by Ruth Krauss, with illustrations by Maurice Sendak
“Mashed potatoes are to give everybody enough”; “toes are to wiggle”; “a party is to make little children happy.”
No dictionary ever had it so right. To read this slim little volume — “a first book of first definitions” — is to slip down the rabbit hole straight into a child’s sensical and wildly original view of the world.
In the 1940s, Ruth Krauss was a member of the Writer’s Laboratory at New York’s Bank Street School, a place that was gaining a reputation for experimental ways of teaching children and writing for them, much of it grounded in simply listening to them.
One of the listeners was Krauss. I don’t know all the things Krauss did at the school, but I do know she sat down with nursery-school and kindergarten-age kids to ask what they thought of things like dogs or castles or dreams or holes. Then she distilled it all into A Hole Is to Dig.
I wish I could have seen her, perched on a small chair, intently focused on her interviewee. “And a seashell?” I imagine her asking, “what do you think of that?”
Maurice Sendak once described Krauss as “a giant” in the world of children’s literature. It takes one to know one. His drawings cavort across these pages, sometimes brimming with mischief, sometimes stoutly serious, always warmly childlike and real.
Krauss published A Hole Is to Dig in 1952. All these years later, it still has the whiff of something new. I never tire of dipping into it: It’s funny and true and it grounds me. I keep it on my bedside table! Someday, when my daughter is older, I hope to make our own first book of first definitions with her. And maybe a second book. And a third.
A Hole Is to Dig is to make you feel wonderful.