The Single Greatest Effort
We discussed I BROKE MY TRUNK! earlier here and here. I’m not sure that I can argue the merits of this book any better than I have already done. I still think it’s distinguished as all get out. Ironically, most of its strongest competition within the easy reader field comes from three other books penned by Mo Willems: AMANDA & HER ALLIGATOR, SHOULD I SHARE MY ICE CREAM?, and HAPPY PIG DAY!
The other strong picture book/easy reader challenger is I WANT MY HAT BACK by Jon Klassen which shares many similar strengths, particularly in the way it is written (sans quotation marks, with colored text) to allow for a more dramatic reading and the generous helping of humor (albeit in a very dark vein). Publishers Weekly: Don’t let the pared-down art and narration fool you: a wealth of emotion and personality hides behind the deadened eyes of Klassen’s woodland creatures, from anxiety to rage, stupefaction to satisfaction.
While I’m quite smitten with I WANT MY HAT BACK, I think I BROKE MY TRUNK! works better as a pure easy reader and, to me, that is the key to viewing this book as the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children: to view it through the eyes of an emergent reader, whether that emergent reader is three years old or seven years old. Of course, the book will be appreciated by independent readers, but it is most distinguished for those children in the early stages of learning how to read. Here’s what John Steinbeck, in the introduction to THE ACTS OF KING ARTHUR AND HIS NOBLE KNIGHTS, had to say about the whole business of learning to read.
Some people there are who, being grown, forget the horrible task of learning to read. It is perhaps the greatest single effort that the human undertakes, and he must do it as a child. An adult is rarely successful in the undertaking–the reduction of experience to a set of symbols. For a thousand thousand years these humans have existed and they have only learned this trick–this magic–in the final ten thousand of the thousand thousand.
I do not know how usual my experience is, but I have seen in my children the appalled agony of trying to learn to read. They, at least, have my experience.
I remember that words–written or printed–were devils, and books, because they gave me great pain, were my enemies.
Some literature was in the air around me. The Bible I absorbed through my skin. My uncles exuded Shakespeare, and PILGRIM’S PROGRESS was mixed with my mother’s milk. But these things came into my ears. They were sounds rhythms, figures. Books were printed demons–the tongs and thumbscrews of outrageous persecution. And then, one day, my aunt gave me a book and fatuously ignored my resentment. I stared at the black print with hatred, and then, gradually, the pages opened and let me in. The magic happened. The Bible and Shakespeare and PILGRIM’S PROGRESS belonged to everyone. But this was mine–it was a cut version of the Caxton Morte d’Arthur of Thomas Malory . . . Perhaps a passionate love of the English language opened to me from this one book.
While acknowledging the difficulty of learning to read, Steinbeck waxes poetic, not about the book he learned to read from, but rather the book that turned him into a reader, the book that fired his passion for the English language. Most of us would do the same, and it is sort of the Holy Grail for the Newbery committee: to find that book, the one that will magically turn children everywhere into readers.
But this bears repeating: The horrible task of learning to read is perhaps the single greatest effort the human undertakes, and he must do it as a child. When a book can be both the one that children learn to read from and the one that fires their passion, the one that opens the gate, the one that says, “Reading is fun, kids! Don’t you want some more of this good stuff?”, then we approach a level of genius few mortals ever achieve. Thus I put the question to you again: Is this not the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children?
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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