Remembering the books that taught us more than we ever cared to learn.
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
Children, as far as I can tell, are little pagans, full of unaccountable beliefs and peasant superstitions. From triple-knotting their shoelaces to elaborately naming their toys, they have rituals for everything, and perform them as though doing otherwise would invite a curse into their lives.
Of course, I’m speaking from experience. In my childhood bedtime in particular was a matter of high ceremony. I had to be tucked in with diagrammatic precision, like a present being wrapped; I had to be armed with my favorite long-suffering pony toy, nestled in the loving choke-hold of my right arm; and I had to be read to, from books that I had committed to my personal canon with evangelical zeal.
This obsession with the rites of bedtime seems to be an integral part of childhood, as well as a recurrent theme in both children’s and grown-ups’ literature. Swann’s Way, by very reductive logic, is about a French mama’s boy’s gargantuan freak out when his doting mother forgets to wish him good night. And Goodnight Moon, the gorgeous children’s book I’d like to talk about today, is a special liturgy for sleepy children everywhere.
The book, as you likely recall, is very simple: a pajama-clad bunny sits in bed in a palatial green room with high ceilings and orange floors, surrounded by an array of objects both familiar and strange (a chair, a comb; a “bowl of mush”). As we turn the pages, we take inventory of each of these things, acquainting ourselves with the charming, garishly painted room and its contents. And then, along with our young bunny-protagonist, we wish them goodnight. “Goodnight comb, and goodnight brush,” we say, turning a page. “Goodnight stars, goodnight air,” we say. “Goodnight noises everywhere.”
It’s not hard to understand why the book is so captivating to read as an adult. Maturity, for some reason, seems to be defined in part by being completely surrounded by objects, many of them useful, few of them necessary, and almost all of them completely assimilated into the unremarkable texture of daily life. The idea that we should notice a comb, really, fully attend to it, seems like a useless mental exercise, something we would only do in a goofy drama class or if there was a chance we could make the comb spontaneously combust. The notion that we should just idly think about a comb, and maybe wish it good night now and then, just to be nice, feels worrisomely naïve.
But children, of course, relate to objects differently than we do, their world as yet uncontaminated by symbolic meanings. A cigar really is just a cigar when you’re a kid, thank god, because what else could it possibly be? Our understanding of objects has to become more complex as we grow up, for a number of practical and developmental reasons. But I wonder sometimes if that earlier understanding of the world, that willingness to see objects on their own terms, is where generosity comes from.
Children may not love more fairly or intelligently than adults—if they did, adulthood would be pretty doomed—but they do seem to love more abundantly. The way kids love dogs, toys, teachers, older children, playgounds, candy, and exercise is astonishing, a realm of emotional possibility to which we can have only vicarious access. We’re lucky if life gives us a handful of people to love; and, knowing that, it’s hard not to envy children, to admire their world which is so capaciously loving, and so full of lovable objects.
I’m not a child, at least not technically. My idea of a good time typically involves long periods of sitting down, and I don’t believe that toys have souls. But Goodnight Moon is still one of the most beautiful books I’ve read, and a book which, I hope, still informs the way I engage with the world. I’m probably not capable of wishing a comb goodnight, at least not without embarrassment. But I hope I’m still able to love the world with real attachment and a sense of wonder—an ability which might not be the hallmark of adulthood, but which will certainly keep me from getting bored.
—Emily Harnett has been lucky enough to stay in Philadelphia, and at the Writers House, in some professional capacity. She enjoys twentieth century fiction, which she hopes to study next year as a PhD student. Emily’s other research interests include, but are not limited to, Russian history and politics, napping, and Kanye West.
The Sensible Nonsense Project live event is in TWO DAYS!
Many of you are gearing up for Valentine’s Day — possibly even filling out lots of little heartfelt cards for friends and colleagues, as your humble blog manager is. To get you in an affectionate frame of mind, here are a few sweet Valentine’s illustrations from children’s book author Tomie DePaola.
We hope you’ll take your Valentine to our event this Thursday!
The Sensible Nonsense Project live event is in THREE DAYS!
We hope you’re working up your appetites for after-school snacks. In the meantime, you can step up your nail game with these works of nail art inspired by favorite children’s books.
The Sensible Nonsense Project LIVE — in ONE WEEK!
Help us honor the humor, pathos, and enduring wisdom of children’s books! Six speakers will share stories about their own favorite childhood books, what those books taught them, and how those lessons continue to influence their adult lives. Stay on afterward for a delicious reception inspired by after-school snacks, and to get more information about how you, too, can participate in the project.
