I have one memory of my father reading to me.
He’d returned home from work with a gift: the latest Dr. Seuss book, If I Ran the Circus. I can still see him standing in the doorway, book in hand, his coat unbuttoned and hat a little askew, a smile on his face.
My father had a distinctive smile during moments that called for tenderness or an admission of affection, a smile that strained to contain itself, as if emotional intimacy was also discomfort, as if displaying pleasure revealed too much of himself. I’m sure I was aware of none of this when a small child. I learned the secret pedigree of his expression as I grew older, my memory of it now easily available so many years later.
In the copy I own today—not that original edition but the current, 79th printing—I see on the copyright page that If I Ran the Circus was published in 1956. I would have been five, in kindergarten, two years away from being able to read on my own, when I sat beside my father, the large pages of the book facing us both, and he began to read to me about a boy named Morris McGurk, who saw the promise of a circus in the junkyard lot behind old man Sneelock’s general store. Morris felt sure that cleaning up the lot, with its weeds, a dead tree, and three old cars, was probably just “a half hour’s work.”
Soon enough, fantastical circus creatures made their entrance: the “horn-tooting apes from the Jungle of Jorn,” the “Drum-Tummied Snumm,” and a “Foon who eats sizzling hot pebbles that fall off the moon.” Each page brought another delightful surprise, especially Sneelock’s unexpected abilities of wrestling the Grizzly-Ghastly, training the Through-Horn-Jumping Deer, and taming the ferocious Spotted Atrocious. The circus grew in size and spectacle, the tongue-twisting rhymes working in concert with elaborate drawings of elaborate feats that enticed the eye to linger.
Each page offered something else: my father’s voice, trying to master the tricky rhymes without stumbling, attempting the book’s wonder with a dramatic reading. In a story that was filled with splendid performances, my quiet father tried his best to hold his own. I can still hear his bemused voice in the words of Dr. Seuss.
The circus tent expanded, the crowds grew larger, the various acts grew ever more extravagant, and the skills of ordinary Sneelock turned ever more extraordinary. Yet by the end, we found ourselves back at the junkyard behind Sneelock’s small store. Because there had been no circus, only young Morris McGurk’s hopes for one—the entire book was a bravura act of invention. The littered back lot behind Sneelock’s small store was still a littered back lot, and Sneelock was once again a shopkeeper, his supposedly marvelous potential as yet untapped. I can still remember the delicious shock of surprise, my initial glimpse into the vast spaces offered by imagination. I had been taken in by a boy’s fantasies that had conjured a junkyard into an extravaganza, and transformed a shopkeeper into a hero.
And I wanted to be taken in again.
Do I remember that moment with my father because it was so rare, or because memory only has room for this one example? He must have read If I Ran the Circus many more times to me. I remember at least asking, and the sense of a growing reluctance in his “yes,” as if he thought that once you finished reading a book, that was it, we already knew the ending, didn’t we? He didn’t seem to understand why a child might be obsessed with returning to a single book, or that my insistence was also connected to him—I wanted his voice, his presence to be included in those pages.
Whether or not I had an inkling that my emotionally awkward father was somehow slipping away from me, by second grade I’d learned to read by myself and hear my own silent speaking voice in the words on the page.
Thirty years after my father read If I Ran the Circus, I became a father and returned to the joys of reading aloud, first to my son, Nathaniel, then to my daughter, Hannah. That’s when I began to understand that children’s literature is one of the most difficult of literary genres.
From the first page, a children’s author faces the immediate task of writing a book that appeals to a kind of two-headed reader—one a child, the other an adult—and almost every sentence must sing a secret harmony. If a child basks in a book but the parent reading it out loud does not, that book may eventually be misplaced in an obscure corner of a bookshelf. If the adult enjoys a book but not the child, its story will likely never be read again.
What is the alchemy of appealing to this double audience? Adults write children’s books, not children. For an author, perhaps it’s a way of remembering the wonder of one’s own childhood. The transfer of that conjured wonder to another adult can create a bridge linking parent and child.
Sharing a passion for a story is only a beginning, because another challenge arises: the performance. When you read to a child, you’re offering him or her a slice of the wider world. You become a travel guide, turning page after page into new territory, and you use your voice to bring it to life. You flesh out the words with dramatic pauses—a whisper here, a raised voice there—and learn how to deliver a sentence’s punch line. Perhaps most importantly, you round out the personalities of the characters by creating their different voices. In doing so, you begin teaching your child the basics of imagining others. Further, the initial experience of reading aloud a children’s book must be carefully recreated. Because often, not only is the book beloved, but the child’s first hearing of it is beloved as well.
