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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Where the wild things ought to be (1)

For many years, my mother was a Teacher-Librarian. That is to say, she was a teacher who, after classroom teaching for some time, was appointed Librarian of the South Gladstone Primary School, and her role was to teach children the joy of books, not just to organise the school library.

  At the time, I was also beginning my first years of classroom teaching, aged 18. While she taught at one school in the town, I taught at another, Gladstone Central.

  When we came home after school, she would regale me with stories of the children in her library classes. One of them was an unfortunate boy (or fortunate, if you're a devoted Presley fan) who was named Elvis. Elvis Stanley. And, out of thousands over the years whom she taught in the Library, she also taught another lad whose parents, we believed, couldn't make up their minds which way his name should be spelled. Spelt. Whatever. He was named Stepheven and that's what was on his birth certificate.

  Now it just occurred to me that there really may be a legitimate name 'Stepheven' and our reasoning all these years could have been wrong. So I check with the oracle, Google. Sure enough, it is a name, and obviously not quite as uncommon as I still think it ought to be. There is e.g., a Stepheven Lord on FaceBook, but you don't need the poor chap's details. Check it out if you must. Google is your friend.

  Oddly enough, at Gladstone Central I taught a Stephen Lord, whose parents had the good sense to spell his name as I have. I remember him because he'd transferred from New South Wales into the Grade 4 class I was teaching, and started cursive writing in their style a year or two earlier. It was unattractive spiky style, and he had to learn cursive all over again to suit our Queensland copybooks. He resented this deeply.

  And then it occurred to me after my checking on the existence of Stepheven as a real name that there are probably scores of Elvis Stanleys in a world of seven billion people, given that both Elvis and Stanley are fairly common names, and sure enough, Google tells me there are plenty of them. 

  One, I see, is an unfortunate who was murdered just a couple of weeks ago. The poor chap owned the Love Shack Bar & Grill on St Kitts, and Clayton “Massive” Thomas denies plotting to kill him. If he didn't, someone sure did.

  I sincerely hope it wasn't our Elvis who was shot dead in the Love Shack Bar & Grill in the Caribbean; but then, if it's not, there's still one Elvis Stanley who saw in the New Year 2012 and failed to get any further than the end of the first month.

  But I digress horribly from my tale within a tale within yet another tale. Fortunately the parents of Stepheven had determined that his name should be pronounced 'Stephen,' and I say "fortunate" for obvious reasons. So let that be....

  My mother often narrated the story of Stepheven (or "Steve-even" as she called him at home), and his joy at reading the recent books she was ordering for the library.

  Amongst them was the then-newly-released Where The Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak.

  It's a wonderful book and I'm sure many of you who have or have had or happen to be kids of the right age will remember it well, as it was a favourite with my girls - and let's be honest, a tale I never minded reading to them.

  I can't say I was as keen on other more girly books. I won't say which, but I read them just as enthusiastically, I believe. Fake sincerity and you've got it made; if I may I paraphrase from George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman.

  My mother believed that kids knew better than adults which books they wanted to read and that almost the only thing you had to do for a child was give them a love of books and reading. If they were read to, and if they wanted to read for themselves and could, they were set for life - providing they knew their basic maths tables. She didn't dissuade us from reading comics - whatever we wanted to read, even jam-tin labels - she'd never stop us. It's interesting what you could learn from old jam-tin labels, anyway.

  She was not a fan of the terrible formula-style books of the 1950s being churned out by some publishers, and as an artist herself, wanted truly creative books for children, both in text and artwork. This was why she was so affronted at what happened when I exchanged my book with that of Alan Long (a very short tale you might to read.)

  My mother shared the joy of kids like Elvis Stanley when they grappled with the words accompanying the brilliant Sendak illustrations. Elvis was far from a brilliant reader, at the time at least. If you're reading this, Elvis, then you've just proved my point; you've made it into the high art form of blogging, so don't be offended. My mother was on the right track.

  So now I emerge from one of my tales within a tale to mention a fascinating letter by Ursula Nordstom that I came across today, which tied in so perfectly with my mother's philosophy on kids and books. The piece is better told in its own context, but I'll extract just one paragraph, which says enough to complement this story of mine:
A Witty and Wise 1953 Letter from Legendary Children's Book Editor Ursula Nordstrom

  by Maria Popova

"Did I ever tell you that several years ago, after the Harper management saw that I could publish children's books successfully, I was taken out to luncheon and offered, with great ceremony, the opportunity to be an editor in the adult department? The implication, of course, was that since I had learned to publish books for children with considerable success perhaps I was now ready to move along (or up) to the adult field. I almost pushed the luncheon table into the lap of the pompous gentleman opposite me and then explained kindly that publishing children's books was what I did, that I couldn't possibly be interested in books for dead dull finished adults, and thank you very much but I had to get back to my desk to publish some more good books for bad children."
  My mother was on just that wavelength, as indeed she was when she taught painting to the very young and the very old and many in between. Again, a similar story of inspiration and triumph on the micro-scale of human achievement. Another time perhaps.

  Now where was I? There were a couple of other asides, like the adult book I decided to read at the age of twelve that pained my mother when she saw it, because she knew I wasn't ready for it... but I can come back to that another time, if I get the chance.

  The truth is, what I really wanted to talk about was a slut in a book of nursery rhymes, but you'll have to wait now. This time around I've used up all my current brainpower on these Tristram Shandy-ish expeditions.


  1. My mother was also a teacher-librarian. That was her first job back in teaching after some child rearing. My father was a primary school teacher too. And I clearly remember them working together on large cut outs of the characters from 'Where the wild things are' for display in the library. My hunch is Dad drew them and I was 9, 10 or 11, and I was so impressed by the artistry. They were great illustrations. Whenever the book is mentioned, back I go to those halcyon days.
    Thanks Denis

  2. Wild Things is a great story and contains all the principles that Ursula Nordstrom valued so highly. Good teacher-librarians were/are worth their weight in gold. My mother couldn't walk down the street on a Saturday morning in Gladstone without being greeted by hordes of smiling children wanting to tell her what they were reading that weekend.

    The library display would have been terrific. Fantastic that your Dad got involved.

    Writing and illustrating children's books are, I have not the slightest doubt, two of the most difficult creative things a person can do.


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