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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Archive | Red Reading Boots

The Bluest Eye

 

It’s been years since I could keep up with my kids reading. When they first began reading independently, I’d often read (or at least skim) the books they were working on so I could ask questions and talk about it with them. Then for several more years, they would simply tell me about whatever they were reading—often in great detail. Sometimes I’d read it, sometimes not, but we could converse about it given the amount of detail they shared. But eventually they read at a pace much faster than me, and they read more widely, too. Both read way more fantasy than I do. #1 Son reads a lot of history, and Darling Daughter a lot more YA than I manage. These days, it’s often me asking them for books to read.

As they each entered high school I decided to try and read with them on the books they were reading in English class. This is largely a re-reading of the classics for me—I was an English major, after all. And a few more contemporary books, too. I haven’t managed to read every one, but many I have, and been glad I did. None more so than this spring’s Honors English 9 selection: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater is putting on The Bluest Eye this spring, and we had tickets in our season package. Last fall when they came I thought, “Oh, we should read that before we go…..” But I’d lost it in the daily shuffle. I was thrilled when Darling Daughter told me The Bluest Eye was next on the syllabus.

“Toni Morrison!” I said. “I haven’t read The Bluest Eye in ages! I’ll dust my copy off and have a read with you.”

“Mr. W. says it’s pretty…intense,” Darling Daughter said.

“Indeed,” I said, as I scanned the bookshelves. “And beautiful. That’s how Morrison writes.” But The Bluest Eye was not in the M section on my shelf. Nor was it “misfiled” somewhere else—I looked everywhere for it the next few days and finally gave up and bought a copy.

Twenty pages in I realized that I’d probably never read it. I had it all confused with Beloved, I think. It is quite a read. Intense seems like too simple a word to describe it. So heartbreaking. Appalling in too many ways. But such gorgeous writing! And…important. It feels important to read this book. I’m grateful my kid has an English teacher willing to take it on.

Our Guthrie ticket night came and we went and watched the intense, heartbreaking story on stage. I could hardly breathe through much of it. The hard scenes of rape and racism and horror were beautifully handled and I was so grateful to be sitting next to my fourteen year old as we watched. I was plumb full of gratitude, in fact. Grateful for Morrison’s work; grateful for the work of the playwright, Lydia R. Diamond; grateful for the actors who presented it to us with such exquisite artistry.

None of us will forget this book and its play. I’m very glad to have finally read The Bluest Eye, and I’m thrilled to have read and seen it with my kiddo.

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Some Writer!

I had the wonderful good fortune of hearing Melissa Sweet talk about her work last week. It was a fascinating presentation about her process, her research, her art. I left inspired, and with a hankering to find scissors and a glue stick and do some collage myself. (Let’s be clear, things would not turn out at all like Sweet’s gorgeous works of art….)

I’ve been carrying around her book, Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White, in my purse ever since. It’s signed now, which gives me an extra “zing” of joy every time I pull it out. I’ve read it several times. I’m to the point now, as I’ve been with Charlotte’s Web since I was a child, that I just open it wherever and start reading.

Which is what I did in one of the dreariest waiting rooms known to humanity a few days ago. Before I’d finished reading the quote that begins chapter five, the whining child across from me stopped pestering his mother for two seconds and called out to me.

“Hey! Is that a kid book or an adult book?” His tone was challenging. 

“Well, technically, it’s a biography written for kids—” I said, and before I could add that anyone could read and enjoy it he interrupted.

“Then why are you reading it?”

“It’s a really good book,” I said.

“Do you read other kids’ books?” he demanded. His mother tried to hush him.

“Yes, I do,” I said. “Lots.”

Why?”

“They often tell the best stories,” I said as his mother tried to shush him again.

And then I took a chance…. “Would you like to look at it with me?” I asked.

“Naw, I don’t like books,” he said, and he sat back in his chair in a huff.

“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry about that.”

I didn’t know what else to say. I wasn’t going to burden this grumpy waiting child with any didacticisms about how important and joyful reading is, and how perhaps he might not have found the right book yet etc. So I went back to reading.

But the questions continued.

“Is that a man or a teenager petting that pig?” he asked squinting at the cover from where his Mom held him to his chair. So I told him it was E.B. White—pointing to White’s name—as a young man, and before I could tell him who E.B. White was he said, “That’s not a name—E.B.! Those are just…letters. What’s his real name?”

“Elwyn,” I said.

He laughed uproariously. I went back to reading. But it wasn’t long before he managed to cross the waiting room aisle and sit beside me, all nonchalant-like. I opened the book wider, rested it on my right leg, closer to him, and started a game of I-Spy.

“I spy a ruler,” I said. He found it immediately. He also found the birchbark canoe and the small box of paperclips. Sweet’s collaged illustrations are packed with various and sundry things.

He spied a mouse. I told him about Stuart Little. We turned the page. I read him the letter White wrote to his editor Ursula Nordstrom. He commented that “E.B.’s” writing wasn’t very neat and confessed his wasn’t either. We laughed about eating 100,000 stalks of celery and 100,000 olives, which is what White suggested as a celebration for the 100,000 copies of Stuart Little that had sold—and which my young friend declared “nasty.” So we thought of better things to eat in celebration and agreed that 100,000 of most anything was too much.

We continued looking through the book. I didn’t read it to him so much as we enjoyed the illustrations together. He loved the rough sketches of Charlotte done by Garth Williams. I told him a little about Melissa Sweet and her art studio. He declared this information “cool,” so I was glad I had it.

Eventually, the boy and his mother were called in, and then I was, too. When I came back out, the waiting room was empty.

I think there’s a decent chance my young friend will check into Stuart Little if he remembers the title. I’m sure he’ll remember that the author’s first name was “E.B.”, and any librarian or bookseller worth her or his salt should be able to help him out.

I do hope so.

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This Is Just To Say

April is National Poetry Month, which is as good an excuse as any to take some poetry books off the shelf and have a read. I’m quite methodical in April—it’s the hint of spring in the air, I suppose. I clean my office and then I build a stack of wonderful poetry books—some Billy Collins, a little Emily Dickinson, a tome of Robert Frost, Shakespeare’s sonnets, Mary Oliver, naturally…..

On top of this fine stack I put my collection of Joyce Sidman books. This means, to be honest, that I seldom make it down to the “grown-up” poets. Which is fine—I’m quite perfectly happy wandering in Joyce’s books for the entire month. The others can be read…whenever. Joyce’s books have pictures. In the words and on the pages. I think all poets should be illustrated.

I say “Joyce,” all familiar like, because I know her. Which seems too fantastic to be true—I know none of those other poets, except through their work. But Joyce I know—I saw her this past weekend, in fact. I hear her voice in her poems—even when it’s not her voice speaking. (I hear Billy Collins in his poems, too, but Joyce’s voice is not so deadpan.)

We’re several days into April and I’ve yet to make it past the book that is possibly my favorite in my Joyce Sidman collection: This is Just To Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness. It’s a slim volume—paperback. Sometimes it gets shoved back on my bookcase and I panic when I look up and don’t see it right away. It’s illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, an artist whose website I sometimes visit just to browse and mutter her last name over and over again like its own poem. She has illustrated a few of Joyce’s books. They are an inspired pair, I think.

I bought this book as soon as I saw that the very first poem was, as I suspected, William Carlos William’s “This Is Just To Say,” one of my most favorite poems. Another of his poems “The Red Wheel Barrow” is one of the only poems I’ve managed to keep memorized since college. I recite it when walking sometimes still.

Joyce uses William’s poem, “This is Just To Say,” as a model when she teaches, so says her website. And it is the model for this brilliant book of poetry: a story—or perhaps I should say stories—told through poems of apology and forgiveness.

I’m embarrassed to say that I did not realize this book told stories until I read some of the poems aloud to a group of pre-schoolers. An astute 4-year-old pointed out to me that one poem went with another, which is when I realized the poems were in pairs. (We’ll just focus on the brilliance of the 4-year-old and not my sloppy reading.) Ever since, when I read this book, I read the apology poem and then the “follow-up poem,” which is often a forgiveness poem, but sometimes just an explanation—and therein lie the stories. And these stories—my heart!—they run the gamut of the lives of children. From dodge ball games to mean things said…from things breaking to breaking hearts…from secrets kept to confessions made….from crushes to honest-to-goodness love…from frightened kids to despairing parents.

It’s the best of poetry, truly. Accessible, meaningful, rich. I’ll just spend this April here, thank you very much.

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Pop-up Books

Our household’s fascination with pop-up books came as a surprise to me. As a child I didn’t like them much. We had a few—one was Sleeping Beauty, I think. But they popped with boring modesty and they always had these tabs that you pulled to make things move, only my brother pulled them too hard and so they didn’t do anything besides pull in and out. Distinctly disappointing.

But #1 Son received Robert Sabuda’s The Christmas Alphabet for his first Christmas. He was ten months old. We were still at the stage where I was singing cheerfully, “Books are for reading, not for eating!” every time we sat down to read. He loved books…with all his senses. But when I opened The Christmas Alphabet he sat back on the couch in amazement—his mouth opened in surprise, but not because he wanted to eat the pop-ups. When he managed to tear his eyes away from the fantastic paper creations that stood up on each page, he looked at me as if to say, “What have we been doing all this time with those tasty two-dimensional books?!”

I taught him how to use one gentle finger to lift the flaps, open the doors, turn the pages….. I think this might’ve been instrumental in him becoming such a gentle giant, actually. (He’s 6’6”+ these days!) Our pop-ups remain in stellar condition.

Over the years we added to our collection. More Robert Sabuda, of course—Cookie Count, A Tasty Pop-up became our all-time favorite, I’d say—the gingerbread house can be enjoyed from all sides! But we also procured many of the classics—Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Mother Goose Rhymes—and some general learning ones, too, like an atlas, something about dinosaurs or dragons (I can’t remember which, and I can’t find it—maybe #1 Son took it to college?), and several more holiday books.

In short, we are fans. Darling Daughter once spent most of a spring break making pop-ups off of the plans on Sabuda’s website. Part engineering, part origami, part art, pop-ups are endlessly fascinating. She’d probably do it on her spring break next week if I left the tab open on the computer.

It’s hard to have pop-ups at the library, of course. There’s always the child who pulls too hard, turns the page too fast and refolds the folds or breaks the spine. If they weren’t so expensive I’d say we should just let them get trashed and replace them…but I get budgets. However, it’d make a great special event at the library—an afternoon of making pop-ups, reading them, then sharing them with friends…. I’d sign up and go myself! Now that I’ve pulled all of ours out though…I might still be busy here!

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Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?

Once there were two bears. Big Bear and Little Bear. Big Bear is the big bear, and Little Bear is the little bear. They played all day in the bright sunlight. When night came, and the sun went down, Big Bear took Little Bear home to the Bear Cave….

There was a time—and it doesn’t seem that long ago, I might add—that this gentle book was read in our own Bear Cave on a daily basis. I know there are other Big Bear and Little Bear books, but we never had them. We had just this one—Can’t You Sleep Little Bear?­­ And we loved it—both the kids and the parents.

The kids delighted in the little jokes in the words and illustrations. Big Bear is the big bear and Little Bear is the little bear was hilarious to #1 Son. Darling Daughter loved Little Bear’s acrobatics in bed when he was supposed to be settling down to sleep. (She was perhaps all too inspired by them, in fact.)

And I loved it because….well, Can’t You Sleep Little Bear is one of those books that features inspired parenting. As a parent who read a lot to the kids, I always appreciated having parental role models in the books I read—wise and understanding mothers, kind and empathetic fathers. Parents who seem to be at their best in sometimes difficult or harried circumstances (like with the child who won’t go to sleep)—not perfect, seldom perfect, in fact—but rather, simply wise people who know how to take a deep breath, ask a pertinent question, and lead the child through to the resolution if there was one to be had.

Big Bear is an inspirational Dad. He may be exhausted, but he has remarkable patience at the end of a day spent playing in bright sunlight. Sure, he grumbles a bit that he has to put down his Bear Book just when it’s getting to the interesting part—but he does put it down, and he gently addresses the situation, with nary a hint of impatience. Again and again he goes to his Little Bear who is turning flip-flops on the bed and says “Can’t you sleep, Little Bear?” (He does not yell from the other room: “FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, WILL YOU GO TO SLEEP?!”)

And when Little Bear says he’s scared, Big Bear does not say “There’s nothing to be afraid of…” No, he asks what Little Bear is scared about. “I don’t like the dark,” [says] Little Bear. Big Bear asks a clarifying question. “What dark?” And Little Bear tells him,“The dark all around us.” (We used to divvy up these lines when we read the book together. I’d say “What dark?” and they’d say, “The Dark All Around!” with very dramatic inflection.)

Big Bear looks, and he sees that the dark part of the cave is very dark, so he goes to the Lantern Cupboard and brings a small light to Little Bear. He does this several times, in fact. A larger light each time.

It’s the Lantern Cupboard that gets me. Each time Little Bear protests the dark, Big Bear brings a larger light to vanquish the darkness that is all around. From the Lantern Cupboard. I’d read that and think: shouldn’t we all have a Lantern Cupboard? With different sized lights as might be needed for different and particular situations? I’m sure I’d be a better parent if I had access to a Lantern Cupboard.

In the end, the Big Bear and Little Bear leave the Bear Cave and go out where the darkness really is all around. And Little Bear is scared, but Big Bear encourages him to look . “Look at the dark, Little Bear.” And little bear does. In the safety of Big Bear’s arms, he looks at the darkness. And in the midst of the vast darkness, he sees the moon and the twinkly stars, too.

And this, I think, is what it is to parent—Lantern Cupboard or no. We light the lights against the darkness…we go with them when and where we can…we offer our love with our strong arms wrapped around them so they can be brave and look out at all that is out there…and, hopefully, be surprised by the moon and the twinkly stars, too.

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Hidden Figures

This week, my mother and I heard Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures, speak at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series. Shetterly’s book tells the true story of Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan—three of dozens of African-American women who worked in the 1950s and ‘60s for NASA in math, science and computing. Margot Lee Shetterly is the daughter of one of the early black male scientists at the NASA installation near Hampton, Virginia. She grew up knowing these amazing women and she grew up thinking that math, science and engineering was simply what black people did. This acknowledgement, which she makes in the opening pages of the book, is the backdrop for the marvelous story she tells.

It was a large and completely packed venue Tuesday night. Ms. Shetterly was eloquent and erudite and it was an inspiring speech to have had the privilege to hear. When the audience spilled out on the sidewalks of the university campus after the event, there was a palpable energy and hope in the air. We had had our better angels called out and our beleaguered spirits responded. There was zip in our step, an urgency to our conversations, a new direction to our thoughts and dreams.

Michelle Norris welcomes author Margot Lee Shetterly to the
Hubert H. Humphrey Distinguished Carlson Lecture Series, Feb 21, 2017.

After the prepared remarks, Michelle Norris asked Ms. Shetterly a few questions. One of the questions was a variation of Why did we not know about these women before now?!, a question Ms. Shetterly said she fields again and again. Her answer: Our imaginations weren’t large enough for these amazing black female mathematicians who worked in America’s space program in the 1940s-60’s. There were too many things in the way during that time—racism and sexism were two of those things, but there were others, as well. Many trouble us still—the same -isms, of course, but also our unexamined assumptions, our biases, our tribal natures, and our general ugliness (my words, not hers).

“Looking beyond” is a theme in this remarkable book—and it could’ve easily been the title of the book, as Michelle Norris pointed out. The movie uses it brilliantly when Al Harrison and Katherine Johnson stand before a chalkboard filled with math. He tells her he needs her to look beyond the numbers at math they don’t even have—and she seems to be the only one among all those NASA scientists and mathematicians who can do that. Ms. Shetterly, in turn, invited us to look beyond easy stereotypes and characterizations, past the usual stories and unexamined history, so that we can uncover other narratives as amazing as the ones she’s given us in Hidden Figures. Her confidence that these important stories are everywhere and remain untold simply because no one tells them was positively rousing.

In closing, Michelle Norris said that there was a program/effort in place to get this book in the hands of high schoolers—news which made Margot Lee Shetterly beam. There’s a young reader’s version of this book, I know—and I’ve heard it’s wonderful—but the original version is beautifully written and easily captures the interest of teens. I hope it’s the version they receive if they receive one. A tremendous amount of history is covered in such a beautiful and accessible way—through story. Such power! Our kids need these kinds of stories—we all need these stories. We need our imagination stretched and enlarged for the work that is ahead of us.

Three generations of our family are reading this book right now. I can’t think of another book that has called us to do that all at once. I commend it to you and yours—it will not disappoint.

(P.S. The movie is most excellent. The book is superb.)

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Frog and Toad

This spring, Minneapolis’ Children’s Theater Company will put on A Year With Frog & Toad, which has stood as one of my top three theater experiences for the last dozen years or so.

We had three tickets the first time we saw it. Darling Daughter was still young enough for a “lap pass” at the time. Our household had been hit with The Plague and for days/weeks/month/going on years (it seemed, anyway) and we’d been sickly and unfit to leave our home. But I was loathe to miss the performance. We decided if we napped, medicated, and then bathed and dressed up, we could enter society. All but Dad—he was still down for the count. So I took the kids. We piled our coats on the third seat and Darling Daughter sat atop them, so thrilled to have her own seat, so thrilled to be out of the house, that she bounced through most of the performance, clapping wildly at each of Frog and Toad’s antics.

Ten minutes in I was weepy and so sorry we hadn’t drugged Dad up enough to bring him. It was fantastic! Of course the Children’s Theater Company does most excellent work—one expects to love the experience. But this was, I think, particularly well done, and I’m willing to think that it might be the source material that really gave it that extra something. Well, that and it’s a musical—could there be anything better?

I love Frog and Toad with a passion similar to my love for Pooh and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood. I love their friendship, their quotidian adventures, their goofiness, and their oh-so-distinct personalities. We have the whole collection at our house—in both English and Spanish (Sapo y Sepo inseparables, etc.)—and they bear the marks of having been repeatedly read and loved.

