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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Archive | Red Reading Boots

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.”

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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



“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.



Library Lion

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

I recently read about a series of get-to-know-you games to play with kids. One suggested making a list of hard and fast rules that everyone could agree to—a series of sensible prohibitions, perhaps—and then taking turns thinking of the exceptions to those rules.

RULE:  No running in the hallways. EXCEPTION: Run if the building is on fire.

RULE: Only quiet voices in the library. EXCEPTION: Shout as loud as you can if there is an emergency.

Library Lion cover

by Michelle Knudsen illustrations: Kevin Hawkes Candlewick, 2006

Variations on these two rules appear in Library Lion, one of my favorite picture books ever. And I wish I’d had this book when my two rule-followers were little—it might’ve helped us play the game above.

I was quite smitten with Library Lion the first time I saw it. Something about the cover evokes a nostalgic feeling for me—the illustrations by Kevin Hawkes are done in a soft palate of acrylics and pencil. The gigantic lion calmly reading over the shoulder of a young girl looks entirely plausible.

The story, too, somehow feels plausible. You don’t question it at all when you read on page one: “One day, a lion came to the library. He walked right past the circulation desk and up into the stacks.”

I have made the mistake, while reading to a group of children, of saying, “Can you believe it? A lion in the library!” They look at me with weariness, their faces clearly saying, “Hush up, Story Lady. Just keep reading.”

Only Mr. McBee questions the propriety of the lion. Not Miss Merriweather. (Could there be more perfect names for {nostalgically stereotypical} librarians? I think not.) Miss Merriweather is as calm as Mr. McBee is nervous. “‘Is he breaking any rules?’” she asks. Mr. McBee, obviously familiar with the rules and their importance, admits that the lion has not trespassed in any way. “‘Then leave him be,’” says the unflappable Miss Merriweather.

Gorgeous spreads of the lion’s presence and assistance in the library abound. He sniffs the card catalog, rubs his head on the new book collection, and joins story hour. Nobody quite knows what to do as “there weren’t any rules about lions in the library.”

When he lets out a small but startling RAAAHHRRRR! at the end of story hour, Miss Merriweather informs him of the library rule that covers everything from too much talking to roaring. “‘If you cannot be quiet, you will have to leave,” she [says] in a stern voice. “Those are the rules!’”

Well, as we know—and as children must learn—there are times when it is entirely right to break the rules. And when that time comes in this book, the lion knows what to do. This time, his roar is much larger. I always have the kids read it with me—we raaahhrr as loud as we possibly can. As we work up to a proper volume (they always have to be encouraged), we take turns running our fingers over the illustrated letters that blow the spectacles off Mr. McBee’s face.


Library Lion illustration

(c) 2006 Kevin Hawkes

I was so smitten with Library Lion when I first discovered it that I was little nervous about reading it to a group of young children. What if they didn’t like it? What if it was too old-fashioned, implausible, too sweet? What if children today were somehow too jaded to properly appreciate this gem of a book?!

I need not have worried. This is one of those picture books that sucks kids in right away. They become one of the children in Miss Merriweather’s library on page one. When the book finishes, they look around the bookstore/library/room as if they expect to see a lion pad in.

Michele Knudsen and Kevin Hawkes are an inspired pair—this is a beautiful book and I love sharing it with kids. It’s a lovely thing to go hoarse while roaring with children.



Mother-Daughter Book Club

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

Mother-Daughter coverIn a meta-move (we’re not usually so cool), our mother-daughter book club has started the Mother-Daughter Book Club series by Heather Vogel Frederick.  We read the first book last month and the second is scheduled for our next meeting. I’m not sure we’ll be able to stop there. It was good we held them until the girls were the age of the girls in Frederick’s first books—the timing is perfect now.

The forming of the fictional mother-daughter book club was different than ours. The mothers in Frederick’s books pretty much coerced their girls into coming together in sixth grade to read Little Women. The series follows the daughters through their pre-teen and teen years as they read various literary classics together with their mothers—not always happily, but always entertainingly. 