Hosted by Arielle Brousse
Sponsored by Creative Ventures
EMILY HARNETT (C’13)
ANDIE DAVIDSON (C’15)
DYLAN LEAHY (C’16)
Thursday, Feb. 13th | 6:00pm | Arts Café
Kelly Writers House | 3805 Locust Walk
JAY KIRK is the author of Kingdom Under Glass (Henry Holt), which was named one of the Best Nonfiction Books of 2010 by the Washington Post. His award-winning nonfiction has been published in Harper’s, GQ, The New York Times Magazine, and anthologized in Best American Crime Writing, Best American Travel Writing, and Submersion Journalism: Reporting in the Radical First Person from Harper’s Magazine. He was a National Magazine Award Finalist in 2013, and the recipient of a 2005 Pew Fellowship in the Arts. He currently teaches in Penn’s Creative Writing Program. His next book, Avoid the Day (HarperCollins), is due out in 2015.
CAITLIN GOODMAN is a librarian and archivist in the Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia and writes the monthly “Grumpy Librarian” readers’ advisory column for City Paper. She lives in Philadelphia and, like all librarians, loves cats and cardigans.
EMILY HARNETT (C’13) has been lucky enough to stay in Philadelphia, and at the Writers House, in some professional capacity. She enjoys twentieth century fiction, which she hopes to study next year as a PhD student. Emily’s other research interests include, but are not limited to, Russian history and politics, napping, and Kanye West.
ANDREW PANEBIANCO is a writer at the Philly ad firm, Brownstein Group. Prior to that he inflicted piles of Romantic poetry and Shakespeare on a decade’s worth of college kids. He is also the author of nearly 200 definitions to words that aren’t, but should be. Read more at wordsthatarent.com, and follow him @fancywhitebread.
If ANDIE DAVIDSON (C’15) had her own personal Room of Requirement, it would likely be filled with coffee, chocolate, and books. An English major and French minor, she is a grammar freak and nearly-certifiable shopaholic. In between exploring (or wandering, as her friends would call it) and searching for Crumple-Horned Snorkacks, she can usually be found reading, making up stories in her head, or overusing parentheses.
DYLAN LEAHY (C’16) plans on majoring in English and minoring in Cinema Studies because he enjoys the idea of a future without job security. He filters most of his experiences through pop culture and idolizes various TV lesbians (cheerleader or otherwise). He’s been obsessed with stories and the way they are told ever since his dad read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to him when he was seven.
Neil Gaiman reads Green Eggs and Ham!
This has been making the rounds, but here is such an appropriate place for it to stop on those rounds.
(Reminder: nine days until The Sensible Nonsense Project’s live event! Come on by or tune in live online.)
Mom’s Library List
My mom started taking me to our town’s public library when I was three years old. Some of my first memories are from the weekly Story Time at the library, which took place in a small room that was squirreled away on the second floor. The room’s linoleum floor was speckled with sample squares of carpet—the kind you get from Home Depot when you’re looking to put down new wall-to-wall—and my friend Carolyn and I would always pick plush, colorful squares to sit pretzel style on while the librarian read aloud to us. I remember holding Carolyn’s hand during a session with Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham, which frightened us both (something about the eggs being green gave me the icks).
Mom would appear in the doorway after Story Time and take me downstairs to the Children’s Room, which was partitioned from the main area of the library with what must have been sound-proof glass, because noise was allowed in the Children’s Room. I remember walking quietly through the adult reference stacks and past the card catalogues, only to break out into a sprint once inside the Children’s Room, so I could check on my furry buddies—the library’s two hamsters (or were they gerbils?)—who must have had fairytale-inspired names like Hansel and Gretel, though I no longer recall.
What I do recall is that Mom would peel me away from the cage and browse the children’s stacks with me, so we could pick out a book or two to check out for the week. I would stand on a step stool beside her as she scanned the titles, looking for a Madeline adventure we hadn’t yet delved into, or for a copy of Eloise to read again (I loved opening up the pages that showed Eloise’s escapades through the Plaza Hotel’s elevators). At first, Mom would read these books to me, but by the time I was four years old, I read them to her.
Mom curated my book borrowing long after my afternoons of carpet squares at Story Time had ended, long after she signed me up for my very own library card. When I was in second or third grade, Mom turned me on to Judy Blume’s “Fudge” series, fueling a summer-long borrowing session that started with Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing and ended with Fudge-a-Mania. They were my first real chapter books.
