Sesame Street

I wrote a lot of words about a word book yesterday, which seems appropriate, but, to be honest, reading the 1983 edition of The Sesame Street Word Book is a primarily a visual experience. It’s telling that there isn’t an author listed for the book – the only credit on the cover is “illustrated by Tom Leigh.” Because, while it is great that The Sesame Street Word Book teaches us obscure terms like “pancake turner”, “otoscope,” and “hod carrier”, the real fun of the book lies in Leigh’s illustrations. So, in an attempt to convey just what an entertaining book this is to flip through, here are my personal picks for my fifteen favorite illustrations from The Sesame Street Word Book.

Some of these are sweet, some are funny. Some are unintentionally funny. Some are only funny because they remind you that, yes, this book was indeed published in 1983. But, regardless, they all just make me love this book all the more.

1. Hello!

Sesame Street Word Book - Rodeo RosieQuestion: What’s cuter than a semi-obscure Sesame Street character saying “Hello”? Answer: Nothing. Have a great rest of the day, Rodeo Rosie.

2. Bathroom Sandwich

Sesame Street Word Book - ErnieThere is a recurring visual joke that runs throughout a lot of Sesame Street books in which the perpetually bathing Ernie is always pictured with a sandwich that he has apparently brought into the bathroom with him. (It shows up pretty often in the 1980s Sesame Street Book Club books.) This is both hilarious and really, really gross. [read the rest of the post…]

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The Sesame Street Word Book (1983)

The original version of the very fun “Sesame Street Word Book.”

I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m a big fan of old-school Sesame Street books. And, by “old school”, I’m typically talking about the pre-Elmo era. Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but Sesame Street always felt so much more engaging to me when the street was a little grimy and urban (it looks so gentrified now), when Jim Henson and Frank Oz were stationed beneath Ernie and Bert, and when you could always find an afro or two sitting at the counter at Mr. Hooper’s store. One of my favorite Sesame Street books from this era is The Sesame Street Word Book, illustrated by Tom Leigh, a tremendous illustrator with a wide body of Sesame Street projects on his resume.

However, there are TWO versions of The Sesame Street Word Book out there – the original 1983 edition and a re-issued 1998 edition – and one is CLEARLY superior to the other. Let me give you a quick overview of the book itself and then I’ll let you know which one to embrace and which to avoid.

The Sesame Street Word Book (1998)

The revised edition of the “Sesame Street Word Book”. Can you spot the differences? HINT: Elmo…)

If you’ve never seen it before, The Sesame Street Word Book is probably the closest thing I’ve ever found to a Sesame Street version of a Richard Scarry book. My daughter adores all of those over-sized Scarry books like the Best Word Book Ever, What Do People Do All Day?, and Cars and Trucks and Things That Go – those big, uber-detailed landscape spreads packed with scenes of city life, a huge cast of characters, and absolutely everything labeled. They make great road trip books and they’re the kinds of books that a kid can get lost in for an entire afternoon.

As I mentioned, The Sesame Street Word Book follows the Richard Scarry model pretty closely, offering a variety of scenes featuring Sesame Street characters where we learn about a big swath of topics, everything from feelings and shapes to what we can expect to find in a doctor’s office or in a supermarket.

The book opens with a great “Note to Parents” from the Children’s Television Workshop, which tells us: “The Sesame Street Word Book provides children with a rich and colorful environment in which to explore the world of words. Entertaining scenes introduce more than 1000 words in context to help children’s expand and organize their vocabulary. Detailed pictures with easy-to-read labels demonstrate that words are symbols – for actions, people, places, and things.”

That’s probably one of the best definitions of a “word book” that I’ve ever heard. We had a lot of word books in rotation in my daughter’s room when she was very young, but, as she got older, she became less and less interested in them. Many word books come across as just illustrated dictionaries and, once my daughter learned all of the terminology for kitchen utensils or farm animals, she very quickly lost interest with most of the word books in our library. It’s a testament to the quality and depth of books like The Sesame Street Word Book and the works of Richard Scarry that I still occasionally find my daughter flipping through them on rainy days.

