Sillier than Benjamin

Michael Chabon is not the only fan of Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire. As much as I loved the Greek and Norse myths they collected, retold, and illustrated, I loved their biographies. I still have my beautiful versions of them from childhood: large, lavishly illustrated hardback books, with vivid full-color lithographs on every page and lots text. I have George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Pocahontas, and Abraham Lincoln. I remember reading them over and over to myself when I was six or seven. Although she is only four, I have occasionally read them to my daughter.

When I do, I wonder what she makes of them. She’s so very little, what of these stories captures her imagination?

Well, I got a glimpse the other day when she saw a dollar bill lying next to her piggy bank on the changing table shelf.

“Mama, is that Benjamin Franklin?”

“No, honey, it’s not but that’s a very good guess. It’s George Washington and he was a friend of Benjamin Franklin.” (I wince inwardly at that “friend”, but how else to put it to a four-year-old? “Colleague” seems pretentious and equally inaccurate. “Ally”? “Compatriot”? How, really, to be articulate with her whilst changing her sister’s diaper?) “George Washington,” I add, “was the first President of the United States.”

“What was Benjamin President of?”

“Well, nothing, honey. He worked hard to make the United States into a country.”

“Well, I know someone who’s even sillier than Benjamin.”

?

“ABRAHAM LINCOLN! Can we read that book tonight?”

So we did. As I read along (it takes a good half hour to read the whole book aloud--and that is surely part of the appeal of these books for any child eager to stave off bedtime), I found the “silly” part: it seems that when Lincoln was a rapidly growing young man, his stepmother joked that she was perfectly able to mop the floors of his muddy footprints but he’d best keep his head clean as she was not tall enough to wipe the ceiling. So, to tease her, he took a muddy-footed young friend, held him upside down and had him make footprints across the ceiling. “Abraham, I ought to thrash you!” his stepmother said with a laugh. And then, good boy that he was, he got a bucket of whitewash and cleaned the ceiling for her.

Definitely sillier than Benjamin.