By fourth grade, Mom steered me out of the Children’s Room and over to the Young Adult stacks for Blume’s big-girl books—Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Blubber, and my favorite, Just As Long As We’re Together, which I borrowed and read again and again, the return date stamps on the card in the back all mine. Mom was even in cahoots with my elementary school’s librarian, Mrs. Nutter, who made me borrow books that I told Mom I didn’t want to read, like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (I thought it was about hunting; I ate my words when I fell in love with Scout and was enthralled by Boo Radley).
I don’t know exactly what considerations Mom put into creating a book-borrowing list for me. She must have read some of the books she chose for me when she was a girl herself—To Kill a Mockingbird for sure, because she told me as much. But Mom was already 18 when Judy Blume published Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, and wouldn’t need to read it to learn about bras and periods, like I did.
I can’t ask Mom why she wanted me to read those books, because she passed away when I was 12, leaving me to make my own choices at the library. I can imagine, though, that she chose books that she knew would both enthrall me and teach me—books that would make me grow to love reading as an escape into a world different than my own.
—Kristen Martin is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing at Columbia University, where she writes essays and memoir about her parents, Long Island, Brooklyn, and being Italian-American. She spent last year studying the food culture of her ancestors at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, an experience she chronicled on her blog, La Mangiatrice. Her writing has appeared in SAVEUR Magazine, Cleaver Magazine, VICE, Obit-mag.com, and elsewhere.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein
English is my second language. My parents insisted that all their children learn at least one other language. In my case it was English. I struggled with it, never quite understanding why it was necessary. I was stubborn. It took a while for me to learn to pick my battles. I’m still learning.
My parents made great sacrifices to be able to afford a good education for me; I took it completely for granted. I hated my school to the point where I was expelled. I had failed math and geometry, as usual. That was allowed, but a third failed subject got me kicked out the school. That third failed subject was English. I stood stubbornly by my choices. Why on earth would I need to learn a second language? I cringed when the few American kids in my school would speak amongst themselves in English. The children of diplomats and expats that went to my school weren’t many, but they stuck together: imposing their knowledge of this foreign language I had learned to hate. I wanted to yell at them to speak in Spanish but I never did.
It just so happens that at this point of my life I had lived exactly half of my life in the U.S.A. I am so very glad to be bilingual; it has made this 24 year long journey a lot easier. Now, my son rejects learning Spanish as much as I did learning English. He uses the same arguments today, at seven years of age, that I used as a teenager. I still have to figure out a way to get him into learning Spanish. These days, because he has a great teacher in school, he has decided to learn French. As much as I wanted to scream out loud, I celebrated his choice. I carefully point out the similarities with Spanish. Hope remains.
The kid wants me to tell him about when I was a child, to tell him about teachers I liked, books I liked, movies and TV shows I liked. I tell him about Ms. Mason. She was one of my favorite teachers — and she taught English, of all subjects.
A South African native, Elizabeth Mason arrived in Colombia in the early ‘60s. She had dedicated her life to education; her mission was to construct a happy school with happy children, offering an international baccalaureate program. She became the founding Headmistress of the Colegio de Inglaterra. By the time I met Ms. Mason, she was officially retired, but her English class was my favorite class. She would read to us, answer any questions we had, and tell us her thoughts on the books she shared with us. She was a fantastic storyteller and incredible reader. To this day I dream about those English classes, where I learned so much without even trying. The books she read that I most remember were J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.
Ms. Mason’s father had served in the war, and during those days, he befriended Saint-Exupéry. She showed us pictures of Saint-Exupéry and his plane on a visit to Johannesburg, where she was born. These treasures made all the adventures in the book real to me. I recall following along in my book while Ms. Mason read to us, lifting my eyes and looking at her, the weight of her years bending her spine as she read, the book held in her right hand while the left hand rested on her desk lovingly touching the photograph of her as a child, with her father and Saint-Exupéry, sitting on canvas folding chairs next to the airplane. I remember the kids immersed in their books following along, taken away, unaware of the vastness of the landscape of Saint-Exupéry’s solitude.
I don’t want my kid to read The Little Prince — not yet. I think there is a beautiful melancholy to it that can be infectious and even damaging. I want my kid to be older when he reads the book — more mature, less impressionable — especially if he keeps up learning French.
Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.
Perhaps what separates the boys from the men is the ability to grasp the horror of war. For boys, war is just a perfect game presenting endless possibilities for adventure. Ms. Mason knew this, and subtly commented on the subtext and lessons of the books she read to us — both The Hobbit and The Little Prince — as she went. Her emphasis was on us having fun while she read, and the assignments she gave us were to re-read the book on our own and find its tone, its rhythm, its music.
