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Ruffles and Flourishes

Posted: 2014-10-07

A comment on Twitter about Flat Stanley provoked me to locate this article, published in The Atlantic, September 1987. I received some 150 letters about it--not from teachers but from ordinary citizens who cared about literature--one wrote he jumped off the train in Denver to mail a letter to me. Imagine! in 1987, travelers carried stamps with them. Flat Stanley author Jeff Brown wrote, saying he had received lots of mail. He also said he had no idea about what had been done to Stanley. I sent him a copy of one of the offensive basals.

"CHILDREN LIKE A fine word occasionally,' Beatrix Potter once told her publisher, when he complained about the use of the word soporific in her book The Tale of Flopsy Bunnies. I taught grammar-school students for the better part of two decades, and I count myself firmly in Ms. Potter's camp. It follows, of course, that I can muster little enthusiasm for basal readers, those homogenized and bowdlerized grade-school texts, edited according to elaborate readability formulas and syllable schemes, that constitute the bulk of the average child's officially sanctioned reading material in American schools. Basal readers can be criticized on a lot of grounds. Their worst fault, I think, is that for no good reason they squeeze the juice out of some very fine tales. Here is a passage from the Paul Leyssac translation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes':

"Magnificent!' "Excellent!' "Prodigious!'went from mouth to mouth, and everyone was exceedingly pleased.

Here is the same passage as rendered in a modern reader:

"How marvelous,' they echoed the emperor. "How beautiful!'

Sure, prodigious is a tough word, but it's a word that young readers would be pleased, perhaps exceedingly pleased, to try out, to repeat, to save.

Admittedly, the publishers of basal readers encounter prodigious difficulties in the preparation of their texts. They are under acute and conflicting pressures from educators, from parents, and from organized interest groups of every kind. Too, the sensibility of many old stories may often be at odds with the tenor of our times. In many instances, however, the sense behind the censorship seems impossible to fathom. The difference between many familiar children's stories in their original form and the way they appear in basal readers is, indeed, so striking and the changes, it seems to me, so unnecessary that several years ago I began comparing old and new versions line by line.

A good many of the editorial changes are of a kind that one would never write an angry letter about but that nevertheless give one pause. I have in mind changes like the following:


Do a tapdance!

Cook spaghetti!

"Trust me,' I said.

Come to my house at eleven.

The sea is our enemy.

wily swindlers,crafty rogues




Chirp like a bird!

Cook pancakes!

"You'll see,' I said.

Come to my house around twelve.

The sea is not our friend.




This sort of thing does not, I suppose,amount to extreme literary deprivation, but the average classic children's tale--a work by, say, Andersen, Kipling, or Pearl Buck--in basal form contains hundreds of such alterations. Taken together they suggest a preternatural disposition to tinker, which in turn perhaps reinforces a parallel disposition to cut and trim and simplify, to tame and domesticate what is powerful, florid, and wild in the way that good writers use our language.

The latter disposition is pronounced. Consider how, in Kipling's "How the Camel Got His Hump,' "sticks and thorns and tamarisks and milkweed and prickles' becomes, in basal form, "sticks and shurbs'; or how a "great big lolloping humph' turns into a "great big humph.' You lose a great big lolloping lot when you lose the humph's gerundive. Consider how, in Walter Blair's "Pecos Bill,' "giving a coyote yell of a size to make any state that was less tough than Oklahoma split right down the middle' becomes, in basal versions, "howling like a coyote.' One of the stories my students have most enjoyed over the years is Flat Stanley, by Jeff Brown. As the title implies, Stanley has gotten himself flattened, and the story goes on to describe the very special things that a flat boy can do, including travel across the country by mail. Here is a passage from Brown:

The envelope fit Stanley very well. There was even room left over, Mrs. Lambchop discovered, for an egg-salad sandwich made with thin bread, and a flat cigarette case filled with milk.

They had to put a great many stamps on the envelope to pay for both airmail and insurance, but it was still much less expensive than a train or airplane ticket to California would have been.

Here is how the passage appears in a basal reader:

The envelope fit Stanley very well.

There was even room left over for a sandwich.

My students always loved the author's mention of thin bread--they knew he was being very deliberate in his choice of words, and they appreciated his nod to their intelligence, his acknowledgment that they would know he was sustaining a joke. They appreciated, too, the humor of egg salad--a much yuckier substance than, for instance, bologna, and one with which you would certainly not choose to be sealed in an envelope. I appreciate the taboo governing allusions to cigarettes, and yet what my students tended to note is not the reference to tobacco but rather Mrs. Lambchop's ingenuity in finding a way to make sure that her son, while in the mail, is able to drink his milk. Eventually, Stanley's friends mail him back from California in

a beautiful white envelope they handmade themselves. It had red-and-blue markings to show that it was airmail, and Thomas Jeffrey had lettered it "Valuable' and "Fragile' and "This End Up' on both sides.

Basal readers simply stuff the kid in "a beautiful, large white envelope,' and get on with the story.

I have compiled notebook after notebook of alterations of just this kind, which probably makes me some kind of a nut. I find it hard to believe, though, that the unscrupulous editing of basal readers doesn't matter. Like Bartleby the Serivener, modern reading textbooks are "pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn.' There is room in our children's literature for silliness, for unpleasantness, and for difficult words that children do not know. Above all, there is a place for detail and nuance and subtlety, which children perhaps admire more than adults do. Young readers are not like the Emperor of Austria, who told Mozart that his music was great but complained that there were too many notes. Perhaps a few of them could be cut?

Mozart was lucky. He succeeded in silencing his critic with the question, "Which few did you have in mind?' The editors of modern basal readers, unfortunately, would have had a reply. There is a book kids love called Nate the Great, by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat, and here is a passage that does not appear in any of the basal versions:

"Fang has sharp teeth and I, Nate the Great, say that we should keep anybody happy with sharp teeth. Very happy.'

I never used the basal texts, and so my students could sigh and grin over that phrase "Very happy.' They copied the device, as they did other devices, in their own writing. Children notice and savor the ruffles and flourishes in special writing. It is these, in the end, that keep us reading books.

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