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Letters to the Editor

 

January 6, 2021



On Christmas Day I wanted to read my wife “The Night before Christmas” so had recourse to a remarkable set of books I’ve owned since my age was measured in single digits. They are entitled “My Book House,” edited by Olive Beaupre’ Miller, although in our household they were “the Book House Books.” Twelve in all, they are numbered according to reading/understanding levels, and my parents read tirelessly to me from them long before I was able to do that myself. In fact, I credit these books with my ability to read before starting school and that I was the best reader in every elementary school class.

Incidentally, my mom had eleven years of school and was first and foremost a mother and a housewife, whereas Dad had nine and was first a coal-miner and later an unskilled factory worker.

Volume number 1 is subtitled “In the Nursery,” 2 is “Story Time,” and they progress along with the education level of the child. I believe 12 would challenge some of today’s high school seniors. Each volume contains a sampling of the world’s literature, sometimes adapted for children of the corresponding level, and of its finest authors.

Volume 2, containing “The Night before Christmas,” includes the writing of Aesop, Aristophanes, Christina Rossetti, John Keats, Sir Walter Scott, Longfellow, Hector Berlioz, Beatrix Potter, Walt Whitman, Tolstoy, Carl Sandburg, Elizabeth B. Browning, and others.

Some of these celebrities wrote things especially for children, whereas other pieces were adapted to the particular age range. Further, the book is full of informative footnotes about composers and artists, for examples. If there is a country or a culture not represented among these pages, it must have occurred after the publication date.

Have we become a people that communicate graphically? Rarely is there a page not brilliantly illustrated, and most often these are splendidly colorful and signed by the painter. I spent long sessions studying pictures in stories and poems I couldn’t begin to read and, in the process, learned many new words: “Mom, what does U–V-W-X-Y spell?”

Volume 5 has the “Gettysburg Address” and a poem about the Wright Brothers written by the Benets; 8 includes a story adapted from “The Tempest” and an excerpt about circus life from P.T. Barnum’s autobiography; and 10, part of Homer’s “Odyssey,” “Joseph and His Brethren” from the Bible, “Lohengrin,” from Wagner’s opera, and “Rustem, the Hero of Persia” from their Book of Kings. By the time the reader gets to volume 12, there are childhood biographies of the likes of Louisa May Alcott, Robert Burns, Chaucer, Dickens, Joel Chandler Harris, and Percy Shelly and these encompass the times and environments of the people chronicled. A great deal of history is pleasantly insinuated into this literature.

A terrific feature of the set of 12 books is its index. It contains not only an alphabetical list of all the titles to be found, but interspersed in boldface is a list of personal traits and qualities, such as Industry, Ingratitude, Initiative, Injustice, Jealousy, Judging by Appearances, Rage, Responsibility, and beneath each such heading is an alphabetic list and location of poems, stories, etc. that deal with that quality. Thus, for example, if the reader – or a parent of one – wants articles pertaining to jealousy, he finds “jealousy” in the index, and voila! – there follows a subindex of relevant readings.

Finally, also astounding by today’s standards, is the way these book sets were sold – door-to-door by women. That’s precisely how my mom purchased them one fine and fortunate day for me.

This is not intended as an advertisement, but reprints of the set have been available in the past, and we made presents of them to two households of grandchildren.

I just realized I’ve composed a historical item myself: parents’ reading by the hour to their children; entertaining, world literature and culture introduced painlessly to the young; gorgeous, inoffensive illustrations; easily accessible lessons about virtues and anti-virtues for parental guidance; and, not the least, an era when women could sell door-to-door without fear of rape or murder and housewives were unafraid to open their doors to strangers. It was a great time; where did it go? How can we retrieve it?

Larry Stanfel

Roundup

 

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