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There’s this story I like to tell about my introducing “literature” to my children. It involves my eldest. He must have been two. I had bought a copy of Maurice Sendak’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are, to read to him at bed time. I was so proud of myself, suddenly eligible to join the cult of NPRents simply by reading classic Western children’s literature to my children.

My eldest seemed to enjoy the story but then one night he asked me to stop. It seems my venture into classic Western childhood storytelling was scaring the wits out of him! Where Max welcomed the Wild Things and became their king, my child hide from them under his covers after I turned off the lights. And so I learned it wasn’t the “Terrible Twos” causing him to be a “wild thing” – It was the lack of sleep from being so frightened at night!

Needless to say I stopped reading Where the Wild Things Are to him at night. I think we settled on the manic hijinx of The Cat in the Hat instead.

I like the notion of “picture books as art objects” (as Barbara Kiefer defines it) – “a combination of image and idea in a sequence of turning pages that can produce in the reader an effect greater than the sum of the parts.” 

Neil Gaiman and David McKean’s The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish immediately comes to mind. The “mixed media” feel – angular depictions in photographs and ink – of the images enhances the surreal dream-like content of the text.

The story is about a boy who trades his father to a friend for two goldfish. When his mother finds out she demands he get his father back. The situation is complicated when the boy discovers the friend who he swapped with has in turn swapped his father for an electric guitar. The story follows the boy through the various hands who have traded his father.

On the opposite end of the visual spectrum – but no less an art object – is Joyce Sidman and Micelle Berg’s Meow Ruff: A Story in Concrete Poetry. My youngest brought it home from his school’s library. Like Gaiman and McKean’s books, Berg and Sidman use text as a visual instrument to help convey the narrative. Unlike Gaiman and McKean, Berg and Sidman’s images are bright with safe edges. With its Chibi-like illustrations, Meow Ruff is a good introduction to poetry in general – not just concrete poetry.

Embedded in the gray depiction of the poured concrete parking lot: “Parking Lot/ Hot Spot, Black Tar Multicar, Hard Flat Welcome Mat.”

And in the depiction of a tree: “Each Leaf A Map Of Branches Each Twig A Branch Of Leaves Each Branch A Tree Of Twigs Each Tree A Green Haired Slim Chested Great Hearted Gnarl-Armed Strong Legged Deep Rooted One.”

Meow is a cat whose owner has abandoned it in a local park. Ruff is a dog who gets away from his owner and stumbles into the park. A rain storm forces the two – who were initially at odds – to seek shelter together under a picnic table – becoming fast friends.

What’s great about this book is when you have time to think about it, it is a story of abandonment – in Meow’s case purposeful and premeditated – in Ruff’s case just an act of recklessness – that is told in the bright vibrant colors of a child’s birthday card and not the expected subdued colors that signal loss and tragedy.

I think you can take it for granted that the picture book is the first book children experience – meaning it is the first book they interact with physically and emotionally – from turning the pages themselves to interjecting their own ideas as you read. 

I remember as a child I had a set of picture books from Encyclopedia Britannica. I don’t remember how many were in the set but they had solid colors – purple, red, yellow, blue, green, etc. I remember one was numbers and one was nursery rhymes.

I also remember Little Golden Books – thin, hard covered books, with the marbled, golden spine. I remember the three little pigs and a story with a puppy in it.

I remember the first Rice Daddies post I read. It was a contest involving the first book you read. I couldn’t remember the first book I actually read on my own – though I remember its story. It was about a boy with large hands who was awkward until he found a sport that would utilize his hands – football.

I also remember my elementary school teacher reading Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing to my class. It was a positive and lasting impression (though many scores later, reading the same story to my children I realize my teacher left some parts out).

Books continue to be an integral part of my home – even before the children. My parent’s were avid readers and so are my children’s mother and I. I believe the availability of books and a literature rich environment as well as seeing my parents read all the time fostered a penchant for reading in me.

I don’t know if my children will remember their first book, so let me write it here – Where the Wild Things Are (my eldest) and Go Dog Go (my youngest).

How about you? Do you remember yours? Are they fond memories?

Listening to Rosanne Cash speak at the Times Center got me thinking about what “The List” I give my children would look like? What kind of intellectual/cultural legacy will I leave for them? What legacy will I be able to forge for them?

My father and I do not talk about music though we have argued politics.

Rosanne says this on her blog about The List:

The songs were culled from a List of "100 Essential Country Songs" that my dad made for me when I was 18 years old. It could have easily been called "100 Essential AMERICAN Songs", as the list covered every critical juncture in Roots music, from early Folk songs, protest songs, history songs, Appalachian, Southern blues and Delta bottomland songs, to Gospel and modern Country music. This list is not only a personal legacy, but I have come to realize it is also a cultural legacy, as important to who we are as Americans as the Civil War, or the Rocky Mountains.

Determined by time and place, my “America” is different than Rosanne’s. In 1973 when she was 18 and her father presented her with his list of “essential songs,” I was still in the single digits (born 12 years later but a day earlier). By the time I turned 18, the synthesizer and scratching had become as mainstream as the guitar and the fiddle.

And of course ethnicity plays a role. The word “country” has additional implications for me and my children (though we are all American born). A list of influential (if not essential) American songs for my children would have to include Jacky Cheung, Leslie, Faye Wong, and Andy Lau. These Cantopop singers made it far enough across the language barrier to reach me without Youtube or MP3 file-sharing.

They were influential partially because they represented a “modernizing” of what I perceived as Hong Kong music (which seemed overly preoccupied with ballads and overly “artificial” sounding synthesizers like the sound bites to 80s video games). These singers seemed to have a deeper understanding of the art of the English pop song and successfully bridged the aural sensibilities of both languages (English and Cantonese).

As a Second Generation ABC (American Born Chinese) I have a faulty grasp of Cantonese (my parents’ language). As Third Generation ABCs my children have no understanding at all of my parents’ (their grandparents) language. Everyone speaks English! (which is good in the respect that we have assimilated well but difficult in terms of a cultural legacy.)

I have written about the importance of my children learning Chinese. After reading about The List, I feel it is important that my children also have an understanding of the culture (art, music, and literature) that enriches their heritage as Asian Americans (or more specifically Chinese Americans).

(Digging around Youtube, Leslie Cheung’s Monica brought back memories. I couldn’t resist closing with it… )