Monday, April 6, 2009

The Wonderful James Thurber. . .

It's Monday and it's April and it's snowing in Toronto. We all need a good laugh. But have no fear, The Wonderful O is here!
Written by humourist James Thurber in 1957, this re-issue has just been published as part of NYRB's great line of children's classics, and if you need a good giggle, no matter what your age, I highly recommend this tale. The story concerns two pirates looking for treasure on the island of Ooroo. But Black, the "man with a ship", has had a hatred of the letter "O" ever since his mother got stuck in a porthole and had to be fatally pushed out. When the islanders prove uncooperative in helping them find the jewels, Black with the help of the devious lawyer Hyde, decides not only to ban all items with the letter "O" in them, but also forces the people to remove the o's from their daily speech. The results are hilarious and disturbing. Verbal misunderstandings are so common that neighbours have difficulty understanding each other and the linguistic challenges become increasingly obvious because Black has neglected to consider collective nouns, synonyms and the names of things in foreign languages.

"Taking a single letter from the alphabet, " he said, "should make life simpler."
"I don't see why. "[said Hyde]. "Take the F from life and you have lie. It's adding a letter to simple that makes it simpler. Taking a letter from hoarder makes it harder."

Thurber writes terrific prose that is great for reading aloud as he packs his narrative with playful and alliterative language. Great for vocabulary building (yes, even adults will need a dictionary close by, but I for one, never get tired of learning new words). It also has very topical things to say about censorship and as I was reading it, I was thinking that this story is more relevant to today's kids than when it first appeared. With the advent of obsessive texting, they are conditioned to remove vowels from their messages; kids will be able to decode the shortened words in this story far faster than their elders.
For more in this vein, also check out Thurber's The 13 Clocks which plays with the traditional fairy-tale narrative, and for teens, you can also recommend Mark Dunn's delightful epistolary novel, Ella Minnow Pea, about a girl living on the fictional island of Nollop where the town council starts banning letters of the alphabet. In order to save the day, she must find a sentence other than “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” that uses every letter of the alphabet. It too is a wonderful read.

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