When I told my kid about reading The Hobbit, he was curious, but he couldn’t quite read it himself. It has always been hard for me to read out loud in English — I’m self-conscious of my accent and get hung up on it — so his mother read it to him. It was like Ms. Mason’s class all over again, except better, because his experience was enveloped in motherly love. I was curious about how much of the plot he was taking in: was he really listening, or was he simply cuddling with his mother and dwelling on her voice?
This weekend, I took him to watch the most recent Hobbit movie, The Desolation of Smaug, and he said he loved it. I asked him if he liked it better than the book. He said he liked the book better because it was longer, and that while the movie is based on the book, it’s not the same. He pointed out to me all the divergences from the book, all of the parts that were made up by the filmmakers. He told me the new parts were cool, but kind of “funny” (making air quotes with his fingers), and that Tolkien is not “funny” like that (air quotes again).
When we got back home I looked around for my copy of The Little Prince. I wanted to hide it someplace safe. And while I was at it, I was jumped by some hobbit/dwarf creature who attempted to cut my dragon head off with a ruler/sword. Happily playing along, I fell on the coffee table; in making sure my little hobbit didn’t get hurt, I almost broke my ribs.
—Bernardo Morillo is interested in all aspects of storytelling. He has performed as a storyteller in Philadelphia area venues such as the Free Library, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, and The Painted Bride, among others. As a photographer, he has exhibited in venues such as Pagus Gallery, and was most recently a guest panelist at the Barnes Foundation. He makes his living as a film editor and director of documentaries made for PBS television and distributed by The National Film Network. He has neglected writing because it is such a solitary enterprise, but keeps at it withe short stories and sometimes poetry; while he’d rather write in Spanish, he forces himself to write in English.
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
It’s hard to pick just one book from my childhood that made a difference in my life. I can name two that made tears come to my eyes as a child and even now. One was from laughter: Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. (Now I know these are two books, but I have a copy of these in the same volume, so in my mind they are one book.) Reading the antics of these two boys made me laugh to tears at times throughout their story.
The other one is Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.
Books and reading has always been a part of me since I can remember. My mom read to me. She read a lot. Some people remember their moms in the kitchen with a spoon in one hand and pots and pans in other. Maybe they cooked from a recipe, or from their own creativity. That was my dad’s way of cooking. Never saw him with a cookbook of any kind. That’s another story, and is probably why my mom was the reader and writer in the family. She didn’t have to cook. She gave me the love of reading and writing. I don’t like to cook much either.
My brother received the book Black Beauty from our grandma on Christmas Day, 1956. I was not quite two years old then. Not sure how old I was when I finally got to read Black Beauty, but as I read my heart went out to horses and I have never lost that love.
I could not fathom the unbelievable cruelty people used on horses. I didn’t realize that people treated their animals in unkind ways. I grew up on a farm and all our animals were treated with respect and love. They were always included in family things. They were part of the family because they were family. I thought that was the way for everyone. Black Beauty opened my eyes to the awful reality of animal cruelty.
I cried at the time one of the horses died. I cried when Beauty was mistreated even though he was such a gentle, sweet tempered horse. I wondered that people could be so unthinking. All they cared about was fashion or the work they could get out of the horse. The one part where the lady of the house insisted that the horse’s heads be higher with the tightening of the bearing rein made me sick. For show and fashion she let her horses be in pain that ruined their necks and hurt their mouths so she could ride around in the city and be the envy of those less fortunate. I’m sure she wanted to look fashionable for all her friends and admirers too. If the mean ways led to the death of the horse they would go get another. They were just a way to make money or stay in fashion.
Black Beauty tells the story from his point of view. I had never read a book like that before; it gave me such a different perspective. Here was a good-tempered horse looking at the world through his big, kind brown eyes. He saw cruelty, but he also had good times and good friends to run around in the fields with.
I haven’t had many horses in my life, but while I did I treated them with love and took care of them like they deserved, with good food and fresh water. I brushed them and rode as much as I could. After reading Black Beauty, I knew the horse only wanted to be a horse, but would be faithful to its owner if treated properly.
Some people get a horse thinking they can jump on him and ride away into the sunset. It’s not like that. Training and understanding and love need to be there too. It would be a great idea for anyone contemplating buying a horse to read Black Beauty and get an understanding of the horse. Continue reading other books on horses and talking with experienced horsemen too.
At the end of Beauty’s story he finally has a home where he will be for the rest of his life. I always cry because his story has a happy ending even though he suffered so much. He is now safe and cared for and, above all, well loved.
—Judy Blackburn has been a reader all her life and a writer for many years. She has published articles and short stories, and her novel, titled Methow Valley Morning, is available at Amazon.com. She thinks it’s kind of funny that the two books she mentions here both originally belonged to her brother, but somehow have ended up in her possession.