After Maurice Sendak died last month, I was reminiscing about his books, and then about all the children’s books that made an impression on our family.
Found in the stacks at Bookman’s, Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, so quirky and fantastic, was one of our favorites: “Milk in the batter! Milk in the batter! We bake cake! And nothing’s the matter!”
Our weekly trips to the library yielded good stuff, too, but some books needed to be owned and savored. Bookman’s was our favorite because we could exchange often, essentially trading up for not much cash, which was in rather short supply in those days.
Where the Wild Things Are came to us later as a gift. “Let the wild rumpus start,” means something when you are the mother of two boys.
After baths and the tucking of clean boys into beds, we’d read aloud. The pace of our lives in those days made such things possible. Our simple routines grounded and comforted us.
If the books were also funny and interesting for the adults that was a bonus. Besides Sendak, Mike and I loved the idiosyncrasy of Roald Dahl: The Big Friendly Giant and James and the Giant Peach. Edward Gorey’s The Shrinking of Treehorn, a truly peculiar tale illustrated in Gorey’s eccentric style, was (and maybe still is) a favorite.
Over the years, phrases from children’s books made their way into the family vernacular.
In Arthur Lobel’s Frog and Toad Together, the pair hike up a mountain trail, until they encounter a hawk, who threatens them: “Hello, lunch.” Read aloud, this line must be said with exactly the right menacing tone. Over the years that phrase has been quoted frequently and to great effect.
When he was four, our son David memorized Shel Silverstein’s poem, Bear in There:
There’s a Polar Bear/In our Frigidaire – /He likes it ‘cause it’s cold in there./With his seat in the meat/And his face in the fish/And his big hairy paws/In the buttery dish,/He’s nibbling the noodles,/He’s munching the rice,/He’s slurping the soda,/He’s licking the ice./And he lets out a roar/If you open the door./And it gives me a scare/To know he’s in there –/That Polary Bear/In our Fridgitydaire.
I can almost still say it aloud myself (one of the consequences of helping a four year old memorize something), and that makes me wonder if anyone still memorizes poetry, or anything else for that matter.
If you were going to memorize a poem, Silverstein’s Crowded Tub would be a good place to start, especially with a four-year-old:
There’s too many kids in this tub./There’s too many elbows to scrub./I just washed a behind/That I’m sure wasn’t mine./There’s too many kids in this tub.
On a long ago road trip Wendy, Jayne and I read Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows aloud to each other, taking particular care with all the voices. This is where the phrase ‘messing about in boats’ originated in the musings of Ratty who loves all things about the water.
Since that time, the term has always conjured up for me the dreaminess of leisurely paddling on still water, days of knowing the general direction of travel, but not caring or being in control of the specifics of the journey.
Last Memorial Day weekend, the same three of us took our kayaks to Lee’s Ferry and did a backhaul up to Glen Canyon Dam. We spent the morning in dreamy traveling mode: lazy paddling, and getting our bearings with our boats on the first outing of the season. We spotted a herd of twenty-one bighorn sheep along the river, babies and adults, plus egrets, great blue herons, and families of mallards. The conversations were a choppy and disjointed, the way the boats came together and drifted away, with little effort on our part.
Later on, the wind picked up and we had to work harder to get to the takeout by late afternoon, but in those first few hours we were rewarded with treasures untold, as we messed about in boats.