A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Category: Children's Literature

How Meindert DeJong’s The House of Sixty Fathers breaks my heart

I don’t generally cry at books. It’s not because I am tough; I can choke up at slightest twist of emotionalism in a sub-par movie or at a close up view of another individual shedding tears. I sometimes wonder if my dry-eyed habit with books comes because when reading I have enough lead-time to steel myself for the event, or because when coming to such a time my eyes fly down the page almost against my will and I am given a clue before the full impact of the scene can overcome me. When reading Bleak House recently, I had to grab a piece of paper and cover the bottom half of the page when I reached a particularly moving climax. I knew some key piece of information was coming, and without the paper I could not ensure that my eye would not catch it a tad early.

I did tear up while reading about Abigail Adams’s death in David McCullough’s John Adams. It caught me off guard a bit; since women tend to outlast their mates I kind of assumed she would do the same. She was such a wonderful person, too, and the way McCullough shared Adams’s reaction to his wife’s death worked at my heart in a deep way.

I also teared up this weekend when I finished a children’s book I was curious about: Meindert DeJong’s The House of Sixty Fathers. My wife read The Wheel on the School to my eldest daughter recently and they enjoyed it, and I was curious about DeJong’s other work since The Wheel seemed to be of a style I could greatly appreciate. Sixty Fathers was wonderful, and though it is too intense for my five-year old (she still insists when we read anything suspenseful, “Don’t read me the bad parts!”) I am putting it on the Must-read list for later.

In it, Tien Pao, a small boy in China, gets separated from his family during the Japanese occupation of World War II. His sampan floats behind the enemy lines and he and his little pig, whom he names Glory-of-the-Republic, struggle to follow the river back to his family. Along the way he helps an American pilot escape the Japanese and gets adopted by 60 members of a bomb squadron who are friends of that rescued soldier.

I loved the book and was fully choked up by the final scenes. Through and after all of it, however, one little image, tossed in as Tien Pao climbs ashore after his sampan has floated far away from his family, captures the painfully moving aspect of this book and sums up the general nature of its theme–that heartbreaking reality of what happens to children in a time of war. Tien Pao had been in charge of his family’s pig and three ducklings, which means they are on the sampan with him when it breaks away, and as he wades to shore he realizes he will not be able to bring the ducklings with him for his travels over land.

He looked at the ducklings, then he shut his eyes tight and gave the dishpan a hard shove back into the bay. Without looking back, Tien Pao climbed up from the river and up the first rocky cliff.

On top of the cliff, Tien Pao turned. The empty sampan had pulled back into the current; it was going down the river. Below in the bay the white dishpan drifted and twirled. Two ducklings swam in the dishpan, but one must have gone overboard with Tien Pao’s hard, blind shove. The little duckling was chasing the dishpan, scrambling desperately to get out of the big river back into its little dishpan home. When he saw that, Tien Pao’s lips trembled. He turned away, and looked no more toward the river. (39)

In books where children are learning to read with more sophistication, I love a good, rich symbol that helps them see how symbolism and metaphor can work. The dog in Of Mice and Men serves such a purpose–it might be heavy-handed and obvious to a mature reader, but to one getting started, it is perfectly catch-able and if not caught, comprehensible with guidance. In Sixty Fathers, this duckling symbol, while apparent, is actually more flexible than Steinbeck’s, as its meaning ranges farther than the story itself.

Within the story, that little duckling serves as a symbol of Tien Pao’s predicament, but more powerfully, beyond the book, it expresses the painful reality of separation that Tien Pao’s story does not achieve. It is so painful that the above passage is what convinced me that my daughter was not ready for the book. It is far too sad to think about. My daughter would surely ask for reassurance about the duck’s chances, but having read what DeJong has written, I know that duckling will not reenter the pan. DeJong has not led me to believe it, no matter how desperately I want it to be true.

The author’s own story affirms the poignancy of the duckling. The back of the book explains that DeJong wrote the story as a kind of autobiography.

During World War II Mr. DeJong was official historian for the Chinese-American Composite Wing, which was part of Chennault’s famous Fourteenth Air Force. A young Chinese war orphan, the Tien Pao of this story, was adopted by DeJong’s outfit. The boy chose DeJong as his special “father,” and the two were devoted to one another.

Mr. DeJong wanted to bring the boy back to the United States with him, but because of legal complications he was unable to do so. However, the men in the outfit left the youngster well provided for when they returned to America. The Communists then took over that section of China, and DeJong has never heard what happened to the boy.