These are “I CAN READ Books,” but what I remember is reading them with my kids. I’d do one page, they the next. Except for Shivers, which is in Days With Frog and Toad. I was the only reader on that one—it was too shivery for anyone to work on sounding out the words. Both kids learned to read with inflection using these books. Many books—especially “I CAN READ Books,” and especially Arnold Lobel books—lend themselves to dramatic reading, but for some reason, Frog and Toad’s conversations and adventures taught them to look for the exclamation point, the question mark, and the meaning of the words as they worked so hard to get through the sentence.

Truth be told, the three of us probably could’ve recited many of the Frog and Toad stories featured in the musical that night. Certainly, even the too-young-to-be-able-to-hold-a-theater-seat-down child could’ve told you about their sledding and swimming adventures, their trip to the ice cream store, and about when Toad tried to fly a kite. We bought the CD, naturally, so it was only a few more days before we could sing the stories.

My kiddos are much older now…but I think I might try for four tickets this spring. Everyone can hold their seat down now, and if we stay well we can finally take Dad. I’ve no doubt we’ll enjoy it just as much as the last time.

 

 

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The Awards

 

In the children’s literature world, awards happened this week. They don’t receive quite the press or airtime (which is unfortunate) as The Tonys and Oscars, but they’re important and exciting all the same. Darling Daughter and I have just discussed them at some length over supper.

I love the awards. I love feeling like I predicted a few of them. I love that there are always a couple of surprises to put on my reading list. I even love that I can disagree with the selections, at times—I mean, really, that’s kind of fun. Most of all, I love that some of those that win feel extra special, whether it’s because I know the author, or because the award recognizes a deep specialness that really needs to be recognized in a book or an artist’s work over time.

I once heard a well-known Newbery author say that you can only receive something like the Newbery award as a gift. You can’t pretend for a second, this author said, that you earned it somehow. The reason? It sits on the shelf with so many other truly awesome books. The author/illustrator has certainly done something astounding—written/illustrated a spectacular book—and to have that recognized, well…that’s about as wonderful as it gets. But it’s grace. It’s gravy. It’s gift. I like that—it strikes me as being True.

One of the other things I love about the awards is the amazing work teachers and librarians do with kids to get them ready and drum up some excitement—the Mock-Newberys, Sibert Smack-downs, The Beardecotts etc. These lucky students learn how to appreciate illustrations critically, learning about and sometimes trying various art techniques. They read multiple novels and study multiple subjects in the weeks and months leading up to the awards. They learn about the process of bookmaking. They make nominations, they argue, they vote, they declare their undying love for certain authors and illustrators….. I learned none of this as a child—I’m so grateful kids do now. What an education! And what fun!

So, congratulations to all the award winners. Huzzah! to teachers and librarians everywhere. Hurray for the readers! And thank you to all of the authors and illustrators, editors and designers, agents and publishers, some of whom are never recognized with a special award. But we are grateful—so very grateful!—for your work. Our bookshelves groan in appreciation. Our minds are opened, our hearts touched. Thank you for all you do.

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The Velveteen Rabbit

Meryl Streep is in the news this week for her speech at the Golden Globes. It’s a powerful piece—though, truth be told, I think she could read out a phone directory and it would be powerful. She began by apologizing because she’d lost her voice. It was loud enough to hear, but certainly rough. I was overcome by an urge to make tea with honey while watching.

Listening to her made me think of the cassette tape we had of her reading of The Velveteen Rabbit when our kids were small. I think we received it as a gift the Christmas I was pregnant with #1 Son. I might’ve even listened to it during labor, now that I think about it. In the early stages anyway.

It is soothing in the extreme. A beautiful story…accompanied by George Winston’s December album…stellar narration; it is an astounding package. And our sweet baby listened to it every night at bedtime for the first several years of his life. I’m tempted to credit this cassette tape and Winnie-the-Pooh, which he listened to at naptime, with the reason he’s such a gentle giant of a young man.

We travelled with The Velveteen Rabbit and a small boombox with that kid—he needed it to go to sleep at night. We used it like a drug on car trips. It seldom failed us. We listened to it so often that the recording became hard to hear, which had the effect of making you listen all the harder. Truly, by the time the boy could talk, we probably could have recited the story, though not with the lovely inflection Meryl Streep conveys, of course.

We tried using it with Child #2, as well, but the recording had been loved much, and had not become real, as the Velveteen Rabbit and Skin Horse had, so much as unintelligible. You could still hear Winston’s piano, but the story didn’t quite come through. By age three, Darling Daughter often said it made her feel too sleepy and asked that it be turned off. (She has never slept as soundly or as long as her brother….)

I have several copies of this sweet story in book form—various artists have illustrated it and I have large format books and smaller, too. I don’t recall reading it to either child, however. I love to read aloud, and this is a favorite story of mine…but who can compare to Meryl Streep? Plus, seldom do I have someone in my living room at the piano to accompany my narration….

But I’m so glad our kids had this story in their life in the way they had it. Meryl Streep and George Winston spinning Margery Williams’ magical tale of love and childhood…well, I can’t think it gets much better than that.

 

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The Girl Who Drank the Moon

I confess, I’m a bit of a tough sell when it comes to fantasy books (unless they are for really young kids). I don’t do vampires, I’m not thrilled with dystopic settings, and although I love dragons and fairies, other fantastic beasts tend to make my eyes roll, and I…well, I lose interest. I believe in magic, but it has to be really well written to keep my interest, and frankly, I’ve not finished a lot of really well done fantasy novels.

I do try. Regularly, in fact. Darling Daughter is always trying to get me to make it through one of the huge fantasy tomes she’s carrying around. (Side Note: Why are they all so large? I feel like I would finish more if they were under three hundred pages.) And I always give it a go—particularly when Kelly Barnhill has a book come out, because her writing is so lovely.

I held on to Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon for quite some time. I didn’t let Darling Daughter read it first, as is often our pattern—I hid it for myself, saving it for a time when I could enjoy it all on my own. It was worth the wait.

From the first Shirley Jackson-esque (The Lottery) chapter I was hooked. It’s a terrible premise—every year the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest. But very quickly, thanks to Antain (who is at the beginning and the end of the story, but is only deftly sprinkled through the middle so you don’t forget how dear and important he is), the reader realizes that something is wonky and tenuous with regard to this carefully preserved “tradition.”

In any event, the baby in question—the one this book is about—is rescued by a kind witch named Xan, who, as it turns out, has no idea why babies are left in the forest. She has simply rescued the children and delivered them to families on the other side of the forest for ages. She’s been doing it for who-knows-how-long when she finds Luna, the baby who changes everything.

You see, Xan feeds the babies with starlight as she takes them to their new families. Starlight! This is exactly the sort of fantasy detail that makes my heart go pitter-pat. Such whimsy, such metaphor! Love it! Luna gets moonlight, not starlight, however—quite accidentally, you understand—and the moonlight fills her with extraordinary magic. Which is why Xan decides to raise her instead of giving her to a family as she usually does. Therefore, Luna grows up with a wise Swamp Monster, a Perfectly Tiny Dragon, and a kind witch as her family. These endearing characters provide a large share of the delight of the book. They did not once make me roll my eyes.

When Luna’s thirteenth birthday is on the horizon, her magic—carefully restrained by Xan for most of her childhood—begins to leak about…and the plot thickens! As she grows and changes and learns, she becomes all the more magnificent. So does the story. There are creeptastic birds, a woman with a Tiger’s heart prowling around, and heroic efforts made on the very world’s behalf.

But Luna! Oh, Luna is so incredible! She is strong and determined, loving and wild, smart and magical. The kind of magic that is real. The kind of magic all girls have—and we must help them tap it, because it’s precisely the kind of magic that the world tries to beat out of them, and now more than ever they need to tap their magic, people!

As soon as I finished it, I handed it to Darling Daughter. “It’s terrific,” I said. I did not say “It’s important!” but it is. So important. This is, as the bookjacket says, “a coming-of-age fairy tale.” It’s a gorgeous book. And I’m giving it today to one of my nieces on the occasion of her twelfth birthday. I can’t wait for her magic to be fully-realized—she’s amazing already.

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Santa’s Favorite Story

Verily, as if on cue, I have fielded the year’s first parental question about Santa Claus. It is the whispered earnestness of the askers that keeps me from rolling my eyes. What role, if any, should Santa have in a Christian family….? they whisper leaning away from the baby on their hip, lest that babe be tipped off. It’s always their first child. They want to do things right. They’re absolutely so dear, and I feel privileged that they come to me, even as I think this is largely a stupid question. I’m with Johnny Cash: Joy to the world, and here comes Santa Claus!

I can tell which way they’re leaning as soon as I tell them how much I love Santa. They either blink politely, or look tremendously relieved. (Disclaimer: I respect either, but I’m more interested in talking to the latter.) Either way, I tell them something about the history of St. Nicholas, which we celebrate each December 6th in our household. This gives the man in red some religious credentials if that seems important to the family. Then I tell them about Santa and Coca-Cola, which I find utterly fascinating. (I also find it fascinating that snopes.com covers the story.) I usually end my impassioned speech for Santa with a poorly paraphrased version of G. K. Chesterton’s views on Santa, which can be found in the second half of this meditation. (The first half is excellent, as well, but I should memorize the second half.)

If they’re still with me—by which I mean they’re true believers in Santa and they were only temporarily deluded into thinking they needed to give that up to be responsible and faithful parents—I tell them about Hisako Aoki’s and Ivan Gantschev’s book, Santa’s Favorite Story.

This book is so simple, so good, so right. The animals in the forest discover Santa asleep against a tree and they are alarmed. Santa! ASLEEP?! They wake him and Santa explains that he’d gone for a hike to get in shape for Christmas Eve. When he got tired, he decided to take a nap. Santa napping?! He muses that maybe all the presents will be too much for him this year.

Does that mean there won’t be a Christmas anymore?” the fox asks, giving voice to the worries of the entire forest’s population.

That’s when Santa tells them the story of The First Christmas. Four spreads lay out the story told in the Gospel of Luke, complete with shepherds and sheep, a bright star, and the babe lying in the manger. Santa tells his furry audience that God gave love that first Christmas and love is the best present there is.

It’s an enormously satisfying book, and it’s still in print, I believe—somewhat remarkable given that the original copyright is 1982. I love how it holds the two most famous people of Christmas together and delivers a gentle critique of rampant consumerism at the same time. Amen, I say! Get yourself a copy and have a read this Christmas. Amen.

 

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Wish

wish200I did not grow up in the south, but my parents did, so I like to claim a little southern heritage. When my kids were younger, I loved reading them books set in the south—willing into their souls the humidity, barbecue, iced tea with lemon, and accents that have the rhythm of rocking chairs found on great big porches. They enjoyed hearing how my grandparents called me “Sugar,” and I felt it vitally important they understand that Missouri peaches just might be better than the famed Georgia peaches. (It’s true–no offense to Georgia.)

I’m a big fan of Barbara O’Connor’s novels—whether they’re explicitly set in the south or not they feel southern, and when I pick them up I know I will enjoy them. So as soon as I heard her latest book, Wish, was coming out, I put a reserve on it at the library, where it was already ordered for when it came out months down the road. This is my system so I don’t forget about great books coming out. (Which seldom happens—for the really great books, anyway—but maybe that’s because I use this system, who knows?)

By the time the library notified me my copy was in, I’d already bought the book and read and loved it. So I pulled my reserved copy off the hold shelves and went to the check-out desk to let them know I didn’t need it anymore. I took my place in line behind a little girl standing with her mother. She was wearing a winter coat even though it was about sixty degrees that day. Minnesota had a lovely extended fall this year, which Minnesotans were in awe of as we ran around in our short sleeves almost to Thanksgiving, but newcomers still thought it was cold.

I heard the girl’s mother talking to the librarian. Her voice was a gentle rocking chair voice. They were signing up for library cards. The girl stared at me, eyeing me up and down. Somewhat suspiciously, perhaps. Maybe it was my short sleeves.

She looked at Wish, which I was holding down by my side. “Is that book about a dawg?” she asked, tilting her head the same way as the book.

“There’s a dog in it, yes. His name is Wishbone,” I said, pointing to the beagly looking dog on the cover.

“What’s that girl’s name?” she asked pointing to the girl on the cover with the dog.

“Her name is Charlie.”

“That’s a boy’s name,” she fired back.

I handed her the book because I could tell she wanted to look at it straight on.

“Her mama named her Charlemagne. She liked Charlie better,” I said. “It’s a really good book.”

“What’sitabout?” she asked all in one word.

“It’s about wishes…and friends…and home…and family. It’s about a girl living in a new place and she’s not sure if she likes it or not.”

“Does anything bad happen to that dawg?” she asked warily.

“Nope,” I said.

She handed the book back to me.

“Maybe you’d like to read it?” I said. “I’m not checking it out, I’m returning it.” It was my turn at the library desk.

I explained to the library worker that I didn’t need the book and asked if the little girl walking toward the door with her mother could check it out instead. Alas, someone was waiting for it, and things happen in certain orderly ways at the library, so they couldn’t check it out to her. I decided not to be irritated by this and checked it out anyway since it was still technically my turn.

I followed the girl and her mother out the door to the parking lot and gave them the book. I told them I borrowed it for them and I told the mother I thought she’d do a great job reading it out loud. I told the girl I thought she would enjoy it a lot. They both thanked me. The mother said, “Bless your heart!” about five times.

And my heart was blessed.

“What if they don’t return it?” the library worker said when I walked back in the library. “It’s checked out on your card.”

“If they need to keep it, I’ll pay for it,” I said.

We’ll find out in a few weeks, I guess. But I’m not worried.

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The Tapper Twins Run For President

tapper-twins-200-pixMy own flesh and blood accused me of stealing the other day. When it was I, not she, who procured the book, and I, not she, who was part way through it…and then she stole it from me! Hid it, really, intentionally or un- beneath her bed. I practically had to clean her room to find it. It’s gone back and forth this whole week. (I’ve been trying to extend my reading of it and not just gulp it down all at once—I suspect she’s doing the same.) Last night I finished, and I put it in my To-Do pile (casually, under a few things) so that I could write about it today.

And it was gone this morning. I immediately went across the hall to my daughter’s room. Found it after a brief search. I consider myself lucky, because the bookmark indicates she’s almost done—I’m surprised she didn’t squirrel it away in her backpack.

Speaking of squirrel, there’s a squirrel in The Tapper Twins Run For President. But she’s not to that part yet, I see from the bookmark. The squirrel is pretty much the cherry on top of some pretty elaborate icing and sprinkles on a very fun cupcake. (Claudia Tapper, one of the Tapper twins, uses many slightly over-the-top metaphors—I think it’s catching.)

I’ve written about The Tapper Twins before; but I must again, because this book has the power to rekindle your sense of humor about politics in the midst of this horrendous campaign season we are currently subjected to. The premise is this: Student Government elections are taking place at Culvert Prep and both Claudia and Reese Tapper wind up running for sixth grade president.

As it says on the author Geoff Rodkey’s website: A presidential election between a thoughtful, policy-minded female and a guy without a shred of experience who’s constantly spouting off the first thing that comes to his mind. The really great thing? You can laugh at this one without experiencing a gnawing sense of existential dread for the future of American democracy. (Watch the 42 second trailer!)

It is practically an allegory, friends. And it’s hilarious. And your kids can read it without you fearing “mature themes.” Claudia and Reese are so well drawn—as are their friends. The very best of the middle school mind and temperament, I assure you. There is zaniness (not just the squirrel) throughout and you can’t help but keep reading.

As I said the last time I wrote about the Tapper Twins, this is not the usual kind of book I’m drawn to. It’s part screen-play, part mixed media, part…scrapbook, maybe. When I stray off of the traditional novel form, which I don’t do that often, it’s generally something in the epistolary genre. The Tapper Twins offers something else all together—these books have expanded my horizons considerably.

Do yourself a favor—find a copy and then find a middle-school (or older) kid and fight over who gets to read it first. It’s a quick read and a fun one. This is the third Tapper Twins book I’ve more or less inhaled—ditto for Darling Daughter. It makes me smile to even say Tapper Twins. I’m thrilled to see another is coming.

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Thomas the Tank Engine: The Complete Collection

thomas-200pixOnce upon a time, we had a little boy who was completely enthralled with all things having to do with trains. When he fell for Thomas the Tank Engine, he fell hard, and he was not yet two. We have an extensive collection of Thomas and friends (thanks to the grandparents) complete with a living room’s miles worth of track, corresponding stations, bridges, and assorted other props. That boy is now in engineering school, and I can’t help but think that Thomas and friends (as well as Legos® and blocks etc.) had a hand to play in his education/career choice.

It had been awhile since the trains roamed the living room for days on end, when my daughter brought her babysitting charges over last spring. They could not believe their eyes when they saw our train paraphernalia—I’d not met such Thomas fans in nearly fifteen years. The 8×10 oval rug was soon transformed into a set for Thomas adventures and stories—both those familiar from books and shows and those made up on the spot.

I now have several young friends in storytime who love Thomas. Slowly I’m remembering the names and personalities of the train cars. It gives me an “in” with these preschoolers, I think—I speak their language. I know about cheeky Percy and wise Edward. I know that Thomas has the number one on his engine, whereas Edward has a two—although both are blue, it’s a beginner’s mistake to mix them up. I know that James, the Red Engine, can be a real pain at times—he’s a bit of a snob and a little too proud of his red paint. I know Annie and Clarabelle are Thomas’ friends (his coach cars, actually).

I took the giant Thomas the Tank Engine: The Complete Collection off my shelves the other day. It instantly made me sleepy. We read Thomas stories after lunch, before nap, with a great regularity. They are not terribly sophisticated stories. They tend to be more than a bit preachy. And there’s an astonishing level of detail about train bits and their workings. I was always half asleep by the time we were finished reading.

I think of the Thomas stories with the same sort of fondness with which I think of Mr. Rogers—gentle, rhythmic, sleep-inducing, post-lunch wonderfulness. And, my goodness, do I love the very serious conversations to be had when dimpled little hands hold up the cars and tell me all about the parts and personalities of each of the trains and trucks and diggers. These conversations don’t make me sleepy at all, though they do make me nostalgic for the days when it took a whole morning’s worth of negotiation to get my boy to move Thomas and his friends so I could vacuum. Vacuuming days were hard and sad days, generally reclaimed only with an extra story from The Complete Collection. And then a nap…for all concerned.

