The Very Hungry Caterpillar

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‘Parallel Botany’ in the Age of Alternative Facts

Author and illustrator Leo Lionni is best known for fitting together translucent, tissue shapes into children’s narratives—the first to do so, although his mouse Frederick (1967) was soon joined by Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969). Like fellow collagist Carle, Lionni had a day job in the world of art direction and advertising, working for Fortune for over a decade as well as Olivetti.

Lesser known is Lionni’s book for adults: Parallel Botany (1976). Far from his parable of Little Blue and Little Yellow, Parallel Botany has been compared to such esoteric texts as Luigi Serafini’s asemic encyclopedia The Codex Seraphinianus (1981) and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972), a fabricated explorer’s narrative. Parallel Botany is a field guide to imaginary plants, which Lionni presents with the authority of an academic writer—peppering his writing with references to real places and people, just to complicate things. It’s uniquely suited for rereading in the age of the Trump administration’s “alternative facts,” as it spans the gap between art and science, showing how disregard for the truth equally imperils both the studio and the laboratory.

The epigraph to Parallel Botany is a quote by Marianne Moore: “Imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Lionni, Serafini, and Calvino demonstrate in their own ways that art (the garden) and science (the toad) are not opposites—rather, they are the first casualties of a fascist regime. (Calvino actually wrote an introduction for Serafini’s Codex.) Why? Because their parallel thought processes reveal truth rather than replace it.

For Lionni, artifice—specifically, artificial science—is an art. “The difficulties of applying traditional methods of research to the study of parallel botany stem chiefly from the matterlessness of the plants. Deprived as they are of any real organs or tissues, their character would be completely indefinable if it were not for the fact that parallel botany is nonetheless botany,” he narrates. “For parallel plants, which often possess no other reality than mere appearance, plantness is one thing that enables us to recognize and describe them, and, to some extent to study their behavior.”

Although Lionni deals in immaterialism, he still relies on the structure of a field guide—just as other fabulist authors borrow from the encyclopedia and the atlas. In Invisible Cities, Calvino portrays a dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan in which Polo describes 55 cities, each of which is only as real as Polo’s ability to conceptualize it. Or, as Khan puts it, these cities constitute “a zodiac of the mind’s phantasms.” (For the mathematically minded, the descriptions of the cities form a matrix of themes—to most, they are just poetry.) “Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else,” Calvino writes.

Reading Lionni, one willingly suspends the question of realness in order to absorb the artful presentation of scientific fact. It is the right, and enjoyment, of this willing suspension that we must now fight for. “Like the subjects of old portraits they are reborn today, after long repose in oblivion, with a double identity: the one which we see before us in its gilded frame, with its own reality,” Lionni writes of his parallel plants. He even makes reference to one “Harole MacLohen,” a thinly-veiled Marshall McLuhan. MacLohen’s analysis of modern media includes the caution, “The leading personalities of our time–athletes, statesmen, pop singers, and scientists–are at most ten inches tall. We accept their rather dubious dimensions without ever being able to verify them in person.” A thing is made real by what it represents. Consider Harvard’s collection of “Glass Flowers”—delicate, organic forms which once took my breath away on a class field trip. To “read” the glass flowers requires the same critical literacy as Parallel Botany.

Truly healthy societies seek to cultivate rational imagination. In The Believer, Justin Taylor describes his first encounter with The Codex Seraphinianus and its internal logic, however inscrutable. “Text accompanied these images—or what looked like text. But the text wasn’t in English, and it wasn’t anything recognizably foreign like, say, Arabic or Sanskrit, though those analogs immediately came to mind. Though impenetrable, a kind of meaning was suggested by the layout of the script on the page.” Just as Lionni describes plantness, Serafini’s asemic writing is evidence of languageness. Taylor takes the book to writer Shelley Jackson, who remarks, “It’s important that it bothers you with the feeling that there is some content that you ought to be able to extract from it in a normal discursive kind of way. It’s meant to appeal to the rational or exegetical urge.”