Our mother-daughter book club started when our girls were in second grade.  We started with George Selden’s The Cricket in Times Square. I sent the original inquiry/invitation. I simply looked around my girl’s classroom and playground and sent an email to a few of the mothers I knew. Some of the girls were friends, some were not…yet. I don’t believe any were coerced into participating. If they were, at least they’ve stayed. And I’ve overheard them claim they started the book club, and we mothers were simply allowed to come along for the ride. This revisionist history is fine by me.

Cricket in Times Square coverToday, we are five mother-daughter pairs and the girls are in seventh grade. I would guess we’ve read close to fifty books together. Frederick’s mother-daughter book club focuses on one classic for months—sometimes a year. Ours reads one book every 4-6 weeks or so.  We take turns picking books, moms gently encouraging books the girls might not otherwise find and devour on their own (no Harry Potter books, Hunger Games, Divergent etc.), and girls insisting on books moms might not otherwise have given a chance. We’ve read several that were popular when the mothers were the daughters’ age, which they find interesting/hysterical. We’ve had a couple of author visits. We’ve even done some events that have nothing to do with books—we won a prize for our Brown-Paper-Packages-Tied-Up-With-String costumes at the Sound of Music Sing-a-long! 

Our daughters are friends in that sustaining sort of way that makes it through (we hope) the sometimes tumultuous middle school years; which is to say there are no cliquey BFF’s in the group, but rather known-each-other-for-quite-awhile friendships. The mothers are friends in that sustaining sort of way that comes when you raise your daughters together. We are listening ears for one another, glad celebrators, co-commiserates (clothes shopping with pre-teens—OY!), and confidants. The girls talk of continuing our book group through their high school years, and we mothers cross our fingers and say a little prayer this will be the case. It’s getting more and more difficult to schedule our meetings—busy girls, busy moms, busy families. But we work hard to make it work when we can without stressing anyone out.

In short, it has been a tremendous thing in our lives, this mother-daughter book club.  Reading about a mother-daughter book club that is so different from ours is a hoot. And in the hands of Heather Vogel Frederick, adolescence is not only well drawn, but helpfully drawn. The mothers and daughters in her series go through many of the very same things we do, for there is nothing new under the sun with regard to adolescence and the mother-daughter relationship—just variations on similar themes. It’s good to read about other lives that have touch points with yours—sparks great conversation.




Reading With Older Kids

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

Our first-born turned eighteen this week. This prompted many trips down memory lane about his childhood, as he is now an “adult.” I was rather tickled to realize that so many of our family memories have to do with books—all the cool books we’ve read, the cool places we read them in, and the times we’ve read when the other parenting protocols didn’t quite seem to fit. (When in doubt, read together, I say. It will surely never make things worse, and almost always improves the situation in some way.) 

Gone are the days when I read a book aloud to him. I know there are families who do this through the high school years and even beyond. I admire this very much, but we haven’t. Formally, at least. I can’t remember exactly when we stopped—reading aloud time was probably extended for him because he has a much younger sibling. Even now he sometimes “listens in” as we read to her. But I struggle to pinpoint when we stopped curling up on the couch together before bedtime to read. Probably when the homework took over his life. 

QuietWhat has changed is the preposition. We no longer read to the man-child, but rather with him. This happens in a couple of different ways. He tends to read many of the same news articles, profiles, and human-interest stories that I do. This is, as I see it, one of the best things to come from technology in our mother-son relationship—we both have easy access to the New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker etc. In another time, these might not have been lying around in the living room for serendipitous reading. He also zones in on the same science and technology news, as well as the same fantasy or detective novels, as his Dad. 

Each person might read these shared interest reading materials at different times, but when two or more have read the same thing, there is often conversation at supper, discussion as stalling/procrastination technique (he hasn’t outgrown all the little-boy behaviors), or sharing ideas in the car. 

We’ve also started sharing books more frequently. We gave him Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Just Can’t Stop Talking for Christmas. He inhaled it and pressed it into my hands with a “You have to read this!” The audiobook came in for me at the library and I am now listening to it as I commute. “Mom, have you gotten to the part about…..?” he asks again and again. 

The Double BindHe looks on the living room bookshelf and notices a battered copy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. “Hey, we’re reading that next in English,” he says. And so I re-read the book I haven’t read since I was his age, in freshman English class. When he read The Great Gatsby, I said, “And now you must read The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian.” 

