I posted an illustration earlier today (from Henry Seidel Canby and John Baker Opdycke’s 1918 book Good English) for the pleasure of its improbability: youngsters in period-apparel atop surfboards (or “surf boards”). To my eyes, the scene looks like something from the imagination of Glen Baxter. Here it is again:
As I think about this illustration and its writing prompt, I begin to see them as more than an occasion for twenty-first-century amusement. The prompt asks the student to read the illustration in a number of ways, one of which involves putting together an implied narrative (clockwise from bottom right) that shows how to ride a surfboard. I like it that the writers drop no hints, allowing the student the pleasure of discovering that narrative independently. And though it’s a surfer dude who rides the wave, I like it that young ladies are sharing in the danger and excitement of the sport. Good English seems to be a forward-looking textbook: it seems no coincidence that its final illustration depicts a young woman making a speech in favor of women’s right to vote. (Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment in 1918).
I also like the writers’ willingness to expose their reader to what is most likely unfamiliar. Diane Ravitch’s The Language Police (2003) points out many ways in which present-day textbook publishers create generic realities in texts for reading. The vivid example I remember: no stories with mountains, because some children don’t live near mountains. Canby and Opdycke understood that reading need not reflect the reader’s reality. They knew what some present-day “educators” need to relearn.