Tuesday mornings I meet two kindergarteners from the special-education program and read aloud to them in a corner of the school library. I pull books quickly from the easy-to-read shelves, trusting serendipity, and we consume six or eight titles in thirty minutes. One of the books I grabbed without realizing it was an early effort by a friend in New York City, Fran Manushkin – Hocus and Pocus at the Circus (1983), with pictures by Geoffrey Hayes.
I sat cross-legged on a rug shaped like a Mercator map of the globe and the boys sat facing me. They have speed-freak attention spans but focus when someone reads aloud, especially with funny voices and sound effects. We sped through a couple of Tana Hoban picture books, a Dr. Seuss knock-off, something about an old man dragged around town by a puppy on a leash, and others before finishing with Fran’s book, part of Harper & Row’s “An I Can Read Book” series.
Hocus and Pocus are sister witches. The former is “mean and nasty,” the latter a good-natured baby not successful at being like her sister. At the circus she casts a spell on the clowns and turns the balls they’re juggling into puppies. It’s a theme familiar from folk and fairy tales – the inept apprentice who does good in spite of herself. Like most kids, the boys enjoy blunders and silliness. They identified with the younger witch and secretly enjoyed, I think, the mean and nasty one. Badness is attractive when safely buffered by nonsense and ink. At the end Pocus conjures a giant ice cream cone for her sister. The story concludes:
“And they flew home by the light of the Halloween moon.”
The boys loved it. The quieter one asked to hold the book. He turned to the last page and stared at the sisters on their broomstick. The older sister holds her oversized ice cream cone. The quiet kid said, “I like her,” pointing at the little sister, and then put his face on the page, loudly pretending to eat the cone.
The best essay I know on bewitchment by books is Guy Davenport’s “On Reading” (The Hunter Gracchus, 1996), in which he writes:
“The world is a labyrinth in which we keep traversing familiar crossroads we had thought were miles away, but to which we are doomed to backtrack. Every book I have read is in a Borgesian series that began with the orange, black, and mimosa-green clothbound Tarzan brought to me as a kindly gift by Mrs. Shiflet in her apron and bonnet.”