November 10, 2015 by libroshombre
“A Hole Is To Dig: A First Book of Definitions” was the first book I recall reading. It spoke to me so comfortingly, both in its words and pictures, the sensation remains all these decades later. The Dictionary of Literary Biography says “A Hole” is “based on the humorous, unexpected definitions children often give things and actions they do not understand.” The book begins, “Mashed potatoes are to give everyone enough,” with very small children happily cavorting around an enormous platter of mashed spuds. It was written by Ruth Krauss, one of the giants of American children’s literature and can be viewed at http://phiwumbda.org/~jesse/geek/functions.html.
Krauss was part of the legendary Bank Street School staff. The Bank Street concept originated in 1916 with the Bureau of Education Experiments, created by visionary educator Lucy Sprague Mitchell. According to the Bank Street website, Mitchell, along with her husband and other like-minded colleagues, began studying young children “to find out what kind of environment is best suited to their learning and growth.” They particularly focused on the language and concepts used by children, and after several decades of research, Bank Street staffers began producing picture books that spoke to children like never before.
A leading example of utilizing children’s language in her writing was Mitchell’s protégé, Margaret Wise Brown, author of the immortal “Goodnight Moon” and many others before her untimely death doing high kicks too soon after minor surgery. Brown was glamorous, dating celebrities ranging from the Prince of Spain to John Barrymore’s wife, and she “lived extravagantly off her royalties.”
It was Krauss’ editor, Ursula Nordstrom, another, even grander giant of kiddie lit., who showed the “A Hole Is To Dig” manuscript to a window display artist she knew named Maurice Sendak. Sendak went on to create award-winning classics like “Where the Wild Things Are” and “In the Night Kitchen.” Sendak liked Krauss’ words, she liked his sketches, and in 1952 a new classic was born.
Its unusual, child-like language, doubtlessly inhibited “A Hole” being translated. Since it’s such a sentimental favorite, I’m glad it’s been left in English, especially after reading a recent Wall Street Journal article by Edward Rothstein about the rough treatment Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” received from translators.
In the famous Mad Hatter’s Tea Party scene, Carroll wrote, “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!/ How I wonder what you’re at!” The French translation reads, “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!/ What are you doing in the grey evening?” The Croatian version asks, “Flutter, flicker, you little bat!/ Hey, where are you going to go, we’d like to know.” It’s “Now you twinkle winged rat/ On what are you so concentrated?” in Spanish. In Belarusian it translates as, “Pussycat, pussycat, scream/ With a dumb cry in th
e night.” In Czech it becomes, “A finch was sitting on a stump, a-tootling quietly.” And it’s, “Along the lake/ Near Mt. Triglav/ A pot drifts,” in Slovenian.
Meanwhile scientists have been deconstructing Laura Wilder’s “The Little House on the Prairie,” according to a recent Smithsonian.com article by Michelle Donahue. Titled “The Science of Little House on the Prairie,” it describes how “Wilder’s reflections on her life experiences have spurred some scientists to use remarkable research techniques to clarify details from the books that seem a little too incredible.” National Weather Service meteorologist Barb Boustead, for example, “revisited a Wilder book from her youth, ‘The Long Winter’ … she found herself wondering whether the back-to-back blizzards, Laura wrote about were as bad as she described … she developed a tool to assign a relative ‘badass’ score,” AKA the Accumulated Winter Season Severity Index. Boustead found that the winter Laura recalled was indeed one of the ten worst on record for South Dakota.
We know all about severe winters, but every season’s suited for the Accumulated Reading Memory With a Kid Index that I just created. The future recollections generated by reading fun books with a loved ones are priceless, and since November is National Children’s Book Month, there’s no better time to seek a wonderful new children’s book in your well-stocked public library, where you’ll also find some long-lost picture book friends, for as Ruth Krauss wrote, “A book is to look at.”