So, this is a pretty important week for me.
Not because I’ll be one step closer to forty by the time the week is through, but because a tale that’s been floating in my mind for many years is finally seeing the light of day.
This week marks the release of my first children’s picture book, The Little Lamp. It’s the story of a small table lamp who shines his love on a family for many years. But as their lives change, so does his, and as the years pass, he finds himself old, dusty, and eventually at the curb. And it’s with that he starts to re-think what these changes mean for him and what purpose he might still serve in life – as he has so much more love light to give.
Available in hardcover, paperback and e-book, it’s a story I hope offers some inspiration, some hope, and some, all pun intended, bright light to anyone of any age, going through a life change, doubt, and just wondering how they fit in. It’s beautifully illustrated by artist Ada Konewki, with whom I loved working with and hope to one day get the chance to do so again.
It also holds quite a lot of meaning because The Little Lamp has been with me since I was about nine years old, a doodle inspired by the small table lamp my parents bought for my bedroom, which then became crudely-drawn, xeroxed stories passed around to my elementary school friends.
And now, thirty years later, here he is, for anyone to enjoy.
It really means so very much.
Our two and a half year old daughter has a book she adores called 5-Minute Pinkalicious Stories, filled with 12 different stories featuring her favorite animated counterpart, Pinkalicious. It was found in her Easter basket, a gift from that hippity hoppity Easter Bunny, and has become a staple of almost every evening storytime.
Twelve stories and adventures in imagination to choose from. Yet, of those twelve, we’ve probably read three. And of those three, two have been read only once. Instead, we’ve read “Pinkalicious and the Sick Day” several nights a week for the past two months. At times I feel like I could recite it in my sleep and tell you all about Pinkalicious getting chosen to be Principal for the Day before getting sick, or Principal Hart getting sick, or having pink tea with mommy while home from school. For a while I had tried to encourage, perhaps, any of the other stories inside the book collection as I grew slightly weary of this same tale over and over again, or our 5 ½ year old son growing impatient with the same story and losing focus, moving about the room with attention anywhere but the story he’s sat through as well for so many times.
I just couldn’t understand why we were doing this again, and again, and again, but I obliged and we read “Pinkalicious and the Sick Day” night after night upon her request. Then one night, I got it. It took some pointing out from Meg, but I got it.
One night, within the past week or two, our daughter insisted that she wanted to read the story to us. “Okay…” we said, agreeing but unsure of what we were in for, handing the book over to her excited little hands. “Pinkalicious and the Sick Day!” she happily shouted and then….began telling us the story. No, she wasn’t reading it, but she was telling it, following along on each page and illustration, giving us an abbreviated, but still accurate story, with complete sentences taken right off the page as had been read to her.
She was retaining, she was remembering, and she was comprehending it.
That was the power of repetition on her young mind.
A study out of the University of Sussex has shown not only the vocabulary benefits of children hearing the same stories over and over, but that they actually may receive more benefit from fewer stories on repeat than newer stories all the time.
“…each time a child hears the book they are picking up new information,” says Psychologist Dr Jessica Horst who led the study. “The first time it might just be the story, the second time they are noticing details of description, and so on. If the new word is introduced in a variety of contexts – as happened with those who were read three different stories – children are less likely to focus on the new word.”
So, the next time she wants to hear about Pinkalicious’ Sick Day for the 79th time, or once again “read it” to us, I’m all ears, because I know she is too.
“Today you are you. That is truer than true. There is no one alive more youer than you.”
That comes from Happy Birthday To You, one of the myriad of books in the catalog of Dr. Seuss masterpieces that decorate many a bookshelf and have influenced any number of childhood, and foster a creativity across all ages.
And today, March 2, 2017 marks the 113th birthday of Dr. Seuss, or Theodore Geisel, as he was born.
You look quite terrific for one hundred thirteen,
the lessons from you, we still every day glean.
These days, it’s hard to think of a time before Seussian rhyming and characters like the Grinch and the Cat in the Hat weren’t part of our everyday culture. Words like Nook, and Grinch have become a part of our lexicon.
