Sunday, May 2, 2010

Braindrops Number 100

This is a milestone for Braindrops... blog number 100. I tried to come up with something momentous to mark the occasion, but all I got for the effort was a headache. So on we go...we spent some time this morning at the Richmondtown Flea Market here on Staten Island. They hold these events a few times a year to help raise money for the restoration of historic Richmondtown. The main village is located in the heart of Richmond County and occupies almost 50 acres featuring over 30 original historic structures, including homes and commercial and civic buildings, as well as an historical museum. Three additional sites include one of the oldest homes in the country, still standing on its original location for almost 350 years, and an 11 acre organic farm.

Flea markets are great fun if you like walking around sorting through other people's junk. Everybody's looking for that miracle find, you know, like the ceramic pot that the lady on Antiques Roadshow says she bought for two dollars and the breathless appraiser gushes that today it's worth fifty grand. We used to go to flea markets more often, but even with a ten-room house, we just ran out of space. Today I picked up some artist's brushes, a painted dish, and a book published in 1921 called "The Latch Key", a collection of writings selected and edited for children by Olive Beaupre Miller. The book was part of a series of six published by Bookhouse, containing writings by renowned authors like Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter, Lewis Carroll, Hans Christian Anderson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Joel Chandler Harris and dozens of others. The hand-drawn illustrations were as charming as the stories.

One of the fun things about flea markets is that you meet some interesting people more than willing to talk about the stuff they sell or collect. While strolling around with the book under my arm, a man noticed the title and ran around from behind his table, nearly tackling me. "I hope you don't mind, but I grew up reading the Bookhouse series, and seeing that book title really brought me back." He went on to say that his aunt and uncle had the books in their library, and as a reward for doing chores for them, they would let him read the stories. He flipped open the book to a random page with no title, read a few sentences, and correctly identified the piece as "A Wizard of the Twilight" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Amazed, I asked him how come he remembered the book so well.

He explained that as a kid he was a voracious reader, and that his parents had few books in the house. He went to his aunt and uncle's as often as he could, and having few books themselves, he wound up reading the same ones over and over. He explained further that the six books in the series were graduated in complexity, with the selections growing more mature, intending to challenge young readers as they moved up through grade school. He reached down to his table and showed me a modern children's book he was selling. "Look at the sentence structure and the vocabulary in The Latch Key" he said "and compare it to what kids get to read today. Modern writing is so dumbed down, and even with these watered down standards, the kids can't write worth a damn".

He was on a roll and I didn't slow him down because I agree completely about the decline of literacy in our society. He was also annoyed that the legions of the politically correct prevailed the last time Bookhouse published this series in 1971, and removed what they considered to be "inappropriate material that did not reflect modern American values". One of the stories was "Little Black Sambo", a children's book by Helen Bannerman. In the tale, an Indian boy named Sambo outwits a group of hungry tigers. The little boy has to give his colorful new clothes, shoes, and umbrella to four tigers so they will not eat him. I remember loving this story as a child and never thought of it as racially charged. Other deleted works included some of the "Uncle Remus" tales by Joel Chandler Harris. His "Song of the South" with Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit was turned into a children's classic by Disney. Instead of maybe footnoting these charming writings to explain how the times in which they were written were different, the book Nazis just threw out the baby with the bathwater.

The decline of reading among children is very sad. Do you know any kids who would do chores for the reward of reading time? How many kids will have had their imaginations fired by stories they read growing up? Will any of them be able to open a book they read fifty or sixty years ago to a random page and name the story and the author the way my flea market friend did? We all know the answer to that question. Buy your children books and read with them.


Children's Craniofacial Association


The Whiner said...

Hey now a lot of us still read to our kids! And I know I let Ava watch too much TV but she does love books, especially the funny ones like Olivia, Arthur, and the No David books. I must say there is a great joy I have in seeing Ava enjoy a book so much. That's neat that the man recalled that book fondly. p.s. Check it on eBay, maybe it's your "clay pot."

Jim Pantaleno said...

I know you're a book fan and Ava is too...always was. I paid $2 for the book; the entite six-book series was on e-bay for $25...not exactly my pot of gold.

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

My folks had the complete set of classics, from Moby Dick tot he King Arthur's Court, and everything in between! We also had the Encyclopedia Brittanica, from the 1940"s, everything in black and white. I used to pull out subjects at random just to find interesting things to read, just like your blog, which by the way is one of your best!

Jim Pantaleno said...

I guess Joe that our early exposure to good writing made us the literary giants we are today