The philosophical framework for all three of the works mentioned resembles a predecessor–”Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (1940) by Jorge Luis Borges. In this short story, the narrator finds an entry within an ordinary encyclopedia that hints at the existence of another world. Later, he finds an encyclopedia entirely dedicated to it: “Now I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet’s entire history…And all of it articulated, coherent, with no visible doctrinal intent or tone of parody.” In fact, Borges’s story is a bit of a parody itself. In a 1977 interview, the author explained that the story was based on George Berkeley’s theory of subjective idealism, “the idea of there being no things but only happenings, of there being no nouns but only verbs, of there being no things but only perceptions,” Borges said.

The narrator calls the existence of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius a “complete idealism [that] invalidates all science,” however, it is clear from the existence of Parallel Botany that subjective idealism can have a political function in a society sliding towards fascism. This function is to dematerialize art and science, so that truth is the process of discernment—not a set of pliable facts. Hannah Arendt put it best when she said, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

When our critical literacy suffers our imagination suffers as well, limiting the genres of possibility. Truth makes the art of Lionni, Serafini, and Calvino possible. It is the difference between science fiction and science and fiction. Serafini’s asemic writing is an argument for reading. Calvino’s invented locales represent past and future travels. Lionni’s fake field guide falls flat without true scientific sight. For every author like Lionni there is a corresponding model of oppression in which we don’t just give up the facts—we give up the ability to parallelize them.

The Problem With Summer Reading

I imagine the only thing worse than being a kid with a summer reading assignment due in little more than a month is being the parent of a kid with a summer reading assignment due in little more than a month. Has the fighting begun? The daily reminders and the task-mastering and the endless, tedious, summer-joy sucking arguments? We might still have a good week or so before the upcoming school year reaches back into blissful summer time and asks, not kindly, how far along you are in your summer reading assignments.

I teach high school English in a town that has a mandated summer reading program. The program prides itself on being more progressive than most: students are allowed to choose their books, provided that those books are represented in the Accelerated Reader Program database. The kids keep track of how many “points” each book is worth, as determined by the program, and are asked to read a different number of points depending on what level of English they are enrolled in. Students in Standard English must read 10 points, Academic English students read 20, and Honors read 30. Point value is determined, as far as I can tell, by the number of pages. So this means that on average, students are asked to read somewhere between one and four books over the summer to meet the requirement.

Then comes September. We don’t quiz them on the first day, or even the first week, because everyone would fail. The policy is that the students have until the end of September to “finish” their summer reading, and by this date, must log into the software in their English teacher’s presence and complete the AR quiz on the books that they read. Most students use this time afforded to them to swap summaries of books with simple plots, to recall what books they might have read with their middle school English classes and never tested on, or to calculate how many three-point Dr. Seuss books they would have to test on to reach their assigned point value. Last year The Hunger Games movie was released, and about 50 percent of my students tested on that book. Students test every year on the Harry Potter books, because HBO runs the films for week-long stretches, giving kids every opportunity to get the plot down.

Watching them game the system, it seems it takes more work to successfully not read than it would to just pick up a book.

Yes, there are ways that I could crack down on the requirements and my watchfulness of their testing practices. But I can’t bring myself around to it. Summer reading assignments are a waste of time, and I’m a busy lady. Not only that, but focusing on the Accelerated Reader point values of books and testing the students on inane and helplessly specific plot points would fly directly in the face of all of the work that I am doing in September to teach my students about being readers.

I have some readers in my classes: they are the kids in September who couldn’t care less about the Summer Reading assignment. They’ll search through the database for two or three of the 10 books they read this summer, and test on those. They’ll do well enough, though they will often be frustrated to earn a 70 percent on a book that they read 100 percent of because they missed question 6: Couldn’t remember what color shoes the protagonist’s uncle bought him before moving away. For readers, AR will just be an annoyance, or at worst a source of unwarranted stress, because they already know how disconnected summer reading assignments are from the true motivations and rewards of reading.

