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The Best Book I Ever Read

By Ann Durell

This speech should probably be called the Patchwork Principle. I have been fretting about it for what seems a year, undergoing a whole range of anxiety from vaguely uneasy to acutely apprehensive, because I wasn’t assigned a topic. Without a topic, I gnaw and discard ideas, rather like my Siamese cat with a chicken bone. Finally, I sat down in quiet despair and began going through all the chewed-over ideas – the bits and pieces of material I had been dropping into a folder for a year. Rather as I imagine pioneer women went through the scrap bag trying to piece together a patchwork quilt.

As I sorted and thought, a disquieting pattern emerged, a picture of where I stand today. No longer confident, bulwarked with clear-cut ideas. No longer able to produce a smartly reasoned speech on the latest trends in children’s books. No longer able to state clearly and firmly in twenty-five and one-half minutes exactly what is right and what is wrong with juvenile literature. I realized that in the last year things have happened to change my whole view of myself as an editor, the books that I publish, and the children’s book establishment of which I have been an operational part for over twenty years.

Here are the scraps that I pieced together to create that realization.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress Board in Denver, Colorado, has come to the conclusion that one out of every eight 17-year-olds tested across the country was unable to read well enough [to perform tasks necessary to function in American Society] and “thus was functionally illiterate.”…In Missouri, more than a third of all students in suburban St. Louis County and half in the city were unable to identify the main idea of a paragraph. In  Florida…more than 40% flunked a minimum competency test for a high school diploma. Officials said most students who had failed the exam probably would be unable to read road signs. (Susan Jacoby, Family Circle)

What are the advantages of using audio-visual material in the classroom? From a teacher’s point of view, I see none…Perhaps our schools can serve our young better by bowing out of the audio-visual show and by instead offering an alternative mode of encountering the world, something the children do not find in their living rooms. That alternative can be written materials. Schools should stop competing in an arena in which they cannot win; they should focus on their real strengths – teachers and vast resources of books – fun, appealing books and lots of them. (School Library Journal)

It took us three weeks in-service to learn to operate the…[reading lab] machines. [Then] enter the “slow learners.” They are mesmerized by the way a pin can break a tach-mate or at the very least explode the light bulbs in thirty seconds. The vocabulary films can be tampered with and…[an obscenity] flashes in Spanish, English, and Pig Latin in 3 second explosions. (A reading teacher in a letter to author Frank Bonham)

The panel came to the conclusion that television is undoubtedly one of the contributing causes of score decline. The panel also concluded that TV and other mass media probably have the largest teaching potential that we know about today. (W. Willard Wirtz, chairman of an advisory panel charged with investigating the decline in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores)

A new aid to rapid – almost magical – learning has made its appearance. Indications are that if it catches on all the electronic gadgets will be so much junk. The new device is known as Built-in Orderly Organised Knowledge. The makers generally call it by its initials, BOOK. Many advantages are claimed over the old-style learning and teaching aids on which most people are brought up nowadays. It has no wires, no electric circuit to break down. No connection is needed to an electricity power point. It is made entirely without mechanical parts to go wrong or need replacement. Anyone can use BOOK, even children, and it fits conveniently into the hand. (Punch, London)

To reject the book is to reject the mind. The human race can no more abandon it than it can abandon the drinking of water. The proposition is aired by illiterates who, up till now, have not read books, but find that the omission can now be supported by arguments of specious respectability. They do not speak for the young or the middle aged or any other group of humans – they speak only for the apes. (Lord Goodman, Times Literary Supplement, London)

“Now we know there is a strong similarity to humans.” Goodall spoke not of food-gathering, work habits or child-rearing but of killing. Calculated premeditated murder for no apparent survival-related reason had never been seen or even hinted at since Goodall began studying chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream Reserve in 1960. But at a news conference, she described gangland-style chimp attacks, brutal and savage enough to be considered human-like. (Science News)

Paperbacks are the third largest non-grocery seller in supermarkets after disposable cigarette lighters and panty hose. (William Morris, Harper and Row)

[The evidence] suggests that the problem of static markets and declining profits may not lie with readers at all – that it may lie, instead, in the inaction of people in the publishing industries, in their failure to reach out and make direct contact with their potential readers, to generate the kinds of products these people would respond to. (Paul D. Doebler, Publishers Weekly)

