Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Little Old Man Who Could Not Read

the little old man who could not read irma simonton black children's book reviewThe Little Old Man Who Could Not Read
by Irma Simonton Black, Seymour Fleishman
(Ages 4-8)

The edition we have was published in 1968 by Parents' Magazine Book Clubs, Inc. by arrangement with Albert Whitman & Company.

It is a very simple story with a subtle yet powerful message - i.e., literacy - laced with humor and presented with simplistic charm that might confound the skeptical adult mind. At the right age, the book can possibly motivate and encourage children to learn to read, to take that first step.

An old man was so busy making wooden toys all his life that he never learned to read. He just never wanted to learn. He doesn't see why he has to learn as he can get by fine without being able to read. He gets letters from kids around the world thanking him for his wonderful toys, but, his wife has to read them to him.

One day, his wife decides to go for a visit. She reminds him to go shopping for food while she is gone. Of course, the cynical adult mind at this point might wonder about previous such absences, if at all the wife absented herself from the household till then, and how he managed... or, even, why didn't she stock up the pantry and instruct him on where to find what for the next few days knowing he cannot read... No Matter.

Moving on: assuming that he will be able to recognize the food items at least by sight even if he cannot read the labels, she goes away on her trip. This is where the book starts getting funny, at least for my 4¾ year old, albeit in a predictable way.

The old man goes shopping but feels lost among the aisles and aisles of packaged foods - some with pictures, and some with no pictures. Rather than ask anybody (He did not like to ask), he picks up cans and cartons possibly based on color and size his wife used to stock the pantry with and gets home eager to have a nice meal.

But, when he hungrily opens the cans and cartons to eat, he finds out that they are not what he thought they were - sour buttermilk instead of milk, soap flakes instead of sugar... you get the idea. This is the part that my 4¾ year old finds very funny, naturally. Especially, when the little old man exclaims, "Fiddlesticks and fish fur!" to express his frustration.

Hungry and frustrated, he waits for his wife to come home and as soon as she walks in the door he relates his woes and pleads, "Wife, please teach me to read". And she does.
First the old man learned to read the word
Next he learned to read the word
Then he learned to read the words
for everything in the big store.
And then he learned to read the words
for everything in the world.
And the book ends with the little old man proudly reading his fan mail from kids around the world.

Of course, the adult mind might get a tendency to poke holes in this narration, pointing out all the absurdities and how incoherent it all sounds. But, learning from my 4¾ year old's perspective, it appears that the core message of the book was easily absorbed: He didn't learn to read, and that didn't work out well for him.

However illogical and disconnected it sounds, the fact that Reading Is Important somehow got through to her via this simple narration.

The illustrations are simplistic drawings colored in which complement the text well. If this was not already in our home library, a hand-me-down through generation, I probably would not have come across it at all. However, something about this book struck me as charming and warm - a stubborn old man refusing to learn to read and then coming around finally, showing it is never too late to learn.


Vibha said...

Looks like a nicely weaved story to convey an important message.

Tharini said...

Cute!! Sometimes, its good to focus on the bottomline, which is how it appealed to the little minds, than how it was absorbed by us, as an adult. I have encountered this often with WInkie and his reading choices, and always learn something new from it!

Anusha said...

a children's book from '68, wow!
theme reminds me a bit of Amadi's Snowman.
the older one would love it, thanks for sharing it with us!

Praba Ram said...

Loved the comparison between adult, cynical mind vs little ones interpreting the book! LOL at what you thought were disconnected and incoherent! :-)

Reminds me of a gentle story by Leo Leonni, The Alphabet Tree. It's about the "power of the written word" - Please dont mind my side note.. (A tree has letters for leaves. The letter leaves are hit by the harsh winds. They find forming words can help them stay strong. The words later gain even more strength by making a sentence. The sentence they make is one with a beautiful message on peace - won't give that away!) :-) Great for kindergarteners!

Thanks, Sheela! Will check this one out for sure. We are reading Bear Snores on that you had recommended last winter.

Choxbox said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Choxbox said...

NIce Sheels!

Reminds me of this lovely Hindi movie called 'Angootha Chhaap' by Sai Paranjpe :)

Poppins said...

Really nice pick, and had to LOL at the differences between the adult mind that is boxed in reality and the child's mind that is free to imagine! :)

utbtkids said...

Sounds like a fun book. Thanks for the review Sheela.

Brian said...

I remember this book fondly from when I read it (or it was read to me) 35 years ago. I actually found this review because I still remember that "Fiddlesticks and fish fur!" exclamation and wanted to know where I'd picked it up!

Anonymous said...

I remember this book from when i was young, it always stuck with me. "Fiddlesticks and fishfur" is one of my favorite sayings. I introduced it to my daughter and she loved it.

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