Thursday, April 29, 2010

Rhetorical Analysis: The Wheels on the Bus

The Wheels on the Bus, an iconic children's road song perhaps rivaled in popularity only by its less sober cousin, 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall, has been immortalized in music, film, print, and the collective unconscious of English speakers everywhere.  While its provenance is unclear, we can assume that this populist hymn is as old as public transportation itself.

Paul O. Zelinsky's interpretation of the classic weaves meticulously engineered moving parts into a swirling sunset dreamscape of lush magenta, violet, ochre, and coral, producing an effect upon its youngest readers that is both stimulating and narcotic.  The child does not simply read, or listen to this book being read; she transcends her sublunary state and explores a town whose inhabitants are driven by myriad motivations even as they travel together in that most humble and universal of conveyances: the bus.

If the "bus" is the collective effort of a community to accommodate the dreams of its individual members, the "town" is the embodiment of the civilization that makes those dreams attainable.  Zelinsky lays bare both the physical and social infrastructure of urban life by juxtaposing personal vignettes that run the gamut of human emotion in a contact zone of diverse cultures and classes with the unforgiving tectonics of a city that radiates from a core of public symbolicity to an industrial hinterland of smokestacks and grey tenements.  In the end, Zelinsky extends his own central metaphor of bus as public conveyor of individual dreams by revealing that the "town" does not offer just one bus, but an entire fleet.

The cover alone sends the twins into paroxysms of glee

 The effect is...

 ...both stimulating,

and narcotic...

"Why are the only grownup male characters the bus driver and the folk singer?  Where are all the daddies?"

Butterbean's point is well-taken.  The bus is a gendered space, in which only mommies go "Shh!  Shh!  Shh!"  Perhaps the daddies all died in the war.

Zelinsky lays bare both the physical and social infrastructure of urban life

The townfolk enact their personal dramas against a backdrop glowing with evening gold, even as they are threatened by the prospect of a punishing rain--always the rain.  The bus ride is not smooth, but rather beset with violent and unpredictable bumpety-bumps.

Ultimately, the destination is the library, the cheery, safe center of civic life; and the symbol, buttressed by City Hall, of the benefits of public services.

Of course, owning an enduring work of art is never inexpensive:

 (Click on the image if you think your bleary eyes deceive you)


  1. Oh no! Now I've got that song stuck in my head.

  2. Yeah, um, our kids liked it too.

  3. Why aren't you writing for Dadcentric, or one of those other group dad blogs? You're brilliant.

  4. Ummmm is that price for real??? I can't afford that book no matter how wonderful it is :-o

    ps my word verification is yindumba and dumb is obviously out of line from the rest of the letters...I'm a little sad now. I think it's telling me my comment is dumb :( LOL

  5. Trout--Thanks for turning us onto that book!

    Steamy--I keep dropping hints, but they haven't invited me. I'm trying to think of some clever way to deflect that incredibly gratifying compliment. Nothing's coming.

  6. You should also be writing for Bob Loblaw's Law Blog. Just saying.

    Oh, and my verification word is "urination". Seriously. Apparently the verification bot has been reading my blog.

  7. The only one that trumps that is Goodnight Moon! I still would like to know if you actually sing it.

    In a couple of years I will send you an all time favorite kids CD with a song that makes kids nuts.....Tony Chestnut. I have stuff to teach you for sure!

  8. Kathy--C'mon! It's under three grand! You could probably get it for list price of $20.99 somewhere else, but I understand that Big T has really good customer service. Don't listen to that stupid verification bot.

    Sleepy--You're making TV references again, aren't you? The verification bot knows all!

    Didactic--Yeah! (Or even a little adjuncting gig here and there would be okay.)

  9. Arrested Development. Even TV-phobes shouldn't be deprived of that masterpiece.

  10. Sleepy--I thought I had seen every episode of AD on Hulu. Obviously I missed some.

    Luvmtbach--the grownups sing it. The kids don't really know any "words" yet.

  11. You funny, Mr. Big Words Rhetoric Man.

  12. What was? My comment? Yeah, I read quick.

  13. You know, this has got to be the best parenting blog I've ever read. I like a few, but yours is head and shoulders above the rest. Witty and, to echo Steamy, brilliant.

  14. Cool! Do this again... with... um... oh, "Goodnight Moon". Or the touching, yet touchingly creepy "Love You Forever".

  15. Bob Loblaw = Scott Baio. First appears in Season 3, Episode 3. I googled it. You're welcome.

    Nenette - "Love You Forever" is the creepiest children's book I've ever read.

  16. Xuxana--yeah. I hit "publish," and by the time I had finished proofreading, your comment was there. It startled me.

    Other--Jeez. I can feel myself turning into a prima donna from all this praise. But please don't stop. It means a lot coming from the likes of you and Steamy. Thanks!

    Nenette--Goodnight Moon is on my list. Trying to figure out what's up with that book. I haven't read Love You Forever, but now I must. It sounds kind of stalker-ish.

