Monday, August 27, 2007

The Boy Who Would NOT Go To School

Leaf, Munro. 1935. (reprinted 1963) The Boy Who Would Not Go To School: Robert Francis Weatherbee.

Today I am highlighting one of my childhood favorites. (I'm assuming it is the 1963 edition since that was the latest copyright year given. Although it could be early 70s.) The Boy Who Would Not Go To School is Munro Leaf's third picture book. It was published a year before his most-famous book The Story of Ferdinand. Written and illustrated by Leaf, it is a simple story of a boy named Robert Francis Weatherbee who absolutely refused to go to school no matter what his parents said. Here is how Leaf introduces us to our 'hero': This is Robert Francis Weatherbee, who was just like you and me when he was little--only his ears were bigger. His parents liked to imagine him growing up to be a fireman, a policeman, a sailor, or even the president of the United States. But young Robert didn't say a word. When the time came for him to go to school, his father gave him a book, his mother gave him a pencil, and the girl next door gave him an apple. They showed him where to go--the school was right up the road--but Robert Francis Weatherbee would not---WOULD NOT---go to school. And so the reader comes to the first parable:

One day Robert Francis Weatherbee went for a long walk all by himself way down a road that went through the woods. In and out, in and out he walked between the trees, until he was so tired and hungry he was ready to go home. But he learns that if you can't read the road signs, you can't know which way home is. (I liked how the sign posts read: "The Wrong Way" and "Home This Way"). Robert had to wait for his father to come find him. And he missed out on a tasty supper.

So the years pass, Robert grows bigger. (Although his ears are still rather large.) And one day Robert is sitting at home daydreaming about all the things he wants. Most of all he wants a pony with black and white spots. He feels that his uncle, who lives in the west, would send him a pony if he asked for it. But as he goes to get a pen and paper he realizes that it's hopeless. He can't write. He doesn't know how to ask his uncle for that pony after all.

The years really pass now. Robert is all grown up. And I mean ALL grown up. One day, Robert Francis Weatherbee was very hungry, and he asked his mother for a piece of pie. His mother told him to go out and get her ten apples, and she would make a whole pie all for him. So he went out to the orchard, where apples grow on the trees, to pick ten nice big red apples. But when he got there, he didn't get any because he didn't know how many apples are ten--because.....[drumroll please] Robert Francis Weatherbee could not count because he would NOT go to school. So he did not get even a little piece of pie this big.

But this time Robert has learned his lesson. He KNOWS that he made a big mistake all those years ago refusing to go to school. And he's finally ready to enter those classroom doors! So...Robert Francis Weatherbee WENT TO SCHOOL and he learned to read and to write and to count, and he had a good time. The last illustrations show a grown man sitting in a very tiny desk next to two children.

I think there were many things I liked about this book growing up. I liked the drawings. This stick-figure boy and his family. His big ears. The simple parables that were ever-so-obvious yet could cause giggles because we were smarter than Robert. And I liked the charming message that it's never too late to start. That learning is for a lifetime. That learning is for everyone. And I really liked how it was being hungry for an apple pie that made all the difference in the world. I think that is the part that stuck with me through the years.

Many books have been written since The Boy Who Would Not Go To School was published that are very similar. That highlight the benefits and joys of school days. But this one remains a favorite.


Mama Squirrel 12:12 PM  

(Found my way here through Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books)

As a homeschooling parent, this book sounds totally idiotic to me. I'm not blaming you for Munro Leaf's ignorance, but it's beyond me how someone can make a credible story out of the idea that even someone who doesn't go to school can manage not to learn to count to ten. (What were his parents doing during his toddlerhood? My kids could count to ten way before school age, and read too, if that matters.)

Of course it's true that many people...even those who DID go to school...reach adulthood without being able to read and write very well, and I think that spectre of being a very large person in a very small desk is what holds some of them back from getting literacy tutoring. Thanks, Mr. Leaf--not.

