What Do You Say, Dear?


Written by Sesyle Joslin, Illustrated by Maurice Sendak

HarperCollins, 1958

Awards:  Caldecott Honor

You are downtown and there is a gentleman giving baby elephants to people.  You want to take one home because you have always wanted a baby elephant, but first the gentleman introduces you to each other.  What do you say, dear?

The plot in a nutshell:  A number of whimsical scenarios are presented as examples of good manners in social situations

In my high school Biology class, we had to do a project about genetics, where we had to create a Punnett Square illustrating the possible inherited traits for some type of animal.  Our teacher said we could pick whatever we wanted to use for the subject, as long as the science behind the project worked.  So I used dragons, creating a square that showed the hereditary traits of pointed versus round wing tips.  Maybe I was remembering this book’s unconventional approach to teaching manners.

There are any number of books out there that can tell you to thank someone who holds the door for you or to apologize if you’ve hurt someone’s feelings.  It’s an important subject, but author Sesyle Joslin brings an original take on it by placing her characters in absurd situations, since manners are appropriate all the time.  Add in the outstanding artwork of Maurice Sendak and this book is sure to be a favorite of anyone who likes their lessons on the fun side.  Sure, you can tell someone that it’s important to say “No, thank you” when offered something they don’t want.  But isn’t it more fun to show them that it’s also the proper thing to say if Bad-Nosed Bill shows up and offers to blow a hole through their head?

Ah, the good old days, when people carried baby elephants around with them.

Ah, the good old days, when people carried baby elephants around with them.

Yeah, and on that subject…a quick Google search showed me plenty of criticism of the violence and sexism in this book.  I’ll spare you the soapbox and simply say that this book is from 1958 and things that are controversial now were not such a big deal.   Personally, if I was in danger of being eaten by a dragon and a knight showed up to lop his head off, I would not accuse him of male chauvinism.  I’d simply thank him.  But maybe that’s because I read this book and have good manners.

And, incidentally, the proper response to the question posed in the opening quote above is, “How do you do?”

And what did we learn?  What I take away from this book is that no matter how ridiculous a scenario you find yourself in, there’s always time to be polite.


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