12 February 2014

Old Yeller Dies

by David Edgerley Gates

I'm prompted to these musings by a post my pal Art Taylor and his wife Tara Laskowski made on FaceBook about their son Dash, and his reading enthusiasms. Dash is a year old, and likes Robert McCloskey's MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS. Art says Dash has already memorized it, when Art reads it aloud to him.

I suggested a couple of other books to add to Dash's reading list, as he gets a little older. I remember a guy named Robert Lawson, who was an author-illustrator, like McCloskey, and told familiar stories from an unfamiliar POV. Ben Franklin's pet mouse, for example, or Paul Revere's horse. No man, it's said, is a hero to his valet.

The grand-daddy, of course, is Kipling, and THE JUST-SO STORIES. It's past time I gave him credit for his abiding influence on my own writing. My dad read those stories aloud to me, when I was sick in bed, at four or five. I still remember the smell of the inhalator, a kind of steam device, with a cup of spice-flavored medication. It was supposed to make your breathing easier. What actually set my mind at rest was the sound of my father's voice. We all have a comfort zone.

At what point do we graduate to more sophisticated stuff? Sake of argument, when we start reading on our own, at six or seven, say. I had an interesting exchange with my pal Johnny D. Boggs a little while back. THE SEARCHERS was being shown at the Lensic theater, on the big screen, and I asked Johnny if he were going to take his son Jack (THE SEARCHERS being one of Johnny's favorite pictures, and mine). Johnny said no. He thought the movie was probably too dark for Jack, who was, I think, eight or nine at the time. Maybe the threshold is our exposure to ambiguity, or a lack of moral certainty, and THE SEARCHERS sure fits.

CHARLOTTE'S WEB. E.B. White was an unsentimental cuss, and he doesn't sugar-coat the story. Charlotte's "web" is of course all the animals
in the barn, not just Wilbur, and death is part of their lives. Wilbur himself barely escapes being turned into bacon. But the book isn't really sad. it's more of an affirmation, that there's rebirth.

On the other hand, OLD YELLER. I think I was ten or eleven when I read it. It was probably on my summer reading list for school. Jeez, what a heartbreaker. The dog, after all, wasn't responsible. The real choice is the one the kid has to make, and in fact there is no choice. He has to do it.

So, what's appropriate, for Dash, as he grows up, or Jack? When do we, as parents, or role models, teachers or even librarians, stop making the decisions for them? I had dinner with some people, a few years ago, and there was a teenager there, with his dad, and the kid was nuts about science fiction. I think we started talking about DUNE, or STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, and his dad interrupted to say it was all crap, and the kid just turtled in on himself, and the conversation dead-ended. I didn't say anything to his father, but it was discouraging. We should all be allowed to read crap, although I don't agree with the guy's description of SF. How many of us have actually ground through MOBY-DICK, or BLEAK HOUSE? I've rediscovered Dickens, in later years, but if he's crammed down your throat in high school, to fatten up your liver, you're like one of those unhappy geese.

Perhaps water finds its own level. Girls of a certain age go from ANNE OF GREEN GABLES to FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, which is arguably soft-core YA porn. Who's to say? Books lead us on, and one person's despised genre is someone else's delight. I suspect our earliest experiences, or exposure, are a template. I've mentioned Carl Barks, and his duck comics, in the past. I'd add Kipling, and TREASURE ISLAND. The child is father to the man.

One of these days, Johnny will take his son Jack to see THE SEARCHERS. And one of these days, Dash is probably going to read OLD YELLER, and cry at the end, the way I did. Especially when we're young, it seems to me, we inhabit the stories, or they inhabit us, and take on a life of their own, as real as a dime. A spell is cast, and I doubt if we ever break free of it. Innocence is never really lost.


  1. Great stuff. When i discovered there were
    Only two Winnie the Pooh books i took a pencil and pad and tried to write a third. My first writerly urge, quickly vanquished.

    I vividly remember putting down a book I was reading and walking into the kitchen, tears pouring doen my face.

    My mother: What's wrong?
    -Charlotte DIED!
    -Charlotte who?
    -The SPIDER!

    Other recommendations,,,

    Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books are masterpieces od characteriAtion with a tiny vocabulary.

    Mercer Meyer's Little Critter books. Just ForYou is the first book at which my kid (age 3?) laughed at the jokes.

    Daulaire's Book of Greek Myths is Must Read around
    age seven.

    Crockett Johnson's Purple Crayon books, but also his hard to find Ellen's Lion books.

  2. Nice! And don't forget the predecessor to Kipling- the Brothers Grimm and the Greek Myths that also brightened many earlier childhoods.

  3. Great column, David.

    I too love The Searchers. And EVERYbody cries at the end of Old Yeller.

  4. If you don't cry at Old Yeller, you're dead. From my own childhood, in addition to those listed, I really liked "The Borrowers" series when I was in elementary school, and in jr. high I was part of a Heinlein cult that made perfect sense at the time. I think most kids go through a sci-fi phase (and I still read some) and it is NOT crap. Ray Bradbury alone should be mandatory reading on the art of the short story!

  5. Nice article, David.

    Our kids wanted to watch the Disney movie of Old Yeller and we resisted. They persisted and finally we just told them the end. Oh. They said. Never mind.

    Several years ago the Washington Post in it's weekly Style Invitational humor contest ran a challenge to come up with new urban myths. My favorite: The same gun that was used by Oswald was the one that killed Old Yeller.

  6. Read, I say! Anything that sparks an interest in books is fine with me. I fondly remember reading Nancy Drew over and over and over again. And before that, these little tiny Bugg Books--I still have a collection of them in my office now, all taped together and patched from years of use.

    I'm dying to read Harry Potter to Dash. DYING. It makes me cry every time I think about it, actually.

    Also, sort of related, this is a great essay about how it's ok to let your kid experience sadness: https://medium.com/p/bde5c73c6dca

  7. Tara, when Dash is old enough, Harry Potter is great stuff. I remember a friend of mine reading it with her eight-year-old---it was a school program. where you read a book with your kids, and she was very startled at how good it was (the first book, SORCERER' STONE). She was as taken with it as her son was. We all experience these things differently, and yes, it's okay for kids to know sadness.

  8. With a house full of books and little more recent than say, 1920, I got quite the classical education. And most of it was pretty damned good.

  9. Thanks for the terrific post, David. I so much enjoyed reading this, especially as a follow-up to our earlier conversation on Facebook here. Thanks so much!


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