But my non-readers. I’m spending September trying to teach them the practices of readers. I’m stressing the payoffs, I’m playing book matchmaker, I’m modeling my own practices and talking about my favorite books in my classroom library. I’m telling them how they were born with a love of reading, reminding them of The Giving Tree and The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Captain Underpants, and telling them that school took this love of reading from them, killed it. And then, gritting my teeth, I’m reminding them that they have to complete their department-mandated summer reading assignment by September 28th.

Summer reading assignments and reading quizzes and book reports don’t teach our students how to be readers. They teach them that reading is a school-centered activity. That it is a chore. That they aren’t good at it if they can’t remember insignificant plot points. These assignments set students up to cheat, or to fail, and always to regard reading as a drag.

This is how we breed kids who say they “hate reading”. The very act itself. They don’t like the books they have been forced to read, and so they’ve written off the entire activity, as if being forced to eat their vegetables had driven them to swear off food entirely.

Summer reading assignments aren’t just ruining students’ last few glorious weeks of summer, aren’t just adding to the already arduous load of summer assignments from other classes and adding stress to what should be a period of freedom, aren’t just causing fights at the dinner table and taking away Xbox playing privileges. Summer reading assignments are killing a love of reading.

You read for its own sake. To learn, to travel, to be spooked or heartbroken or elated. To grow.And when you do this, when reading becomes something that you authentically value, you become a better reader and writer without even trying. You start to reach for more advanced reading material, inferring word meaning, connecting with characters and identifying their growth, interpreting nuances of meaning and symbolism with delight and awe. When you write, your sentence structure becomes more complex and sophisticated. You write with greater imagery. You take emotional risks, understanding that good writing is honest.

I know because I see it happen. When I take away book reports and reading quizzes, when I eliminate deadlines for finishing books and specific title requirements, my students are free to read books that they choose, and as the year progresses, they choose more and more and more.

“How are we being graded on this?” they ask, at the beginning of the year. “You get full credit just by reading,” I respond, and they stare at me confused for a second longer before shrugging and turning their eyes back to the page.

I don’t assign anything to reward or punish them for being readers. What I do, is assess their skills as the year progresses. That’s how I know that that when you read a lot of books you like, you become a better reader and writer without even trying. That’s how I know that my instruction meets the Common Core State Standards for Education without ever forcing them to read The Odyssey, or making them take a test on a book.

That’s why I don’t want anything to do with assigned summer reading.

In June of last year, my students wrote book reviews which I posted on my website organized by genre. Their classmates and my students who followed are able to reference this list for recommendations. This year, my students wrote letters to an author who influenced them. Almost all of the students were writing to an author of a book that they chose to read this year. Many of them were writing: “Your book is the first book that I actually read.” Or: “Your book taught me that I don’t hate reading.”

Because there were no reading deadlines, most of my students were in the middle of a book when the last day of school came around, and so summer reading was something that was just going to happen.

And what if it doesn’t? What if, after reading all year and understanding its value and feeling the sense of ownership that comes with making his own decisions about what he does and learns, a kid still chooses not to read a single book in July or August?

Like I said, I’m a busy lady. This is just not something I can get worked up over. I’ll catch you in September, and we’ll do it right.

Image Credit: Flickr/Enokson

Goodnight Stars, Goodnight Air: Reconnecting with Children’s Books as a Parent

The books that parents read to their very young children don’t change much from generation to generation.  When my son was born two years ago I was surprised to find that with few exceptions, the titles we welcomed into our Philadelphia apartment were the same ones that three decades earlier had served as my own introduction to storytelling.

I made an informal study of the Amazon sales rankings of the books I enjoyed having read to me most as a kid.  It seemed to confirm that taste in books for young children is remarkably constant.  Here are just a handful of popular titles with their publication years and their overall Amazon ranks:

The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969), #169
Goodnight Moon (1947), #227
Where the Wild Things Are (1963), #314
The Giving Tree (1964), #342
Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), #559
Pat the Bunny (1940), #743
Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day (1968), #817

For comparison’s sake, consider Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, which was a bestseller only a few years ago and enjoys strong residual sales.  It’s currently ranked #2,194, which leaves it well behind the leading titles in the Dr. Seuss canon (Green Eggs and Ham, #1,050; The Lorax, #1,063).

