The Wonderful O is a bit of a bizarre book by James Thurber, about an island where two pirates banish anything with the letter “O” in it. The book is quite witty with fun word-plays, such as that “the letter of the law has become the law of the letter.” Geese are allowed only if they are kept together so one doesn’t wander off and become a goose. Hens on the other hand must be kept segregated so that the remain hens and not a flock of poultry. Despite the awkardness of the plot my children had fun with the book and made a great many predictions as to what other things would be banned or not.
I read the book out loud to them and I found it easiest to do it with either my whiteboard or computer screen in front of me so that I could show them how certain words were written and then they change without the “o.” I expect I’ll be referring back to the story quite frequently during upcoming spelling lessons to remind the children things like that “shoe” becomes “she” without the “o.”
The vocabulary in the book is superb and I appreciated the chance to review what words such as “brac-a-brac” which we had previously encountered in the Ozma of Oz. We talked also about phrases such as “sticky-fingers” and the plants with the suffix “wort” in them. There were plenty of cultural references too, to books such as to Treasure Island and Alice Through the Looking-Glass (particularly the poem Jabberwocky) as well as characters such as Robin Hood and Davy Crockett. There is also a list of fantasy creatures such as griffins, that comes with these beautiful introductory sentences: “What animals are these that never were? … I find it very hard to think of things that haven’t been.” (41)
The children asked why things weren’t just renamed to words without “o” and I suggested that perhaps the islanders could have invented a new letter (and sound?) to take the place of “o.” A few characters turn to using foreign words to get around the forbidden letter and other characters turn to lesser known names (like “dromedary”) but there was no wholesale renaming of objects and no inventing of new words.
One character that plays a funny role is the lawyer. I’m going to assume that James Thurber, the author of the book, had something of a dislike of lawyers because the lawyer is the traitorous islander who assists the pirates. The book jokes about how he says things in triplicate: “Imponderable, impalpable, and improbable” or “Three bears transpired, in legal lingo, which means they happened, took place, and occurred.” (58) My children are young enough they didn’t seem to catch the lawyer jokes. If we re-read the story I’ll point it out to them and probably try to play a silly game involving saying the same thing in three ways.
The book has its very serious problems. The plot tends to fade into the background as an awkward excuse for rambling lists of words either “O” or “non-O.” Some of the lists are witty, playful and poetic, but the disguises don’t quite erase the fact that they are lists and the plot begins to feel like bit like a shoe-horn meant to squeeze all the different lists into one story.
On top of this the plot itself is awkward; it relies on a long-ago spell, a magical castle and four correct “o” words to fix the problem. Hope, love and valor are the first three with the fourth being the missing one the villagers must figure out. Why those particular four “o” words are the special ones is never clearly identified and many good alternatives are presented in one of the many lists.
I’ll encourage my children to reread it when they’re old enough to take note of more of the jokes and word-play, and we’ll probably refer to the story some in our games and schoolwork but I don’t expect it to become a frequently re-read book in our house.