Author Spotlight

Riddles: Not Just Child’s Play

Lately I am often approached by unfamiliar ten-year-olds who have a singular purpose. I recognize their expression every time; it begins with a friendly smile, followed by a look of cunning, then a question: “Can I tell you a riddle?”

“Okay, what’s your riddle?” I reply.

And out comes the challenge: “What has four eyes but cannot see?” or “What has a mouth but doesn’t eat, a bed but doesn’t sleep, and runs but never walks?” Or perhaps it’s this one: “What does the poor have, the rich lack, and if you eat it you’ll die?”

It all began during my recent book tour. At the first school event, I threw in a few riddles because there are riddles in my novel. I really didn’t expect much of a reaction, but the enthusiasm from students was obvious. Kids love riddles.

Faced with this eureka moment, I suggested a riddle-making session, not expecting it to last longer then ten minutes. My first group of twenty-four students spent a solid hour working on them.

Riddles are playful and funny as we all know, but composing them is hard work. Try thinking of words with double meanings, or rhyming words then compose your clue question. It’s a challenging mental exercise.

It began to occur to me that riddles might be a rather potent reading and writing tool.

The Ancient Greeks knew this. Aristotle pointed out the link between riddles and metaphor. Riddles compel us to think about veiled meanings, allegories, and the flexible quality of our language. They challenge our wit, memory and verbal facility.

This doesn’t sound like child’s play, but I’ve yet to see a child turn down the opportunity. Perhaps it’s the pleasure of leaping from the literal to figurative or the simple joy of fooling a grownup!

Riddles are subversive, they ambush serious thinkers with trickery, and this is delightful to children. Take this common riddle for example: Constantinople is a very long word. How do you spell it? Imagine the thousands of adults who have spelled Constantinople only to be told by a youngster they’re completely wrong. The word to be spelled is it!

In a broader sense, you might think of riddles as mental athletics. They turn up in literature, mathematics, science, music and art. Shakespeare was fond of putting riddles and puns in his plays. The Dutch artist, M.C. Escher, was famed for his perplexing pictures of repeating staircases and interwoven birds and fish. Bach wrote the enigmatic Crab Canon, which plays the same note sequence forwards, backwards and in complement to itself; and then there’s Einstein’s riddle of the five houses.

So, if a child invites you to answer a riddle, be prepared! Have one of your own, ready. You’ll be doing your brain a favor!

Answers to the riddles:

  • What has four eyes but cannot see? Mississippi.
  • What has a mouth but doesn’t eat, a bed but doesn’t sleep, and runs but never walks? A river.
  • What does the poor have, the rich lack, and if you eat it, you’ll die? Nothing.

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Our guest blogger today is author, George Hagen. Mr. Hagen’s most recent novel is the middle grade fantasy, Gabriel Finley & The Raven’s Riddle. If you have a favorite literary/math/science riddle, send it to his contact page at GabrielFinley.com.

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at alscblog@gmail.com.

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