Ex-Kid? Maybe

Jacob Ezra Katz began life on March 11, 1916 as a scrawny immature baby, starting his life in an incubator. The neighbors who came to see him when he was big enough to come home immediately asked, “Do you think he will make it?” The future didn’t look promising for a child of Jewish immigrant parents struggling to eke out a living in Brooklyn. If they could only have known…

Ezra didn’t stay scrawny and immature, but he did stay sickly all his life and enhanced his real health problems with a touch of hypochondria. He didn’t even stay Jacob Ezra Katz, changing his name as an adult to Ezra Jack Keats in response to an anti-Semitic environment.

His venture into the art world began when he was a toddler scribbling on the linoleum floor and eating his crayons. This venture continued as a preschooler who decorated the kitchen table all the way around with ink drawings, an award-winning art student as he passed through school, and an adult who struggled to make a living with his art. He came into his own in midlife when he began to illustrate for children’s magazines and books. His real breakthrough came with the publication of the first book he both wrote and illustrated – The Snowy Day – now celebrating the 50th year since its publication.

The book was significant for children as the first full color picture book to feature a Black child as the protagonist in a non-stereotypical way. But he went on to write many more, including in his books the children of the many ethnicities he had grown up with in his Brooklyn neighborhood. They had fun and solved problems common to all children everywhere, confirmed by the many languages into which they were translated, but he continued to use the city tenements of his childhood for his favorite setting.

Keats enjoyed many recognitions from libraries and cities that had Ezra Jack Keats Days and named reading rooms for him. He won the Caldedott Medal for The Snowy Day and received a medallion given by the University of Southern Mississippi for his body of work. He came a long way from his fragile beginning.

For all his awards, I think Keats would be most pleased that his book The Snowy Day is still being chosen for things like my friend’s literacy project in North Carolina where the book will be featured in a reading fair for children who don’t have access to many books of their own. My friend knows my interest in all Keats things and asked me for ideas. She will read from a large copy of The Snowy Day with the children using their own smaller copies. I would like to have a periscope that sees from Mississippi to North Carolina to watch them enjoy the book – and perhaps make their own collages afterwards. Maybe she’ll send pictures.

Someone said Keats’s continuing appeal to children came because he was an ex-kid. The “ex” is debatable. I think the kid was still alive and well inside him until the day he died. My plan for his birthday on Sunday is to find the kid inside me, read the anniversary edition of The Snowy Day, and sing happy birthday to Ezra on what would be his 96th.


The Joys of Reading Aloud

I do love a good celebration, and March 7 is World Read Aloud Day. Although I loved my years as a classroom teacher, I have not once missed writing lesson plans, grading papers, or filling out report cards. Truthfully, I have only missed my relationships with my students and reading aloud. No matter what age I taught, reading aloud was part of the day.

My kindergarteners and I sat in a circle where I held the book for them to see the pictures and read upside down. They chanted with me the Gingerbread Man’s refrain, “Run, run, as fast as you can…”, empathized with the friendship of Frog and Toad, and giggled over Petunia’s belief that merely owning a book made her wise. Reading aloud was the central part of the day.

I read to my second graders at the end of the day. No matter what the day had held – hard math problems, turnip greens for cafeteria lunch, or skinned knees on the playground – the read aloud assured a happy ending. They loved Tikki Tikki Tembo and worked hard to say his whole name (Tikki Tikki Tembo No Sa Rembo Chari Bari Ruchi Pip Peri Pembo) correctly to earn the reward of borrowing my book. And how they loved the story in each chapter of All-of-a- Kind Family, especially the surprise when their friends Charlie and the Library Lady find their lost loves – each other – at the family Succoth celebration! One parent helper even changed her volunteering time to be there for the read-aloud. Her favorite was Stuart Little.

I started my junior high classes daily with the read aloud. It gave us connections. They enjoyed the chapter in Cheaper by the Dozen when Mr. Gilbreth, the autocrat of dinner table conversation, declares that the cute new boy at school is “not of general interest” for discussion whereas any topic of world affairs is acceptable. Afterwards, when these junior high jewels began to chase rabbits to get me off language arts topics, all I had to say was “not of general interest.” They laughed and returned to the subject – no doubt classifying me as the autocrat of the classroom.     
    Perhaps my favorite was the character tracking we did on the overhead as we kept up with the multitude of characters in Tale of Two Cities. The day came when Jerry discovers the man who had been missing from the grave he robbed, alive and well in Paris – and up to no good. What fun I had watching as the light came on in the students’ faces one by one as they joined the important discovery by the almost forgotten minor character with the rusty nails.
    One Monday, a student came in to bemoan one of her friend’s bad decisions over the weekend. She laughed at herself. “I said to myself that she was thinking just like Jeff until I remembered Jeff wasn’t real.” He was the naive protagonist in A Solitary Blue by Cynthia Voight, a favorite read aloud for this teacher as well as her students.
    Then there was the day the assistant principal came in to do his unannounced observation of my teaching during the read aloud. He forgot that his status as a fly-on-the-wall and jumped right into the middle of the ensuing discussion. (I wound up with an extra unexpected older student that day!)

There are solid educational reasons for reading aloud, but for me, the most important reason is the sheer pleasure for the reader and listeners. After all, in the end, isn’t the purpose of teaching reading to turn students into lifelong book lovers?