Once print ceases to be so demotic, books will become worthless, reading an esoteric specialism. But literature is a very long way from becoming that, though we are always in danger of  being so protective of the best forms that we tum them into an esoteric specialism, a literary ghetto. Pop print offers help in avoiding that pitfall. We should, in plain words, stop talking about good and bad literature. For children and nonliterary people there are only interesting books and boring books. (Aidan Chambers, The Horn Book)

Dear Ms. Durell: After reading the enclosed manuscript, we’re sure you’ll agree with the timely nature of its contents. Not only does it coincide with the current interest in houseplants, but the characters are non-sexist. (Covering letter with unsolicited manuscript)

It was not thought vaguely evil of me [when I was young]  that I liked to go alone through the woodlands listening to the missel thrush and yellowhammer and high-piping blackbirds and was filled with sadness in the winter at the lonely cry of curlews mourning over a ploughed field. In those days the wizards had not yet got together to begin their assault on Tirna nOg, the Land of the Ever Young – the wizards who insist that all children must take part in group activities or be labeled antisocial and fiddled about with until, in desperation, they do take part in group activities. The wizards try to measure children according to intelligence and interests, as if the child were but a flask containing a measurable quantity of a liquid called intelligence. (Leonard Wibberley, The Horn Book)

The most valuable gift anyone can give a child is time. (Sunday Times, London)

The concern of one generation for the next is the fundamental compact binding every society – and it is a compact a growing number of Americans seem determined to ignore…School bond issues are being rejected in cities and suburbs throughout the country – not only because property taxes are high, but also because a great many people don’t want to pay for the education of other people’s children…People who don’t wan’t to be “plagued” or “bothered” by children are really saying they don’t want to be bothered by the creative and messy business known as life. (Susan Jacoby, The New York Times)

That’s my patchwork. Not something that is guaranteed to keep a children’s book editor warm. Quite the reverse. And I am chilled. What are the cold winds that blew me to putting this particular crazy quilt together?

Last fall I started tutoring two people: Phyllis, who was nine­ teen, and Marc, who was six. I did this because I was interested in publishing two kinds of books: easy-to-read books for children who had just started to read and easy-to-read books for teenagers and adults who could read only at a second- or third-grade level. Statistics certainly indicated there would be a market for such books, but I had virtually no idea of what they should be like. And the only way to find out was to see what insights I could gain through teaching. Teaching? What I actually did was learn. I learned that the skill of decoding is not automatic, that mastering it can be a painfully laborious process. I learned – or perhaps relearned, for I do not remember learning to read – that figuring out one word at a time can be very hard and very boring. And I learned that the whole process of learning to read is a mysterious act, a miracle of the human brain that no one really understands.

What I did not learn was a magic formula for easy-to-read books that would transform nonreaders into readers. I am now working with authors and artists on “Fat Cats” for the sixes and “Skinny Books” for the teens.  “Fats” and “Skinnies” – very easy to remember. But I am not doing so in the spirit of unassailable confidence I might have felt even two years ago. I don’t know if the books will solve any of the problems of learning to read. Is there any solution in the print medium? Should I just give up and coast along, waiting for audio-visual media to take over education, communication, and recreation completely? I am doing the books, but they seem to have become an extremely personal venture. Something that simply relates to two problem readers I now care about. Two individuals. Two people.

At one point, when Marc was unable to bear any of the decoding exercises any longer and couldn’t stand the painful effort of identifying even one letter, I started to read to him. A book he chose from a pile I had with me. It was Lenny and Lola (Dutton/ Unicorn) by Marc Brown, a story I had felt myself was a bit strange. A bit pointless even. But my Marc was determined to hear it, so I read it. He listened intently, but at the end he did look puzzled. “How could they fly?” he asked.

Now I should tell you that Marc is a characteristic six-year-old contemporary TV viewer. One day I showed him a flash card with the word home on it. He looked at it for a minute and then said, “Holocaust?” So how to explain to Marc – to this mind conditioned by the finite images of the tube – about two canine circus performers who, one magic night, fly among the stars?

“Haven’t you ever felt so happy that you could just take off and fly?”

His face lit up. “Oh sure. I tried to fly in the park one day, but it didn’t work.”

“Well,” I said, “that’s the way they felt – but in this story it did work.”