Although a panoply of fictional figures march through the 24 Tintin books that I read to my son, Nathaniel, the iconic main characters belong to a small club. It was relatively easy trying on and then recreating the gruff growl of Captain Haddock’s outrageous and inventive insults, Professor Calculus’s calm befuddled responses as he mishears everything, and Tintin’s earnest, boyish voice that can quickly assume a note of determination.
By contrast, the 14 volumes of The Wizard of Oz series that I read to my daughter, Hannah, posed far more challenges. We all know the basic Oz crew as established in the first book—Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and so on. The following 13 volumes in the series keep introducing an embarrassment of additional main characters, such as the Patchwork Girl (otherwise known as “Scraps”); Tik-Tok, the mechanical man; Princess Ozma, the true ruler of Oz; the Shaggy Man; the Woggle-Bug, an oversized, top-hatted, and highly-educated insect; Jack Pumpkinhead, whose head is a, well, you know; the Sawhorse, a carpenter’s ordinary wooden sawhorse brought to life by a magic powder; and many others. Giving them individual voices forced me to tap deeper skills of impersonation. Yet if a character suddenly recurred after an absence of a book or two in the series, I sometimes forgot what voice I’d assigned them. I’d have to stall, try to remember, assume a likely voice and—
“That’s not what she sounds like, she sounds like this,” Hannah then insisted. Thus retrained, I would try again.
More than 60 years since my father read If I Ran the Circus, I now read books to my five-year-old grandson, Dean. Although he can already sound out nearly anything on a page, limited not by skill but comprehension, he gets it that reading can be both private and communal. He’s blessed with parents who love to read to him as much as my wife, Alma, and I loved to read to our children.
Some of the books Alma and I read aloud have even survived to another generation, especially those in the Berenstain Bears series. They tell the tale of a family of bears with the unadorned names of Mama Bear, Papa Bear, and their cubs, Brother Bear and Sister Bear, who live in “the big tree house down a sunny dirt road deep in Bear Country.” At their most basic level, these are no nonsense books about how to behave. Employing a light touch, the books offer advice about how to deal with a bully, make up with friends after an argument, defuse a nightmare, face the consequences of telling a lie. They would probably be unbearable (yes, pun intended) to both parent and child, if not for a gentle, sometimes ironic humor: all the members of the Bear family have their own foibles, fragile strengths and uncertainties, and, with the possible exception of Mama Bear, they can behave a little foolishly, too.
The books come child-ready: each paperback entry in the series is lightweight, always 32 pages long, stapled not bound, with a carefully calibrated moral arriving by the last page.
Dean loves these books so much he has invented a way to extend bedtime reading, by creating on his own a version of David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas. Dean will open, say, The Trouble with Friends to its middle (where pages 16 and 17 display the two staples that hold the book together), then place another Berenstain Bears book—perhaps The Double Dare—on top of that, also opened to the middle pages. He’ll place another open-faced book, The Slumber Party or Count Their Blessings, over that, until he has a Dagwood sandwich of four or five books in one.
Once we read to the middle of The Trouble with Friends, then the second book, The Double Dare, takes over, and when we reach the middle of that, then the first half of the next book, The Slumber Party, takes over, and so on, until the book in the middle of this nested collection can be read through completely. The second half of each remaining book is then read in sequence, to the very end, followed by a hug goodnight and lights out. Because there’s no need to ask, “read it again,” when one book has been magically transformed into five.
One book that needs no such augmentation is another favorite, My Valley, by Claude Ponti. It is wonderfully large, 14.5 inches by 10.5 inches, as it needs to be to offer a world of vast spaces. It’s certainly big enough for a grandfather and grandson to hide behind. Ponti illustrates his own work, and while he can zoom in for the close detail, such as the eye of a curious giant, he’s equally good with a broad panorama. My Valley is filled with many full and detailed pages of the Blue Valley’s landscape, representing all four seasons. They’re an invitation to pause, regard the view, and get to know the world of the Twims as if you had their eyes, and as if you were their size.
The Twims are furry (in a short-haired way) and round-bellied creatures, smaller than the acorns, walnuts, apples, and pears that they cache in their winter storehouse. They have silly names my grandson never tires of: Empty-Dempty, Mermay-Moom, Smarghoula, Gussy-Tressy, Nothin’-Doin’ (and his pet parrot, Blahblah), and Poochie-Blue, to name a few.