There is so much that could be talked about personally about Geisel, who was born to German immigrants in Springfield, Massachusetts. He experienced quite the share of discrimination and hate as a child as Americans fought Germany in the era of The Great War, now known as World War I. He lived on Mulberry Street, and it’s been said that on walks with his older sister, other children would throw bricks at them, spout hateful threats and call them names due to their heritage. It’s said he was the final scout in line to receive a medal when Theodore Roosevelt came to town, but by the time it was his turn, he received no medal but a lecture from Roosevelt. Some historians theorize that anti-German people within the town tampered with the medal count that day and believe that incident teamed with the screaming lecture from TR may have led to the classic Horton Hears a Who Line “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”
Throughout many, if not all of his tales, Geisel seems to have a common theme that resonates no matter our age – fairness, justice for what’s right, doing the right thing, and celebrating the differences among all of us.
Whether it’s Horton in Horton Hears a Who, trying to save the Whos that are on the head of the flower despite the other creatures of the jungle making life downright miserable and tortuous for him, the Sneetches learning that just because some have stars on their bellies and some do not does not mean that they’re truly any different from each other and can get along, or the importance of opening our eyes to what is around us and seeking out knowledge to better understand people, places and our shared world in I Can Read with My Eyes Shut, it’s all about learning to better understand each other.
So many of these books that we read as children, we now read to our own kids. A well-preserved copy of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish of mine now sits on my son’s bookshelf amid other classic Seuss outings as well as some newer editions by new authors influenced by his trademark style. Most notable of these newer entries is The Cat in the Hat Learning Library series, which our son adores, each book engaging young minds as the Cat and his rhymes teach about everything from bugs, to space, to money, or animals.
One of the running gags between my son and I are to suddenly take our conversations into rhyming territory, going back and forth, sometimes to a point where he ends up making up his own Seussian type words just to keep the rhyme going.
And while it’s all in good fun, it’s even better to know that some researchers say there’s more than just the silliness behind Dr. Seuss’ rhymes.
“The words that he made up are fun for children — they see the cleverness behind the word construct and the meaning of the word,” said Ann Neely, a professor of children’s literature at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee told Live Science in 2015.
It is true that some parents have concerns about the silly, made-up Seussian words, that it could lead to confusion in children, but Neely goes on to say that all that nonsensical jumble actually helps children on the path to reading, raising their awareness of the sounds that letters make.
“The words that he made up were often funny, and it helps children with their literacy skills later on as they’re learning to read if they’ve heard how language can be played with,” Neely also told Live Science.
She added that the predictable rhythm of the sentences also could play a large role in teaching children to read.
“That gave children confidence in their own reading ability,” Neely said. “In some ways, it’s like Mother Goose rhymes, in that when we say, ‘Oh, he’s like Humpty Dumpty,’ we know that it’s because ‘all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.'”
Theodore Geisel or Dr. Seuss leaves a legacy that still carries on generation after generation, and as I say, it’s hard to imagine a world without his imagination, his doodles, his rhyme, and his wonderful way to make us all think about the world we share.
“Shout loud, I am lucky to be what I am! Thank goodness I’m not just a clam or a ham! Or a dusty old jar of gooseberry ham!”
What’s your favorite Seussian tale?
As adults, it’s rare that the mail brings us much of anything other than a handful of bills to be paid yet again this month. Maybe the occasional solicitation from the car dealership. But let’s face it, it’s usually bills.
Remember when we were kids, though, and something in the mail felt like Christmas time?
It was exciting! It was joyous! And once a month, our son gets that feeling, as a new book arrives in the mail, bringing a smile to his face and an “I can’t wait!” impatience to open it up, leaf through the pages and sit down with mommy and daddy and hear whatever this new tale is.
And you know who we have to thank for it? Dolly Parton. Yes. Dolly Parton. That Dolly Parton.
Because with her Imagination Library initiative, Dolly is making brand new books – some classics, some new hits – available to children everywhere whose parents sign them up.
I have no other way to describe it other than simply wonderful.
The first book we received (and I believe everyone who signs up receives) is the classic The Little Engine that Could. After that, once a month a book has shown up in our mailbox. Books that range from Ferdinand the Bull to Peanut Butter and Cupcake to the Gingerbread Man Loose on the Fire Truck.
