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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Archive | Two for the Show

The Funny and the Heart

Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Jackie: Recently Phyllis and I read a heart-breaking column in The New York Times, written by author Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who wrote many children’s books, and a couple of books for adults.

The column, written as a love-note to her husband from a dying wife, was heartfelt, sad, and funny all at the same time. We both wished we had known Amy Krouse Rosenthal. But it was too late. We looked at a few of her books and found the funny and the heart that characterized that column.

As a way of paying tribute, we want to share just a few of her books with you. And I should add that we both want to do this but Phyllis is out tramping around after Minnesota wildflowers for a book project so I am on my own this month. I will miss my big-hearted friend in writing a column about another writer with heart, but will do my best.

Yes Day!Humor and heart characterize all the Amy Krouse Rosenthal books I have read. A favorite of my grandchildren is Yes Day! Once a year the exuberant child in this book wakes up to a day in which his parents answer all his questions with, “Yes.”

“Can I please have pizza for breakfast?” Turn the page and he is about to enjoy what we know to be, because it’s steaming with flavor, delicious sausage pizza.

“Can I use your hair gel?” Turn the page and the family is posing for a portrait with our hero standing in front with superbly spiked hair.

“Can I clean my room tomorrow?” Yes. Or pick all the cereals?  And we see in the grocery cart Puffed Sugar Cereal, Marshmallow Fluff cereal (“with bits of actual cereal”), Hot Fudge Sundae Flakes (“1 whole oat per serving”).  There are no bad wishes. Mario can come for dinner. Our hero can stay up really late. And on the last two pages we see the Yes Day celebrant lying on the ground,  under the stars with his Dad. “Does this day have to end? We know the answer. But his last words are “See you again next year!”

This picture book is so satisfying. Our granddaughter Ella is seven and enjoys the Harry Potter books, Beverly Cleary books, as well as many graphic novels. But she loved this book, too. And sat through repeated readings, laughing at all the jokes.

ChopsticksElla also loved Chopsticks. This story of the friendship of two chopsticks is loaded with visual and verbal puns. “They go everywhere together. They do everything together.” Until one of them snapped. “Chopstick was quickly whisked away,” carried by a kitchen whisk. “The others all waited quietly. /No one stirred,/ not even Spoon.”

When Chopstick returns from his surgery, he tells his friend to go off, have adventures on his own. One of his hilarious adventures is conducting an orchestra of kitchen implements. The turkey baster plays French horn, a fork plays an oven thermometer that looks like a bassoon. Who could not love this page?

Who could not love this book which ends with the chopsticks playing “Chopsticks” on the piano?

Exclamation PointAmy Krouse Rosenthal had a light touch with serious subjects, too. Exclamation Mark is the story of a punctuation mark that does not fit in. Hilarious already, right?  The text and illustrations appear on what looks like the wide-lined school paper of the early grades. The book begins “He stood out from the very beginning—on the next page we see a row of circle-drawn periods with little faces and one period with a long line above it—the Exclamation Mark. “He tried everything to be more like them./But he just wasn’t like everyone else. [Line of periods.] Period.”  After a while he meets a question mark. Of course it only speaks in questions. “Who are you? What grade are you in? What’s your favorite color? Do you like frogs?” And on and on—until Exclamation Mark says, STOP!” The Question Mark loves it and asks him to do it again. “Hi!” And again, “Howdy!”  And more. “It was like he broke free from a life sentence.” With all its puns and silly phrases, this is at its core a story of finding one’s place in the world. And that is always satisfying

SpI was familiar with only two of Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s books, Spoon, the story of a spoon who is unhappy with its role in life, envies the other implements. He says of Chopsticks, “Everyone thinks they’re really cool and exotic! No one thinks I’m cool or exotic.” Eventually Spoon realizes a spoon’s work can be cool—and fun. Such a great idea to tell this tale from the point of view of a spoon. We all need to be reminded and reminded that we all have a place in the world. And how light-hearted to let a spoon character do the reminding. And there’s the advantage of giving kids permission to talk to their spoons.  How many kids now have conversations with their spoons when they eat their morning cereal and have Amy Krouse Rosenthal to thank?

from Spoon by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustration copyright Scott Magoon

Duck! Rabbit!The second book in my AKR mental library was Duck! Rabbit!, It’s a story told totally in dialogue about two friends who see a creature that could be a rabbit with long ears or a duck with a beak. ”Are you kidding me?/It’s totally a duck./It’s for sure a rabbit./See there’s his bill./What are you talking about?/Those are ears, silly.” It’s a clever turn on two characters who can look at the same picture/event/person and come to completely different conclusions.  Finally one says, “You know, maybe you were right./Maybe it was a rabbit.” And the other says, “Thing is, now I’m actually thinking it was a duck.” After this coming together, the story ends with them seeing an anteater/brachiosaurus. And we take off again.

If I were a teacher I’d keep a stash of Amy Krouse Rosenthal books in my bag for those times when kids are antsy, or standing in line to get into the auditorium, or just need a good laugh or a good pun. I’m definitely going to keep a stash for my grandkids. I wish I had said, “Thanks,” when she was still living. The best I can do is pass these books along to readers of all ages who need a smile or actually would like to start the day talking to their spoons—or their chopsticks.

Phyllis:  Thank you, Jackie, for this month’s column.  Like these books and their author, you, too, have an amazing heart and a sense of joy and delight.  Now, back to my book deadline….

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Our Hearts Will Hold Us Up

Jackie: It seems perfectly appropriate that the Manager of Holiday Placement  has placed Valentine’s Day, a day to celebrate love and affection, right in the middle of cold, dark February. I want that celebration to spread out for the whole month (why not the whole year?) the way the smell of baking bread fills an entire house, not just the kitchen. Why can’t all of February be Heart Month? We are choosing books this month with that goal in mind. We want to celebrate heart, love, ties of affection. And we have chosen a new book, a couple of medium new books and an old book to help us.

More, More, More Said the BabyA while back we did an entire column on Vera B. Williams. But I am still missing her. I need her political activism and her huge heart in my neighborhood. I turned to More, More, More Said the Baby. (Greenwillow, 1990). 

