Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Mean Max is an Orphan

by Pa Rock

I grew up in a house where books were a rarity.  My parents were busy trying to make money, the only thing they regarded as a sure sign of success, and reading wasn't a priority.   It was something to be learned and practiced at school.  Most of the classrooms in the small country school that I attended did have a shelf of books that we could check out, and the Book Mobile from the country library came by once a month to give us the opportunity to expand our horizons even further.

One of the first actual books for a child to make its way into our home was Louisa May Alcott's wonderful Little Men.  I came across it in our local Ben Franklin Store (think Wal-Mart without the angst) and was taken by the cover which showed a group of young children playing and having a wonderful time.  That book became mine.  I bought it with my own money and read it cover-to-cover.  I loved Little Men then, and I love it now!  (In fact, an Alcott collection, including Little Men, is the next book up on my nightstand.)

But there were no picture books in our home, or books that would attract little kids and help them learn how to read.  For that we had to get on the bus and go to school.

(My parents did have some Reader's Digest Condensed Books lying around the house, and as I got older I read a few of those abbreviated novels.  Condensing works fine with milk, but the process is necessarily demeaning and destructive when it comes to novels.)

My first experience with picture books for young children came when my oldest son, Nick, was a toddler.  We  would often part with pocket change to buy him Little Golden Books.   (It seems like they were twenty-five cents each back in the day - but definitely no more than a dollar.)  We would read books to Nick, and by the time he entered kindergarten he could read them himself.  When he was in first grade he set a class record for the number of books he read!

But to back up a bit, while Nick was still toddling around with a book in one hand and a stuffed animal in the other, his parents were in college trying to get their teaching credentials.  One semester I had a space to kill in my class schedule and wound up taking a class that was far from being a requirement to be a high school teacher.  The class was Children's Literature  (affectionately called "Kiddie Lit") and it turned out to be a wonderful investment - for my role as a dad.

The class was at Missouri Southern State College in Joplin, and my instructor was a young PhD named Jimmy Couch.  Dr. Couch, if memory serves, was not the regular instructor for that class, but was filling in for a colleague who had the summer off.  As a student in that class I had to read hundreds of children's books and  do some sort of synopsis card on each book that I completed.

The final project for Kiddie Lit was to write and illustrate a children's book, make the cover, and bind it.  At the time my parents had two grandchildren, my son, Nick, and my sister's daughter, Heidi.  My book was about two youngsters, aptly named Nick and Heidi, who had built their own fort out of cardboard boxes and other stuff.  As they were playing they began to argue about who was bravest, boys or girls?  Then they went for a walk through the woods where they encountered a tree that suddenly sneezed and slung angry bees everywhere.  They were both frightened and ran away - proving that sometimes it is prudent not to be too brave.  The book's title, of course, was Trees That Sneeze Bees, and it was pretty damned good,

Trees That Sneeze Bees was written in tortured rhyming verse not too dissimilar to Dr. Seuss, the premier children's author of the past century.

Theodore Seuss Geisel  (Dr. Seuss) died over twenty years ago, but the amazing body of work that he left behind will enthrall children of all ages throughout all ages.

Today the second best author and illustrator of children's books of this generation passed on.  Maurice Sendak, like Dr. Seuss, left an amazing body of work that includes one of the classics of the genre:  Where the Wild Things Are.   I was fifteen when Sendak published his masterpiece, and I first became aware of it several years later in Dr. Couch's class.  I immediately fell in love with mean little Max, a monster of a child who gets sent to his room without supper because he misbehaved.  As Max sits in his room a jungle starts growing and...well, everyone knows the rest of the story because, after all, it is a classic of children's literature.

And if you don't know little Max, get thee to a bookstore and buy a copy of his adventure, because without that particular bit of literary background, you are destined to be under-educated, boring, and really, really, ugly!

Maurice Sendak, you will be missed, but thank you for leaving us with Max and all of your other great contributions to the field of children's literature.  It was a pleasure strolling down the pathways of your imagination.

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