Remembering the books that taught us more than we ever cared to learn.
"The reason I love [my work] is, the connection between the reader and the book is the most profound in childhood. It is never the same again. You can love a book with all your heart as an adult; it can mean a great deal to you; you can read it over and over. But you don’t enter the world of the book and believe in it the way you did as a child."
The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn
I have always been a worrisome person.
When I was little and we’d go new places, I’d stick close to a parent and wait until I felt safe enough to speak, run or play. I would read every sign, every safety rule, and ask a million questions about any and all new experiences. These days I just go into a silent frenzy. If you’re a Virgo, you probably understand this phenomenon too well.
So when I was going off to kindergarten and I found out that my two best buds at the time were in the class next door, I was one panicky five year old. What if no one liked me? What if my TEACHER didn’t like me? What if I couldn’t find my classroom or the library or the bathroom?
That’s when my mom swooped in with The Kissing Hand.
This book is the story of a little raccoon named Chester who is going to school for the first time. He has many of the same fears that I did—making friends, getting lost, orienting himself with the area, being away from his family. His mom tells him that she has the secret to making him feel better about being away from home. She kisses the inside of his palm and lets him know that her love and support are being given to him and that they will spread right up into his heart. He will be warm and cozy all throughout school with the knowledge that “Mommy loves you, Mommy loves you.”
I’m almost twenty three, and my mother STILL sends me texts with the words “Kissing Hand” every time I have a new experience. She bought the same book for my sister and brother, too.
I love this book because it acknowledges the fact that children have very real feelings that cannot, and should not, be overlooked. It does not ignore the fear; rather, it addresses the fear in a way that can help a child move on. It prepares children for the fact that things will change, but support and love are there if you choose to seek them.
I just moved to a new city to start a new teaching job. The first day of school is tomorrow, and what better story to read on the first day than The Kissing Hand?
—Allie is a Pre-Kindergarten teacher who can’t stop herself from looking ahead to the next adventure.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
The Phantom Tollbooth was one of the books that I read over and over again throughout my childhood, along with a battered copy of Black Beauty that I still have, the spine taped together with packing tape in an adolescent foray into Library Science. I think Black Beauty really appealed to my sense of justice and hidden subjectivities: I mean, the horses speak to one another, but their stories are locked in horse-world throughout the book, and you-the-reader are privileged to be in horse-world with them. While Black Beauty presaged the kinds of muckraking I would grow to love (Upton Sinclair, Hunter S. Thomson) it was essentially a moral tale made clear exactly what should be done.
The Phantom Tollbooth taught me about the way that we seem currently to interact with life and learning, which is much more aimless, unpredictable and frightening. Milo doesn’t have a lot of personal resources. He’s a malcontent and a naif. He’s dissatisfied with his perfectly fine life, and doesn’t really want to go on any journey of discovery at all, only doing so accidentally by following instructions on a box out of boredom.
I think the same reasons that fairy tales work in such formational ways as both entertainment and vivid teaching tools, is the same reason why The Phantom Tollbooth worked for me. A friend told me that the reason why myths and fairy tales work so well as teaching tools is that the fantastic elements work as a mnemonic device. She said that if something unusual happens in an otherwise normal story, it causes cognitive dissonance, which causes you to pay closer attention and remember that thing later. If a story is continuously absurd, it exhausts your attention, and it becomes a blur of strangeness, therefore as forgettable as a totally normal anecdote. Obviously the “normal” of fairytales is no longer our normal. Maybe this is why I remember surprisingly few fairy tales, although I certainly did read a lot of them.
Anyway, The Phantom Tollbooth was mildly fantastical but much more familiar in its dilemmas than classic fairy tales, and the particular problem that Milo faced was a familiar one too. Milo was dealing with the way that the choice of boredom and disaffection versus curiosity changes your experience of the the world. Milo and his dog became these philosophical prototypes for me, who taught me in coded ways about western thought (Dr. Kakofonous Dischord and The Awful DYNNE are clearly master symbols for the ideas behind atonal, and noise music), and how to get along in our education system. They taught me how being upbeat and curious and willing makes a lot of things easier to stomach.
