, Mayer gives us an entertaining story for both children and adults.

If you’ve ever had to wrestle a cowboy, general, race car driver, bandit, space cadet, zookeeper, and bunny through bedtime routines, this was written for you. And, it was written for your own little critter(s).

Now, I’ve got to pull one of my bunnies off the couch and hoist him up to bed. Good night.

Where the Sidewalk Ends

Sidewalk Ends

On December 27, I was faced with one of the greatest dilemmas for a bibliophile: picking a favorite book. The choice was to be made for my local book group, and had the further condition of being from the children’s category.

My only consolation for narrowing my 17 choices down to just one was that I promised myself to write about each -here, on this blog. I have therefore forgotten entirely about it since writing posts for King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub and The Adventures of TinTin.

Today I drove past an unusual sign. I’d have taken a picture, but that’s rather irresponsible driving while ferrying small children.

That’s why I did the safe thing and dug up this picture I took nearly three years ago.

Sidewalk

At the sight, I couldn’t help but be drawn back to my childhood and to one of the best books of poetry ever: Where The Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein.

“Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.”

 

My mother read to us as children. She did so frequently enough that I remember, though not so much that I could say it was every night or even every month. Besides Ramona Quimby, Age 8All Creatures Great and Small, The Water Babies, and Twig, she read quite a bit of poetry. Her favorites were The Cremation of Sam McGeeBessie’s Boil, many of Ogden Nash’s shorter quips, A Child’s Garden of Verses, and many Shel Silverstein poems.

My favorite thing about the greatest children’s book authors is their ability to convey deep feelings and ideas in succinct, clever passages -passages even a child can understand. I respect their mastery of language. It is a great talent to funnel grand ideas down to fit neatly in the small spaces of a young mind.

I have acquired all of Shel Silverstein’s books of poetry over time, but Where the Sidewalk Ends is my nostalgic favorite for two reasons:

1. My family of origin owned only this book of his and we read it for years and years. It’s like the first dog we owned, and will always hold a special place in my heart for it.

2. Along with the text, we had an audiocassette of Shel Silverstein himself reading/singing/chanting his prose. When I read them to my children today, I hear his laughing voice and his background guitar strumming.

My children can’t hear him, poor things. Thank heavens for YouTube, in this case:

Peanut-Butter Sandwich
Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out
My Beard (my boys’ favorite)
The Generals
Smart
Boa Constrictor
Crocodile’s Toothache
Sick
Jimmy Jet and His TV Set
Captain Hook
Hug O’War

Not all of them were on the recording we had growing up, and fewer than those are currently on YouTube.

The man clearly had a wonderfully twisted sense of humor, and an amusing way of mixing and churning out rhymes. If you have not heard of Shel Silverstein, or only know of a few of his books, check out some of his others.

Runny Babbit is good. Or, The Missing Piece. Many people also like The Giving Tree. I go for his poetry the most: A Light in the AtticFalling Up, and Every Thing On It.

He was an adult, of course, so don’t let any audio program just run wild with everything he’s ever written and performed. That’s your parental advisory right there. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Wikipedia just told me he wrote a few things for Playboy. 😉

The Adventures of TinTin

Tin Tin
(From Beyond the Marquee)

About exactly a month ago, I listed seventeen children’s picture books I was fond of.

Today, I wish to journey across Egypt, the ocean, America, and even the moon -with TinTin.

First, I must have you young ‘uns travel back to a time before graphic novels were so prevalent; back when Americans just didn’t get it, though other countries did. Picture a world without so much variety, but still with motorized transportation and microwave ovens.

The world of my childhood.

Occasionally, my mother would bravely venture into The City with all three of us rambunctious children. After finding parking, we’d pile out of our station wagon and walk up the steps to the Salt Lake Public Library.

This was also before they’d built the big, fancy building there now. Ours was a more modest setup -a large, square structure with odd exterior walls of cement.

Never you mind how long ago that actually was. (If you ask my six-year-old, my childhood was around the time electricity was invented.)

The point of all this rambling nostalgia is that Hergés’ TinTin was a very special treat.

We didn’t live in Salt Lake County, so the library card for my mother was an extra cost. We didn’t own that many books. I’m certain we had no comic books or graphic novels around the house.

So, we each felt a mounting excitement as we literally mounted the stairs up to the children’s section, ran quietly through the main area, and turned left into the section of special, out-of-country books.

There, on the wall, the librarian would have set out all the TinTin books they had. It was like a candy store of literature.

My mother would finally catch up to us, note us sprawling on furniture with a book each, and sneak off to the adult section. We were good for a solid ten minutes.

What was The Adventures of TinTin to us?

As I said, those books were a special treat. They were also adventure, expression, art, and European humour. We were enamored with these silent cartoons we controlled.

Later, I would discover Astérix. That’s a story for another time. These days, graphic novels are everywhere. I pick up a few for my children from our own public library whenever we go.

Heck, they even have some with action-packed tales like The Laws of Motion: the story of Isaac Newton.

This old hipster says that’s all well and good, but classics like TinTin need to be read. If you haven’t ever, look into getting a copy. They’re still around, and they’re worth the time.

“Help! Help!” Cried the Page…

King Bidgood(From Amazon)

A full three posts ago, I mentioned favorite children’s picture books. I had a list of seventeen titles.

Although in near-anguish over which one to select for sharing, I found an inner-child delight during the process. Young Chelsea skipped happily through the bookshelf of her mind, one of the most satisfying places a bibliophile may visit.

I also realized a great need: to share why each of these books made my favorites list.

In true personal fashion of impatience, I will begin sharing tonight by discussing King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub, by Audrey and Don Wood.

First, if I may, this author and illustrator couple is GENIUS. I find myself disappointed in many current authors and illustrators (looking at you, Mo Willems) because their artistry sucks (still looking at you, Mo).

Before the story of King Bidgood actually begins, on the page of acknowledgements and printing date that everyone usually skips, there’s a beautiful picture of a young boy hefting a dripping barrel up very small, stone steps. The load is clearly heavy, the boy is pulling a sort of amused/resigned expression, and steam and a bathing silhouette can be seen in the background tower.

What a setup.

My mother read us this story as children and we LOVED IT. I don’t even own it (yet), and can recite it by heart.

“Help! Help!” Cried the Page, when the sun came up. “King Bidgood’s in the bathtub and he won’t get out! Oh, who knows what to do?”

 

Beginning at sunrise, the Page begs the court with the same plea. Each time, someone comes forward with a new suggestion. And, in response, the king beckons that person to come and do that activity IN THE BATHTUB.

This sounds oddly erotic for a children’s book, you may think. It’s not. The proposed activities are: to battle, lunch, fish, and join a masquerade ball. The king does each of these in his half of the bathtub, with only his upper half exposed, with his poor court members getting soaked (and, out-battled and out-fished).

The illustrations -oh! The illustrations! I remember poring over the pictures as a child. Just as you think you’ve seen everything, you find: the knight’s toy soldiers wandering in opposite directions, the entire court on the lunchtime cake, and the duke’s bait crawling away down the side of the tub.

Each page is an exquisite, well-drawn, hilarious game of I Spy -with the quality of a Classical-era Norman Rockwell.

This book, of course, is not complete without its narrative. Here steps the literary magic of Audrey Wood. I also find myself continually disappointed in the text of current picture books (here’s where you shine, Laura Joffe Numeroff’s publishing house). Audrey, however, weaves a simple, funny, repetitive, ridiculous tale even young children can follow.

But, how does the king finally leave? You wonder. Who knows what to do?

I do! (I type, as the day grows late.) Read it, and find out for yourself!