And that, I suddenly knew, was the point of the book. Without a child I could never have understood it. And I learned a lesson. I also learned from tutoring that both Marc and Phyllis are products of a school system which is not set up to share books or anything else on a personal level. It is a system of a technological society, directed to assembly-line education. It is all too easy for such a system to become self-perpetuating – to exist only to perpetuate itself, rather than to achieve any more useful or worthwhile goals.

I see this phenomenon in myself as a functioning part of the system that we call children’s books. I see it as a member of American Library Association committees. I find that professional organizations like this one have become systems too – existing to perpetuate the system. They seem to lose sight of the goals they must originally have hoped to achieve. Certainly there is little talk of serving children amid the committees that meet endlessly under the auspices of the Association for Library Service to Children. I wonder if part of the taxpayers’ revolt is due not so much to an indifference to the welfare of  children but to a frustrated conviction that money is being extracted from overburdened citizens to finance a system that fails the children at every turn. Certainly I began to feel a very cold wind of self-doubt as I surveyed myself as a part of the system that produces books. Books that another system thinks something called a child should read. Certainly the computer, with its print-outs of sales and of profit and loss, dominates my working life.

As this speech loomed ever closer, I cast about for a way to address myself once again to children. To what real live individual children like to read – if anything. I decided to write to some publishing friends to see what books sold (on the theory that what was sold was read) and to library friends to see what books were sure-fire with children. It was addressing myself to the latter that gave me, at last, a topic. I wanted titles of books that librarians handed out with the assurance that the child would come back with the magic phrase “That was the best book I ever read.” This was not a poll or a survey of the kind so beloved by the machine culture. It was a sounding – a small, personal reaching out. And I am therefore not going to offer still another list of statistically computed titles. What I have tried to do is figure out – using the titles and my own experience with children – what children do like to read. Not what you or I or any other well-meaning adult thinks they should like to read.

Children do not necessarily like to read the books that adults buy for them. The titles listed over and over again by the librarians appeared on the publishers’ list of good sellers, but the reverse was not true. There were many books put down by publishers that rarely, if ever, showed up on the librarians’ lists.

Children read for information. Children are very interested in things. I spent a weekend in the company of a two-year-old recently, and we spent hours poring over bird books – his  own and his parents’. He knows the owl, blue jay, and cardinal, and  he no doubt will know more before he moves on to trucks or dinosaurs. And the adults in his life will have to provide an arsenal of straightforward factual books from which he can cull the information he is interested in acquiring. If they don’t they will have let him down very badly, indeed.

Children read to please adults. I feel we tend to ignore or over­ look this enormously important fact. It is, after all, the prime tool of education – the way in which much learning is motivated. To please an admired adult, a child will read those mind-stretching books that represent a new experience in reading. I heard this over and over from the librarians I wrote to, who use this phenomenon to take a child into, say, the Narnia or the Prydain books. Was it Beethoven who said that teaching must be the combination of the familiar and the surprising? The familiar is material that has been mastered and is therefore reassuringly easy but also potentially boring. The surprising is the excitement of the new challenge. Adults must provide the challenge.

Children read, as do adults, for instant gratification. They reach for the formula they know will please them. “Once there was a king and he had three sons,” says the storyteller at the village fountain, and we all listen. Not to see how the story comes out – we know that a pleasurable ending awaits us – but to see how the storyteller decorates the cake before we relish the last bit of icing.

Very young children choose books for what George Woods calls “lookability.” Small children use their eyes in a way I think we have forgotten – they dwell upon detail. This is one reason why I think that TV and other audio-visual media which flash images are so inappropriate for small children. They need the peace of visual scrutiny as a counterpoint to the stimulus of their own fast physical movements. They do not need fast – moving images.

Children read for illumination of self. They read the books that hold up a mirror in which the reader can see himself or herself reflected in enlightening clarity by a perceptive author. This, of course, is where Judy Blume scores so high, as does the enormously popular Beverly Cleary. Both writers seem to have a direct line to real children – not to what they think children should be or what they wish childhood had been. And real child­ hood is a combination of hope as yet undiluted by experience and experience made painful by the lack of perspective.

Children read for escape. Escape into a safe but recognizable world that surrounds them with meticulous and gratifying details. The “little countries of the mind,” as Joan Bodger terms it in her book How the Heather Looks (Viking). For some children this may be Peter’s burrow; for others, the Forest of Winnie-the­ Pooh. For most it is the world of Owl and of Frog and Toad created by Arnold Lobel. John Donovan, writing about Lobel’s Owl at Home (Harper) in the January 1976 Signal, said:

Only an artist of the purest sensibilities can capture innocence and not turn it into something cloying and, ultimately, embarrassing. Lobel clearly has these sensibilities. As for his art, it extends and complements his storytelling, in the same way that Maurice Sendak’s art does, and with the same results. Each, in his best books, looks inside: Sendak sees the dark and illuminates it, while Lobel sees the light and shares it.

