Roy Exum: Why Can’t Kids Read?

Thursday, February 27, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Sixty years ago Americans realized they were facing a dilemma. A story appeared in LIFE Magazine asking “Why Can’t Johnny Read?” and it was soon ascertained that the materials the kids were being handed was the most boring stuff ever poked under the nose of a six-year-old. “See Dick run, see Jane play …”

So a very enterprising book executive named William Spaulding came up with a list of 348 words that every first grader should know. Then he talked to an aspiring writer, Theodor Geisel, and asked him to use 250 of the words to create a book “a child can’t put down.” Geisel, who at first thought he would knock such a simple task out in one weekend, spent a year and a half on the project before his final draft ended up including 236 of the 250 proposed words.

An ingenious fellow, the challenge stymied Geisel at first and then it got worse; he kept being tempted to use words not on the list. In exasperation, he finally sought out the first two “approved” words he could find that rhymed and then it all came together. It became one of the greatest children’s books ever written. It was “The Cat in the Hat” and Geisel’s pen name was, of course, Dr. Seuss.

Next week the United Way will sponsor “Read Across Chattanooga,” which is part of the much larger “Read Across America” project of the National Education Association. This Monday is officially “Read Across America Day,” which is usually on March 2nd every year because that is Dr. Seuss’ real birthday, but the Chattanooga celebration will last for much of next week.

Dr. Seuss’ books will be read at the Center Stage, Hamilton Place Mall, for an hour each day, starting at 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and then a huge birthday party will be on Saturday with celebrity readers from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m.

The legendary Seuss book, “Oh The Places You’ll Go” will be read on Tuesday, “Horton Hears a Who” will follow on Wednesday and officials of the Chattanooga Zoo will join in on Thursday for “If I Ran The Zoo.” Barnes & Noble will help host Friday’s “Green Eggs And Ham” before “The Cat in A Hat” will be read by celebrities and a zany character will available for pictures during the Saturday grand finale.

Theodor Geisel died in 1971 but he firmly believed in his classic line: “You're never too old, too wacky, too wild, to pick up a book to read to a child.” Read Across America, now in its 17th year, offers free books, skills testing and encouragement to young readers. Refreshments will be served and some sessions will include arts and crafts.

Personally, I have read almost all of Dr. Seuss’s books and “Oh The Places You’ll Go” is now a graduation-day staple. I grew up reading “The Hardy Boys” but probably my favorite children’s books are Where The Red Fern Grows, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, The Velveteen Rabbit,  and The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe.

That said, here is a list of The Top 100 Children’s Books of All Time, as compiled last fall by the New York Public Library. The list is alphabetical but somewhere there is a child who can hardly wait for any of what you might share:

