Thursday, October 11, 2007

Baffled by Books

Tuesday night, I finished reading The Trumpet of the Swan to the children. It is a beautifully written book, with engaging characters, humor, suspense, and a happy ending. T. and K. kept asking for "just one more chapter" until our usual bedtime was long past and the last page was finally read. We loved it. Except for one very odd thing. At one point, Louis's (the main character) true love, Serena, is going to have her wing tip clipped by the keepers at the Philadelphia Zoo, where they are staying. If this happens, she will never be able to fly again, and will be a captive. Louis tells his friend, Sam, "I can't remain behind a fence all my life. Neither can Serena -- she's not built that way." Sam helps Louis arrange a deal with the zoo keeper for Serena's freedom. Serena will go free, and Louis will agree to donate one of his future children to the zoo whenever the zoo needs another swan for their lake.
The kids and I found this Very Strange. The Trumpet of the Swan is largely about Louis's efforts to win the love of Serena, a task which is unusually challenging for him because he was born mute. With help from his father and a lot of hard work, he succeeds in winning Serena and enjoying a fairly normal swan life. Given the themes of the importance of freedom, parental sacrifice for a child, personal responsibility, and success through hard work, I think the device of selling children into captivity is very peculiar. The sentence justifying the plan is," In every family of cygnets, there is always one that needs special care and protection. Bird Lake (in the zoo) would be a perfect place for this one little swan that needs extra security." Of course, by this same argument, Louis's parents would have been kind to donate him to the zoo when he was a mute cygnet, but, as Louis says at another point to the zookeeper, "Safety is all well and good: I prefer freedom." I wish E.B. White had come up with another plan to get the swans out of the zoo together.

Also peculiar, but less bothersome, to me, at any rate, was a passage in the chapter of Famous Men of Rome, which we were reading today. In the early days of Rome, workmen are digging around on Saturnian Hill, working on a temple. They happen to dig up a man's head, "so well preserved that it looked as if it had been buried quite recently." Instead of being alarmed and maybe having a look around to see if someone might have missed a head recently (or maybe a whole person), they consult the augurs about it, and the augors tell them that it is a sign that Rome is going to become the head (a little augur humor here) of the world. The kids and I agreed that that is not At All how we would react to finding a head at our construction site. Those funny Romans!


Wisteria said...

We had the same reaction to this book. I had the children come up with alternatives. Their ideas were quite good.

Anonymous said...

We had a long discussion yesterday about a very complicated moral dilemma that was posed in the first chapter of Beverly Cleary's "Ralph the Mouse." Funny how these things come up.

Is Ralph really selfish and spoiled for not sharing his motorcycle with the other mice? What if they break it? If he has a duty to share, does that give them the right to force him to share? If all the mice say that Ralph is wrong, does that make him wrong? If Ralph's mom says he's wrong, does that make him wrong? Can someone be wrong about being wrong? Can someone be confused about what is right and wrong? Can someone think that they are wrong but really be right? Why did Matt the human shoo the little mice away from snatching the Ralphs's motorcycle if Ralph had the obligation to share it with them?

The kids jumped right in discussing and arguing with each other about the answers to these questions. But what do I know? Beverly Cleary is clearly "twaddle."

Melora said...

We did that (with the alternatives) too. There were so many other good solutions, which is why White's choice seemed so odd.

We read Ralph several years ago -- I think it is time to read it again, as I've forgotten it. Stories are such a great way to discuss moral problems. I don't know about Ralph, but I wonder whether the Ramona books would be approved on the board, since Ramona is not always respectful and dutiful. As you say, clearly twaddle!

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

I think you can find wonderful discussions in almost any children's book. We had many discussions when we read The Pushcart War . And right now, we are reading Tom Brown aloud and have had some very productive discussions about what he says.

I am not sure what you mean by "twaddle" here. Perhaps you can point me to a definition? But in any case, it sounds like a judgement call. And of course, it would be "twaddle" to simply go along with a majority who are making the judgement without discussing and deciding for yourselves!

Melora said...

We Loved the Pushcart War. Definitely a good starter for conversations about moral behavior.
The "twaddle" comment is really a joke. I responded recently on the Well Trained Mind homeschooling board to a question about the Captain Underpants series, saying that, though they are certainly dumb and contain potty humor, I thought they were harmless fun that might encourage some reluctant readers (such as my own sweet son) to read. I was chastized for this opinion, since CU is "twaddle" (valueless reading), and a child would be better served to watch paint dry than to read such stuff. Myrtle was kind enough to e-mail me and tell me that some of my chasteners were full of twaddle. We think Ramona is marvelous, And well written!

Amy said...

Thanks for clarifying the 'twaddle' comment. While I do think some books may be better written than others, any writing provides some type of value for the reader - even if it is just learning they don't like a certain style of writing.

I love, love Beverly Cleary and her ability to write from a child's POV. I also imagined myself as a 'Ramona'.


Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


Thanks for enlightening me on what the "twaddle" stuff was about.

I loved Beverly Cleary as a child and my daughter loved the Ramona books, too. N. did not read much fiction until we read the Harry Potter series aloud together about two years ago now. (We read books I - V). Then he got into reading more fiction for himself.

As for Captain Underpants--I don't think anyone thinks it is great literature, but some kids really enjoy that somewhat "off" humor at a certain age. With N., I do not censor reading much at all--however I encourage him to read one or two "good" books and let him read comic books as he will. Right now his "twaddle" would be Mad Magazine, which I recall enjoying at one point, too.

I don't know about you, but as an adult I do a lot of serious reading and sometimes I enjoy reading something light and fun, even if it does not constantly improve my mind. First, I can only think about a few really heavy ideas at once, and second, I can't be serious all the time--it tends to make me depressed! Humor has its own complexity and mind magic that the parent of an AS child cannot afford to ignore! :)

Dy said...

I haven't been able to bring myself to read that book yet. Honestly, I don't care for EB White. (Yeah, I know, instant flogging for admitting that one in public. *cringe*) But it's not an elitist thing - I like my mental M&M's (as MFS calls it - love that term) and some of the dearest characters who've come into my life came bound in the pages of twaddle. :-)

I did LOL @ the head thing. Now I'm wondering how warped we are for not thinking it was weird that they didn't launch an investigation. I mean, it's not as if Rome is set in a cold enough climate that it would be preserved well, or easily. It probably was fairly fresh... but *whoosh* it went right over our heads.