Gertrude Stein Wrote a Children’s Book, and It’s As Weirdly Mesmerizing As You’d Think  

Lucy Sprague Mitchell, founder of the Bank Street College of Education, was sick of children’s books. She didn’t want didactic moral tales that told kids what to do, or mythological flights of fancy. Instead, she wanted children’s stories that actually showed children how to experience the world. In 1921, Mitchell published the Here and Now Story Book, stories for children written in direct language that helped readers learn through observation and discovery. Instead of just writing, “Henry looked up,” she believed, a story should say, “Henry threw back his head and looked up.” Children, Mitchell thought, should go through the story in real time, performing the same muscular actions as the storybook kids––monkey read, monkey do.

In 1938, before she’d become famous for Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny, Margaret Wise Brown was the first editor at Young Scott Books, a new publishing house that wanted to print the type of books Mitchell and Bank Street favored. Young Scott solicited manuscripts from writers of grown-up literature, hoping their picks might have a suitable kids’ book in them. Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck rejected the offer. But Gertrude Stein responded not only that she wanted to do it, but that she “had already nearly completed” the perfect book for the project.

By 1938, Stein had established herself as a writer grappling with psychological immediacy. Like Mitchell, Stein was drawn to William James’ ideas about stream of consciousness, and when she studied at Radcliffe, she practiced automatic writing under James’ tutelage. Stein was also already obsessed with education and children’s thought processes. In works such as the play Reread Another (written in 1921) and the essay “An Elucidation” (1923), Stein simultaneously adopts the roles of both lecturer and faux-naïf pupil. So when Young Scott reached out with the offer to write explicitly for children, Stein leapt at the chance, and in 1938, Young Scott published The World Is Round.

Here’s all you need to know about what happens in The World Is Round:

Rose and Willie are cousins. Rose has a little dog named Love. Willie has a lion named Billie. Willie gives Billie to Rose, but Rose brings Billie back to Willie. Rose decides to go up a mountain, and, bringing her blue chair along, she climbs and climbs, all through the day and all through the night. Along the way, she writes “Rose is a rose is a rose” around a tree. (Trust Stein to advertise her brand on even the most fanciful adventures.) Finally, Rose arrives at the mountaintop, sits in her blue chair, and sings. Even though she’s triumphant, it’s lonely up there. She sees a light coming from another mountain, which turns out to be from Willie, who magically is no longer her cousin. They live happily ever after. The world keeps on being round.

The book is in the stream-of-consciousness style that had already become iconic Stein-ese: “Everywhere there was somewhere and everywhere there they were men women children dogs cows wild pigs little rabbits cats lizards and animals… Rose was her name and would she have been Rose if her name had not been Rose.” But the stream of consciousness isn’t meant to intimidate kids. In a press statement advertising The World Is Round, Stein gives the following advice to readers: “Don’t bother about the commas which aren’t there, read the words. Don’t worry about the sense that is there, read the words. If you have any trouble, read faster and faster until you don’t.” Stein has just given us permission to do the thing you always want to do with one of those enormous antique globes. Instead of squinting at the surface and diligently tracing a path from Estonia to Ecuador, you spin it round as fast as you can until the countries blur.

If Mitchell’s Here and Now Story Book teaches kids how to experience the world by activating their senses, The World Is Round teaches kids how to experience the world by activating their imaginations. Stein’s stream-of-consciousness style shows the flow of Rose’s thoughts, but its effect is to get the reader’s own stream of consciousness going. “Rose was always thinking,” Stein writes. “It is easy to think when your name is Rose. Nobody’s name was ever Blue, nobody’s why not, Rose never thought about that, Rose thought she thought about a lot but she never did think about that.”

Children’s stories often break the fourth wall. You’re presented with an event; then the writer stops and asks, “What do you think?” Stein doesn’t press pause to look directly at the reader. Instead, she invites us to think with Rose, to pick up where she left off: Why would Rose not even think about not thinking about why nobody is named Blue? Why is nobody’s name ever Blue? Is this true? What about Little Boy Blue? Rose, who cries a lot, is herself a version of Little Boy Blue, perpetually on the verge of tears: “Will you wake him? O no, not I, For if I do, He will surely cry,” goes the nursery rhyme. Rose and blue are opposite colors. Rose and blue are gender signifiers. Rose is always not thinking about not being blue, and thus, blueness is ever in our thoughts.

Stein—who insisted that The World Is Round be printed on pink paper with text in blue ink—wasn’t the first Gertrude S. to grow roses in prose, even if she didn’t know it.

In 1895, children’s book author Gertrude Smith published the Arabella and Araminta Stories, a collection of 15 short tales depicting the adventures of the eponymous twin sisters. Everything that happens once, happens twice: Arabella does something, then Araminta does it, then Arabella again, then Araminta. For example, in “Poppy Story,” Arabella and Araminta pick flowers:

And Arabella picked a poppy, and Araminta picked a poppy, and Arabella picked a poppy, and Araminta picked a poppy, and Arabella picked a poppy, and Araminta picked a poppy, and Arabella picked a poppy, and Araminta picked a poppy, and Arabella picked a poppy, and Araminta picked a poppy, until they each had a great big bunch (I should say a very large bunch), and then they ran back to the house.

Then, the girls pick roses, and the plot thickens: Arabella and Araminta prick themselves on the thorns, and, instead of running inside to dance around the table, they run inside crying to their mother, who plucks the thorns from their fingers and tells the girls to trim the roses.

It’s unclear if Stein read Smith, but Lucy Sprague Mitchell did. In the introduction to the Here and Now Story Book, Mitchell quotes “Poppy Story” as an example of the type of pattern repetition that children crave. Instead of summarizing the action all at once, Mitchell explained, Smith makes us undergo each poppy picked in each moment. Kids can’t get enough of this pattern repetition because it has its basis in motor memory. Just as babies require regular recurring movement of large muscles, so they delight in repeating and listening to repetitions and rhythmic language.

Stein, too, plays with pattern repetition when she takes us into Rose’s mind. Instead of presenting a fully analyzed version of events, she offers instead the raw materials for the reader to synthesize:

I wish I was not dead said Rose but if I am I will have torn my clothes, blackberries are black and blueberries are blue and strawberries are red and so are you, said Rose to Rose and it was all true. She could not sit down on her chair because if she did sit down on her chair she would think she was already there and oh dear she just could not see how high it all could be but she knew or dear yes she knew and when those birds flew she just could not do so too […]

As Rose travels higher and higher up the mountain, she goes deeper and deeper (forgive the mixed geography) into her subconscious mind, presenting the associations flickering through her brain with increasingly few filters. Just as Smith zooms into the girls’ actions by removing any form of compression, so Stein gets us close to Rose’s thoughts by taking away any attempt to synthesize, presenting something that appears to be the experience of the imagination as it’s happening, rather than a pre-digested presentation of a thought.

What Smith does for the sensory world, in other words, Stein does for the mental world. The World Is Round is not so much primer as prism, a here and now of the imagination.

Nightlight is Slate’s pop-up blog about children’s books, running for the month of August. Read about it here.