In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Ramona Quimby & Mike Mulligan

Dear Annie,

I love the Peggy Orenstein piece -- can't believe I missed it when it came out. The other side of all that princess/pink stuff I see is that boys are pushed into fewer choices, too. I have heard parents discourage their boys from being interested in art projects ("That's for girls"). And just two days ago, I was suggesting a costume as a gift for a four year-old boy (the store where I sell books is actually a toy and book store), and his grandmother said, "His father won't let him play dress-up." We were discussing a fireman's uniform.

But this is a topic that makes steam come out of my ears. Let's move on to happier steam: good old
Mike Mulligan nd his Steam Shovel
. I'm breaking the mold here, and offering for the rest of my entry one of the great moments in the Ramona books, by Beverly Cleary, a woman I consider one of the great children's book writers. I wouldn't recommend the Ramona books for Eleanor just yet -- she'll get more out of them when she has a little more experience of both school and life. (Although she might go for The Mouse and the Motorcycle now).

This is from the first chapter of
Ramona the Pest
, on Ramona's first day of kindergarten:

Miss Binney stood in front of her class and began to read aloud from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, a book that was a favorite of Ramona’s because, unlike so many books for her age, it was neither quiet and sleepy nor sweet and pretty. Ramona … listened … to the story of Mike Mulligan’s old-fashioned steam shovel, which proved its worth by digging the basement for the new town hall of Poppersville in a single day….
As Ramona listened, a question came into her mind, a question that had often puzzled her about the books that were read to her. Somehow books always left out one of the most important things anyone would want to know. Now that Ramona was in school, and school was a place for learning, perhaps Miss Binney could answer the question….
“Miss Binney, I want to know – how did Mike Mulligan go to the bathroom when he was digging the basement of the town hall?”
Miss Binney’s smile seemed to last longer than smiles usually last. Ramona glanced uneasily around and saw that others were waiting with interest for the answer. Everybody wanted to know how Mike Mulligan went to the bathroom.
“Well – “ Miss Binney said at last. “I don’t really know, Ramona. The book doesn’t tell us.”…
“Maybe he stopped the steam shovel and climbed out of the hole he was digging and went to a service station,” suggested a boy named Eric.
“He couldn’t. The book says he had to work as fast as he could all day,” Howie pointed out. “It doesn’t say he stopped.”…
“Boys and girls,” [Miss Binney] began, and spoke in her clear, distinct way. “The reason the book does not tell us how Mike Mulligan went to the bathroom is that it is not an important part of the story. The story is about digging the basement of the town hall, and that is what the book tells us.”
Miss Binney spoke as if this explanation ended the matter, but the kindergarten was not convinced. Ramona knew and the rest of the class knew that getting to the bathroom was important. They were surprised that Miss Binney did not understand because she had showed them the bathroom the very first thing. Ramona could see there were some things she was not going to learn in school, and along with the rest of the class she stared reproachfully at Miss Binney.


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