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Education Humor
With Regina Barreca

The Kittens Who
Colored My World

I know that the world of recent childrens literature is a bright and shiny place, filled with anthropomorphically correct villages full of nearly endangered species, politically correct messages, psychologically correct relationships, aesthetically correct illustrations and, for all I know, anatomically correct depictions of the three little pigs, the gingerbread man and an unedited but airbrushed centerfold of the old woman who lived in the shoe.

For example, I think everybody poops, but something we should certainly all remember as a piece of undeniable truth should not be considered the basis of a work of imaginative fiction. This was illustrated for me most poignantly just a moment ago when my graduate assistant said, Do you remember everybody poops? To which I felt I could only respond, Umm. Yes, although Im really frightened that you feel the need to ask me this question now between classes. Did something happen in the hallway? I was deeply relieved, as you can imagine, to learn that she was referring to a childrens book. I myself did not grow up reading Everybody Poops and even now, although she reassured me that it is a fabulous and important work of kiddy lit, it worries me that this is a picture book. I felt better after she told me that it did not come in a scratch and sniff edition. You never know.

My favorite book as a small child, hands down, was The Color Kittens. Nothing else came close.

Not that I didnt have great fondness for the entire Little Golden Books oeuvre, however. I admit that I enjoyed, for example, The Fuzzy Duckling as well as Nurse Nancy. Even when compared to the unparalleled brilliance of The Color Kittens, Nurse Nancy,and The Fuzzy Duckling should not be dismissed. Yet Ill admit that the reason I was fond of Nurse Nancy was not because of the timeless story or the vivid, compassionate portrayal of the main character. Instead I liked Nurse Nancy because it came with a plastic Band-Aid taped to the back of the book. I loved that Band-Aid. That Band-Aid became a fetish object for me. I also believe that the constant restocking of this book was the greatest health-care cost that my family indulged in while I was growing up. And The Fuzzy Duckling I liked because, not to put to fine a point on it, the duckling was fuzzy. Golden Books had managed to put something velvety on the page, and I would wear down the fuzzy part of the fuzzy duckling, almost as quickly as I would tear off the Band-Aid from the back cover of Nurse Nancy.

You can see, therefore, that both Nurse Nancy and The Fuzzy Duckling seduced me through their gimmicks. It was not their essential narrative that got me, it was their bonus features. It was the bonus features that made me come back to what English teachers would call the text. (Note to textbook manufacturers: If you included the equivalent of a Band-Aid -- lets say a lottery ticket, an iTunes card, or a gift certificate to The Gap -- in the spine of every book, no student would ever sell back the textbook.) The same would go for a dollar bill. At some point in the semester, the student would simply rip the spine off to get to the treat on the inside. (Because, at a certain point in the semester, every student becomes a really cheap date).

The Color Kittens, however, had no gimmick. The Color Kittens was a book that both soothed and enlightened me. Lets put it this way, Ive forgotten the last name of the first boy who ever kissed me, but I remember that the color kittens were named Hush and Brush; I remember that they were searching for a way to make the color green, and that while they could make all of the other colors of the rainbow, green somehow eluded them.

I should admit that while I remembered Hush and Brush and their quest for the color green without consulting any original sources, the rest of the column will be written with the Little Golden Books open in order to make certain that I get everything correct. If I were writing an academic paper on The Color Kittens -- and I have no doubt that any number of my university colleagues have already produced finely wrought and intricate works concerning this classic written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen -- I would say that it was a quest narrative. A sophisticated tale of yearning and desire for the ineffable represented by the color green.

I would point out that green is the color of nature. I would argue for its use as a trope for the organic and pre-lapsarian world, the Eden to which, already, no child can return. I would continue my scholarly treatise by claiming that, curiously enough, green acts in this text as the quintessential essence of that-which-can-not-be-represented-in-art. If Id had a few glasses of wine I would even say that perhaps it hinted at a Lacanian pre-oedipal vision of the world where fluid maternal and decidedly feminine modes of creativity could lead to boundary breaking discoveries of the self. But I would probably take that line out the next day. Let me tell you what I really loved about the book.

I loved that the book was not condescending. Even as a little kid I could tell that this was not one of the books that treated me as an idiot just because I was small; even if I didnt know the word condescending I could tell which books talked down to me and which books provided an occasion to which I could rise. This book trusted me to understand that you learn about the world through metaphor and simile, that you learn what green is by understanding that green is as green as something else:

Green as cats eyes
Green as grass
By streams of water
Green as glass.

Not without gushing or sounding to much like an English teacher, I would like to point out the elegance of the internal rhyme, the strength of the language that makes this passage sound as if it could be a snippet from William Carlos Williams, E.E. Cummings, or Carl Sandburg.

The Color Kitten was written in 1949 by the woman who wrote Good Night Moon (Good Night Moon is, of course, the book that would make generations of parents weep over their own mortality even as they read it to unsuspecting toddlers, because Good Night Moon aint so much about good-night as it is about goodbye -- lets face it. Good Night Moon is an elegy even as it is a celebration of the beauty of ordinary life.) The Color Kittens, perhaps more than Timothy Leary and The Beatles, may be responsible for generations of youth saying, its the colors, man while looking at psychedelic visions, because of the brilliantly high-modernist depictions of impossible figures that appeared while the kittens were dreaming:

Of a purple land
In a pale pink sea
Where apples fell
From a golden tree.

And then a world of Easter eggs
That danced about on little short legs

A green cat danced
With a little pink dog
Till they all disappeared in a soft grey fog.

You get the picture. Finally, The Color Kittens continues to capture my heart and my imagination because there is something about the sheer messiness of discovery and creativity that Hush and Brush embody that Ive never quite found in another book. Theyre on a mission -- to make green -- but its through their series of mistakes, what now might be considered their failures, in other words, that they discover all the colors in the world. They dont regret making purple, for example, even though purple wasnt the answer that they were searching for. Theyre delighted that theyve found this marvelous new part of the spectrum.

My favorite part? Even when they make a really big mistake and knock all of the colors together, theyre exuberant over the fact that theyve made brown. Instantly they realize that the world would have been lost without brown:

Brown as a tugboat
Brown as an old goat
Brown as a beaver.

Not to mention that the book Everybody Poops could not have been written had the color kittens avoided making their wonderful, glorious mess -- including the color brown.

And without the kittens and their glorious mess, my childhood would have been a lot less fun.

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Article by Regina Barreca
Education World®
Copyright© 2008 Education World

10/05/2008


 

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