The Sesame Street Word Book (1983) - Mr. Hooper

I miss Mr. Hooper…

While Tom Leigh doesn’t have Richard Scarry‘s virtuoso talent (who does?), he is an incredibly skilled artist and the level of detail and character he packs into The Sesame Street Word Book is amazing. With the possible exception of Michael Smollin (illustrator of The Monster at the End of this Book), I consider Leigh to be the definitive Sesame Street illustrator of all time (which is saying something when you realize how many Sesame Street books have been published over the years).

But, as I mentioned at the start, Leigh produced TWO different versions of The Sesame Street Word Book – the original 1983 version and a re-issued version in 1998. And, as you may be able to guess from the introduction to this article, I greatly prefer the original version. But that’s not just my old-school Sesame nostalgia talking. The fact is – the 1983 Sesame Street Word Book is a much longer, deeper, and all-around better piece of work. While you can sometimes find descriptions online of the 1998 version adding “additional art,” the truth is that the 1998 revision cuts out almost a third of the original book for no real discernable reason. [read the rest of the post…]

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Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak, 1928-2012

Maurice Sendak, a literary giant whose works impacted children of all ages (even the grown ones), died today at the age of 83, due to complications that arose from a recent stroke. I write a lot about “essential” books that every child should have in their home library, but, when I look at my past posts, I realize that I haven’t written that much about Sendak and I think I know why. I think I sometimes forget to mention Sendak or recommend his books, because it just seems like a foregone conclusion to me that EVERYONE knows that you MUST read Maurice Sendak. They don’t need me convincing them to pick up a copy of Where the Wild Things Are or In the Night Kitchen. There is something – or there SHOULD be something – just imprinted in our animal DNA that draws us to Sendak’s works. We recognize the emotions, the expressions, the empathy that are all clearly apparent on the faces of his characters and we connect to them on a deeply resonant level.

Where the Wild Things Are

My daughter, at age 1 1/2, at the Maurice Sendak exhibit at Philadelphia's Please Touch Children's Museum. You might recognize this image from the header of this blog.

I keep mentioning that The Phantom Tollbooth was the first book that I ever bought for my daughter, but, what I don’t mention is that I didn’t have to buy her a copy of Where the Wild Things Are because I already had a copy, a copy that I’d bought for myself. As I prepared to leave home for the first time to head for college, for whatever reason, after I was done buying myself bedsheets, a TV, and a computer, I bought myself a hardcover edition of Where the Wild Things Are to keep in my dorm room. And I don’t really know why. Maybe it was something to help me remember my childhood. Maybe it was the equivalent of a literary security blanket. Maybe I was hoping to look deep to college girls and subtly let them know that I was ready to let the “wild rumpus start.” But, my strange motivations aside, I think it says a lot that I couldn’t picture living alone, in my own living space for the first time in my life, without a copy of Where the Wild Things Are ready and available to me whenever I needed it.

That’s the real magic of Sendak. He has so woven his stories into our collective unconscious that it now seems bizarre that there ever were generations in the past that didn’t have Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, or Outside Over There available for their children. While I’m happy that the world will always have his books to cherish for eons to come, I’d admit, it does feel very strange to no longer have the man himself, creating new and vibrant works and constantly reminding children to “Live your life, live your life, live your life.”

As a small tribute to the memory of the great man, I assembled this brief collection of videos that, I think, do a nice job of really showing the universal impact, importance, and grand, unfettered joy of Maurice Sendak and his wonderful works. He will be missed.

Tell Them Anything You Want is a fantastic 40-minute documentary on Sendak assembled by Spike Jonze and Lance Bangs, which was released to accompany Jonze’s 2009 big-screen, live-action version of Where the Wild Things Are. This is long, but beautiful – with some wonderful interviews with Sendak himself. [UPDATE: Earlier today, I embedded a link to a full version of Tell Them Anything You Want on YouTube. That link has since been removed due to a copyright claim. In its place, until they take it down, I present this still-pretty-cool, 5-minute excerpt from the documentary.)

