Learning Table Manners Can be Hilarious!

Of all the rules of life’s road we learn, table manners are probably among the most valuable.  A meal is a social situation where the participants are mindful that curbing self-expression makes for a more pleasant occasion.  However, a small person in a high chair next to the table may be present, so everyone else must stifle their heartfelt wish to be enjoy their meal in peace and quiet a safe distance away.  But how to teach the small person that flinging pureed peas from a spoon makes a disagreeable mess no one wants to clean up while the lemon chicken grows cold?  Some public-minded picture book artists have ridden to the rescue by pairing clearly expressed standards with funny illustrations.

Diane Goode’s inspiration for Mind Your Manners! (2005) was The Child’s Spelling Book (4th ed.: Hartford: Increase Cooke & Co., 1802), which includes a section of thirty-five explicit prohibitions for good behavior at meals, such as “Throw not any thing under the table” or “Take not the salt with a greesy knife.”  Goode puts courtesy into action by imagining that a well-mannered family has accepted an invitation to dine at the Abbotts.  She teases a narrative out of a cleverly chosen sample of prohibitions that demonstrate how the Abbotts cheerfully embarrassed their guests. The dining room table extends across the double-page spread, which provides ample room to show the various things four adults, four children, two dogs and one cat ought not have done that evening.

Dinner is well underway.  On the left, Mr. Abbott and his son are shouting over their guest, who, with a pained expression on her face, remains silent, remembering the rule that “If thy superiors be discoursing, meddle not with the matter; but be silent, except thou art spoken unto.”  On the right, Mrs. Abbott is holding forth even though she should know that polite people “Drink not, nor speak with any thing in thy mouth.”  On the floor there is a stand-off between the spaniel and the cat, who don’t care that they are breaking the rule “Stare not in the face of any one (especially thy superiors) nor fix thine eye on the plate of another.”

The puzzle picture with a test is central to the pedagogical strategy of the husband and wife team Caralyn and Mark Buehner (she’s the writer, he’s the illustrator) in It’s a Spoon not a Shovel (1995).  Each full-page illustration shows a set of characters negotiating sticky social situation.  On the facing page, the problem is posed as a question with three possible answers.  After choosing the one he or she thinks is best answer, the reader can check to see if the letter he chose is hidden in the picture, along with teeny pictures of a dinosaur, rabbit, cat, and bee just for fun.  Here is the dilemma of Wolfgang the Wolf when he introduces to his brothers his buddy Lambert the Lamb, who will be staying for dinner.

Should Wolfgang say:

a. “Lambert, this is Howler, Snarler, and Fang.”

b. “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!”

c. “Hubba Bubba!”

“Pleased to meet you,” Lambert bleats, and the very hunger wolves politely growl:

d. “Mother’s red pajamas.”

e. “Where’s the salt and pepper?”

f. “We’re so glad to have you for dinner, Lambert.”

If one fails to find the letter(s) of the right answers (and they are not very easy to find) there is a key with the locations of the letters in the pictures printed upside down on the final page.  Try the tailpiece if the previous picture stumped you.

For pure verbal and visual ingenuity, Table Manners, the edifying Story of two Friends whose Discovery of good Manners Promises them a glorious Future ( 2001) by Chris Raschka and Vladimir Radunsky, takes the cake. The two friends are Chester, the tall, thin, green-complexioned alter ego of Rashka, and Dudunya, the squatty, slow-witted, round-faced orange fellow who channels Radunsky.

The process of civilization begins when Chester gently, affectionately says to his smutty-faced friend,  “Dudunya, if I may say so, you look like a pig.”  Chester shows Dudunya that the importance of the place setting–plate, glass, and napkin–lies in its power to prevent a human being from eating like a wild animal.  With a knife and fork, it is possible to  divide a big baked potato into sixteen cubes  “small enough to fit into your mouth.”  Chewing is essential to good digestion, but not at the expense of spraying the members of your dear family with bits of candy sprinkles, bread crumbs, schwarma or drops of cream sauce.  “This,” notes Chester sagely, “I learned from my father’s father’s father.  One day you will pass this on to your children’s children’s children’s.”   But when Chester lays out of a schedule of meal times and what is typically served when, Dudunya is rapt: “Oh wow.  What a busy day of eating.”

