Books · Childhood learning · Education · Folklore

“Ladies and jellyspoons / I come before you to stand behind you / To tell you something I know nothing about.”

In her last post, Mary wondered if a playground culture still exists.

Since today there are so few informal playgrounds where no adults intrude, it is doubtful.  Adults always want to organize children’s play. The assumption is that children learn only that which adults teach them. But the best laid plans of adults cannot accomplish what children used to accomplish for themselves, guided by a folk tradition that had been passed down in some cases for hundreds of years.

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Still in print after 42 years.

They learned, for example, to handle conflict verbally rather than physically. When the linguistically unsophisticated and emotionally immature child was teased, insulted or ridiculed, he could choose from a number of ready made responses, for instance, “I’m rubber, you’re glue / Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you, “ or “Twinkle, twinkle, little star / What you say is what you are.”

When a little girl heard, “I see London; I see France / I see Velma’s underpants,” did she run to a safe space and tell the teacher? No, she probably shouted back,  “Liar liar, pants on fire,” or maybe “XYZ!” If the boy fell for it and checked his fly, she won. The one thing she did not do was grow up to be a snowflake.

Left alone, children organized their own games, making fine juridical adjustments: one good player for this side, but three fumble fingers for that side. They learned to compromise, because they didn’t want the game to end.

And They Learned About Language

They learned that poetry could be fun. Without fear of the speech police, they could sing about their school lunch: “Great big gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts / Chopped up parakeet / Mutilated monkey meat / Pig snot and camel rot,” etc. A child who sang that song was introduced to alliteration and hyperbole early on.

And the child who recited the mock oration beginning, “Ladies and Jellyspoons / I stand before you to stand behind you / To tell you something I know nothing about / Admission free, Pay at the door / Pull up a seat and sit on the floor” experienced the satisfaction of employing rhetorical tropes that gently raised college students only learn to label.

How We Did It

In the seventies we were living in the American Canal Zone in Panama. Since almost everybody in the Canal Zone came from somewhere else, we were able to collect examples of children’s folklore from recently arrived children as it was practiced all over the States as well as in foreign countries and military bases abroad. During the summer when we were on leave from our jobs, we also did something that we couldn’t do today without getting us in trouble: we sat on park benches, taking notes while watching children at play.

We learned that what seems to be trivial and silly was extremely functional in the social development of children. We wish some young folklorists would write a sequel documenting what traditions are still around and what new customs children might be creating to help them cope with the digital world. If you have kids or grandkids, ask them about this.

You can buy One Potato, Two Potato on Amazon, but last time we looked there were 20 used copies available from abebooks.com for $3.50 to $4.00, free shipping. If you want to take a trip down memory lane and be reminded of things you have probably forgotten, you can get one cheap!

 

 

Books · Childhood learning · Folklore

Why and How We Became Publishers, Part One, Including Mary’s Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Mary being interviewed on The Today Show
Mary being interviewed on The Today Show

Since Mary and I have already published two books with major publishers, some of our friends have wondered why we are doing it differently now. Easy. Done that, been there—twice—and we didn’t like it!

In 1970, we were offered a sabbatical leave year from our teaching jobs in the Panama Canal Zone and were soon en route to Indiana University to enroll in graduate school for the second time. While there, we wrote a paper about children’s folklore. The project required a lot of fieldwork with kids and was a lot of fun.

Back in the Zone, I suggested we turn our paper into a book. “We’d get to talk to a lot more kids.” Mary was dubious, but she went along, and four years later, the book was finished.

Our agent was not enthusiastic, and several publishers turned it down. So we were happy when W.W. Norton agreed to publish it.. Our editor told us the company’s readers didn’t much like it because it fell “between two stools.” (Publishers like books that fit into a definite category. They are easier to market.) However, the president of the company liked it, so they didn’t have much choice. Today, 40 years later, it is still on the backlist and available for purchase on Amazon, which must be some kind of a record.

When the book came out, Mary happened to be on leave (unpaid this time). She was in New York, there to put our youngest daughter in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

As was customary, the publisher sent copies of all their newly published books to the Today Show, hoping that they’d pick one to feature. Much to their surprise and undisguised dismay, the Today Show suggested they might be interested in our book! Norton had their hopes set on a book of photographs of Picasso’s studio by David Douglas Duncan.

The next step was for Mary to audition. She went through a practice interview with the Today’s Show screeners, which she passed with flying colors. On her way back to the hotel, she stopped off at our agent’s office to assure her the interview went well. The agent was too busy to see her and fobbed her off on an assistant. This puzzled us. How many of her clients appeared on The Today Show? And why did the woman handling serial rights always meet her in the lobby? Didn’t she have an office?

The Today Show called. They wanted her. Eight minutes. Suddenly she was besieged with requests for interviews. NPR interviewed her by phone on All Things Considered.  She went to Boston to be on the local segment of Good Morning, America. Since she was going to stop off in Kansas City on her way back home, she tried to get Norton to set up publicity events there. “We don’t have authors from Kansas City so we don’t set up events there.”  “But David Douglas Duncan is from Kansas City; we went to the same high school.” Didn’t matter.

In the green room at NBC, Mary discovered she was the only “guest” not accompanied by a PR person. But the show went very well. The PR representatives present complimented her on her performance. “Where else are they sending you?” Norton’s PR rep called to say she was “so relieved” (a real supporter). Here are four sound bites from that interview with Jane Pauley. Mary wants me to say it is not her real voice. Apparently the tape has been sped up a bit. However, she says that as unlikely as it may seem, it is definitely her real hair.

She had booked a flight back to Panama the next day, but as one last effort to feel good about publishing our book, she went to the famous Scribner’s book store on Fifth Avenue, now home to Sephora Cosmetics. She had hoped to see One Potato displayed along with other new books. But it wasn’t. With the help of a clerk, she finally found it on a shelf with the cookbooks.

—HK