“For Milo, who has plenty of time,” has become a way that I think about my life. Time is what we have. What do we do with it? Move things from one pile to another? Wander? The Phantom Tollbooth is heavily weighted toward the pursuit of Wisdom by way of Rhyme and Reason, as if these were the only moral attainment, as if attainment were as easy as deciding, as if these difficult-to-obtain but obtainable ideas were women. In fact nowadays these things seem fairly slippery, or pretty conservative approximations of personal progress. I still get confused and think that wisdom is connected to academic achievement, a viewpoint that’s preserved and defended throughout The Phantom Tollbooth.
Although I sometimes get into arguments with the American siblings of princesses Rhyme and Reason, I think The Phantom Tollbooth was really formative in terms of teaching me to identify cultural landmarks in thought. It also taught me why it is important to continue find the world beautiful and interesting; that the difference between boredom and engagement changes everything.
Sometimes I even identify with Milo at the end, when he comes home from school to find the note “For Milo, who knows the way.” Not that I feel I know The Way by any means, but that sometimes, to my surprise, someone tells me I’ve been headed in the right direction.
—Amelia Bentley completed a BA at Evergreen State College in 2011, studying philosophy and poetry. Work has appeared in 491 Magazine, Gigantic Sequins 4.1, Portable Boog Reader 6, and Tinge. A chapbook ‘&parts’ was released from Damask Press in March 2013. There’s a poetry blog at www.speakwright.org.
"It seems also that she could be annoying the way only an energetic 7-year-old could be: A friend asks her the time, and she says, “What time would you like it to be?” She had a group called the Bird Brain Society, in which the members could declare any day Christmas and the rest would come over and celebrate it. She was, in other words, one of those people whose magnetism owes something to the fact that the line between play and life was never entirely clear to her."
It’s International Children’s Book Day! We at The Sensible Nonsense Project celebrated by curling up with some old friends and a classic or two. How about you?
"When I was eleven, I didn’t know I was gay; I only knew that I felt different from other people, even from my own family. I was beginning to try to put together the puzzle pieces: I knew I liked boys, the clothes they wore, and the things they did, but I knew I didn’t want to marry one… I had to go underground.
Enter Harriet M. Welsch, who became my role model and savior. I read Harriet the Spy soon after it came out (and I now bless the school librarian who put it on the library shelves for me to find). I was absolutely shocked by it at the time. Shocked that Harriet could defy her parents and her friends and still survive. Shocked that she loved and missed Ole Golly so much that she threw a shoe at her father to express her anger. Shocked that an adult author could know so well what really went on in the minds of children.
But the thing that shocked me the most about Harriet was her cross-dressing. It’s an aspect of the novel that girls today would miss entirely (thank goodness!), but in 1965 Harriet’s spy clothes struck me as revolutionary. Back then, girls in blue jeans and hooded sweatshirts were uncommon, though not unheard of. But Harriet’s high-top sneakers were solely boys’ wear…
I’ve read elsewhere of women my age who were inspired to keep notebooks and start their own spy routes, eat tomato sandwiches, and leave anonymous notes after reading Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret. At eleven I didn’t particularly like tomatoes, didn’t have the patience to write, and already had a spy route, so I wasn’t inspired to start any of those things. What Harriet did inspire me to do was to experiment with cross-dressing. I used whatever money I earned doing odd jobs to buy boys’ clothes on the sly and then went into other neighborhoods to play at passing as a boy. When an old man in a grocery store called me “Sonny,” I knew I had passed the test. It was remarkably easy to do, and it was as deliciously thrilling as sneaking into Agatha K. Plumber’s dumbwaiter."
~ Check out this essay at The Horn Book, in which author Kathleen T. Horning suggests that, as a queer kid in the ’60s, reading Harriet the Spy saved her life — or, at least, made it a bit more comfortable.
