Fresh Fabulous Fifty-Year-Old Peach

For the fourteen years that I taught second grade, my students and I enjoyed an end of day read-aloud book. Some books were so good that I read them every year – including James and the Giant Peach. Imagine my surprise about halfway through this venture to discover that the book regularly appeared on the “Banned Book List.”

It seems the couple of swear words brought offense. Nevermind that 99.9% of the children had heard these words on TV, the playground, or perhaps even at home. Then James was disrespectful to Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker. Nevermind again, that they richly deserved that disrespect. These critics also questioned the terror of James’s parents being eaten at midday by an angry rhinocerous escaped from the London zoo. [Kids, on the other hand, knew how to suspend their disbelief in this dire happening in the interest of a good story to follow.]

But the most awful thing at all to these judges was the magic that brought size, speech, and reasoning powers to a ladybug, spider, grasshopper, centipede, and earthworm and caused the peach to grow large enough to become food and transportation for an overnight from London to New York City.

Once the flaws were pointed out to me, I could find them if I looked hard enough. But I put them out of my mind when I saw the book through the children’s eyes as they responded to the reading – a rollicking, knee-slapping case of one small boy and some eccentric cohorts triumphing over their own weaknesses, the forces of nature, and evil adults. Imagination still lives in second graders, and they loved the fantasy.

Roald Dahl found a new world in this, his first children’s book, published in 1961. He would go on to give us more than a dozen more, including another of my favorites – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. His books continued to lean toward innocent children who overcame evil adults.

Fifty years later, children and adults who still have a firm grip on their imaginations may want to join in the celebration with James and his buddies. Happy 50th anniversary to the Giant Peach which the Ladybug declared to be “even better than those tiny green flies that live in the rosebushes.”


Missing Out Due to Prejudice

Easy etymology of “prejudice” breaks it down into pre-judge. Truthfully, prejudice often occurs without our being aware of it and may even lean toward a positive as well as a negative.
    During the past two years, I have delved into the extensive Ezra Jack Keats archives in the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi. Talkative nerd that I am, I’ve shared the excitement of my “finds” with anyone who would listen. [I’ve noticed some people can listen and roll their eyes at the same time.] It’s been interesting how many people have been surprised to learn that Keats was Jewish. “I thought he was Black!”
    Logic forms the basis for this pre-judgment. Most people realize that Keats made a Black child named Peter the protagonist for his picture book The Snowy Day at a time when this was an innovation. Their assumption is that the author must have been Black to think about it.
    While that assumption is wrong, Jack did experience and understand prejudice beginning when he was quite young. He learned during his school days that teachers and neighbors were fearful of what might be contained in gifts of food from a Jewish kitchen. I was astounded at his story of taking a decorated cake to his school principal – his father’s attempt to compensate for Jack's many sick-day absences from school. Only after Jack assured the principal that it was “bought” rather than homemade did she accept the cake.
    The episode brought back memories of a different kind of pre-judgment based on smell from my second grade teaching days. On student report card conference day, an aroma preceded Becky’s Korean mother as she headed to my room. I pre-judged that something good was on the way. When Mrs. Peach’s turn came for her conference, she set a plate on my desk – piled high with spring rolls still hot from the stove.
    “I know Becky’s doing fine,” she said. “Eat one now and take the rest to your family for supper.” I ate the delicious spring roll and assured her that her assessment was correct. Becky was indeed an excellent student.
    Remembering how much my family enjoyed stepping out of their Southern “chicken and dumplings” box for supper that night, I felt sad for the teachers, neighbors, and principal who were afraid of Jack’s mother’s food. According to those who knew, she was an excellent cook.
    Who knows how many things we miss when we consciously or unconsciously make a decision based on pre-judgment? Unless, of course, the preconception is based on something as solid as an aroma.


Fifty-Year-Old Phantom Tollbooth - In Excellent Condition

With many books never making it to a second printing, a Golden Anniversary for a children’s book seems like a cause for celebration. This is the first of four upcoming blogs about books that have reached that distinction.

The Phantom Toll Booth, first published in 1961, resided on my “Books to Read” list until this week. I knew I was in for a good read by the time I reached page 19 when Milo decides to leave the Whether Man, not the Weather Man, to look for someone “whose sentences didn’t always sound as if they would make as much sense backwards as forwards.”

