Headmaster’s Thoughts – March 2009

I have made a resolution that I am going to read War and Peace all the way through. I say this with no pride since I have not yet begun this task, and the last time I tried I got bogged down with who was important to the story and who was not. All those Russian names! But my determination comes from the reading that I have been doing lately. You see, when you get to be a grandfather, your reading list changes. You find that you are reading aloud, and greatly enjoying, books designed for very, very small children. Two of my favorites are Goodnight Moon, written by Margaret Wise Brown (who died too young in 1952), and Where the Wild Things Are, written by Maurice Sendak. Both view their subject matter from the child’s perspective.

Goodnight Moon is the perfect last book to read to children before they go to sleep. The bunny in the bed slowly says goodnight to each of the room’s occupants, whether living or not (which is an adult and not a child’s comment). The bright pictures of the room slowly fade and darken as the book progresses. The bunny is eventually asleep.

It has one hundred and twenty eight words without the title.

Where the Wild Things Are is the book you read at the beginning of the ceremony of putting a child to sleep. It is the pictorial story of a little boy, Max, who dreams of traveling to a land where there are monsters. They quickly realize that Max is the most powerful monster of them all, and so they make him their King. In total control of the monsters with their “terrible roars” and “terrible teeth” and “terrible eyes” and “terrible claws,” Max orders a “wild rumpus” in which they all have a great time. In the end, he leaves them, notwithstanding their love for him, and returns home in time for dinner. Even if you did not read it to your children, I hope you get to see the book, with its beautiful illustrations, because it is pure magic. It confronts the fears of children about monsters in their room and dispels them.

It has exactly one hundred and fifty words (without the title).

I have not met many great authors, but I did meet Maurice Sendak once in a Thai restaurant in Danbury, where he knew friends we were having dinner with. It was difficult to be too much in awe of him because of his easy going and cute nature. A great and, dare I say, eloquently brief author.

The new translation of War and Peace has over five hundred and fifty thousand words in one thousand two hundred and fifteen pages (before the notes, historical index, and summary). I wish Tolstoy could have met Maurice Sendak (the Thai restaurant would not be critical to this meeting). Maybe Maurice could have said to Leo (I love the idea that they would have used their first names in speaking to one another): “War and Peace is a good story but too complicated. You don’t need all those details. Look at me…a best seller translated into many languages and only one hundred and fifty words.”

There is no comeback to a remark like that!

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org

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