  17. Lol 'perhaps all the daddies died in the war' very droll. Good for you. Have you seen the Friday Funny Haha I host on my blog each Friday. This post would be a great entry..

  18. Wonderful. My son loved this book so much he utterly destroyed it.

  19. Dear Mr. Beta Dad,

    I’m afraid I have to disagree with your rhetorical analysis of Wheels on the Bus, in particular, your comment on how the bus represents a “contact zone.” The rhetorical space inside the fictional bus is certainly not a contact zone; even the threatening elements convey the basic notion of public works as saviors and deliverers. There are different races on the bus, but they are certainly not all that unfamiliar and they appear to be in a relatively blissful state where everyone is performing their role correctly. This is more of a pacifying image rather than one of the violence and ambiguity of a true contact zone. In fact, the mothers are literally pacifying the babies as they go “shh, shh, shh, all over town.”

    Furthermore, the space is obviously a fantasy, a lie told about the realities of public transportation and public good. The kittens are an obvious impossibility! No bus driver would allow an open box of kittens on the bus. I certainly agree with your assessment that the book is designed to put trust and faith in the essential good of public works, but the irony is that the bus and other public transit itself is often the place, in adult life, where we are in a true contact zone with the dispossessed of our society, the very people who show how governments and public works fail to create the happy implied (not poor) families portrayed in the book. They may be going to the library to read and partake of civic wonder, but in reality many are going there to sleep.

    There are the holes in the road and the threat of rain seem menacing, however, but these are environmental obstacles that the public systems are overcoming. The bumps on the road the child would probably not recognize as failures of the same public system that brought him/her over them.

    My overall point is that I think there is some rhetorical significance to the fact that the “Wheels on the Bus” attempts to show students the usefulness of public works though idealizing a public space that could also be used to show the systems of injustice and poverty inherent in the capitalist system. Oh, there are wheels on the buss—wheels of poverty, a failed criminal justice system, and a largely ignored mental health system!
    But Wheels on the Bus does fulfill and important rhetorical role in our society, showing busses to be agents of civil good could just be beneficial in pacifying children to accept the day when they will be shipped off in busses to the nationalist/capitalist indoctrination centers called public schools.

    Happy May Day,


    Frank (you know you want to author this paper with me) Montesonti.

  20. Er, I think your post is almost certainly both funny and interesting, except I can't concentrate on it because the baby pictures are too cute!

  21. Dr. Montesonti,

    I will gladly co-author a paper with you. Or perhaps we could put together a panel for RSA next year.

    I agree with much of your highly polemic and overstated analysis. However, you have grossly misconstrued mine. I never suggested that the bus was a contact zone. It is the town that is a contact zone. The bus, as you said, is a safe, feminized, largely homogeneous space. There is so much more work to be done on this. Let's get going on a proposal!


    You should try living with them. It's impossible to concentrate on anything!

  22. Dear Mssrs. Montesonti and Dad:

    Like this is going to fly at a conference -- it's totally understandable! How can you purport to engage in any sort of academic rhetorical analysis without using the word "polis"? And "constitutive", "materialities", "interlocutor", and "dialectic"? And, for good measure, "(de-)constructivism"????

  23. Lauren--

    We'll instantiate those terms as we do the editing.

  24. Oh, and Lauren--

    You're going to be on the panel, right?

  25. I'll admit that I'm a little bit suspect of your hermeneutics here. I absolutely think you're dismissing (or at least failing to acknowledge) the clear postcolonial message. Sure, it's an ethnic rainbow bus, but is it REALLY? Who's the driver? Who's in charge? That's right! The Man! And whom does The Man serve? Clearly his purpose is to keep the passengers "safe" from the "rain"--that is, the illusion of safety based on a perceived, yet latently realized dependency on those in power to "drive you around." Even the nurturing mothers are forced to shush their children so as to fit into the societal and cultural expectations, as set forth not by the inhabitants of the bus, but of the bus driver himself, as to the Master whom he serves. Had this Master not sublimated the authentic experiences of the riders on the bus, we wouldn't see that meta-impact that postcolonialism infers on every situation.

    My view of this song was forever changed when I overheard someone singing "the winos on the bus go glub glub glub..."

  26. At least you have a colon in the title, Andy; that's the first step towards acceptance to any major conference, right?

  27. Shelby--

    The postcolonialist aspect of the book is beyond the scope of my argument. This is getting too complicated for just one panel. Maybe there should be an entire conference dedicated to this important story.


    Colon, colonial,'s all coming full circle. Like a wheel. Going round and round, round and round, round and round.

  28. OH my god, my son loved that book SOOOOOOOOOOOOOO much. I don't just mean the 'wheels on the bus' story per se, because there are many many books, but that EXACT book, and this was at least 18-19 years ago.

    Of course, i used to sing the song while we read it. That made a difference I think, but thanks for the memories. Your children are beautiful.


Don't hold back.


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