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Kingfisher Treasuries

unknown-3There was a time—although it seems like it’s becoming a tiny dot in the rearview mirror—in which one birthday child or the other received the birthday-appropriate book in the Kingfisher Treasury series of Stories for Five/Six/Seven/Eight Year Olds. Those beloved paperbacks reside on my office shelves now, but it was not so long ago that they were opened on the appropriate birthday to big smiles—there was something sort of milestone-like about receiving them. Near as I can tell from the interwebs, we’re only missing Stories for Four Year Olds—I just might have to complete our collection, because I’ve pretty well lost myself this morning while looking at these books again.

They are humble paperbacks—I don’t believe they were ever published as hardbacks, let alone with gilded pages and embossed covers. But the stories between the colorful covers are of that caliber, certainly. Chosen by Edward and Nancy Blishen, these stories are from the likes of Rudyard Kipling, Beverly Cleary, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Arthur Ransome, and Astrid Lindgren. Others, too—in addition to several folk tales retold by the compilers.

What I loved about these stories when we were reading them aloud was that they were from all over the world—many cultures and places represented. We often were looking at the globe after reading from these books. Some are traditional stories, some contemporary—an excellent mix, really. Short stories for kids—loads better than the dreary ones in grade-specific readers.

What my kids loved, curiously, was how the illustrations were tucked into the text. Every page has a clever black and white drawing—something drawn around the story’s title or running along the bottom of the page, a character sketch set in the paragraph indent, a crowd scene spanning the spread between the top and bottom paragraphs on both pages, a border of leaves or animals—very detailed, even if small. You don’t see illustration placement like these much. The books have a unique feel because of them.

unknown-4The illustrators for each book are different, but all are wonderful, and because everything is printed simply in black and white and creatively spaced on the pages the books look like they go together. Some of the drawings are sweet, cute—some you can imagine as fine art. Which is what makes me wish these had been produced in a larger hard-back version with color plates, etc.

But the fact is, the paperback trim size made it easy to slip these in my purse, tuck in the glove compartment, pack for the plane ride, etc. A lot of reading happened on the fly during those early elementary years—these books were some of the easiest to carry around and pull out at the doctor’s office, the sibling’s game, and the bus stop.

I thought about putting them out in our little free library in the front yard, but I’ve decided to keep them on my shelf. Maybe tuck one in my purse for when I’m sitting outside the high school waiting for my girl, or reading outside the dressing room while she tries on clothes. The days are flying by—I’m glad I have books to remember the sweet earlier days, too.

Perhaps I’ll buy another set to share in the library…..

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Raymie Nightingale

rn200pixDarling Daughter and I host/participate in an occasional parent-child bookgroup for middle-grade readers and their parents. We call it Books & Bagels and we meet at the bagel shop down the street from church and nosh on bagels while talking about books. I think we can safely say the bagel aspect of things increases participation—but all the kids who come are great readers and we love talking with them and their parents about books. We’ve read many of our favorites again with this group and they’ve introduced us to some we’ve missed in the last few years of publication. (Darling Daughter is, alas, outgrowing the middle-grade genre.)

We saved the reading of Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale for Books & Bagels. I scheduled it not having read the book, in fact, which is not usually how I do things. But DiCamillo’s books lend themselves to good discussion, I’ve found, so I was sure it would work well for us.

And it did. We talked about the heartbreak and the hope, the crazy characters and their friendships and flaws, and the unlikely events that could absolutely happen. We talked about how it was similar to some of DiCamillo’s other books and how it was different, too. Good discussion all the way around.

I noticed as we talked, however, that one of our regulars—I’ll call him Sam—seemed a bit disgruntled about the book. Sam and I have been discussing books for a long time—he reads both wisely and widely and we have introduced each other to many books over the years. He has just turned ten and he’s honest about what he thinks, though always kind. He’s been taught to speak his mind, but never in a way that would hurt someone else’s feelings—including, say, the author of the book who is not even present.

“Sam,” I said, “it looks like you have something you want to say.”

“Yeah…well,” said Sam. “It was a great book and all…. Well-written, of course. And, I mean, the friendship of Raymie and those other girls was great, I guess. And the lousy adults were interesting…. But—” He paused and looked at his Mom out of the corner of his eye.

“Go ahead, Sam,” she said. “Tell us what you really think.”

“It’s just that…I mean it’s fine…but it’s just…it’s such a girlie book.” He looked both relieved and ashamed at having confessed this. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.”

I asked gentle clarifying questions. I’m sort of fascinated and appalled by the idea of “girl books” and “boy books.” I want to vehemently argue that those categories don’t exist…or shouldn’t exist…or must not be allowed to exist…or something like that. But before me was a reader insisting that he understood this was a great book, but it just had way too much “girl stuff” in it to be interesting to guys like him.

“Like what kind of girl stuff?” one of the girl readers asked.

“Batons. Barrettes. Dresses.” Sam said. He shrugged apologetically.

Other kids perked up. Right, they said. Lots of girl stuff. No boy stuff whatsoever, in fact.

I was afraid to ask what “boy stuff” they thought was missing. Instead, we talked about whether various (traditionally understood) girl and boy trappings were limited or limiting. These kids know how to have good and honest conversations around perceptions and assumptions and stereotypes. We talked about whether the character of each of the girls was “girl-only.” No, everyone agreed—they knew boys who were painfully shy/anxious, or show-offy, or stubborn, just like each of the three amigos DiCamillo conjured up. They knew both boys and girls who carried heavy loads of expectation, or family distress, or who had trouble making friends. They knew themselves what it was to feel like everything, absolutely everything, depended on them. They could identify with the book—on many levels that had nothing to do with gender. And yet…this was a girlie book—on this they all agreed, as well.

It was a wonderful discussion, really. Honest. Respectful. I thanked Sam for being brave enough to say what he thought. He wondered if Kate DiCamillo made Raymie, Beverly, and Louisiana girls because she was a girl and that’s what she knew best. I said I didn’t know, but I knew that she’d also written books that featured male characters. I told him I’d share my copy of Tiger Rising with him.

As we cleaned up the bagel and cream cheese detritus I asked if anyone could suggest a book or two for our fall Books & Bagels bookgroup. Sam eagerly bounced up and down.

“I have two to suggest!” he said. “Bridge to Terabithia and The BFG.”

Two terrific books. Two terrific books that happen to have strong girl characters. I pointed this out and Sam said, “But not only girl characters. The giant is a boy!”

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Calvin Can’t Fly

Calvin-250When I was doing storytime weekly, a book about a bookworm starling was in my regular rotation. Yes, you read that right—a Bookworm Starling. That’s exactly what Calvin (the starling) is—a bookworm. And that is his shame—his cousins call him “nerdie birdie,” “geeky beaky,” and “bookworm.” Unusual (gently derogatory) labels for a starling. Not that it deters Calvin—he mostly shrugs and turns the page.

Calvin is the only starling in his very large family who does not seem to care much about flying. (Refresh your memory on how starlings move about with this astounding video of starling murmurations.) He’s into books. In a big way. While his cousins learn to fly and chase beetles, bugs, and ants, Calvin sits and learns to read letters, words, and sentences. He dreams of adventure stories, information, and poetry. His cousins dream of insect eating and garbage picking. And although they call him by the above names, they mostly ignore him, so enraptured with flying are they.

And Calvin is just as enraptured with stories and learning. Pirates and volcanoes, dinos and planets, science and history—Calvin reads it all. He reads the entire summer, learning and absorbing everything his little starling brain can.

When the seasons begin to turn, the urgency for Calvin to learn to fly becomes apparent. And yet, he manages not to learn. This creates quite an issue, because the wind has grown cold and it is time to head south….

The entire starling family takes off, minus Calvin. They don’t get far before they turn around and come back for Calvin. He is carried in the most hilarious way, which more than excuses the unkind words previously used about his reading habits.

And as it turns out, Calvin’s reading saves them—Calvin is the unexpected hero! “Make haste!” he says, leading the entire starling family to safety. Kids love this! They love that his book-knowledge of something as obscure as hurricane safety came in handy. They all but cheer—actually, once a set of twins did cheer when I read how Calvin saved them all. And kids are further delighted when Calvin flaps his wings in happiness, jumping and hopping and dancing…and flies! At last!

When I looked up the author, Jennifer Berne, I found out there’s another Calvin book! I don’t know how I missed it. Ms. Berne and the illustrator, Keith Bendis, have told an empowering story, (without being preachy!) about the wonders and necessity of reading. Can’t wait to read Calvin’s next adventures. I’m off to find a group of kids to read to….

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Cook-A-Doodle-Do!

Cook+A+Doodle+Do-260-pixI’ve got dessert on my mind—berry shortcake, to be precise. I’ve already done the strawberry shortcake during strawberry season. My raspberry bushes are producing at a rate that might call for shortcake in the near future, however. And whenever I make shortcake—or even think of it—I think of Cook-a-doodle-doo by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel (who are sisters, I believe).

This book was An Extreme Favorite at our house through two kids—one who was already on the older end of picture books when it came out. Why the popularity? Quite simply: It’s hilarious. And sweet (no pun intended). But mostly hilarious.

Big Brown Rooster is in need of a change—no more chicken feed! No more pecking about! He remembers that his very famous great-grandmother, The Little Red Hen, penned a cookbook: The Joy of Cooking Alone by L.R. Hen. Once he finds it, he realizes his great granny cooked far more than loaves of bread. And he is hungry for the strawberry shortcake featured in the middle of the book.

Like his Great-Granny before him, Big Brown Rooster is surrounded by unhelpful friends. Dog, Cat, and Goose each take their potshots at Big Brown Rooster, but he is undeterred. He ties on his apron, ready to cook all alone, only to find three new friends: Turtle, Iguana, and Pot-bellied Pig.

“Do you three know anything about cooking?” Rooster asked.

“I can read recipes!” said Turtle.

“I can get stuff!” said Iguana.

“I can taste!” said Pig. “I am expert at tasting.”

And so the team members don hats—an apron tied around Big Brown Rooster’s head, a towel around Pig’s head, an oven mitt for Iguana, and a small pot worn baseball cap-like for turtle. The illustrations are sweet and hysterical at the same time. The mix-ups and misunderstandings are on the level of the Three Stooges crossed with Amelia Bedelia. But detailed sidebars guide a home/kid cook through the correct steps. What the friends lack in experience and skill, they make up for in exuberance and excitement—so, very much like baking with children, actually.

It’s astounding when you see what they go through, but they create a beautiful (if slightly leaning) tower of strawberry shortcake. It’s only when they try to move it to the table to enjoy together that things…slip away from them. Pot-bellied Pig takes his turn—he’s the expert taster, and positively unflummoxed by shortcake being smeared across the floor. In split second—not even a page turn—the strawberry shortcake is gone.

It is then that the previously amiable friends start to lose it. Names are called and threats are intimated (plump juicy roast pig, iguana pie, turtle soup etc.)

But wise Rooster takes command. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “The first shortcake was just for practice.”

And so they make another. The three friends—Iguana, Pig, and Turtle—volunteer to help again, and it’s quick work the second time around. The last spread features a party of friends—including the nay-saying Dog, Cat and Goose!—enjoying strawberry shortcake. The last page features Great-Granny’s recipe for Magnificent Strawberry Shortcake.

I think I’ll make some tonight!

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Bink and Gollie

Early this morning I read Bink and Gollie books to my nieces. We were killing timeBink&Golliebook-180pix while their parents picked up the rental car for their Great American Summer Roadtrip. To say that the level of excitement was palpable is an understatement—it was a wave that nearly knocked me down when they opened their door. They talked—both of them—nonstop for an hour while we sipped our breakfast smoothies.

Mom and Dad were not back when we sucked down the final drops of smoothie, which was concerning, so anxious were they to get on the road already. I said, “Well, what can we do…that we can put down if your Mom and Dad come back in two minutes…and pick back up after your trip?”

“Books!” said one.

“YEAH—WE CAN READ BOOKS!” said the other.

“On the deck!”

“In the sunshine!”

“Let’s do it!”

And so we took Bink and Gollie with us to the sunny deck. No matter how excited these sweet girls get—and let me tell you, they were excited this morning!—they calm down instantly with a book. Their breathing changes by page two. And so we snuggled up and read, breathing deeply in the early morning sunshine.

I’d forgotten how much of the story is told in the pictures in Bink and Gollie books—and how many words are in the pictures. Labels and instructions, signs and notes, jokes and fun. Because both girls are learning to read, this works really well. I read the story itself and they read the pictures. The pictures are often filled with big words. (So is the story itself—it’s something I appreciate about Kate DiCamillo’s and Alison McGhee’s writing. They do not simplify vocabulary.) Some things we have to sound out together, but the real fun is getting the inflection right. Reading it in our Gollie voice, or like a 1940’s radio advertisement, or like a carnival barker.

Bink and Gollie are opposites in many ways—Gollie is tall and skinny, pragmaticBink&Gollie-180-pix and formal in her speech. She says things like I long for speed. And Greetings. And I beg you not to do that…. My nieces find this amusing. They are also tall and skinny, pragmatic (sometimes, anyway), and hilariously formal in their speech at times.

Bink is short and has hair sticking up all over her head. She loves bright socks and pancakes and peanut butter. No one would call my nieces short. (“We don’t have that problem,” one of them said this morning as we read about Bink ordering a Stretch-o-matic to make herself taller.) But their hair is sometimes Bink-like. And they delight in the simple things of life—including, but not limited to, socks, celebratory pancakes, and peanut butter. They also have Bink’s energy—they yammer, they jump, they zip, they climb and glide.

In short, they love both Bink and Gollie. They are Bink and Gollie—they can relate, as it were. Bink and Gollie have adventures, a sweet friendship, and they rollerskate everywhere—these details light up my sweet girls. They enjoy decoding the words in the pictures and getting the joke. They are envious of the treehouse in which Bink and Gollie live. They’d like to visit Eccles’ Empire of Enchantment—and maybe hit a Bargain Bonanza. (Maybe the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota will satisfy them.)

Bink and Gollie got us almost to Mom and Dad’s return. We did have to take a little field trip to my house (just around the corner) because their cousin was baking scones, but then Mom and Dad were home, the rented Jeep was loaded in record time, and off they went!

I wonder if they’re levitating with excitement in their car seats, chattering away like Bink or saying I long for the mountains…. like Gollie. They invited me to sneak in their car and go with them. Maybe I should’ve taken them up on it.

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How To Make An Apple Pie and See The World

How To Make An Apple Pie and See The WorldA couple of years ago, I decided I wanted to learn how to make a really good pie. I asked around—bakers, caterers, cooking store owners etc. and the book The Pie and Pastry Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum came up consistently. One person mentioned How to Make An Apple Pie and See The World  by Marjorie Priceman. I purchased both—one for the how-to and one for inspiration.

The Pie and Pastry Bible is enormous and beyond detailed (like reading an organic chemistry book in some places). It has been extremely helpful. Under its tutelage, I’m proud to say I can turn out a decent pie with a flaky, toothsome crust, and filling that holds together (mostly) and delights the senses in its sweetness and texture.

How to Make and Apple Pie and See The World is something else entirely. Technically, it is also a how-to, I suppose, but a person could get lost in the adventure of it.

Making an apple pie is really very easy.
First, get all the ingredients at the market.
Mix them well, bake, and serve.

Let me tell you, Rose Levy Beranbaum would scream and pull her hair out by the roots reading these instructions; but with a simple page turn, Marjorie Priceman acknowledges the difficulties that can arise.

Unless, of course, the market is closed.

What is to be done then? Well, you go home pack a suitcase. With walking shoes and your shopping list, catch a steamship bound for Europe and use the six days on board to brush up on your Italian. Why? Well, you’ll need it when you arrive in Italy during the harvest (timing is important, Priceman acknowledges) to gather yourself some superb semolina wheat.

Photodune: Happy Cow | by Aruba2000You’ll head to France for the chicken (the eggs! You need eggs!) and then Sri Lanka for the kurundu tree (cinnamon!). Upon hitching a ride to England you’ll “make the acquaintance of a cow”—one with good manners and a charming accent. You’ll take her with you because only the freshest milk will do.

On the way to Jamaica (for sugar!) you’ll nab a jar of salty sea water (simply evaporate and you have the salt!) and then fly home. Ingredients should remain fresh, after all. Both Beranbaum and Priceman agree that fresh ingredients are of the utmost importance. You’ll parachute into Vermont for the apples—you can’t forget the apples when you’re making apple pie.

Once home, there’s simply milling and grinding and evaporating and persuading (the chicken to lay an egg) and milking and churning and slicing and mixing to do!

While you wait for the pie to bake, you simply ask a friend over to share!

I love this book and the kids I’ve read it to love it, too. We spin the globe and find all the countries of origin for the pantry staples. We talk about where our food comes from, and if it is possible to make some of our favorite foods with all local ingredients. We talk about how much work it is to grow and prepare food and how many people we depend on to do that. We enjoy the pictures—the delightful heroine who tirelessly globe-trots so she can make a pie to share with friends.

A quick internet search yields lesson plans and homeschooling ideas for this book—few mention actually baking a pie, which makes me sad. Is there anything more homey than a made-from-scratch pie? I think not.

Apple Pie by robynmac | Photodune

Got some backyard raspberries? A u-pick strawberry farm? Consider a bake-n-read this summer with some kids. It’ll be messy, but fun!

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The Sandwich Swap

The Sandwich SwapNormally, I spurn picture books written by celebrities, be they actors or royalty or what have you. If it’s a person in the headlines, I quite assume they could not possibly write a worthy picture book. The only exception on my shelves, I believe (and I realize there are other exceptions! Feel free to leave titles in the comments.) is The Sandwich Swap by Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah with Kelly Depucchio, illustrated by Tricia Tusa.

I adore this book and have read it to many groups of kids. It’s about two best friends, Salma and Lily, who do most everything together—they draw, they swing, they jump rope. And every day they eat lunch together—Lilly always has a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on squishy white bread, and Salma always has a hummus sandwich on pita bread. Secretly, they each find their friend’s choice of sandwich mystifying. Gooey peanut paste? Ew Gross! Icky chickpea paste? Ew yuck! But they don’t say this to each other.

Until one day they do. Lily blurts out her feelings about Salma’s sandwich.

Salma frowned. She looked down at the thin, soft bread, and she thought of her beautiful, smiling mother as she carefully cut Salma’s sandwich in two neat halves that morning. 

