Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever

The Ballad of John the Pig

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John the Pig

For the last month or so, one of the first things my daughter has said to me every morning, as well as one of the last things she says before she goes to bed at night, is: “Talk about John the Pig.” She’ll ask about John while eating breakfast, while we’re out in the stroller, when we’re together in the car, or when I’m giving her a bath, and I usually oblige, to the point where I’ve spent maybe a hundred hours over the past several weeks talking to her about John the Pig. Who is he? He’s the anonymous little pig who appears on the rightmost edge of page 13 of Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, playing happily in his sandbox at the playground. I’m not sure exactly why I latched onto that particular image, but it was probably just the first one that happened to catch my eye. John’s name was similarly plucked out of thin air.  When I initially brought him up, I had the vague idea that I could make up a few stories about John to amuse my daughter, since we’d already gone through the book from cover to cover. Ever since, John’s story has expanded beyond anything I could have imagined. He’s acquired a family, a huge supporting cast—Molly the Rabbit, Mary the Mouse, Little Elephant, Sam and Sally the Sand Crabs—and a life that takes him through the city, the school, the park, and the beach, in a narrative that rivals any soap opera or oral epic in terms of length and density of incident. In short, he’s quite the little pig.

Many parents, I imagine, have undergone this kind of experience, and occasionally, the stories we make up take on a life of their own. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland famously began as a tale that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson told to amuse the Liddell sisters on a day in the country, while Ted Hughes’s stories about the Iron Man—later filmed as The Iron Giant—originated in his stories for his own children. Until now, I’ve never quite understood how a bedtime story can grow and develop into something that deserves to be put down on paper, but now I do. My daughter’s questions and requests about John the Pig are inexhaustible, and it’s often all I can do to keep up with her appetite for more. (Often, they’ll take the form of oddly specific pitches: “I want John the Pig to get lost.” “I want John the Pig to hurt his knee.” “I want John the Pig to knock over his sand castle.”) Originally, the stories took place within the pictures provided by Best Word Book Ever, with John accompanying his parents or his friends to the grocery store or airport or zoo, but by now, the book has long since been put away, and we’re only limited by whatever events or settings the two of us can imagine. Not everything I make up on the spot is worth remembering, and the stories have a way of petering out toward the end. But not always. And sometimes even I’m curious to know where John will end up next.

Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever

And it’s starting to feel like an adventure for me, too. I’m the kind of writer who likes to plan everything in advance, but I don’t know how a John the Pig story will end, and it amuses me to come up with a conclusion that ties back into where the story began, or to figure out a reasonably clever way for John to get out of one of his predicaments. There’s an evolutionary process at work here, too. Most of my ideas are discarded as soon as the story is over, but occasionally, one of them sticks, and we’ve even had a few breakout characters. (Sam and Sally the Sand Crab were introduced to get me out of a particular narrative problem, but like Urkel or the Fonz, they’ve practically become the stars of their own spinoff.) It’s the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to improvising for an audience, although it also helps that my daughter is a forgiving listener. She likes stories in which John goes on improbable adventures, but she’s equally interested in hearing about a day at school or a play date with Molly the Rabbit, and I’m often put in mind of G.K. Chesterton’s wonderful observation:

A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.

It can be a little exhausting, of course, and there are times—particularly after I’ve been dragged out of bed at five in the morning—when my invention sputters and I’d rather do anything but spin another interminable story. (Whenever I can’t think of what comes next, I fall back on something tried and true, like a visit to Molly the Rabbit’s house, which has convinced me that the formulas we find in so much oral storytelling are just ways to buy the poet time as he thinks his way through to the next plot point.) But I’ve also learned a lot in the process. Beatrix craves conflict, and she’s much more interested in stories in which John the Pig is sad than when he’s happy. And she’s starting to take an active role in the act of composition herself. Whenever I find my energy flagging, I’ll ask her: “And then what happened?” She’ll usually have a few good ideas of her own, and I get a sense that she doesn’t distinguish between the details I provide and the ones that she comes up with independently. Ultimately, my dream is that she’ll take up the thread herself and start telling me her own stories without any need of prompting. Busytown has plenty of characters and locations, and exploring it with her through it has turned, rather unexpectedly, into one of the great joys of my life as a father. John the Pig loves his sandbox, but the real sandbox is the one in which my daughter and I play every day.

