Archive for Nonsense

Nine Kinds of Pie

Happy Pi Day!  In recognition of 3.14 (today) and this blog’s Pi pie avatar (logo?), here are Nine Kinds of Pie (loosely defined).

Pi1. The ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter: 3.1415926535.  When I was a kid, I memorized the number out to its tenth decimal point. On a long strip of paper, I also wrote the number out to about 100 decimal points. Perhaps I thought that learning this irrational number would grant me some greater insight. Or, possibly, I was intrigued by the fact that this simple ratio would be represented by such an unwieldy and unending number. I’m not sure. But I still have a fondness for Pi (and pie!). For the truly obsessed, here is Pi out to 100,000 decimal points. Here’s Pi Day’s “Learn About Pi” page, the Joy of Pi’s “Pi Facts,” and Wikipedia’s essay.

Pi: one hundred digits

2. Pi was also important to Crockett Johnson. In his later years, he worked on the mathematical conundrum of squaring the circle — a problem that also intrigued mathematician and children’s author Lewis Carroll, a century earlier. Johnson even published his own original theorem on the subject.

Crockett Johnson, from the Mathematical Gazette (1970)
Crockett Johnson, algebraic proof from the Mathematical Gazette (1970)

He moved towards this answer, visually. He literally worked out the problem via his paintings, creating many variations on the idea, and ultimately arriving at Squared Circle (1968).

Crockett Johnson, Squared Circle (1968)

Then, to get the algebraic notation correct, he corresponded with mathematicians, who helped him express his idea in the less visual medium of the formula. It was published in the Mathematical Gazette in 1970.

3. As readers of children’s literature know, this blog takes its name from a scene in Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), in which the title character “laid out a nice simple picnic lunch.”

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): "There was nothing but pie."

I love the way Johnson’s tone both embraces Harold’s matter-of-fact tone and registers amusement at this claim. On the one hand, the third person narrator (via a literary technique known as free indirect discourse) tells us what Harold is thinking: our narrator is so closely aligned with Harold’s point of view that one could easily swap the pronouns and Harold’s name for “I.” These are Harold’s thoughts. On the other hand, they’re not entirely Harold’s thoughts. Johnson’s deadpan delivery of these lines also underscores the mild absurdity of having nine favorite kinds of pie. That is, there’s also an awareness here that Harold lacks — specifically, that “nine kinds of pie that Harold liked best” is  funny.

4. Or is it? This somewhat baffling pie chart lists Americans’ 10 favorite types of pie.

Pie chart of Americans' favorite types of pie

It’s somewhat baffling because the percentages don’t add up to 100 — which is the point of using a pie chart. The circle represents 100%, and then each slice some lesser percentage. But this chart doesn’t. As the chart’s caption explains, the total “adds up to more than 100 per cent because people were asked to rank their three favorite types of pie.” And that still doesn’t make the above chart any more illuminating — though it is pretty to look at.

5. Pies are among those foods that come in both sweet and savory varieties. When I think of pie, my thoughts drift to the sweet (apple, peach, pecan, blueberry), but there are are also savory pies (meat pie, chicken pot pie, potato pie, pizza pie). The Oxford English Dictionary, which finds the oldest use of the word “pie” (then spelled “pye”) in 1304, offers the following as its  first definition:

A baked dish of fruit, meat, fish, or vegetables, covered with pastry (or a similar substance) and freq. also having a base and sides of pastry. Also (chiefly N. Amer.): a baked open pastry case filled with fruit; a tart or flan.

6. Care for some Amblongus pie? Since this is (often) a children’s literature blog, here’s a recipe from Edward Lear’s “Nonsense Cookery” (which appears in his Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets, 1871).


Take 4 pounds (say 4 1/2 pounds) of fresh Amblongusses, and put them in a small pipkin.

Cover them with water and boil them for 8 hours incessantly, after which add 2 pints of new milk, and proceed to boil for 4 hours more.

When you have ascertained that the Amblongusses are quite soft, take them out and place them in a wide pan, taking care to shake them well previously.

Grate some nutmeg over the surface, and cover them carefully with powdered gingerbread, curry-powder, and a sufficient quantity of Cayenne pepper.

Remove the pan into the next room, and place it on the floor. Bring it back again, and let it simmer for three-quarters of an hour. Shake the pan violently till all the Amblongusses have become a pale purple colour.

Then, having prepared a paste, insert the whole carefully, adding at the same time a small pigeon, 2 slices of beef, 4 cauliflowers, and any number of oysters.

Watch patiently till the crust begins to rise, and add a pinch of salt from time to time.

