Give the Gift of the Classics: Using Children’s Books to Spark Inquiry

By: Diane Kashin, Ed. D, RECE. A classic children’s book is one that has endured the test of time. These books have endearing qualities that make them interesting to children today and nostalgic for teachers and parents. Think back to your childhood. Is there a book that evokes that wistful feeling that makes you want to go back in time to feel those feels of childhood? I loved being read to as a child. For me there is one book (really a poem) that stands out over the rest: The Duel. If you don’t know this poem, now in the public domain, by Eugene Field (1850-1895) the title might be disconcerting. It sounds violent, doesn’t it? It was the duel between the gingham dog and the calico cat, witnessed by the Chinese plate and the Dutch clock, that attracted my imagination. It was why I wanted my father to read this to me over and over. Each time, he did, in an animated, dramatic voice I was mesmerized as I too felt I was witness to the bits of gingham and calico fabric being scattered throughout. I was in that room! I too wondered about the truth. How could they eat each other up?!

The gingham dog and the calico cat
Side by side on the table sat;
‘T was half-past twelve, and (what do you think!)
Nor one nor t’ other had slept a wink!
      The old Dutch clock and the Chinese plate
      Appeared to know as sure as fate
There was going to be a terrible spat.
            (I wasn’t there; I simply state
            What was told to me by the Chinese plate!)

The gingham dog went “Bow-wow-wow!”
And the calico cat replied “Mee-ow!”
The air was littered, an hour or so,
With bits of gingham and calico,
      While the old Dutch clock in the chimney-place
      Up with its hands before its face,
For it always dreaded a family row!
            (Now mind: I’m only telling you
            What the old Dutch clock declares is true!)

The Chinese plate looked very blue,
And wailed, “Oh, dear! what shall we do!”
But the gingham dog and the calico cat
Wallowed this way and tumbled that,
      Employing every tooth and claw
      In the awfullest way you ever saw—
And, oh! how the gingham and calico flew!
            (Don’t fancy I exaggerate—
            I got my news from the Chinese plate!)

Next morning, where the two had sat
They found no trace of dog or cat;
And some folks think unto this day
That burglars stole that pair away!
      But the truth about the cat and pup
      Is this: they ate each other up!
Now what do you really think of that!
            (The old Dutch clock it told me so,
            And that is how I came to know.)

Now when I read the poem, I am taken back to that simpler time, snuggled up safe and warm in my father’s lap. I can’t wait to share this book with my grandchildren and feature it at the Reading for the Love of It Conference 2020 in my workshop, Classic Children’s Books as Sparks for Inquiry.

When adults share excitement for their favourite books, the joy of reading is infectious! I believe that every child deserves to know this joy. I worry that with books now available on tablets and smartphones, that children will miss out. I worry about the impact of excess screen time on children and dream of the return of books and laps. In preparation for my upcoming workshop, I am going through my bookshelves for those books that meant something to me as a young child. I am looking for books that I shared with my own children that had meaning for me as a child. I am looking for those books that were read over and over. Reading the same books over and over, makes children smarter according to science!

I am happy that I found an online bookseller, The Book Outlet, that offers these books at reduced prices so I can add to my collection. I am grateful that while searching for these classic books, that I came upon this title, written for adults, Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy. I was fascinated to read the back story of a favourite childhood book, that became a favourite of my own children, Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise.

First published in 1947 to modest success, the popularity of this iconic book grew in the 1960s and 70s. By 2016, 26 million copies had been sold (Handy, 2017). The book was conceived in a dream by Margaret Wise whose own life story is captivating to read. According to Handy (2017) this book serves as children’s first exposure to narrative, the telling of a story which is a step up from the more common first books that focus on colours, shapes, baby animals or trucks. I remember how much my middle son, Ben loved to hear this story at bedtime. At the end of the book, we would hold him in our arms and walk around his room, to say goodnight to all the wonderful things that shared his space.

In the great green room
There was a telephone
And a red balloon
And a picture of …

The great green room gives the reader a child’s eye view of the world. The child can relate to their own bedroom which must seem like an epic space to a two-year-old. While steeped in the “here and now” it also bears affectionate nods to the more imaginative world of nursery rhymes and fairy tales as the ellipsis (dot, dot, dot) leads to the whimsical image of the cow jumping over the moon. The book does have a dreamlike quality to it as the quiet old lady whispering hush materializes in the middle of the book after we’ve already been introduced to her empty rocking chair. Margaret Wise doesn’t say who she is. Is she a nanny? Is she the bunny’s grandmother? How about the red balloon? How did it get in the room? These questions are open-ended details (Handy, 2017). These open-ended details make this book, an ideal choice for a mentor text for inquiry.  As mentor texts children’s classics can be chosen based on whether the stories demonstrate an inquiry stance that will provoke children’s deep thinking and build their relationships to these classic books. Give children the gift of the classics. When we choose the books that we have a relationship with as prompts for thinking they can extend to many areas of the curriculum – from math, to art, to science and more. When we share these books with children, we are giving a gift that is priceless. As teachers, parents and grandparents it is up to us to keep the legacy of these classics going. These books should not become extinct!

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