My Book About Me

These days, I don’t talk much about my first book.  I wrote it when I was 7 years old, in collaboration with Dr. Seuss and Roy McKie.  As you can see, I improved upon their artwork with the aid of stickers from the United Fruit Company (of whose bananas I was then an avid consumer) and the Kellogg Corporation (whose Raisin Bran I ate for breakfast).

My Book About Me by Dr. Seuss, Roy McKie, and Philip Nel, age 7.

As you will soon discover from the interior pages, the handwriting on the latter sticker is not my own (it is my mother’s).  The inflatable bunny and the safari suit (my parents are South Africans) dates the photograph to my sixth Easter.  At the book’s end, I claim to have finished the book on my seventh birthday.

Here, McKie, Seuss, and I take a look at my culinary preferences:

from My Book About Me, by Dr. Seuss, Roy McKie, and one 7-year-old Philip Nel

For those unable to decipher my distinctive crayonmanship, favorite foods then included: hamburgers, candy, fruit salad, swiss cheese, and that rare variety of pickle spelled without the “k.”  I could not stand olives.  This latter claim still holds true, although my favorites have altered.  I’m now more partial to pickles with a “k,” and have grown more discerning in my candy consumption: today, I would replace “candy” with “dark chocolate.”  I still eat swiss cheese, and plenty of fruit, and, though I enjoy a good hamburger, I would no longer rank it at the top of my list.

Interestingly, my choice of profession proved to be a remarkably accurate predictor of my current employment:

page from My Book About Me, by Roy McKie, Dr. Seuss, and a 7-year-old wunderkind known as Philip Nel

After all, the job of English Professor combines the fame of the paleontologist with the modesty of the television star.  In crossing out “TV star” and writing in “paleontologist,” I was not replacing one with the other, but rather suggesting a hybrid that is the job I now hold.  Yes, I was a prescient lad.

Though many books of this vintage (McKie and Seuss’s portions of this book were written in 1969) have been updated, I’m interested to report that this has not been.  Current editions do not replace “Airplane Stewardess” with “Flight Attendant”; nor do they subtract the now rare job of “Milkman” and replace it with, say, “Computer Programmer.”  The list of professions remains exactly as it was 41 years ago.

Finally, a sample of my developing storytelling skills, rendered in letters of varying height and legibility:

from My Book About Me, by Dr. Seuss, Roy McKie, and young storyteller Philip Nel, age 7

Indicative of the paleontology lobby’s influence on my 7-year-old imagination, the story stars a dinosaur.  For those struggling to decode my strikingly original penmanship, here is a transcription:

The Dinosaur

The Dinosaur was walking in the woods one day.  And then he saw a hunter!  And the hunters [sic] gun was ponted [sic] right at him!  And the dinosaur was! frightened.  But…………… then he walked up to the hunter and was very very very brave.  So [he] picked the hunter up by the pants and dropped him.

The end.

With the unique spellings and unusual grammar characteristic of a gifted author, the story swiftly introduces the rising action in the second sentence.  After prolonging the suspense via its deft use of ellipses, the tale concludes with a clever narrative twist that lets readers know they’re reading the work of a master storyteller.  The Dinosaur dispatches the hunter through the rarely used picking-up-by-the-pants-and-dropping technique.  Gasping in delight at this surprising but satisfying conclusion, we salute this 7-year-old wunderkind, who, fortunately, did not grow up to be a writer of fiction.

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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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Green Eggs and Ham: A 50-Word Book Turns 50

Green Eggs and HamDr. Seuss‘s Green Eggs and Ham is one of the reasons I do this blog, write books, and am an English professor.  Nearly forty years ago, Green Eggs and Ham — which turns 50 this month — taught me to read.  It also taught me that reading is fun, helping to make me a life-long reader.

The book didn’t teach me literacy all by itself, of course.  My parents read to me.  And I watched both Sesame Street and The Electric Company on PBS. But Green Eggs and Ham helped me put what I learned into practice.  The poetry and the limited vocabulary were key.

