Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Sesame Street Dictionary

Bert’s nose and the limits of memory

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Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street?

A few days ago, I was leafing through a Sesame Street coloring book with my daughter when I was hit by a startling realization: I couldn’t remember the color of Bert’s nose. I’ve watched Bert and Ernie for what has to be hundreds of hours—much of it in the last six months—and I know more about them than I do about most characters in novels. But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember what color Bert’s nose was, and I was on the point of looking up a picture in The Sesame Street Dictionary when it finally came to me. As I continued to page through the coloring book, though, I found that I had trouble recalling a lot of little details. Big Bird’s legs, for instance, are orange cylinders segmented by thin contour lines, but what color are those lines? What about Elmo’s nose? Or the stripes on Bert and Ernie’s shirts? In the end, I repeatedly found myself going online to check. And while the last thing I want is to set down rules for what crayons my daughter can and can’t use when coloring her favorite characters, as a writer, and particularly one for whom observation and accuracy of description have always been important, I was secretly chagrined.

They aren’t isolated cases, either. My memory, like everyone else’s, has areas of greater and lesser precision: I have an encyclopedic recall of movie release dates, but have trouble putting a name to a face until I’ve met a person a couple of times. Like most of us, I remember images as chunks of information, and when I try to drill down to recall particular details, I feel like Watson in his exchange with Holmes in “A Scandal in Bohemia”:

For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”
“How often?”
“Well, some hundreds of times.”
“Then how many are there?”
“How many? I don’t know.”
“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

And I find it somewhat peculiar—and I’m not alone here—that I was able to remember and locate this quote without any effort, while I still couldn’t tell you the number of steps that lead to the front porch of my own house.

Illustration by Sidney Paget for "A Scandal in Bohemia"

Of course, none of this is particularly surprising, if we’ve thought at all about how our own memories work. A mental image is really more of an impression that disappears like a mirage as soon as we try to get any closer, and it’s particularly true of the objects we take most for granted. When we think of our own pasts, it’s the exceptional moments that we remember, while the details of everyday routine seem to evaporate without a trace: I recall all kinds of things about my trip to Peru, but I can barely remember what my average day was like before my daughter was born. This kind of selective amnesia is so common that it doesn’t even seem worth mentioning. But it raises a legitimate question of whether this represents a handicap for a writer, or even disqualifies us from doing interesting work. In a letter to the novelist James Jones, the editor Maxwell Perkins once wrote:

I remember reading somewhere what I thought was a very true statement to the effect that anybody could find out if he was a writer. If he were a writer, when he tried to write out of some particular day, he found that he could recall exactly how the light fell and how the temperature felt, and all the quality of it. Most people cannot do it. If they can do it, they may never be successful in a pecuniary sense, but that ability is at the bottom of writing, I am sure.

For those of us who probably wouldn’t notice if someone quietly switched our toothbrushes, as Faye Wong does to Tony Leung in Chungking Express, this may seem disheartening. But I’d like to believe that memory and observation can be cultivated, like any writing skill, or that we can at least learn how to compensate for our own weaknesses. Some writers, like Nabokov or Updike, were born as monsters of noticing, but for the rest of us, some combination of good notes, close attention to the techniques of the writers we admire, and the directed observation required to solve particular narrative problems can go a long way toward making up the difference. (I emphasize specific problems because it’s more useful, in the long run, to figure out how to describe something within the context of a story than to work on self-contained writing exercises.) Revision, too, can work wonders: a full page of description distilled to a short paragraph, leaving only its essentials, can feel wonderfully packed and evocative. Our memories are selective for a reason: if we remembered everything, we’d have trouble knowing what was important. It’s better, perhaps, to muddle through as best as we can, turning on that novelistic degree of perception only when it counts—or, more accurately, when our intuition tells us that it counts. And when it really matters, we can always go back and verify that Bert’s nose, in fact, is orange.

Written by nevalalee

July 21, 2015 at 9:26 am

The Muppets according to Mathieu

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The Sesame Street Dictionary

Over the last few days, my daughter and I have been reading what I’m tempted to nominate as the children’s book of the century: The Sesame Street Dictionary. I picked up our current copy of the classic first edition at a thrift store for a dollar before she was even born, and it’s been waiting on our bookshelf ever since. It sat there unopened for a long time, mostly because Beatrix was more interested in eating paper books than in reading them, but I grabbed it over the weekend on an impulse, mostly out of the need to head off a looming temper tantrum—hers, not mine. Now it’s rarely out of her hands. More surprisingly, I’ve found myself browsing through it for hours on end, newly delighted by how good it is. And while it’s a book that inspires universal affection in all those who remember it, I think it’s time to properly acknowledge it as one of the masterpieces of the form, and particularly to single out the accomplishment of illustrator and designer Joe Mathieu, who singlehandedly drew and laid out every astonishing page.

