Archive for Language

Commonplace Book: Children’s Literature

The responses to yesterday’s “Commonplace Book” post prompts me to list here ten favorite lines from children’s literature.  (And please see yesterday’s post for quotations from Crockett Johnson and Dr. Seuss, and yesterday’s comments for great lines from E. B. White and Louis Sachar.)

To get very far he was going to need a lot of books.  B is for Books.  He could find plenty of big words in a pile of big books.  He was ready for anything.
— Crockett Johnson, Harold’s ABC (1963)

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeYou can write books about anything.  For instance, fruits.  The first page could be a banana and the second page could be an orange and the third could be cherries, and like that.  If you can’t write yet, you could just draw.  Then the book could be especially for someone who can’t read yet.
— Ruth Krauss, “How to write a book,” in How to Make an Earthquake (1954), illustrated by Crockett Johnson, p. 27.

‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
‘To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing wax —
Of cabbages — and kings.
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.’
— Lewis Carroll, chapter 4 of Through the Looking-Glass and what Alice found there (1871)

We like our toys.
We take CARE of our TOYS.
We do not want our toys to become broken.
We want to keep our toys for along time.
Cousin Stinky has come over to play.
“Where are your toys?” he asks.
Munro Leaf, "Grown-ups aren't weird monsters," from How to Behave and Why“What is ‘TOYS’?” we ask.
“We do not know what that word means.”
Lane Smith, The Happy Hocky Family (1993)

Grown ups aren’t some kind of weird monsters that have fun making us do things we don’t want to do.  They just know a whole lot more than we do because they have been here longer.
— Munro Leaf, How to Behave and Why (1946)

You must never feel badly about making mistakes, as long as you take the trouble to learn from them.  For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.
—  The Princess of Pure Reason, in Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), p. 233

“Do you like educational games?” Hodgkins asked cautiously.
“I love them!” said the Nibling.
I sat down and didn’t know what to say.
— Tove Jannson, Moominpappa’s Memoirs, translated by Thomas Warburton (1968), p. 147

Hodges is considered by many to be the finest pastry chef in the city.
Too bad his duck is so crazy.
— Tim Egan, Friday Night at Hodges’ Café (1994)

For we pay a price for everything we get or take in this world; and although ambitions are well worth having, they are not to be cheaply won, but exact their dues of work and self-denial, anxiety and discouragement.
— L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables (1908),Chapter 36

The Scarecrow was now the ruler of the Emerald City, and although he was not a Wizard the people were proud of him. “For,” they said, “there is not another city in all the world that is ruled by a stuffed man.”  And, as far as they knew, they were quite right.
— L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)

Yes, that last one was in honor of today’s midterm elections here in the U.S.  And, of course, one could add many more quotations to this list.  Among those who ought to be represented here are: Francesca Lia Block, Dr. Seuss, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Langston Hughes, Florence Parry Heide, J.K. Rowling, and the list goes on and on!  Do feel free to add your own below.

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Commonplace Book

People once kept commonplace books — personal, portable anthologies of favorite quotations.  Today, the “Favorite Quotations” section on Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple CrayonFacebook offers a brief, public version of the commonplace book.  This practice has, I think, mostly faded.  At any rate, here are ten quotations that would be in my commonplace book.

But, luckily, he kept his wits and his purple crayon.
— Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955)

Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
— often attributed to Groucho Marx

Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them.
— Julius Erving, as quoted by David Halberstam, in Clyde Haberman, “David Halberstam, 73, Reporter and Author, Dies,” New York Times, 24 Apr. 2007

Jay-Z, Black Album

This is the life that I chose or, rather, the life that chose me.
— Jay-Z, “December 4th,” The Black Album (2003)

It’s like Duke Ellington said, there are only two kinds of music — good and bad. And you can tell when something is good.
— Ray Charles

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
— Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures (1957), p. 15

UNLESS someone like youDr. Seuss, The Lorax
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.
— Dr. Seuss, The Lorax (1971)

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
— Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—” (c. 1868), in Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson’s Poems, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (1954), p. 248

Nobody’s perfect.
— spoken by Joe E. Brown, Some Like It Hot (1959, dir. Billy Wilder), screenplay by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
— Leonard Cohen, “Anthem,” The Future (1992)

I do like resonant quotations.  I think I will do a “commonplace book” post in the future featuring only quotations from children’s literature.  I suspect that this has already been done on other children’s lit blogs, but of course commonplace books are personal, idiosyncratic endeavors.  So, even if it’s been done before (and I’m sure it has been), my children’s literature commonplace book will at least be different, eh?

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Stephen Fry vs. Language Pedants

If you’ve not already seen Matt Rogers‘ brilliant kinetic typography video of Stephen Fry‘s critique of linguistic pedantry, then you’ll want to watch it.  And if you have already seen it, then you’ll want to watch it again.

Before my fellow teachers raise an objection to Stephen Fry’s injunction that writers be less constrained by rules, I think it important to note that Fry does acknowledge that there are times when greater formality is appropriate, even necessary.  As he puts it, “You slip into a suit for an interview, and you dress your language up, too.  You can wear what you like linguistically or sartorially when you’re at home or with friends, but most people accept the need to smarten up under some circumstances.”  The reason for doing so, as he says, is that “wildly original and excessively heterodox language” might, to an employer or an examiner, convey “the implication of not caring.”

Left implicit here is the related point that a writer needs to know the rules in order to break them.  Fry’s mastery of the rules is part of what makes his own bursts of heterodoxy and originality so effective.  The need to know the rules underwrites my own tendency — as a teacher — to enforce them, and sometimes to do so with perhaps greater strictness than Mr. Fry would recommend.  When I encounter a student who does know the rules well enough to break them, I do let the artful informality stand.  Indeed, one of the exams I graded last night had some rhetorical flourishes that conveyed the writer’s superior command of the rules.  Alas, many others conveyed confusion over such basics as the uses of an apostrophe.  But, in an exam situation, I’m less stringent than I am when grading a formal paper.  Time constraints prevent adequate proofreading.  So, while I may mark such an error, I’m highly unlikely to deduct points on an exam.  On a formal paper, however, these errors would certainly affect the student’s grade.

But I do love Fry’s argument for “verbal freshness,” in no small part because it embodies the principles that it advocates.  In his critique of the usage police, he asks of them, “Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it?  Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to?  Do they?  I doubt it.”  But Fry does, and more power to him.  Here’s to vibrant heterodoxy!

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