The oral tradition has repeatedly popped up over the last couple of semesters, doubly so in the last week, so I’m giving in and telling you why it’s one of my favorite things to talk about- I love the way words sound. If it doesn’t sound right or feel right on the tongue, it shouldn’t be written down. A lot of my work as a writer is written to be read out loud, and when I write I speak the words before I write them out. This isn’t a new love, it’s an old one. Before I could read, I loved to speak both to hear the sounds and feel the words on my lips, and to hear others read the books I couldn’t understand. I mentioned in my first post that I would force my mother to twist her tongue on Seuss because I liked how the words sounded when streamed together. Seuss’s mastery of meter and rhyme is one of many reasons that he holds such a special place in my heart, but he’s not the only writer that I’ve had a long-term love for. All great children’s books have that power- “auditory power” if you will- and Shel Silverstein is definitely one of the great writers for children. Silverstein has some serious “auditory power.”
I firmly believe that the sign of the best writing for children is that the word choice in the book is rooted in the oral tradition, specifically poetic oral tradition. You might have noticed that my previous two writers have had one thing in common, they create words that the reader wants to hear out loud using poetic elements. Obviously no one knows poetics better than poets, and Shel Silverstein has that magic touch with meter that appeals to kids and people like me who want to hear the words spoken when read.
I was chatting with a very good friend of mine, Lena, about something one of her English professors mentioned earlier in the week (yes, we are such writer nerds that we talk about writing when not writing). Her professor said something that’s perfectly spot on, he said, “Children live in the oral tradition.” Up until they learn to read, kids live solely in the world of the visual and auditory. Children find meaning in life and words through what they hear. I read somewhere once that the reason children love the sound of meter is because it creates the same sensation as listening to a mother’s heart beat while in the womb. I don’t know if I believe it, but I know my heart gives a happy little kick when a children’s book has meter because it sounds fantastic when read. Words said aloud have power, and words that create that pulse or meter are engaging and memorable. I grew up on Falling Up, and I still believe that Where the Sidewalk Ends is where imagination begins. A Light in the Attic was a bright spot on library day, and The Giving Tree stands as one of my favorite children’s books. In Silverstein’s work repetition and rhythm makes the words memorable; his poems are fun and silly and represent what’s best in children’s poetry, something that is too often overlooked.
We were lucky enough as kids to have a librarian, Ms. Rizzo, who didn’t limit us to prose. Instead, she introduced us to Shel Silverstein because his work was fun and fantastical. It wasn’t poetry that teachers and professors would assign, but it created a relationship with poetry I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. Children’s poems pull on the oral tradition, creating a bridge from the oral world to the written world with their “auditory power.” Silverstein’s work has that awesome element; it bridges the bounds of the written word to create written words that are meant to be spoken, meant to be shared.
I know that when a good friend of the family had two kids, Leah and Kenny, I took them to the library and did the same thing Ms. Rizzo did for me, I introduced them to Shel Silverstein. I also went one step further and convinced them that there were snails living up their noses that would eat their fingers if they stuck them up there too far. Leah and Ken have since grown up (the wise old ages of nine and ten) and told me that this, in fact, is not true, but it was fun while it lasted. Even more fun, however, was watching them enjoy the poetry, not for any great literary meaning, just for the sound, the feel of the words on their ears and their tongues. They tell me all the time that they don’t like to read, that it’s hard to read, but I can get them to sit down and listen to a poem or a story with no problem.
Even if reading is difficult they love the story; this is the power of the oral tradition. Books, poems, stories in general, should be shared. The need to share story is part of what makes us human. The oral tradition shares that magic and part of the fun of reading Shel Silverstein is reading his words aloud for kids to enjoy.
Listen here to “Captain Hook” by Shel Silverstein.
What do you think, are words better out loud? Are you a sucker for words that simply sound good together or is there something else you look for? More importantly, have you read Shel Silverstein; do you have a favorite poem? (Mine is, and forever will be, his “Where the Sidewalk Ends.”)
Books I’ve Mentioned in this Post:
Shel Silverstein. A Light in the Attic. New York: HaperCollins Publishers, 1981.
Shel Silverstein. Falling Up. New York: HaperCollins Publishers, 1996.
Shel Silverstein. The Giving Tree. New York: HaperCollins Publishers, 1964.
Shel Silverstein. Where the Sidewalk Ends. New York: HaperCollins Publishers, 1974.