Sunday, June 4, 2017

Sketches from Salt Lake: From the day you were born

Reading to Vera

By Geoffrey Dean

Even before our daughter, Vera, was born, my wife and I starting frequenting the children’s section of the main branch of the wonderful Salt Lake City Library and scouring the Internet to reconnect with some of the books that we remembered from our own early days.
From Debra Frasier,
On the Day You Were Born
    One of Christa’s earliest Minneapolis memories is of attending Debra Frasier’s reading of her then-new book, On the Day You Were Born, a self-styled birth almanac that elicits a sense of wonder for a baby’s relatedness to the protecting natural world that welcomes it. Later, Christa and the author interpreted this book together, when Christa’s college orchestra performed a musical setting of the book by composer Steven Heitzig.
From Betsy Bowen,
Antler, Bear, Canoe:
A Northwoods Alphabet Year
    With its reflections on “the round planet Earth…whirling past darkness, spinning the night into light,” Frasier’s nurturing narrative offers on a global scale what Betsy Bowen, another Minnesota author/illustrator, does on a more local level in Antler, Bear, Canoe: A Northwoods Alphabet Year. Similar Minnesota phenomena are treated in the board-book lullaby Goodnight Loon, which puts a new spin on Goodnight Moon (we also have a Halloween version called Goodnight Goon).

My own recollections from childhood led me to books where the author’s illustrations are a distinctive element of the story-telling. Perhaps predictably, Dr. Seuss came up first. I remember getting Dr. Seuss’s Happy Birthday to You! for an early birthday, and I have always been fascinated by the many inventions, including musical instruments, Seuss brought to life in books that appeal to all of the senses.
From Dr. Seuss, Fox in Socks
    I am now struck by the omnipresence of musical images and rhythms in Seuss’s work, even in a “beginner book” like Fox in Socks, where a limited range of vocabulary is the basis for a tongue-twisting tour de force (“take it slowly,” Seuss cautions those who would read it aloud). Here Seuss attests to the creativity of children, who try to synchronize sounds using everyday objects with the rhyme and rhythm of the brief, alliterated lines suggesting how that music might sound:

Ben’s band. Bim’s band.
Big bands. Pig bands.
Bim and Ben lead
Bands with brooms.
Ben’s band bangs
And Bim’s band booms.
Shel Silverstein’s drawing
for “Ourchestra” from
Where the Sidewalk Ends
In his classic poetry collection Where the Sidewalk Ends, which I first encountered in elementary school, Shel Silverstein carries this idea of making music with “what we’ve got” a step or two further in “Ourchestra”:

So you haven’t got a drum, just beat your belly.
So I haven’t got a horn – I’ll play my nose.
So we haven’t any cymbals –
We’ll just slap our hands together.
    While certainly capable of creating poetry that “sounds,” Silverstein tends to do it in ways that are more sing-songy than Seuss, whose musical moments are usually overtly onomatopoeic, and usually part of a longer narrative without a pronounced poetic structure.
    The linearity of Seuss can be contrasted to the traditional stanza form of other, longer poems from Silverstein’s Sidewalk collection, such as the seven-stanza “The Bagpipe Who Didn’t Say No,” where the sound of the bagpipe plays a pivotal role both structurally and in the course of the story. The bagpipe is conspicuously silent in stanzas one through three, then reacts audibly to the turtle’s advances in the fourth stanza:

Said the turtle to the bagpipe, “Ah, you love me. Then confess!
Let me whisper in your dainty ear and hold you to my chest.”
And he cuddled her and teased her
And so lovingly he squeezed her.
And the bagpipe said, “Aaooga.”
    The song-like quality of this poem comes through in the several repetitive features of its stanzas, going beyond a common, consistent scheme of rhyme and meter. While presenting the linear narrative tracing the course of the turtle’s ill-fated attraction to the bagpipe, it frames each episode in a predictable, easy-to-follow way, with “Said the turtle to the bagpipe” beginning most of the stanzas, and variations on “And the bagpipe said” concluding them.
Shel Silverstein’s drawing for “The Bagpipe Who Didn’t Say No”
from Where the Sidewalk Ends

Since that visit
to the library and the birth of Vera, we have developed a fairly extensive collection of children’s books. The ones that get the most use and seem to make the most obvious impressions on our daughter also tend to use a lot of repetition. Board books with the same amount of text on each page and a predictable refrain before each page turn have helped Vera get into the “rhythm” of turning pages from as early as her third or fourth month.
Cover from Eric Carle,
The Very Busy Spider
    The “breakthrough book” for unleashing Vera’s page-turning skills was Eric Carle’s The Very Busy Spider (board-book version), where each farm animal asks the spider a question, but: “The spider didn’t answer. She was very busy spinning her web.” These two short sentences form the “cue” for turning the page, eight times in succession, before the rooster’s query concerning a fly finally receives a different response when the spider’s web is ready. A literally “traceable” element of change is also “woven” into the story, because Carle makes the additions to the web both seeable and feelable, as raised lines on each new page.

Cover from James Dean,
Pete the Cat:
The Wheels on the Bus
We’ve also discovered a number of books that lend themselves to a song-like or rhythmic interpretation when read aloud (think rap), or are even meant to be sung to the tune of a children’s song. My first encounter with a sing-along book was at our pediatrician’s office, where I started reading aloud from one of James Dean’s (no, not that James Dean) many Pete the Cat books, although I didn’t know then that there was more than one. Since then I have invented many new verses to the tune of “The wheels on the bus go round and round,” and our collection of Pete the Cat books has grown to more than a dozen titles.
A page spread from
Martin and Archambault,
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
    Our current favorite “song-books” are Bill Martin Jr./John Archambault’s “rhythmic chant” about the letters of the alphabet, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, where the title is also a repeated refrain in the story, and The Pout-Pout Fish, who explains to each of his underwater critics, “it’s just the way I am”:

I’m a pout-pout fish
With a pout-pout face,
So I spread the dreary-wearies
All over the place.
Cover from Deborah Deisen
(illustrations: Dan Hanna),
The Pout-Pout Fish
    The “waw-wah” effect, so indelibly ingrained in me from the way the teacher’s lines are conveyed in Peanuts TV specials, is inescapable in the pout-pout fish’s recurring “sinking” motif: “Blub, bluuub, bluuuuub.”
    Like the Fox in Socks example I gave earlier, these uses of onomatopoeia are clearly intended to evoke percussive and other “instrumental” effects. The sounds are familiar, but the words are sometimes quirky, or even freshly invented. And the drum effect in a rhythmic reading of The Pout-Pout Fish can transform any parent into a novice beat-boxer, as my wife and I have discovered!

Copyright © 2017 by Geoffrey Dean


  1. Thanks for this post Geoffrey ! I still (and always will ) love children's books, Dr Seuss being some of my favorites. I so love the picture of Vera being read to ! I'm so glad she is enjoying you all reading to her. Much happy future readings !