Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Let the wild rumpus start!

Certainly we want to protect our children from new and painful experiences that are beyond their emotional comprehension and that intensify anxiety; and to a point we can prevent premature exposure to such experiences. That is obvious. But what is just as obvious — and what is too often overlooked — is the fact that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things. - Maurice Sendak
Last night I finished The Wild Things, which is Dave Eggers' adaptation of Spike Jonze's adaptation of Sendak's classic Where the Wild Things Are. And while I found the book itself a little bit flawed (the ending seemed rushed and inconclusive, some characters were never given more than one dimension, and Max was caught between being 9 years old and being 45 years old), it did remind me of why I have an immense respect for effective children's literature.

It's no big secret that my favorite author is Dr. Seuss. Not just because the man was an incredible artist who was never truly recognized in his field (incredibly, Seuss never won a Caldecott or a Newbery), but because he had the unique capability to engage children through his writing while challenging their reading abilities and subtly addressing social issues. And let me not forget to note that he did all of this in specific meters.

Think about that for a second - Dr. Seuss wrote about the King of the Turtles in the same way Shakespeare wrote about the King of Denmark 400 years ago.
I am the Lorax! I speak for the trees,
Which you seem to be chopping as fast as you please;
But I also speak for the brown Barbaloots,
Who frolicked and played in their Barbaloot suits,
Happily eating Truffula fruits.
Now, since you've chopped the trees to the ground
There's not enough Truffula fruit to go 'round!
And my poor Barbaloots are all feeling the crummies
Because they have gas, and no food, in their tummies. - The Lorax
I've bolded anything that's not a real word. But when kids read Seuss, they can feel the rhythm of his meter and predict what the word sounds like. Even if it's a word they've never seen before and will never see again, kids can pick out exactly what it will sound like based on the cadence of the line leading up to it and because Seuss picked easy syllables to manage.

What kind of mastery of language must it take to teach people meter and rhythm a decade before they'll understand it?

How often do you hear of precocious 3 and 4 year-olds who've memorized The Cat in the Hat or Green Eggs and Ham? They can't yet read every word in front of them, but they're so engaged in the content and so caught in the meter that they want nothing more than to emulate the people who can read every word. You don't hear those stories about Harry Potter, you don't hear those stories about Artemis Fowl, you don't hear those stories about The Velveteen Rabbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, even Where the Wild Things Are. I don't deny the importance of each of those works, far from it, but I would argue they're not as significant as Seuss.

Without looking it up on Wikipedia, give me a brief synopsis of C.S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Now try Sendak's In the Night Kitchen. Maybe you can do it, maybe you can't. Now try Green Eggs and Ham. See the difference? Seuss, in no small part because of the meter and because of the illustration, has a greater staying power and a greater recall than more "substantial" literature.

And that's what makes it effective. You remember the story of Green Eggs and Ham even though you may not have held the book for decades. And that's what reading is about - learning and remembering. How much more effective can a book be than to make you remember the plot, the characters, hell, even lines from it years and years later?

I submit to you that Dr. Seuss was the most important children's author of the last 150 years.

Certainly not an original assertion, I acknowledge. But I thought the point needed to be made - as I worked through The Wild Things, I remembered only how this book differed from the movie, and that it was certainly different from the original book. That said, I couldn't remember much of how it was different from the original - Where the Wild Things Are didn't stick with me the same way.

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