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The Uses of Enchantment: Rich Language in Children's Literature

When I was young, I didn’t have a lot of books, though my mother regularly trundled us off to the library to pick out the week’s reading. Of the few books I did own, one was a beautifully illustrated volume of fairy tales entitled The Tenggren Tell-It-Again Book, published by Little, Brown, and named for its illustrator, Gustaf Tenggren. Tenggren is the illustrator of The Poky Little Puppy and other enduring/endearing Little Golden titles.

Somehow, over the years, my childhood copy got lost and, to boot, the book went out of print. When I tried to find another copy (this was before the Internet!), I registered with a few book-search companies, but years went by and no copy turned up. Then one day, I was browsing in the Strand Book Store, and there it was. A used copy in excellent condition. And for the “Strand Price” of only $5! It was like finding a long-lost friend.

First published in 1942, “with text edited and adapted by Katharine Gibson,” the book is gorgeously written. A doff of my hat to Ms. Gibson, whose prose still keeps me spellbound. Consider this passage from Cinderella, after the king announces the ball.

What a rustle and bustle! The milliner was soon all out of feathers. Not a spool of ribbon was left in the village. Only cotton and calico remained on the shelves in the shops. Every inch of silk, satin, broadcloth, and gold braid was sold the first day. Dressmakers and tailors stitched and sewed until their needles pushed through their thimbles. Makers of fine boots and slippers never slept at all. Hairdressers curled and frizzed or snapped and clicked with their long bright scissors day and night.

What a passage! Note the embedded rhyme of “rustle and bustle,” and the playful alliteration of “cotton and calico,” “shelves in the shops,” and “stitched and sewed.” And how about those vivid verbs? – “curled and frizzed or snapped and clicked.” No wonder I’d loved the book! I feel so lucky that, as a child, I was regularly exposed to such artfully-crafted prose.

For me, finding the book was a reminder: children’s books, especially those that are read aloud, can – and should! – expose young readers to heightened language and rich vocabulary. When this lush language washed over me, I was inspired. Inspired to keep reading, and eventually to become a writer myself. Read More