Does Anyone Know What’s Going On?

Long, long ago, I used to read Chestnut this most excellent book.


Oh how she loved it! We read it over and over, when she was just 3 or so. For those of you unfamiliar with its greatness, it's about a mouse dentist ("his fingers were so delicate, and his drills so dainty, they could hardly feel any pain") who must grapple with a fox patient who wants to eat his dentist.

The fox first comes to Dr. DeSoto, and though the dentist has rules about treating carnivores, he relents out of pity. The poor fox is really suffering, with a thing tied around his head and everything. There is a followup visit (why is there always a followup visit? Why?) and here is the rub: the book says, "The next time, a very different fox appeared." This is because, of course, the fox's tooth pain is gone, he's feeling fine (and hungry), and now Dr. DeSoto had better think fast!

But this is the book that blew my mind. Because after we'd read it about, oh, maybe 200 times, Chestnut said, from her warm little nest next to me, "Which fox is that?"


"Which fox is that? Because, you know, it says 'a very different fox appeared,' so is it the second fox or the first one?"

And that's when I realized: no one has any idea what's going on. Half the time—more than half the time probably!—you're confidently reading a book to a small smiley person and they are having a completely different experience than you are. You are, I don't know, following the story maybe? While they are mining the drawings for riches you can't even begin to notice with your giant grownup eyes, and no one has any idea of what's going on, and I don't know why this is hitting me right now, but it is.


3 thoughts on “Does Anyone Know What’s Going On?

  1. Many of my college students still have this problem. I have to squint my eyes to figure out how they are interpreting text that says one thing and means something else entirely.
    And when I taught Kindergarten? Well, let’s just say I asked THEM first and got lots of evidence that was in the pictures that I completely missed. Those five-year-olds are amazing.


  2. It’s a question of inference. Ironically, to paraphrase an idiom (like “it’s raining cats and dogs”), you have to draw an inference. “A very different fox” is a subtle idiom. Not surprising a 3 year-old missed it. Literal comprehension comes first. Then questioning, then inference. Lots of kids get stuck at the literal level if they are not pushed or supported. Their writing also suffers, tending to be “list-y” (concrete) instead of explaining things. If teachers can get their arms around how to teach argument and evidence (and explanation), which is what the Common Core Standards require (thank GOD), we could really improve public education. My first book, THE LITERACY COOKBOOK, deals with the comprehension process. My next book (coming out in August), LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE, is designed to help teachers (and parents) deal with these issues. I hope. 🙂


  3. This made me laugh out loud! When you wrote that you read it to your three year old, I thought “Wow — raising some geniuses over there! My kids only get about half of that book . . .” I guess we’re on the same page about kids getting what they’re getting from their reading experiences: enjoyment and (hopefully) some of the story.
    (confession: I totally pare the story down to its bones when I read it aloud.)


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