You can clearly detect that long-lasting heart-wrench in DeJong’s dedication:

For Wally, in memory of the compound in Peishiyi, China, and of little, lost Panza

By the end of The House of Sixty Fathers, Tien Pao experiences a happy ending–one that did not occur for Panza, the boy DeJong vividly remembers. In that light the little duckling serves more as a symbol of DeJong’s little boy than Tien Pao, and the reality of that moment with the dishpan is perhaps why it is the image that stays in my mind and presses upon my heart.

As I think back to this little, seemingly forgotten children’s novel, I realize it is the happy ending that made me cry, but it is that early symbolic moment that breaks my heart.

Thanks for reading.


Treasure hunting and finding Robert Louis Stevenson

On a date with my eldest daughter today we went to the used book store and I drilled her on part of the fun of a used bookstore–hunting for treasures. What I didn’t tell her was that part of the fun of looking for treasures is knowing what is a treasure and what is simply twaddle. She’s not ready to make the distinction at a glance, and, quite honestly, now that I think about it, neither am I. It is very difficult to wander into a used book store (or a new book store–is that how you say it? Suddenly the phrase used book store seems odd) and find something wonderful just by browsing. It can happen, I suppose, but it is much more helpful knowing something about the world of books and writers.

Thus, my being the one who knows something, I helped us hunt for treasure this morning. We found way up high, on the top shelf, a copy of Meindert Dejong’s The Singing Hill and grabbed it, knowing nothing of the plot of the story but knowing that Dejong’s The Wheel on the School was wonderful and that, so far, his The House of 60 Fathers is wonderful too (I’m reading it currently and will report on it later).

We also found a copy of A Child’s Garden of Verses, a picture book made of Robert Louis Stevenson’s book of poetry. I’ve stumbled across a number of Stevenson’s poems from this volume and brought them home for my children. They are wonderful, and my middle child, who is three, has basically memorized “The Swing.”

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

My eldest and I read through a number of these poems in the coffee shop (the second half of our date) and my hunch about the appeal and quality of these poems, based on those few I’d read, was right. Their content works for children, even though it was written in the 19th Century, and the rhyming sings (see Give her rhymes, not poetry, for more on the importance of that). If my children are to love and enjoy poetry, and I hope they do, not because it will make them smart but because it can bring them joy, it seems to me that this is the kind of poetry to start on. Our favorite today was “Block City,” which I’ll post in full here for your pleasure, knowing Stevenson’s copyright has long disappeared.

WHAT are you able to build with your blocks?
Castles and palaces, temples and docks.
Rain may keep raining, and others go roam,
But I can be happy and building at home.

Let the sofa be mountains, the carpet be sea,
There I’ll establish a city for me:
A kirk and a mill and a palace beside,
And a harbour as well where my vessels may ride.

Great is the palace with pillar and wall,
A sort of a tower on the top of it all,
And steps coming down in an orderly way
To where my toy vessels lie safe in the bay.

This one is sailing and that one is moored:
Hark to the song of the sailors on board!
And see on the steps of my palace, the kings
Coming and going with presents and things.

Now I have done with it, down let it go!
All in a moment the town is laid low.
Block upon block lying scattered and free,
What is there left of my town by the sea?

Yet as I saw it, I see it again,
The kirk and the palace, the ships and the men,
And as long as I live and where’er I may be,
I’ll always remember my town by the sea.

Thanks for reading.

Reading The Story of the World

I am completely fascinated with Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of the World books. In my car I have the audio version of the third book in the series, covering the “Early Modern Times” (there are four volumes total), and despite my measly 10 minute commute, I have already worked through four of the CDs. Though they are targeted to children ages 5-12, I consider myself a fitting audience. Previously, I had no idea how Oliver Cromwell fit into the history of London; now I am as least passingly informed (with a few amusing stories to go with it).

I also have the first book checked out from the library and have been reading snippets from it to my girls every night after dinner. We have learned about Roman gladiators, the legend of Romulus, aqueducts, Julius Caesar, and Augustus Caesar. Did you know Julius Caesar was once captured by pirates and held for ransom? He was not yet a consul of Rome, but he was growing more powerful and popular. After his release he raised a small group of soldiers and set right back out to sea, where he engaged the pirates who captured him, arresting the leaders and killing many of the rest. The leader was then executed in Rome, and Caesar’s reputation with the people leaped in its growth.

Curiosity is an interesting force. Do I enjoy these books because I have a general knowledge of these figures and places but little knowledge of the wonderful details, enabling my brain to attend fully to the fascinating particulars? This was certainly the case with Cromwell, whom I’d heard of but knew nothing about.  Or are the stories themselves so wonderful and inviting that any listener is drawn in? I suspect it is a combination of the two. My hunch is that the stories draw me in, just like they suck in my three-year old and five-year old daughters, but then since I am already familiar with many of the names and places, for me the stories actually stick a bit better.

