Program notes: saved from the bell
By GWEN OREL
Program Notes: In the theater, program notes provide further background on the play at
The Little Read took place last week, for its 11th year. It’s a storytelling marathon, aimed for children from preschool through third grade.
I could not wait to read.
I could recognize my own name early on, but writing the letter “G” was hard. For a long time the ones I made came out sideways, with the opening at the bottom. I learned to write when everybody else did, at school.
But I learned to read by being read to.
My favorite toys were books-and-records. They were little 45s, 7-inch records that played at 45 rpm, with the story on one side, and sometimes songs on the other, and they came with a record-sized book. There was a bell sound. The bell is important.
(I know some people do not know what a 45 is, and I know this because sometimes I wear earrings made of the little doo-dads you used to put inside a 45 to be able to play them on a 33 rpm record player. And everyone under 30 basically thinks they are a cool Celtic design, and everyone older laughs.)
Books-and-records taught me to read.
The concept of them was simple. The record started, the parent sat the child down with the little book. Child looks at book and, when the bell rings, turns the page.
I could do this for hours.
I did do this for hours.
Whole afternoons. I had a lot of them. I studied them so hard I can still picture most of them: some had cartoonish drawings. Some had beautiful, painterly illustrations. Some were Disney. My tastes were eclectic, so long as there was a “happily ever after” at the end. (Except for the Gingerbread Man, because he has to get eaten and that’s just how it goes.)
I would finish one story and hear it again right away, so long as someone restarted the record for my teeny hands.
“Is that you, my prince? I have waited a long while,” was Sleeping Beauty’s line to the Prince. I can still mimic exactly the way she said it.
I turned the page when the little bell rang, and not a second before. I loved hearing the voices.
It was comforting.
And also I was read to by real live people.
My father was the main story reader in our household.
I had several favorite books: “Night Cat” by Irma Simonton Black. Mac the cat has wild adventures at night, but the kids don’t know and think he’s just lazy during the day. The Little Engine that Could.
My dad did all the voices. “I think I can, I think I can,” he’d say, as the engine chugged, and then, tired and puffing, but happy, “I thought I could, I thought I could.”
One night I remember sneaking out of my room to see why my brother was laughing so hard. My dad was reading “Winnie the Pooh” and Stephen was kicking his teddy bear Sammy in the air and laughing as Pooh and Piglet went around the tree. Every time they went around the tree, the beast seemed to have more legs because there were more tracks.
I did not understand why this was funny. I was a literal-minded toddler. The song “Found a Peanut,” in which someone dies, made me cry.
There was a joke for older kids and even grownups in there. Someday I’d get it.
Meanwhile, the studying of the books and records paid off.
I remember the day it happened.
My father was reading too slowly. My all-time favorite book was a Whitman Tell-a-Tale book, “Little Black Sambo.” (I know this is often considered a racist book, but mine was set in India, with illustrations of attractive people, and I had no context to get that the names could offend. Book kids had weird names, Little Black Sambo, Snow White, Little Bo-Peep… I likely thought Sambo was Jewish. I thought Santa Claus was Jewish.) In this version, illustrated by Gladys Turley Michell. Sambo has big brown eyes and dark curls, mom wears a sari, and of course there are the four hungry tigers that want to eat him. Big hungry cats! And a smarter kid! Sambo tricks them out of eating them by giving them his clothes to wear. They put purple slippers on their ears and think they are so handsome! Then they argue with one another and chase each other around a tree, running so fast that they turn into butter, which Sambo brings home, with all his clothes, to mother. She makes pancakes.
My dad did the tiger voices, and he was just moving too slowly.
There was no little bell to make me wait, so I turned the page.
The black marks on the page moved a little and then settled down.
They came into focus.
And I could read them.
My dad started shouting. “Bev! Bev! She’s reading!”
I looked up. What is going on? And looked back down at the page.
Mom did not even come upstairs, saying, “She’s read it so many times, she just memorized it.”
“No! She’s reading! To me!”
I ignored them both, because, you know, tigers.
I didn’t have to wait for a bell. Or a parent.
Though I might, anyway, because I loved the voices.
The whole world opened up.