Party with the Parts of Speech: The Infant’s Grammar by Elizabeth Ham

In 1945 Eric Gillett published an unfinished manuscript of memoirs by Elizabeth Ham (1783-1859), the daughter of a yeoman under the title Elizabeth Ham by Herself 1783-1820.   Gillett somewhat condescendingly said the vivid account of the woman’s experiences was appealing because of “her struggles to make a life of her own, to be of use to someone.  Without training or business ability, but with educational and literary gifts above the average, ….and desperately conscious of her gentility, she was badly handicapped from the beginning.”

Ham made this all too clear in the stories she told on the mistresses of the dame and boarding schools she attended and the following horribly comic one underlines best just how irregular the quality of discipline and instruction for girls could be during this period:

The great punishment was to have a bow of black ribbon pinned on the sleeve.  I remember having a great dread of the “black knot,” and having one morning incurred the punishment, roared out most lustily.  As ill luck would have it, my cousin was strolling near and hearing the outcries of her darling, rushed in to the rescue.  She caught me under the arms to bear me away, but Aunt Sukey’s authority was not to be so condemned, she seized me by the heels whilst my cousin kept fast hold of my shoulders.  I really though I should be pulled to pieces between them.  I well remember the enflamed visages of the ladies as they tugged at me.  Their passion frightened me more than the black knot had done.”

It is to Elizabeth Ham’s credit that in spite of experiences like these (or perhaps because of them), she succeeded in composing an instructive poem for children that was informative, imaginative, and infused with gaiety: The Infant’s Grammar, or A Pic-nic Party of the Parts of Speech (1824).  She may have been familiar with the poems Donelle Ruwe has called “papillionades,”   whose depiction of the different kingdoms of creatures trying to outdo the others with splendid entertainments, were supposed to delight their readers into learning something about the range, classification, and character of the various costumed animals making their entrances, dancing, and enjoying the  dainties served at the midnight supper.  Famous examples are William Roscoe’s The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast (1806), or Catherine Ann Dorset’s 1807 companion pieces, The Peacock at Home  and The Lion’s Masquerade,Ham’s sociable parts of speech, who are not competing with rival concepts, throw a “pic-nic,” which then referred to what we would call a potluck, where all the guests contribute something to the feast.  However, Ham says nothing about the refreshments being a communal effort.  The event takes place indoors at Etymology Hall during the evening, not during the day in the open air, additional confirmation that the word’s meaning was in flux. Ham was not pleased with the liberties Harris’s illustrator (possibly Robert Branston) took here and there interpreting her verses.  Probably the most notable discrepancy is he changed the season from winter to summer and time of day from night to the day.  Yet the article “The” shown above  bears an entirely superflous  torch to light the guests way in. 

While Ham conceded that the illustrator had improved her original drawings in some places, she did not approve of his having costumed her characters in “fancy dress” inspired by the current vogue for Elizabethan fashion. Another addition that might have irked her was the insertion of  a tragedy queen center stage between Harlequin and the graceful dancer, for which there is no hint in the text.  She appears to have been modelled upon the actress Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth, one of her most celebrated roles.Ham speculated the anonymously published poem, for which she received nothing,  had sold well enough over thirty years to have provided her with a modest financial independence. With that money she could have escaped her fate as an unmarried, genteel female, turning governess or housekeeper for wealthy families to earn her bread.  This could be either wishful thinking or anecdotal knowledge based on her having kept a sharp eye on the contents of booksellers’ shelves.   I have found an advertisement in an 1845 novel for an edition published by Harris’s successor, Grant and Griffith, that is later than anything found by Marjorie Moon, the bibliographer of Ham’s publisher John Harris.  It’s not idle speculation to imagine that the Infant’s Grammar of Ham might have been sold as a companion piece to the equally charming  Punctuation Personified; or Pointing Made Easy by Mr. Stops (below to the right), which was also first issued by Harris in 1824.

She surely would have been very angry to learn that another contemporary woman writer for children, Madame Leinstein, quickly produced plagiaries of both The Infant’s Grammar  and Punctuation Personified for Harris’s rivals, Dean & Munday and A. K. Newman and Co. later in 1824 to capitalize on their success.  Leinstein (about whom nothing is known)  dubbed her version of The Infant’s Grammar The Rudiments of Grammar  and only a page-by-page comparison of the two pamphlets can establish the literary theft.   In  Leinstein’s text, the school mistress Miss Syntax takes her scholars to a country fair, which seems quite different from Ham’s picnic of the parts of speech.  But the school’s facade and the two children in frontispiece to Leinstein have some suspicious similarities to the illustration of Etymology Hall in Ham..Is it a coincedence that Leinstein’s nouns are arrayed in Elizabethan finery and accompanied by an explanatory text very similar to Ham’s?  This is probably the most blatant of a series of borrowings:Leinstein’s page on the interjection is a clumsy adaptation of one of the best sections in the Infants Grammar .  Where Ham skilfully brings the party to a close with the poor housemaid  looking at the mess the merry parts of speech have left behind them,  Leinstine guests, Leinstein tacks on a superflous episode about Miss Syntax’s students relieving a poor girl.For Ham, who dreamed of an independent income,  Leinstein’s imitation surely would not been flattery, had she been aware of it.  Leinstein’s attempt to cut into her sales surely would have another bitter reminder of money she had lost. Well-a-day indeed…

Picture Books for Coping with the Pandemic

An obvious advantage of self-publication is a quick turnaround time: a writer can respond to rapidly shifting social currents faster than with a trade publisher, who may be reluctant to move quickly on a subject whose relevance may wilt within weeks or months.  A full-service self-publishing outfit like Zuri Book Pros, for example, offers an author plenty of options for the book’s look and feel.  Depending upon the desired illustration style, the $40-60 per page charge includes layout, unlimited changes, and no royalty fees.   A flurry of picture books explaining the concept and practice of social distancing, the necessity of wearing masks, and the challenges of on-line learning entered the marketplace of ideas in May via self-publication and they can be identified on the final page with the colophon “Made in the U.S.A.” with the date of printing in Middletown, Delaware (most often), which may indicate printing on demand at an Amazon facility.

