As this is posted, it’s ‘Dr. Seuss Day,’ National Read Across America Day in the US. This annual event not only celebrates Dr. Seuss’ birthday and legacy, but also celebrates the joy of reading together. And that’s as it should be. Dr. Seuss’s work has had a major impact on children’s literature, on reading in general, and on literacy development. Chances are that you’ve had at least some of his work read to you, and/or you’ve read it to your (grand)children.
One of the things that makes Dr. Seuss’ body of work distinctive is the respect it shows for young readers. If you read it closely, it is often whimsical, but doesn’t condescend to children. Rather, Dr. Seuss appreciated young people’s imaginations, and part of the appeal of his work is that it celebrates that creativity.
There’s a lot we can learn from children, too. We certainly see that in life, and we see it in crime fiction. Skilled sleuths know that treating children with respect, and reaching them at their levels, often gets more answers than does either ignoring them or completely dismissing what they have to say.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes knows the value of treating young people with respect, and of listening to them. Fans of these stories will know that, more than once, Holmes gets valuable assistance from a group of young boys called the Baker Street Irregulars. Led by a boy named Wiggins, they serve as Holmes’ ‘eyes and ears.’ They’re mostly street children, and no-one pays very much attention to them. But Holmes does. He knows that they see things, and hear things, that others don’t. Their information is quite useful to Holmes, and he doesn’t make the mistake of being dismissive of it.
Most people probably wouldn’t think of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot as particularly fond of children. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t listen to them. In fact, when he does interact with children, Poirot is respectful; he knows that he’ll get more from listening to children than he will from ignoring them. In Dead Man’s Folly, for instance, a conversation with twelve-year-old Marylin Tucker gives Poirot some valuable information about why and by whom her older sister, Marlene, was killed. And in Hallowe’en Party, Poirot investigates the murders of thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds and her younger brother, Leopold. He finds that conversations with another young person turn out to be extremely useful in learning who killed these young people and why. And in both of these cases, Poirot listens, treats the children with respect, and speaks to them in ways they can understand.
Much the same could be said of Arthur Upfield’s Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte. In more than one of his cases, he interacts with children, and he’s found that listening to them, respecting them, and seeing the world the way they do is very helpful. For example, in Death of a Swagman, Bony is in the small town of Merino, looking into the death of itinerant stockman George Kendall. In order to find out everything he can, Bony goes undercover as a stockman, even arranging with Sergeant Marshall of the local police to be locked up for ten days on ‘vagrancy’ charges. During his ‘sentence,’ Bony meets Marshall’s daughter, Florence, who prefers the name Rose Marie. She’s not the reason for Kendall’s murder, but Bony finds that she has useful information. He treats her with respect, and the two form a bond that adds much to the story.
Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware is a psychologist whose specialty is working with children. So, he’s learned the value of listening carefully to what they say, and of interacting with them both respectfully and at a level they can understand. And in more than one case (I’m thinking, for instance, of When the Bough Breaks), he finds out very useful information.
In Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, we meet ten-year-old Kate Meaney. She’s a fledgling detective who’s even opened her own agency, Falcon Investigations. And she’s sure she can spot suspicious activity and solve/prevent crime. At the beginning of the story, she lives with her father, Frank, with whom she has a close relationship. He treats her with respect, and appreciates both her imagination and her creative, distinctive way of thinking. And, in his way, Frank encourages his daughter to follow her own path. But then, tragically he dies. Kate’s grandmother, Ivy, loves her very much, but thinks she’d be better off going away to school. So, she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at Redspoon, an exclusive school. Kate reluctantly goes to the school for the exams, but never returns. Despite an exhaustive search, no trace of her is found. Then, twenty years later, Kurt, a security guard at the mall Kate used to haunt, starts seeing strange images on his cameras. The images look a lot like Kate, and that’s unsettling. One night, Kurt meets Lisa, an assistant manager at the mall. Lisa used to know Kate, and eventually Kurt tells her what he’s seen. Slowly, the two go back to the past, you might say, and we learn what really happened to Kate and why.
Alan Bradley’s sleuth, Flavia de Luce, is eleven years old at the beginning of the series featuring her. She lives with her father and sisters in an old place called Buckshaw. One of the major influences in Flavia’s life is her father’s factotum, Arthur Dogger. Flavia knows that she can trust Dogger, who treats her with respect and listens to her. He takes her questions – and there are many – seriously, too. And, even though he has an adult’s maturity and experience, he’s not dismissive of Flavia’s ideas, even when they’re quite speculative.
And then there’s Jen Shieff’s The Gentlemen’s Club. It’s 1950s Auckland, and Rita Saunders has established herself both as a hairstylist, and as the owner of a gentlemen’s club, a not-well-disguised brothel. Things are going smoothly for her, but that changes when a ship from England docks. One of the passengers, Fenella Grayson, is escorting three orphaned girls who are to be placed at Brodie House, an orphanage that’s directed by a man named Lindsay Pitcaithly. It’s hoped that good adoptive homes will soon be found for them. Little by little, though, Rita begins to suspect that Brodie House is not all it seems, and that Pitcaithly may be involved in some sinister business. With the help of a recent immigrant, Istvan Ziegler, and another newcomer to Auckland, Judith Curran, Rita gets to the truth about Brodie House. And that involves talking to the three orphaned girls. This takes time and effort, and it requires listening to them, respecting what they say, and reaching them at their level.
And that’s something that Dr. Seuss was quite skilled at doing. He’s no longer with us, but his stories are. And for many millions of readers, that’s a very good thing.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michael Masser and Linda Greed’s The Greatest Love of All.