Writing a book on reading and being a dad aren’t always tasks that mix well. Manuscripts need to be written on nights and weekends when my goal is to be with my kids. Every once in a while I get to do both things at once, though, which is what’s been happening as I’ve read with my five year old this month. Turns out I’m doing research for my book on reading–specifically the chapter of text complexity.
I’ve been reading P.L. Travers’ 1934 Mary Poppins to my littlest.
A word about that book and the reading of it to a five-year-old before I get to the main point about text complexity:
1) It’s a tricky book for Little One. You could argue “over her head” and I might have suspected as much. But it’s turned out to be perfect. She loves it and she gets it. To be sure I Check for Understanding pretty constantly by asking her quick simple questions: Who’s Andrew? What does he want? Who said that? What are they talking about? Etc. It turns out she’s able to follow the story and even its ironic moments pretty darn well. There are a few spots where it’s a bit tricky and I stop if I see her concentration lagging. But generally she loves it. And that’s a bit of a something between reminder and lesson- kids show us what they can do when we shoot high and the biggest benefit of reading aloud to them is that it allows them to encounter stories and syntax more complex than they could read on their own, so Little is becoming familiar with all sorts of complex sentence structures vocabulary and forms of narration—Mary Poppins showing her pique with just a gesture; the motif of her vanity showing every time she gazes at herself in a shop window. I almost told myself she wasn’t up to it, but she is. Ironically she’s just learning to read on her own. She killed it on “Hot Dog” this morning (e.g. “Dog is hot. Cat is not”) and there’s a temptation when kids are at Little’s stage to only work on decoding. Let me just say that I am all about the phonics as an educator- think it’s a huge disservice to skimp on them. I guess what I think I’ve realized is how necessary a combination of learning the mechanics of reading (phonics) and hearing more difficult text is the ultimate synergy. In fact the more you do of one the more you should do of the other- reading a wild joyous imaginative book like Mary Poppins is motivating to Little. She wants to read even more so she can unlock that world on her own.
2) Mary Poppins is an amazing book. My gosh it’s good… but there’s a sadness to that fact- it’s half-brilliant and already half-forgotten. Or half Disney-fied. By which I mean the particular effect that comes when older books made into movies become dated or simplified and sanitized and therefore acquire a whiff of parody about them- popular culture imagines them as passé, outdated and dorky. When you think Mary Poppins you probably think about Dick Van Dyke’s inexcusable bad cockney accent not classic timeless literature. It conflates the book with the dated, kitsch of the movie or TV portrayals. But books age far better than movies and TV shows and in fact here are some of the very best books I’ve read with my kids: Little House on the Prairie (the whole series), Peter Pan, Black Beauty, Mary Poppins, The Black Stallion, The Wizard of Oz. Every one of them beautifully written, outstandingly interesting- a complete and wonderful surprise. And most of them becoming increasingly rare and replaced by in the canon of what children read.
But I wanted to write about Mary Poppins most of all because I have a side project with a colleague where we are trying to build a library of examples of different types of text complexity and in reading Mary Poppins with Little I’ve found some truly great examples. So the good news is I get to share them with you and use them in my book. And the better news is that Little is exposed to them and is learning from them. Here are a few of the more memorable ones and the category of the Five Plagues they exemplify.
Non-linear Time Sequence:
Here’s a scene from Chapter I, when Mary comes to interview for the job of being Jane and Michael’s nanny. The narration begins with Mary touring the house with Mrs. Banks and meeting the children. Then it transitions subtly and without warning to a very brief scene where Mr. and Mrs Banks reflect on the visit at an unnamed later time. Then the time shifts back to that of Mary’s visit.
Mary Poppins regarded them steadily, looking at them from one to another as though she were making up her making her mind whether she liked them or not.
“Will we do?” said Michael.
“Michael, don’t be naughty,” said his mother.
Mary Poppins continued to regard the four children searchingly. Then, with a long, loud sniff that seemed to indicate that she had made up her mind she said:
“I’ll take the position.”
“For all the world,” as Mrs. Banks said to her husband later, “as though she were doing us a signal honour.”
“Perhaps she is,” said Mr. Banks, putting his nose round the corner of the newspaper for a moment and then withdrawing it very quickly.
When their mother had gone, Jane and Michael edged towards Mary Poppins who stood still as a post with her hands folded in front of her.
Interestingly, the first break in time sequence is tagged, “Mrs. Banks said to her husband later,” but the tag comes only after we read her words so there’s a moment of confusion and a reader must go back and re-contextualized the remark. Mrs. Banks comment, made at a later time, is made in direct reference to Mary’s remark made at the earlier time. We can assume that she has just repeated it to Mr. Banks in the later time sequence but thetwo remarks flow together as if they happen contemporaneously. Mr. Banks’ comment, which also occurs at the undetermined later time (in which he is hilariously and subtly characterized), is un-tagged so when he made his remark might not be inherently clear to many readers. Immediately afterwards, the narration moves back to a third time sequence which is before the time when the Banks’ spoke but after Mary accepted the job. The phrase, “When their mother had gone” designates that there is a break between the scene described before the flash forward to Mr. and Mrs Banks and the scene that’s described now. In four sentences we get three distinct time sequence and they are out of chronological order. It’s fast and complex series of events that a reader must follow to comprehend the story and only frequent exposure to such sequences build sufficient knowledge and intuition to make sense of them.
