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The Wizardry of Reading

June 23, 2003

The children's book "The Adventures of Isabel" is out of print, but the rollicking silliness of Ogden Nash's polysyllabic rhyme still delights any youngster lucky enough to hear or read the emboldening tale about a little girl who coolly defeats monsters and bad dreams.

"The bear was hungry, the bear was ravenous, The bear's big mouth was cruel and cavernous." Preschoolers are too young to know the meaning of those big words, but they do some pretty good guessing from context. More important, they enjoy the playfulness of the wording, the fun of language.

Isabel wasn't afraid of bears. Nash wasn't afraid of expanding children's vocabularies; how many current books for children can claim the same?

Tens of thousands of children spent the weekend glued to the latest Harry Potter book, proving once again that we don't need to bribe kids to read. We just need to give them something worth reading. Though juvenile literature is churned out by the mile, too much of it assumes that youngsters will read only books with shallow plots, super-simple vocabulary and stories that reflect their own world and concerns. J.K. Rowling proves that assumption wrong with 800-plus pages of well-organized storytelling, immaculate English usage and enticing plays on Latin words.

Contrast that with the hullabaloo in the Riverside Unified School District, which recently decided to keep "The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby" on its shelves. A grandmother had complained about the book in Dav Pilkey's "Captain Underpants" comics-style series, laden with scatological references and intentional misspellings. The effort to ban a tasteless toilet-humor book was misguided, but even more troubling were the cries from literacy advocates that without this book, children could not be lured from television and toward reading.

Are we really at a point where we can't imagine children enjoying a book without the likes of Pilkey's Pippy P. Poopypants?

Aesop might never have existed, but the fables by that name have endured for 2,500 years, featuring creatures such as talking tortoises rather than talking toilets. "D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths" has attracted children to its spellbinding stories for four decades. (And "The Adventures of Isabel" is still available at several sites online. One,, is illustrated.)

Publishers say there are too few writers like J.K. Rowling. But they keep publishing banal books tied to action movies and TV, while the first Rowling book, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," was rejected repeatedly. The book was renamed "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" in the United States because the publisher was afraid American children would be stopped by a phrase that refers to an imaginary substance in alchemy. More likely, children will rise to the level we expect of them.

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