Serve up in a clean dish, and throw the whole out of the window as fast as possible.

For any readers unfamiliar with Lear’s nonsense works,… you’re in for a treat even tastier than amblongus pie and gosky patties. Go read ’em!

7. John Cage and Lois Long’s Mud Book (written 1950s, published 1983) offers a recipe for mud pie — and yes, this is John Cage, the composer.

John Cage and Lois Long, Mud Book (1983)


John Cage and Lois Long, Mud Book (1983)


John Cage and Lois Long, Mud Book (1983)


John Cage and Lois Long, Mud Book (1983)

As Lane Smith and Bob Shea write in their post on Mud Book (and my source for these images), “Instructions any child can follow with ingredients easy to obtain. Notably, dirt, rocks, water, dirt and more dirt. But remember, mud pies are to make and to look at. Not to eat.”

8. Michael John Blake’s “What pi sounds like” is my favorite musical interpretation of the number. (It’s also literally a “musical number.” Get it?)

Many others have composed music inspired by Pi. Lars Erikson — composer of the Pi Symphony — even sued Michael John Blake (composer of the above piece), alleging plagiarism. Erikson lost.

If you like it (and if you don’t), you can  buy Michael John Blake’s “What pi sounds like” via iTunes.

9. One could make a long list of pie-themed music, too. The earliest one that comes to mind is “Song of Sixpence” (18th century): “Sing a song of sixpence, / pocket full of rye. / Four and twenty blackbirds / baked in a pie.” There’s A. A. Milne’s “Cottleston Pie,” performed here by Rowlf the Dog on the first season of The Muppet Show (1976).

According to an informal and completely unscientific survey of the “pie” songs in my iTunes, pies usually function metaphorically in music. Yes, there are “The Worst Pies in London” (from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd) and Zoe Lewis’s “Pies for the Public” (from Sheep), but you’re more likely to encounter Don McLean’s “American Pie” (1971), Jay & the Techniques’ “Apple, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie” (1967), the Beatles’ “Honey Pie” (from The Beatles [White Album], 1968), David Wilcox’s “Wildberry Pie” (1991), Death Lurks’ “Happiness Pie” (from The Kids in the Hall soundtrack, 1996), or Louis Jordan and Ella Fitzgerald’s “Patootie Pie” (1946).

And what better way to express one’s appreciation for Pi and pie than by baking a Pi pie?

Pi pie

If you want to make one, the Nerdista has a recipe for her Pi pie (pictured below).

Nerdista's Pi Pineapple Pie

Happy Pi Day! Let’s have some pie. And Pi, of course.

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Oh, the Quotations You’ll Forge!

Dr. Seuss poses with The Cat in the Hat and other books, c. 1957Every March 2nd, Americans celebrate the birthday of Dr. Seuss (a.k.a. Ted Geisel) by reading his work… and by sharing words he neither wrote nor said.

I understand why. Seuss could be pithy. He’s far from the only aphoristic writer to be credited with phrases he didn’t coin. Mark Twain, Ghandi, Groucho Marx, and many others have posthumously become the authors of many ideas.

But finding something on the internet does not confirm that what you’ve found is true. So, in what will likely be a failed effort to set the record straight, here are some things that Dr. Seuss never said — or, at least, there’s no record of him saying these things. And the historical record is all we have.

1. Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.

The sentiment here is congruent with Seuss’s public statements and some of his children’s books, but he never said this. (Below: one of many graphics that spread misinformation about Seuss.  He only said numbers 1 and 3.)

3 quotes that Seuss didn't say, and 2 that he did.2. Today I shall behave, as if this is the day I will be remembered.

Not only did Seuss never say this, but he tended to celebrate misbehavior.

3. Don’t cry because it’s over…  Smile because it happened.

You have to be kidding me. Smile because it happened? No. He never said this.

4. Why fit in when you were born to stand out?

This is a Seussian sentiment, but he never uttered it using these words.

5. We are all a little weird and life’s a little weird, and when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall in mutual weirdness and call it love.

Seuss might agree with this sentiment, but he never said it.

6. Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.

Nope. Not something Seuss said.

7. Be awesome! Be a book nut!

Seuss wrote lots of books and read many others, but he did not say this. The giveaway is the colloquial use of “awesome.”

Dr. Seuss, Cat in the Hat's hat25 Things That Seuss Said

There are many quotable lines that Seuss actually did say.  Why not use those instead?  Here’s a sampling.

1. It is fun to have fun.

But you have to know how.

— the Cat in the Hat, in The Cat in the Hat (1957)

2. Today you are you! That is truer than true!

There is no one alive who is you-er than you!

