(with a nod to Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss)
Currently, one of the greatest pleasures in my life is reading stories to my three year old daughter, Katie. One of the things that make this fun is the work of some very clever authors. My two personal favorites are Dr. Seuss, and Shel Silverstein. I’m not as familiar with Shel’s other works, but any parent who has come up against the formidable task of reading “Runny Babbit” to their child knows the evil of which I speak.
“Runny Babbit had a hurple pat,” of course, means “Bunny Rabbit had a purple hat”. That’s pretty straight forward. Then try reading the page where the waiter tells Runny Babbit all the specials of the day, and do so without pulling out any hair, asking your child if they don’t really want to read a Sesame Street book, or running screaming into the night. The other thing standing in your way, of course, is maniacal, uncontrollable laughter. The first time I read “Runny Babbit” with most of the family in the room, it killed. It does get old over time, particularly when your children start trushing their beeth with pooth taste and you have to figure out what the hell they’re talking about.
Fortunately I don’t consider this a problem; it’s a measure of what this essay is really about — the power of words. Some people have magic in their rhymes and nonsense, while others attempting the same jibber jabber manage only to frustrate or irritate readers. When my three year old daughter asked me to put pooth taste on her toothbrush, I had an epiphany. Her mind had been altered. She’d managed to take the story I read her and apply the logic to her own words, coming up with a line altered just as Mr. Silverstein would have done it, and at age three. How many books have you read in your life that gave you such a dynamic, mental shift? How many of you can recite at least a part of one book by Dr. Seuss without really giving it any thought? Apply that same question to other books you read, and other authors, and I’m willing to bet that it’s more difficult to find quotes that stuck with you as long, or as well, or that come as easily to the tongue.
Another point is the level of difficulty in reading these books aloud. I can tell you that, when I was still in the US Navy and had a bunch of sailors and bikers over to get drunk one night, I got them all to try reading passages from “Fox in Socks,” and it wasn’t pretty. I could do it, though, even after a few beers, and I still can. In fact, I can read it about twice as fast as most people I’ve met, and change voices as I go, because I’ve practiced. This has come in handy more than once when asked to read something unfamiliar or technical aloud, because I’ve trained my tongue to respond under duress. I bet my friend, award-winning narrator Dick Hill could explain this better than I can, but I think it’s like typing words that aren’t words as a typing exercise. You have to concentrate on exactly what is in front of you - if you try to think ahead you stumble over what you believe it should say and misinterpret what it actually does say.
“I can’t say such flibber flubber, my tongue isn’t made of rubber”
Indeed, Mr. Knox, sir, but mine apparently is.
The magic of word puzzles and rhymes is truly mystical. I don’t know what makes one attempt work so well, and another fall flat, when they seem similar in style, structure, and even content, but whatever that factor is — it exists. It makes children and adults smile. It sticks in the memory and latches on to the funny bone with sharp hooks. It gives me more pleasure to read some finely tuned children’s rhymes than any ten good novels can provide, and I can read them again and again without losing all the magic - another feat that prose seldom accomplishes for me (though on occasion I run into someone like Coleridge, or Poe, or Byron that can make me read and mumble and mutter verse over and over until people beg me to stop). I am hoping, along with enjoying the children’s rhymes we share, that the father-daughter readings will contribute to an interest in poetry and reading on Katie’s part, but if not, I’ll know she still remembers not to eat Green Eggs and Ham on a train or on a plane, in a box or with a fox, she does not like them, Sam, you see, so go away and let her be. And miracle of miracles, her BROTHER likes to read to her too - same brother who hates to read for any other reason. Maybe the magic is in Katie, and the rest of it’s all “flibber flubber.”
Another thing that has haunts me in Dr. Seuss’ universe is the messages thinly veiled in some of his books and stories. The Lorax - who will ever forget him? I actually started (and may complete at some point) a sequel to this to try and follow what our society would have done with the characters after the Onceler chased them out of town. Here is a short snippet of what I had in mind…
They clean out the sewers, the rivers and ponds,
And invest what they earn in cheap government bonds,
They clean up the garbage in big yellow boots,
In their hazmat resistable barbaloot suits
The Swanee Swans never go swimming these days,
They once found it fun, but they’re changing their ways,
They all work in factories cranking out thneeds,
From synthesized cloth that is woven from weeds
They aren’t warm, they aren’t comfy, they scratch and they smell,
But the Thneed sellers say they are doing quite well,
When thneeds with white beads fail, they sew on black collars,
And raise up their prices a couple of dollars
The Lorax enlisted with liberal glee
In the left-wing extreme of far fiddle-de-dee
A place that is farther than most folks will go
Just to hear the poor Lorax expound on their woe
…. You get the idea…but that is too depressing…
In honor of this off-the-wall topic, I’m going to add in one of my own works with a more positive spin — one that evolved from my love of Seuss. I hope, one day, to figure out the oddball market of children’s books and do something with it.
This one is one of two that I wrote a few years back for my son Billy. I’ve written others for my other children, and a few that are just for me. This one is actually available in a beautiful art print suitable for framing and illustrated by the talented Mr. Keith Minnion…I have framed copies for Katie when she’s old enough to appreciate them.
By Wave Dilson
A Boy and an elephant both went out,
One with a football, the other a snout
As long as a boa constrictor, and grey,
To the field by the river to frolic and play
The boy threw the football quite high in the air,
And he caught it again, as it fell back from there,
While the elephant wandered a little behind,
They were out for a jaunt, it was time to unwind
And again with the football clutched tight in his hand,
The boy flicked his wrist like a taut rubber band
And the ball took off flying up up, and away,
And he reached out to catch it the very same way
That he’d caught it a hundred and ten times before,
And expected to catch it just that one time more
But his hand came up empty, the air was the same,
Something was very much wrong with his game.
For a ball that goes up as we all understand,
Cannot stay, it goes upward, and then it must land
So he spun in a circle and stared at the sky,
And he asked his friend elephant, “Do you know why?”
I have tossed up my football quite high in the air
But it did not fall down, and I’m wondering where
It could be, for you see, it is not in the sky,
And it’s not on the ground, and I’m wondering why
It is not in my hand where it landed before,
And the elephant couldn’t stand one second more
Of his secret and lifted his long, long grey snout
And he swished it around and he twirled it about
And the boy saw his football, caught snug as can be
In the trunk of the elephant, tall as a tree
And the elephant laughed, and he tossed the ball high,
So it sailed so far up it was lost in the sky
And though it flew higher than ever before,
The ball fell back to Earth, the boy caught it once more
And the boy and the elephant went on their way,
They continued their jaunt, and enjoyed the bright day.