My husband, a fellow librarian, is an avid collector of old photographs. Besides accidentally-creepy shadow pictures and fun-loving black-and-white photobooth moments, he is ever on the hunt for retro photos of people reading. From men in gray flannel suits perusing crisply folded newspapers to an image of a be-spectacled Grace Kelly doing her part to advance the “sexy librarian” stereotype, a collection of photographs of people engaged in an act of communion with the printed word strikes me as interesting, increasingly rare, and just ever-so-slightly subversive.
While not a serious collector myself, I covet photos with children curled up with a great book. It was just such a photograph, purchased on eBay, that sparked the hunt for Snoozey and my subsequent investigation into what could be one of the earliest easy reader books. A veritable missing link in the evolution of the modern beginning reader.
I submit for evidence, Exhibit A:
A young boy, circa 1930s or 1940s, seemingly engrossed in one of the books from his ducky-shelf of children’s literature. Of all the books in his collection, he chose this one for posterity.
Let’s take a closer look:
I like to imagine the moments leading up to the shuttersnap. This young reader couldn’t have known that one day his photo would wind up at some yard sale, to be placed in an online auction (I enjoy imagining a time-travel fantasy in which I meet this young Snoozey-reader and attempt to explain eBay), then purchased by an odd librarian with a fondness for retro ephemera, and finally digitally transferred and uploaded onto the internet for the entire world to view. He might have, however, imagined that his mom or dad would place this photo in a family album or perhaps mail it off to grandma. So, who is this Snoozey character and what could have been so special about that particular book that this young reader chose to immortalize it?
Worldcat lists only one title, Surprise for Snoozey, with two publication dates, the first in 1944 and a reprint in 1954. No cover image is included in the record. Is this the Snoozey he’s reading? If so, which one? The 1944 or 1954 version?
Luckily, eBay was able to assist yet again. We found a Surprise for Snoozey on sale for a few bucks. About two weeks later, I opened a cushioned package to find:
Oh. Well, it was a Snoozey book, but clearly not the same Snoozey that the young boy is reading. Darn.
Maybe Novelist has a listing. Nope. Wikipedia? Nada. Plain old Google search? Nothing I didn’t already know.
Wait, what’s that in the corner?
Ah. A clue! Next, I tried searching for “tell-a-tale books.”
It turns out that Whitman Publishing Company, producer of the Tell-a-Tale series, was a subsidiary of Western Publishing. And if that means very little to you, as it did to me at first glance, perhaps you will be impressed by their other line of books for young readers, the Little Golden Books.
Perhaps it’s not the exact book young Snoozey-fan was enjoying, but let’s take a gander inside nonetheless.
The text reads:
SNOOZEY is a funny pup.
Before he gets up,
The children call,
Before SNOOZEY opens his eyes.
Just like this-
Huh. This looks and reads suspiciously like an easy reader. But that can’t be, right? I mean, everyone* knows that besides the gruesome tales of Sally, Dick, and Jane, the first real easy readers were not published until the golden year of 1957 in which both Cat in the Hat and Little Bear debuted and blew the minds of bored elementary school readers everywhere. (*And by “everyone” I mean those of us who have read K.T. Hornings’ From Cover to Cover literally from cover to cover until we can recite passages on evaluating typeface from memory. You know, everyone.)
Could it be that a decent easy reader existed after the Dick and Jane books but before Dr. Seuss and Else Holmelund Minarik penned their revolutionary tales of anthropomorphic cats and bears for the emerging readers of the late 50s? Could this Snoozey be, in fact, a missing link between the phonetically aggressive, excruciatingly cheerful, and unabashedly whitewashed world of Dick and Jane and the swinging days when a six-foot-tall cat incited children to revolt against parental authority?
1930’s 1940’s 1950’s
Could it be?
Let’s revisit K.T.’s criteria for evaluating easy readers (Chapter 6 of From Cover to Cover, for those of you playing along at home.) Easy readers should have:
- controlled vocabulary
- short sentences
- simple concepts
- pictures that appear on every spread
- illustrations that help clue in the reader to the words
- large typeface (usually about 18 points)
- a nice amount of white space between words and sentences and around illustrations
While not explicitly stated in the above criteria, many very beginning easy readers also employ a simple end rhyme scheme. Dr. Seuss readers famously make heavy use of rhyme, going so far as to make up nonsense words such as rink-rinker-fink and ga-fluppted.
According to K.T.’s guidelines, Surprise for Snoozey meets all easy reader pre-requisites. It’s got a neatly controlled vocabulary, a simple plot, complementary illustrations that help the reader comprehend the words and actions, lots of white space, and a nice-sized font.
Back to eBay. Another Snoozey book comes up for auction. This time, we wait with anticipation for that padded envelope to arrive. We open it to reveal:
Let’s compare again to the photo of our young friend:
Now I was on pins and needles: was Snoozey a series? What high-flying adventure would Snoozy embark on in this installment? I cracked the slightly basement-mold smelling cover to reveal:
So the mystery was solved. The first Snoozey we purchased on eBay was the 1954 version. We could now determine that the young boy in the photograph was proudly reading the original 1944 version, in which the cover illustration shows the aptly named Snoozey curled up in bed. Same book, different covers.
But the question remains: Is Surprise for Snoozey the easy reader missing link? Definitive proof that a not-terrible easy reader book existed before novelist John Hersey could declare in 1954 that primers (like Dick and Jane) were “abnormally courteous…..uniform and insipid?”
While Snoozey is no Little Bear and certainly no anarchist feline, he’s a few good notches above Dick and friends.
I like to imagine our young reader opening the pages of Surprise for Snoozey and encountering printed words like CHEW and SHOE and TOMATOES and POTATOES for the first time. I like to think that the ample white space, helpful illustrations, and rhyming words encouraged him to sound them out and read them aloud for the first time. I hope that he was awfully proud of himself. So proud, in fact, that when dad or mom got out the new camera, he set up his chair and bookcase, chose his favorite book and posed for us.