This book is a huge celebration of the love between daddies and kids:

Just look at you
With your perfect belly button
Right in the middle
Right in the middle
Right in the middle
Of your fat little belly.
Then Little Guy’s daddy
Brings that baby
Right up close
And gives that little guy’s belly
A kiss right I the middle
Of the belly button.

Between grandmas and kids:

Then Little Pumpkin’s grandma
Brings that baby right up close
And tastes each
Of Little Pumpkin’s toes.

And mamas and kids:

Just look at you
With your two closed eyes
Then Little Bird’s Mama…
Gives that little bird a kiss
Right on each of her little eyes.

I never tire of reading about these children, diverse children, who are so loved and so valued. This book will be fresh as long as we laugh and kiss babies with belly buttons and ten little toes.

Phyllis:; I miss Vera B. Williams, too, and I love seeing her spirit still alive in her books and also in the hearts of people everywhere who care about people everywhere. Her language in More More More is so delicious–along with the repetition we have lively verbs of interaction between grown-ups and beloved children (swing, scoot, catch that baby up).  Little Guy, Little Pumpkin, and Little Bird have names that could be any child’s. I love, too, the exuberant art and hand lettered multi-colored text. Everything about this book celebrates taking joy in our children.

My Heart Will Not Sit DownJackie: In My Heart Will Not Sit Down, (Alfred Knopf, 2012) empathy and caring for others travel around the world. Rockliff creates a school child Kedi, who hears from her teacher about the hungry children in New York City and cannot stop thinking about them. She asks her mother for a coin to send them. Her mother says they have no coins to spare. “Kedi knew Mama was right. Still, her heart would not sit down.” She asks an uncle, a sweeping mother with a baby on her back, a grandmother pounding cassava, laughing girls who carried pots of river water, old men playing a game of stones, even the headman. No one has coins… Until the next morning when her mama gives her one coin. She takes the coin to school, thinking that one coin can do little good for the hungry children. Then the villagers show up—each bearing a coin. “We have heard about the hunger in our teacher’s village,” said the headman. “Our hearts would not sit down until we helped.” 

Phyllis:  This is one of those books that called to me from the shelf in a bookstore and captivated my heart once I opened it. Kedi’s heart stands up for the hungry children in New York, America, as she calls it. When the villagers bring their coins, which the author notes would be a small fortune to the village even though $3.77 would not go far in America even in the Depression, her mama asks, “Now will your heart sit down in peace?” Kedi answers, “Yes, Mama, Yes!”  The author notes, too, that in Cameroon, where the event occurred on which the story is based, people shared with anyone in need, even strangers, because, as they said, “You may meet him [a stranger] again, and in his own place.” This story reminds me that the actions of one small person can touch many hearts and feed hungry children.

The Heart and the BottleJackie: Hearts can spur us to action. Hearts can break. And the last two books are gentle stories of the heartache of loss. Oliver Jeffers writes of a “little girl…whose head was filled with all the curiosities of the world.” Jeffers shows us this little girl talking with her grandpa who sits in a chair, lying under the stars with her grandpa. He accompanies her on all her explores. And then one day the chair is empty. She decides to put her heart in a bottle to keep it safe. After that she wasn’t curious. She grows up and the bottled heart is heavy around her neck.  When she wishes to retrieve her heart she can’t—until she meets another little girl.

This is a story about dealing with sadness—we want to protect our hearts but we lose so much when we wall them up.

Phyllis:  Oliver Jeffers both wrote and illustrated The Heart and the Bottle, and the illustrations help carry the events and the emotions of the story.  When the girl who has bottled her heart decides as a grown-up to take her heart out again, the art shows her trying to shake the heart out, grip it with pliers, break the bottle with a hammer, and finally, abandoning her work bench covered with a drill, a cross cut saw, a wooden mallet, screwdriver, and other assorted tools including a vacuum cleaner leaning again the bench, she climbs a ladder to the top of an enormously tall brick wall and drops the bottle which still doesn’t break but just “bounced and rolled…right down to the sea” where a little girl easily frees the heart from the bottle and returns it.  The book ends, “The heart was put back where it came from.  And the chair wasn’t empty anymore. But the bottle was.” Here, too, the art reflects that the woman’s  world is once again filled with wonder.  We need our hearts within us.

Cry, Heart, But Never BreakJackie: Cry, Heart, But Never Break comes to us from Denmark. It was written by Glenn Ringtved, illustrated by Charlotte Pardi and translated by Robert Moulthrop (Enchanted Lion Books, 2016).  This book also deals with loss. Four children live with their grandmother—“A kindly woman, she had cared for them for many years.” Then Death knocks at the door. The children decide to forestall Death’s mission with coffee. They will keep him drinking coffee all night so he cannot take their grandmother, thus giving her another day of life. Eventually he has had enough. And one of the children asks why grandmother has to die. And then comes: “Some people say Death’s heart is as dead and black as a piece of coal, but that is not true. Beneath his inky cloak, Death’s heart is as red as the most beautiful sunset and beats with a great love of life.” He tells them a story of Sorrow and Grief meeting and falling in love with Delight and Joy. “What would life be worth if there were no death? Who would enjoy the sun if it never rained? Who would yearn for day if there were no night?”

When Death goes to the Grandmother’s room, he says to the children, “Cry, Heart, but never break. Let your tears of grief and sadness begin a new life.” Charlotte Pardi’s illustrations are perfect for this book, simple and tender. We see what appears to be quickly-sketched furniture in the night kitchen—we know this is a story. And yet we connect with the emotions on the children’s faces.

Cry, Heart, But Never Break

Cry, Heart, But Never Break. Illustration © Charlotte Pardi.

Phyllis: I love that the children ply Death with coffee, which Death loves, strong and black, and that it’s the youngest child who looks right at Death and eventually puts her hand over his. But even coffee can’t stop Death; when he goes  upstairs the children hear the window open and Death say, “Fly, soul, fly away.” Their hearts grieve and cry but do not break. Some (but not all) of the best books about Death come, interestingly, from other countries. But this book is not only about Death it is about the necessity of a life with both sorrow and grief and also joy and delight. This is a book that makes me cry and hope for all our hearts that they never completely break.

