When I wrote about Cyrus, the Unsinkable Sea Serpent by Bill Peet, I thought that I had pretty much covered what I wanted to say. Then, one of my daughters made a point that I thought was worth sharing. Shortly after that, I read the synopsis of the book on Amazon and realized that I had another point to make as well. If this keeps up, my commentary on the book will be longer than the book itself.
My daughter noted that, like many older books, Cyrus uses language that is not familiar to most young children. While books like those of Dr. Seuss are easy for beginning readers as well as fun, their vocabulary is limited. The Cat in the Hat was certainly an improvement over scintillating school texts that used sentences like, “See Dick run,” but it doesn’t exactly utilize the richness of the English language.
There is value in books that do just that. When that same daughter was three-years-old, I took her, along with her younger sisters, to visit my parents. Since our family was living on the other side of the country from where I grew up, many local aunts, uncles, cousins and friends came to see us. At one point my three-year-old walked into a living room filled with people and conversation and exclaimed in a clear and piercing voice, “What a pandemonium!” Not surprisingly, the pandemonium only grew.
Despite the fact that educational and linguistic experts would probably not put pandemonium on a word list for her age group, she had heard me read it over and over in a Mr. Happy book, understood it and used it in its correct context. While I only read a few of Roger Hargreaves’ “Mr.” and “Little Miss” books, they were popular with my children as well as expanding their vocabulary.
My own addition to the Cyrus, the Unsinkable Sea Serpent conversation, stemmed from the following description of the book on Amazon: “A shark accuses Cyrus of cowardice because he won’t sink any ships. The kindly sea serpent almost succumbs to peer pressure, but learns at last to be himself.”
No! No! No! That is not what my summary would say nor is it a good moral message to draw from the book. It is true that Cyrus learns that he doesn’t want to be nasty despite being goaded to do so by the shark. But the lesson that follows is not, “To thine own self be true.” The message is that being kind and helpful is the right thing to do and that it can be as exciting and challenging as being cruel. As should happen in books for little children, the bad guys get punished and the good guys thrive. Without moralizing and being pedantic, I hope that the message that comes across to children is that helping others is fun and rewarding, not that if you are basically nasty, you should keep being nasty and if you are basically nice you should keep being nice. After all, the shark is also being himself.
I’m not trying to push Cyrus on anyone and I wouldn’t put it on a “must read” list, though it turned out to be a hit this summer. But I definitely would push the idea that putting a great deal of thought into what types of influences surround the children we love and what messages we are sending is one of the primary jobs of any parent or teacher.