What strikes me the most about the dictionary now is how endlessly right it is. For page after page, over 1,300 entries, the illustrations are accurate, charming, and unfailingly on model. This last point may seem trivial, but a moment’s reflection reveals how extraordinary it is. Try to draw Ernie or Big Bird even once, and you’re immediately hit by how subtle their proportions really are: get the eyes or the nose just a bit off, and you’re deep in the Muppet version of the uncanny valley. For one man to hit the mark so consistently across more than a thousand different situations requires not just exceptional draftsmanship, but a deep understanding of character, form, and expression. Not surprisingly, Matheiu’s work quickly became a standard reference: according to the Muppet Wiki, copies of the dictionary are handed out to all writers and editors at the Sesame Workshop as a kind of universal model sheet. It’s hard to imagine a better resource, not just for the characters themselves, but for everything in the entire world. The next time my daughter asks me to draw her anything, I’ll be turning to this book first.

The Sesame Street Dictionary

So who is Joe Mathieu, anyway? He was born in 1949, graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, and worked as a freelance artist before falling in with Random House and the Sesame Workshop. Aside from the dictionary itself, which took more than two and a half years to complete, he illustrated dozens of books and stories featuring the Muppet characters, as well his own works and those by other authors, and he’s still active today. (Interestingly, his other illustrations—including the ones for books I remember fondly from my own childhood, like Ernie’s Little Lie—tend to be looser and wilder than those in the dictionary, while still honoring each character’s underlying personality.) To some extent, he’s less visible to a wider audience because of his association with the Sesame Street brand. If The Sesame Street Dictionary, or something like it, had been released independently, without its imprimatur, we’d mention him in the same breath as Richard Scarry. As it stands, he’s a bit like Sesame Street itself: ubiquitous, beloved, and taken just a little for granted.

Of course, it’s impossible to separate Mathieu’s achievement from the larger enterprise that he served so admirably. In a nifty piece on the dictionary’s origins on the Sesame Workshop blog, Mathieu notes that he was given full access to the Muppet workshop by Jim Henson, and spent days sketching, photographing, and interacting with the physical puppets. The dictionary itself was drawn and written in alphabetical order, one page at a time, with the text, illustration, and layout all evolving in tandem, a process that took months of twelve-hour days. And much of its charm, humor, and attention to detail are rooted in the fact that it was drawn by hand, inch by inch, by one man. (Full credit must be given, of course, to writer Linda Hayward and editor Sharon Lerner, although it’s clear that many of the gags, vignettes, and ingenious connections between words on a single page are due to Mathieu himself.) It’s the kind of crazy, ambitious project that seems hard to imagine today, and it clearly couldn’t have existed without the institutional support it received. And the result is bliss between two covers—the one children’s book I’d want to own if I had to give up all the rest.

Written by nevalalee

December 9, 2014 at 10:26 am

Know your reader

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Over the last few months, I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time with my two-year-old niece, who lives just up the road in Oak Park and is a strong contender for the title of the best girl in the world. Watching her grow up has been a delight, and a source of reassurance, now that I have a daughter of my own on the way. My niece’s parents are raising a bright, engaged child using essentially the same approach that I’m hoping to take myself: give her a lot of love and attention, keep screens and other devices to a minimum, and surround her with books. One of the unexpected pleasures of being around a small child is rediscovering how good the books of your youth really were: Dr. Seuss, for instance, has become such a cultural icon that it’s sometimes hard to remember that, above all, he was a visual, verbal, and comedic genius of startling originality. The man could simply do anything, and it’s profoundly satisfying to confirm firsthand that his books really were that funny, inventive, comforting, and strange.

And it’s especially enlightening to read him, or any other children’s author, aloud. I don’t have many memories of being read aloud to as a child, and I’ve been able to read on my own for as long as I can remember, so my experience of Dr. Seuss and similar writers is a little skewed: I’m in awe of the inner imaginative associations that their works can evoke with a few words and a single image, but had never really thought about the process of reading aloud before. This will probably come as old news to anyone who has spent time with small children, but reading aloud to a two-year-old is really a form of interactive theater: you spend as much time talking about the illustrations as reading the words themselves, and often find yourself on an extended tangent about, say, the animals building snowmen of themselves on one page of Leo The Late Bloomer, to the point where the thread of the story itself is almost lost. (This is especially true when you’re reading the book in question for the fifteenth time.)

