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Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Little Old Man Who Could Not Read

The Little Old Man Who Could Not Read
by Irma Simonton Black, Seymour Fleishman
(Ages 4-8)

The edition we have was published in 1968 by Parents' Magazine Book Clubs, Inc. by arrangement with Albert Whitman & Company. This was D's book when he was little, so it is a hand-me-down through generation.

I was waiting for a good opportunity to introduce the book to Ana. When she started reading with purpose, phonetically sounding out the letters, around her fourth birthday, and started getting frustrated with all the rules and effort, it seemed like a good time to introduce this book to her.

It is a very simple story with a subtle yet powerful message - i.e., literacy - laced with humor and presented with simplistic charm that might confound the skeptical adult mind. At the right age, the book can possibly motivate and encourage children to learn to read, to take that first step.

An old man was so busy making wooden toys all his life that he never learned to read. He just never wanted to learn. He doesn't see why he has to learn as he can get by fine without being able to read. He gets letters from kids around the world thanking him for his wonderful toys, but, his wife has to read them to him.

One day, his wife decides to go for a visit. She reminds him to go shopping for food while she is gone. Of course, the cynical adult mind at this point might wonder about previous such absences, if at all the wife absented herself from the household till then, and how he managed... or, even, why didn't she stock up the pantry and instruct him on where to find what for the next few days knowing he cannot read... No Matter.

Moving on: assuming that he will be able to recognize the food items at least by sight even if he cannot read the labels, she goes away on her trip. This is where the book starts getting funny, at least for Ana, albeit in a predictable way.

The old man goes shopping but feels lost among the aisles and aisles of packaged foods - some with pictures, and some with no pictures. Rather than ask anybody (He did not like to ask), he picks up cans and cartons possibly based on color and size his wife used to stock the pantry with and gets home eager to have a nice meal.

But, when he hungrily opens the cans and cartons to eat, he finds out that they are not what he thought they were - sour buttermilk instead of milk, soap flakes instead of sugar... you get the idea. This is the part Ana finds very funny, naturally. Especially, when the little old man exclaims, "Fiddlesticks and fish fur!" to express his frustration.

Hungry and frustrated, he waits for his wife to come home and as soon as she walks in the door he relates his woes and pleads, "Wife, please teach me to read". And she does.
First the old man learned to read the word
Next he learned to read the word
Then he learned to read the words
for everything in the big store.
And then he learned to read the words
for everything in the world.
And the book ends with the little old man proudly reading his fan mail from kids around the world.

Of course, the adult mind might get a tendency to poke holes in this narration, pointing out all the absurdities and how incoherent it all sounds. But, learning from my 4¾ year old's perspective, it appears that the core message of the book was easily absorbed: He didn't learn to read, and that didn't work out well for him.

However illogical and disconnected it sounds, the fact that Reading Is Important somehow got through to her via this simple narration.

The illustrations are simplistic drawings colored in which complement the text well. If this was not already in our home library, and a hand-me-down from D, I probably would not have come across it at all. However, something about this book struck me as charming and warm - a stubborn old man refusing to learn to read and then coming around finally.

[This post written for Saffron Tree]



At 11:14 PM, Anonymous b harper said...

I've been searching for a copy of this - my very favorite childhood book - for so long. I can not seem to find it for less than $45!


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