Jackie: We started with connection—the connections of babies and families, and we have come round to loss of connection, when what remains is love. Our hearts will hold us up.

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The Books in the Night

Phyllis: Night means many things: the terrifying darkness behind the garage where I had to carry the garbage after supper as a child, the dark night of the soul that depression brings, the hours between sunset and sunrise that grow longer and longer as our earth turns into winter. But night holds comfort as well as fear, and this month we want to look at books about the gifts that night and darkness can bring.

In the Night KitchenWho hasn’t heard of Mickey who “heard a racket in the night and shouted ‘Quiet down there!’ and fell through the dark out of his clothes past the moon and his mama and papa sleeping tight and into the light of the night kitchen?” (Maurice Sendak moves through more action in his marvelous first sentences than almost any other author we can think of.)  The Night Kitchen is Sendak’s imagined answer to what might have happened after he had to go to bed as a child, and his comic-book art pays tribute to the comics that influenced his work. This book has encountered both public and private censorship, including librarians painting diapers or clothes on Mickey to cover his nudity, but children love the adventure he discovers in the night kitchen.

Jackie: Sendak’s editor, the legendary Ursula Nordstrom, was eloquent in defending her books from such censorship. She once wrote to a teacher who had burned a copy of In the Night Kitchen, “I think young children will always react with delight to such a book as In the Night Kitchen, and that they will react creatively and wholesomely. It is only adults who ever feel threatened by Sendak’s work.” (Dear Genius, p.302)

Where Does the Brown Bear Go?Phyllis: Sendak imagines a rollicking adventure making cake for breakfast, while Nikki Weiss, right from the title, asks, Where Does the Brown Bear Go? Lovely in its simplicity and strong at its heart, this series of rhyming questions, one to a spread, wonders where animals go when night falls:

When the lights go down on the city street
Where does the white cat go, honey?
Where does the white cat go?
When evening settles
On the jungle heat,
Where does the monkey go, honey?
Where does the monkey go?

After every two questions, the same answer comes: 

They are on their way.
They are on their way home.

This would be a sweet catalog of animals headed home at night, but the book resonates more deeply when it asks: 

When the junkyard is lit
By the light of the moon
Where does the junkyard dog go, honey?
 Where does the junkyard dog go? 

Knowing that even the junkyard dog is on his way home moves me almost to tears. 

Jackie: Same here. And it urges me to imagine what is home for the junkyard dog and to put myself in that home for just a bit.

Phyllis: The last page shows a boy snuggled in bed surrounded by his stuffed animals (who resemble the animals of the preceding pages), and the book’s last line reassures us that everyone is home. It’s what we wish for every one of us, that a home awaits us at night where we are safe and cherished.

Night on Neighborhood StreetEloise Greenfield’s Night on Neighborhood Street uses a variety of poetic forms to tell the stories of the children and grown-ups who live on Neighborhood Street as night falls and bedtime arrives. Juma stretches out his bedtime with a willing daddy, a new baby cries and is rocked lovingly to sleep, a family gathers for “fambly time” on the floor, Tonya’s mother plays her horn for Tonya’s friends at an overnight, the church congregation sings songs of praise, and Karen lets her sister be the mama when their mama has to work at night.  But the darker side of life appears as well:  a lonesome boy waiting for his friend to come home looks at the moon “with a sad, sad eye/poking out his mouth/getting ready to cry.” A drug dealer comes around, but the children “see behind his easy smile” and head inside. A “brother who tries to pick a fight” is shut down when everyone else nods and smiles and lets him know they’re not interested in fighting. The book ends with Tonya’s mama blowing lullaby sounds on her horn into the silence of the street. And the children “hear and smile…and they are at peace with the night.” 

Jackie: I love how the families watch out for each other in this book. There is such a strong sense that children are cared for. Tonya’s Mama is a good example of this:

When Tonya’s friends come to spend the night
Her mama’s more than just polite
She says she’s glad they came to call
Tells them that she loves them all
Listens to what they can do
Tells them what she’s good at, too.
Plays her horn and lets them sing
(Do they make that music swing!)…

We aren’t sure why Tonya’s friends are there. Perhaps there was trouble, perhaps it’s just a visit. But we are sure that Tonya’s mother is strong and will love and take care of  these children. Neighborhood Street is a neighborhood indeed, where all are made stronger by watching out for each other.

The House in the NightPhyllis: Susan Marie Swanson’s The House in the Night, inspired by a nursery rhyme from The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book, is also deceptively simple in its text. The story is told in short declarative sentences, one sentence each to a double page spread of Beth Krommes’ Caldecott-winning scratchboard illustrations illuminated with bright yellow stars, lamplight, moon, and other objects. “Here is the key to the house,” the book begins.  In the house a light burns, a book rests on a bed, a bird flies with a song about starry dark, moon, sun, all of which circles back (in shorter phrases, a beautiful use of syntax) to the house in the night where art shows a parent lovingly tucking in the child who has read the book in “the house full of light.” Utterly beautiful and satisfying.

Jackie: There is so much to notice in this book. First the travel and the wonderful verbs:  In the house burns a light/In the light rests a bed./On that bed waits a book./In that book flies a bird./In that bird breathes a song….” We go all the way to the moon and the sun—and return. And for the journey back Susan Marie Swanson uses no verbs. We zoom from one place to the next. It really feels like space travel.

Sun in the moon,
moon in the dark,
dark in the song,
song in the bird,
bird in the book,
book on the bed,
bed in the light,
light in the house,…

You are right, Phyllis. This is such a satisfying trip back to the cozy bedroom of the house in the night.

Sweetest KuluPhyllis:  Not all nights are dark. The summer sun never really sets in the arctic, although someone who lives there told me how the quality of light changes under the midnight sun. (Someday I hope to see for myself.) In the Arctic Summer of Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk nature comes to give its gifts to little Kulu on the day he is born. The sun gives him “blankets and ribbons of warm light,” wind tells how weather forms, snow buntings bring seeds of flowers and Arctic cotton, “reminding you to always believe in yourself.” Arctic Char, Fox, Narwahl and Beluga, Muskrat, Polar Bear, and the Land itself all offer gifts  both tangible and intangible. This is a child welcomed and cherished by all.  A final piece of art shows Kulu nestled with a polar bear cub in a circle of grass and flowers.  Exquisitely beautiful and loving, this is a book as full of light and joy as the endless Arctic summer days. 