Shout loud, “I am lucky to be what I am!

Thank goodness I’m not a clam or a ham

Or a dusty old jar of sour gooseberry jam!

I am what I am! That’s a great thing to be!”

— narrator, Happy Birthday to You! (1959)

3. You have brains in your head.

You have feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself

any direction you choose.

— narrator, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1990)

Dr. Seuss, The Lorax4. UNLESS someone like you

cares a whole awful lot,

nothing is going to get better.

It’s not.

— the Once-ler, The Lorax (1971)

5. Outside of my beginner books, I never write for children.  I write for people.

— Dr. Seuss, interview with Michael Lee Katz (1984)

6. From there to here,

from here to there,

funny things

are everywhere.

— narrator, One fish two fish red fish blue fish (1960)

7. I meant what I said

And I said what I meant. . .

An elephant’s faithful

One hundred per cent!

— Horton, Horton Hatches the Egg (1940)

Dr. Seuss, from Horton Hatches the Egg (1940)

8. Don’t give up! I believe in you all!

A person’s a person, no matter how small!

— Horton, Horton Hears a Who! (1954)

9. Adults are obsolete children and the hell with them.

— Dr. Seuss, in many interviews, including Shepard 1968, Dangaard 1976, & Bandler 1977

10. you’re in pretty good shape

for the shape you are in!

— narrator, You’re Only Old Once! (1986)

11. Children are just as smart as you are. The main difference is they don’t know so many words, and you’ll lose them if your story gets complicated.  But if your story is simple, you can tell it just as if you’re telling it to adults.

— Dr. Seuss, lectures at University of Utah (1949), quoted in my Dr. Seuss: American Icon (2004)

12. I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,

But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.

Dr. Seuss, Hop on Pop

— Mack, Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (1958)

13. STOP

You must not

hop on Pop.

— Pop, Hop on Pop (1963)

 14. So be sure when you step.

Step with care and great tact

and remember that Life’s

a Great Balancing Act.

— narrator, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1990)

Dr. Seuss's Sleep Book (1962)15. A yawn is quite catching, you see. Like a cough.

It just takes one yawn to start other yawns off.

— narrator, Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book (1962)

16. My uncle ordered popovers

from the restaurant’s bill of fare.

And when they were served,

he regarded them with a penetrating stare . . .

Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom

as he sat there on that chair:

“To eat these things,”

said my uncle,

“you must exercise great care.

You may swallow down what’s solid . . .

BUT . . .

You must spit out the air!”


And . . .

As you partake of the world’s bill of fare,

that’s darned good advice to follow.

Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.

And be careful what you swallow.

— Dr. Seuss, “My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers” (1977), quoted in Judith and Neil Morgan’s Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel (1995)

17. Nonsense wakes up the brain cells.  And it helps develop a sense of humor, which is awfully important in this day and age.  Humor has a tremendous place in this sordid world.  It’s more than just a matter of laughing.  If you can see things out of whack, then you can see how things can be in whack.

— Dr. Seuss, in interview with Miles Corwin (1983)

18. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!

“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.

Maybe Christmas, . . . perhaps . . . means a little bit more!”

— narrator, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957)

19. children’s reading and children’s thinking are the rock bottom base upon which this country will rise. Or not rise. In these days of tension and confusion, writers are beginning to realize that books for children have a greater potential for good or evil, than any other form of literature on earth.

— Dr. Seuss, “Writing for Children: A Mission” (1960)

Dr. Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut (1978)20. The more that you read,

the more things you will know.

The more that you learn,

the more places you’ll go.

— the Cat in the Hat, I Can Read with My Eyes Shut! (1978)

21. It has often been said

there’s so much to be read,

you never can cram

all those words in your head.


So the writer who breeds

more words than he needs

is making a chore

for the reader who reads.


That’s why my belief is

the briefer the brief is,

the greater the sigh

of the reader’s relief is.

— Dr. Seuss, “A Short Condensed Poem in Praise of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books” (1980)

22. Think left and think right

and think low and think high.

Oh the thinks you can think up

if only you try!

— narrator, Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! (1975)

Dr. Seuss, from Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! (1975)

23. Whenever things go a bit sour in a job I’m doing, I always tell myself, “You can do better than this.”  The best slogan I can think of to leave with the kids of the U.S.A. would be “We can . . . and we’ve got to . . . do better than this.”

— Dr. Seuss to his biographers, Judith and Neil Morgan, as reported in their Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel (1995)

Dr. Seuss, One fish two fish red fish blue fish (1960)24. And will you succeed?

Yes! You will, indeed!

