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Sometimes the kids bring unfamiliar books home from school, and usually we enjoy not just the novelty but also their content. Once in a while, however, there are aspects of the material that require focused conversations about one topic or another, such as why an author would have chosen the words he did, or what may have motivated a character to act the way she did, or what changes we would have made if one of us were the writer or illustrator. Much of the material that I enjoyed as a child could use a fresh update (I’m still waiting for Louis Sachar to email me back about my idea on how we could reboot his Wayside School series to make them more compatible with our modern-day approach to edifying the growing minds of the elementary school set), and we’ve discussed many times how the zeitgeist of a different decade can affect the written material produced during that time

Recently, Arlo brought home a book he’d been examining at school, written over twenty years ago. Now, I can appreciate many features of this book, particularly some of the playful, albeit distinctly odd, details in the artworks. It’s fairly obvious that the style of the illustrations espoused by the author/illustrator, Anthony Browne, is heavily influenced by Magritte, so I could understand why Arlo’s hyper-creative mind would be fascinated by the illusory nature of the images. Unfortunately, the story I found to be an interesting idea executed pretty poorly, and to compound the issues I had with the narrative, there were some perplexing word selections, most of which could have been omitted with a the effect of improving the overall value of the volume. This page provides an apropos example:

There isn’t enough character development in this book to explain why those final three words deserve a place here. The “child” (she’s part primate, part human, I think) whose voice this is, to the reader’s knowledge, has no reason to call the dog’s owner a “silly twit” purely for experiencing the feeling of anger. We could invent reasons behind it, of course, psychologizing why the “child” might default to name-calling and why the dog owner might have felt angry about something that doesn’t seem to the reader like a situation that would normally elicit such a strong emotion. At any rate, we edited the text as we read and focused on the elements of the book that we could enjoy and appreciate, but later I got curious about the author and what other people thought about this book. Naturally, I went to amazon.com to read some reviews and stumbled upon this gem:

Well, Mallory, I agree with your two-star rating and your general message, though your syntax and grammar could use a buff-up, but I can promise you, dear reader, that Mr. Browne, despite being British, did not use the word “twat” anywhere in that book. However, this whole vowel-confusion typo situation (at least, my armchair psychologist brain THINKS Mallory’s mistake was a typo) would be a great lesson in perspectives for her to bring to her classroom, if only it were appropriate for second grade.

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