Jackie: I am so impressed with the language of this book. Many phrases caught my ear. Here are a couple of examples: “Melodies of wind arrived,” “Fox, so thoughtful and swift,/came to tell you to get out of bed as soon as you wake,/and to help anyone who may need your help along your way…”

This bedtime lullaby resonates with older readers, too.  We are daily reminded in our own lives of Muskox’s gift. “Muskox shared heritage and empowerment with you,/magnificent Kulu,/showing you how to protect what you believe in.”

These nighttime books, whether in the kitchen, on Neighborhood Street, in the cozy house in the night, or in the Arctic urge us to quiet, to being in a quiet world, where we have space and time to appreciate what is around us in the physical world as well as what is in our hearts and how they are strengthened by affection and care.

Phyllis: This is the season for quiet, after the blooming and buzzing of summer. As days shorten and the nights stretch out toward solstice, choose a book or several to read aloud, an act as comforting as a cup of warm cocoa and a fire in the fireplace.

Here are a few more night stories:

Can’t Sleep by Chris Raschka

Good Night Sleep Tight by Mem Fox

Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathman

Night Flight by Joanne Ryder

Night Noises by Mem Fox

Ten Nine Eight by Molly Bang

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William Steig and Transmogrification

bk_sylvester_200pxJackie: After Phyllis and I read Amos and Boris for our last month’s article on boats we both wondered why we hadn’t looked at the work of William Steig. He so often executes that very satisfying combination of humor and heart. Steig’s language is funny but his stories regularly involve worrisome separation and then return to a loving family.

William Steig was born to immigrant Jewish parents from Eastern Europe in 1907. His father was a painter and decorator and his mother was a seamstress. When the Depression came, Steig supported the family by selling cartoons to The New Yorker magazine. At age sixty he began to write children’s books and wrote more than two dozen before his death in 2003 at age 95.

Roger Angell, writing in The New Yorker, quoted a New York school teacher [his wife] speaking about Steig’s children’s books: “They’re touching but not sentimental, and they bring young children ideas they’ve not experienced before.”

Solomon the Rusty NailThey’re touching and they are funny—sometimes they are downright silly. In Solomon The Rusty Nail (1985), Solomon the rabbit figures out that if he scratches his nose and wiggles his toes at exactly the same time he becomes a rusty nail. Not to worry, this is not Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, not yet at least. Solomon also figures out that if he says to himself, “I’m no nail, I’m a rabbit,” he will quickly become a rabbit again.

Phyllis: I thought I knew most of Steig’s work but I didn’t know this book, and I love it, not least for Steig’s wonderfully playful language. When Solomon discovers his ability to transform, his first thought is to show his family what a “prize pazoozle of a rabbit” he is but decides instead to keep his “secret secret.” When Solomon transforms into a rusty nail behind a tree to fool a cat who has captured him, the cat is “discombobulated “and searches for Solomon “clockwise, counter clockwise, and otherwise.”

But for all their delicious language, Steig’s stories have high stakes: when Solomon refuses to turn back into a rabbit so the cat and his wife can eat him, the irate cat pounds him into the wall of their cabin where Solomon, unable to transform back into his true self, wonders, “Do nails die?”

Doctor De SotoJackie: Steig’s Doctor DeSoto, (1982) the mouse dentist has always been a favorite of mine. It is the perfect combination of humor and sensitivity, even compassion. Even though he has sworn not to treat foxes and wolves, Doctor Desoto agrees to treat the suffering fox. And the fox repays this kindness by wondering if it would be “shabby” to eat Dr. and Mrs. DeSoto. [Is “shabby” not the perfect, hilarious word here?] We root for Doctor DeSoto who says he always finishes what he starts and we love his remarkable preparation that allows him to fix the fox’s tooth and save the lives of him and his wife.

Perhaps everyone knows Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969), Steig’s Caldecott winner. Sylvester’s unfortunate wish turns him into a rock. His parents grieve. He sits and drowses as a rock until a remarkable series of circumstances results in his return to his old donkey form. So satisfying.

Steig loved this theme of transformation and clearly wasn’t done with it after Sylvester. He gave us the above-mentioned Solomon the Rusty Nail, The Toy Brother (1996), Gorky Rises (1980), all of which involve some sort of magical preparation or incantation and some sort of “stuckness.”

Amazing BonePhyllis: Steig is a master at making us believe these seemingly inexplicable vicissitudes. In The Amazing Bone Pearl the pig finds a bone that can talk in any language and imitate any sound—a trumpet’s call to arms, the wind blowing, the rain pattering down, snoring, sneezing. When Pearl asks the bone how it can sneeze, it replies, “I don’t know. I didn’t make the world.” When a hungry fox captures Pearl and the bone pleads for him to let her go, the fox replies, “I can’t help being the way I am. I didn’t make the world.”

Toy BrotherJackie: The Toy Brother (1996) is a wonderful turnaround book about two siblings who live with their parents—Magnus Bede, a famous alchemist, and his “happy-go-lucky wife” Eutilda. The older son, Yorick, “considers little Charles a first-rate pain in the pants.” Yorick is his father’s apprentice and hopes to turn donkey dung into gold. When the parents go off for a wedding Yorick sneaks into his father’s lab. Things don’t work out as he hoped and Yorick next appears the size of a mole. Charles enjoys his role as big brother and is actually kind to Yorick, builds him a house, feeds him crumbs of cheese, tries to amuse him by costuming himself and the family animals. But the two cannot get Yorick back to his original size, and neither can Magnus. Until Yorick remembers one very important detail.

Once again, Steig’s language is such a joy. When they realize what is needed, Magnus says, “Ginger! That’s a fish from another pond. Is it any wonder there was no transmogrification?” What child is not going to love that? I almost feel transmogrified reading it.