What I learned from Richard Scarry

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Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever

Recently, for the first time in my life, I’ve been spending a lot of time with little kids. Aside from my own daughter, there’s the three-year-old son of a friend, who comes over once a month or so and loves playing a game where I hide two plastic dinosaurs in the house so he can find them with a flashlight. There’s also my slightly younger niece, who visits once a week with her grandparents. Both are wonderful kids, and both love reading. Usually, whenever one of them comes over, we’ll pay a visit to my daughter’s nursery to pick out a few books to read aloud while they’re here. They tend to grab one of the same handful of titles—Goodnight Moon, The Crocodile Blues, the Curious George series—but I’ve got my favorites, too. And what I’ll often do is grab a book of my own, bring it downstairs without comment, and lay it out casually in plain sight, in hopes that they’ll take an interest, which they generally do. Occasionally, to pique their curiosity, I’ll start to read it myself.

And the best part is that it’s a book that I could easily read for my own pleasure. It’s Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, and if you’ve somehow never seen it, I can assure you that it’s a masterpiece. It consists of about thirty gorgeous two-page scenes, arranged by theme or location—the farm, the airport, the kitchen, cars and trucks, ships and boats—with forty captions or so to indicate the names for different buildings, vehicles, objects, or animals. On the page about going to the doctor, for instance, there are perfect little drawings of a gauze bandage, a thermometer, a stethoscope, a tongue depressor, a rubber hammer to make legs kick, an eye chart, a tooth, and a tooth with a cavity. The spread on trains has a diesel switcher, piggyback car, steam locomotive and tender, and more. And part of the fun, for me, is realizing that I didn’t know the name for, say, a bucket loader until I saw it on one of these pages. (Although when it comes to building my own vocabulary, the real gold mine is Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things that Go, which I’ve coveted ever since seeing it in my niece’s playroom.)

Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever

But the real joy of the book is that it provides a wealth of material for the stories that children—and certain adults—are born to tell themselves. Looking at a picture of Brother Rabbit putting on his tie in his bedroom mirror, it’s natural to wonder what he’ll do next—perhaps go down the neatly labeled stairs through the neatly labeled front door, or perhaps head into the living room, which, with its labeled sofa and lamp and fireplace, is so much like the one in which we’re sitting. Scarry’s animals aren’t standing around as mute illustrations of the words in question; rather, they’re just going about their busy lives, and it’s remarkable how easily we can imagine stories about them. That’s why I was so delighted when my niece said to my wife, pointing at a picture of a pig near a corncrib: “Maybe the pig wants to eat one corn.” (Although I’ll admit that it’s a little disconcerting to see this pig in a sty followed, a few pages later, by another family of pigs in clothes seated at the dinner table—which presents me with the same sort of philosophical problem I encounter when I try to explain the difference between Pluto and Goofy.)

And it’s a habit of telling stories that, if we’re lucky, stays with us for the rest of our lives. All little kids essentially begin by writing fanfic about themselves, their families, and the people in the books they read: my first literary productions were comic books, made out of carefully folded and stapled typing paper, depicting various battles and adventures of the Masters of the Universe. And for proof that the rewards start early, look no further than the following story, told by my niece and transcribed this week by my sister-in-law:

This is another Moo Cow story. It is about Moo Cow’s favorite. Moo Cow opens his present and saves it for later. And he opened his present again and found a pencil. And he looked at it and looked at it and then he found a paper. He was drawing and drawing and then he put it away in the present and wrapped it up. Then he went to the pond and dived in the water. The End.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to hear more about Moo Cow. And it makes me very happy.

Written by nevalalee

March 12, 2013 at 9:50 am

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