At least for now. If we keep reading these books, I have a feeling it will not be long before my daughters will know far more than me.

Thanks for reading.

Give her rhymes, not poetry, and they’ll likely stay with her

I dropped a link last week to an article from Sally Thomas on poetry–“Re: Is Billy Collins Killing Poetry?“–because I was intrigued by her thoughtful explanation of the oral tradition in poetry. She draws attention to the link between the sound of a poem and our ability to remember it:

I’m an avid reader-aloud of poetry, especially to my children, and I’ll tell anyone willing to listen (again, my children, who really have no choice) that it’s our ears primarily, not our eyes, which remember poems.

When I teach poetry to my freshmen and we ask the question, “What is great poetry?” one of the sub-questions we ask is, “Is it the sound of a poem?” The question is an important one for me, and students can tell I love the sound a poem makes. I suppose they pick this up from my passionate readings of every poem we encounter–I usually read as if I were auditioning for a the book-on-tape version–but I also like to tell them about my love for John Keats, a love borne almost entirely out of the sounds of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale” (admittedly a fascination with his early death helped). These were my favorite poems before I comprehended half of what they said.

Not that I remember them that well–they’re a bit too long to remember without expending actual effort, and I have yet to try–but what I do recall, I recall through my auditory experience.

Thinking about the poetry I have memorized, the rhyming appears to be the dominant thread of success. Mrs. Sutton had us memorize  “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in fourth grade, and when I walked into my student-teaching 17 years later and heard a class reciting it, I had it down again within two minutes. Could I have done so without the rhyme or the meter to guide me? I highly doubt it.

I also remember a handful of poems from William Carlos Williams, but that’s mostly because it’s not that difficult to recall one sentence. Even then, I can’t say with confidence whether so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glistening with rain water beside the white chicken or whether it depends upon the red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens (by the way, it’s neither). And as much as I enjoy Billy Collins and Jane Kenyon, I keep losing “An Introduction to Poetry” despite opening my poetry unit with it every year, and I am so bad at remembering “Whirligigs” that I haven’t ventured to commit any of Jane’s more powerful work to mind.

Yet I spout off Puck’s last words in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with nary an effort and accidentally memorized the prologue to Romeo and Juliet. What a mess I am.

Or rather, what a fool I would be to give up on the power of the rhyme and consistent meter, which is exactly what I have done in recent years while reading poetry. I tend to develop an obsession with a new poet each year, usually beginning the affair about a month before my teaching of poetry (this is why poetry is consistently my favorite unit), and as I think back to the last five or six obsessions, I can’t recall anyone who used rhyme more than sporadically. Not surprisingly, I also cannot recite any poems that I encountered for the first time within the last five years. For the most part, I have gravitated towards the insight and the image, neglecting the meter and the rhyme almost completely.

I don’t use meter or rhyme in my own poetry–I tend to mimic  Collins and find that he is right: when I read his poetry, “it encourages the writing of more poetry.” Not being a poet, I imitate that which is possible for me to imitate. That does not compliment Collins, a man whose poetry has brought me much pleasure, but it is the truth. For me, rhyming simply alerts me of the limits to my vocabulary, so I avoid it. It is easier to build a poem off one image and to tie that image to a more general insight, letting the lines break where they will, than to make the poem regular or rhyming. Saying that reminds me of an admired colleague who always discourages her students from using rhyme in their own poetry–perhaps she discourages it because their vocabularies cripple the first couplet and then paralyze the work that follows.

But, oh, this is not the fault of the device! Inspired by Thomas’s stories about her children’s favorite poets, I have been reading poetry to my daughters this week. I like Jack Prelutsky a lot and we did listen to Shel Silverstein’s “A Light in the Attic” readings, if for no other reason than to let me recall the cassette of Shel I wore out in my Fisher Price tape deck. What my eldest has begun to do is ask me for more. That’s nothing notable, I realize. What is notable is that she doesn’t ask for another poem. She asks “for another rhyme.”

Prelutsky’s vocabulary is frequently beyond her ability to comprehend. A tomato’s “unmitigated rancor” would stupefy most of my freshmen, let alone a four-year old. Yet she knows enough to follow it (I help with the details) and worries none about the words she doesn’t understand.  To her, language is play. She wants the silly situations, the wild characters, and the playful words we encounter. Ultimately, she wants “rhymes,” not poetry.

She’s not quite five, but she is more in tune with Sally Thomas than I have been for the last few years. I plan to remember both of their opinions the next time I head to the library to discover my next poet of obsession.

Thanks for reading.