The next line is the most brilliant in the book, I think: Her hurt feelings turned to mad.

Isn’t that how it goes? Once, when I read this in story time a little boy smacked his forehead with his hands and said, “Oh no!”

Oh no, is right—Salma snaps back with hurtful words about the grossness and offensive smell of Lily’s sandwich.

Lily looked surprised. She sniffed the thick, squishy bread, and she thought of her dad in his silly apron, whistling as he cut Lily’s sandwich into two perfect triangles that morning.

Well, the disagreement is personal and hurtful, and the friends part ways after a few more hurtful exchanges. No more picture drawing, swinging, and jump roping. They don’t eat together, they don’t talk…and the pictures are exquisite—two deflated girls without their best friend.

Meanwhile…the story spread and everyone in the lunchroom began to choose sides around the peanut butter and hummus sandwiches.

Pretty soon the rude insults had nothing at all to do with peanut butter or hummus.

Sandwich Swap“That’s so dumb!” said one outraged girl I was reading to.  I nodded vaguely and turned the page to the two-page spread of a food fight right there in the lunchroom. “See!” said the girl. She held her head as if she had the worst headache.

This is how wars start, people! Interestingly, every time I look for this book on my shelf I’m looking for the title “The Sandwich War” and am then reminded that the actual title is more…peaceful. As is the book in the end.

Salma and Lily come to their senses as pudding cups and carrot sticks whip past their heads. They’re required to help clean up the mess and they’re sent to the principal’s office, as well. Again, the illustrations carry the feelings—two small girls, made smaller by all that has happened.

The next day, brave Salma sits down across from Lily at lunch. In return, Lily works up the courage to ask Salma if she’d like to try her peanut butter and jelly sandwich. A swap occurs, as well as glad exclamations of the yumminess of each others sandwiches.

The girls hatch a plan, which is depicted entirely in a gorgeous pull-out three page spread.

Sandwich Swap

When I read this to kids, we looks at all the flags and try to identify them. We wonder what food was brought to represent each country. I’ve always wanted to have such a potluck after the book, but although I’ve been to such potlucks, I never seem to have the book with me at the right time. Perhaps I just need to carry it around in my purse… Or create such an event!

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One Day at the Farmers Market

Farmers MarketSaturday was gorgeous, and (Oh joy! Oh rapture!) the opening day of the Mill City Farmers Market, one of my favorite markets here in the Twin Cities. I got up and out the door in such a hurry I forgot my market basket, but no matter—there were just the earliest of crops available: asparagus, spinach, rhubarb…. I could carry the few things I needed—and truth be told, I was really after the experience more than the food. The chilly air coming off the Mississippi, the violin player on the corner, the chatter of vendors and customers, small kiddos looking for future crops like berries and corn-on-the-cob and apples…this is the kind of thing that will clear the rest of winter from the recesses of your soul! I got my coffee and blissfully wandered the stalls. If I were to design the perfect morning, this really is it.

And then—an unexpected gift!

Just as I was leaving for the busy Saturday ahead of me, I heard a rich baritone sing out. “STO-ries! STO-ries! It’s storytime! STORYtime!” The hair on he back of my neck stood up (in a good way). STORYTIME! Well, I wasn’t going to leave without stories!

I moseyed back over to the stone steps of the Guthrie Theater, the usual spot for programming during the farmers market. And sure enough, a company actor was there with a stack of kid books. Parents were getting their sticky-farmers-market- smudged-up kids settled at the man’s feet, moving to sit up a step or two and enjoy their coffee in peace. I fit right in, I told myself, even without any kids with me. I just sat down with the parents and smiled down benevolently on the squirmy mosh-pit of would-be story listeners, as if one of them was mine.

Reading at the Mill City Farmers Market

Reading and Storytelling at the Mill City Farmers Market

No sooner had the reader begun than all wiggles stopped. The first book: One Day In The Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree by Daniel Bernstrom, illustrated by Brendan Wenzel. I couldn’t believe my luck! Bernstrom and I had gone to grad school together—and the book was but days old! I hadn’t even made it to the bookstore to get my copy yet!

One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus TreeWell, it’s a hoot of a book—as I knew it would be—and what I witnessed on the steps to the Guthrie was none other than Storytime MAGIC. A marvelous story, terrific illustrations, and a fantastic reader! (I mean, the guy is a professional!) The kids were rapt as this man belted out the lines of the little boy who outsmarts the yellow snake who swallowed him up.

It’s a story with some similarities to I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly and also to Brer Rabbit. The boy in this story is the Smart One, a more positive moniker, I think, than “Trickster,” as Brer Rabbit is often called. The yellow snake is taken by this smart boy. Everytime he swallows someone or something up, the boy talks about how much more room there is inside…and so the snake takes another victim. And then another. And another. It’s the very smallest thing that proves too much, of course, and the gross results were most pleasing to the young audience. One little girl clapped hard as the snake “expectorated” everyone and everything in his stomach.

Oh the kids loved it! The swingy rhymes, the fun word-rhythms—their little bodies swayed in time. The suspense! The fun! Their faith in the boy! Their joy as the snake’s belly grew larger and larger. “Look at that belly!” our storyteller exclaimed every other page turn.

It all worked to make me quite teary behind my sunglasses as I sat there among the young families. I was so happy for Daniel, so grateful this wonderful actor lent his voice and storytelling to the morning, so glad to have heard my classmate’s story before I read it. He has a wonderful gift with words and fun and rhythm and rhyme.

In my estimation, it was quite the perfect morning. Perhaps the only thing that could’ve made it better was having a little sticky person of my own on my lap to hear the story with me. But alas, those days are pretty well gone for me. (Sometimes I’m still able to borrow.) So it’s just the pure joy of being read to now, which, as it turns out, I’ve not outgrown. Don’t plan to either.

Thanks Daniel, thanks Mr. Wenzel—your book is terrific. Thank you Mill City Farmers Market and Guthrie Theater. Thank you to the wonderful storytime reader whose name I did not catch—your sung “STO-ries!” made my day. You were wonderful! The whole thing was wonderful.

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The Odious Ogre

The Odious OgreI’m a big fan of Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer. I can remember reading it as a kid and thinking it both hilarious and clever. And I loved the words! So many words!

So when the Juster-Feiffer team came out with The Odious Ogre a few years back, I leapt at it. A picture book! A long picture book! My favorite kind! Full of long words and clever phrasings—it is a hoot. I’ve read it to pre-schoolers through middle-schoolers—they and their adults laugh.

The Odious Ogre lives on his reputation mostly—and it’s a ghastly reputation. He was, it was widely believed, extraordinarily large, exceedingly ugly, unusually angry, constantly hungry, and absolutely merciless.

At least that was his reputation—it’s what everyone thought or supposed or had heard or read …. As Juster says: No ogre ever had it so good. He terrorized the surrounding villages and everyone just … well, let him. They thought it was hopeless, that there was nothing they could do.

No one can resist me, says the Ogre. I am invulnerable, impregnable, insuperable, indefatigable, insurmountable …. He had an impressive vocabulary having accidently swallowed a large dictionary while eating the head librarian in one of the neighboring towns.

Now I know there are those who will read that sentence of wonderful i-words and and the detail of eating librarians and they will think one of two things (if not both): There’s a vocab list! OR, why would she read that to pre-schoolers?!

My husband just looked over my shoulder at the illustrations and said, “Wow. That looks violent.” And there are violent scenes, to be sure. (Although they’re pictures in sweet pen and inky water colors, so the impact is softened.) The best scene is when the ogre throws a temper tantrum, leaping and hurling himself around the garden of a completely unflappable young girl outside of her beflowered cottage. She’d just offered him tea. And muffins. This floors the ogre. He worries that his reputation might be in jeopardy. So he bellows and stomps and blusters. He grimaces and twitches and snorts, all while belching, clawing and drooling in an attempt to frighten the imperturbable young woman. There’s a two-page spread of his reign of terror. The children adore it. The younger they are, the more they delight in it.

gr_odious_ogre_tantrum

The girl is at first overwhelmed. Then she recovers herself, sets down her plate of muffins and applauds with great enthusiasm for a full minute.

“What fun, how magical, how wonderful!” she exclaimed. “Would you consider doing that for the orphans’ picnic next week? I know the children would love it.”

It simply doesn’t matter that the three-year-olds cannot define all of the words. They know exactly what is going on—they’ve thrown such spectacles themselves, after all! They think it hilarious that the young woman wants the ogre to do it again on purpose.

Tucked in my copy of The Odious Ogre, I have sheets that I made that fold into a wee little book. It helps the kids to write their own story about  (Name) , The Most (adjective) Ogre. It asks them to name their ogre, describe their ogre, draw the ogre-y face, describe the ogre’s voice and sounds ….

Kids love this activity! At first I thought it was the size of the book (maybe 2 inches by 3 inches). But I actually think it’s the words. They come up with such creative words after hearing such thesaurastic strings of adjectives from Juster. They name their ogres things like Christilliblly and Amdropistily. They describe their ogres with words like humungo, tizzlly, and grubbling. They use all the crayons in the box when they draw their ogre’s portrait, and they change their own little voices in the most amazing ways to let me hear how their ogre sounds.

Big words, long rambly sentences, large art spreads—this is a great book for kids of all ages. I stand by my call for the longer picture book. I wish Juster and Feiffer would do a series for my personal storytime pleasure.

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Books as Therapy

FrindleI confess to using books therapeutically. When my kids were little and the day had gone wonky and none of us were at our best, a pile of picture books was a sure-fire way to reset us all. It was partly the snuggles, but mostly the shared experience of reading the stories we loved. As they’ve grown, I’ve been known to read them happy books when they are sad (and sometimes sad books, just to help us lean into it) and silly books when anger and tears have had their way with us. I’ve picked “topical” books when it seemed that approaching an issue at a “slant” might be the way to go.  And I’ve picked up books and insisted we read when I didn’t know what else to do.

Recently, I heard Andrew Clements talk about his writing life and his books at the Festival of Faith & Writing. I reread Frindle, my favorite of his books, on the plane on the way to the conference. Predictably, it made me cry, just as the flight attendant came by with pretzels and juice. I was a little afraid Mr. Clements himself would make me cry just by, you know, being up there on stage; but he talked about his childhood and his early married years and finding his way as a writer…. And it was delightful! He was exactly as you expected Andrew Clements to be while presenting to a group of teachers, writers, librarians, and readers (mostly adults, some kids).

And then, at the end he rifled through some papers, saying he wasn’t sure if he’d talk about this next thing…. But he did. Or rather he read it. He’d been presenting for an hour extemporaneously, but now his eyes were glued to the page and he read us prepared remarks. He wasn’t even a full sentence in before we understood why he was reading and not telling the story “off-the-cuff.”

Not long after the December 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, Clements was contacted with a request he both could not refuse and could not imagine. While the world watched and prayed, the school and community worked hard to piece together life for the kids, teachers and staff, and their families. Someone floated the idea of an all-school read—something for all ages, something they might enjoy  together, something besides the tragedy to help re-define them.

They needed a book that took place in a school. A book that both children and adults who were riddled with shock and terror and grief could focus on. A book that was maybe a little funny—in spots, at least. A book that did not contain the names of any of the victims of the violence that had torn apart their school community. They needed a book that could bring hope and light to their lives again.

They chose Frindle. They asked Clements to come and so he and his wife went. He told us how he was led through the police check points in the parking lot and at the school doors…. How he was escorted into the school gathering by the library worker who had shielded eighteen kids in a closet in the library during the shooting…. How they explained the importance of not making any loud noises or sudden movements…. 

And then he read Frindle to those kids and teachers. He said he and his wife agreed it was one of the holiest spaces and times they’d ever experienced.

There wasn’t, of course, a dry eye in the auditorium. Those of us in the audience could hardly breathe while he read this account. I can’t imagine the strength it must have taken for this beloved author to read his work to those children and their teachers. Such an honor, such a privilege.

Books can be so therapeutic—and the reading of them together even more so. I think the idea of an all-school read at Sandy Hook Elementary was brilliant, the choice of book and author inspired. Read your way into some holiness with a kid (or a whole group of them) today if you can. Whenever and wherever we can gather over books…holy time and space is found.

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Beverly Cleary

Beverly Cleary, 1971

Beverly Cleary, 1971

For the last month I have been reading articles, toasts, essays, and interviews with one of my favorite authors of all time: Beverly Cleary. She turned 100 years old this week. Everything I read about her makes me misty-eyed—the birthday plans in her home state of Oregon … her memories of being in the lowest reading group, the Blackbirds, in elementary school … that she writes while baking bread … how she named her characters … that she was a “well-behaved girl” but she often thought like Ramona (me, too!!!) … the fan mail she still receives in a steady stream … SIGH.

My second grade teacher, Mrs. Perkins, read us Ramona the Brave. It was a new book that year—she used it to show us how to open a brand-new book and “break in” the binding so that the pages would turn easily. She told us that it was part of a series and I remember being out of sorts that she would start mid-series, but then I was so engrossed in the story that I dropped my grudge.

Reading Is FundamentalMy elementary school was a RIF (Reading Is Fundamental) school. RIF day was easily my favorite day of the year. I understood that RIF existed to put books in the hands of kids who would not otherwise own books. I had books at home, though many of my classmates did not, and I was always a little nervous that somehow I would be excluded—what if someone reported my little bookshelf, or the fact that I received a book every birthday? What if I was pulled aside—not allowed to go pick a book?! But it never happened. No questions asked—just encouragement to pick a book of my very own. RIF Bliss!

Ramona the PestThat second-grade-year, when my class went down to the entrance lobby of the school to visit the tables and tables piled with books (this remains my image of abundance), the very first book I saw was Ramona the Pest. I knew it had to be related to Ramona the Brave, and was proud to have the presence of mind—my heart beat hard in the excitement of my discovery!—to confirm that the author’s name, Beverly Cleary, was listed under the title. Mrs. Cleary lived in Oregon, Mrs. Perkins said. It was a place so far away from central Illinois that I was surprised one of her books could have made its way to our RIF tables. I scooped it up and carried it around with me as I perused all of the other books. We were allowed to choose only one book, but none of the others even came close to tempting me to put down Ramona the Pest.

illustration by Louis Darling

illustration by Louis Darling

I’m astounded when I look at lists of Beverly Cleary’s books and their publication dates. She started the Ramona series in 1955. My mother was nine years old! The last in the series, Ramona’s World, was written when my son was two, in 1999. And that’s just the Ramona books! What a career! At least three generations have read and loved Cleary’s books.

I still have that little trade-paperback book. It’s well worn—I read it many times as a kid. And I read it to my kids, too, of course. It’s the only Ramona book I own—through all of the cover changes and box sets, I’ve just stuck with my one little RIF book.

I might change that this week, though. I think perhaps I’ll buy myself a boxed set of Ramona and make a donation to RIF in Beverly Cleary’s honor.

Happy Birthday, Beverly Cleary!

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Rose Meets Mr. Wintergarten

Rose Meets Mr. Wintergarten

Rose meets Mr. Wintergarten by Bob Graham has been around for awhile. I’ve been reading it to kids for almost as long as it’s been on this side of the pond. But I’ve read it two different ways, and I’m ready to confess that now.

I love most everything about this sweet picture book. I adore the Summerses—what a great hippie-like family!—especially Mom in her loose fitting dress and sandals and crazy earrings. I love the illustrations—particularly the gobs and gobs of flowers. And I experience nothing but delight with the marvelous contrast provided by Mr. Wintergarten—his dark house that the sun never hits; his cold, gray, uninviting dinner with floating gristle and mosquitoes breeding on top; his dusty coattails and huge empty dining room table. I think the not-so-subtle puns found in the neighbors’ last names (which a four-year-old had to point out to me) are brilliant.

And the story itself! Sweet Rose, brave enough to venture over to her neighbor’s house despite the neighborhood children’s stories of Mr. Wintergarten’s mean and horrible reputation, his wolf-dog and saltwater crocodile, his penchant for eating children…. I love it all.

Except that last bit. “No one ever goes in there,” said Arthur, “in case Mr. Wintergarten eats people.” I hate that. And it functions almost like a spell in the story, because as soon as Arthur delivers this worst-of-the-worse news, Rose’s ball goes over Mr. Wintergarten’s fence.

For a long time, I just left off the incaseMr.Wintergarteneatspeople part of what Arthur says. I thought it sufficiently exciting for my wee story-listeners that nobody ever went in there…(drumroll!)…and now Rose would go in there. It was but a small change—a tiny omission, I reasoned. It’s not like I totally changed the story.

Rose Meets Mr. WintergreenWhen Rose goes to ask her mother what to do and her mother suggests, like all good hippie-mothers, that she simply go ask Mr. Wintergarten to give her ball back, Rose says she can’t  “Because he eats kids.” To which her no-nonsense hippie-mother says, “We’ll take him some cookies instead.”

Again, the cannibalistic innuendo was just too much for me. I’d look at those sweet little faces, rapt in the story I was reading them…and it was just easiest to have Rose remain silent when her mother asks why she doesn’t just go make the proper inquiry. Then all I had to do was leave off the word “instead” when her mother suggests the cookie idea. The book taught hospitality among neighbors—excellent!

I read it like this for years. I didn’t feel bad about it at all. I was protecting the children! And then one day, amongst the crowd of children at my feet, there was a reader.

“Hey!” he said. “You skipped a line.”

“I did?” I said.

The boy stood and approached. “Yeah, right here. “No one ever goes in there,” said Arthur, “in case Mr. Wintergarten eats people.” He underlined the words with his index finger. I feigned surprise upon seeing them. I complimented him on his astute reading skills.

Nervously, I checked on the rest of the wee vulnerable storytime children at my feet. They were looking up at me in what I can only describe as thoroughly delighted horror.

“He EATS kids?” a little girl said.

“For real?” said another.

Rose Meets Mr. Wintergarten“Probably not,” said the reading child. “They probably just think he eats kids.”

“Oh….” Big eyes looked at me and the older, wiser, more worldly reading boy.

So when Rose’s Mom says they’ll take cookies, I, of course, put in the word “instead.”

“That’s a good idea,” said a sweet little girl with dark curls. She nodded vigorously. “A really good idea.”