Children reach for the book that offers the reassurance and deep  satisfaction of a vicarious triumph. Almost every book the “sure-fire” lists could be said to fall into this category. Encyclopedia Brown, Curious George, Pippi Longstocking – they all overcome. And the two books that were named on virtually every list contain archetypes of the protagonist triumphing over an antagonistic force: Where the Wild Things Are and Charlotte’s Web (both Harper). It is interesting to note that these two most popular books pit protagonists with whom children can easily identify – animals and other children – against profoundly universal antagonists. In the E. B. White book the antagonistic force is death. In the Sendak the antagonist is represented by those monsters of every child’s subconscious mind – guilt and anxiety – triumphantly and casually subdued by the sturdy hero. And it seems safe to speculate that this quality of universality accounts for their popularity.

But every book cannot be a profound and universal experience. And, judging by what children do enjoy reading, the spectrum is wide. Perhaps what they read for basically is what a friend of mine calls the story. She sometimes asks a group of people, What is your basic story, the plot which you always like wherever you find it? The answers are always interesting. For my friend, who invented the question, the story is Robinson Crusoe, and she is one of the most sociable beings I know. More obvious is the film-maker who chooses Robin Hood without hesitation. Most surprising was the gentle, sensitive writer, who said firmly in her soft southern voice – Tarzan. Mine is an end­ of-the-world-as-we-know-it number. The details seem to change through the years, but I am always with a select group of companions in a suddenly primitive environment. I deduce that its primal source is The Swiss Family Robinson.

Obviously, all these personal myths found their being in books we read as children. And perhaps the greatest satisfaction that a child finds in a book is this personal myth, this central fantasy of a congenial and controllable environment. For surely one of the most frustrating things about being a child is the lack of control over one’s environment. Or, indeed, one of the most frustrating things about being a person in a technological society is the loss of control. The drive for power so frighteningly apparent today might be, in part, a need to exercise a measure of control.

I certainly hope no one thinks I have made a list of guidelines to use in selecting popular books for children. Cast out lists and guidelines. Instead, start reading children’s books. Do not say you do not have enough time. A few years ago I joined a book discussion group and discovered that I avoided reading certain books out of disinterest rather than lack of time. For those of you who are slipping behind in your reading, I recommend forming a small group, informal but with a few firm rules about reading and discussion.

Read widely, old books and new, but don’t evaluate what you read in terms of what children should read. Instead, get some children into your life. Find at least one young being whom you can confront eyeball to eyeball and say, “I love this book. Let’s share it.” Or, just as important, “What was that book you and Harry liked so much?” You can meet some interesting books that way. You might even rid yourself of that shrug and curl of the lip that now accompanies the statement “But the children love it.” But the children love it?

No children? Look around you. Unless you live in on  of those adults-only communities that are apparently proliferating in this country, you might be lucky enough to have small neighbors accessible. Volunteer work in a shelter or a hospital can be a likely source of contact with children. Even a school or public library might have use for you on a volunteer basis. If all else fails, you can audit the story hour or lurk behind the picture book bins. Don’t overlook friends and relatives with offspring that can be cultivated. If you are lucky enough to have children in your life already, check out your attitude toward them. Are you trying to give them books you think, nay, know they should read? Or – even more perilous – you think they should like? And when they don’t like them, do you shrug and say, “Clearly a nonreader”?

I agree most emphatically with Leonard Wibberley. I think we overanalyze and overclassify every human action, reaction, and interaction these days. I fear a child’s pleasure in sharing books will be short-lived unless the adult can learn not to do the sharing in a spirit of convenient classification. And unless adults can remember that sharing books with children means a chance to share the very best in themselves. The dreams that have become polished rather than eroded  through the years; the new hopes that continue to spring into being; the loving and caring that is central to a truly human life.


Based upon the keynote speech presented at the eleventh Loughborough International Seminar on Children’s Literature at Framingham State College, Framingham, Massachusetts, on August 16, 1978. From the April 1979 Horn Book Magazine.

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