Gorky RisesGorky the frog makes a potion, too, in a kitchen lab, with “a little of this and a little of that: a spoon each of chicken soup, tea, and vinegar, a sprinkle of coffee grounds, one shake of talcum powder, two shakes of paprika, a dash of cinnamon, a splash of witch hazel, and finally a bit of his father’s clear cognac and a lot of attar of roses (!!).”… “This obviously was the magic formula he had long been seeking.”

He doesn’t know what it will do but soon realizes that it enables him to rise in the sky and float. He startles the groundlings, including a fox who looks like he just dropped by before his gig in Doctor DeSoto. Gorky endures a storm and longs for home…and eventually figures out how to get there.

Amos & BorisPhyllis: In Amos and Boris, I was startled by the fortuitous appearance of two elephants who help Amos the mouse roll Boris the whale back into the sea when he is beached by a storm. I didn’t realize that more elephants wander through Steig’s stories—Elephant Rock where Gorky eventually lands really is a transformed elephant, restored to his real self by the last drops of Gorky’s formula.

Brave IreneStorms are also recurring characters in Steig’s books. Irene encounters a storm in Brave Irene, an inimitable one that yodels a warning: “Go home….GO HO-WO-WOME,” as she attempts to deliver a dress her mother has made for the duchess. When the wind carries off the dress, Irene presses on in the worsening storm to tell the duchess what happened to her beautiful gown. Irene twists her ankle, she gets lost, night falls, she shivers from the cold, and just when she finally spots the castle below she is swallowed by a snowdrift up to her hat. In despair, she wonders if she should give up and freeze to death, since she is already buried. But the memory of her mother “who always smelled like fresh-baked bread” gives her the energy to fight free of the snowdrift, find a way to the castle (where the wind has plastered the gown to a tree) and eventually arrive home, driven by the doctor who tells her mother “what a brave and loving person Irene was. Which, of course, Mrs. Bobbin knew. Better than the duchess.”

Back cover of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, illustration copyright William Steig

Back cover of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, illustration copyright William Steig

Jackie: These characters are all surprised by circumstance. Storms fly in. The potions do not work exactly as planned. Dealing with these circumstances is not always easy. And so it is with the lives of children. Things do not go along as planned. They hear: “We are moving. You’ll be going to a new school.” “Your father and I are separating.” “We’re having a new baby. You’ll need to share your room.” It’s hard to get back to the old life. That is true in Steig’s stories. Sylvester’s parents grieve when they lose him. Gorky’s parents search for him all night and are tremendously relieved to see him.

All of his characters are returned to the loving arms of family, changed perhaps by their adventures, but not alone. I would love to do a session with students in which we read these books and then wrote our own story of transmogrification. What a freeing experience to change into something/someone else, to float, to talk to a bone—that talked back.

Phyllis: What a terrific idea. I want to read all of his books aloud, savoring his deliriously delectable language in book after book after book. Steig is a prize pazoozle of a writer as well as an artist.

Jackie: Though he was not writing tracts for children Steig was well aware of the power of story. He said in his Caldecott Acceptance Speech:

Art, including juvenile literature, has the power to make any spot on earth the living center of the universe, and unlike science, which often gives us the illusion of understanding things we really do not understand, it helps us to know life in a way that still keeps before us the mystery of things. It enhances the sense of wonder. And wonder is respect for life. Art also stimulates the adventurousness and the playfulness that keep us moving in a lively way and that lead us to useful discovery.

Books for children are something I take seriously. I am hopeful that more and more the work I do for children, as well as the work I do for adults, will approach the condition of art. I believe that what this award and this ceremony represent is our mutual striving in the same direction, and I feel encouraged by the faith you have expressed in me in honoring my book with the Caldecott Medal. (Caldecott Acceptance Speech, June, 1970).

His stories remind us that the “mystery of things … stimulate[s] adventurousness and playfulness” in both theme and language. In Steig’s books we can share the fun of sound, the joy of adventure, and the sweetness of return.

Phyllis: And they remind us, too, that in the inexplicable events of the universe, our families love us, search for us when we are lost, and welcome us home again with immeasurable delight.

See also: The Collection of William Steig at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Coming Home to Safe Harbor

Lake Superior

Phyllis: This summer I had the opportunity to sail for a week in Lake Superior, so we are turning our thoughts to books about the sea (including the great inland sea that borders Minnesota, so vast it makes its own weather).  If we can’t go sailing right now, we can at least read about it in a fleet of good picture books.

Jackie:  And I am a self-confessed water gazer. I’m not a boater of any kind but I can’t get enough of being next to water, watching and listening.

The Mousehole Cat

Phyllis: I cannot tell you how much I love The Mousehole Cat by Antonia Barber with luminous art by Nicola Bayley.  As many times as I’ve read it, the story still gives me shivers and makes me want to cry. Mousehole (pronounced Mowzel by the Cornish people who live there) is a small town where the people go out every day through the narrow breakwater opening into the ocean to fish for their living. Old Tom and his cat Mowzer fish as well, for Mowzer in particular is partial to a plate of fresh fish. 

One day a terrible winter storm blows in. “’The Great Storm-Cat is stirring,’ thinks Mowzer,” and although the Great Storm–Cat flings the sea against the breakwater and claws at the harbor gap, the boats are safe “as mice in their own mousehole,” but the people are hungry because no one can go out into the ocean to fish.

Finally, on Christmas Eve, Old Tom decides he should go out to try to fish, for he cannot stand to see the children starving at Christmas. Mowzer goes with him, “for he was only a man, she thought, and men were like mice in the paws of the Great Storm-Cat.”

The Mousehole Cat

illustration copyright Nicola Bayley

And it is Mowzer’s singing that distracts the Great Storm-Cat long enough for the boat to escape the harbor and play out the nets in the ocean. All day Mowzer sings to the Great Storm-Cat, but she knows he will strike when they run for the harbor and safety.  As she thinks of the food they might make with the catch they have hauled in, Mowzer begins to purr, a sound the Great Storm-Cat has not heard since he was a Storm-Kitten. They purr together, the seas calm, and Old Tom and Mowzer come into the harbor on the “smallest, tamest Storm-Kitten of a wind” where the whole town is waiting with lit candles to guide them home.  (Even writing this gives me shivers of delight.) 