Anyone who ever debated Sendak‘s cultural importance should watch this great video of President Obama reading Where the Wild Things Are at the 2009 White House Easter Egg Roll.

A longer excerpt of some spirited interviews with Sendak talking about his life and career, which is taken from a DVD released by the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia, which is the “sole repository of the original artwork of famed author and illustrator Maurice Sendak and a foremost authority on all things Sendak.”

Anita Silvey, the children’s lit expert behind one of my favorite websites, The Book-a-Day Almanac, gives a wonderful overview of Maurice Sendak‘s personal history and literary career. This is a nice introduction to Sendak for those who don’t know much about the man behind his famous works.

[read the rest of the post…]

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The Monster at the End of This Book

One of the most essential kids' books of all time... seriously

I’ve mentioned several times (probably too many times) on this blog that the very first book I bought for my daughter was The Phantom Tollbooth. But, dear readers, do you know what the SECOND book I ever bought for her was? It was The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone and Mike Smollin.

So, with the entirety of children’s literature in front of me, why did I choose to purchase a Sesame Street book, a book based on a TV show,  as the second foundational text of my unborn daughter’s home library?

It’s a simple answer – The Monster at the End of This Book is an AMAZING book. It’s a groundbreaking book. In my humble opinion, it is one of THE greatest read-aloud books ever written, it is one of the best “books about books” in the history of literature, and, personally, I have a hard time of thinking of more than a few other titles that do such an effective job of showing kids how breathtakingly FUN reading a book can actually be. And, yes, it’s a book about Grover, a small blue puppet from TV. It’s freakin’ great.

The Monster at the End of This Book was the first “meta” book I ever remember encountering as a child. I know hipsters throw around the word “meta” almost as frequently as they line up for overpriced brunches, but, for the rest of you, a good working definition of “meta” is: “a term, especially in art, used to characterize something that is characteristically self-referential.” In other words, The Monster at the End of This Book is a book that is wonderfully aware that it is, in fact, a book. And that’s a really, really fun and potentially mind-blowing concept to introduce to a young reader.

The Monster at the End of This Book

This book might have my favorite typography of all time

The lead character, Grover – lovable, furry old Grover – is one of Sesame Street‘s friendly monsters and, as the star of this “meta” picture book, he can talk to the readers, he knows that we’ll be turning pages… unlike most characters in children’s literature, he is fully aware that he is a character in a book and he understands the mechanics of reading books. He knows that, in the act of reading a book, we as readers turn pages until we get to the end of the book. And that’s a problem for Grover because, in his post-modern “meta” world, he was able to read the title of his own book and he now knows that “there’s a monster at the end of this book.” And poor old Grover is afraid of that monster and, to prevent us from ever encountering the rumored beast, he wants us to stop reading RIGHT NOW.

That sounds like such a simple idea, but it’s as complexly absurd as anything Lewis Carroll ever proposed in any of his Alice books. Who ever heard of a character asking you to stop reading their book? And he’s not just asking you – he’s BEGGING you. Grover realizes that, every time you finish reading a page and turn to the next one, you are bringing him that much closer to this so-called monster. So there is this tangible countdown, this almost inherent drama at the core of The Monster at the End of This Book, in which, more than in reading almost any other kids’ book, you are in-your-face AWARE that you’re moving towards SOMETHING. And, by asking us to stop reading, Grover has ensured that any curious kid worth their salt absolutely MUST reach the end of this book. [read the rest of the post…]

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Yes, the books from the 1980s Sesame Street Book Club are cool, they remind me of the heyday of Jim Henson and Sesame Street, and they’re an amazing value for your dollar. BUT, with all that said, my favorite thing about the Sesame Street Book Club might be this disclaimer that ran on the back covers of most of the books.

Sesame Street Book Club Disclaimer

So great...

That’s right:

Children do not have to watch the television show to benefit from this book.

