The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 15, No 1 (2011)

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Jabberwocky

David Beagley, editor


Rhyme Against the World

Ed Shankman


Ed Shankman is the author of several children's books including Mom's Choice Award-winners, I Met a Moose in Maine One Day, and The Cods of Cape Cod. His newest book is Champ and Me by the Maple Tree. For more information visit shankmanoneill.com


Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme.

—William Shakespeare

 

As we cope with crises, both man made and natural, economies flounder, and divisive politics create obstacles to progress, we sense, with anxiety, that our children are emerging into a harrowing world. Our ability to re-shape the world around us may have its limits. But with some discipline and imagination, we can each shape our own inner world to an extraordinary degree. Children who learn that lesson have access to a refuge of their own making – a place where they make the rules, judgments and decisions (and reap the rewards) – for the rest of their lives. I know. As a writer, musician, and painter (and as a creative director by profession), I have spent more of my time in this special refuge than outside in what most people call the real world.

But how can we teach a child to shape his or her inner world? Using my own childhood experience as a guide, I believe the most effective way is by example. The idea is to invite the child into someone else's inner world – in the form of a highly creative story, painting, or piece of music; and then explain to the child, pointedly, that this amazing experience was created by a human being, and that we all have the ability to create.

The question, then, is what creative work can most effectively convey the very principle of creativity to a young child, and do so in a way that is both appropriate and fun? In my opinion, no finer tool has been invented for this purpose than a rhyming story.

Rhyming stories for children bring both magic and order to the world. Magic, because an extended sequence of well executed rhymes and rhythms – and the whimsical ideas they often capture – can seem wonderful and clever beyond possibility. (That is, of course, an illusion created by the fact that something which was painstakingly crafted over many hours and weeks is digested at once, refined and complete, as though it rolled off the pen that way.) Order because rhyming stories offer a level of symmetry, predictability, and resolution that never occurs in the reality of our daily lives. In that way, rhyme is a small victory over chaos, and a comforting one.

The amazing thing about a particularly good rhyming story – or even a special stanza – is that, once written, it seems inevitable, as though it had to happen and could not have been written in any other way . . . as though it has simply upped and written itself out of sheer force of destiny.

My personal childhood hero was Dr. Seuss. In my case (and for many others) it was he who drew back the veil and pointed the way. He demonstrated the magic and the awesome intelligence of rhyme in every stanza of every book. To make sure we did not miss the point, he had his alter ego – The Cat in the Hat – spell it out for us: "It is fun to have fun but you have to know how." I, for one, got the message. So I taught myself "how." And having fun – with my own imagination, artistic passion, and inner adventure – is what I have been doing ever since. I am doing now, as I write this, by choosing these words, crafting these sentences, and piecing these ideas into a reflection of my inner world. The fact that others may enjoy these words or learn from them is a wonderful but secondary satisfaction.

When I discovered, as a child, that I had the gift of rhyme and meter – that I could hone the music of words into exquisitely cut gems of thought and story – I felt as though I had discovered a treasure, a treasure that had no cost and that no one could take from me, a reservoir that I could tap at will. When I discovered further that there are no limitations to my ideas – that there are as many thoughts as I am willing to think and that all of these, no matter how whimsical or nonsensical, can be brought to order through simple dedication and discipline – I was absolutely giddy with possibilities. And that is a wonderful feeling.

Robert Frost once said: "Life is tons of discipline. Your first discipline is your vocabulary; then your grammar and your punctuation. Then, in your exuberance and bounding energy, you say you're going to add to that. Then you add rhyme and meter. And your delight is in that power." (Harris, 1961, p. 120)

Once a writer senses the awesome potential of capabilities like rhyme and applied imagination, the only question is what he or she will do with these strange tricks.

The realization that stories can be created at will – requiring nothing more than time and effort – is remarkably motivational, just as knowing a cave is full of gold might motivate someone to dig. I understood early on that if I chose to sit and concentrate – to spend my time creating rhyming stories rather than doing other things – I could right my world through an autonomously selected blend of magic, fun, humor, adventure, surprise, ideas, culture, and principles. The result would be an uncompromised and unadulterated reflection of my unique inner consciousness, imagination, personality, will, intelligence, and experience; a souvenir from my creative adventure. For readers, it would be an entertainment, and, perhaps, a glimpse into a fellow human's psyche. But it would also be something else – a demonstration of possibilities: proof that the gold mine exists (and, for the discerning child, a roadmap to the mouth of the cave).

Schools everywhere today are searching for teaching strategies that will help children do better in mathematics, science, history, and so on. That is all crucial, obviously, because it helps children manage in the world outside them. My point is that it is no less important to acquaint a child with his or her own inner world, because the resources are limitless and, in the end, that is where he or she has far more control.

Rhyming books are more than just a shelter from the storm: they are proof that we have the power to create our own joy and sanity, regardless of external events, by exercising our inner gifts. That is an important lesson for a child. And for us all.

I encourage parents and teachers to read rhyming books to their children. But do not forget to point out that someone, a person like them, created these stories out of nothing but imagination and hard work. And that we all have imaginations and the ability to work as hard as we like.

 

Work cited

Harris, Mark. "The Life and Wisdom of Two Great Old Poets: Sandburg ... Frost". Life (1 December 1961). Print

 

Ed Shankman


Volume 15, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, 2011

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"Rhyme Against the World" © Ed Shankman, 2011.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680