Every year since then the village of Mousehole is lit with a thousand lights at Christmas time, “a message of hope and a safe haven to all those who pass in peril of the sea.”

Jackie: The lit candles that guide them home after the adventure is such a wonderful touch. Don’t we all want to be guided home after a great struggle? The plot is so satisfying as well. It’s the small cat that saves them because she begins to purr.  As I was thinking about Mowzer’s purr I realized how calming a cat’s purr is.  I think we all become more relaxed if we have a purring cat on our lap. Same for the Great Storm Cat.

This is a lovely illustrated short story that I think would charm middle graders, as well as primary graders.

Amos and BorisPhyllis:  Another favorite is William Steig’s Amos and Boris, the story of a mouse who builds a boat, christens it the Rodent, provisions it with a delightful list of items, and sets sail on the ocean. Amos is less lucky than Old Tom and Mowzer; one night, gazing at the vast and starry sky while lying on his boat, he rolls overboard, and the Rodent in full sail bowls along without him. Amos manages to stay afloat through the night, leading to one of my favorite comforting lines in all of picture books: “Morning came, as it always does.” And with morning comes Boris the whale, just as Amos’s strength is failing. Boris gives Amos a ride home by whaleback, and on the weeklong journey they become “the closest possible friends.”

Jackie: I just love that!

Phyllis:  When they near shore, Amos thanks Boris and offers his help if Boris ever needs it, which amuses Boris. He can’t imagine how a little mouse could ever help him.

Amos and Boris by William Steig

illustration copyright William Steig

Years pass. Hurricane Yetta flings Boris ashore right by Amos’s house. Boris will die unless he gets back in the water, and Amos runs off to get help: two elephants who roll the whale back into the ocean while Amos stands on one of their heads, yelling instructions that no one can hear. Soon Boris is afloat again, whale tears rolling down his cheeks. Knowing they might never meet again, the friends say a tearful good-bye, knowing, too, that they will always remember each other.

In another writer’s hands, I might make some comment about the convenient “elephants ex machina” that Amos finds, but I accept it completely here, because Steig makes me believe. And cry, again.

Jackie: There is so much to love in this story. First, the list of items: cheese, biscuits, acorns, honey, wheat germ [Steig must have included wheat germ because he liked the sound. Wheat germ?] fresh water, a compass, a sextant, a telescope, a saw, a hammer and nails and some wood, … a needle and thread for the mending of torn sails and various other necessities such as bandages and iodine, a yo-yo and playing cards.” I just love the notion of a mouse on a boat practicing his yo-yo tricks. And I think readers will be called to ask themselves what they might find essential for a sea journey.

And I’m admiring of the nuanced way Steig moves the plot along. Amos doesn’t roll off the boat because he falls asleep, or because a high wind blows him off. He falls off because he is “overwhelmed by the beauty and mystery of everything.” His own capacity for awe is what causes the problem.

You have talked about the wonderful back and forth of helping between Amos and Boris. I want to mention, too, Boris’s wonderful voice. When the mouse meets the whale, he says. “’I’m a mouse, which is a mammal, the highest form of life. I live on land.’

‘Holy clam and cuttlefish!’ said the whale. I’m a mammal myself, though I live in the sea. Call me Boris,’ he added.” [A little nod to “Call me Ishmael?”]

Sometimes good luck happens. When the worst looks inevitable, fate intervenes. And sometimes fate gives us life-saving elephants. They are such a relief. And so outlandish. It’s as if Steig is saying, “I’m the author. I can do this.”

Little Tim and the Brave Sea CaptainPhyllis:  Edward Ardizzone wrote and illustrated a series of eleven books about Little Tim, who goes to sea, beginning with Little Tim and The Brave Sea Captain and ending with Tim’s Last Voyage. We loved these books when my children were growing up, and we still do. Visit this site so you can hear a sample of Little Tim and The Brave Sea Captain read aloud and see Ardizzone’s wonderful art. 

Jackie:  I love the language of this book: “’Sometimes Tim would astonish his parents by saying, ’That’s a Cunarder’ or ‘Look at that barquentine on the port bow.’” [I want to say that again and again.] When his parents say he is much too young to go to sea, Tim is “so sad that he resolved, at the first opportunity, to run away to sea.”

Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain

illustration copyright Edward Ardizzone

But best of all, I had the sense throughout this story that the storyteller was going to give me a wonderful yarn and that, with or without elephants, Little Tim was going to get through this adventure safely.

Keep the Lights Burning, AbbiePhyllis:  Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie by Peter and Connie Roop is a book for those who pass in peril of the sea. Based on the true story of 16-year old Abbie Burgess, whose father was the lighthouse keeper on Matinicus Rock off the coast of Maine, the book tells how Abbie’s father heads out one morning to get much needed supplies from Matinicus Island and is storm-bound there for weeks before he can return. Abbie takes care of her three younger sisters and her ailing mother and “keeps the lights burning” so that ships can pass safely by. She lights the lamps, scrapes ice off the windows so the lights can be seen, trims wicks, cleans lamps, fills them with oil, and saves her chickens when waves threaten to wash them away, all until her father can safely sail back to the lighthouse. A wonderful strong character for girls and boys to know about.

Jackie:  There is something so alluring about lighthouses and islands. I wonder how many kids have fantasies of living in a lighthouse on an island. I sure did. I really enjoyed the matter-of-fact tone of this story. As Abbie is first lighting the lamps a match blows out, but the next one doesn’t, nor the next and she goes on to light them all, night after night for a month. No drama, just a telling of what she did. No drama but touching emotion at the end when we learn that her father was watching for those lights every night as evidence that his family was still there. That detail almost made me tear up.

