Mike Thaler's secret: riddles are educational

What pig became a famous poet? Hogden Nash.

Which one became a French general?

Napoleon Bonapork.

If you are tempted to groan, consider for a moment that these riddles were written by third graders after about 15 minutes with Mike Thaler, ``America's Riddle King,'' a title he has worn for 10 years because of his love of language and children, and his ability to build bridges between the two.

Mr. Thaler, who's written 80 children's books and contributed to ``The Electric Company'' TV show, is also a teacher and storyteller. He has set up children's bookmaking workshops in libraries, schools, and other institutions. A highly creative spirit himself -- writer, illustrator, sculptor and incorrigible punster -- Thaler is dedicated to captivating children with words, reading, and their own creativity. And he does it in a variety of entertaining and engaging ways, which include teaching them how to write a riddle.

``There is nothing more exciting to me than turning kids on to their own creativity,'' says the bearded and beneficent Mr. Thaler, 49-year-old resident of Stone Ridge, N.Y. ``When someone is engaged with their own creativity, they become more human, more powerful,'' he says.

Through something as simple as a riddle, kids can learn syllabication, synonyms, homonyms, proper grammar, rhyming, and communication. ``In short, a love of language they can't get off TV,'' says Thaler. Riddle writing can also send toddlers not inclined to be bookish scurrying for dictionaries and encyclopedias for reference.

``First you pick a topic . . .,'' Thaler told a group of third to six graders here at the Boston Public Library. (Teachers and parents were along to learn the method as well.) ``. . . cats, dogs, horses. . . .''

``PIGS!'' comes the concatenate response.

Next Mr. Thaler is asking individual children for synonyms (``not what you put on your toast in the morning,'' he says) and ``pig'' words. In no time his chalkboard is filled with ``swine,'' ``ham,'' ``hog,'' ``pork,'' ``snout,'' ``sausage,'' etc. -- each suggested exuberantly by a captivated child. Arbitrarily choosing the word ``ham'' to work with, Thaler explains that the audience must now drop the vowel ``h'' and think of words beginning with the prefix ``am.''

After a list is concocted, completely from children's suggestions -- Amsterdam, amble, amateur, amnesty, ambulance, America -- the last step is to concoct a question for which each word, after returning the ``h'' is the answer.

What city in Holland is the pig's favorite city?'' Hamsterdam of course.

One magic in the method is that riddles have more than one right answer: What's the difference between a teacher and an engineer? Answer: One trains minds, the other minds trains, or: One says, ``Throw out your gum,'' the other says ``Choo, choo, choo.

``The assemblies that [Mr. Thaler] put on for our students created an enthusiasm and excitement for riddles and words that is a joy to see,'' says Wink Miller, principal of Faye Wright Elementary, Salem, Ore. And, writes San Francisco Chronicle columnist Pat Holt: ``If only there were more people such as he, reading would out-distance television in no time.''

Originally from Los Angeles, Mr. Thaler went to New York in 1960 to create cartoons for adults. ``They were serious, save-the-world philosophical cartoons, not very much fun,'' he says. He wrote for such magazines as Harper's Bazaar and Saturday Evening Post and also began writing children's books, with titles such as ``Oinkers Away,'' and ``The Nose Knows.'' He wrote 48 episodes for ``The Electric Company,'' creating the show's hero character, Letterman, who fights a villain named Spellbinder. When Spellbinder steals a letter or adds one to cause trouble -- for instance, changing a bridge to a ridge -- Letterman (voice of Gene Wilder) comes along ``usually with the right letter'' and saves the day.

That began 17 years ago. Seven years later, he began touring, all the while continuing his writing. Recently Caedmon Records released a cassette of his work entitled ``The Riddle King tells his favorite riddles, jokes, stories, and songs.'' It was picked by Parent Magazine as the year's best in the children's category. And he has just released three books: ``Funny Side Up'' (Scholastic Book Clubs, New York); ``Hippo Lemonade'' (for the ``I Can Read'' series of Harper and Row); and ``Cream of Creature from the School Cafeteria'' (Avon Books). Each has the wonderfully creative and spontaneous manner of Thaler in person, who usually wears a sailing cap, and a T-shirt that reads ``Kids are everyone's future.''

``I tell teachers that if they bring love and creativity into their classrooms, then that's all they really need,'' he says. ``Kids want to learn, and they are brilliant. You just have to bring out what's already in there instead of cramming them and condensing them, constricting them. To teach is to bring forth.''

Thaler takes his mission seriously, but you'd never know it. Kids just think they're having fun.

``Dear Mike Thaler,'' wrote Andrew Matteson, student at PS 81 in Queens, New York. ``Do you really want to do this job for the rest of your life? Can you do other things as good as writing jokes? Please write back to me. Your favorite joke fan, Andrew.''

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