18 Jul 2011
One of my biggest concerns about young people today is that they don’t seem to get exposure to the literature that made my youth so rich. I was involved in a career day at a local middle school a month or so back, and I mentioned that I credited my elocution to reading aloud when I was young. I urged the students to revisit the poems of A.A. Milne, the Just So Stories of Rudyard Kipling, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, and to read them aloud to their family and friends.
To my surprise, they’d never heard of Milne until I reminded them of Winnie the Pooh, whom they knew because of the Disney cartoons. But they’d neither heard of nor read the two books of poetry, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. They did not know the name of Kipling or the Just So Stories, although they did know the Jungle Book, again thanks to Disney. The other stories they recognized through films and television, but had never read the originals.
Rudyard Kipling is the first author I remember. My mother used to read his Just So Stories to me every night, and even though I remember practically nothing else about being three or four years old, I can remember every inflection in my mother’s reading of “How the Whale Got His Throat,” “How the Camel Got His Hump,” “The Beginning of the Armadillos,” “The Elephant’s Child,” and the rest.
My mother was a great reader, and had distinct voices for each personality. I can still hear her mimicking the Elephant’s Child when the crocodile had hold of his short, boot-like nose, “Led go! You are hurtig be!” Her voice took on a splendid, grandiose quality whenever she read the wise characters, of which there was always one in each story. In the “Elephant’s Child,” it was the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake: “Rash and inexperienced traveler, we will now seriously devote ourselves to a little high tension, because if we do not, it is my impression that yonder self-propelling man-of-war with the armour-plated upper deck” (and by this, O Best Beloved, he meant the Crocodile), “will permanently vitiate your future career.” The narrator then explained, “That is the way all Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snakes always talk.” The frequent interjections of “O Best Beloved” and the practical explanations were reminders along the way that the story was meant for the auditor alone. It made the experience intimate and personal. And the rich use of language was a challenge for child and parent alike; none of the “dumbing down” that is so prevalent today. Can you remember the last time you read the word “vitiate” anywhere?
I’m not sure how old I was when I began reading to my mother, but I do remember the thrill of the sound of the exciting words of “The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo” coming out of my own mouth, as narrator, as Kangaroo, and as the Big God Nqong:
He was grey and he was woolly, and his pride was inordinate: he danced on a sandbank in the middle of Australia, and he went to the Big God Nqong.
He went to Nqong at ten before dinner-time, saying, ‘Make me different from all other animals; make me popular and wonderfully run after by five this afternoon.’
Up jumped Nqong from his bath in the salt-pan and shouted, ‘Yes, I will!’
One of my goals as Artistic Director of The Long Beach Shakespeare Company is to make this literature accessible to family audiences, and to make it as true to the original text as possible. LBSC did an original dramatic adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in 1998, an original staged reading of Alice in Wonderland in 2008, and adapted a number of Sherlock Holmes stories over the years. As a matter of fact, we are preparing a new version of The Hound of the Baskervilles for September 2011.
I believe these stories inspire journeys of imagination and broaden understanding of what it is to be human. I believe reading the literature aloud at home builds confidence and brings people together.
Images from Alice in Wonderland:
Carl Wawrina as all the Wonderland characters, Susanna Levitt as the Narrator, and Karen Huckfeldt as Alice.