Seuss used a restricted vocabulary for his Beginner Books: since these were designed to teach reading, the idea was not to overwhelm a child with too many different words. The Cat in the Hat (1957) had 236 different words. He found the requirement of writing within word limits very challenging. He’d agreed to write a book that would teach children to read, but felt stymied. His favorite story about writing The Cat in the Hat is that, when about to give up in frustration after having written a story about a queen zebra (only to find neither word on the word list), he looked at the list of 348 different words provided by the publisher, and decided that he would find two words that rhyme: he found “cat” and “hat” and decided to make The Cat in the Hat the title of his book.  As is the case with many of Seuss’s stories, that’s not strictly true. When talking to the press, he was often more interested in telling a good story than in telling an accurate one.  In truth, images came easier to him than words did.  And the earliest story he told about the creation of The Cat in the Hat is likely the accurate one: in that version, he came across a sketch of a cat wearing a hat, found both words on the list, and made that the book’s title.

When, a few years later, his publisher bet him that he couldn’t write a book using 50 or fewer different words, Seuss’s response was Green Eggs and Ham.  For a beginning reader (such as I was), this is ideal because you encounter the same word many times.  The first time you see the word — house, mouse, fox, box — you have to sound it out, and Seuss’s end rhymes give you clues to pronunciation.  Subsequent times, seeing the word offers a sense of mastery.  I remember myself at three years old, experiencing such joy as the difficult words quickly became much easier.  When I finished reading Green Eggs and Ham — the first time I had read a book all by myself — I was so happy that I flipped the book back over to the front cover, and began to read again.

I’ve been talking a bit to people about Green Eggs and Ham lately – The Arena on Ireland’s RTE Radio 1 in July, and Breakfast with Red Symons on 774 ABC Melbourne (Australia) last week.  Tomorrow (Tuesday evening in Kansas, Wednesday morning in Australia), I’m on 720 ABC Perth’s Breakfast with Eoin Cameron. It’s been fun talking about the book, and about Seuss. But those do not seem the venues in which to share what the book means to me, personally. So, I’m writing about it here.  In teaching me not only how to read but why, Green Eggs and Ham helped make me a reader, which in turn led me to become an English major, and finally an English Ph.D… who happens to specialize in Children’s Literature.

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Mash-up vs. Purple Crayon

This is not a post on bastard pop or remixed movie trailers.  Such a post would be fun to read, but this isn’t it.  At 13 years (if measured by my degree date) or 11 years (if measured by my first publications) into the business that is academia, I’m reflecting on what kind of work I do.  So, if you aren’t an academic, it’s highly likely that this will bore the pants off of you.  True, given that we’re having an exceptionally warm summer, you might want to be pants-less.  Surely, though, you could find a less wearisome way of becoming de-pants’d?  (Insert ribald joke here.  Thank you.)

Anyway.  Some scholars manage to shift the paradigm, changing the discussion.  Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (2000) is a popular example; Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993) is another.  In the field of literary studies, one could point to Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Eric Lott’s Love and Theft (1993), or Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Was Huck Black? (1993) — among many others.

And then you have people like me.  Some (much?) of my scholarship is the academic equivalent of the musical mash-up.  Instead of combining a song by Jay-Z with one by the Beatles, I make a similar move with ideas — placing a set of ideas in a different context, and coming up with something unusual.  Read Dr. Seuss through theories of the avant-garde and postmodern, and you — well, I — get “Dada Knows Best: Growing Up ‘Surreal’ with Dr. Seuss” (article, 1999; book chapter, 2002).  Write on Don DeLillo while teaching Introduction to Women’s Studies, and — voila! — “Amazons in the Underworld: Gender, the Body, and Power in the Novels of Don DeLillo” (article, 2001).  Where odd ideas collide, you’ll find me.

I admire people who have the paradigm-shifting ideas.  But I’m not one of those people.  Perhaps my tendency to pursue many projects simultaneously prevents the sort of reflection that leads to the Big Ideas.  Or maybe that my mind simply doesn’t work that way.  Likely, both are factors.

After getting my doctorate, I concluded that a rigorous publishing regimen was the only path out of adjuncthood and into a tenure-track job.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who earned her Ph.D. at the same time I earned mine (exactly one year later, in fact), did something different.  Instead of arriving at a conclusion, she asked a question: Why?  Why do we publish in academic journals and with academic presses that take years to print our work and that few non-academics read anyway?  Why not post our work on-line, via a blog?  While I toiled away within the publish-or-perish paradigm, she challenged the paradigm … and has begun to change it.  Thanks to her Planned Obsolescence blog, her many invited talks, and her forthcoming book (named for her blog), Kathleen is shifting the way that academics think about publishing.  My motto for the past decade has been: Enhance production!  Hers is something more like: Change the mode of production!

