Cyrus, the Unsinkable Sea Serpent

I read Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea Serpent by Bill Peet half a dozen times over the past week. It is a favorite of a seven-year-old granddaughter and she recommended it to her similarly aged cousin. To my surprise, his two-and-a-half-year-old sister enjoys listening to it as well though I wouldn’t have chosen it just for her.   

Cyrus is one of the many books still on our shelves from our children’s early years. It is what I think of as a transition book; it is more complicated and wordy than early readers like The Cat in the Hat, but still short enough to be read aloud in one sitting. It appeals to children who can read and ideally after listening to it and understanding the tale, they soon want to pick it up and read it themselves.

As I read it over and over, I started asking myself why I like it. The book has danger, threats and violence. I don’t normally gravitate to those features. My seven-year-olds are enraptured by it.

My husband I do have a soft spot for any books that take place on boats. We think that words like bow and stern, mizzen, mast and galley should be early vocabulary acquisitions. One of my educational aha moments took place when our four-year-old was looking at a page that asked her to circle the sound that a pictured word began with. Under a picture of a rowboat appeared three choices; an M, R and T. Despite knowing all her letters, she was perplexed. Eventually, she told me that none of the choices were right as there wasn’t a D for dinghy. While homeschooling had yet to enter my consciousness, I realized then that had this been a kindergarten worksheet, a teacher would naturally assume that she needed help with the alphabet rather than that her vocabulary had a nautical bent.

So, I have to admit that if I heard my grandchildren threatening to slit each other’s gullets or calling each other landlubbers, language found in the book I read to them,  I would laugh. The fact is that they aren’t going to do so other than in play. Cyrus is so removed from their daily lives that they can enjoy the peril of being blasted by pirates’ cannons or being stuck in the doldrums in safety and security. The bottom line message of the book is a positive one, illustrating how important it is to help other people and how much more satisfying it is to be nice rather than to be mean.

Each of us has our own soft spots for certain types of books. While I wouldn’t pick up Cyrus as entertainment for myself, I often do just that with books for older children. I was rather obsessive about staying on top of what my own children read and I am still on the lookout for good books for my grandchildren.  I suggest that every parent, when they are alone in a bookstore or library, takes time to browse the shelves. Not only is there poor literature in terms of grammar and vocabulary, but there are extremely damaging books being marketed to children, pre-teens, young teens and teens.  I don’t for a minute agree with the idea that, “I don’t care what they read just as long as they’re reading.” I try to protect them when they’re very young and help them develop moral compasses as they grow older so that they will choose wisely when I am no longer the gatekeeper for what they read.

In light of all the above, I was recently delighted to find that Alexander McCall Smith, author of a number of series for adults that I love, started writing a delightful series for children that takes place on a ship. There are two books so far, School Ship Tobermory and The Sands of Shark Island. They feature both boy and girl protagonists making it attractive to both sexes. My eight-year-old and up children enjoyed them as did I and I’m please to have a venue where I can suggest that you take a look at them and see if they appeal to you.

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