Know Your Book I: An Elbow in the Ribs

Know Your Book I: An Elbow in the Ribs

One of my reading tips is to Know Your Book. At the most basic level this means adapting your reading style to your book. If you’re reading a silly book to small children it is appropriate – nay, encouraged – to ham it up. If you’re reading a more serious book for older children, it is often better to play it more deadpan and let the prose do the work, to let the details of the story come at the listener on their own.

But knowing your book also means knowing what’s inside, being able to anticipate any thorny moments – scary, emotional, thematically uncomfortable – so that you are ready with a strategy to defuse them. Knowing your book also means recognizing a slow section – to make sure you power through it – or an exciting or important moment in the book – to make sure you protect it from interruption.

Occasionally, though, you will encounter an author whose style is hard to decipher, hard to figure out how to read. In my experience this happens most often when you are reading something someone else has recommended. (It worked for them, why isn’t it working for you?) Or when you are reading a classic, something the opinion of generations has recommended, yet you cannot manage to unlock.

Me, I have trouble with A.A. Milne’s Pooh stories. Don’t ask me why. Children love them, but I just can’t seem to find the right tone to pull them off. I am either too simple, or too knowing. And I feel stupid and uncomfortable and self-conscious. I just can’t access the right restrained yet arch silliness.

But there is one book, which gave me great trouble, that I was eventually able to unlock – Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. Kipling is a master of English prose and has written books for various reading levels. The Just So Stories are the simplest; the two Jungle Books are a step beyond; and then if they’re game children can graduate to Kim or Captains Courageous.

But if the Just So Stories are the “easiest” – i.e. aimed at the youngest children – how could they give trouble? Perhaps you know “The Cat Who Walked By Himself” or “How the Camel Got His Hump,” two of the stories from this collection that have been anthologized most. If I can’t read that, I asked myself, what is my problem? But I couldn’t. There was something stilted about the rhythm of the prose. Just when I thought Kipling was all set to ease into his moralistic fable, he would interrupt himself. I just couldn’t get it right. And when an adult is starting and stopping and re-starting – interrupting himself – then the book will not work for listening children. (Even if is the author’s fault.)

Here is the first paragraph of my favorite story from the collection, “The Beginning of the Armadilloes,” just so you can see what I’m on about:

This, O Best Beloved, is another story of the High and Far-Off Times.
In the very middle of those times was a Stickly-Prickly Hedgehog, and
he lived on the banks of the turbid Amazon, eating shelly snails and
things. And he had a friend, a Slow-Solid Tortoise, who lived on the
banks of the turbid Amazon, eating green lettuce and things. And so
that was all right, Best Beloved. Do you see?

Now what do you do with all of those “Best Beloveds” and the interrogative at the end? Maybe you’re quicker than me, but I honestly couldn’t figure it out.

Until I lucked into a solution. I happen to read something more about Rudyard Kipling, about his time in Vermont (he lived in Brattleboro, where he wrote the two Jungle Books). About his young children growing up in Vermont and about how he actually wrote the Just So Stories for them.

Suddenly I was able to conjure an image of Kipling sitting in his chair, and his daughter coming up and asking him to read one of the Just So Stories, or perhaps even asking him to tell the story that he would eventually set down in the book. And since I have been that father – with a young daughter in his lap – it was easy to imagine what that must have been like – the little private playful encouraging dialogue you have with a young child on your lap, to get them interested, to keep them interested, to make the story interactive. And suddenly, the prose of the Just So Stories was unlocked

Now what do you do with all of those “Best Beloveds” and the interrogative at the end? When I thought about Kipling’s daughter, Josephine, sitting on his lap, I had the answer. For she is clearly the “Best Beloved.” And Kipling’s conversational tone is now clearly evident as interacting with such a child sitting on his lap.

So now read the first paragraph anew. Armed with this insight, it becomes all too easy to turn and look at your own Best Beloved – perhaps jarring them with a playful elbow in the ribs, as I am wont to do – and make the story interacticve. Do you see?


Incidentally, one of the strengths of Kipling’s prose, here in this paragraph and throughout a work for children like the Just So Stories, is the repetition of choice, descriptive adjectival phrases like “the turbid Amazon.” This is a technique as old and well practiced as Homer (e.g. his ‘wine dark sea’). But still just as effective. For a child listener, such a phrase becomes familiar and valued. For the pedagogue in each of us, it is a prime example of how language and vocabulary are delivered to and absorbed by the child listener. They don’t need to ask “What does ‘turbid’ mean?” – and you don’t have to stop and tell them. Most likely, after hearing it a dozen times in the story, they’ll figure it out. And if not, the word will surely be lodged in their mental armory. The next time they hear it or see it, it will already be familiar, even if their minds are still collating information to pin down the exact meaning. But that happens unconsciously. It happens in myriad ways with myriad pieces of information. Our job is merely to expose them to such language.
So read on – and don’t forget the well placed elbow in the ribs if it can make the story or prose more interactive.

(Now if someone will tell me how to read the Winnie the Pooh stories, I’d really appreciate it.)

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