It was feeding time at the zoo.
All the animals
were getting their food.
– Sammy the Seal
One day Danny went
to the museum.
He wanted to see what was inside.
-Danny and the Dinosaur
I’m pretty sure that Sammy the Seal by Syd Hoff was the first book I ever read myself, followed quickly by Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur. But, I keep changing my mind about which one was actually my first book, so they stand together as my first books. They’re probably a lot of kids’ first reads, as they’re both Level 1 books in the I Can Read! series, the first of which was 1957’s Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. So the I Can Read! series was already 30 years old by the time I was reading.
Danny and the Dinosaur was published first, in 1958 and then Sammy the Seal in 1959. Each book is 64 pages of simple text and represents one day of freedom and fun. Danny meets the dinosaur at the museum and they hang out in the city together, most often helping out its citizens (kinda like a Superman version of Godzilla), then the dinosaur goes back to the museum rather than be Danny’s pet. They have further adventures together in later books. Sammy the Seal is given a day pass of sorts from the zoo, because he asks the seal feeder, Mr. Johnson, nicely. He also explores the city (one of my favorite pages shows a local man saying, “That seal must be from out of town.”), though he spends about half the day hanging out in a classroom with a bunch of schoolchildren and a redheaded teacher. He takes a cab back to the zoo just in time for dinner.
I was inspired to re-read these earliest of books when I mentioned them in my Charlotte’s Web post and Hoff’s niece Carol responded. I still have my original copies, but they’re in storage at my parents’ house, so I checked them out from my local library, where I’m a well-known patron. One of the librarians joked with me when I picked them up, saying the librarians were speculating on whether I’d meant to request them, since they varied a bit from my usual reading tastes. “Well,” she conceded, “All of your reading is a bit odd, so I told them this was actually pretty normal for you.” I told her about the Re-Reading Project and she told me about her favorite Syd Hoff book, Lengthy. I’d never even heard of it before and I was engrossed for several minutes while she narrated it for me. It’s apparently out of print, which is unfortunate because it sounds like a sweet story.
It just takes me about 5 minutes to read these books now, since there’s only a line of text on each page and the language is very easy, which is what makes them great Level 1 books and the reason why they were the first books I was able to read myself, every word. What struck me most re-reading them now is how absolutely dated the books are, and already were in the 80s when I first read them. Which strangely makes them feel timeless. Kinda like Indiana Jones. And they were utterly familiar: I must’ve read these books so many times as a kid that I all but memorized them.
Syd Hoff did more than write some of the most influential kid’s books ever, which would be a lot on its own. He sold almost 600 cartoons to The New Yorker, had two long-running syndicated comic strips and wrote books for adults as well. He was even the host of a t.v. show, called Tales of Hoff. Which, from the description on Wikipedia, kinda sounds like Bob Ross’s show combined with Roald Dahl’s. Here’s a clip of Hoff drawing and narrating, but I’m not sure if it’s a clip from Tales of Hoff.
I think it’s fitting to end this first month of re-reading where I began my reading odyssey. I didn’t originally intend to re-read so many books this month. I thought I’d maybe re-read four, but I had so much trouble narrowing it down that I re-read eight instead! I had a lot of fun, but moving forward, I’ll only be re-reading one title each month (August is ambitious, with three).
However, a nice side effect of this first month of re-reading has been the conversations I’ve had about great reading experiences, here on the blog and with friends and family off the internet. I’ve invited some of them to re-read an influential title from their life and write a guest post for the blog. February will kick off with one of these guest blogs. Some of you may also like to join me in the Re-Reading Project, so send me a message and let me know.