As a result, I quickly discovered that I had no idea what made a good picture book, at least not before I had the experience of sitting down and reading it with my niece herself. The Brownie and Pearl series may not be the first thing I’d chose to read silently on my own—whereas I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of Oh, The Thinks You Can Think!—but as a source of objects to talk about and name, and of stories that suggest themselves at the edges of the narrative, they’re great. My niece loves pointing to pictures of things she recognizes and identifying colors and shapes, to the point where it’s something of a letdown when a picture in a book doesn’t give us enough to talk about. (At the very least, I demand a flower, a train, and maybe an elephant.) And an author like Richard Scarry, or a book like The Sesame Street Dictionary, presents an unimaginable abundance of riches. I’ve always loved these books, but it wasn’t until recently that I understood how they were really supposed to be experienced.

And this gets at a larger point about books of all kinds. Books are meant to be read, to serve as a stage for the theater of the mind, whether you’re reading them aloud or quietly to yourself, and they can’t be separated from the nature of their intended enjoyment, which is something that both authors and critics need to remember. Just as a horror movie, even a bad one, takes on another level of meaning when it’s experienced in a crowded theater with a screaming audience, a children’s book becomes something altogether different when a two-year-old is fascinated by something interesting happening in the corner of the page. More than ever, I have enormous respect for authors who understand, in ways I can’t, what children want to read. It’s humbling, after a lifetime of reading on my own, to need to be instructed on such an obvious point. But I’m lucky enough to have a niece who is more than willing to set me straight.

Written by nevalalee

November 16, 2012 at 9:55 am

The joys of thrift-store browsing

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If browsing in a bookshop is, as I’ve often said before, a kind of dreaming, sifting through the books in a large thrift store is like the lowest dream level in Inception, where the dreams of countless others end up jumbled together without rhyme or reason. (You can also end up stranded there for longer than you expect.) I’m always a little thrilled whenever I wander into a thrift store for the first time, never knowing if I’ll find the sad little collection of ’70s paperbacks at your average Goodwill or an awe-inspiring labyrinth like the one in the late, lamented Ark in Chicago. Browsing in used bookstores always involves some measure of serendipity, an openness to happy accidents, and a thrift store, in particular, is the opposite of a nicely curated experience like that at Barnes & Noble or Amazon: usually frustrating, but sometimes enlightening, both in terms of the specific books you find and for the art of browsing in general. And every now and then, you’ll find something that makes you want to shout: Eureka!

One fascinating thing about thrift stores is that you’ll often see patterns in the books on hand, titles that repeatedly appear there and nowhere else, giving you an uncanny glimpse into what our culture’s detritus will look like after we’re gone. Some are easy to understand: Reader’s Digest condensed book collections, obsolete technical manuals or Dummies books, the various editions of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Then there the novels that large numbers of people bought and then decided, for one reason or another, to give away. Some are the difficult books that followed a big bestseller: I’ll almost always see a copy or two of A Maggot by John Fowles, for instance. Other books that seem to crop up frequently in thrift stores: Bag of Bones by Stephen King, The Bull From the Sea by Marie Renault, Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk. And there’s often an entire shelf’s worth of The Da Vinci Code, neatly lined up like the matching volumes of an exceptionally uninformative encyclopedia.

And then there are the unexpected treasures. Even a recent trip to Village Discount Outlet, by far the most chaotic of all Chicago thrift stores, resulted in a vintage copy of The Sesame Street Dictionary, which I’d nostalgically been meaning to pick up for a long time. Before the Ark closed, during a strange acquisitive phase, I picked up two shopping bags of old first editions, including a pristine hardcover copy of The Pillars of the Earth. (Originally, I’d intended to buy these first editions for a few dollars each, then resell them for a profit online. In the end, the math didn’t quite work out, so they’re still in a box at the back of my closet, awaiting their moment of glory.) I even once found a signed and inscribed copy of George S. Kaufman and His Friends by the legendary author and agent Scott Meredith—with a twenty-dollar bill inside. For a long time, this ranked as my most satisfying catch. A few weeks ago, however, I managed to top it.

One of the small pleasures of my recent move to Oak Park is that I’m now just a two-minute walk from a branch of the Brown Elephant, one of the Chicago area’s nicest thrift stores. I browse there idly from time to time, and last month, a few days before Thanksgiving, on a shelf near the front of the store, I saw a prize I’d been hoping to find for most of my life: the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, in two volumes, complete with magnifying glass. The price? Ninety dollars. But I also knew that the store would be slashing all prices in half on Black Friday. So I waited. And waited. And when the morning after Thanksgiving came, I dropped my parents off at the airport, drove home, lined up in front of the store with the other shoppers, and ran straight for the front shelf when the doors opened. The dictionary was there. Clutching it in my arms, I headed for the cash register, probably elbowing a few old ladies out of the way in the process. I’m looking at it now as I write this. Eureka.

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