I intend the echo of Marx in that last sentence to evoke less his ideas, and more the boldness of his thinking.  As an untenured academic, Kathleen took a risk in questioning the system she aspired to join.  Wisely tempering that risk, she did (and does) also publish scholarship through traditional venues, of course — via academic presses, academic journals. Though I co-edited a collection of radical children’s literature, my own career path has been much more conservative. True, I have had a website since 1997, but — for the bulk of my scholarship — I have stuck almost exclusively to traditional modes of publishing.

If the mash-up is the controlling metaphor for my scholarship, then the purple crayon is the metaphor for hers. Instead of doing the usual thing and creating a story about a character, Crockett Johnson had the idea to make his character the author of his own story.  In doing so, he created a classic of children’s literature — Harold and the Purple Crayon — in which the title character draws a universe out of a single crayon.  His adventures get him into a few tight spots, but, keeping “his wits and his purple crayon,” Harold draws his way out … and into another six books.  So, hoping that you keep your wits and your purple crayon (or blog, or vlog, or insert other medium here), remember there’s more than one path to success.  Why not draw your own?

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Cockney Alphabet

Today’s post is a version of the inaugural entry on my MySpace  blog.  I’m re-posting it for three reasons.  First, who reads MySpace blogs, anyway?  Chances are, you’ve never seen it.  Second, it is the sole interesting post from that abandoned experiment.  Third, I’ve been obsessed with the alphabet since I was a child… and this is alphabet-themed.

When I was a boy, I learned “The Cockney Alphabet” from my parents. I also learned the standard alphabet, of course.  But, “The Cockney Alphabet” — which my parents learned when they lived in London, c. 1965-1968 — is funnier.  To get the humor, you’ll need to read each of these with a Cockney accent.  Otherwise, much will be lost. Ready? Put on your best Cockney accent, and read the following out loud:

A for horses
B for mutton
C for yourself
D for dumb
E for brick
F for vescence
G for police
H for retirement
I for Novello
J for oranges
K for ancis
L for leather
M for sis
N for a penny
O for the garden wall
P for relief
Q for rations
R for mo’
S for you
T for two
U for me
V for l’France
W for a bob
X for breakfast
Y for heaven’s sake
Z for breezes

Some of those are going to be a bit obscure, even if you get the accent right! Here are a few notes on some of the possibly more confusing ones:

I: Ivor Novello was a popular Welsh singer and actor.
J: Jaffa oranges were a brand of oranges.
K: Kay Francis was an American actress.
Z: zephyr breezes are a type of mild breeze.

There are other versions of this alphabet floating around. Under the title “Twentieth-Century Alphabet,” I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocket Book (ed. Iona & Peter Opie, illus. Maurice Sendak, 1992) prints a slightly different version. Here are a few differences:

I for tower
K for teria
N for dig
P for comfort
Q for a bus
U for mism
W for tune
Y for husband

For the entire thing — augmented by Sendak’s illustrations — see I Saw Esau, pp. 100-105.

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Fortunate Failures; or, How I Became a Scholar of Dr. Seuss

I was going to begin this blog with a post on last week’s Harry Potter conference in Orlando, but Henry Jenkins’ excellent blog post (including photos of the theme park) is far more interesting than anything I could contribute.  So, instead I’ll lead with something else by J. K. Rowling: “the benefits of failure.”  As she said in her speech to Harvard’s class of 2008, “some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

Though my failures (and successes!) have never reached the extremes of Rowling’s, failure has been good to me.  In 1997, I had an idea: no one had collected any of the 400+ cartoons that Dr. Seuss wrote for the newspaper PM in 1941-1943.  That would make a great book!  So, I wrote an introduction, photocopied a selection of cartoons from microfilm, wrote a glossary to all the political references in the cartoons, and … tried to get a book contract.  At that time, I was a brand-new Ph.D. with zero publications to my name.  I have no idea why I thought that a publisher would offer me a contract.

An editor called to offer me a contract.  This should have been great news — except that, the day before, I learned that the New Press would (in six months’ time) be publishing Richard Minear’s Dr. Seuss Goes to War (1999), which collects about 200 of Seuss’s PM cartoons.  I told the editor about Minear’s book, and asked: perhaps we could still do our Seuss cartoons book?  She told me no, the market would not bear two such books.  But what else was I working on?  If I had any other ideas, I should definitely get back in touch.

