Children’s Books And Lasting Lessons

At the southeast corner of Schiller Park, a pedestrian can take two routes. One can use the access driveways in and out of the parking lot to cut the corner and save a few steps. Or, one can go through the driveways to the actual corner beyond before turning the corner and continuing the walk. I always walk through to the corner beyond the driveway before turning, and when I do I think “neat and square.”

“Neat and square” is a line from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, a book I read as a kid. It’s just one of the things that has stuck with me from that book Mom first read to me so long ago.

You may know the story. Mike Mulligan has a steam shovel named Mary Anne. Mike was proud of her and the work they could do together, and boasted of Mary Anne’s capabilities. And Mike and Mary Anne did the job right, always finishing the corners of what they dug “neat and square.” But it was hard for an old-fashioned steam shovel to compete with newfangled diesel-powered digging machines. In one troubling scene in the book, Mike and Mary Anne view a junk heap of other sad, discarded steam shovels that have been abandoned by their owners. But Mike is loyal to Mary Anne and would never dream of doing that.

Mike goes out to a small town that is digging a cellar for a new town hall and gets the job on the condition that he and Mary Anne can dig the basement in just one day. When the day comes, Mike and Mary Anne continue to do the job right, and finish the corners neat and square, even though the clock is against them. A crowd gathers, which causes Mike and Mary Anne to work faster than ever before—and just as the sun is setting they finish the job. But there’s a problem: in their frenzied rush to complete the digging in just one day, Mike and Mary Anne have forgotten to leave a ramp for Mary Anne to exit the cellar, and she is trapped. Fortunately, a boy in the crowd suggests that Mary Anne use her steam to become the new furnace, the town builds the town hall around her, and the story happily ends with Mary Anne heating the hall and Mike serving as its janitor.

It’s a good book, with some powerful messages that resonated with me. Do the job right, and be proud of your work. Be loyal to those you work with. And recognize that sometimes difficult problems can be solved with creative thinking.

Those lessons have stuck with me for decades. It just shows that reading to your children can really have a lifelong impact.

“Read It Again, Daddy!”

When your children are long grown and out of the house, as ours are, you tend to cherish the memories of the days when the entire family was together and under one roof.  One of my favorite recollections from those days was of reading to the kids when they were toddlers, right before their bedtime.

Of course, the child-rearing experts will tell you that reading aloud to your children is an important method of establishing a strong connection with your kids, as you spend time on a common activity, sitting close together on a sofa, with no TV noise in the background or other distractions.  And the educational experts would tell you that, by reading aloud, the parent was directly showing the importance of reading and incentivizing the child to learn for himself how to decipher those words on the page.  All of those are no doubt true, but in reality we did it because . . . well, it was fun, and it became a family ritual, and human beings of all ages tend to like rituals that are enjoyable, besides.

slobodkina_caps_for_saleIn our household, as I suspect is true in every household, there were perennial favorites as the kids grew up.  Goodnight Moon.  The Runaway Bunny.  Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.  Corduroy.  Caps for Sale.  Green Eggs and Ham.  Stone Soup.  Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.  And, when the holidays came, How The Grinch Stole Christmas and A Christmas Carol.  We sat side by side and slowly turned the pages, looked at the beautiful pictures, and heard, once again, the familiar stories.  And as we read, and reread, these books that are written to be read aloud, our inner thespians emerged, and Moms and Dads would give the characters different voices and act out the stories, too.

I’m confident that you could hand me a copy of Caps for Sale — one of my favorites — and I would immediately fall back into reading it with the same rhythm and cadence and voices that I did 25 years ago, with the brown caps, and the blue caps, and the red caps on the very top.  There was a lot opportunity for a Dad to ham it up, too, with the angry, foot-stomping, fist-shaking cap seller saying, “You monkeys, you!  You must give me back my caps!”  And the naughty monkeys high up in the tree that went “tsst, tsst, tsst.”  The actors among us got immediate gratification when the audience inevitably said, “Read it again, Daddy!”  Of course, whether that enthusiastic response was due to the quality of my performance or a desire to avoid going to bed for just a while longer was never entirely clear.