Saturday, June 20, 2015

Small Pig by Arnold Lobel (1969)

I took a creative writing course in college in about 1992.  Dr. Brown was the professor of the course.  Looking back, I loved Dr. Brown – I had him for other classes as well, including Linguistics, two literature classes (one in which we read some Dickens (I think Hard Times) and Melville (I think Bartleby the Scrivener), other we read The Light In August by Faulkner).  I also took French from him for two years (very little of which now remains). 

The past becomes more misty and dim, and I don’t recall much about my creative writing class.  I’ve (bitterly?  Although to be honest, I’m rarely bitter about anything) blamed the class for making me hate writing fiction and poetry, and since that time I’ve done very little of either.  Every once in a while, a poem will come bubbling forth and I’m compelled to write it down.  As for fiction, I don’t think I’ve written a single piece of fiction since that class.  (I’m not sure how I feel about that; I also don’t blame Dr. Brown; he was as a good teacher, and I think looking back, I think I was probably a very awful student, selfish and self-absorbed, completely lost, and full of myself; I would have hated to be my teacher back then, and I imagine he was alternately bemused and infuriated by me). 

So whatever I learned in creative writing is gone with the wind.  Except I have always remembered one strange little detail, just the one:  Dr. Brown said one of the best pieces of written prose? Poetry? was this one by Arnold Lobel from Small Pig:  “But most of all / the small pig likes to sit down / and sink down / in good, soft mud.”

I’m sure he had his reasons, and I wish I could remember them now.  I want to be a little mouse in the pocket of that long ago Shawn Thrasher, age 22, worried about coming out and relationships and finding a boyfriend and everything else that was stewing in my 22 year old brain, a little mouse that was taking notes that he could share with the older, more wiser Shawn.  I can’t though.  We can never go back.  So the wisdom of Dr. Brown vis a vis Small Pig is digested into one little tidbit:  Arnold Lobel wrote one brilliant line of poetry/prose.

Grown up Shawn knows this is good writing.  Arnold Lobel is a genius (a gay genius, I’ve recently learned).  All the books I’ve read by him are classics in children’s literature, beloved.  In their simplicity lies brilliance.  I like simple, I guess.  Flowery language is easy; all you need is a thesaurus (it’s also easily done badly).  Choosing simple words (back to “American plain style” perhaps) isn’t so easy.  When your page can only hold at most about 20 words, you have to choose them carefully. And since Arnold Lobel was telling stories that had to read by children who were just learning how to read, those 20 words or less had to be simple enough to be understood by a six year old, but still tell an engaging story.  Lobel pretty much succeeded at that every single time.  Dr. Seuss gets all the laud, but all that laud should go to Lobel.  I’ve called Mo Willems the new Dr. Seuss, but perhaps I should call him the new Arnold Lobel.  

Small PigSmall Pig by Arnold Lobel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Is there ever better mud than the mud in your very own barnyard?  Big city mud is obviously the worst among various types of mud; you can get stuck in the big city, and forget what it was like to wallow in the good, soft mud you once knew and loved.  Also, change is bad.

All snark aside, Arnold Lobel is a writer of the utmost skill.  If you think for a moment that on each page, he's only allowed so much text - maybe 20 words.  And then considering his audience of six year old new readers, these twenty have to be the simplest of words.  Lobel's mastery at choosing just the write words and then creating complex and emotional stories about of simplicity is really quite amazing.  Easy readers aren't so easy to write well.  Add to this that often Lobel's plain prose reads like the most beautiful of poetry too.  I hope in a thousand years, our descendants are reading Small Pig, Frog and Toad, and Mouse Soup like we read Chaucer.

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