Thank you, Dr. Seuss

My first kiddie lit course came secondhand the year I was thirteen. In those days because she had two years of college, Mama taught first grade on a “temporary certificate” and took six semester hours of college credit every summer at Ole Miss to renew her teaching certificate for the following fall. The summer she took the children’s literature course, she shared her enthusiasm for writers like Roger Duvoisin, Wanda Gag, Robert McCloskey, and Eleanor Estes. Her textbook, bought “used” to save money, became a family treasure of stories from great literature. My youngest sister, who had used its stories with her son, generously returned the battered book to me a couple of years ago.  

Although he had been writing for a while, it was this during this summer class that Mama discovered Dr. Seuss. She loved And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. It became one of the staples in her first grade classroom long before it became one of mine when I taught kindergarten and second grade. The front of my worn copy has my oldest son’s name and our address when he was in first grade. (Don’t tell him or he will want it back.) It also has a sticky note on the title page that says it got 29 rejections before a publisher bought it and that he used “Dr. Seuss” as his pseudonym for the children’s book intending to save his real name – Theodore Seuss Geisel – for serious adult stuff. Thankfully, he thought better of that idea and left a world of people with their own connections to his treasure trove of children’s books, including the people in my family.

Our first child loved The 500 Hats of Bartholemew Cubbins and soon “flupp, flupp, flupped” along as the hats flew off Bartholemew’s head while he climbed the stairs. The second two learned to read from Dr. Seuss’s ABC followed by Hop on Pop. By the time they mastered One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, they rightfully demanded personal library cards considering themselves ready to read any book in the children’s section.

The next generation has followed suit with grandchildren loving the sounds of Seuss until almost by magic, they turned into words to read. Sam thought Green Eggs and Ham was personalized – a notion perhaps reinforced by the Sam-I-Am mug I bought for him.

Buried in Seussian fun are lessons to learn about taking care of the environment from the Lorax or being faithful to promises from Horton. The Whos remind us and the Grinch that Christmas is “a little bit more” than what can be bought in a store. And how many high school and college graduates have received Oh, the Places You’ll Go to encourage them to follow their dreams?

No doubt you have your own connections to Dr. Seuss. Many people have tried to emulate his way with words and rhymes only to come off as jingle writers in a poor imitation. Perhaps it could be said of him as he said of the episode of Bartholemew Cubbins’s 500 hats that he “just happened to happen and was not likely to happen again.”

Happy birthday Dr. Seuss – born March 2, 1904!


Laundry  Lament

The trouble with working at home is that you are at home, making it hard to ignore disaster in the laundry room. Mind you, the Maytag avocado washer and dryer dated to 1978 and had been bought, after careful research, to survive until our last son finished college. Even with prices in those days, we knew we didn’t need appliance purchases added to a budget with two-at-a-time tuitions. This appliance pair has contributed to the loneliness of Maytag repairmen having had one minor repair to the washer and one new lint filter for the dryer in the ensuing years.

But the washer began galumping around several weeks ago, giving a warning that its time was near. I was only surprised that the dryer quit first. After the normal dryer time elapsed Saturday morning, I reached in to take out the laundry only to find the load as wet and cold as when I put it in. My husband, ever the conservative, wanted to call a repairman for life support. But I reasoned that the elderly appliances surely had signed a “Do not resuscitate” order. After all, the aforementioned son finished college in 1992. His oldest son is filling out college applications for this fall.

My Saturday “To Do List” included finishing a book I was reading [remember that is part of a writer’s work] and some scribbling between my loads of laundry. Appliance shopping was not on the list. It was added – at the top.

Tomorrow we will take delivery of a new white washer and dryer. The old avocado ones will not be cremated but recycled. The salesman made no promises that the new ones will last 34 years. In fact, he said he had never heard before of any that had lasted that long.

They lived a good life and fulfilled their purpose. May they rest in peace.


Teasing Increases IQ? - Who Knew?

A few days before the 101th anniversary of my father’s birth on February 23, I found an interesting bit of research while looking for a totally unrelated topic. The research justified Daddy’s penchant for teasing his four girls, although I’m pretty sure he didn’t feel the need for any validation. He was just having a good time with us. The research found that children growing up in a culture where teasing was common had higher intelligence scores.

In a way, this is ironic because the closest Daddy ever came to a term of endearment was to call me “Knothead” which Merriam-Webster defines as “a dull-witted blunderer.” In rural North Mississippi, it was generally understood that the knot in a piece of wood was the densest hardest part. I think that’s the definition Daddy had in mind.

Along with his teasing, Daddy read with care anything I wrote and discussed the fine points he found. He insisted that I could indeed stand up in front of people and talk. Perhaps it’s just as well that he never understood why that was a fear, because I backed my ears and learned to do it – pretty much to keep from disappointing him. The first time I enjoyed speaking in public came as a total surprise.

He was realistic in the areas where I lacked accomplishment and added that to his banter. If I made a drawing, he advised me to write underneath, “This is a cow,” – or whatever it was. As you can see from the picture, I still need to do that.

When I brought home a paper from school for congratulations, Daddy would look at the “97” or “98” and say, “Well, if you could do that well, you could have made 100.” If I did get the “100,” he would say, “Well, it’s no better than you ought to have done.” Mama would go into defense mode trying to keep me from being warped for life and protest his lack of appreciation for my accomplishment. Daddy and I would smile behind her back and let her continue to fix what needed no fixing. I knew he was proud of my work, and he knew I knew.

I’ll let you be the judge of whether he warped me for life or increased my intelligence. But I have noticed that he has left me with a peculiar reaction when someone says something to me that could be derogatory. I tend to laugh, assuming that, like Daddy, thespeaker is teasing.