In a Village by the SeaPhyllis:  We could sail on through sea story after sea story. A more recent book, In a Village by the Sea by Muon Van is a elegantly simple and lovely story that begins, “In a fishing village by the sea there is a small house.” Each page moves closer in, from the house to the kitchen to the fire to a pot of soup to a woman watching the soup to a sleepy child to a dusty hole in the floor where a cricket is humming and painting a picture of a fisherman in his storm-tossed boat hoping for the storm to end so that he can return to his village by the sea where in a small house, his family waits for him to come home. April Chu’s beautiful art concludes the book with the cricket painting a picture of that fisherman and his boat sailing home into a calm harbor.

Jackie:  This book is so artful and so satisfying in the way we circle in on the story and then circle back out. And I agree about April Chu’s illustrations. They are wonderfully expressive. I almost expect the dog to talk.

In a Village by the Sea

illustration copyright April Chu

Thanks for choosing these books, Phyllis. I’m sitting at my desk on a quiet, cloudy day but feel as if I have been on adventures. My head is stretched, and I look at my house and yard with new appreciation. The sea, or stories about the sea, take us out of our lives, our kitchens, toss us around a bit, and with hope and help—and occasional elephants—bring us back home, where, as Little Tim might say, we are ever so glad for warmth and chocolate.

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A Few Tall Tales from the Land of Rampaging Zucchini

zucchiniJackie:  Phyllis, the zucchini seeds you gave me have grown into a plant that knocked on our back door this morning. I gave it coffee and it retreated to the yard, heading toward the alley.

When I was a kid one of my favorite stories was the tall tale of Paul Bunyan. I laughed at the exaggeration, the total wackiness of an ox so large his footprints made the Great Lakes. As an adult, I realized that Paul Bunyan was actually a clear-cutter and that took some of the luster off the stories. But I still love tall tales. What fun to come up with a rollicking tale of exaggeration! We found some old favorites—and some new favorites.

Swamp AngelSwamp Angel by Anne Isaacs, (illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky, (Dutton, 1994) is a winning combination of understatement and exaggeration: “…when Angelica Longrider took her first gulp of air on this earth, there was nothing about the baby to suggest that she would become the greatest woodswoman in Tennessee. The newborn was scarcely taller than her mother and couldn’t climb a tree without help…she was a full two years old before she built her first log cabin.” Of course it’s the Swamp Angel’s battle with the huge bear Thundering Tarnation that is at the heart of the story. The bear dispatches four woodsmen before Swamp Angel sets out. But really, who cares who wins? It’s the outsized oddity that’s fun: Swamp Angel lassos the bear with a tornado; they create the Great Smoky Mountains from the dust of their fighting; their snoring creates a rockslide. The unfortunate Tarnation’s pelt became the Shortgrass Prairie. 

This story calls us all to look around and imagine what wonderful larger-than-life character created our rivers and hills, caves and prairies.

Phyllis:  I love this book, with its outsize story and outsize art. And I love that this is a woman who can lift a whole wagon train out of Dejection Swamp (which is how she got her name Swamp Angel). When the men signing up to hunt Thundering Tarnation tell her to go home and quilt or bake a pie, Swamp Angel responds that quilting is men’s work and that she aims to bake a pie—“A bear pie.”  When Thundering Tarnation meets his end under a tree that Swamp Angel snores down while they are fighting in their sleep, she “plucked off her hat, bowed her head, and offered up these words of praise: ‘Confound it, varmint, if you warn’t the most wonderous heap of trouble I ever come to grips with!’” Not only does she bake bear pie, she also makes “bear steaks and bear cakes, bear muffins and bear stuffin,’ bear roast and bear toast,” enough for a feast and to restock the all the root cellars in Tennessee just in time for winter.

Jackie: All stories create a shared community between writer, or teller, and readers, but it seems to me that tall tales have the added advantage that we are sharing a joke. We all know that a bear and a fightin’ woman did not create the Great Smoky Mountains. We are all in on the joke. We get it. And that is fun in a world where there is so much we don’t get.

Burt Dow, Deep-Water ManI have always loved the title of Robert McCloskey’s Burt Dow Deep-Water Man. And the book has a musicality to it that makes me want to read it aloud. Burt is a retired deep-water man with two boats—one he fills with geraniums and sweet peas (McCoskey calls them “Indian peas,” I can’t find verification of the sweet peas, but they are climbers and the flowers look like sweet peas.) And the other is Tidely-Idley with a “make-and-break engine.”  Burt says, “She’s got a few tender places in her planking, but you can’t see daylight through her nowhere.” 

One day Burt takes out the Tidely-Idely and has an unexpected adventure. He’s fishing for cod and hooks a whale. “’Ahoy there, whale!’ bellowed Burt. ‘Hold your horses! Keep our shirt on! Head into the wind and slack off the main sheet!’ But the whale couldn’t hear because his hearing gear was so far upwind from his steering gear.”  This is just the beginning. Burt has to hitch a ride inside the whale, paint his way out, then escape a school of whales demanding band-aids on their tales. It might have been too much for a younger fisherman, but not Burt Dow. He placates the whales and makes it home just as the cock begins to crow.

This book is so much fun. It’s a Mainer’s retelling of Jonah with a little “whale insider” art thrown in for fun. And I have to mention the language. McCloskey wrote a story that should be read out loud on someone’s porch. Burt’s rooster crows  “Cockety-doodly;” his water pump goes “slish-cashlosh, slish-caslosh;”  Burt always keeps a “firm hand on the tiller;” and the make-and-break engine always goes “clackety-bangety.”

An entry on Wikipedia notes that there was a Bert Dow, deep-water man, on Deer Isle where McCloskey lived. He is buried in a Deer Isle cemetery. His tombstone says: “Bert Dow, Deep Water Man, 1882-1964.”  Robert McCloskey helped pay for the stone.

Phyllis:  Burt isn’t physically larger than life in the way that Swamp Angel or Paul Bunyan are, but his problems are whale sized, and as with other tall tale figures, no problem is so big Burt can’t solve it.  Along with language that delights and tickles, McCloskey makes good use of page turns. Once Burt accidentally hooks the whale’s tail and his giggling gull waits to see “what would happen next,” so does the reader, since starting on the next double-page spread and on many of the following spreads, McCloskey breaks off his sentences in the middle. “But the very next moment it came to Burt’s attention that he’d pulled up a”….

