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The Literature

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an occasional column contributed by Ogdensburg native Marguerite (Peg) Cordwell Brown about her memories of growing up in St. Lawrence County. Peg, daughter of Vivian and Benjamin Cordwell, worked as a reporter for The Journal while she was a college student in the 1960s, and currently lives in Rhode Island where she is the director of development for Button Hole Golf Course and Learning Center, Providence. She hopes her column will serve as a reminder of a kinder, gentler time in the north country.

the LITERATURE

“Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book.”

Really? I wish I’d known that 50 years ago before I began a 30 year journey through higher education. Sure, I have three or four degrees, but according to the New York Times Bestseller List review, the Little Golden Book published in 2013 by Diane Muldrow, a long time editor of the storybooks, I could have just skipped all of that and been truly prepared for life. Once again, I found myself on Amazon ordering this book to see for myself if what Diane claimed could possibly be true.

It would have been impossible to escape childhood without a few dozen of these little books with the classic glossy covers and the gold foil spine lurking in the closet, under the bed and occasionally in a tidy row on a bookshelf. Originally published in 1942, they were the centerpiece of bedtime story time. With their colorful caricatures, they have been iconic symbols of storybooks for over seven decades. Not only were they very inexpensive (29 cents in 1962), they were for sale everywhere, including the grocery store.

The list of the first dozen Little Golden Books ever published included my personal favorite: the Poky Little Puppy. So ingrained are many of those stories somewhere in my memory, I can still visualize the illustrations that accompanied the story lines. While I remembered the stories, I could not honestly say I could pinpoint the life lessons learned that had supposedly carried me into adulthood. I decided to check Diane’s volume. The lesson highlighted by Diane from the Pokey Little Puppy was to “remember to stop and smell the strawberries.” Well, that explains my frantic run through life—I missed that lesson completely!

However, the lesson central to The Little Red Hen, another favorite, did stick. The story itself is not original and in fact might have been a folk tale from Russia. You’ll all remember that our central character finds a grain of wheat which she plants and tends, harvests and mills, and ultimately turns the product into bread. Along the way, she asks for help from her barnyard friends—all of whom decline to assist. But, when the bread is finished, they all want a slice. The hen, who some might say is not too charitable, essentially tells them in words often used by my Father “to go pound salt!” It’s the same message that we all heard when we read Aesop’s fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper—if you don’t work, you don’t eat. I will suggest that this just might be a story book that should be perhaps be reviewed by a new generation.

What other messages did I miss? Lots! Diane suggests the Rupert the Rhinoceros was really giving us permission to be unique; Chicken Little was about steering clear of shady characters (the fox) and The Gingerbread Man was to remind us to choose our friends wisely.

As I skipped through the pages with their Pollyanna statements about life, I began to wonder what other important lessons I might have missed in the literature of my youth. Take fairy tales for instance. Among the list of the top 20 most well-known tales, I found Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Message: someday your prince will come and whisk you away to a perfect life. Right!! The sad thing is I think many of us actually believed that in our early years. Also among that top 20 list are The Ugly Duckling (which probably led me to the practice of praying every night that I would wake up thin), Jack and the Beanstalk (every mistake you make will turn out just fine if you lie, cheat and steal); Little Red Riding Hood (don’t venture into strange places, trust your first instincts, and if you get taken in by strangers, someone will miraculously save you). Now I realize why these were called fairy tales.

So, moving on, searching for something that was as it seemed, I re-read a few Mother Goose nursery rhymes. Surely these had been just plain fun with their silly scenarios and humorous alliteration. WRONG! There’s another book on the market, written by a Dr. Douglas W. Larche, entitled “Father Gander Nursery Rhymes: The Equal Rhymes Amendment.” It was published over 30 years ago—I don’t know how I missed it. I love Dr. Larche’s description. The book “is a study of one hundred of our most popular rhymes (that) reveals a male-dominated, able-bodied, monocultural fairyland filled with sexism, anger, violence, environmental and nutritional ignorance and insensitivity to the human condition.” How could “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater,” for instance, support that description. Hmmm—oh yes—“had a wife and couldn’t keep her; put her in a pumpkin shell…” Or, “There was an old woman who lived in a shoe/She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.” Dr. Larche’s rewriting of this rhyme ends: “There’s only one issue/I don’t understand./If they didn’t want so many children, why didn’t they plan?” You can see where this is going…political correctness be damned.

And, just in case you think Dr. Larche was writing tongue in cheek—forget it. The book was not intended as a satire—it’s what he thought nursery rhymes should be.

I give up—I’m going back to the Bobbsey Twins. Oh, no! Bert, Nan, Flossie and Freddie were upper middle-class and White! Dr. Seuss anyone?

Author’s notes:

Little Golden Books gained a large audience when Lucy Sprague Mitchell, founder of a nursery school in Manhattan, began to contribute stories and characters that we inspired by her own school children and the surrounding neighborhoods.

The message in The Little Red Hen can also be traced to the Bible: Thessalonians 3:10.

When Little Golden Books celebrated its golden anniversary in 1992, over a billion and a half of the books had been sold world-wide.

The strangest fact I uncovered: In 2010, a 22,000 square inch shirt on a ball gown made entirely from the spines of Little Golden Books, revitalized the brand for yet another generation.

Among the funniest articles I found on this topic: “Little Golden Books That Never Made It.” Some of the less controversial title suggestions include: Curious George and the High Voltage Fence; Yellow Snow and Other Great Recipes: The Kid’s Cooking Guide; The Pop-Up Book of Human Anatomy; Pop! Goes the Hamster…And other Great Microwave Games; The Little Sissy Who Snitched; Baggy, the Anorexic Elephant….well, you get the idea! Now that I think about it, working on expanding this list might make good dinner conversation.

The reviews suggest that Diane’s book is a “guide to life for grown-ups” and a “refresher course in life’s important lessons.” Honestly, I missed most of them the first time. And although the illustrations brought me a few smiles, I clearly missed most of them yet again.

(previous article—Doggie Day Care): Recent Headlines: “Designer creates décor that’s safe from four legged friends, “(Sun Sentinel);”Robotic pet brings smiles to elderly,” (San Jose Mercury News); “Luxury boarding (for pets) rivals first-class resorts,” (The Baltimore Sun)—All confirming that the days when dogs were relegated to the doghouse in the backyard are long gone.

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