Tuesday, August 6, 2013
“If you want to converse with me, first define your terms.” We know that quotation, attributed to Francois-Marie Arouet (AKA Voltaire of the 18th century), reminds us how difficult communicating is if meanings of words are not mutual. Current political groups require Focus Groups to unravel the confusion.
Consider Alex Smith, Chair of the College Republican National Committee, who on All Things Considered (June 3, NPR) reported confusion over terms Republicans use. She said Republicans under the age of 30 do not understand the party’s “brand names” such as “big government.”
We live in complicated times, especially when it comes to communicating in speech and writing. But if we want words to transcend brand names and generations, we can turn to staples. One staple reaching from one generation to another and another is the late Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends.”
Published in 1974 and still favored by educators, Silverstein’s collection of poems and drawings especially suits ages 4-10. That book we once shared with our young loved ones now lies in their own children’s laps. It’s sometimes so positively addictive that we are surprised: Yes! That really is a book the child clutches, not some electronic game. How refreshing! How necessary!
So what makes “Where The Sidewalk Ends” inviting? Well, to start with, the opening poem “Invitation” says, “Come in!” The poem invites everyone: “dreamer,” “wisher,” “pray-er,” “liar,” “hope-er.” Think how a child might question: “Liar?” or have fun hearing and saying “hope-er.” (Later, a poem with a bunch of hopeless “nots” concludes hopefully with “ANYTHING can be.”)
Pages continue with funny pairings. For instance, next to a sketch of an acrobat hanging by her nose is a poem whose rhymes “knees,” “please,” “breeze” meet the final plea “Don’t sneeze.”
Actually, the sketches alone lure, whether a long nose on “Miss Betsy Blue Bonnet,” big fish eating little fish, or a merry-less Christmas tree.
Then, there are cute derivatives of platitudes. Consider the iconoclastic in “Early Bird.” Sure there is the advantage of being an early bird catching the worm, but those lines run into a warning: “if you’re a worm, sleep late.” Similar, with something-to-think-about and amusing tone, is “Ma and God.” The poem states:
God-givens (fingers, voices, puddles) along with Ma statements (“Use your fork, “Don’t scream,” and “Don’t splash”). The irony might not be clear to a young child, yet certainly would be to older siblings reading to the younger. And that kind of harmless irreverence is another characteristic that makes the book cleverly captivating to children.
Evocatively imaginative is the title poem; it speaks of cooling “in the peppermint wind.”
“Where the Sidewalk Ends” is an unending wonder because it loves language; it offers imaginative voyages; and it mixes abounding humor with life’s ironies. No need for a Focus Group to understand why the book continues circling our lives.