Fast forward two years to July 2001.  I had published a few articles, including one on Seuss’s PM cartoons — I had taken that failed introduction and developed it into a essay.  I first sent it to the New Yorker, which turned it down.  (I have no idea why I thought the New Yorker would publish it.  Naïveté?  Optimism?  Both?)  I then reworked it again and sent it to a scholarly journal, which … rejected it.  Ah, failure again!  So, I submitted it to another journal, Mosaic, which published it in its June 2001 issue as “‘Said a Bird in the Midst of a Blitz…’: How World War II Created Dr. Seuss.”  Earlier that same year, I had turned in the manuscript to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Novels: A Reader’s Guide (Continuum, 2001).  Anyway, in July, checking my email at a computer terminal in Vancouver (where I was on holiday), I read a note from David Barker, my editor at Continuum:

I think I read something in Library Journal the other day about a (mediocre-sounding) new book on Dr Seuss. The review ended with something like  ‘so we’re still waiting for the first decent study of Dr Seuss’. Are you aware of anything good on Seuss? Would you know of anyone who might want to write one?

I responded immediately, saying that, though I was working on a few other projects, I might want to write one.  I had published two articles on Seuss, had plans for several more, and had ideas on what the structure of such a Seuss book would look like.  With what now seems like unbelievable hubris, I wrote, “I know that I could do a great book on Seuss and I’m ambitious enough to take on such a project.”  So, I asked, “What do you have in mind?”

Happily, Mosaic’s website had featured my Seuss piece as that issue’s sole freely downloadable article.  David read it, liked it, sent me guidelines for writing a book proposal.  On the basis of that article and the proposal, he sent me a contract for Dr. Seuss: American Icon.  Meanwhile, the Harry Potter reader’s guide — as the first scholarly book on Rowling’s series — drew media attention.  Newspapers quoted me.  I appeared on NPR.  This was a truly surreal experience, but it also got me thinking: the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) would be in March 2004.  If we could get the book out by that date, then it might conceivably get a little media attention, right?  (Not for nothing is a section of my website labeled Shameless Self-Promotion.)  Although the manuscript wasn’t due until 2004, I asked David: when would Continuum need my manuscript in order to get the book out by early 2004?  He said: July 2003.  So, I turned it in by the end of July 2003.

Some other time, I’ll write about the media hoopla that Dr. Seuss: American Icon begat.  It was fun, exhausting, and I often felt like I was living someone else’s life. Really. Going from being an adjunct professor  in 1999 to a tenure-track professor on NPR’s Talk of the Nation in 2004 is extremely strange. Good, but definitely weird. My point in mentioning the publicity is that the great Lane Smith saw me on CBS Sunday Morning, and sent me an email. That, too, was amazing.  Upon opening it, I called downstairs to Karin, “Holy cow! I got an email from Lane Smith!”  To meet people whose work you admire is wonderful.  Plus, Lane is a cool guy.  Anyway, Lane and I struck up an epistolary acquaintance, and I mentioned a couple of other ideas for Seuss projects — a collection of Seuss’s unpublished magazine stories, and an annotated Cat in the Hat (to be published on the 50th birthday of The Cat in the Hat). He said, well, why don’t you drop Janet Schulman a line?  (Schulman was Seuss’s editor for the last decade of his life.)  I said that I’d love to, but I didn’t know how to reach her.  Lane gave me her contact info., and I emailed her with my ideas.  Now an editor emerita, Janet had read and liked Dr. Seuss: American Icon, and promised to share my ideas with Kate Klimo, who heads the children’s book division at Random House.  Within days, I heard back that they liked the Annotated Cat idea and, later in the week, would be meeting with Dr. Seuss Enterprises (corporate entity which oversees the licensing and production of all things Seuss).  Could I send details on The Annotated Cat?  I dropped everything else, and stayed up very late one night writing sample annotations.  On the basis of that email and my previous Seuss book, I got a contract for The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats (2007).  That’s the shortest, quickest, and most high-profile book proposal I’ve ever written — or, I expect, ever will write.

To date, I’ve published five books (one co-edited), and have two more forthcoming (one co-edited).  I’ve also created failed proposals for an additional five books.  All of those failures either have gone or will go on to another life as articles, different books, or something else.  So, that’s why I say that failure has been very good to me.  And it’s why I’m starting this blog with a post about failure.

After all, who knows but that this blog may prove to be another fortunate failure?  Ah, one can hope!

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