“Yeah,” said her little brother. “Everyone likes cookies.”

As you might guess, Rose’s brave overtures earn her a new friend in Mr. Wintergarten. Turns out her old neighbor hadn’t even opened his drapes in years. Once he goes outside and kicks Rose’s ball back over the fence—losing his slipper in the process—he’s pretty much a new man. As are the children, who learn their reclusive neighbor’s reputation might be a bit exaggerated.

I’ve not omitted the cannibalistic lines since. I bite my tongue so I don’t soften them with a “Oh that’s just silly, isn’t it?!” I just read it straight. Kids love this book—I think, much as it pains me to admit it, all the more so because of the previously censored lines. They can take it, I guess. Who knew?

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Caps for Sale

Caps for SaleMy college boy is home this week. So far his spring break has been spent fighting a doozy of a virus, lying about feverish and wan. Perhaps there is slight comfort in Mom making tea and soup, verses the non-hominess of the dorm, I don’t know. He seems grateful. I asked if he wanted something to read and went to his bookshelves to see if there was something light a98nd fun—an old favorite, perhaps—to while away the languishing hours on the couch.

I’d imagined a novel he could lose himself in—Swallows & Amazons or Harry Potter, maybe, but I found myself flipping through picture books. Most of the picture books are in my office these days, but some of the extra special ones are kept on each of the kiddos’ bookshelves. Caps for Sale: The Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys and Their Monkey Business by Esphyr Slobodkina is one such picture book for #1 Son.

Goodness how he loved that book when he was a little boy! For awhile we had it perpetually checked out from the library. I renewed and renewed until I could renew no more, then I found a sympathetic librarian who checked it back in and let me check it right back out. She did this for us twice. Then I lost my nerve to ask for such special favors yet again and I bought the book.

I bet we read that book every day for over a year. It was before he was really talking—he called monkeys key-keys and he thought they were hilarious. He’d shake his finger, just like the peddler in absolute delight. “You monkeys, you! You give me back my caps!” Then he’d shake both hands, again just like the peddler; then kick one foot against the couch when the peddler stamped his foot, and both feet when the peddler stamped both feet. Each time he’d make the monkey reply “Tsz, tsz, tsz!” as well.

Caps for Sale

He liked to pile layers of hats (or shirts or socks) on his head like the peddler stacked his caps, and he loved to throw them on the ground, which is how the peddler eventually gets the monkeys to give back the caps they’ve stolen from his napping head. I watched him re-enact the entire book once when he was supposed to be taking a nap.

He learned sorting as he noticed the different colors and patterns of the caps and how the peddler stacked them up to take his inventory under the tree. He did this with playdough disk. “Caps!” he’d say when he made tall columns of red circles, blue circles, and yellow circles. I remember thinking this was uncommonly brilliant for an under two-year-old.

I offered to read it to him this afternoon. He declined, but the smile was wide, if still weary, when I showed him the book. I left it next to the couch, just in case he starts to feel better and wants to revisit it.

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Worm Loves Worm

Worm Loves Wormfinally had a chance to read one of my new favorite picture books—Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian, illustrated by Mike Curato—to a group of kids. It was Valentine’s Day—the kids were making valentines, learning origami, and listening to love stories read by moi.

My mistake was trying to call them away from the origami and stickers and scraps by saying: Hey kids! Let’s read some love stories!

A couple of them looked up and made a face, but most ignored me. The adults came to my aid and tried to get everyone to circle up, but the assurances that everyone could go back to their crafting did little to persuade. They’re readers, but they’re also crafters. Unfair to make them choose, but I did. I announced grandly, “The first book is about worms….”

That got their attention.

“Worms?” they said.

“I thought you said you were reading love stories,” said one child (who will be a lawyer some day.)

“Yes,” I said. “This is a love story. About worms.”

A few left their scraps and stickers and came over to see. I started the story.

Worm loves Worm.

“Let’s be married,” says Worm to Worm.

“Yes!” answers Worm.

“Let’s be married.” 

“I didn’t know worms could get married!” said one child. More joined our circle.

I turned the page. Worm and Worm’s friend Cricket volunteers to marry them, because you have to have someone to marry you—“that’s how it’s always been done.”  

That’s How It’s Always Been Done is a major refrain in this book.

“Now can we be married?” asks Worm.

But no, not yet. Beetle insists on a best beetle, and volunteers himself for the role. The Bees insist on being bride’s bees. And then there are the rings to consider—because, of course, “that’s how it’s always been done.”

It goes on and on—the usual trapping of a wedding, the ways “it’s always been done”—are trotted out as hurdles, if not quite objections. Patiently the worms adapt. Their friends see how things can be different. They’ll wear the rings like belts, not having fingers. They’ll do The Worm at the dance, not having feet to dance with. Their friend Spider will attach the hat and flowers with sticky web and eat the cake “along with Cricket and Beetle,” since worms do not eat cake.

Now, the adults in the room understood the story as a clever way to turn the same-gender vs. different-gender marriage debate upside down. They were delighted. These are parents who have raised their kids to support marriage for all—indeed, some of the kids in my audience are being raised in a family with two moms/dads.

The kids understood the more subtle message behind the story, though. It’s about change. It’s about learning to see past How It’s Always Been Done. They didn’t even blink when one worm wore a veil and tux and the other wore a dress and top hat. This is how kids play dress up, after all. Details do not stymie children the way they do adults.

Worm Loves Worm0797

The ending to this book is happy. When Cricket objects that “That isn’t how it’s always been done.” Worm says, “Then we’ll just change how it’s done.” The other worm said, “Yes.”

And the children said, “Yes.” And then they went back to their Valentines.

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A Walk in the Woods

I tend to win things. Not always, of course…but if there’s an “enter to win” offer that shows up on Facebook and I don’t mind the sponsoring party having my email or mailing address (usually they already do), I enter. I’ve won concert and play tickets, music, dinner, and books this way. I think maybe not many other people enter. Or I’m extraordinarily lucky. Perhaps I should buy lottery tickets?

Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the WoodsThe latest thing I won was two copies of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods plus two movie tickets (it was a promo for the movie); though now that I think about it, I never received the movie tickets. Doesn’t matter. Two copies of the book arrived at my house from Penguin Random House as soon as I gave them my address; which I might add, they already had.

A few weeks later I threw one of the copies in a care-package headed to #1 Son at college. He’s at an engineering school and I’m just so afraid he’ll forget to read what with all the math and science. (This really isn’t likely, but I have to worry about something.) He’s in a hyper-woodsy-outdoorsy location and had recently announced an interest in doing some longer hikes.

Me: How long?

#1 Son: A long trail, maybe….

Me: Like the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail? That kind of long?

#1 Son: Yeah, maybe….

Me: By yourself? I texted back as relaxed as I could.
Notice there’s no exclamation point after the question mark—that means I was [faking] relaxed.)

#1 Son: Yeah, that’d be cool….

So there’s something else for me to worry about. But I try to alternate that worrying with my worries about the snow shelters he’s now into building. (They’re engineering students—this means they have all the yearnings and yet not all the skills to build things safely. Ventilation, for instance—that’s my worry this week. When you factor in the still developing pre-frontal cortex of these little boys, I mean, young men…well, like I said, I have to worry about something.)

ANYWAY…a week or so after I sent the book, I asked if he’d read it. He said he’d started it but had to put it down because of finals. “I can tell it would be distracting,” he said. And what’s a mother to say to that? So he packed it and brought it home for winter break—it’s a well-traveled book at this point. He curled up in the red reading chair in the living room his first full day home and pretty much only put it down to eat. He read and laughed and kept saying “You have to read this!” to any of us who passed through the living room.

So here we are a month later and I still haven’t read it. (Still intend to.) But #1 Daughter picked it up as soon as her brother left. She also lounged about in the red reading chair and giggled through the whole thing. “You have to read this!” she said whenever her father and I walked into the living room.

This marks a milestone of some sort in our family. We have read so many books together, and our eldest has handed down books he loved to his sister over the years, but they were books I’d read (and purchased for him). This is the first time, I do believe, that both of them have devoured a book (an adult book at that) and neither of their parents have gotten to it yet. They laugh and joke and talk about it and just keep repeating: You have to read it!

It’s coming up in the pile. In fact, I might just start it tonight….

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Little Peggy Ann McKay

“I might have instamatic flu,” said the young girl as her mother checked her in at the doctor’s office.

“Let’s hope not,” her mother replied.

Instamatic flu. Instamatic…flu….

The words bounced around in my head.

“My mouth is wet, my throat is dry…” the girl said in half-hearted sing-songy voice as they took a chair in the waiting room.

Her mother dropped a kiss onto her daughter’s forehead in that way mothers do to check for fever.

“Are you going blind in your right eye?” she asked. The little girl giggled softly.

Shel Silverstein | Where the Sidewalk EndsAh! Yes! “Sick” from Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. A poem about Little Peggy Ann McKay, who could not go to school (today) for all of the maladies she suffered—a gash, a rash and purple bumps…her hip hurt when she moved her chin and her belly button was caving in…her nose was cold, her toes were numb, she had a sliver in her thumb….

I checked myself in and took a seat directly across from the mother-daughter pair. I studied them surreptitiously over my magazine. The girl leaned on her Mom. Despite her sense of humor, she obviously didn’t feel well. It was her mother I was interested in, however. She was perhaps the right age. I searched her face, looking for a little girl I might have known once upon a time….

She smiled tightly at me in that way that said, “What are you looking at?” I went back to my magazine. Nothing about her looked familiar. It would’ve been reassuring had she been Terese or Bella or Jazmine…. It would be comforting to know she’d made it to adulthood, had a daughter when she was close to thirty and a doctor’s office she could take that daughter to when she was sick. It’d be nice to know they had little mother-daughter jokes about a silly poem. That would’ve made my day, actually.

Twenty years ago I worked in an afterschool program for kids who had little poetry in their lives—metaphorically or literally. Their lives in and out of school were filled with “issues,” drama they didn’t choose, and “challenges” that made seasoned teachers weep.

Story time was hard. Everything was hard. I read to them while they ate their snack. It was the only time they were quiet—they were always hungry. They had favorite books, but I can’t remember the titles any more. But I do remember the Shel Silverstein poems. They gloried in the rhythms and loved the length of his longer poems. They “performed” them—spoken word in a group—when we were out and about and you could tell that they felt like they’d accomplished something after they rattled off a long storied poem filled with big words and silly rhymes.

We’d learn a couplet or so a day, patiently memorizing our way through “the two-page poems,” as they called them. They adored “Sick,” with its marvelous joke at the end about it being Saturday. They enjoyed “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take The Garbage Out,” even as they tried to outdo each other with tall tales (I hope, but probably not in some cases) of the heaps of trash in and around their homes.

bkart_crocodiles-toothache_250We learned “The Crocodile’s Toothache” in record time—technically a one-page poem, but the illustration on the facing page made it worthy of exception. They enjoyed the shorter poems, too, but they didn’t want to learn them. Just read them occasionally.

We whispered poems while waiting outside the bathrooms, we jumped rope to them on the playground, we shouted them out in the park for a group of people who slept in the park. Building staff, police, bus drivers, old people, drunk people, and little babies listened to our recitations. Those kids weren’t applauded for much in their lives, but their ability to recite a poem en masse was an impressive feat and they were celebrated for it everywhere we went.

I didn’t know other poets for kids then. I’d be so much more prepared now—we’d do Langston Hughes, Jack Prelutsky, Joyce Sidman, Jon Scieszka, Marilyn Singer, Ken Nesbitt, Laura Purdie Salas, Gwendolyn Brooks, Alma Flor Ada…

I wonder how many poems they could’ve memorized? I wonder if they still remember any of the ones we did? Would they recognize the words instamatic flu if they overheard it at the doctor’s office? If so, I hope it makes them smile.

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Bambi

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

gr_rrb_header

BambiWhen I was 16, my aunt gave birth to twin boys. We did not see them nearly often enough as they were growing up (we were separated by several states), but the memories I have of those boys when they were little are clear in a way they are not with regard to my other cousins. (I’m the oldest of many cousins on that side—there were little kids everywhere for a few years.)

I remember spooning baby food into their little mouths—two-handed, hardly able to keep up. I remember catching them as they jumped off the diving board, and how hard they held onto my neck as we swam to the side. I remember their little boy energy (x2!) as they ran the circle between the living room, dining room, kitchen, and front hall in my grandparents’ house.

And I remember reading Bambi to them as if it was yesterday. The boys were almost three, I believe. We’d had a big day and they were finally bathed, in their pajamas, and it was time to settle-down for the night. I asked them to pick a book we could read together. They brought me Disney’s Bambi, a book that was almost as big as they were—they had to take turns lugging it across the room. Together they heaved it onto my lap, then climbed up on the couch and sank in beside me, one on each side.

I opened the over-sized book and started reading. They were immediately absorbed, each of them leaning into me…breathing deeply…settling down, as was the goal. I snuggled down between the two shampoo smelling darlings, blissfully happy….

I don’t know how, but I totally forgot Bambi’s mom dies. I turned the page and there she was in the upper left-hand corner, sprawled on her side, blood in the snow. I quickly adjusted my grip on the book, placing my hand over her body. I felt a flash of anger. Seriously? We had to cover maternal death before they were three?! I smoothly adjusted the words, leaving things a bit vague as to where Bambi’s mother went….

But the boys knew the story. They sat up. One moved my hand off of Bambi’s lifeless mother, and the other said, “Why did Bambi’s Mama die?”

I will never forget those sweet little faces looking up at me, anguished curiosity pooled in their big eyes. My heart broke right there and I started to cry. What could I say? Just the facts? A hunter shot her. It’s The Disney Way? The mothers always die. The truth? Sometimes horrible things happen….

I don’t know what I offered as explanation. I remember that they stood on the couch and bounced, probably trying to make me laugh instead of sob all over their book. Eventually, I pulled it together and we sank back into our cozy reading position to finish the grand saga of Bambi. As I read, one of them kept his hand on my arm, his little fingers rising and falling in a soothing pat.

One of those boys—the patter—became a father last December. The other became a father earlier this week. This is astounding to me. I look at the pictures of these grown men (they’re THIRTY now!) holding their wee babies and all I see are the faces of those sweet little boys—their impish grins, their big eyes full of love and questions, their pride and wonder at all that life holds…. The razor stubble doesn’t fool me at all—time just moves in weird ways, I guess. The babies now have babies.

They will be wonderful fathers, I’ve no doubt. I wish for them so many things, but especially the joy of reading to their kids as they grow. It’s been a favorite part of parenting for me. And it’s my favorite memory of being their cousin, too.

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Tales from Shakespeare

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

Red Reading Boots

One of my favorite classes in college was a Shakespeare class. It was well-known, well-loved, hard to get into, and mandatory for all English majors. It organized my life the semester I took it. The rhythm it dictated was this: Arrive at class on Monday having read the assigned play and accompanying critical literature. Inspiring lectures on Monday and Wednesday on the week’s play. Difficult test and various movie clips of the play on Friday. Repeat. We made it through Shakespeare’s major plays sticking to this schedule.

It was a lot of reading. That’s what I remember most—standing in line at the door to the library at noon on Sundays (waiting for it to open—college libraries are open 24/7 now!) with snacks, tea, and my hefty bright red Complete Works of Shakespeare. I spent blissful Sunday afternoons reading the week’s assigned play…and napping. I took a nap every Sunday afternoon in the library. I left post-nap when the play was read, my notes made, and I could put off supper no longer. It has been many, many years since I spent a Sunday afternoon in this way, but I think of it almost every Sunday. I think it might be my True Rhythm.

Tales from ShakespeareI have retained more information from that class than any other, I think. But I still sometimes get plots confused. If I don’t have a Sunday afternoon to devote to reading a whole play through, I simply pull the well-worn Tales From Shakespeare from my shelf and have a look there.

I don’t know when this book came to us—I think probably my mother-in-law got it for our son when he was quite young. She loves Shakespeare. He loves Shakespeare—and it started with this book, I know. He can tell you plots—seldom confuses them—and it’s all because of this book.

Because of Tales From Shakespeare and the accessibility it provided for an interested young child, we have seen many of Shakespeare’s plays on the stage, in the park, and on the screen over the years. Knowing the basics of the plot and the characters before you go can make all the difference, no matter your age. He sat rapt at Shakespeare In the Park productions before he went to school. We saw a stunning production of Macbeth when he was still wearing a clip-on tie and I was worried about the level of violence. Years ago, when he was a young teen, we saw Propeller, the all male Shakespeare troupe, in a performance of Taming of the Shrew that we still talk about regularly.

Tales From Shakespeare by Tina Packer, president and artistic director of Shakespeare & Company, has made these experiences possible. There is nothing all that fancy about this book—it’s beautiful, to be sure, but it isn’t particularly profound in its beauty or in what it does. After a brief synopsis, the story is told over a few pages. There is art here and there by a variety of artists. There is a list of the main characters and their relationship to each other. A Time & Place is listed, made all the more interesting when we see the play set in another time and place. That’s it. But our copy is well-worn—I used to read it to the kids. Then they read it on their own. Now we pretty much consult it as needed. And I should say that I use it as much as anyone—there’s nothing about it that makes it exclusively a “kid book.”

HamletOver New Year’s we caught a National Theater Live production of Hamlet—Benedict Cumberbatch playing the title role, which was tremendously exciting for our Sherlock-loving household. We hadn’t seen Hamlet  before and although we could piece together the basics between us, we still pulled out Tales From Shakespeare and did our homework before we went. It was a terrific production and young and older alike enjoyed it thoroughly.

There’s a particular kind of pride—I feel like there should be a long German word for it—that one feels when walking behind one’s thirteen and almost-nineteen year old offspring as they discuss their favorite parts of a Shakespearean production, comparing and contrasting with other Shakespeare plays they’ve seen. Does this English-Major Mama’s heart good.

I put Tales From Shakespeare back on the shelf this morning. It won’t be long before it’s out again, I’m sure.

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The Nativity

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

It was my job to read to the children. There were many other stations—crafts and coloring, games and songs—all built around the most important task of the morning: The Trying On of the Costumes for the Christmas Program, which was to be held later that afternoon.

