There are some books that are purportedly written for children — and may in fact look and sound the part, in terms of the ‘kid-friendly’ cover or simple language used — but in fact, they hold little or no appeal for them. It’s simple: we all seek to form connections with the books we read, and children are no exception; so if they can’t relate to a book’s content or are bored by it, they may sit through it once — if you’re lucky — but don’t expect them to ever want to read it again. If they’re written well enough, or cleverly enough, however, such books may find a more appreciative adult audience.
First published in 1952, A Hole Is to Dig is — not surprisingly, since it’s still in print after more than 60 years! — not one of those books described above. In fact, this little gem of a book — which measures just 18cm by 14cm — is the very definition (pun intended) of a true children’s book that speaks to — and for — them, written and illustrated by two people who really understand the mind of a child.
As the tagline of the book says, this is “a first book of first definitions”, so there is no story to speak of. Lest you think this is some sort of dictionary, however, it’s not that either — the term “definitions” is used loosely here. Instead, what you get are deceptively simplistic associations of the purpose of things and people that are familiar to children, that manage to capture precisely the way in which a child makes sense of the world.
The wording of the text is deliberately direct and to-the-point — childlike but not childish — and every “definition” presented has a deep truth to it that celebrates the natural innocence and simple wisdom that can only come from children. This is a book that will grow on you the more you read it, and for grown-ups, serves as a grounding reminder about the simple truths in life. Of course, the book would in no way be as enjoyable without the quirky and surprisingly detailed illustrations by Maurice Sendak that give character and personality to the terrifically silly yet wise words of Ruth Krauss.
I hope this book stays in print for as long as there are children in the world.