Green Eggs and Ham: the first one’s free

Having young children means I’ve read a lot of Dr. Seuss. Rather, I’ve read a limited amount of Dr. Seuss many times over. Reading a Seuss book too many times makes you start thinking more deeply about the story than is good for you.

I’ve already shared my over-analysis of The Cat in the Hat, but so far I’ve spared you my deep thoughts about Green Eggs and Ham. That grace period is over; here I go again.

On the surface, Green Eggs and Ham captures every parent’s frustration with the reluctance of their children to try new foods. The message we hope kids are getting is that just because a food is different doesn’t mean it can’t be delicious. Though most parents would not put green meat into their own mouths, it has the potential to be a helpful message.

Green ham

Yes, I’d like my kids to try new things, but I’m a little skeptical of this meal myself.

But considering the lengths to which Sam I Am goes to deliver this message, one must wonder if the ends justify the means.

We have no idea why Sam is so determined to have the unnamed character try green eggs and ham. He doesn’t indicate any parental relationship. Lacking that, his incessant nagging takes on the flavor of peer pressure, or worse, outright stalking. The pursuit ends only with a frightful train accident that might easily have spelled tragedy for both Sam I Am and his quarry.

Why would Sam I Am go to such lengths to persuade a character, who seems to be a mere acquaintance, to taste green eggs and ham? Try offering an oddly-colored foodstuff to a friend of a friend. When he declines, chase him around town with it and suggest rhyming pairs of common nouns whose presence might make him more amenable to your strange offering.

Sam’s peculiar persistence calls into question the nature of his goods. Is it really ham and eggs? My faith in Dr. Seuss persuades me it really is about ham and eggs, but it’s not hard to imagine it as a euphemism for something else. If I told you there was a book, published in 1960, about one guy pressuring another guy to try some freaky, new stuff, would you think of ham and eggs?

I don’t want to think that Sam was pushing something he shouldn’t have been, but why on earth would he suppose that a hunk of green ham would make for better eating in a box with a fox? Aside from the lack of dining ambiance inside a box, how would being cooped with a wild carnivore enhance anyone’s ham-eating pleasure?

Sam nearly makes sense when he asks about the possibility of his tarried acquaintance eating his ham and eggs in a house, but then he goes right back off the deep end by introducing a mouse into the equation. If he really wants to make the sale, he should quit blurting out the name of whatever creature he happens to be hallucinating about.

Only when Sam’s hectoring has brought the other character face to face with death does the latter agree to do whatever Sam asks, so long as it will get that suffocating monkey off his back. He tries green eggs and ham. His eyes light up and he professes, quite credibly, to liking the sample very much.

This resolution of the conflict is either a well-deserved triumph for focused, dedicated parents everywhere or it is a tragic loss of innocence. It depends upon how you look at it, which very likely depends upon how many times you’ve been compelled to read the book in a single evening.

 

The Ghost of Storytelling Past

I’m reading A Christmas Carol to my six-year-old at bedtime every night. I could have picked up a children’s version for him, but I’m going with the original, even though much of it will fly over his head.

I made this decision for three reasons:

  1. I’m cheap and didn’t want to buy another version of a book I already own.
  2. I’m not a fan of watered down versions of books. If the boy opts for a children’s book, we’ll choose one that began as a children’s book.
  3. I think one of the parts that is the first to be cut in the children’s versions is one of the parts I most want my children to hear.

Reasons 1 and 2 are self-explanatory. Let me explain reason 3.

A Christmas Carol is a brilliant story. It wouldn’t have been made into a million different movies if it weren’t. There’s so much to love about it, and so much to like in many of its offspring films. But there is one thing that the original text has that nothing else does.

Dickens

The beautifully illustrated edition we read.

The original has Dickens himself as the storyteller.

I’m not just talking about his genius with words. I’m not just talking about his ability to set a tone or his command of the narrative. I’m talking about those instances when the narrator comes onto the page and speaks directly to the reader. This is an ancient form of magic, all but lost to us now.

It is a relic of the time when children heard stories at their elders’ knees, when stories were enriched by the personality of the storyteller.

You can’t do that today. We won’t stand for it. We want our stories delivered anonymously, not chuckled to us by a narrator who presumes to refer to himself in the first person. We don’t want it to smell of grandpa’s after shave; we want an antiseptic story to be beamed through the vacuum of space, like it is on TV.