I had my own little nook. Children and sometimes their parents came and went between finding shepherd robes and angel halos. I would put three or four Christmas books out on a table and whenever a new batch of kids came in I’d ask someone to pick a book for us to read. (Research. Always interesting to see what they pick and ask why they picked it.)

And it came to pass that I read a series of my favorites to a precocious, pragmatic seven-year-old and a whimsical three-year-old, whose favorite questions always begin with Why? After the three of us had read several books together, I put out four more and asked them to choose the next one. I knew which one they’d pick. And sure enough—The Nativity by Julie Vivas won again.

This book is brilliant. I love reading it with kids. It is so visceral, so physical, so fleshy. The text is taken from the King James Version of Luke’s Gospel—lots of thees and thous—but although they occasionally have a vocabulary question (“What’s swaddling clothes?”) kids aren’t in the least put off by the language.

And so we began with the Angel Gabriel and his fantastic wings—Vivas’s wings are truly inspired.

In the days of Herod the King, the Angel Gabriel was sent from God to the
city of Nazareth. To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, and the virgin’s name was Mary.
 

boots_Nativity1

3-year-old: (wistfully) Why don’t we have wings anymore?

7-year-old: Humans don’t have wings. Only birds and angels and insects have wings. What’s a virgin? And what does espoused mean?

We watched Mary’s belly grow, and the seven-year-old said, “She really IS great with child.” The three-year-old remarked that Mary’s butt was pretty big, too—there’s a great view when Joseph boosts her up on the donkey. And then both volunteered details of their own birth that I’m guessing their mothers did not anticipate would be shared.

We continued, attempting to count the people in crowded Bethlehem in a gorgeous two-page wordless spread. And then before we knew it “the day came that she should be delivered.”

7-year-old: Delivered where?

Me: Delivered just means Baby Jesus would be born.

7-year-old: And delivered where?

3-year-old: To his Mom.

And she brought forth her firstborn son.

boots_Baby

3-year-old: He has a penis.

7-year-old: Yes, he’s a boy. Because his name is Jesus.

And lo, the angels came to the shepherds. Again—the wings!

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7-year-old: I’m going to be an angel in the Christmas Program. I was last year, too. I have experience.

3-year-old: (wistfully again) Why don’t we still have wings?

7-year-old: We never had wings. Human don’t have wings.

3-year-old: I used to.

And behold, the wise men came to Jerusalem….

3-year-old: I rode a camel. With my grandma and grandpa.

7-year-old: Did you follow a star?

3-year-old: Yes.

When we were finished, we went through the book again, telling the story in our own words. The seven-year-old correctly used the words virgin, swaddling clothes, and espoused. She also threw in a few thees and thous. Most impressive. And the three-year-old stood and delivered an inspired “Fear not!” when Gabriel visited Mary, and again when the angelic choir came to the shepherds. We discussed the wings and the penis again, as well as the size of Mary’s backside. We marveled at the angels who rode the sheep and wondered what that would be like.

It was holy time. Reading to children is holy.

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Red Reading Boots: Lucia Morning in Sweden

ph_lussekatterbunThis week is full of preparations at our house. Lucia Day comes on Sunday and our household’s Lucia wishes to make the Lussekatter buns this year. I’ve learned not to stand in her way—she cannot be deterred.

The magic of St. Lucia was introduced to our family fourteen years ago. It was a difficult December for us and our dark days were in need of some light and love, which was provided by some dear friends who arrived on our doorstep in the very early morning, waking us with song, candlelight, and a scrumptious Swedish breakfast feast. It’s one of the kindest gifts of friendship I’ve ever received. We knew nothing about Lucia prior to that magical morning, but our friends sat and told her stories and their stories of celebrating Lucia with their kids when they were small.

By the next Christmas we had a rosy-cheeked blue-eyed baby girl who looked like she’d be a blondie if she ever got hair. (She’s one-quarter Swedish, to boot!) And it came to pass. She’s thirteen now, and has a full head of still-blonde hair. She’s been Lucy on December 13th for the last ten years. She takes very seriously the bringing of  light and song and Lucy cookies and treats to her family and friends.

When she was in second grade, her school did a unit on all the festivals of light that occur in and around December—Hanukkah, Diwali, Kwanzaa etc. and my girl volunteered me to come teach about Lucia.

bk_Lucia

written by Ewa Rydåker,
illus. by Carina Ståhlberg

So I did a little research, wrote new English words to the traditional Swedish song, bought a lot of Annas Swedish Wish Cookies, and went to my local Swedish Institute (we have such things in Minnesota) to see if there was a book I might read. Lucia Morning in Sweden by Ewa Rydåker fit the bill.

Class after class was rapt as the story of one modern Swedish family’s Lucia Day preparations was read. The kids loved it. They sang the song lustily, ate their cookies and made their wishes (one for themselves and one for someone else, in homage to Lucia who brought light and love to others), and asked many many questions of Lucia’s death, sainthood, and her many December celebrations around the world. They were utterly fascinated with the crown of candles and only the lice epidemic the school was experiencing that year (there’s always something) prevented us from having each and every child try the crown on.

gr_luciaIn researching the history and surrounding myths of Lucia, I learned that Sweden is not the only country to claim Lucy. There’s an Italian part of the story—which led me to announce that some Lucias have blonde hair, blue eyes, and pale skin, while other have black hair, dark eyes, and brown skin. Suddenly the entire second grade felt free to be Lucia or one of her star boys.

Six years later, I still occasionally run into a teenager who says, “Hey—you brought us those wish cookies and taught us about Lucia when we were little! I loved that book!”

The memory of taking the St. Lucia celebration to the second grade warms my heart each year in December. My own Lucy needs little help with preparations any more. Indeed, she told me she’d be my alarm clock this year and bring me lussekatter and coffee in bed on Sunday.

This leads me to think my work here is about done.

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Red Reading Boots: The Tapper Twins

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

I’m generally a reader of “traditional novels,” by which I mean novels that have chapters with titles, paragraphs with grammatically correct sentences, and perhaps the occasional complementary art under the chapter number. I’m intentional about expanding my horizons and reading graphic novels, hybrids, and the like…but I still have to be intentional about it, I’m afraid. What can I say? I’m a sucker for the comfortable, traditional format, even as I’m often wowed by the untraditional.

book_1_smallThe Tapper Twins Go To War (With Each Other) came across my radar and was accompanied by positive reviews from people I respect a great deal, so I requested it at my friendly local library. It came. I stood in the library, flipping through, shocked at what I saw.

I must have the wrong book, I thought. It was the only explanation I could think of. So I looked up the recommendation again. I had the right book.

I handed it to my thirteen-year-old daughter, who is much more…open. And I listened to her laugh in her room that evening while she read it. The next day, she handed it to me and said, “Must read, Mom!”

“Really?”

“You’ll love it. Besides, it’s a New York Book.”

I love New York Books.

The story of Claudia and Reese Tapper, twelve-year-old twins, and their war is told as an “oral history.” It looks much like a screen play in many places. (Geoff Rodkey is, in fact, a screenwriter.) But it also includes computer screenshots, gaming digital art, text messages between the parents, and doctored photos. There are handwritten “edits and additions,” lots of arrows drawn with these edits and additions, and many references to Wikipedia-told history. It is, in short…well, quite different than my usual traditional novels.

bk_tappertwins1Then I read it. And I laughed out loud. In my office, all by myself. Laughed and laughed. Loved it. I’ve spent quite a bit of time around middle schoolers in recent years and Claudia and Reese and their friends beautifully capture the diversity of maturity, zaniness, and crazy energy of this age group. Claudia is a pulled-together, bossy, know-it-all who is thoroughly exasperated by her twin brother. Reese is such a twelve-year-old boy, and therefore sort of bewildered by his sister. Their friends are variations on similar themes. The dialogue is spot on, the escalation of the conflict true to form, and the relationship between siblings, friends, and the middle school as a whole is pretty perfectly depicted. Through computer screenshots, gaming art, text messages, doctored phots…..

Claudia interviews the combatants and serves as the primary narrator of the story of the war, which starts as a series of pranks and escalates to serious (though not frightening) proportions. She includes the testimony of her clueless parents (hilarious all on their own), the inept nanny, the allies, bystanders, and enemies. She is the one who draws the arrows and makes the corrections and additions to everyone’s testimony.

book_2_smallThe relationships are complicated and the misunderstandings numerous. But the novel circles back in a very good way—and there are some “teachable moments,” actually, if a parent/teacher-type doesn’t ruin it by calling attention to them. Kids can learn a lot about how things look from different points of view, how social media can complicate things in ways you can’t predict, and how embarrassments can turn into more or less than that depending on how we react to them. I’m glad my social media newbie read it.

Picking up my copy of The Tapper Twins Tear Up New York tomorrow! I’m a fan!

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Judy Blume

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

ph_blumeI had the extraordinary fortune of seeing Judy Blume a few weeks ago. I was going to say “seeing Judy Blume in concert”—that’s sort of what it felt like, actually. She’s a rock-star in my world. And she was interviewed by Nancy Pearl, no less, so the whole event felt like I’d won a prize and been dropped in A Dream Come True. Both were wonderful—profound, honest, funny. It was such a treat.

Judy Blume played a large role in my childhood/adolescence.  My fourth grade teacher read us Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, of course, and from there I went on to Freckle Juice and Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great. By fifth grade I was reading Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself and learning about anti-semitism, which I knew nothing about; and racism, which was a daily part of life where I was growing up; and lice, the reason we spent hours with our whole class in the nurse’s office being picked over. (If we’d spent as much time learning as we did having our hair picked through, I probably could’ve skipped a couple of grades.)

I think it was probably Sally J. that got me actively looking for Judy Blume books. She’s the first author I remember searching for at the library catalog. I read Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? many times in fifth grade. I was stunned to learn that a girl could wish for the changes brought on by puberty. Puberty hit me early, hard, and fast and I hated the changes it brought. It was fascinating to read about a girl who yearned for her period, did exercises in hope of increasing her bust line (“We must! We must! We must increase our bust!”), and prayed to God to make her a woman.

blumestripMy daughter’s fifth grade English teacher handed her Margaret’s story. Perhaps I gushed too much about how I loved it, because Darling Daughter cared for it not. Our Mother-Daughter Bookclub tried a couple of times to suggest the book—we mothers who came of age in the seventies had fond memories. But as it turned out, the mothers (re)read it, and the daughters refused. Not interested. Not even about the religious stuff, which I was surprised to find was really the main conflict in the story! I’d forgotten all about it—it was all bras and “sanitary napkins” in my memory.

We mothers wondered: was it because we were encouraging the girls to read Margaret that they didn’t want to? Our own mothers were not so keen on the book—Judy Blume’s books didn’t have a great reputation among mothers in the 1970s. Ms. Blume covered all kinds of topics quite frankly and some of those topics our mothers either wanted to cover themselves, or leave as a “mystery.” (Probably mostly the latter.)

But I read a lot of Judy Blume, not having a censoring mother, and I learned a lot from her books. I learned about scoliosis and bad decisions and wet dreams and periods and insecurities and meanness and kindness and family issues/secrets and masturbation and gender and crushes and sex. Well, actually, I didn’t learn much about sex. The “key pages” from Forever were passed around the sixth grade, but I was too nervous to actually read them, which left things a little vague, given that the playground discussion around said pages was…a little vague.

Ms. Blume told us that those of us who grew up reading Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret often ask her for a “sequel” bringing our friend Margaret full circle as she goes through menopause. I would love this book, I must say. But Margaret’s author said, “Margaret is always twelve! Menopause is not her story.”

blume_eventAnd indeed—the book is pretty timeless (with a little vocabulary updated) because being twelve has a timelessness about it. Twelve (and the years just on either side of twelve) is a time of tremendous transition and change, hopes and prayers, insecurity and decision. The details change a little generation to generation, but the important stuff—the stuff of creating and discovering yourself, of growing up—stays remarkably the same.

I’m so grateful to Judy Blume and grateful for the work she still does—the writing and speaking and the stand she has taken on censorship. Her newest book (for adults), In the Unlikely Event, is terrific. I can hear her voice as I read it, which is a tremendous treat as both a reader and a writer. Huzzah to Judy! I say. Huzzah!

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Keeping Track

img_RRBJournalI’ve not kept track. Not really. I mean, I can peruse our many bookshelves and make a sort of list, but it would be missing things. What about all the library books we’ve read together?

I was in a book discussion earlier this week with a woman who keeps A Reading Journal. She writes as she reads—notes and quotes, questions and lists, impressions and recommendations, etc. She has, she confessed under my too eager questioning, multiple volumes of these journals. I imagine them sitting with their straight spines and gilded pages all on one bookshelf. I am jealous—not envious, but flat out jealous. She insists their residence is not so neat, that the practice is not that admirable. She says the notebooks are not all the same, that some are falling apart, that she keeps them in multiple places etc. She says this as if she’s really not so organized and diligent, but she doesn’t fool me. She’s been keeping A Reading Journal since she was eleven.

I’ve always wanted to keep A Reading Journal. I’ve never kept A Reading Journal. Not so much, even, as a list of the things I’ve read. I can forgive myself for this, but I’m envious of those who do manage to jot down the titles, even if nothing else.

img_RRBAuthorHenkesHowever…on the heels of meeting this wonderful reader, I read this interview. Because I would read anything having to do with Kevin Henkes, on whom I might have a small writerly-crush. (Sometimes, when I have a rough day, I watch the Meet Kevin Henkes video on his website. It’s better than a glass of wine. I watch him draw Lilly…and my thoughts settle. I listen to him talk about the colors of Lilly and Ginger’s dresses…and I feel like I can go on. He flips through his notebooks showing us how his ideas become books…sigh…and I am inspired and ready to work. I’m easily moved by the keeping of notebooks, apparently.)

I adore this man’s books—especially the mouse picture books. When I think of this wonderful author-artist in his book-lined, light-filled studio creating books for us, my heart is glad. I think I vaguely knew he had a family, though I never gave them a thought until this interview. Here, I learn that he read to his kids at breakfast. “Which was a great thing,” he says in his Kevin Henkes way, “because I would read to both of them and my wife would be making the lunches so all four of us had this shared experience.”

img_RRBmouseWelcomeI sigh. He reads to kids at breakfast and his wife makes the lunches and they have a Shared Experience. Do they know how lucky they are? And then I think: I read to my kids at breakfast some! My husband wasn’t making the lunches while I was doing so, since he leaves before the rest of us are up, but we as a family have other Shared Experiences around books, yes we do! So, Kevin Henkes and I have something in common! There’s that!

Then I learn that they’ve kept a list in the back hall of all the books they read together, “120 and some books.”

My heart sinks. We do not have a back hall. I have not kept a list. I’m sure we’ve read 120-some books together, but I do not have a list in a back hall to prove it. I find myself wondering how the list was kept in the back hall. I imagine Kevin Henkes’ children scribbling titles on the wall, his wife wallpapering with bookcover photos, him slipping small scraps of paper with titles in a chinked wall of rock. Can you have a back hall made of rocks?

I call myself back to reality. It doesn’t matter how Kevin Henkes and his lucky family keep their list. It doesn’t even matter that they’ve kept the list. Not really. What matters is the Shared Experience. I feel sure Kevin Henkes would agree with me. And my family and I have the Shared Experience of books read together—hundreds of books read together, especially if you count all the times we read Kevin Henkes’ mouse books.

img_RRBmouseFlowerThere’s a part of me that wants to recreate the list—find a wall somewhere in the house (I’m quite taken with the “back hall” aspect of this) to scribble all of the titles of books we’ve read together. But it wouldn’t be accurate—it’d be like marking the kids’ heights as they grew on the kitchen doorframe now that they’ve grown. (Another nostalgic record keeping I wish I’d done.)

So I will kvell in the Shared Experience—I’m so grateful for all the time we’ve read together, whether I have a list in the back hall or in a journal to show for it or not.

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Mouse and Bear Books

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

RRB_SnifflesBearWhen I plan a storytime, I always plan for the kiddos first and foremost. But I do like to give a nod to the grownups who have brought them when I can—something they’ll “get” at a different level than the kids, a treasure they might remember from their own childhood, a book that will make them smile or laugh.

The Mouse and Bear Books by Bonny Becker, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton, are always an inspired fit. The children adore these books and the adults can have their entire day turned around when we read one of these. They might come in sweaty and grumpy from trying to get everyone out the door, but they’ll leave lighter and with a smile. I’m always confident it will be a wonderful story time if I include one or more (it’s hard to stop with just one) in the series. They are regulars in my rotation—they re-read very well.

RRB_LibraryBearMy favorite might be The Sniffles for Bear. Then again, it might be A Library Book for Bear. Or the first one, perhaps,  A Visitor for Bear. Who am I kidding—they are all terrific. The reader must be prepared with these books—a monotone read will not do. The personalities of mouse and bear are much too wonderful for that. No, the reader must be ready to act—overact, in fact, in the case of Bear, especially.

There is not a misplaced word in any of these books—each one is precisely placed, flows effortlessly when read aloud, and paints with words the exact picture that Kady MacDonald Denton has gorgeously painted with paint.

The dialogue is perfect for these two friends so opposite, and yet so alike somehow. Bear, in particular, speaks as if he walked out of a Jane Austen novel, which contributes to much of the humor: I am quite ill—I grow weaker by the moment…. he says in The Sniffles for Bear. (“What he has,” one of the delighted grandmothers in a recent storytime said, “is a man-cold.”)

But mouse is not to be outdone: Perhaps we could have just a spot of tea, he says when he meets his friend in A Visitor for Bear.

I am undone….Bear says after being unable to show Mouse the door.

RRB_VisitorBearThese characters are so delightful, so true, and so much fun. I’ve never read one of these books without the room’s energy changing to a wonderful hum and laughter ruling the day. I do not know if more Bear and Mouse books are planned, but I certainly hope so. They’ve won a ton of awards, but that doesn’t always mean a book is right for story time; in my experience, though, the acclaimed Mouse and Bear books make that double play every single time.

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The Berenstain Bears

RRB_BearsLast night, I was reminded of our family’s love of The Berenstain Bears books. (Happy Sigh.) Before I go any further in my homage, please understand—I’m not claiming these books are stellar literature. I’m just saying that we read a lot of Berenstain Bear books at our house once upon a time, and we loved, loved, loved them. And the we includes me. Absolutely. Yes, I know they are formulaic, preachy, and moralistic. Obviously, they flaunt flagrant gender stereotypes. And normally, I steered clear of such books for my young impressionable readers…but goodness, we loved those Berenstain Bears!

