What makes something play? Can you play at playing? When does something stop being play?
Those are some of the questions that have come out of reading Pierre Berton’s The Secret World of Og together. This delightful children’s novel tells the story of five children who find their way into a magical underground world. The inhabitants of Og used to be limited to speaking a single word “og” but stolen comic books have allowed them to expand, not just their vocabulary, but the types of roles and activities available. They take on the roles of Captain Hook, Jessie James and other characters they’ve read about. The children get a taste of being grown-up as they try to navigate the world of green grown-ups who believe their own make-believe.
Pierre Berton’s characters are charming. The children are each unique and their personalities well developed. Details, such as the children feeling that Pamela owns more of a share of the playhouse than Patsy due to her helping out more with it, makes the characters seem more lively and real than many children’s book characters. My children delighted in the reference to the baby of the family being ever in prison (a crib, playpen or highchair) and they laughed at the idea that he would think he was a dog.
One child’s life goal is to become a garbage man, though he believes this will happen as a result of their current garbage man getting into an accident. Just that little detail incorporates so much of the themes from the story. Where is the connection between believing something will happen and making it happen? How do children make sense of their world given their limited information? The child fills in the question of how he could be a garbage man when there already is a garbage man with what he knows about why some people die. The idea that a garbage man is a role inhabited by a single person also foreshadows the idea the Ogs have that it would be selfish of them if any one person maintained their ‘character’ for more than a week. Shouldn’t other people have a chance to play each part?
The illustrations are done by the author’s daughter. They are cheerful and plentiful. They strengthen the theme of “real vs make-believe” by treating both the real and the make-believe alike.
Open-ended questions for discussion:
1) What is play? What is the difference between playing at baking a cake and really baking a cake? What is the difference between playing at math and doing math?
2) The Og known as “Captian Hook” says he likes to be a villain, but is he a real villain? Why or why not?
3) At the end Patsy tells her mother they had been playing a game. In what ways was it a game? In what ways was it not? Could it have been something they just invented? A story about children pretending a story where people pretend that their stories are real?
4) How would you recognize a person if you switched roles and names every week or so? What would it be like to live in a society that did that?
5) What would the story be like if the Ogs had ready Anne of Green Gables or Little Women, instead of what they found?
6) Do the stories you read shape who you are?
7) Does believing in something make something real? Does it matter if something isn’t real if people are collectively acting as though it was?
8) How would Alice from Alice in Wonderland react if she wandered into Og? Would she like it more or less than Wonderland? How is it similar and different? How would Dorothy react?
9) What would thinking be like, with only one word? What would it mean to have a second word? Why do you think the second word was what it was?
10) Why does Penny insist on teaching the Ogs about Snavely? Why not just let the Ogs believe the children have a magic weapon?
11) Do you think Ogs can die?