I SPY and Good Night Moon: The Connection
I wrote this speech for a symposium on Margaret Wise Brown moderated by Leonard Marcus at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, MA on May 19, 2005. In it I paid tribute to Margaret Wise Brown, Lucy Sprague Mitchell, and Dorothy H. Cohen for teaching me about the "Here and Now" tradition of children's literature.
When I was young, I had a book called Margaret Wise Brown's Wonderful Story Book. It was a Big Golden Book illustrated by J.P. Miller. My favorite story was "The Steam Roller", which told about a little girl who was given a real steam roller by her parents for Christmas. She went off for a ride without knowing how to control it. In no time, she flattened a chicken, a pig, her mean old aunt, a policeman, and her teacher. When the little girl saw her friends coming down the road, she yelled to them to get out of the way. But the children didn't move, so the little girl steered into a field and jumped out before the steam roller fell into the ocean. When her parents heard what happened, they gave the little girl another present: a real steam shovel. Off went the little girl down the road. She scooped up the chicken, the pig, her aunt, the policeman, and her teacher. After giving her friends rides on the steam shovel, the little girl then went home for Christmas dinner.
As a story, "The Steam Roller" has too much text and very little of the poetry we expect from Margaret Wise Brown. But I loved it for the powers given to the little girl by her non-judgmental parents: both the power to destroy and the power to resurrect. In 1948 was this a shocking story? I don't know. I read it by myself and never discussed it with anybody.
Years later, I graduated from the University of Connecticut with an English major and the Harvard Graduate School of Education with a Master of Arts in Teaching. I taught junior and senior high school in the Boston area, worked for Harvard's Upward Bound Program, and then moved to New York City to get into educational publishing.
It was in the late 60's, a dynamic, well-funded time for early childhood educators, some of whom created Headstart and Sesame Street. I landed a research job in early childhood education at General Learning Corporation, turned freelance, wrote the first parent guides to Sesame Street, and was hired in 1971 to be the editor of Scholastic's kindergarten magazine, Let's Find Out. I loved that job and held it for twenty years.
Dorothy H. Cohen was my first educational adviser there. A member of the graduate faculty at Bank Street College of Education, she was petite with braided grey hair wrapped into a crown on her head. She read every word I wrote for the magazine and flattened me like a steam roller with exasperating questions, such as, "What did the children do at the First Thanksgiving? Did they play games? What games? What did they eat? How did they eat? Did they use a knife, a fork and a spoon? Did they use a bowl or a plate? Did they use a napkin?"
Gradually, I internalized Dorothy's fierce insistence on telling stories from a child's point of view because, of course, she was right. My stories were always better this way. I developed the ability to see the world as children see it, to hear the words, to sense their feelings. Time and time again, Dorothy Cohen's rigorous teaching scooped me up like a steam shovel and set me down on the path that always begins with the child.
Even as she lay dying in her house in the Bronx in 1979, Dorothy had me visit with rough drafts of Let's Find Out for her to check. She cared.
Dorothy was very proud of the fact that in 1936 she had graduated from the Bank Street Cooperative, which in time became the Bank St. College of Education. She described the founder of the Cooperative, Lucy Sprague Mitchell in glowing terms. Lucy Mitchell was a powerful, dynamic, intelligent, artistic, progressive teacher on a mission. She wanted to change the traditional, conventional school from a place where children sat in rows and learned by rote from a teacher in the front of the room to a place where children and teachers together explored first-hand familiar materials in order to learn about them more meaningfully.
Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny was at the Bank St. at the same time as Dorothy Cohen. They were both artistic, as were many of Lucy Mitchell's students, drawn as they naturally would be to this new way of thinking. Dorothy had been a ballet dancer. She never told me that she and Margaret were buddies, and I don't think they were. They were from difference social classes (Margaret, upper; Dorothy, not), and they differed politically (Margaret, apolitical; Dorothy, involved). Even so, I like to imagine them in their progressive classes together: dancing, painting, singing and playing instruments.
To help me improve my writing for children, Dorothy gave me a copy of Lucy Sprague Mitchell's book The Here and Now Story Book. What's interesting about this book is that the first 50 pages by Mitchell explaining her "Here and Now" approach to writing are fascinating and still worth reading by any aspiring children's book writer because they tell about the importance of the familiar for children. The next 200 pages of the book, however, are filled with flat, boring stories for children written by Mitchell. She followed her own precepts, but she was not a good writer. For example, here's the first paragraph of the first story called "Peter and His Pail."
"Peter was a little boy. He had many toys. He loved all his toys. But most of all, Peter loved his pail. Peter liked to carry his pail wherever he went."
While Lucy Mitchell's children's stories were not successful, her teaching was very successful. Margaret Wise Brown and Dorothy Cohen absorbed her "Here and Now" philosophy, taking it in different directions. Margaret Wise Brown became a poet whose most successful children's books were written strictly from a child's point of view. Dorothy Cohen became an author of books about children, including The Learning Child and Kindergarten and Early Schooling and a passionate, generous teacher inspiring many students and writers, including me.