My daughter’s piano teacher reminded us of them—she, too, adored the books. We’ve been reorganizing closets and rooms lately and she commented how much The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room informed her own (now adult) need for organization and tidiness. Instantly, we all remembered how wonderful the pegboard Papa Bear made was, and how satisfying and inspiring the neatly labeled and stacked boxes full of Brother and Sister Bear’s treasures were.

RRB_BearsRoomWe continued our love fest, remembering together other important books in the series—the milestones and transitions books, the anxiety-addressing books, the healthy habits series, and the behavior modification titles—we loved them all! The list of titles is long. (I was amazed how long.) We didn’t have nearly as many as there are, but we had a lot—purchased for pittance at garage sales, inherited from older friends, rescued from the trash bin at the library…. And I must’ve passed them on, because in the recent reshuffling of the bookshelves not a Berenstain Bear book was to be found.

But the lessons remain: kindness and gratitude are important, too much junk food or TV is just too much, taking the time to do things right yields better results, and new situations are less daunting when we know something of what to expect. We never watched the TV shows or bought any of the merchandise etc., but I’d say Berenstain Bears were a significant part of our kiddos’ childhood. And I am not ashamed.

Are there books you read with kids (or have read with them) that you’re just a little…shy about admitting to? Books you found in the check-out lane at the grocery store, in a bin of dreck at the library, or for week after week in your kid’s backpack? You know the ones I’m talking about.

Now, how many of those did you secretly love? How many did your kids adore? Did you have a ____________ stage in your household’s reading? ‘Fess up! I’ve led the way—WE LOVE (present tense!) THE BERENSTAIN BEARS!

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Brambly Hedge

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

bk_BramblyStripWhen they were little, both of our kids had a fascination with anthropomorphic mice. One actually had a set of imaginary mice friends who preceded us into anxiety producing situations, of which there are many when you are a small child. These benevolent mice (who had names, specific jobs, and amazing vehicles of transportation) went ahead and checked out weddings, Mommy-and-Me music class, doctor’s offices, campsites, kindergarten, etc. They provided information as to what to expect and situations to watch out for. Amazingly (and fortunately), they always gave favorable courage-providing reports. They were an important part of our life for several years.

As I look back, it feels like a chicken-or-egg situation. Did the love of mice come first, or did the Brambly Hedge books spark that love?

Do you know the Brambly Hedge books? They’ve been around for quite a while. I actually found the first ones at Target, which seems all wrong as they would more rightly be found in a tiny bookshop that serves tea and is full of nooks and crannies, wildflowers and gorgeous books, somewhere in the British countryside. But I’m glad Target carried them when my kids were small—chancing upon one enlivened an otherwise uninspiring trip for diapers and toilet paper etc. We have an almost complete set of the books. (I found out about the missing ones just now when I searched on-line—that will be rectified shortly.). And I see that you can buy all the stories in one volume today. Which I might. For my (very) future grandchildren, you know.

As originally published, the books are small. They are easy to find on the bookshelf because no other books are their particular size and shape. Jill Barklem’s art is so astoundingly detailed that it would seem they could have made them oversized, but they are not. If anything, they are undersized, and that seems just right. Lends to the coziness of the books.

And these books are COZY, let me tell you. Even the names of the rodent heros and heroines therein are cozy: Mrs. Crustybread, Dusty Dogwood, Old Mrs. Eyebright, Poppy Eyebright, Basil Brightberry, Mr. and Mrs. Toadflax, Primrose Woodmouse…. They are the sweetest characters you can imagine and their adventures in Brambly Hedge are exciting (in a calm and purposeful way) as they scurry around the community through secret passageways, tunnels, and amazing rooms.

I love the quotidian details and so did the kids—the picnics packed, the surprise celebrations, the seasonal food preparations! The research Barklem did is obvious—she didn’t just dream up the flour mill that grinds the flour for the mice’s bread; the mill is a part of Britain’s agricultural history. The Brambly Hedge mice are a resourceful bunch. They use wind and waterpower, know how to “make-do” with what is available, preserve and fix things, and they celebrate the many turning points of life with delightful parties. These mice are self-sufficient, kind, and creative. Their stories are heart-warming and the details of their daily lives are interesting in ways that you don’t often find in books for small children. Throughout the stories there’s an emphasis on self-sufficiency, courage, and the tending and nurturing one’s community. These are beautiful things to put before a child, I think.

When I pulled these well-loved books off the bookshelf this morning, I lost myself in them for a bit. I then had the overwhelming urge to make a pie, tidy the garden, and sweep the porch so as to have a neighbor over for a celebration of some kind that we would just…create! Perhaps I should read a Brambly Hedge book once a day. Alas, they are undeniably better with a small person on your lap, and those are in short supply around our house these days. So I commend them to you: find a wee one, find the friends of Brambly Hedge, brew a proper cup of tea, and enjoy! You will not be disappointed.

 

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Enola Holmes Mysteries

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

bk_EnolaStripThe summer’s roadtrip is behind us—a wonderful vacation had by all. We were in two cars this year due to different destinations at the start, but we met up for the second half of the week.

The car my daughter and I drove was equipped with several audiobooks. The boys neglected this detail, probably because they were packing for survival in the wilderness. I have no idea what they listened to while in the car—each other, podcasts, music etc., I guess. We asked the question, but hardly listened, I’m afraid, so eager were we to fill them in on what we had listened to….

…which was a trio of glorious Enola Holmes mysteries! We’d all listened to the first, The Case of the Missing Marquess, a summer or two ago. The kids are huge Sherlock fans, and so these mysteries featuring a much younger sister of that famous detective were a no brainer for a long trip that took us into the mountains. We agreed after that first book that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s got nuthin’ on Nancy Springer. And now that some of us have listened to a couple more books of Springer’s series—well, let’s say this: Stand Down, Sherlock. Enola Can Do It All—And In a Corset!

Enola Holmes (please notice what her first name spells backwards) is but fourteen years old and living on her own, having run away from her brothers, Sherlock and Mycroft, after her mother ran off on Enola’s fourteenth birthday. And she’s getting along quite well, thank you, without her brilliant (yet terribly chauvinistic/misogynistic) brothers. In each book, Enola is solving a mystery—even overlapping with Sherlock in some cases—and eluding villains, scallywags, and her brothers as the needs arise.

The historic detail is fascinating—especially the detail on the subject of corsets and other “unmentionables.” The corset becomes a symbol of all that Enola (and her mother, for that matter) rejects—namely, the myriad of confines that Victorian society placed on women. But she wears one! Not just any corset, of course. Her scrawny fourteen year old body doesn’t need the “support,” and she flat-out rejects the not-unlike-foot-binding purposes of early corset wearing (these details are harrowing). But as a vehicle—yes, you read right—for her many disguises and tools, her very individually designed corset is an important part of how she makes her way in London as a detective instead of a runaway fourteen year old girl. Enola’s corset offers physical protection and storage—in it she carries a dagger, various disguises, money, clues, bandages, food and supplies—while allowing her to change her shape as needed. Her disguises are as varied as the fascinating characters she meets.

Enola is feisty and outspoken, wicked smart and wise beyond her years. The mysteries she solves are full of intrigue, puzzles, and curious clues. And the audiobooks are performed by none other than Katherine Kellgren, one of our very favorite readers. These stories are wonderful in black and white on the page, but Kellgren brings them to life! As she does in reading the Bloody Jack series, each character receives their own voice. If you read about Kellgren’s preparation you’ll see that she works with dialect coach—I dare say that Professor Henry Higgins would be able to place each character on the very street on which they were born.

Although the mysteries do not have to be read in order, it’s good to read The Case of the Missing Marquess first because it sets up the ungirding mystery of Enola’s mother. Each mystery references previous ones and as we end come closer to the end of the series (I hope more are being written!) that seems to be important, as well.

Read them, listen to them—they’re delightful either way. These receive a hardy recommendation from our house to yours as beautifully spanning a significant sibling age-range in the car. You can’t help but fall into the story. We only made it half-way through the third mystery before we were home, but we’ll start again with our boys on our upcoming road trip. What were we thinking listening to such great books without them?

 

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Mockingbird…

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

We are talking a lot these days at our house about Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and bk_MockingbirdGo Set A Watchman. As a family we listened to To Kill A Mockingbird, narrated by Sissy Spacek, last summer on our vacation. Everyone in the car was riveted to the story…but both of the kids will tell you they really didn’t like it.

I adore Harper Lee’s novel—the characters, the setting, the story, the writing. We spent much of eighth grade English on it, in my (possibly revisionist) memory, and I loved every minute of it. I am intrigued, challenged, and often convicted by the arguments made by those who do not adore it, however. Closer examination of this beloved classic this summer hasn’t “ruined” To Kill a Mockingbird for me, nor has Go Set A Watchman; rather, I’m seeing it through different eyes and thinking about things in new ways. This feels important. And I’ll make the dangerously loose claim that any book that gets people talking and reading like these two books have is a good book. (Of course there are exceptions—you just thought of some and so did I. Just go with it. You know what I mean.)

***

bk_I-KillLast week, I went to look for books for kids about To Kill a Mockingbird and brought home a couple of novels recommended at my local independent bookstore. My girl reads much faster than I do—especially in the summer with its long reading hours—and so she agreed to read them and report back. I handed her I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora first. She read it in one sitting.

“You will love it,” she said.

“Did you love it?” I asked. Sometimes these opinions are mutually exclusive.

“Pretty much.”

And so I read it. It’s a quickie and it did not disappoint. Very clever, great writing, many layers to enjoy but easy to read, and a wonderful “idea” for a story for young teens. My only complaint is that I wish it had been longer. It moves fast and is admirably compact…but the writing is so good, the characters so wonderful, their dialogue so witty, the story such a hoot, and the themes so important…well, I just would’ve enjoyed more of it.

Our conversation around this book has largely been about the role of technology, not the original classic around which the small novel revolves. Acampora’s book is full of social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, chat rooms—it’s all there. In fact, it is absolutely necessary to the plot, which is why I didn’t mind it at all.

I remain Luddite-like and cranky enough to be frustrated when these very contemporary (so contemporary I wonder how they get the book published before everything changes) social media platforms show up in books. Often, in children’s books especially, it feels like mentions of technology have been added in to make things seem more teen-friendly and “hip.” Since the social media scene is notoriously fast-changing (especially in how kids and teens use it), this seems short-sighted, not to mention unnecessary.

But I Kill the Mockingbird is actually dependent on the social media in what I’ll call “a good way.” What the kids do—which is create a situation in which To Kill A Mockingbird seemingly disappears and therefore becomes The Hot “New” Book Everyone Must Read—could not have been done in one summer without the exponential possibilities and catastrophes of social media.

ph_screen-and-bookPLUS—and this is important—these kids, all three going into high school, are not on screens and devices all the time. That would make a terrible book, in my opinion. They text and post and tweet and chat, etc., but that’s all summed up in efficient narration (because who needs to watch it unfold?) and we’re back to the action of the story, back to the large and important themes, back to the unique personalities and sweet friendship of the three main characters.

You do not have to have read To Kill A Mockingbird to enjoy I Kill the Mockingbird, but you will enjoy it more if you have. You’ll also enjoy it more if you’re generally well read—the chapter titles are very clever, as is the subtle homage to a whole shelf of well-loved books. I’m a fan. And so’s my kid. So we recommend it, the both of us. Take an afternoon in these last weeks of summer and have a read. Let us know what you think.

 

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In Which the Boy Cleans His Room …

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

We’re at the one-month mark before #1 Son leaves for his first year of college. This is big for our family. (I realize it’s a big thing for every family, but it’s feeling particularly personal for us right now—indulge me.) It’s entirely right, he’s absolutely ready, and he’s going to a place that’s a good fit for him. But my heart squeezes to think of it. (I’m trying positive visualization for the good-bye.)

ph_RRB_bedroomThis week, he’s cleaning his room—a parental mandate. His room will remain his room when he goes, but long overdue is this cleaning out of the science projects from elementary school, the soccer medals from the same era, the dusty certificates and papers and binders, the mess and detritus of a boy’s life well lived and now outgrown. He’s doing the closet today—he won’t finish. It’s like an archaeological dig with its layers. He says he’s saving his bookshelf for last. “It’s not so bad,” he says.

bk_Frog_and_toad_coverLast week, I sat on his bed and looked at that bookshelf. It’s one of the first my husband built. Floor to ceiling, nearly as wide as the boy’s wingspan. Or his wingspan a few years ago, anyway. It’s stuffed and it exhibits a peculiar combination of cluttered and organized storage. It’s obvious he once alphabetized his fiction by author. This astounds me—among all of his awards, there is nary a one commending his organizational skills. But he likes to find the book he’s looking for quickly, and so at some point he gave it a go, I guess.

Many of the picture books have moved on. A few favorites remain: Caps for Sale, an anthology of Thomas The Tank Engine stories, Clever Ali, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Quiltmaker’s Gift, Frog and Toad, several books about inventors, scientists, and explorers, Winnie-the-Pooh 

And then there are the glorious chapter books that consumed weeks and months and years of his life. Some we read together, but many he devoured on his own. The well-worn Harry Potter books in English and Spanish both, all of the Swallows and Amazons series, most anything Gary Schmidt has written…. There’s a section or two of math books—cool math, not textbook math—and there’s everything from stories of dragons and wizards to the biography of Mark Twain.

bk_SwallowsThe boy has always read widely. History is mixed in with science, which is mixed in with his banned books collection and various works of Shakespeare. Contemporary novelists sit piled under ancient classics. He has the entire collection of Calvin and Hobbes sitting next to The Atlas of Indian Nations, and various graphic novels are shelved in the midst of an extensive collection of Peter Pan prequels and sequels. I see both books he was required to read and books he could not put down.

I’m almost as proud of this bookshelf as I am the boy—it steadies me to look at it. With just a few weeks left until he heads out, I catch myself with panicked thoughts: Will he wash his sheets? Does he know the details of our family medical history? Is the salad bar in the dining service nice enough to tempt him to eat his vegetables? Does he know the signs of a concussion? Frostbite? Will he call home before he makes Big Life Decisions? WILL HE READ? 

That last one pops up a lot for this English major Mama. He wants to be an engineer. That curriculum does not feature much in the way of literature courses; though I’m impressed they have an all-campus-read that plays a significant part in orientation. Will our boy read for fun, or be so consumed with engineering and math that he won’t have time for stories? If he decides to have a beer, will he pick up a new novel or an old favorite to enjoy with it? (A mom can dream.) Will he find a banned book to read in September during Banned Books Week, like we’ve always done? Will he lose himself in the stacks of that fancy campus library and maybe carry a pile of books back to his dorm room? If he stays up much too late, will it be—please let it be—because he’s fallen into a story and can’t get out?

And then he shuffles into my office, laughing at another artifact he’s uncovered in the deep dark recesses of his closet. We agree it can be “passed on.”

“Hey Mom?” he says. “What do you do with your books when you go to college?”

I tell him there’s not much room in the typical dorm room to house books outside of those you need for your studies.

“Maybe I can just take a few favorites?” he says.

I ask which few those would be.

“I’ll have to think about it,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of favorites.”

Oh, I’m going to miss that boy.

 

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Anne of Green Gables

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

I received Anne of Green Gables for my tenth birthday. I fell in love immediately. Absolutely In Love—that’s the only way I can describe it.

bk_Anne120For the next several years, I received the next book in the Anne series each birthday and Christmas. I could spot the book in my pile of wrapped gifts—I have the Bantam Starefire Collection, small mass market paperbacks not quite seven inches tall—the very size and shape of those books made my heart beat faster. The print is tiny, the margins almost non-existent, which wasn’t in any way a problem when I received them. Now that I’ve added a few decades, I need my new bifocals to read them. My husband suggested I get another set of the books—one with larger print. As if.

For years, through high school and college and young-adulthood, I re-read the books on the sly. Usually in times of stress. I’d rip through the entire series—Anne age ten in #1 all the way through to her youngest daughter, Rilla, a teenager in #8. A couple of years might go by between the readings—but not more than that. Sometimes I just read Anne of Green Gables, which remains my absolute favorite, but usually if I read it, I read them all.

“A bosom friend–an intimate friend, you know–a really kindred spirit to whom I can confide my inmost soul.”(Anne Shirley, in Anne of Greene Gables)

Several years ago now I met my bosom friend. I sat in the back of a small group as she and her husband talked about writing and reading, family and life. I was so entranced I could not even take notes. I loved her at once, somehow. I sat listening to her and I thought: This woman is a kindred spirit.

A heartbeat later, as a part of a long list of excellent books worth re-reading, my kindred spirit said “And Anne of Green Gables. I perpetually read Anne of Green Gables, of course.” Her husband nodded.

A zing went through me head to toe—why had I never thought to do that?! It was the word perpetually that got me. And the non-chalant of course. I was a thousand miles from home, but if I’d had my trusty Bantam Starfire Collection with me, I would’ve started perpetually reading the Anne books right then and there. As it was, I had to wait until I got home. But I’ve been perpetually reading them—a chapter or two most nights before bed—ever since. (Imagine my husband nodding.)

My own daughter is not as infatuated with Anne. She’s a little overwhelmed with Anne’s boisterous spirit, incessant chatter, over-active imagination, and general endearing exuberance. (Which is funny, because she’s really quite like Anne Shirley.) She has a couple of copies of Anne of Green Gables—hardback collector editions she received as gifts. I gave her a box set of the whole series for her birthday last year. (This is what has changed in a generation—I received the books one at a time, but I gave her the entire series at once. But I digress.) They are similarly sized to mine, and I thought maybe the size would somehow make the difference.

Alas no. They just aren’t really her thing. I thought I might be crushed by her indifference—I worried about it for years. My bosom friend (whose daughters are older than mine) warned me this could, in fact, happen. But now that it has, it’s okay. Really. My girl has read the hardback a couple of times, watched the excellent movies with me, and I’ve convinced her to read Anne of Avonlea with me over vacation this summer. It’s all good.