(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)


— narrator, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1990)

25. Today is gone. Today was fun.

Tomorrow is another one.

— narrator, One fish two fish red fish blue fish (1960)

In celebration of what would be Seuss’s 110th birthday (March 2nd), you might enjoy perusing other posts tagged Seuss.  Here’s a selection:

Occasionally, I get asked to talk about Dr. Seuss:

  • “New Window into Dr. Seuss’s genius” (26 Feb. 2014). John Wilkens’ article in the San Diego Tribune discusses new Seuss material that his widow, Audrey, donated to the Dr. Seuss Papers at UCSD.
  • “Dr. Seuss: Mini-Biography.”  A&E Biography (2013).  Time: 4 minutes.
  • All Things Considered. Lynn Neary, “‘The Bippolo Seed’ : The ‘Lost’ Dr. Seuss Stories” (13 Apr. 2011): audio & transcript.  Charles Cohen & I talk about the new book of “lost” Seuss stories (edited by Charles).  Time: 3 mins, 30 secs.
  • Diane Rehm Show. Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (22 Dec. 2010): audio | transcript. Reverend Derrick Harkins, Maria Salvadore, and I talk with Diane Rehm about the Grinch.  Time: 1 hour.
  • Morning Edition. Lynn Neary, “Fifty Years of The Cat in the Hat” (1 Mar. 2007): audio & transcript. Anita Silvey and I talk with Lynn Neary about the Cat in the Hat.  Time: 7 mins, 20 secs.
  • Talk of the Nation.  Steve Inskeep, “Celebrating the 100th Birthday of Dr. Seuss: A New Book Looks Back on the Life of Theodor Geisel” (10 Feb. 2004): audio.  I was a bit nervous at the beginning (I believe it was my first time on live national radio), but after the first few minutes I seem to settle into it well enough.  Time: 1 hour.
Though the website appears to have been designed to impede its utility, Random House’s Seussville‘s author section includes a bio. and timeline I wrote — the former heavily influenced by Judith and Neil Morgan’s excellent Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel.  (If you read only one book about Dr. Seuss, the Morgans’ bio is the one I’d recommend.)And… that’s all.  Happy Read Across America Day!*

*Each year on or near March 2nd (the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss), the National Education Association sponsors Read Across America, designed to promote literacy. This year, it’ll be celebrated on Monday, March 3rd. Read more about it at the NEA’s website.

Read Across America: An NEA Project

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How to Talk Nonsense

John Tenniel, Mad Tea Party

Last Friday, in my English 703: Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature class, the students and I spent 5 minutes talking nonsense.  We’d been reading theories of nonsense, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books — I thought it would be both fun and educational to put those theories into practice.

So, based on our readings of Tigges, Anderson and Apseloff, and others, I had them enumerate some of nonsense’s formal qualities: language as game; use of puns, double meanings, inversions, opposites; playing on idiomatic language, taking figurative language literally; and so on.  Then, we prepared for the nonsense chat. I set it up as a conversation with me on the one side, and a student on the other.  These were the rules: (1) I asked them to raise their hands when they felt they had an entry point.  (2) When the student could sustain the nonsensical banter no longer, she or he was to pass off the conversation to the next person whose hand was raised.

If speaking nonsense isn’t your forte, you could modify the above exercise as follows: make the teacher both referee and equal participant (i.e., not obliged to hold up the entire side of the conversation).  Speaking nonsense comes quite easily to me.  (Try to contain your surprise.)  You see, my brain naturally comes up with multiple options in reply.  Most of the time, I chose the “sense” reply, and ignore the other options.  If I’m in a social situation, I listen to the other options, and will move back and forth between humor and seriousness, depending on my audience.

Anyway, back to class.  We sustained the conversation for 5 minutes, no problem.  (I wish we’d recorded it — some of our exchanges were quite funny.)  After we finished, I asked them about the experience of talking nonsense.  What had they learned?  This conversation was interesting.  As one student point out, it’s using language not to communicate, but to compete.  As another said, it’s an isolating experience — echoing a comment from nonsense scholar Wim Tigges, whose “An Anatomy of Nonsense” (1987) we read.  Speaking nonsense does, of course, heighten one’s awareness of language’s formal qualities: in order to speak it, you sustain syntax in order to subvert sense.  As Tigges puts it, “nonsense is not the absence of sense, but rather a frustration of expectations about sense” (25).  It plays on the tension between meaning and its absence.

I love to discover pedagogical “stunts” that work (I dislike such stunts for their own sake).  This, I am pleased to report, was a useful exercise.  It educated while it entertained.

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