Mama Squirrel 12:13 PM  

And again--I didn't mean to be snarky at you at all, just at can-only-learn-in-school propaganda. Have a great weekend!

ChristineMM 3:26 PM  

Hi, I found you through Semicolon's Sat. Review of Books.

I liked your review. It probably was intended to scare kids into not dropping out of school, back then (pre-1950), dropping out of school in middle school and in high school was quite commonplace.

The book could be used today as pro-school propaganda for parents to read to children who are going to school and hate it or dislike something about going.

I'm a homeschooling mom whose kids were never in school, so I never used any of the many pro-school propaganda that is out there.

Becky 3:53 PM  

Mama Squirrel,

I didn't take offense. And Munro Leaf is long dead, so he doesn't take offense either. The book IS from 1935. Picture books were just beginning to be written and published. (I want to say that Millions of Cats, the first "real" picture book was around 1929ish???) Some have gone on to become classics and have stayed in print--like Munro Leaf's Story of Ferdinand--and others have stayed out of print for decades made brief reappearances and then gone back out of print. As was this little story. It hasn't been published since the early seventies. I doubt it ever will go back in print.

The thing with historical literature, looking back at titles from many, many decades ago--seventy-two years we're talking--is that different things were expected. Different goals. Different mindset. This book is didactic. The message isn't subtle. The message is go to school and be 'good' and grow up to do whatever you want. To get what you want, you need to be in school learning.

So it is a product of its time. I'm not denying that. And I'm not urging publishers to rush it back into print. You can of course make the argument that it is GOOD to let some books die. Or you could make the argument that some books are for nostalgic adults but not really *meant* to be shared with today's kids.


I certainly never saw it as an anti-homeschool book as a child. I never saw any title showing kids going back to school as an anti-homeschool title. Whether it's Charlie and Lola or the Berenstein Bears or Clifford or whoever. I've never made the connection--oh because the kids are going to a school 'school' then this book must be anti-homeschool...this book is a criticism of parents teaching their kids at home.

However, that being said. I don't remember many picture books showing parents homeschooling there kids. So maybe there is a lack in the field of children's literature that some writer and illustrator need to fill.

What I believe, what I truly believe, is that whether a kid is in school--be it private or public--or homeschooled, the parent(s) need to be engaged. I KNOW that much learning is done before a kid even reaches school age. As far as numbers, counting, letter recognition, knowing nursery rhymes, writing name, etc. And some kids even learn how to read before starting school. The librarian of my high school had a three year old daughter that could read--actually read--all by herself.

I have never seen one way as "better" than another. I see value in both. I have never been one to criticism homeschooling--I know a few homeschooling families, my own brother-in-law was homeschooled. To me the important thing has always been the LEARNING. Not the where of it all.

Becky 3:55 PM  

Just proofreading here, that should be criticize not criticism.

Anonymous,  1:34 PM  

I loved your review!!! This was one of my childhood favorites. My mother had this book and I would pull it out every once in a while to read it when I was little. We don't know what happened to the book and I've been wanting to find a copy of it. The only picture that I could remember was the last one with him sitting at the desk. But, as I read your descriptive review...all of the images of the illustrations popped in my head. So...thank you for that. Just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed it.

Anonymous,  8:46 PM  

I enjoyed your review on this book very much. I never owned this book until my mother-in-law passed it down to us for our girls. I think its a great book, and I was amazed at how it grabbed my 3 year old daughters attention the moment I started reading it to her. I see no harm in this book because if you are a parent that demonstrates learning in the early years then there shouldn't be any reason not to introduce these fun-loving stories.

Anonymous,  3:13 PM  

I loved this book as a child. My sister used to read it to me all the time. She would try to have me read it at times. But, I always enjoyed it when she would act out the scenes. Several years back I thought of this book and bought an old copy. Although worn over some 40 years, my sister recognized it right away. She smiled, gave me a hug and like an older sister said, "See, I was right about school wasn't I?" She is planning on giving this to her daughter when she has her first child. Best money I ever spent!

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