We read and discuss banned books together, share booklists and articles, and read and attend Shakespeare plays together. We often find that our bookshelves are not as personal as they once were—they’re more familial. If I can’t find a certain book in my office, I head to his room and see if it is on his shelves, or to his sister’s shelves and see if it is there. They share quite a lot now, too, so a book search can sometimes take a while. 

He’s a reader, which I feel a little proud about and a lot relieved. All of those hours and hours and hours of reading to him have led to very enjoyable teen years of reading with him. I hope this will continue as he grows into adulthood. I had no idea when we started that reading was the gift that would keep on giving. I know the two don’t always correlate, but I’m awfully glad they have in our house.


The Magic Valentine's Potato

Big Bob and The Magic Valentine’s Day Potato

Several years ago, a mysterious package arrived at our house on Valentine’s Day: a plain brown box addressed to our entire family with a return address “TMVDP.” The package weighed almost nothing. It weighed almost nothing because the box contained four lunchbox serving-size bags of potato chips. Nothing else. Or at least I thought there […]

Three Wise Women

Three Wise Women

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany. More than just an end to the season of Christmas, Epiphany is a Christian celebration all its own commemorating the revelation of God the Son in the humanity of Jesus Christ. There are various traditions observed around the world, but the story of the magi who came from […]

Hannukah Bear

Hanukkah Bear

We celebrate Christmas at our house, but we live in a community in which many celebrate Hanukkah. As we light our Advent candles and string our Christmas lights, our Jewish friends and neighbors light the candles on their Hanukkah menorah and fry delicious potato latkes. Dear friends invite us to join them for one of […]

Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree

Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree

Oh, wasn’t it grand to have a tree— Exactly like Mr. Willowby? My firstborn received Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree (by Robert Barry) from his best friend for Christmas 2001. I know this because their names are scrawled inside the front cover with the date. I probably could’ve narrowed it down to the right year, though. […]

Quiltmaker's Gift

The Quest for the Perfect Thanksgiving Book

Each November I begin the search anew. I know what I’m looking for, and I really don’t think it’s too much to ask of a picture book: It must delve into the themes of generosity, abundance, gratitude. It should be beautiful. Compelling in its beauty, in fact. Ideally, I’d like it to celebrate our better […]

Too Many Pumpkins

Too Many Pumpkins

I have a thing for pumpkins—their orangeness, their roundness…. I’m not sure what it is, exactly. They’re sort of a harbinger of autumn, my favorite season, so maybe that’s it. Really, I just find them satisfying somehow. Given my love of the orange autumnal globes, it’s a little odd, perhaps, that my favorite pumpkin book is […]

Read to Them

Three Things This Past Week

The beginning of the school year caught up with everyone last week, I think. My kids are exhausted, a little overwhelmed, a little crispy around the edges. The other kids in and around my life seem about the same. Fall transitions can be hard even when they go relatively smoothly. My youngest (age twelve) came […]

Old Bear

Old Bear

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about our family’s obsession—I mean love—of Christopher Robin’s Silly Old Bear. Our family also has a deep and abiding love for Old Bear by Jane Hissey and I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about it. We’ve found that too many people do not know about […]

Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh


There are a lot of “challenges” happening in the social media sphere these days—books, ice buckets, kindness, gratitude, etc. All great things—perhaps one of the better uses for social media even, though it doesn’t quite beat out birthday greetings and first-day-of-school pictures, in my book. Last week, a good friend and fellow reader “challenged” me […]


Just Like A Baby

I’m missing a dear friend who died very suddenly this past spring. Liz was old enough to be my mother and my kids’ grandmother. She loved to give gifts and had an almost magical way of doing so. Her taste in books for kids was exquisite and she always found the most perfect, most unique […]


On Flower Girls

A year ago this weekend, I had the honor of officiating at the wedding of dear friends. They’d planned a grand celebration—organ and trumpet, dramatic readings, fantabulous attendants, family and friends, and not one but two flower girls. In my experience, flower girls and ring bearers increase the “chance element” in a wedding ceremony. I’m […]


Kuplink, Kaplank, Kuplunk!