The Punny book [and yes, I spelled that right], is filled with ridiculous word plays, skewed logic, and idiotic idioms. It they don’t tickle your funny bone, you need to visit an orthopedist for an x-ray to see where it’s broken.

Morals and words of wisdom abound as Milo sets off to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason, but for heaven’s sake, don’t tell this to a child and spoil the fun.

A few of my favorite samples:
•    Tock on the possibility of words becoming confusing: “Only when you use a lot to say a little.”
•    The Soundkeeper: “You can’t improve sound by having only silence. The problem is to use each sound at the proper time.” [My choir director would probably agree with this one.]
•    Canby: “Every time you decide something without having a good reason, you jump to Conclusions whether you like it or not. It’s such an easy trip to make that I’ve been here hundreds of times.” [And so, unfortunately, have I.]
•    Dodecahedron: “As long as the answer is right, who cares if the question is wrong?”
•    Dodecahedron, again - just in time for a political year: “They’re all the wrong way. Just because you have a choice, it doesn’t mean that any of them has to be right.”

Then there was the character familiar to most of the writers I know – Terrible Trivium, the "demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit who keeps one busy on easy and useless jobs so that they never have to worry about the important ones that are so difficult." [Think sorting paper clips to keep from editing that last chapter.]

My friend Jeannine Laughlin-Porter, long time library guru at the University of Southern Mississippi, hates age labels on books saying, “A good book is a good book,” and I concur. This book lends itself to reading aloud, shared by a child who gets one layer of meaning and an adult who adds another.  

Happy 50th Anniversary to The Phantom Tollbooth!


You Might Live in South Mississippi If...

Nandinas scraped all the way to the ground when trees felled by Katrina were dragged across them, are fuller and brighter than ever with red berries. You can’t kill a good nandina – or a bad one either.

A December appointment with the dentist brings a fellow patient dressed in pants and a sweater, accented at the neck with a warm scarf whose feet sport glittery flip-flops and raspberry colored toe nails.

The front page of the newspaper regularly carries sports stories covering the top half of the front page with even more details found in the sports section where one might expect them.

A walk down the hill passes a neighbor whose shed features a window box filled with brightly colored artificial flowers.

Every occupant of every car that either meets you or passes you up on the walk waves a friendly hello whether you know them or not.

Roses still bloom in December.

As much as an inch of snow brings talk of business and school closings.

A person with a chronic black thumb [me] may find it actually is turning green.

Winter consists of a handful of days scattered toward the end of December, a couple of weeks each in January and February, and another handful of days scattered through the first of March.

By the time January has made a good appearance, green shoots with the promise of daffodils to come peep out of the ground.

And if you live in South Mississippi, you’ve got to love it!



Ghost Question


Unfinished Desires by Gail Godwin, is a very interesting and curious book with a play within a novel. The frontispiece has a quote that comes from the fictional unpublished play.


…Do not shrink if on your path
You meet a solitary ghost,
Ask it, “What did you love most?
And what have you left undone?”
Prologue to Suzanne Ravenel’s 1931 school play, THE RED NUN

Surprisingly, the quote left an even greater impression on me than the novel itself, although it was a very good read. I began to make a list of what I’ve loved and what I’ve left undone.

What I have loved most:
•    Being a military wife [helped that I had a good military husband!]
•    The two boys and a girl that grew up in my house – and the other family members they eventually added
•    Friends – as the adage goes – the golden oldies and the silver newbies
•    The companions the two boys and a girl brought home for snacks or supper
•    Teaching in school and at church
•    Writing

What I’ve left undone:
•    Becoming a nurse
•    Dusting
•    Picking up Anna at the dentist when she was in sixth grade [On a military base, she had an easy walk to get there after school and to get home when her appointment was finished. I was supposed to meet her and get the dentist’s report, but I forgot and went home instead. She reminds me of this failure from time to time when it suits her purposes.]
•    Climbing Mt. Everest
•    Learning to swim

Of course, the lists could go on indefinitely. To tell the truth, the only thing I regret from this undone list is not picking Anna up from the dentist.

I don’t really make resolutions as the new year begins, but I do tend to evaluate where I’ve been and where I’m going. Since there are only seven days in a week with only twenty-four hours per day, I think I’ll use the thought from this question in 2012 to weigh its opportunities so I can omit things I would not miss if I left them undone and focus on those I love most.