One day, in 1986 I went into my office at Scholastic and found in my mailbox a promotional card from a photographer named Walter Wick. I had never heard of him, but instantly I knew that Carol Devine Carson, the art director, and I would hire him to photograph for our kindergarten magazine. His very clear, very interesting sample photograph was of an assortment of nuts, bolts, nails, pins, etc. We called him up and gave him a job: to make a poster of a similar array of objects, only everything had to be in the same category. Sorting and classifying objects in the classroom is a good, hands-on intellectual activity for kindergarteners, and it's always stimulating to introduce new categories to children. The category we asked Walter to address was "Fasteners." He did a splendid job, so we hired him again, this time to make a "Welcome to School" poster using kindergarten blocks and toys. Again, he did an outstanding job. Though he had never made pictures for young children before, Walter Wick took to this work like a duck to water. After more successful posters, an editor in the Book Division at Scholastic said, "You should do a book together." And so, we did. The result was "I SPY: A Book of Picture Riddles."
The photographs in the book were comprised of many familiar objects, artfully arranged by Walter. The riddles listed objects to be found by the reader. I wrote the riddles in rhythm and rhyme for kindergarten children. I expected that kindergarteners would like the book, but I was surprised to discover that older kids liked it, too: and so did parents and grandparents. To play I SPY, a child needs the visual discrimination and a vocabulary of familiar objects. That's all. A child doesn't have to be able to read because the book can be read aloud by someone else. A child doesn't need a knowledge base; to know, for example, who was the first president of the United States; and a child doesn't need to understand abstractions, such as Canada. The objects to find in "I SPY" are familiar, concrete, touchable, experience-able.
As author of I SPY I have two jobs: one, to write the riddles as Walter is creating the pictures (I can't write them ahead of time without infringing upon his creativity); and, two, to maintain the integrity of the I SPY game. Every so often, I have to assert my author author-ity to define the "I SPY" game for people who don't completely understand it. The game is not about finding just anything; it is only about finding things that are familiar, concrete, touchable, and experience-able – and then to think about these things intellectually. Which ones are the same? How are they the same? How are they different? And so forth.
Unfortunately, sometimes to assert the essential qualities of I SPY, I have to steam roll over people's objections. These people are usually people who are not familiar with how young children think. Once they understand, however, they are able to create excellent products, such as the terrific I SPY CD-ROMs. I owe the strength of my convictions to the three strong women who inspired them: Margaret Wise Brown, Dorothy H. Cohen, and Lucy Sprague Mitchell.
A frustrated teacher recently sent me an email complaining that the librarian at her school wouldn't let children in second grade check out I SPY books because "they aren't educational." As a result, I put an I SPY Teaching Guide on my website, JeanMarzollo.com. I SPY is deeply educational.
When Walter Wick and I brainstormed a geography picture for I SPY School Days, I sent him a copy of Lucy Sprague Mitchell's book Young Geographers. The result is a colorful photograph of a small village mapped on the floor with wooden blocks and toys. Lucy Sprague Mitchell would have loved it.
Thanks to Walter's incredibly fascinating photographs and to the three women who taught me how to educate children, I get letters from teachers who tell me that they use the I SPY books with children in regular classes, gifted classes, special ed classes, English as second language classes, and autistic children's classes. The I SPY books help many, many children look at the world more carefully, use language more vividly, think more creatively, and feel good about their problem solving talent.
When I wrote the first riddles for I SPY, I was aware of various "lovely lists" in Web of the treats in Wilbur's slop (skim milk, wheat middlings, leftover pancakes, half a doughnut, the rind of a summer squash, etc.); in James Thurber's shopping list of things the Royal Wizard in Many Moons needed to get for his wife; and in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain's list of the things Huck plans to take on his raft. I enjoyed playing with the words in the I SPY lists, getting them to fit the rhythm and rhyme scheme, and also to alert children to objects I particularly wanted them to explore so that they would discover a deeper meaning in the pictures.
In I SPY School Days, for example, the riddle specifically calls for objects that help to make up a Rube Goldberg balloon popper machine that Walter cleverly constructed (and got to work). When I visit schools, I ask for volunteers to come forward and explain how the machine works. Often, teachers and librarians are amazed at the kids who can do this. One of the best ever was a third grade boy who, I was told afterwards, was violent and had an aide with him at all times during the day. When he explained proudly in exquisite detail the workings of this machine made of familiar objects, he was completely calm.
The connection between Margaret Wise Brown and I SPY is the familiar. In Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown simply and profoundly lists objects to find and relinquish as one falls safely into dark sleep. In I SPY I list objects to find as part of an invigorating, high voltage challenge.
You never know when a great teacher is going to influence your life profoundly. I think Margaret Wise Brown and Dorothy Cohen were lucky to have walked through Lucy Sprague Mitchell's doors at 69 Bank Street. I feel lucky to have walked through Scholastic's doors where I met Dorothy Cohen. I am deeply in debt to these three women for teaching me the "Here and Now" tradition of children's literature.