We missed strawberry picking, and therefore jam making, this year. We were in the mountains, a dandy excuse to be sure, but now we’re in a bit of a pickle (no canning pun intended). We have a strong homemade jam habit at our house, and last year’s bounty is dwindling. We’re trying to figure out […]


We Need Longer Picture Books, Too!

I’ve just read yet another article about the new length of picture books. Some say publishers won’t even consider publishing a picture book over five hundred words anymore. Others say they should be under three hundred words. Why? Inevitably, the shorter attention spans of children are cited somewhere in the reasoning. Rubbish, I say! As […]


Harry Potter

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first book in the Harry Potter series, came out a few months after Child #1 was born. In my sleep-deprived stupor, I didn’t notice for awhile; but it quickly became difficult to be a citizen of the world and not know about Harry Potter. Suffice to say, the […]


This Vacation’s Audiobooks

Many have asked what our family listened to on vacation this year. We have recently returned and I can now report back. We had a lot of hours in the car—Minnesota through the Black Hills and into the Tetons and up through Montana etc. And back, of course. Good to have three drivers. Good to […]


The Ruby in the Smoke Audio-book

In our roadtrip/vacation van there are four very different readers—different interests, different reading interests, varying attention spans, etc. In addition to these differences and variances, the kids are five and a half years apart. Finding a book that keeps everyone entertained and is appropriate for all ages can be a challenge. Two years ago, The […]


The Borrowers (audio book)

One of the first books we listened to in the car was Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. We had one child and he was very small. But he’d been well-trained on audio books. He fell asleep to The Velveteen Rabbit (Meryl Streep and George Winston) or Winnie-the-Pooh (The BBC version) every night. So we popped in […]


Pulling Radishes, Thinking About Books

In the garden this week I am pulling radishes. Weeds, too, and maybe that’s why I appreciate the small, crisp, spicy little radishes. Pulling those rosy red globes out of the black dirt makes me think of one of my favorite books from childhood: Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.  I have especially vivid memories of my third grade […]


Fevered Reading

Let me be very clear. I do not ever want my kids to be sick. We’ve had run-o-the-mill childhood sickness and we’ve had serious sickness—I don’t like either kind. I would wish only good health, happiness, sunshine, and lollipops for my children and the children of the world. And we are fortunate and grateful to […]


Touching the Reading Spot

About a year ago, I found myself at weekly appointments with a speech therapist who specializes in functional breathing difficulties. I was dealing with some breathing and voice issues and my allergy and asthma doctor thought I might benefit from “relearning to breathe.” The process was fascinating—we worked on posture, word lists, tongue placement, swallowing, […]


An Ode To Beeswax

Back in the days of small children and little money, I regularly saved pennies for The Best Art Supplies that could be found. I’d read something terribly inspirational about giving your children real art supplies: gorgeous colors and textures that would help them produce fantastic works of art even if all they did was scribble, […]


The Privilege & Responsibility of Reading in Bed

The indomitable Gertrude Mueller Nelson gave our family the ritual of Birthday Privileges & Responsibilities. Each birthday our kids receive a scroll of paper festooned with ribbons. Inside, in the fanciest (and hardest to read) script our printer can manage, we have ceremonial language awarding the birthday child his/her next year’s Privilege & Responsibility. We started […]


The Miss Rumphius Challenge

Henry was a regular. He was in afternoon kindergarten and he and his nanny had the mornings free to come to the storytime I did at the indie bookstores near his home. He was older than most of the other kids—a very wise and erudite six years. His eyes were black and luminous, his curls […]


Seussical the Musical!

Darling Daughter has discovered the stage. She is in her first musical this spring and is having a ball. Ninety-four middle schoolers (with help from some wonderful teachers and staff, of course) are valiantly putting on Seussical. I say valiantly because it is a big project. It’s really a mini-opera—very few lines are not sung. […]


Of Knitting and Books and Tattoos

I met her while knitting. She worked at the children’s bookstore next to the yarn store I frequent. I was knitting with the usual group gathered around the table at the yarn store when she came in. “Cat!” my tablemates called out that day. (I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t know if she spells it […]


My Son’s First Book

Seventeen years ago today, I became a mother. My water broke in the middle of the night and I called my husband, who was working the night shift, to come and get me. It was time. I was ready. More than ready. I had a bag packed with slippers and the new bathrobe my mother […]