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Greek Speak



Published November 9, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

Let's sit back for a second and imagine bestselling bumper stickers for the class of 2020. "Tinky-Winky Is My Co-Pilot." "I Flunked Out of Hogwarts." "My Parents Drove an SUV." "I Know That I Know Nothing."

OK, maybe not that last one. But if University of Vermont classics professor M.D. Usher has his way, some of today's kids will get early exposure to the famous motto of the ancient Greek thinker Socrates, who castigated the authorities of his time for claiming to know way too much. Usher conceived and wrote the text for a picture book called Wise Guy, a retelling of the life of Socrates, which came out this month from venerable publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Socrates? The guy who invented dialectical reasoning? Who inspired Plato's notion of the noumenal world? Who was condemned to death for "corrupting the youth of Athens" and forced to drink poison hemlock? Who's made thousands of undergraduates scratch their heads over his rigorous definitions of truth and virtue?

Yes, that Socrates. In Usher's book, with wonderfully saucy illustrations by Los Angeles Times political cartoonist William Bramhall, the great man reappears as "a curious boy, and cheeky too," who asks adults inconvenient questions. As he grows up, the questions become philosophy, but Socrates is no egghead -- he does his thinking outdoors in the warm sun, dances the night away, and goes bravely to battle without shoes. He mocks his own ugliness and has no interest in material possessions.

Socrates is the original rebel-philosopher-coffeehouse-deadbeat, with a dash of the Buddha thrown in. As the last pages of Usher's book show us, he also managed to influence a long line of thinkers more solemn than he, from Erasmus to Thomas Jefferson to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi.

The idea for the picture book came to Usher as he was writing an academic article about "Socrates as a satyr-character." "I got to thinking about Socrates, what makes him attractive," says the 39-year-old chair of the Classics Department, who lives in Shoreham. "He has all those qualities of being cheeky, two sheets to the wind . . . He's a grandfatherly sort of character, but he also is very childlike himself."

Socrates' incessant questions about justice and virtue reminded Usher of "the way children ask, 'Are we there yet?' and 'Why is the sky blue?' -- these questions adults don't think about and whose answers they take for granted." He began "writing a little story" about Socrates for his youngest son, then 4.

"I've always been addicted to the picture-book genre, and if you have your own kid, you start becoming a connoisseur of children's books," says Usher, the father of three. With hindsight he quips, "Children's publishing is the most competitive thing on the planet." But Usher was "completely green behind the ears" when he sent the text to a couple of publishers who were accepting unsolicited manuscripts. Eight months later, Farrar, Straus and Giroux expressed interest. By pure luck, "It emerged from the slush pile and caught some intern's eye," says Usher.

That was three years ago. Before going through the printing process, Usher's manuscript went to Bramhall, who was matched with him by his editor and given a year to complete 40 pages of illustrations. "He did all the work -- my part was the easy part," says Usher, who provided Bramhall with suggestions for visualizing the text. "He really executed all those notes and improved on them in the way only an artist could."

Usher notes the layers of meaning in Bramhall's paintings -- the Buddha-esque pose in which Socrates sits as he prays to a "Bob-Dylan looking Pan," the "visual parody" of Raphael's The School of Athens on the last page, where Socrates' disciples through the ages appear as if posed for a group portrait.

How did Usher make Socrates' thought comprehensible to the Pokemon set? "The questions of philosophy are not complex -- they're simple," he explains. "It's the answers and the solutions that are complex. So I wanted to privilege the question-asking rather than the answering. There's a question on every page, and that's intentional."

Besides the illustrations, the book offers two parallel texts on each page -- a simple narrative of Socrates' life, which Usher calls the "naïve text," and a sidebar in which aspects of his thought are explained in more sophisticated language. "The two-tier thing was less of a gimmick than it was to involve many levels of readers," Usher says.

For instance, one page of "naïve text" describes the young Socrates hanging out in a carpenter's workshop, wondering what makes a table a table and a bed a bed. The sidebar tells us these questions eventually led Socrates to the idea that "objects in our world have an invisible, eternal blueprint to which they correspond." The illustration brings that lofty abstraction to life by showing teenaged Socrates sprawled over a chair and staring fiercely at the carpenter's blueprint.

"It takes a lot of hard thinking to distill something and make it as simple as it really is," says Usher. "Writing the book helped me to understand, in some ways, the simplicity of Plato's and Socrates' thought. It's been shown that children are capable of philosophical abstraction, even if they don't call it that. I had to rewrite some sentences to make them simpler. But I don't think I've reduced Socrates or simplified him away."

Another challenge for Usher was reconstructing Socrates' youth. The philosopher himself wrote nothing, and all we know about his life comes from the accounts of Plato and Xenophon. "We meet Socrates as an adult male, in his fifties, who's walking around the streets of Athens barefoot and engaging anyone he can grab in conversation," says Usher. "We really don't know what he was like as a child, but one can only imagine what an annoying child he must have been. We get little anecdotes, like he was the son of a stonemason, but none of these things are very reliable. He's right up there with Jesus as being one of these mythical icons of a personality." So Usher took Socrates' adult interests and "retrojected them back into his younger self."

The book has no specified age range. "I got my first Amazon review, and somebody wrote, 'For children ages 1 to 92,'" Usher says.

Still, Wise Guy reflects a new publishing boom in biographies aimed at children. "In the last four or five years, we've seen wonderful, wonderful picture-book biographies come out," says Elizabeth Bluemle, owner of The Flying Pig Children's Books in Charlotte. She notes that biographies for older kids are popular, as well. Moreover, she says, "Kids actually do read them. It's not just librarians trying to get them to read."

Despite what cynical adults might assume, tweens don't come to Bluemle's store looking for bios of Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan; rather, Helen Keller, Anne Frank and polar explorer Ernest Shackleton are typical requests.

Socrates may fit right in -- and Usher thinks he'll have something to say to young readers. "Socrates and the ancients were capable of what they were capable of because they didn't have the distractions that we have. Consumer culture, entertainment culture . . . without sounding like a Luddite or a fuddy-duddy, I think they're a big problem for young people today," says the professor. He has two more classics-for-kids books in the works -- a retelling of Apuleius' fable The Golden Ass and a life of Diogenes the Cynic, in which the famous homeless curmudgeon appears as a dog.

Usher points out that Socrates "didn't care much about money and was concerned about being happy . . . not in the sense of being self-centered and seeking pleasure, but rather seeking the truth and doing what's right. These are things one never grows out of."

He hopes the book will show parents as well as kids that deep thoughts aren't just for brainiacs with tenure. "We think of philosophy as an academic subject," says Usher, "but [in ancient Greece] it was really conversation. Talking about ideas, challenging assumptions. Everybody's capable of this."

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