Saturday, October 16, 2004

Roaring Radishes

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Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes.
Margaret Atwood.
Toronto: Key Porter Kids, 2003.

Hailed on the inside cover as a “delightfully ridiculous” tale, Margaret Atwood’s Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes is a seemingly simple story with interesting illustrations by Dusan Petricic. Ramsay is a little boy whose friend is a rat. Together, they explore the rampart in which Ramsay lives. Ramsay learns valuable lessons about self-empowerment and improving his life.

The repetition of the letter “r” is frequent throughout and is found in both simple and complex words. The author does not condescend to define words or to insert age-appropriate words in the text. For example, Ramsay’s only friend is a “red-nosed rat, a rubicund rodent.” Ramsay himself resides in a “ramshackle rectangular residence” with three “revolting relatives.”

Negative feedback is predictable: the “r” becomes tedious (especially to parents who might have to re-read the book often). James Horner from Cancon: Books sums up this challenge:

The text feels more like a game-piece. The concept is stretched to breaking, the prose is overly redundant (even for a kid's book), and the diction is difficult and borders on incomprehensible to young kids. Sure, kids should be challenged to learn new words - and adults should be encouraged to read difficult books to children - but when every second word will require explanation, the function of the narrative breaks down. There are educational lessons to be found here, but most of them revolve around how to not write a kid's book.

Mr. Horner seems to become distracted by his own adult reactions and his criticism takes the discussion outside the genre of children’s literature. After all, the target audience is children (aged 4 to 8 years) and he prevents the participation of this audience in the book’s evaluation. In short, to consider the “function of the narrative” from the perspective of the adult is to miss the point.

In many respects, the challenge of the story lies in seeing beyond the immediate. We have to ask: in children’s literature, can the function of the narrative be secondary to the process of reading, of developing an interest in reading?

In an interview for MacLeans, Ms. Atwood seems to think it possible:

Books find their own readers. Always have, always will. And sometimes you read a book and you're not ready for it, and then a year later, you are. That's just what happens in life. I read Moby Dick at far too early an age, but it had great illustrations by Rockwell Kent, so I got stuck on it. I read it later and knew what it was about.

I read Animal Farm when I was way too young. I thought it was going to be a fun book, like The Wind in the Willows, about animals having adventures, and the tragedy, the ending and horror and grief and disappointment and disillusionment, oh, it was awful. So unfair. It is not a children's book. But I was never told not to read a book, so I just read whatever was around.

The author makes a good point. Why not encourage a child to ask a question or to run to a dictionary? For the younger set, why not teach the practice of reaching for a dictionary? Certainly, there is an inconvenience to the adult reader but, again, let us not forget the target audience.

As far as childhood language acquisition is concerned, it is possible that the repetition of the letter “r” encourages the development of metalinguistic skills such as recognition of the sound symbol relationship (between the letter “r” and the spoken sound /r/). Having books read aloud is important in pre-literacy preparation and in the older reader it could help to foster an interest in letters, in the written word.

There is, moreover, the thematic content to consider. This book drives home difficult realities through dialogue and setting. Ramsay does not have an ideal existence: his relatives are lazy, drunk, irresponsible and abusive; he does not receive adequate food from “retch-making recipes” and he lives in substandard housing with roaches and rats. He has a reputation — earned or not — as rude. He experiences loneliness and isolation.

There are several positive messages and the following promote self-empowering and self-defining attitudes:

Struggle to get beyond undesirable circumstances. A raggedy raven suggests to Ramsay that he try something new.

You might rove to the other side of the rampart…Relocate your inner realm! Revive your rapport with nature! Refreshment awaits you there!

Though Ramsay needs encouragement at first, Ralph the red-nosed rat convinces him with these words: “Resist restrictions!” which leads Ramsay to embark upon an adventure.

Being from the wrong side of the rampart does not have to determine behavour. Ramsay meets someone from the good side of town—someone who has overhead his relatives berating him with the label of “rude”— but Ramsay demonstrates a mannerly disposition: “Your request is my resolve,” he says with a "respectful gesture".

The messages and developmental benefits notwithstanding, there is one simple reason that this book should be on your shelf. In an unrelated article, Scholastic’s Language Development and Reading Specialist observes:

Young children love the sound of long and seemingly difficult words. Your child might suddenly blurt out that her friend's behavior is "ridiculous" or that the baby's diaper is "saturated." These instances of surprisingly sophisticated language use come from children's attention to, and interest in, the way adults use words to express precise feelings and reactions. So don't shy away from using words you think are over your child's head…

Margaret Atwood’s Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes promises to delight in this regard. The opportunity to experiment with seemingly silly language presents itself on every page.

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