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The World is Round
    by Rita Smith

Gertrude Stein's first book for children, The World Is Round, published in 1939, is quite a departure from any children's book published before it. For one thing, the text is printed in deep blue ink on stunning pink pages with illustrations in blue and white by Clement Hurd. For another thing, Stein remains true to the unique literary style she established in her books for adults. The syntax is intricate, with unorthodox structure, repetitious words and phrases, and rhymes where a particular word is used because of its sound rather than for its meaning. There is little punctuation to guide the reader. Some sentences have no beginning and no end, or maybe it's that the beginning and the end are the same.

The World is Round is about the struggles of nine-year-old Rose to establish a stable identity in an unstable round world. The story's convoluted stylistics mirror her struggle, producing a narrative that ultimately does tell a story but, in the process, continually folds back upon itself, spins in circles, and occasionally simply stops for a while. In the central event of the book, Rose climbs a mountain where she encounters various obstacles, but finally reaches the top. She sits on the peak in a blue chair that she brought with her. She senses that after this difficult journey, she is finally, at last, "there." She has arrived. She knows who she is. "I am Rose" she declares in a well-known poem, "my eyes are blue / I am Rose and who are you / I am Rose and when I sing / I am Rose like anything." (63)

But this confidence is fleeting. The world darkens around her, and she is less and less sure: "I am here and here is there oh where oh where is there oh where. And Rose began to cry oh where where where is there. I am there oh yes I am there oh where oh where is there." Critic Martha Rust suggests that, although the words are playful, Stein's slightly subversive message to children here is we may never get "there," may never know exactly who we are. The publishers were aware that this was a very different kind of children's book, and, on the original dust jacket, while gently mimicking the repetitious circular style of the text, they offered parents, teachers, and librarians the following advice: "This book was written to be enjoyed. It is meant to be read aloud a few chapters at a time. 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 faster. If you have any trouble, read faster and faster until you don't. This book was written to be enjoyed."

Rust, Martha Dana, "Stop the World I Want to Get Off! Identity and Circularity in Gertrude Stein's The World is Round"in Style, (Northern Illinois Univ., DeKalb) (30:1) [Spring, 1996], p. 130-142.
Stein, Gertrude, The World Is Round. William R. Scott, Inc., 1939.

Copyright 2006 Rita Smith

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Wednesday, 01-Feb-2006 13:04:57 EST

"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."