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Judith Viorst. Illus. by Ray Cruz. (1972)
All-of-a-Kind Family. Sydney Taylor, illustrated by Helen John. (1951)
Amelia Bedelia. Peggy Parish, illustrated by Fritz Siebel. (1963)
The Arrival. Shaun Tan. (2007)
Bark, George. Jules Feiffer. (1999)
Because of Winn-Dixie. Kate DiCamillo. (2000)
Ben’s Trumpet. Rachel Isadora. (1979)
Big Red Lollipop. Rukhsana Khan. Illus. by Sophie Blackall. (2010)
The Birchbark House. Louise Erdrich. (1999)
The Book of Three. Lloyd Alexander. (1964)
The Borrowers. Mary Norton. Illus. by Beth Krush and Joe Krush. (1953)
El Gallo De Bodas: A Traditional Cuban Folktale. Lucía M. González. Illus. by Lulu Delacre. (1994)
Bread and Jam for Frances. Russell Hoban. illustrated by Lillian Hoban. (1964)
Bridge to Terabithia. Katherine Paterson. (1977)
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Bill Martin, Jr. Illus. by Eric Carle. (1967)
Caps for Sale. Esphyr Slobodkina. (1938)
The Cat in the Hat. Dr. Seuss. (1957)
Chains. Laurie Halse Anderson. (2008)
A Chair For My Mother. Vera B. Williams. (1982)
Charlotte’s Web. E.B. White. Illus. by Garth Williams. (1952)
Chato’s Kitchen. Gary Soto. Illus. by Susan Guevara. (1995)
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault. Illus. by Lois Ehlert. (1989)
Corduroy. Don Freeman. (1976)
Curious George. H.A. Rey. (1941)
D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. Ingri D’Aulaire and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire. (1962)
Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! Mo Willems. (2003)
Esperanza Rising. Pam Muñoz Ryan. (2000)
Freight Train. Donald Crews. (1978)
Frog and Toad Are Friends. Arnold Lobel. (1970)
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. E.L. Konigsburg. (1967)
George and Martha. James Marshall. (1972)
The Giver. Lois Lowry. (1993)
Go, Dog. Go! P.D. Eastman. (1961)
Goodnight Moon. Margaret Wise Brown. Illus. by Clement Hurd. (1947)
Grandfather’s Journey. Allen Say. (1993)
The Graveyard Book. Neil Gaiman. Illus. by Dave McKean. (2008)
Green Eggs and Ham. Dr. Seuss. (1960)
Harold and the Purple Crayon. Crockett Johnson. (1955)
Harriet the Spy. Louise Fitzhugh. (1964)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. J.K. Rowling. (1998)
Hatchet. Gary Paulsen. (1989)
The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien. (1937)
Holes. Louis Sachar. (1998)
The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Brian Selznick. (2007)
Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. Simms Taback. (1999)
Jumanji. Chris Van Allsburg. (1981)
Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book. Yuyi Morales. (2003)
Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse. Kevin Henkes. (1996)
The Lion and the Mouse. Jerry Pinkney. (2009)
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis. (1950)
The Little House. Virginia Lee Burton. (1942)
The Little Prince. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. (1943)
Locomotion. Jacqueline Woodson. (2003)
Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story From China. Ed Young. (1989)
Madeline. Ludwig Bemelmans. (1939)
Make Way for Ducklings. Robert McCloskey. (1941)
Matilda. Roald Dahl. Illus. by Quentin Blake. (1988)
Meet Danitra Brown. Nikki Grimes. Illus. by Floyd Cooper. (1994)
Millions of Cats. Wanda Gág. (1928)
Miss Nelson is Missing! Harry Allard. Illus. by James Marshall. (1977)
Mr. Popper’s Penguins. Richard and Florence Atwater. Illus. by Robert Lawson. (1938)
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Robert C. O’Brien. (1971)
Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale. John Steptoe. (1987)
My Father’s Dragon. Ruth Stiles Gannett. Illus. by Ruth Chrisman Gannett (1948)
My Name is Yoon. Helen Recorvits. Illus. by Gabi Swiatkowska. (2003)
Olivia. Ian Falconer. (2000)
One Crazy Summer. Rita Williams-Garcia. (2010)
The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales. Virginia Hamilton. Illus. by Leo/Diane Dillon. (1985)
The Phantom Tollbooth. Norton Juster. Illus. by Jules Feiffer. (1961)
Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue. Maurice Sendak. (1962)
Pink and Say. Patricia Polacco.  (1994)
Pippi Longstocking. Astrid Lindgren. (1950)
Ramona the Pest. Beverly Cleary. (1968)
Rickshaw Girl. Mitali Perkins. Illus. by Jamie Hogan. (2007)
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Mildred D. Taylor. (1976)
Rumpelstiltskin. Paul O. Zelinsky. (1986)
A Sick Day for Amos MCGee. Philip Stead. Illus. by Erin E. Stead. (2010)
The Snowy Day. Ezra Jack Keats. (1962)
Starry River of the Sky. Grace Lin. (2012)
The Stories Julian Tells. Ann Cameron. Illus. by Ann Strugnell. (1981)
The Story of Ferdinand. Munro Leaf. Illus. by Robert Lawson. (1936)
Strega Nona. Tomie dePaola. (1975)
Swimmy. Leo Lionni. (1963)
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. William Steig. (1969)
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Judy Blume. (1972)
The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit. Julius Lester. Illus. by Jerry Pinkney. (1987)
Tar Beach. Faith Ringgold. (1991)
Ten, Nine, Eight. Molly Bang. (1983)
Tomie dePaola’s Mother Goose. Tomie dePaola. (1985)
The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. Jon Scieszka. Illus. by Lane Smith. (1989)
Tuesday. David Wiesner. (1991)
The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Eric Carle. (1969)
The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. Christopher Paul Curtis. (1995)
The Westing Game. Ellen Raskin. (1978)
When You Reach Me. Rebecca Stead. (2009)
Where Is the Green Sheep? Mem Fox. Illus. by Judy Horacek. (2004)
Where the Wild Things Are. Maurice Sendak. (1963)
Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears. Verna Aardema. Illus. by Leo/Diane Dillon. (1975)
Winnie-the-Pooh. A.A. Milne. Illus. by Ernest H. Shepard. (1926)
A Wrinkle in Time. Madeleine L’Engle. (1962)

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