We want to be shown, not told.

Now, I will be the first admit that some of the old fellows did too much telling. I will also agree that showing is far more effective than telling in our time, when much of the art of storytelling has been lost. But I will argue that there is a mix that includes both showing and telling that is the rarest treasure in the unveiling of a story.

Dickens was a master at the mixology of show and tell. And who could appreciate show and tell more than a first grader? Okay, maybe a kindergartener, but what’s done is done.

I want to offer my children the chance to hear the storyteller’s voice — to appreciate when a story is even better because of who is telling it and what his character adds to the telling.

Maybe they won’t catch it this year, but there’s always the next. And besides Dickens, we’ve got lots of Hans Christian Andersen to get to.

What happens when you trust a fish to babysit

Having small children, my reading has taken on a flavor not known for 40 years. As an adult, I find myself plagued by disturbing questions as I re-read some childhood favorites.

Kids love Dr. Seuss, and rightfully so. His delightful rhymes spark young imaginations. But reading The Cat in the Hat makes me wonder what kind of parenting world he lived in.

First, the children’s mother trots off to God-knows-where, leaving her two small children home unattended. Not that it would have mitigated her negligence, but she could have set them up with some activities so they had something better to do than stare at the rain during her absence. An idle mind is the itinerant, talking cat’s playground.

Perhaps she left the fish in charge of her darlings. If so, we quickly discover how well that arrangement worked. At minimum, a babysitter must be able to sustain himself in the same fluid as his charges. Let that be a lesson to us all.

meet the new sitter

We don’t own any goldfish, but we do have this lady. It’s helpful to know she can be called upon to babysit in a pinch.

Knowing that she was leaving her children home alone, or in the care of a being confined to a bowl, you’d think that Mom would lock the door on her way out. The Cat just waltzed right in, without the least hindrance from the deadbolt. While the children reported hearing a loud bump before the Cat’s appearance, a woman so obsessed with the state of her home would have noticed any damage to her front door upon her return, which she did not.

The Cat himself has some disturbing attitudes. Did he scout out the house in order to ascertain that children were alone? That’s creepy. And who bursts into a strange house in order to mentor unfamiliar children in the art of having fun? That’s not anything I want happening in my neighborhood.

The Cat’s attire gives me no comfort. I don’t trust people who, post-Victorian Era, wear tall hats. Neville Chamberlain wore a tall hat; ask a Czech if he could be trusted. The red and white stripes don’t dissuade my mistrust.

The uninvited Cat takes numerous liberties without the consent of the children, and with the positive disapproval of the fish. He caps his libertine antics with the introduction of two feral children he calls Things One and Two. While these creatures may be of scientific interest, one must wonder why they are in the custody of a cat and why they are forced, in this enlightened age, to live in a crate.

Fortunately, the Cat is a relatively benign intruder. He does nothing worse than leave the children in mortal fear of having their mother return to a messy house. This fear is well placed. Their mother appears the type to take no responsibility for the consequences of her own injudicious decisions. The children understand that they will be scapegoated and punished severely.

Luckily, the little boy is good with a net. His capture of the first of the feral Things is a turning point, upon which all hope of the children escaping their mother’s wrath depends. Only after the Things have been re-boxed is there any hope of cleaning the mess they created.

This brings us to the thrilling conclusion, and most suspect part of the story. The fish sees the mother approaching through the front window. Then, the Cat exits through the front door; returns with his fantastic cleaning machine, through the front door; has time to put the house in order; and drives his machine out again, through the front door. Meanwhile, there is no indication that the mother did anything but continue to approach the house, which she enters through the front door.

Even at an extremely leisurely pace, it is hard to believe that Mom did not reach the door before the Cat passed through it for the third time since her ankle was spotted by the fish. It is inconceivable that she did not notice a cat driving an ATV through the door.

These circumstances cast suspicion upon this delinquent mother. One must call her motives into question. While I don’t have enough evidence to piece together what she is up to, I would not object to Child Protective Services keeping an eye on her.

You could postulate that the Cat and his Things were figments of the children’s imaginations. This may be true, but if children are having these sorts of vivid hallucinations, one must wonder what stimulus is causing such sensory overload.

We can only hope that, in the ensuing years, everyone received the help they needed.