Tag Archives: The New Yorker

The Re-Reading Project: Sammy the Seal and Danny and the Dinosaur

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.

Sammy the SealDanny and the DinosaurIt 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.

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The Re-Reading Project: Charlotte’s Web

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”
“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight.

And so begins Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White, a children’s book that is both surprisingly brutal and extremely sentimental. The big brutal moments (for the child audience) are in Chapter 5, when Wilbur meets Charlotte trapping and eating a fly, Chapter 6 when one of the goose eggs doesn’t hatch and is given to Templeton the rat, and in Chapter 7, appropriately titled “Bad News,” when the oldest sheep tells Wilbur he is being fattened up so that he may be consumed for Christmas dinner. Yet, the descriptions of life on the farm and the passing seasons are bucolic and flowery, and the main premise of the book, Charlotte’s mission to save Wilbur, is emotional, hopeful and a bit naive.

Weaving together the hard practicality of farm life and the tenderhearted, empathetic nature of children, White’s second children’s novel, originally published in 1952, is a contradictory doozy of a little book. Some book, as Charlotte might write in her web.

At times, I felt like I was wading through product placement: Shredded Wheat, Ford, Chevy, Buick, GMC, Plymouth, Studebaker, Packard, De Soto, Frigidaire and Pontiac all get a shout-out. I feel like I missed some. It’s a little annoying that Fern is only 8, but first she’s setting the table for breakfast while her brother is sleeping late and then later, she’s being encouraged to spend more time with the boy Henry Fussy rather than with animals in the barn. During the section when Fern’s mother visits the family doctor to ask if there’s something wrong with her daughter, I really wanted him to say: hey, she might want to be a vet one day. While Charlotte saves Wilbur from becoming Christmas ham, nothing is said about Uncle’s fate after he wins the blue ribbon at the fair, or whether the Zuckermans had goose for Christmas or another ham entirely. But all of that is my cynical adult self’s impression of the book, struggling with the patronizing and slightly inconsistent tone and the moral ambiguity of animal slaughter verses personification of animals for children’s books. I think what my child self latched onto is that both Fern and Charlotte are the heroes of the story. Fern saves the day by speaking up against what she perceives as injustice. Charlotte uses her ability to write to save her friend’s life. Sure, Charlotte dies (spoiler?) and Fern goes off to play with Henry Fussy instead of the animals, but their actions did save Wilbur.

With all the descriptions of communal living among the animals in the barn, I’ll be interested to see how Charlotte’s Web compares to a book I’ll re-read later in this project: Animal Farm.

Unlike with the previous two installments of The Re-Reading Project, I re-read my childhood copy of Charlotte’s Web. It’s a 1980 reprint, covered in smudges and stains. The edges are battered and worn. Inside the cover, one of my early bookplates mostly covers up where I’d originally written my name and address.

Notice the first 'n' in my middle name looks more like an 'm.' I was still practicing my handwriting.

Notice the first ‘n’ in my middle name looks more like an ‘m.’ I was still practicing my handwriting.

I don’t remember any single experience of reading Charlotte’s Web, but like with Sarah, Plain and Tall, every bit of the story was familiar to me and from the worn condition of my book, I can only conclude that I re-read Charlotte’s Web obsessively between the ages of maybe 5 and 10. I’ve had it on my bookshelves since I moved out of the dorms, but I never read it in any of the years I’ve been documenting my reading (since the age of 13). I know it wasn’t the first book I ever read (that was either Sammy the Seal or Danny and the Dinosaur, both by Syd Hoff), but I must’ve read it pretty young.

In the years I wasn’t re-reading Charlotte’s Web, I was rediscovering White through Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (also still on my bookshelf, along with notecards stuck in pages and highlighting). I remember realizing that the tiny textbook was written by the same guy who’d written one of the first books I read as a child. In fact, doing a little research on White for this review, I’m reminded of what a multi-genre writer he was: he published poetry, essays, children’s books, adult novels, letters and textbooks on writing. He was considered one of the most important contributors to The New Yorker during his lifetime and Charlotte’s Web was considered the top children’s novel (for readers 9-12) in a 2012 School Library Journal poll. Well-rounded and long-lasting.


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