I don’t know why that sentence tickles me to my core, but it does. It just seems so earnest and idealistic. Can you imagine picking up a Spongebob Squarepants, Scooby Doo, or Clone Wars easy reader at a bookstore and seeing a disclaimer on the back that says, “Hey, if you haven’t seen the cartoon, no worries. We tried to make this a great standalone book anyway”?

It would NEVER happen. Most of those spin-off books are basically just advertisements for their source material. OR they’re just simplified summaries of movies or TV shows. (Some of them “simplify” their summaries to such an extent that they’re virtually illegible unless you’ve already seen the movie, watched the show, played the video game, etc.)

But, bless their hearts, the creators behind the Sesame Street Book Club titles weren’t just trying to create another ancillary revenue stream. They were, honestly and truly, trying to make engaging, exceptional kids’ books. They were trying to tell stories, teach the alphabet, and help kids learn, first and foremost, and the fact that the characters came from a popular TV show was just icing on the cake. Yes, I’m sure money was made and the corporate side of the Children’s Television Workshop was anxious to get some books out there for parents to purchase, BUT they didn’t let their quest for the almighty dollar completely drive their content strategy. The Book Club could’ve just tossed out cheap transcripts of popular Sesame Street sketches – The Rubber Duckie Song: The Book or These Are the People in My Neighborhood: The Reader. Instead, they actually decided to TRY – they chose to try to make some really smart, educational books, even though they didn’t have to. And that’s admirable.

It’s a little disturbing how strange that idea seems in the current age of platform synergy and leveraging content assets, but it gives me yet another excuse to indulge in my nostalgia for vintage Sesame Street arcana, so I’m just going to look at that beautiful disclaimer, think about Mr. Hooper, and smile.

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Sesame Street Book Club: A My Name Is Annabel

Sesame Street Book Club: A My Name Is Annabel

I’ve made a lot of mistakes while trying to build a library for my daughter. I bought a lot of “classics” that I’d never read before, only to discover that neither my daughter nor I particularly enjoyed them. I purchased a big stack of 300-page Disney storybook collections from an outdoor Borders’ bargain table, thinking I was getting a deal, only to discover that being forced to read a barely literate retelling of Beauty and the Beast20 times in a row to a mildly-addicted 3-year-old just isn’t worth a 70% markdown. And I spent way too much time picking out titles that I personally found cheeky and clever rather than, you know, trying to figure out what a kid might actually like to read. I’ll totally admit it – mistakes were made. And I continue to make mistakes on an almost weekly basis.

But, every now and again, I lucked into making one or two tremendously awesome decisions – decisions for which I still occasionally pat myself on the back. At the top of that list is my decision to buy a whole lot of 1980s Sesame Street Book Club books on eBay.

Parents – you need to buy some of these titles for your kids. They’re perfect for children ages 2-5 (they make nice early readers for older readers too), they’re fun and engaging, they’re (for the most part) extremely well written, and, here’s the best part, they’re usually cheap. Honestly, you can normally find whole lots of Sesame Street Book Club titles on eBay at a cost of $1 to $2 per title (if not less). Any home library worth its salt is going to include some percentage of used books, and these books – both economically and creatively – are the deal of the century.

Sesame Street Book Club

Our house is covered in Sesame Street Book Club titles...

If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s probably because it’s been out-of-print for years. There isn’t a ton of information on the 1980s Sesame Street Book Club online – the best resource is this page on the Muppet Wikia, which does a fantastic job collecting information on the series. The very cool Dad Aesthetic blog also did a nice write-up of the series, summarizing it thusly:

The Sesame Street Book Club was a series of mail-order hard cover books for young readers released in the early 1980s. This collection of 62 books forms an excellent library of bedside reads for toddlers and young elementary students. The books cover a range of basic conceptual themes (The Sesame Street Circus of Opposites), vocabulary (Don’t Forget the Oatmeal!), math (The Count Counts a Party) and social skills (Molly Moves to Sesame Street). However, the observational and life-learning topics sit the best with my toddler. Those include Farley Goes to the Doctor, The Twiddlebugs’ Dream House, When I’m as Big as Freddie and The Case of the Missing Duckie. [read the rest of the post…]

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