The Youth Literature Festival held here last weekend and sponsored by the College of Education featured an appearance by author Jim Aylesworth, whose work you likely know if you have children or are younger than 35. He’s written 33 books , including updates of the gingerbread man story, Goldilocks and the three bears, and the classic The Mitten, as well as original stories such as Old Black Fly, The Burger and The Hot Dog, and our sons’ favorite, Naughty Little Monkeys . (“Naughty little monkey / Cutting up the news. / If Daddy hasn’t read it, / He’ll surely blow his fuse.”)Aylesworth’s reading was being held in a cavernous concrete rehearsal room on some sub-floor in our massive performing arts center. The dozen kids present were invited to sit at his feet on a thin red carpet, while parents spread out on folding chairs behind them under the fluorescent lights. What might have been a cold, impersonal setting became, by his talents, an extraordinary community space as he spoke to us about being an author and before that a grade-school teacher. He’d started as a stockbroker in the sixties, he explained, but quickly decided he wanted instead to have a positive influence on children, to help them see and understand the world, and he wound up teaching first grade for several decades, an activity he cast mostly in terms of reading and writing.
He used his voice as a performer would, letting volume rise and fall, and sang certain sentences for no apparent reason other than to hold attention. The boys and girls—and adults—sat rapt. Aylesworth is in his sixties and has a neatly groomed, graying beard and hair, and a kindly voice with the sort of Midwestern drawl that Abe Lincoln re-enactors cultivate. He did read short passages of several of his books and summarized a few others, but due to sheer volume had to skip most. As he spoke he stood up from his own folding chair, acted things out, and repeatedly pointed to his complete works stacked on the table next to him. He exhibited a comic pride and pleasure in the stack so tall that it threatened to topple over, but it was always in the context of how his students had inspired him to write and therefore changed his life. It was very moving.
And rounded, too, as he hinted at the stresses of being an idealistic young teacher who couldn’t get kids to settle down long enough to learn. He showed us a thing he said he did in the classroom to calm himself, smoothing his hair in a way that was nearly pulling it out, and drew out the extendable pointer with a golden tip he learned drew kids’ attention hypnotically to what he wrote on blackboards. But he kept returning to the magical power of books: “I have seen a room full of children sit still and pay attention to a good book when it may be the first time they’ve been still at the same time all day,” he likes to say.
One of his running jokes was to ask the kids their favorite author, often standing them at his knee individually and in pairs to do so, holding up his name badge in front of their faces and grinning at the audience in stage-happy expectation. But like any great lesson, the real messages were both simple and profound: To value reading, to imagine a worthy goal, to have the endurance to achieve it, and to want to do good, even when it’s difficult and not widely noticed, appreciated, or rewarded.
His most recent book with artist Barbara McClintock, Our Abe Lincoln , a sing-along to the tune of "The Old Grey Mare" (“Smart Abe Lincoln read late by the firelight / Late by the firelight / Late by the firelight / Smart Abe Lincoln read late by the firelight / Many dark nights ago”), is the story of a boy who used his intelligence and growing power to do good in a difficult life.
Aylesworth signed our books for our sons and spoke at length with each of them in turn. “You are good boys,” he said, sounding like the grandfathers they’ve lost. “And I am proud of you.”
By coincidence, maybe, and somewhat to my dismay, my offer to be a chaperone for the fall grade-school field trip was accepted this week. Several dozen students at Starbuck and Wolfie’s school were to visit the Lincoln sites in our state capital, and I joined them in the predawn hours on the playground, where unwashed parents in jammies stood with mugs of steaming coffee and congratulated and pitied me and the other chaperones and teachers. When the school buses pulled away in the dark, blowing diesel fumes and bouncing on tight springs, filled with children shrieking and screaming with joy, it took me exactly one block on the old brick streets, which my wife and I call vomit roads, to understand what I’d done.
My charges for the day were five third-grade boys. I know a lot about the elementary-schooled of the species, but when scores of them ran shrieking and screaming down the closed street in front of the only house Lincoln ever owned, I was surprised to realize I couldn’t tell if they were also capable of running into traffic or having a pillow fight on old Abe’s bed. Anyone forced to pay that close attention to something is usually relieved every couple of hours—Lincoln would have died of old age if his guard had been as vigilant as I was the whole day Wednesday—and I grew fatigued as we got on and off buses, lunched in the park, walked across busy city streets, and toured the old state capitol building and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum.
Though bellowing across a crowded National Park Service gift shop still seems like a potentially useful tool, I’ve developed wilier tricks. One of them is only beginning to embarrass Starbuck in front of his friends, and I’m hoping to get a lot more use out of it. My little group was about to watch the excellent multimedia show at the Museum called Ghosts of the Library —an explanation of the invaluable work of archivists and other historians, as well as a ghost story shown with holograms, set in a conservator’s room that transforms itself into the aftermath of Gettysburg—but they were getting impatient. I told young Max, sitting next to me on the bench, that ghosts scared me.
