Today I serendipitously found another quote to share. I’m a fan of author Mem Fox, and I just picked up her book Reading Magic (Harvest, 2001), for parents, teachers, and librarians, about the importance of reading aloud to children. She harangues us, humorously and in some detail, about the structure of a story that grips us, and how she picks the words she chooses to tell her stories. She writes:

If anything could be more important than the first line of the story, it’s the last line. If our story reading is as mesmerizing as it should be, the last line will be akin to the final amen at the end of a church service and will provide this kind of reassurance to the child: “Good-bye for now, go well, God bless you, take it easy, you’re safe with me, I love you very much, see you soon.”

When I heard Fox speak several years ago, she discussed this very topic, describing how she chose the words for her book Where is the Green Sheep? (Harcourt, 2004; illus. by Judy Horacek). When she read the passages from this book aloud, she did it slowly and hypnotically. “Here is the sun sheep. / And here is the rain sheep. / Here is the car sheep, and here is the train sheep. /[pause] But where is the green sheep?”

It’s a book I read to groups of babies and toddlers all the time now, and they love it. When you read this book silently, it doesn’t seem like much; when you read it aloud, though, in just the right, slow, foot-tapping rhythm, it’s close to perfect. Green Sheep is a gentle lull of rhythm and rhyme; it keeps asking, “but where is the green sheep?” And, so, where is it? The last lines: “Turn the page quietly – let’s take a peep… [pause] / Here’s our green sheep, fast asleep.”

When I heard Fox speak, she read excerpts from several successive versions of this book. She spent a lot of time making little changes in the wording, honing and sharpening each line. For all of us who love good picture books, it was a wonderful lesson in how putting the exact words together in exactly the right way can show us just how a few words can give each young listener the right feeling, like a hug, when a story ends.