Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

A Bridge to Words

Hilaire Belloc’s “Rebecca,” illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen

To a small child, the pages of a newspaper are enormous. Looking far back through the years, I see myself, not yet school age, trying to hold up those long, thin sheets of newsprint, only to find myself draped in them, as if covered by a shroud. But of course, back then, my inability to hold a newspaper properly was of little consequence. Even if I could have turned the pages as gracefully as my parents did, I couldn’t decipher the black marks on the page; thus, my family’s ritual reading of the newspaper separated them from me. As the youngest and the only one who couldn’t read, I was left alone on the perimeter to observe. My family’s world of written words was impenetrable; I could only look over their shoulders and try to imagine the places where all those black marks on the page had carried them—these people, my kin, who had clearly forgotten that I was in the room.

My sister, who was three years older, had her very own news source: The Mini Page, a four-page miniature paper that arrived at our house as an insert in the Sunday edition. While our parents sat in their easy chairs poring over the state and local news, my sister, Jo, perched at the drop-front desk and occupied herself with articles, puzzles, and connect-the-dots.

Carl Anderson’s Henry

Finally, one Sunday, someone noticed me on the margin and led me into our family’s reading circle. Whether it was one of my parents or my sister, I don’t know. I remember only the gesture and the words: someone handing me the Sunday comics and saying, “You can read part of the funny pages, too. You can read Henry.”

I took the giant page and laid it flat in the middle of the oval, braided rug on the floor of the den. Once I situated the page, I lay on top of it with my eyes just inches above the panels of the comic strip. To my parents, my prone position was a source of amusement, but for me it was simply a practical solution. How else was someone so small supposed to manage such a large piece of paper?

As I lay on the floor and looked at the comic strip’s panels, I realized what the voice had meant. I could “read” Henry, the comic with the bald boy in a red shirt, because it consisted entirely of pictures. In between panels of Henry walking, there were panels of him standing still, scratching his hairless head. I didn’t find Henry funny at all. I wondered how that pale forerunner of Charlie Brown had earned a prime spot in the funnies. Still, I was glad he was there. He was the bridge that led me to the written word.

Reading the wordless comic strip Henry for the first time was the beginning of a years-long habit of stretching out on the floor with newspapers and large books—not thick ones but ones that were tall and wide, among them one of my childhood favorites: The Golden Book of Fun and Nonsense. My sister and I spent hours lying on our bedroom floor, the pink shag carpet tickling our legs as we delighted in the antics of Rebecca, the mischievous title character of one of the poems.

“Rebecca”—which my sister read to me before I could read it myself—introduced me to the word “abhors,” the very sound of which appealed to me. Sometimes before Jo had finished reading the opening lines, my uncontrollable giggles collided with her perfect mock-serious delivery. As the last word in the first line, “abhors” serves as a lead-in to an enjambment: the continuation of a sentence or clause in a line break. It would be years before I learned the term “enjambment,” but I was immediately swept away by its effect in the opening lines: “A trick that everyone abhors/ In Little Girls is Slamming Doors” (Belloc 61). The first line lured me into the second one, and so on and so on. I was drawn both to the individual word “abhors”—with its side-by-side “b” and “h,” rare in English—and the way the words joined, like links in a chain, to yank me giggling through Rebecca’s cautionary tale:

It happened that a marble bust
Of Abraham was standing just
Above the door this little lamb
Had carefully prepared to slam,
And down it came! It knocked her flat!
It laid her out! She looked like that.

Her funeral sermon (which was long
And followed by a sacred song)
Mentioned her virtues, it is true,
But dwelt upon her vices too,
And showed the dreadful end of one
Who goes and slams the door for fun. (61)

Why these particular early memories visit me now, I don’t know. Perhaps rereading Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir, Maus, with my students has roused the wordless Henry and the word-filled Golden Book of Fun and Nonsense from the corner of my brain where they’ve slumbered. The former wakes and stretches out in my mind as a bridge to the latter: a spot in the world of words I’ve inhabited ever since.

           Work Cited

Belloc, Hilaire. “Rebecca.” The Golden Book of Fun and Nonsense, edited by Louis Untermeyer, illustrated by Alice and Martin Provenson, Golden Press, 1970, p. 61.

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