The most critical question of them all is addressed in this colorful, dynamic double-page spread.   Provisions have been made at the bottom for the eater to select the sweet of her or his choice… 

Chester demonstrates how to eat messy foods like roast duck dripping with sauce without soiling his hands or shirt, but Dudunya needs a few more lessons before passing the test with flying colors (yes, this picture book also features a multiple-choice test to measure mastery).  Alas, he draws the wrong lesson from his education in manners, but luckily Chester sets him straight and prevents him from starvation!

How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea (2017) by Kate Hosford and illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska teaches something just as important as remembering that a spoon is not a shovel. The spoiled queen goes around the world in search of the best of the best, when she can no longer tolerate the slop being offered her at breakfast.  It turns out that it is not the method of making the tea that matters, although she enjoys the cups of tea Noriko in Japan, Sumil in India, and Rana in Turkey brew using completely different equipment and recipes.  The queen takes the secret back home with her and invites her new friends to a royal tea party.

The truly charming and not alarming person knows that extending warm hospitality to the people around the table will make them feel more welcome than the most exquisite tea served in the most beautiful china cup with pinkies up!

 

Marks in Books 10: Sibling Stand-off in a Copybook?

Cotsen in process 7014153.

Cotsen in process 701453.

Don’t judge this copybook by its spotted vellum boards.  It looks anything but promising, but it is worth a careful look.    Elizabeth Harris, who may have lived in South Molton, Devonshire, filled it full of exercises for learning commercial arithmetic.  Her signature dated 1750 can barely be read on the front board (it is clearer in the photograph above than in person) and the headpiece in the second photograph above has the year 1749 written in the fish’s stomach.  Elizabeth did not sign and date the pages in her copybook like David Kingsley, so there is no telling how many months in each year she was copying out lessons.  She worked through the basic operations of arithmetic, troy and apothecaries weights, dry, liquid, and cloth measures, the rule of three, etc.  Someone must have felt it was important for Elizabeth to be well versed in arithmetic, probably so she would be capable of managing the family accounts when a married woman.

The title page, which is oriented landscape-wise, is the only one decorated with figures of pen flourishes.  The text inside the bird is not laid out perfectly and you can see that she had a little trouble squeezing in her name, the completion date, and the ownership rhyme which children frequently copied into their books, “Learning is better than House and Land, / For when House and Land are gone and spent, / Then Learning is most excellent.”

Cotsen in process 7014153.

Elizabeth didn’t fill up all the pages, leaving a short section of blanks at the end of the book.  At some point, someone–perhaps a brother–claimed possession of it.  Was she there to defend her property? Did she let him have it because she had no further use for it?  Was he much younger than she and simply helped himself?  There is no evidence that establishes when exactly this amusing page was written and who could resist imagining a scenario in which one child takes another child’s book?  The object then becomes a silent witness of  childhood experiences in the past. Assuming that the second owner was a boy is not, on the other hand, pure supposition.  Owner number two did not fill up the pages with lessons, but with transcriptions of a love song and a ballad and the latter is the same tale type about a cross-dressing heroine as the one in David Kingsley’s copybook.  The ballad copied out here stars a noble-born damsel from the Isle of Wight who traveled to France dressed as a man to find the lover her father sent away.

Cotsen 7146.

Cotsen 7146.

One child apparently appropriating a book from another (often with the same surname) is not unusual, so interpreting the scribbles as a manifestation of sibling rivalry rings true to one’s own childhood experience, with stories in children’s books, and constructs of gender.  But children may also mark up books to establish territory by calling attention to their presence in a world which doesn’t pay them enough attention. The boy who hijacked Elizabeth Harris’s copybook may have had something in common with the greatest exhibitionist in the Cotsen collection, Thomas Webb of Pulham, Norfolk, England, Europe, World (another traditional ownership formula).  He literally inserted himself in the story by putting his initials over all the pictures of its protagonist, Tommy Newton.   Subversion or self-assertion?