The individual chapters of My Valley are confined to no more than two pages, and with little overarching drama to speak of, Ponti’s book adopts a relaxed pace in presenting glimpses of the Twims and their lives in the Blue Valley. Twims live for hundreds of years. Some fall from the sky and are adopted into welcoming families. Twims love to jump into a special puddle that can only be exited through other nearby puddles. They grow umbrellas and boats. They will steal away to whisper in the ears of the Tree of Secrets, because he “never repeats what you say to anyone.” They often visit the most charming cemetery you could ever imagine, filled with gardens the dead would have loved, such as “the garden of the Twims that loved to hear children playing,” or “the garden of the never-ending story.”
The large family of Poochie-Blue (the young Twims who serves as our guide) lives in the House Tree on the Blue Cliffs. Perhaps my grandson’s favorite part of the book is the full page, cut-away look at the House Tree. It’s a multi-storied home you can get lost in, and contains enough whimsy for you to want to visit rooms that have few right angles, and staircases of smooth steps connecting the kitchen, the bathrooms, bedrooms filled with pillows and a swing-like couch, a trapeze room, a room with a swimming pool, and four rooms lined with stuffed bookshelves—because the Twims love to read. There are helpful labels for identifying the various nooks and crannies of the House Tree: “cozy bed to read in,” and “bedroom to sleep in with a lot of friends,” but also too-obvious labels of the House Tree’s surrounding environment: “Ground,” “Outside,” and “Sky.” Dean loves pointing out the gentle absurdity of these, and we egg on each other’s laughter as we repeat them, reluctant to turn the page.
Another large landscape page is devoted to labeling the many features of the Blue Valley to which we’ve already grown accustomed—like the Singing Stone, where wishes might come true, if the wind is right. The majority, however, are places the book will visit later, such as the Dad’s Night Statue, or intriguing corners that are never visited or even further mentioned, which lend to the Twims’ world an expansive aura, an implication that it might never be exhausted. Many of the place names seem designed to delight a child: “Worstever Field,” the “Could Be” bridge, and “Crazy Hand Forest.” Why is the “Forest of the Laughing Twims” called that? My Valley doesn’t say. Perhaps Ponti is gently encouraging a reader—or a young listener—to make up a reason, and add a story to the stories already recorded here.
Immediately after we turn the last page, Dean will ask me to read the book again.
The Twims are often depicted reading books—either alone or, more likely, a batch of them together. Sometimes Dean and I have wondered what sort of books they like. A possible answer arrived recently, in the form of a new book by Claude Ponti, Hiznobyuti.
The creatures in Hiznobyuti have a similar tannish, shorthaired fur like the Twims, but they also sport rabbitty ears, their figures are far less pear-like, and they are not nearly as mellow. They might be neighbors from one of the lands that My Valley hints at, located either beyond the Island Sea in the north, or a distant place to the south—sometimes glimpsed through breaking storm clouds—called the Land Behind.
The main character, Hiznobyuti, was born with a nose resembling a mini-elephant trunk that spouted little puffs of black smoke, as if he suffered from some sort of sooty flu. “He’s no beauty!” his sister exclaims, and so he receives his name. Hiznobyuti’s parents, brother, and sister can only see his unusual exterior, and have no interest in his inner self. Before long he is consigned to a cold dark space beneath the sink, then bricked up inside it—a moment that is as grim as any in Ponti’s books.
In his isolation behind the sink cabinets, Hiznobyuti develops an obsession with “communophones,” a possible way of seeing inside the mystery of others’ thoughts and emotions. His first attempts—elaborate contraptions made of rope, or DIY radio transmissions—aren’t entirely successful. True communication, he will come to realize, lies far beyond the mechanical.
As he escapes and travels with his only friend, the two-legged talking, ticking Martin Clock (itself an abandoned creature), Hiznobyuti’s saga of discovery takes him past the challenges of a monster with hammers for hair, or the difficulty of “filling a bottomless pit with a leaky pot” for the old witch Sissyfus. Eventually, Hiznobyuti assumes perhaps the most productive Tree Pose ever posed, his arms growing into branches and leaves, his legs becoming roots, drawing him to “the secrets of stones that were as old as the earth,” and the “secrets of the sky, which were immense.” Only then does he brave a reunion with his undeserving but regretful family.
Of course, when we finish, Dean says, “Read that again.” And so we do. Why not? We’re already settled into the couch. As my grandson sits beside me, I feel the echo of my son or daughter when we’d read together, and the even more distant echo of my father, who taught me, with a single book, the power of a human voice channeling the delights of a story, and the surprise of imagination that held it all together.