Somewhere and Everywhere
Lucy Sprague Mitchell, founder of the Bank Street College of Education, was sick of children’s books. She didn’t want didactic moral tales that told kids what to do, or mythological flights of fancy. Instead, she wanted children’s stories that actually showed children how to experience the world. In 1921, Mitchell published the Here and Now Story Book, stories for children written in direct language that helped readers learn through observation and discovery. Instead of just writing, “Henry looked up,” she believed, a story should say, “Henry threw back his head and looked up.” Children, Mitchell thought, should go through the story in real time, performing the same muscular actions as the storybook kids––monkey read, monkey do.
In 1938, before she’d become famous for Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny, Margaret Wise Brown was the first editor at Young Scott Books, a new publishing house that wanted to print the type of books Mitchell and Bank Street favored. Young Scott solicited manuscripts from writers of grown-up literature, hoping their picks might have a suitable kids’ book in them. Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck rejected the offer. But Gertrude Stein responded not only that she wanted to do it, but that she “had already nearly completed” the perfect book for the project.
The book is in the stream-of-consciousness style that had already become iconic Stein-ese: “Everywhere there was somewhere and everywhere there they were men women children dogs cows wild pigs little rabbits cats lizards and animals… Rose was her name and would she have been Rose if her name had not been Rose.” But the stream of consciousness isn’t meant to intimidate kids. In a press statement advertising The World Is Round, Stein gives the following advice to readers: “Don’t bother about the commas which aren’t there, read the words. Don’t worry about the sense that is there, read the words. If you have any trouble, read faster and faster until you don’t.” Stein has just given us permission to do the thing you always want to do with one of those enormous antique globes. Instead of squinting at the surface and diligently tracing a path from Estonia to Ecuador, you spin it round as fast as you can until the countries blur.