“Unh! Ghosts!” I insisted, softly.
Starbuck shot me a look. Max spoke knowledgeably about the battle we were about to see.
“Unh! Battles!” I said more loudly, widening my eyes.
Starbuck reached around Max and punched my arm. “Daddy,” he growled. Max smiled and told me about the presidential library in the building next door, which I’d used to research my books.
“Unh! Library! I’m skeered!” I nearly shouted and cringed on my seat, just like Starbuck did, for some reason.
I’ve been a boy scout and a frogman and a corporate production manager and a grad student and a parent of two and a teacher for more than a decade in the university setting, but I got unusually tired chasing that herd of cats around Springfield.
“Actually, this is a pretty easy day to me,” one of the third-grade teachers said as we watched dozens of kids run shrieking and screaming through the small space in the Museum called Mary Lincoln’s Attic, where visitors can dress up like generals in blue or gray, Frederick Douglas, and various members of the Lincoln family. “At least they’re not at desks.” The boys played with hoops and wooden puzzles and Lincoln logs, and tried in vain to force a large toy cannon to shoot the wooden balls from the cup-and-ball games at each others' faces. The girls dressed themselves in frilled gowns and played house by the fake hearth, arguing at a dinner table set with plastic food and threatening to pour pretend scalding tea on each others' heads.
On the bus ride home I tried to grade, but the pen wouldn’t stay on the paper in the swaying and bouncing. Mercifully, one of my charges fell asleep in the last seat; two others, including Starbuck, played DS; young Max sat back and watched everything around him; but Rojurr—not his name, but spelled about as accurately as his real one—tried to get a classmate’s attention. “Michelle! Michelle! Michelle! Michelle!” he called. “Michelle! Hey, Michelle! Michelle!”
She was giggling and whispering in the seat in front of me, a pretty little girl with a homely little friend. At one point they had passed a handwritten note back to me. “ur weerd,” it read in a smeary scrawl.
The boys in front of them wanted to flirt as badly as Rojurr did. One turned around and threw several sharp pencils as hard as he could onto the girls’ heads and faces, which were rapturous with his attention. Rojurr, sensing defeat, called desperately, “Michelle! Michelle! Michelle! Michelle! Michelle! Hey, Michelle! Michelle!” When she finally deigned to look, he did what any man might do: Offered to devour himself for her amusement.
“Dare me to bite myself all the way back to the school,” he said. “Come on, Michelle, bet me I can’t.” The school was another 80 minutes down the highway. Who could resist? Certainly not Michelle. At her urging Rojurr went ahead and bit the loose flesh on his forearm with his little buck teeth. Michelle squealed and called over the road noise, “Look at Rojurr, everybody, he’s going to bite himself all the way home! Bite harder, Rojurr.” He clamped down, and I wondered what my responsibilities as chaperone dictated. It seemed possible he might bite a chunk out of his silly, eight-year old arm in the name of love. I decided right then and there that I had to do something, so I waited to see if he would.
“Bite yourself even harder, Rojurr,” Michelle said. Rojerr pretended he was a lion with meat and shook his head back and forth, just a little. He was grinning behind his arm, but I could see indents in the flesh when his teeth moved. The bus tires hit a seam in the highway and we all flew out of our seats several inches. Rojurr began to waver.
Besides, by now pencil guy had stolen Michelle’s affections again, and Rojurr’s friends weren’t all that interested. He was forced to offer shinier baubles.
“Michelle! Michelle! Michelle! Michelle! Michelle. Michelle. Michelle!” he said. “I bet I can slap myself until we get back to the school. Wanna see? Dare me to do it, come on, Michelle. Please?”
Starbuck glanced at him then at me, smiled, and shook his head. “Knucklehead,” I said as if offering a dictionary definition, and Starbuck laughed. One has responsibilities to one's own children.
But of course Michelle wanted to see Rojurr slap himself all the way home; we all did. He slapped his own cheek once pretty good, a second time hard enough to leave a red patch, then he faked it a bunch, his palm barely making contact as he jerked around like a stuntman pretending to get hurt.
“Harder, Ro-jurr,” Michelle said, “Come on, slap yourself for real!” She was practicing at being an arts critic. She turned away again without a second thought, and I could see Rojurr’s mind working. “Michelle,” he begged. “Hey, Michelle….”
“Rojurr,” I said, in my best command voice from across the aisle. “I double-dog dare you to not say another word until we reach the school.”
Can you believe it worked? Sure, he pretended to get tricked once into saying his last name at a classmate’s request, but he begged me for a reset, and I took mercy on him. It’s important, I believe, for men to model compassion, so I let him try again. Of course, he profited by the second chance: Rojurr became the absolute metaphysical center of all human consciousness in the back half of the bus for the rest of the ride. When we reached the school, I released him from his vows, afraid he might take them into his parents’ car and say my name when they snapped at him to answer.
I gathered my boys when we got off the bus and told them what a good time I’d had and how much I’d learned. I said they were good, and I was proud of them, and I meant it.