Started in 1995, Dolly Parton launched the Imagination Library in her home county in East Tennessee as a way to encourage a love of reading in preschool children and families by providing them with a free, specially selected book each month. The hope was that mailing these books in the mail would get children excited about books and the magic within. What’s more, it was available to families and children regardless of the family income.
The initiative proved so popular that five years later, in 2000, it was announced that the program would be available with any community willing to partner with it and support it locally. Since then, according to the initiative’s website, the Imagination Library program has gone from delivering a few dozen books to more than 60 million books mailed to kids in the U.S., Canada, and United Kingdom.
What a truly wonderful thing.
Whether you want to take part in the program for your kid, or start one in your own community, the first thing to do is to head to the Dolly Parton Imagination Library website. From there, you can find if your community participates and whether you can sign up online or, as we had to, contact an organization in the community that acts as a mediary, receiving the books and then passing them along to you via the mail.
I can’t encourage the introduction of books to children enough or as early as possible. I’ve said time and time again how glad I am that we made it a point to start reading within the first few weeks of our son’s arrival, and some nights, even prior, reading to my wife’s pregnant belly. The same for our now five month old daughter.
Creating excitement about books, reading as a family, equating books with family, love, and fun fosters a curiosity, appreciation for and quest for knowledge that can carry through an entire lifetime.
Sign on up. You won’t regret it.
And thanks, Ms. Parton.
I love Curious George. I really do. I very fondly remember reading the books as a kid and those cartoons that looked like the books come to life back in the 80s.
I even still have an old drawing of George I did when I was seven years old, discovered last year among some items at my parents’ house and now on display in our son’s room.
And while nostalgia made me glad to see George hit the big screen in 2006, I don’t think it really appealed to me the way that the animated series running on PBS currently does. Maybe I just had to be a parent before I could truly appreciate the idea of a man trying to keep his life together while caring for a monkey stand-in for the role of precocious, eager to learn, exuberant toddler.
These days, I feel, George is more engaging and relatable than ever thanks to the hit cartoon series – even more so than the cartoon version of my own youth. The writers, producers, artists, and an amazing voice portrayal by legendary voice-over artist Frank Welker, have designed a George that reflects a preschooler’s behavior, emotion and wonderment, giving the children in the audience a character they can relate to, through whose eyes they similarly see the world.
And for us parents, we can surely relate George’s curiosity, humor, and hijinks, through the lens of the protective, but ever-exhausted Man in the Yellow Hat, played to such likability that I don’t even have words for it, by another voiceover legend, Jeff Bennett.
But George wasn’t always a stand-in for a small child. Early on, and by that I mean, really early on, when he first debuted back in 1941, he was…well, just a cute little monkey with a penchant for getting into trouble.
I didn’t really know this until recently, to be honest, when my son came into possession of a copy of the first Curious George story (aptly just titled Curious George) and wanted to read it before bed.
And it was with that, that we discovered a slightly different type of world for Curious George than we know today. Or, as I like to call it…The Secret Origin of Curious George!!
We first meet George in the jungles of Africa, having fun and swinging from trees.
It’s here that George is spotted for the first time by The Man in the Yellow Hat who decides he’d like to take the little monkey home. They haven’t met yet, but that doesn’t seem to stop the man.
From there, the now kidnapped (monkeynapped, perhaps?) George is brought onboard an ocean liner bound for another country. He’s told by the Man in the Yellow Hat that he’s being brought to…no, not the man’s home..but a zoo. The man then tells George to run along and play until they get there, while the Man smokes his pipe. George, playing on the deck, or perhaps at the thought of being pulled from his home to cross the ocean and end up in a zoo, goes overboard.
Don’t worry, though. It’s not the end of our monkey-pal. George is rescued by a pair of sailors on the ship.
Once in the city, George makes himself at home with the man. Perhaps a little too at home.
We do get what will become a familiar glimpse of George and the Man together at home, but it’s only brief enough for the Man to make a call to the zoo to prepare for George’s arrival moreso than any fatherly bonding. When the Man leaves, George, as would become the modus operandi of the little primate, gets curious and decides he wants to use the phone as well. Only, the number he calls is the fire department, which sends a slew of panicked firefighters over to the man’s home. There’s no fire to be found, only a little monkey, and the firefighters are not happy.
