Monday, May 14, 2012

Thank You, Mr. Bulla

Boys are commonly viewed as having trouble in school. It is true that they often are slower to read. I have half boys and half girls and I would say the generalizations are not unfounded, but my years with this library have shown me an interesting phenomenon. Boys overwhelmingly are the most enthusiastic investigators and most adventurous readers. Emily and I have an easier time widening the range of reading genres with boys than with girls.

I am not trying to develop an argument about the differences between the sexes here. Actually, I am hoping to reveal a boy’s life and how he grew up to influence so many boys – at least the ones I know in my library.

Once upon a time, in 1914 to be precise, a little boy was born out on the prairie of rural Missouri. He grew up to attend a one-room school in which his older sisters were teachers. “Almost as far back as I can remember, I wanted to write,” he recalled later in life. In fact, when his teacher asked the class if they were given one dollar, what would they buy, he told them all he wanted to buy a table. This puzzling answer was because he longed for a desk to write at. He began early. His first story was entitled, “How Planets Were Born.” It began: “One night, Old Moon had a million babies.”

From that auspicious beginning, he produced stories, plays, poetry endlessly. When he was ten, he won a writing contest. The prize was one dollar, but I don’t know if he bought a table. The success did encourage him to continue writing. His family discouraged him. Publishers discouraged him. His first published novel failed because the publishing company went bankrupt. Finally, he had to get a job doing all sorts of things in a newspaper office. One of those responsibilities was writing a weekly column and an author noticed his talent and wrote him with the suggestion to consider writing children’s literature. She was Lois Lenski.

The Donkey Cart was Clyde Robert Bulla’s first published book for children. As a little boy he had thought words were “magical” because they could be put together to say whatever you wanted. He spun his magic for children for the rest of his life. I haven’t taken the time to count the exact number of titles he has authored. They range from history books like Riding the Pony Express, to historical fiction like A Lion to Guard Us and Viking Adventure, to biographies of Squanto, John Billington, and Pocahontas. He wrote dozens of fiction stories and collaborated with Lois Lenski on many of these. Because music was another passion of his life, he wrote music for many of her books as well as his own and put together Stories Of Favorite Operas, More Stories of Favorite Operas, The Ring and the Fire (about Wagner’s Nibelung Operas) and Stories of Gilbert and Sullivan Operas. Joseph, Jonah and Noah were some of his Bible stories.

I could go on and on, but will simply mention that a theme of many of his books is a child who is not encouraged or believed in and who must face all manner of difficulties to prove himself. Clearly, his early life shaped his character and formed the backbone he put into his own fictional characters. The words he used to tell his stories, those “magical” words, became powerful in the minds of children. His goal was to use the simplest language that packed the greatest punch and so most of his books were written for young readers just beginning to venture into the world of literature independently. The language does not hinder a beginning reader, but challenges their imagination with its effective use of colorful and potent words.

Which brings me to the boys in my library. I have lost count of the mothers who have brought their reluctant or indifferent readers to us who have been propelled into the world of reading by Mr. Bulla. Not only was it possible to read them, but the exciting plots and depth of story he could relate with simple language has taken these boys to a new level of literature. They transition from Bulla to Pyle and Twain. They move from disinterest in reading to devotion to it. Girls are not left out of this appealing storyteller’s influence and appeal either.

Mr. Bulla died five years ago. We owe a debt of gratitude to a little boy who never gave up on his dream and whose perseverance and passion for telling stories has given the gift of literature to countless children. As a result, who knows where their dreams will lead them and what impact they will have on the world.

For the joy of reading,


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  1. I find author stories very interesting. It can take them a while to actually write their greatest works.

    1. We agree. All the more reason to persevere!

  2. Bulla was the author who gave my now 21yo voracious reader son the incentive to dive into books on his own. They were accessible and exciting to him. Now I have several of these boys in my library getting hooked on reading because of his wonderful books.