The Washington Post

Bush’s 9/11 school visit pushed ‘Pet Goat’ into spotlight

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks dominated the past decade in publishing, spurring thousands of journalists, historians, theologians, sociologists and novelists to write books. But, weirdly, the very first publication lifted to prominence by 9/11 was a children’s story called “The Pet Goat.”

That was the short tale President George W. Bush was reading with students at an elementary school in Sarasota, Fla., when planes struck the twin towers in New York. The title, misquoted as “My Pet Goat,” became a punch line for comedians and especially for filmmaker Michael Moore, who in “Fahrenheit 9/11” mocked the president for staying with the schoolchildren for several minutes while the crisis raged in New York and reading: “A girl got a pet goat. She liked to go running with her pet goat.”

As goats will do, this one starts eating everything in the house but later redeems itself by catching a robber. Mission accomplished!

Despite all the attention, though, “The Pet Goat” never became a bestseller, because it was never a book. It was merely a reading exercise written by Siegfried Engelmann for one of his “Reading Mastery” workbooks. Engelmann wrote hundreds of similar stories for a teaching method called Direct Instruction, which he and a colleague developed in the 1960s. Now a retired professor from the education department at the University of Oregon, Engelmann lives in Eugene and is working on a mathematics curriculum.

Osama bin Laden may be gone, but textbook publisher McGraw-Hill still sells a range of “Reading Mastery” workbooks.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.



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