Check out this essay at The Horn Book, in which author Kathleen T. Horning suggests that, as a queer kid in the ’60s, reading Harriet the Spy saved her life — or, at least, made it a bit more comfortable.
“I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me…”
Making Meaningfully Doughy Memories with Maurice Sendak
It was certainly more than my dream, at a mere 5 years, to live In The Night Kitchen. It was a definitive goal.
I knew it would be precarious, I knew there could be technical difficulties, but I knew it was possible. I had black hair like Mickey. He was an up-start, able to escape three chefs who wanted to cook him. He was a hero, understanding that cake was one of the best breakfasts. He was a clever and crowing with a profound pride in his nudity. He was just as I strove to be, and it only made sense that at night, I could, conceivably, venture into a night kitchen of my own.
I had elaborate plans drawn up, in secret from my parents. Surely they most of all — who read it to me every night for years — must have known I was hatching grandiose plans. I tried to squirrel them away in my dresser drawers and on the underside of my pet snake’s glass cage. I was pretty sure nobody knew, save my stuffed purple stegosaurus Bernice, the one real boy in whom I felt I could confide anything. A night owl from the very outset of my nocturnal career, I recall lying there in my bed, tense and ready to spring — waiting and waiting for the racket of my parent’s movements below to dissolve and for all to be still. There would go my clothes — and there would go I.
I love thinking back on how this book opened up a world for me, one not quite real but not quite pretend either. Now, I particularly relish the play of the rhymes as they tumble across the nightscape of images, letting this book careen into a song that I don’t recall, but that I must have heard loudly as a youngling experiencing a read-aloud. When read with vigor, with a quickness that lets the rhymes come out of the woodwork and stand side by side, there is an amazing momentum that does not come through when reading with emphasis placed on each turn of the page. I find that reading this book very quickly and with exaggerated tone, a special frequency is attained that ears fastened to young brains can’t help but take in seriously — which always contrasts with the fantastic nudity and visions of flight in this book. Like a throng of absurd moths to a flame radiating a very serious light — pre-school children that I now teach and to whom I read this book, who still know that the nighttime is inexplicable and who take witching hours oh so seriously, can’t get enough of this masterpiece by Uncle Maurice. Images, rhymes, rhythm, and text all interact on these pages, so that entering the world of In the night kitchen let’s children believe that they can become what Mickey is. This book convinced child-me to know that I could, and that knowing was the powerful part.
Many night attempts were first foiled by the sounds of my parents’ movements just around the corner from the bottom of the stairs. I’d freeze, having fallen just halfway out of my pajamas, pants-less, on the landing or in the room with the couches no one was supposed to touch. But I studied diligently from my bed, nestled wide-awake with Bernice. It seemed only logical that just around those corners, as soon as my mother and father turned in, that something must be ready to happen. I could hear it I listened so close. Eggbeaters were dancing with spatulas, and without me! It was more than my child mind could bear.
One or two late nights, I made it. I know I made it, but really I just think I did. Completely naked, I’m in a big tin soup pot with a ladle in my right hand, riding along on the counter’s edge, the dishwasher murmuring sweetly and fridge hissing sharply and me crowing and crowing at the nighttime.
Memories of childhood are a lot like In The Night Kitchen, with a rhythm that makes for moments of crystalline clarity, yet with doughy sections not quite yet finished cooking in between. Sprawled out on the countertop I’d sleep with a smile — a mere skirt of crumbs keeping me warm. My parents gasping, then (and this is the doughy part) smiling sweetly and crowing just a bit on their own as they carry me back up to bed.
Then, of course, cake for breakfast.
—Jacob Kerner is a teacher, adventurer, tree climber, creator of arts and poems, urban gardener, typewriter enthusiast, and has had poems published in Apiary Magazine, The Blotter, and Adagio Verse Quarterly. Check out many a visual of his work at: deepcutsofbrotherlylove.tumblr.com