The reason children’s books endure seems clear enough: The books that toddlers read are determined entirely by adults, and when adults select books for kids they naturally gravitate towards the books they loved as kids.  As a result, the market for children’s books is probably more resistant to cultural churn than just about any other slice of the consumer economy; it’s a closed circuit that reproduces itself one generation after another.

There are benefits to this system.  For one, it helps to ensure that passing fads doesn’t wash quality books away.  It’s doubtful, for example, that toddlers would opt for Goodnight Moon as often as their parents do, so maybe it’s just as well that they don’t have a say.  For two, the persistence of children’s books yields a kind of experience we don’t get so often in a culture that has relatively few traditions: the chance to revisit childhood experiences through an older set of eyes.

Just the other weekend I took my two-year-old son to Barnes and Noble to buy a birthday present for a friend of his.  I browsed the aisles while my son emptied a carousel of Berenstain Bears books onto the floor. After a few minutes I spotted Caps for Sale (#5057), a book that had once meant a great deal to me but which I had not thought about in decades.  It was nice to see that it had managed to last all this time without my attention.  We bought two copies, one for the friend and one for us.

That night I put my son in his pajamas, filled his cup with milk, sat him in my lap and began to read Caps for Sale.  It only took a few lines before the entire story came back to me: an old world peddler walks around a village with a stack of caps on his head; one luckless afternoon he leans back against a tree to take a nap and when he wakes up he finds his caps have been confiscated by a troop of monkeys in the tree branches above him; he demands the monkeys give him his caps back by shaking his fists and stomping his feet but the monkeys mock his efforts and for a moment it seems like he’ll never get them back.

In addition to remembering the plot, I was somewhat stunned by how vividly the feelings the book had elicited in me as a kid came tumbling back.  It’s noted several times in the book, for example, that the peddler always stacks his caps on his head in the same order—“first his own checked cap, then the gray caps, then the brown caps, then blue caps, then the red caps on the very top.”  As I read this to my son I found myself flush with the same covetousness for the red caps, so bright and distinct above the rest, that I’d felt as a child.

I had a similar experience at the end of the story.  In order to get his caps back, the peddler remonstrates the monkeys every way he can: he shakes his fists, stomps his feet, jumps up and down.  The monkeys repeat his actions back to him but the simple peddler doesn’t see what’s going on.  He thinks the monkeys are mocking his suffering when really they’re just aping (monkeying?) him like the lower-order mammals that they are.  In despair the peddler takes his own checked cap off his head—the one cap that’s not for sale, and the only cap the monkeys didn’t take—and throws it to the ground and starts to walk away.

As my son finished his milk and started to fall asleep, I found myself awash in the same anguish I’d felt at this point in the story as a child.  I couldn’t have explained why at the time, but as a child I knew there was something deeply sad about the peddler throwing his own cap to the ground.  Now as an adult, I can put words to that sadness; I can see that by throwing his own cap to the ground the peddler is effectively saying that without his caps, nothing in the world matters anymore.

I was surprised by the complexity of the reaction to Caps for Sale I’d had as a kid.  As a four-year-old I had no firsthand experiences that would have taught me there is such a thing as despair in the face of an unforgiving world, but on an intuitive level I understood that what the peddler was experiencing went beyond mere frustration.

When the peddler throws down his cap the monkeys throw their caps down too, and tragedy is averted.  The peddler collects his caps from the ground, stacks them back atop his head, and walks back to town calling “Caps for sale, fifty cents a cap.”  It is not exactly a happy ending—the fact that the peddler became so desperate over the loss of a few caps reveals just how precarious his life really is—but there is a melancholic satisfaction in knowing that he gets to go on selling for one more day at least.

For me, the feeling I had after I’d closed Caps for Sale and laid my son down in his crib was melancholic and satisfying, too.  It was an unexpected gift to have glimpsed myself as a child through the pages of the book, and a wonder to imagine that if trends hold, my son might one day have the same experience himself.

Bonus Link: Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?

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