Between the lines: Finding out why kids like certain books

SUSAN REIMER

November 09, 1993|By SUSAN REIMER

The book "Raggedy Andy Stories," looking pretty good for 70 years old, arrived in the mail with a note from my father's twin sister.

A newspaper article about Raggedy Ann, who turned 75 not long ago, prompted her to search for the slim volume of tales about Ann's partner, Andy. It had been a gift to my father in 1923.

The book begins with two letters written to author Johnny Gruelle, who had just published a book of Raggedy Ann stories based on a doll that had been his mother's. In the first letter, a woman who calls herself Raggedy Andy's "Mama" describes how the boy doll had comforted her as a child. She enclosed Andy so Gruelle might write more stories.

In the second letter, Gruelle's mother writes that indeed there had been a Raggedy Andy doll. When her own mother made her Raggedy Ann, her neighbor's mother made a companion Raggedy Andy doll and the two girls, and the two dolls, had been inseparable until the neighbor child moved away. Gruelle's mother lamented that Andy's "Mama" had not given her real name. A complete reunion was therefore impossible.

And so, Gruelle wrote about the reuniting of Raggedy Andy and Raggedy Ann in the nursery of little Marcella.

Let me say here that if they gave medals for women who bought the most Caldecott Medal-winning books, I would at least qualify for honorable mention. Award-winning children's literature dovetails nicely with my other mothering compulsions. "The Stinky Cheese Man," "Lon Po Po," "Mirette on the High Wire," "Hey, Al," "Tuesday." You name it, we've read it.

But my father is no longer alive, just a vague memory for my children, and so I explained that "Raggedy Andy Stories" had been Granpa Reimer's book as a child and I began to read it to them.

The tales are very simple -- sort of like "The Velveteen Rabbit." Toys come alive in the nursery at night after Marcella has gone to bed, and they have adventures. But they are very tame adventures. And the pictures that accompany them are very static. Nobody is doing anything in them. Surely this would not be one of the hundreds of children's picture books that were finalists each year for the much-sought Caldecott Medal, awarded to the illustrator who breaks remarkable new ground, or the Newbery Award, given for exemplary writing in a children's book.

So why did my two sophisticated children sit so still as I read about Andy?

I asked that of Dr. Carla Hayden, the new executive director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, who has served on the awards committees for the Association for Library Service to Children.

"What children love about books is not easy to define," Dr. Hayden says as she thumbs through "Raggedy Andy Stories." "My own adventures in reading began when my grandmother read to me from Hans Christian Andersen. I remember it so

vividly, but I don't think that book would have made the Caldecott list of finalists either."

In the Andy stories, she found things that children love: food, and sticky, messy descriptions of food; slapstick humor; improbable adventures. And no adults.

"The dolls stand in for the children, and there are no adults in the stories. They are around, but you don't see them. Think how nice that must be for children," Dr. Hayden said.

Books that are Caldecott and Newbery finalists these days seem to reflect a kind of realism missing from Andy's stories. Like Maurice Sendak's new book, "We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy" about homeless children. And "Missing May," the story of an orphaned girl who tries to bring her guardian uncle back from despair after the death of her aunt. Parents often are more upset with these stories than their children.

"Some children are not leading happy lives," says Dr. Hayden. "Not all books take you away and delight you. Some offer insight into the human condition. Children understand sadness. They feel it. Books help them discuss it before they experience it."

But what was Andy's secret? He was not surfing through the neighborhood on lily pads as David Wiesner's frogs do in "Tuesday." Andy did not offer some new level of enchantment to my children.

The magic, Carla Hayden and her grandmother make clear, is not in the book. It is in the covers under which the kids snuggled as they listened. It is in the suspension of disbelief after a day of schoolwork. It was in the whirling dervish of a mother, who is finally at rest with them.

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