Complex Narrative Voice
In chapter 5 the children are surprised to see a cow wandering down their street and Mary Poppins proceeds to tell them a story about the cow that comprises the entire chapter, save for a brief framing of about two pages at the beginning and one at the end. The chapter is thus narrated first by the general narrative voice from the rest of the book, then shifts unexpectedly to narration by Mary Poppins herself before returning to the voice of the general narrator again. This transition from one speaker to another is unmarked and unexpected- We’re reading chapter 5 and the shift happens suddenly and for the first time in the book– after 65 pages or so. And never again.
We start with the general narrator relating events:
“It was long ago,” said Mary Poppins, in a brooding storytelling voice. She paused, as though she were remembering events that happened hundreds of years before that time. Then she went of dreamily, still gazing into the middle of the room, but without seeing anything.
The Red Cow—that’s the name she went by. And very important and prosperous she was, too (so my mother said). She lived in the best field in the whole district….
The second paragraph here is narrated by Mary Poppins… it’s her telling the story of the cow but there’s very little to indicate the shift in narrator: a few hints about her “story telling voice” cue us that story is forthcoming and the marker “so my mother said”- both of which are much more legible to experienced readers who have seen things like this over and over. To an inexperienced reader the shift in speakers is just as likely to be unnoticed and confusing unless we get them lots of practice and experience.
Just after this, Mary Poppins describes the cow’s life in the field where she lived long ago.
The field was all primrose-colour and gold with the butter cups and dandelions standing up in it like soldiers. Every time she ate the head off one soldier, another grew in its place, with a green military coat and a yellow busby.
First, it’s interesting to note that this is not just an example of figurative language—a simile comparing flowers to soldiers. I’d describe it as figurative text because the figurative narration continues and gets woven into the story in increasingly subtle and extended ways. In the next sentence, for example, the simile becomes a metonymy… a far rarer and more subtler form of figurative language. Metonymy is a kind of subtle on-going metaphor where the name something is referred to by is replaced by the name of something associated with it in meaning. For example, when the news media refer to statements from the President by using the phrase “The White House said…” or “Washington said today..” But of course these are common and familiar substitutes. Substituting golden soldiers for flowers is a unique metonymy and it happens subtly and without warning. The flowers are now referred to as “soldiers” directly in the next sentence, but readers are required to track that metonymy not just now but to retain it. It becomes a sort of motif, and this makes the passage an outstanding example of figurative text- where to understand the whole story you have to do advanced figurative reading. Eleven pages later, after an entire fableabout the cow’s intrepid wandering, she returns to the field and Travers writes:
Quietly and serenely she moved across the field, beheading her golden soldiers as she went to greet the golden calf.
The book is essentially about Jane and Michael’s relationship with Mary Poppins, but they have twin siblings, John and Barbara, who are minor figures and who spend chapters 1-8 being pushed occasionally in a perambulator and establishing that they are infants. Chapter 9 is called “John and Barbara’s Story” and features—suddenly–imaginary narration by the infants and other non-human voices: the sun, the wind, a bird. Their voices, we are intended to understand, show an imaginary conversation people who can speak do not understand. But this idea emerges suddenly and without context:
Upstairs in the nursery, Mary Poppins was airing the clothes by the fire, and the sunlight poured in at the window flickering on the white walls, dancing over the cot where the babies were lying.
“I say, move over! You’re right in my eyes,” said John in a loud voice. [John, of course, cannot really speak so the tag is very confusing]
“Sorry, said the sunlight. “But I can’t help it. I’ve got to get across this room somehow. Orders is orders. I must move from East to West in a day and my way lies through this nursery. Sorry! Shut your eyes and you won’t notice me. [Unlike the cow story this story has no narrative frame so this is the first time we’ve encountered anything remotely like the idea that there might be voices other than human’s and it appears suddenly and without explication. Very confusing and deliberately so.]
The gold shaft of sunlight lengthened across the room. It was obviously moving as quickly as it could in order to oblige John.
“How soft, how sweet you are! I love you,” said Barbara holding out her hands to its shining warmth. [John is crying and Barbara is cooing. If they could speak this is what they would say. Did you get that?]
Clearly this is an example of complex narrative voices. But the presentation of it a sudden and complete change in narrative assumptions made without any warning and any tag, can only be described as a deliberate effort on the author’s part to surprise readers, toy with them, deliberately make the text resist simple assumptions. It is, in a word, resistant. It sets out to challenge. And many, many books do this.
In fact one of the most common ways that books offer up “resistance” to simple meaning making is by dispensing with exposition—the part of the text at the very beginning where author’s traditionally introduce and explain the characters and the setting. Not P.L. Travers. She begins utterly without context, in the second person and in medias res, describing not actual events but a hypothetical event that might happen though you have no idea why it would, and a character who will never appear again speaking confusingly:
If you want to find Cherry-Tree Lane, all you have to do is ask the policeman at the cross-roads. He will push his helmet slightly to one side, scratch his head thoughtfully, and then he will point his huge white-gloved finger and say: “First to your right, second to your left, sharp right again and you’re there. Good-morning.”
And sure enough if you follow his directions exactly you will be there….
The point I think is to entice but disorient just a bit at the same time- it’s going to be magical; it’s going to flout the rules, this book. But all of that is communicated in your ability to recognize, analyze and understand the fact that the story is deliberately disorientating its readers.
Anyway, I’ll stop there but hope that these examples are useful in clarifying some of the terms I’ve been suing to describe text complexity and explaining why they are so important to readership. Also a brief promo for Mary Poppins– an incredibly pleasant surprise and a book I’d fairly dismissed. Somehow, I hope, we’ll keep reading it and make it remain a classic.
As an aside, I’m looking for a better phrase than “resistant text” to describe narration that tries to unsettle readers. Love to hear your suggestions!