George has survived in the jungle, though, and no jail can hold him. It’s not long before he knocks out a guard and escapes, quickly finding a balloon vendor and taking his entire stash of balloons on a trip high above the city.
Sometime later, George and the balloons begin to descend and come to rest atop a traffic light. Naturally, this causes a bit of a traffic snarl. But among the angry motorists is The Man in the Yellow Hat whose thrilled to find George again.
So this is it, right? This is where they realize how much they need each other to survive in this big ol’ city and begin the path to that father-son relationship that melts my heart?
No. This is where the Man gets him back and promptly puts George into a zoo as he planned from the beginning.
Thankfully, at some point H.A. Rey had the foresight to get George out of that zoo and into domestic living with the Man, and in time we got the father-son type relationship that resonates so well today.
Just like the warm breeze of summer is destined to make way to chilly winds of fall, so too go the years of our lives, moving, what seems, ever-faster the older we get. And when it comes to watching our children grow, that train of time seems to forever be speeding faster and faster away down the tracks of life.
We don’t tend to notice the day-to-day changes as they occur. Small increments of change are hard to pick out when you’re there along with it day in and day out. It’s the milestones, the transitions – those are the moments that really make us stop and take notice of how swiftly the sands fall through the hourglass.
For me, one of those moments came today, as we finally transitioned our little man out of his crib and into a toddler bed. It was overdue, yes, but despite that, it didn’t make it any easier – at least not the emotions of mommy and daddy.
A friend was getting rid of a toddler bed that their own children had outgrown and graciously passed it along to us. Meg sanded it down, painted it (with the little guy helping pick the color) and boom! We were ready to go.
The excitement on his face was palpable, jumping up and down, grinning as Meg and I turned the Allen wrench, both assembling his new “big boy bed” and dismantling the crib that’s been his overnight home since the earliest weeks of his life and moving it out of the room and across the hall to our office – one more step of preparation for the arrival of baby number two in the months ahead.
When the end of the night came, you would have thought it was Christmas morning. Instead of fighting the need to go upstairs and get into bed, he led the way, excitedly heading into his room and pulling out a book to read per our storytime routine.
Only now, he didn’t want to go into “mommy and daddy’s bed” to read as has been the case every night these past three years. No, instead he insisted we read in his room, climbing into his bed and pulling over the covers as daddy reluctantly took a seat next to his bed, opened the book and began reading, while simultaneously hiding the feeling of melancholy at his claiming his own, independent life.
A few precautions were taken. Our house has two floors, so we pulled out ye olde baby gate and placed it at the top to prevent any mid-night walking, falling and potential injury now that there’s easy access out of the room. Funny thing is, he never tried to climb out of his crib, something we consider ourselves incredibly grateful for. While the cats were initially puzzled at the presence of the gate on their nightly rushes up and down the stairs, it turned out to not be needed right away (though we’ll still keep it up at night regardless). We talked about staying in bed until mommy and daddy give him the clearance to do so and wouldn’t you know it, he listened.
He listened well.
So well, in fact, that when his stuffed ladybug (from Eric Carle’s The Grouchy Ladybug) fell out of bed, he called out to have mommy come pick it up for him because he’s not supposed to get out of the bed.
I’m proud of him. I’m happy for him. I love seeing him beam about the idea of going to bed or taking a nap because it means a “big boy bed.” But I can’t help but feel, as the cliché goes, that it’s all moving a bit too fast. I may never be okay with it. I’m sure these feelings will continue – the first bicycle ride, or a first day of school, first high school dance, or, perish the thought, move-in day at college.
It’s overwhelming to think about. So, the best that I can do is just try my best to not brush off the requests to play, to read, and to be around. There will be plenty of time as he gets older he’s going to have his own life. Moving to a big boy bed may just be a small sign of independence in the bigger scheme of things, but it’s enough for me to take notice, and to remind myself that we don’t get second chances at these things.
Work will come and go. Books to read will sit on the shelves. Projects to create can always be created. But this…this opportunity to be with my little boy while he’s a little boy will only last so long.
As painful as it can be during the transitions, it’s a reminder once again to cherish every single moment and not let the time slip by.