I read a book to my daughter today, cover to cover. Like me, she was hooked after a few pages, which, considering the book in question, is really lovely for a girl who just turned eight — and who, in only the past couple of months, has graduated from The Babysitters Club and Nancy Drew mysteries to Roald Dahl classics like The BFG and Danny, the Champion of the World.
The book I'd bought for her is James Thurber's "The Wonderful O" (1957). It's for kids who don't mind wordplay, references to Greek mythology, and a couple of Shakespeare jokes. I know that sounds both terribly hoity and suspiciously toity, but so what if a lot of it goes over their heads the first few times? They'll still enjoy the zany malevolence of the pirates who take over Ooroo Island and then try to ban the letter O from the language, much to the consternation of the forlorn Otto Ott.
For the politically attuned, the book is also a marvelous satire of lawmaking and officialdom — so silly and brilliant it does Lewis Carroll proud.
Halfway through The Wonderful O, the beleaguered citizens learn that, according to legend, there are four O-words that stand above all, words they must never let fall into disuse. At a secret meeting, they try to figure it out.
"Hope is one," said Andreus.
"And love," said Andrea.
"And valor, I should think," the old man said. And then they tried to find the fourth, naming courage, thought, and reason, devotion, work, and worship.
"None of these is right," said Andrea. "I'll know it when I hear it." And so, until the setting of the moon, they tried out words with O — imagination and religion, dedication and decision, honor, progeny, and vision. ... And they spent the rest of the night searching for the greatest, trying youth and joy and jubilation, victory and exaltation, languor, comfort, relaxation, money, fortune, non-taxation, motherhood and domesticity, and many anotherhood and icity. But Andrea shook her lovely head at every word the people said, rejecting soul and contemplation, dismissing courtship and elation, and many anothership and ation.
Do you know the elusive fourth word, the one that Thurber obviously held higher than any? I know I'm a sap, but I felt my eyeballs sting a little when the author reveals what it is. Click here for the answer.
If you know a precocious kid (8-13), do him or her a favor. But do yourself a favor first, and read The Wonderful O before you gift it. It's an enriching, inspiring bk.