My dear bosom friend died quite unexpectedly and horribly a year and a half ago. The hole left in my life remains large—we corresponded daily and often referenced Anne Shirley and her adages and escapades alongside our own. Neither of us fit the role of Anne Shirley or Diana Barry, but our friendship was deep, even though it started later in life.

bk_AnneRainbow120My perpetual reading of the Anne series has been a gift during this time. I am so very grateful for my friend’s unassuming words: perpetual, of course. Without the zing that went through me that evening, I might not have been bold enough to contact her, and our resulting bosom friendship, so rich and so much a part of my life, might not have been.

So I think of her each night as I open whatever book in the series I’m on (just started #7, Rainbow Valley). It’s bittersweet, to be sure, but it’s been helpful somehow. My heart is grateful.

Also, I’m still holding out hope my girl will become an Anne-girl this summer. We’ll see….

 

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How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

RRB_TomI have written before about the need for longer picture books in addition to the shorter ones making up the current trend in picture book publishing. I want to stay on the record as saying there’s plenty of reason to keep publishing picture books that are longer than 300-500 words. I’m an advocate for 3000-5000 words—a story with details! And to those who think kids won’t sit for them—HA! Try it. If the story is good, they’ll listen.

One of my favorite longer picture books is How Tom Beat Captain Najork And His Hired Sportsmen, written by Russell Hoban and illustrated by Quentin Blake. I did not count the words, but this is a story filled with long sentences, wonderful description, and very funny characters. There’s not an extra word in there, in my opinion, and the story could not be told in 300-500 words.

The book opens introducing Tom’s maiden aunt, Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong, who wears an iron hat and take “no nonsense from anyone.” Where she walks, the flowers droop. When she sings (which is hard to imagine), the trees shiver.

This opening description and the accompanying picture can hook a roomful of kids. When you turn the page and read about Tom, Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong’s nephew, who likes to “fool around” the kid listeners are sold—they will sit for the several hundreds of words (many of them sophisticated words) it takes to tell the story.

Tom fools around with sticks and stones and crumpled paper and most anything else he can get his hands on. He’s gifted in the mud department and can make things from bent nails, cigar bands, and a couple of paper clips. He’s a boy MacGyver. And when his foe comes along, he is more than ready.

Who is his foe, you ask? Captain Najork. And it’s Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong who sets up the match. She sends for Captain Najork and his hired sportsmen to teach Tom a lesson about fooling around.

“Captain Najork,” said Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong, “is seven feet tall, with eyes like fire, a voice like thunder, and a handlebar moustache. His trousers are always freshly pressed, his blazer is immaculate, his shoes are polished mirror-bright, and he is every inch a terror.”

Well, when Captain Najork arrives on his pedal boat to reform Tom, Tom sees right away that he’s only six feet tall and his eyes are not like fire, nor is his voice like thunder. They size each other up, and the games begin. Captain Najork announces that they shall compete at womble, muck, and sneedball.

   “How do you play womble?” said Tom.

   “You’ll find out,” said Captian Najork.

   “Who’s on my side?” said Tom.

   “Nobody,” said Captain Najork. “Let’s get started.”

Tom_Spread
And so they do. The pictures are hysterical and the descriptions of the games— which aren’t really descriptions at all, but make you think you already know the finer points of womble, muck, and sneedball—are delightful.

Spoiler Alert: All of Tom’s fooling around turns out to have been most excellent training for trouncing Captain Najork and his ridiculous hired sportsmen. But I won’t tell you the wager Tom makes with the Captain or how that turns out for all involved. For that, you will have to find the book, which is not easy to find and which is expensive (though absolutely worth it) to make one’s own. Do look for it! It is out there, as is an underground crowd of extreme fans.

I had a writing teacher who read this book to me, and so I hear it in her voice, a respectable lilting British accent full of excellent drama and good fun. (She can do a formidable Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong!) I can’t quite pull off the accent, but I’ve never found a kid who minded. I once read this story in a Back-to-School Storytime along with a Skippyjon Jones book. It was an evening of hilarity and fun. And at the end, I had a request from two kids not old enough to start school yet to read it again. Which I did. To a roomful of people who quickly gathered. THAT’S a good book. A most excellent longer picture book.

P.S. Russell Hoban and Quentin Blake are an inspired match—they’ve collaborated on several books. For a treat, listen to Blake talk about his fondness for this story and its characters.

 

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The Betsy Books

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

book coverMy daughter and I are finishing what we call “The Betsy Books”—the wonderful series of books by Maud Hart Lovelace that follows Betsy Ray and her friends as they grow up in Deep Valley, Minnesota.

When I first read the Betsy Series, I started with Betsy and the Great World and Betsy’s Wedding and did not discover the earlier books until we moved to Minnesota, where they were all gathered together on a shelf in the library. My daughter was introduced to the books in order, however—we’ve read them together, and she listened to the first two books over and over again because my mother recorded them for her.

[A Small Aside: Recording books is a wonderful thing for grandparents to do! Most computers/phones are equipped to make a pretty decent recording of a single voice. Doesn’t have to be fancy—my Mom just read the books aloud as if she were in the room reading to her grandkids. Sometimes she makes comments and asks questions etc. When she’s finished, she sends the book and the CD along in the mail—half of her grandgirls live far away, but all of them get the books and recordings. What a gift!]

This week, daughter and I are finishing Emily of Deep Valley—then on to Betsy and the Great World and Betsy’s Wedding. I can’t wait! I have such fond memories of reading these books over and over again—I can remember where I was sitting when reading many of them. We’ve had a wonderful time this last year or so reading the high school antics and angsts of Betsy and “The Crowd”. The details of shirtwaists and pompadours, parties and dancing, train trips and contests are a hoot. We’ve had to look up vocabulary, references, and songs (there’s a Betsy-Tacy Songbook!) here and there, and we’ve learned a lot.

bk_Betsy-Tacy-Songbook-coverThis is a great series  to read over several years—fun to read about the five year old Betsy, Tacy, and Tib when your reading partner is five. (The books are written at age appropriate levels, as well—the early books are great “early chapter book” reads.) Now that my reading partner is about to enter her teens, we’ve been reading about The Crowd in their high school years. As the Deep Valley friends head off to college, we marvel at how different and how similar her brother’s experience of heading out will be. He won’t be taking a trunk on a train, that’s for sure.

We live in Minnesota, home of the fictionalized Deep Valley, which is really Mankato, Minnesota. My Mom, daughter, and I have visited the sites in Mankato—tremendous fun can be had there. There are celebrations held every year—the Betsy-Tacy Society does a valuable and tremendous job of keeping the stories and the literary landmarks from the books alive and well.

I did not read this series with our son. Maybe we read the earliest books when he was very young; but I don’t think he would find the tales of Magic Wavers and house parties all that interesting. Although I despise the notion of “girl books” and “boy books,” I don’t know many men enamored with this series. Prove me wrong, dear readers! Tell me you read Betsy Tacy and Tib each year. Tell me your brother perpetually reads the high school books, or your husband slips a volume in his suitcase when he travels. Perhaps you have a co-worker who keeps his childhood set on his office credenza?

Should these men not be in your life, grab a girlfriend and take in this year’s Deep Valley Homecoming! Or, if you’re male and intrigued, take your wife/sister/daughter. Maybe I’ll see you there.

 

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How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

Our household has been patiently (and not so patiently) stuck in a long season of waiting for decisions around some important and exciting opportunities. Everyone has something up in the air. Applications, interviews, tests, hopes, and dreams are all out there, and now we watch for the mail, check messages compulsively, and try to make friends with the suspense…. Not all the news is in yet, but slowly we’re hearing of decisions. There’s been celebration and disappointment both. We busy ourselves making the corresponding choices and plans while we await other news.

How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird

Jacques Prévert, Illustrations and Translation by Mordicai Gerstein

More than once I’ve pulled a favorite picture book off my shelves to read to myself—a reminder to take a deep breath and remember that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” (Julian of Norwich). The book, How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird, was a gift from wise women in my life. I’d never seen it before and I shudder to think I might never have come across it had they not given it to me—although maybe the universe would have conspired to get it to me another way. I am a fan of Mordicai Gerstein’s work, after all, and I desperately need this book in my life.

This is a spare book—few words, beautiful illustrations. It speaks to sustained hope, fate and faith, hard work and luck, and events happening in their own time. Written in a gentle “how-to” format, we are shown how to paint a bird.

First, paint a cage with an open door. Then, in the cage, paint something for the bird, something useful and beautiful, but simple.

The young artist takes the painting and puts it under a tree, hiding himself behind the tree. Seasons pass with the boy and his painting under the tree, the painted bird cage empty.

If the bird doesn’t come right away, don’t be discouraged. Wait.

We’re reminded that it doesn’t mean our picture/future/chance won’t be good—just that good things cannot be rushed. For many things, there is a season.

If the bird comes and enters the cage, we are told to “gently close the door with [our] brush.”

 And then—oh then, we have the deep, deep wisdom of the book! The young artist demonstrates how to erase the cage, one bar at a time, taking care not to harm the bird’s feathers. Once the bird is left in all of her sweet glory on the blank canvas, the boy paints the tree, “with the prettiest branch for the bird.”  He paints the green leaves, the summer breeze, the smells of a summer day, the songs of the bees and butterflies.

Then wait for the bird to sing. If it doesn’t sing, don’t be sad. You did your best.

 The grace in this picture spread does my heart such good. Don’t we all need the occasional reminder that changes can be made if things do not work out as we hoped, that often they don’t, and that any number of paths might be good? We tend to forget these truths in the waiting and the worry.

The book ends in celebration with the bird singing a riot of a song, but I appreciate that it is acknowledged that this is not always so. And yet…all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well! This I believe—this I want our kids to believe. What comes, comes; what doesn’t, doesn’t. As long as we’ve done our best, chances are we will find our way. Often our way, if not the destination itself, turns out to be a joyful surprise.

It seemed too obvious to gather everyone in our individual and familial angst and read this book. So I’ve just left it lying about…. I’ve seen them pick it up, turn the pages and smile, then gently put it back down for someone else to find.

This is a picture book you don’t outgrow. I’ve been very grateful for its gift during this season of our family’s life.

 

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Princess of the Midnight Ball

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

Princess coverMy twelve-year-old daughter is inhaling books these days—a stack at a time out of the library, every bookshelf in the house pillaged, major insider trading at school, etc. There’s no way I can keep up, but when I move a book from here to there I often flip through or ask her opinion. When she started reading Princess of the Midnight Ball, I assumed, based on the PBS Masterpiece Theater-like attire on the cover’s princess, that it was “just-another-princess book.” I didn’t even ask about it—I’m not a huge princess book fan and she reads whole series of them.

And then, while I was chopping vegetables for dinner one afternoon, she looked up from the book and said, “You should read this, Mom.”

Now, she doesn’t say this about every book. She’s happy to tell me the plot, critique the writing, acknowledge when she’s reading what we sometimes call M&M literature (i.e., junk), and admit that a deep dark chocolate book is usually more satisfying, even as the M&M books can be fun. We love to talk books together, but we only recommend the really good ones to each other.

I said, “Is it an M&M princess story?” 

“Nope.” She giggled and turned the page.

“Plot summary?” I inquired.

“Grimm Brothers’ Twelve Dancing Princesses,” she said, not lifting her eyes from the page.

Okay, maybe more intriguing. I drizzled olive oil over the potatoes.

“Who’s the author?”

“Jessica Day George,” she said.

The name somersaulted through my brain. Why did I know that name?

Tuesdays cover“You know—she wrote Tuesdays At The Castle, and Dragon Slippers…”

Aha! Not the usual princess books!

“Tell me more,” I said, and I started chopping broccoli.

“Well, the princesses are all named for flowers—and they’re this great family and there’s the thing about how they’re dancing holes into their slippers every night and no one can figure out what’s going on…. The guys who arrive to “save” them are such idiots.” She rolled her eyes. “But the one who’s going to save them…he knits.”

A knitting hero? Well, there’s something you don’t see every day.

“Knits casually or as a plot point?” I’m not sure how knitting can be a plot point, but I hold out hope.

“I think it’s going to be a plot point….” she said in her most beguiling way. Dancing green eyes peered at me over the top of the book’s pages.

“Interesting,” I said, ever so casually.

“I’ll be done before supper,” she said. “Then you can have it.”

It’s terrific. Knitting is indeed a plot point. Knitting patterns are included at the end of the book, even! Jessica Day George’s website explains—she’s a knitter. And she loves men who knit.

Set in nineteenth century Europe (which explains the book cover—totally appropriate), this fresh retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses is full of humor, interesting characters, and fun twists and turns of plot. The princesses are smart, creative and feisty; the hero a dashing, sensitive, knitting gardener. (Be still my own princess heart.)

This book is a romp and delight. I didn’t read it quite as fast as my daughter, but almost. I look forward to the other two in the series—I have it on good authority that they are equally wonderful—and Ms. George hints on her website that there could be more.

 

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If You Plant a Seed

by Melanie Heuser Hill

My dealer (in books, my drug of choice) and I have a special relationship. I send her emails of books I’d like to have as I have a need, and she gets them for me. I know that doesn’t sounds all that special, but because she keeps a running tab for me and because I’m usually not in a hurry, I sometimes forget what I’ve ordered by the time we meet on the street corner for the hand-off.

If You Plant a SeedSuch was the case with If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson. Undoubtedly, I’d read a review suggesting I’d love this book—due to budget constraints, I don’t usually put in an order unless I’m sure I want it on my shelves. Perhaps I’d simply seen the cover—Nelson’s artwork often makes my heart go pitter-pat, and this cover with its lop-eared bunny and mouse anxiously watching a small seedling … well. It must be the gardener in me.

But I’d forgotten I’d ordered it, and so when it came, it came as a delightful surprise.  I sat down this morning to read it and two things happened. First, I found myself quite verklempt. Then, I went and stood on my front porch and looked up and down the street hoping I’d see some kids. I sat down in the rocking chair to wait. That’s how determined I was to read it to a child—immediately, if not sooner. Sit with book and they will come, I told myself.

Alas, eventually I had to track down my niece who lives around the corner. But she was more than willing to have a read with me as soon as I showed her the cover—they currently have a bit of a bunny and mouse obsession going at their house this spring.

Eighty words. That’s all the book has. Eighty words! But of course Nelson is a fine artist and much of the story is told in the art. Three seeds are planted. A tomato plant, carrot, and cabbage grow after time and a little love and care. The bunny and mouse dance their joy in the garden and settle in for a feast.

Five birds arrive—a crow, a pigeon, a blue jay, a cardinal, and a nuthatch/sparrow. (Please note: I am not an ornithologist—I cannot positively identify the nuthatch/sparrow, but I think I have the other ones right.) They look at the bunny and mouse with a sort of “Whatcha-doin’?” kinda look. You turn the page and they are looking at you with “Well-are-ya-gonna-share?” kind of look.

The book goes on to explore (in less than eighty words and in beautiful art—a true picture book!) what happens if you plant a seed of selfishness…and what happens if you plant a seed of kindness. The reader is allowed to see the “harvest” of both.

This is a “quiet book.” Each spread is made to be savored, time must be allowed for looking at all the details and absorbing the story and the emotions. The title might make you think it will have the rollicking fun of the Laura Numeroff’s If You Give a Mouse/Pig/Moose a Cookie/Pancake/Muffin books. But it’s nothing like that. If You Plant A Seed is about the banquet of joy that feeds and delights all when a small seed of kindness is planted. There’s no moral—nobody screeches out the lesson at the end in a Little Red Hen voice—but the last spread illustrates the point well.

Find this book, if you haven’t already. Find a kid, or a whole group of them. Read it. Then go out and plant some seeds—tomatoes, carrots, cabbage… and/or love, joy and generosity of spirit.

 

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In God’s Hands

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

In God's HandsThis week, I am reading (for the umpteenth time) what I think of as The Very Most Favorite Book of the children in my church. They call it That Book About Bread. The book is In God’s Hands by Lawrence Kushner and Gary Schmidt and it resonates deeply with these kids.

I know how it will go. I’ll pull it out of my bag and a general clamor and harangue will go up.

“YAY!” 

I LOVE THAT BOOK!

“Me, too!”

You haven’t read that book in a long time!” (Delivered with a pouty face.)

“You should read That Book About Bread EVERY week.”

Now, this is a very well-read group of kids—they are a terrific storytime audience. But they do not say these things about every book. Some books I pull out (especially if they are books “about God”) illicit these responses:

“You already read that one.” (Pouty face.)

“Aahhh…not that one!”

“Are you just reading that one first and then a better one next?”

“Can you read That Book About Bread?”

“Yeah! Read That Book About Bread!”

In God’s Hands begins like this:

When the sun sets and stars fill the sky, the square in the little town grows quiet and still. The cool air of distant hills mingles with the sweet scent of baking bread. The moon rises and glows softly. It’s the sort of place where miracles could happen.

The children grow quiet and still as I read. You can practically see them inhale the sweet scent of baking bread. They are ready to hear (again) about the miracle that happens in this book. They love that it’s called a miracle, because what happens in this book is a quotidian mix-up–and the kids figure it out before the characters do. 

Jacob is a rich man, David is a poor man. Jacob, half asleep in synagogue service, hears God call him to bake twelve loaves of challah and set them before The Lord in two rows, six in each row. (What he actually hears is the day’s Torah reading from Leviticus.) Obediently, Jacob does this—he bakes twelve beautiful braided loaves and places them in the synagogue’s ark, where the holy Torah is kept, since that seems to be the closest place to God.

Soon after, David, the caretaker of the synagogue, comes before the ark and prays a prayer of quiet desperation. His family is hungry and they are out of food.

When I turn the page and David opens the ark to find twelve loaves of braided challah, the children all but cheer. They listen in delight as the miracle continues. Jacob, astounded that God has received his twelve loaves, continues to bake; and David, his children ever hungry, continues to receive with deep gratitude the miraculous loaves that appear in the ark. Neither man realizes what is happening—they quite appropriately call it a miracle. But the kids know what is going on, and they love it!

I love the message of this beautiful book—the wise rabbi explains that God’s miracles often work like this. “Your hands are God’s hands,” he says. And now that David and Jacob know this, they will have to keep acting as they have—doing God’s work with their hands.

“Read it again!” the kids say.

My copy is well-worn. I intend to read it until it falls apart. Then I’ll get a new one.

 

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