Another reason many authors like self-publication is greater control of self-promotion on an Amazon store,  YouTube channel, and social media accounts, on top of the more traditional methods of an illustrated series list or author bio prominently placed within the book.  Several of these timely titles are the latest additions to well-established series featuring signature characters like  Little Spot, who helpfully reminds little distance learners about one of the most important things to do before an on-line class in the pamphlet on dos and don’ts of distance learning. The early childhood educator, Shondra M. Quarles (@eyeheartteaching), lists her award from the National Celebrity Educators and being selected as a finalist in the 2017 and 2018 Indie Author Award competition.  Artist and proud mom of two, Diane Albers tries to increase the instructional value of her “Inspire to Create a Better You” series by offering free “printables” and worksheets on her website on the final page of advertisements.  The slickest of the three is the MyDragonBooks.com. The creator Steve Herman reveals nothing about himself beyond a self-characterization as  “passionate about teaching children valuable social and emotional life lessons through his cute, fun, and relatable dragon children’s books.”   The merch has been thought through carefully: stickers, soft toys, audio and activity books, and art prints (no artists credited) plus bulk shipping for orders over $25.  Any visitor to the site can download for free a high-res coloring sheet, which the author encourages customers to return to him filled in with crayons.

The two most successful of this group of pandemic picture books—and by “successful” I mean are good reads and have a fair chance of  influencing children’s behavior for the better–are the most lively and life-affirming. Shondra M. Quarles’ No, Calvin! could only have been written by a teacher.  The twenty-five word text is brought to life by the Turkish illustrator Hatice Bayramogul ‘s pictures of Calvin forgetting all the rules his teacher is trying to drill into him.  He’s an energetic, exasperating little sweetie and when the mask finally goes on the right way, Calvin and his teacher flash heart-hands and she tells him that she loves him. Katie Sedmak recognizes the difficulty of teaching children to push down their natural desire to express affection by squeezing, kissing, and bouncing.  Her If You Can’t Bear Hug, Air Hug! is an adorable illustrated poem that models how to communicate friendship through laughter, listening, gift-giving, and smiling acted out by jolly,  even boisterous, animals.  The lion recommends, “If you can’t share snoring / Share roars,/ Chests puffed, manes fluffed, / We see who growls the loudest.”   The tough reality of social distancing is acknowledged with a light touch, while presenting the alternatives as proof of people’s capacity to adapt and to enjoy  it. 

School is Different this Year and That’s Okay co-authored by Susan Leininger and Julie Bair tries hard to normalize the extraordinary with reassurances that different solutions for different families and different reactions by different kids to the same circumstances is perfectly normal, which is true.  The happy  community of  birds and beasts are quick to see the upside of a year that promises to be anything but business-as-usual.  On-line shopping sure beats dragging the kids from store to the store for non-existent packs of toilet paper.   The mice mask, the giraffes do not, and it’s all cool.   Unfortunately, the authors’ depiction of a complete and easy-going tolerance within the community hits a false note when over the summer we have all learned how quickly the act of mask-wearing could be politicized and used as a divisive symbol of political affiliation.   

Steve Herman, the creator of the My Dragon Books series, takes a stricter approach to training children the way they should go, as demonstrated by his young dragon whisperer Drew.  His hapless pet Diggory Doo looks like a cross between a rhinoceros and some species of dinosaur, not a miniature menacing Smaug sleeping on a mountain of glittering ill-gotten gains.  Diggory is a creature to whom Drew can quite sharply order not to torch his mask accidentally, finger sternly raised.. (Herman failed to take it into consideration that Diggory’s compliance with Drew’s prohibition would require the fire-breathing pet to hold its breath the entire time it was masked.) Poor old Diggory gets in more trouble for coveting his friend’s  smart face-covering so much that he suggests a swop (a complete non-starter) and for giving Drew a mighty snap in the face with a mask cum sling-shot.   Eventually  the miserable beast confesses how much he hates wearing a mask and tearfully concedes that he will try to be a good sport and wear it because Drew tells him to, but  he still doesn’t understand why.  After Drew patiently explains it all to Diggory. he realizes that by wearing the mask, he is nothing less than a public health superpower and is inspired to contribute to the cause of containing COVID-19.

Lucy’s Mask by Lisa Sirkis Thompson builds to the same realization, but tries to engage the little reader’s moral sense through the main character’s imaginative flight about all the exciting things she can be as soon as her mother finishes making her a mask.   It takes just a few words from her mother to convince Lucy that she will be playing a much more important role than an ordinary superhero when she wears a mask that covers her mouth instead of her eyes.   Off they go in their masks to visit Grandmother while keeping them all safe.  That is a kind of everyday heroism we can all  emulate…