Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Weekly Reader and Scholastic Books

After kindergarten in 1970 came first grade, a time in fashion history when the dominant color in everyone’s wardrobe was plaid. I was assigned a classroom in the newer section at the rear of the school that looked onto the playground and across to my house. My teacher was Mrs. S and although she looked like she had just sucked the contents of an entire lemon, she was wonderful, kind, and fun. I liked first grade just as much as kindergarten, maybe even more because we got the Weekly Reader. Now, in the middle of this Weekly Reader was an order form from Scholastic Books for what seemed like an endless list of titles, each with a tiny paragraph description and an even more tantalizing rendering of its cover. We would check off all the books we wanted, carry the order form home and then bug, beg, and harass our parents into sending us back on the appointed day with a check for the proper amount. My mom always set a dollar limit—it was unusual for me to order more than six or seven dollars worth of books but one time I brought a check for thirteen dollars to school. Then there were some kids in the class who never brought their checks. I guess their families couldn’t afford books. I always felt bad for them; what did they read? Finally the day would come when the box would appear holding all of our precious little paperbacks. It felt like a miniature Christmas or birthday as we all tore into the box to find our books. I ordered "Rama the Gypsy Cat” because there was a drawing of a black cat with a pierced ear on the cover. I owned “The Cricket in Times Square” and “No Flying in the House,” both of which made me cry. I have since re-read them and they both describe children in scenes of loss. (Why do people do that to little kids? Walt Disney must have loved doing it because there are always scenes like Bambi’s mother getting killed or Dumbo being taken away from his mother. That had to have preyed on children’s fears of being taken away from or being abandoned by their own mothers.) But my favorite was “Tikki Tikki Tembo.” It was a story about two brothers in China (I am sure the illustrations with their beautiful, washed-out, water color palette and Asian sensibility made me appreciate an Asian aesthetic) playing near a well. One fell in and the other had to run and get help. But he had to tell his elders who fell in and unfortunately, his brother’s name was a long one: “Tikki Tikki Tembo No Sa Rembo Perri Berri Ruchi Pick Berri Pembo.” That name is seared into my brain. My mind connects this with a rhyme I learned around this time but I don’t know from where. I still remember it very well. “One fine day in the middle of the night, two dead men got up to fight. Back to back they faced each other, drew their swords and shot each other. A deaf policeman heard the noise, and came to arrest those two dead boys. If you don’t think my story is true, ask the blind man, he saw it too.”

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