- ''Too Old for Children and Too Young for Grown-ups'': Gertrude Stein's To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays
In 2009, Simon & Schuster published Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude through their Atheneum Books for Young Readers imprint. The book, written by Jonah Winter and illustrated by Calef Brown, introduces children to the life of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas through a canny pastiche of Stein’s distinctive style. Gertrude writes, Alice cooks, they drive in their car Auntie, they take their poodle Basket for walks, and they entertain writers and painters. One day, Picasso stops by. Winter writes:
And look who’s here, in time for tea. It’s Pablo Picasso the Spanish artist. Pablo Picasso looks so angry but no. Pablo Picasso is Pablo Picasso. He just invented Modern art which is not the same thing as being angry but then again maybe it is. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. Then again maybe it is. It’s so hard to invent Modern art. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. Maybe.1
Winter gets a lot right about Stein’s style here and throughout the book. He lovingly mimics her repetitions, her syntax, her rhymes and rhythms, her puns, her lack of punctuation, her simplistic vocabulary, and especially her playfulness. For decades, critics have commented on the seeming childishness of Stein’s writing, and Juliana Spahr has even argued that Stein demands that we “abandon our fluency” when we read her—that we effectively put ourselves in the position of the not-quite-yet-literate child when reading her works.2 Winter’s pastiche, though it clearly lacks the sophistication of Stein’s writings, shows just how suited [End Page 575] some of Stein’s stylistic trademarks—especially her repetitions, rhymes, vocabulary, and playfulness—are for an audience of children. And as Winter writes, “You can write whatever you want to too, if you’re Gertrude. A sentence can be whatever, if you’re Gertrude. You don’t have to make sense (if you’re Gertrude).”3
Unfortunately for Stein, this turned out not to be the case. In 1938, Margaret Wise Brown4 and John McCullough, editors at the William R. Scott publishing house, approached Stein about writing children’s picture books.5 Stein responded that she was already at work on a manuscript,6 and went on to publish The World Is Round, illustrated by Clement Hurd, with William R. Scott during the next year. The publication process was not easy; the editors were dismayed by the fact that the manuscript could not be “age-graded”—it was “accepted” by children ranging from three to thirteen years old.7 Furthermore, the editors were very concerned about Stein’s characteristic lack of punctuation, and Brown took on the task of adding commas into the book.8 While The World Is Round garnered a number of good reviews upon its publication in the fall of 1939, it was not a financial success,9 and William R. Scott (along with several other publishing houses) rejected the children’s books that Stein wrote during the early 1940s.10 None of these texts—To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays, The Gertrude Stein First Reader, or Three Plays—were published until after Stein’s death in 1946. Though Winter jokingly writes that “you can write whatever you want to too, if you’re Gertrude,” he forgets to add the caveat: as long as you’re not writing for children.
While The World Is Round has received a small amount of critical attention in recent years, Stein’s other children’s books have been largely ignored by scholars.11 Critical interest in The World Is Round is likely due to the book’s (comparatively) successful publication history, its prominent intertextual references, and its straightforward narrative, which easily lends itself to feminist readings. The book tells the story of Rose, a young girl who goes on a long journey up a mountain to find herself; in the chapter “Rose Does Something,” she carves “Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose” into a tree, thereby elongating...