The Universal Notebook: Grampy reads 'Gumpy'

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One of the great joys of having grandchildren – three and counting – is that I get to read to little kids again. Our living-room bookcase is stuffed with board books, picture books, and chapter books going back to our oldest daughter’s infancy more than 30 years ago. Come to think of it, there is even a handful from my childhood.

My mother tells me that in the 1950s and 1960s parents didn’t read to their children as religiously as we did in the 1980s and our children do now, but I remember that she did read me Uncle Wiggily stories, bizarre little tales from the 1920s about a bunny-rabbit gentleman who lived with Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy, his muskrat lady housekeeper. Those stories had a big impact on me, not the least of which is the fact that a hollow stump bungalow is still my idea of home.

Two of our daughters’ favorite picture books – and now hands down our grandchildren’s favorites – are “Mr. Gumpy’s Motor Car” and “Mr. Gumpy’s Outing,” seemingly innocuous little picture books by English author-illustrator John Burningham. I have read the Mr. Gumpy so many times that they have fallen apart, been repaired and now replaced.

The simple charm of the Mr. Gumpy books is that they are so predictable. In the first, Mr. Gumpy goes for a drive in the countryside. Two children and a carload of animals go with him, it starts to rain, they get stuck in the mud, and then they go swimming in the river. In the second, Mr. Gumpy takes the children and animals out on the river in his punt, it tips over, they climb out to dry in the sun and then have a tea party. Both books end with Mr. Gumpy calling after his departing friends, “Come for a drive (ride) another day.”

I read the Mr. Gumpy stories making all the animal noises and the sounds of the old jalopy sputtering along, getting bogged down, and struggling out of the mud. But it’s not the sound effects that Jackson, 2, and Alda, 1, find so compelling that they ask Grampy to read Gumpy over and over and over again. At this point, both of my older grandchildren can finish any sentence in the books, no matter where I stop. I’m sure wee Islay, 7 months, will be able to do the same. She will already sit still to listen.

Little children love repetition. They can’t read, but they can memorize. They like connecting the sounds to the words on paper. They like knowing what comes next. And that repetition is how they acquire language. They are terrific listeners and there is no telling what’s going to go round and round in their busy little heads.

I have been fascinated, for example, that Jackson has seized upon a little exchange that occurred between him and his mother as a kind of semantic mantra. Hannah had hung a bunch of feathers up in a bathroom window. Jackson asked, “Mommy, why did you hang those feathers in the window?” Hannah replied, “To get them out of the way.” Weeks later, Jackson will haul that little dialogue out and start playing with it, saying it not only with different stresses and inflections but also in different voices, from whispers to screams and growls. To his delight, his mother will answer him “To get them out of the way” in whatever voice he is using. Often, the little linguistic call and response devolves into gibberish and laughter.

Alda, a.k.a. Ollie, latched on to a few words – and a situation – that made a big impression on her. Her Aunt Tess, our youngest daughter, came home one day, visibly upset that she had received a speeding ticket. Someone explained to Ollie, “Tessie is sad.” When playing on her own, “Tessie … sad” popped up so often thereafter that one day when Nora picked Ollie up after work, the day-care provider greeted her at the door to ask, “Who is Tessie? And why is she so sad?”

So, in the interest of furthering their intellectual growth, when the grandchildren arrive for a visit next weekend, we will pile into Grampy’s ratty old chair, snuggle down, and happily read Mr. Gumpy over and over and over again until one or all of us falls asleep.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.