We turn the page to finish the sentence and read WHALE OF A TAIL. Spread after spread, McCloskey builds suspense, and spread after spread, while the situation seems to worsen, Burt is never dismayed, even when he realizes that when he asked the whale to swallow him to save him and his boat AND gull from “a gale of a wind,” he doesn’t know for sure that the whale heard the part where they were supposed to be “temporary guests, so to speak.” Once they are burped free and also satisfy all the other whales who want bandaids on their tales, pump out the Tidely-Idley, slish-caslosh, slish-caslosh, crank up the make and break, clackety-BANG! Clackety-BANG! Burt and his gull sail home in time, we assume, for breakfast. A rollicking story full of rollicking language and fun.

Lies and Other Tall TalesJackie: We are also considering an intergenerational effort. Christopher Myers illustrated some of the “Lies and Other Tall Tales” collected by Zora Neale Hurston (HarperCollins, 2005). These are not long stories but are wonderfully rich in play with language and exaggeration, so wonderful that we want to include it even though it’s a fairly recent book. “I seen a man so short he had to get up on a box to look over a grain of sand.” That’s one-upped by “That man had a wife and she was so small that she got in a storm and never got wet because she stepped between the drops.” 

This lively book might work best for older children. Younger children could be disturbed by some of the exaggerations (a man so mean he swallows another man whole).  For those who are ready, this book will bring some smiles—and some understanding of the verbal games of the African American culture. Christopher Myers notes that these tales, “were used in some version of playing the dozens…an African American cultural practice, which if you haven’t heard about it, you better ask your mama! It includes mama jokes and humorous dissing, which if you don’t know what dissing is, you don’t have the sense God gave a flea.”

Phyllis:  As Christopher Myers writes, “Liars, back in the day, could tell a lie so good, you didn’t even want to know the truth.” And these lies are so delightful and fancy-tickling that I agree with him. One of my favorites is the folks who built a church on “the poorest land I ever seed” and had to use ten sacks of fertilizer before they could “raise a hymn on it.” An author’s note tells how the illustrations are made from found bits of fabric  and paper that Myers has transformed into “’quilts’ as witty and beautiful as the phrases Zora Neal Hurston found.”

Paula BunyanJackie:  Phyllis, I can’t quit without mentioning your tall tale—Paula Bunyan (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009). Paula has way more sense than God gave a flea. She actually replants trees where other loggers have cut them down. And she’s fast. “Paula could run so fast that once when she forgot to do her chores, she ran all the way back to yesterday to finish them.” It must have been fun to re-tell the Paul Bunyan story as a greening of the earth.

Phyllis:  It was fun. The story started as something my kids and I told one fall while riding on a haywagon to pick Haralson apples, our favorites.  And why not another tall tale woman? What’s against it?

None of us may be as large or fight as fiercely as Swamp Angel, we may not know a man so hungry he swallowed himself, we may never have to figure out how to get on the outside of a whale. But these tales remind us that even in our ordinary lives we can keep a firm hand on the tiller, come to grips with whatever “wondrous heap of trouble” comes our way, and still make it home in time for breakfast.

And speaking of breakfast, I don’t mean to brag, but my zucchini pounded on the door this morning and demanded a latte and a cinnamon croissant.  With butter.

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Tomi Ungerer: Far Out Toward the Heart

Tomi UngererPhyllis: Tomi Ungerer has written and illustrated over 30 books for children, along with over 100 other books. I didn’t know much about him until Jackie suggested we do a blog on him, and I’m so glad she did. I came home from the library with a stack of his books, which range widely from the ridiculous to the mysterious.

One of my favorites is I am Papa Snap and These Are My Favorite No Such Stories, sixteen mostly absurd stories with illustrations. One story is only 14 words long, another is told in three sentences (although the first sentence runs for 14 lines and gives a whole brief history of the pink gasoline station). I particularly love the story of the very hungry sofa and also the story about Mr. and Mrs. Limpid. Here is the Limpid story in its entirety:

Mr. Limpid is blind.
Mrs. Limpid is lame.
They are old.
They are happy.
They have each other.

There’s a whole tender life of two people contained in these words, which remind me of my parents when they grew elderly, one able to drive, the other able to remember where they were going and how to get back home.

Mr. and Mrs. Tuber Sprout

I also love Mr. Tuber Sprout, who every morning for seven years runs for the train to work and misses it. “The station clock is always five minutes ahead of mine,” he exclaims. “But at least it keeps me from going to work.”

These brief, ridiculous stories make me want to try to write my own no such stories in which no such things probably ever happened (that we know of). But, like Ungerer, we can still imagine a world of wacky possibilities.

I am Papa Snap and Other No Such StoriesJackie: I love these stories, Phyllis! And I have never seen them before. Reading them was like eating potato chips. I kept turning the pages for one more. And some of Ungerer’s phrases are just hilarious: Mr. and Mrs. Kaboodle buy a new nest from a “local nidologist.”

Or here is the Doctor Stigma Lohengreen’s diagnosis of Mr. Lido Rancid:

“There is a PICKLE jammed in your vena cava,
and the gangliated chords of your sympathetic
are all tangled up.”

Or,

“Zink Slugg bought a new car.
It had lots of cylinders,
coordinated cram-notch gears,
coupled crush-brakes, two-speed grinders,
cobra upholstery,
an electronic police detector,
strobe headlights, and a quantity of whatnots.”

CrictorPhyllis: I also love Crictor, a Reading Rainbow choice that chronicles the adventures of an old lady named Madame Louise Bodot in a little French town and the boa constrictor her son sends her for her birthday. Upon opening the box she first screams but, being practical, then takes the snake to the zoo to make sure he’s not poisonous. He isn’t, and she names him Crictor. Most of the book relates their lives together; I particularly love her cradling Crictor in her arms and feeding him a bottle of milk. She gets palm trees so he will feel at home and knits him a sweater to keep him warm when he wriggles behind her in the snow on their walks. Crictor goes with her to school one day, where he shapes letters and numbers for the children, but the real drama begins late in the book, when a burglar breaks in and gags and ties Madame Bodot to a chair. Crictor attacks and traps the burglar in his coils until the police arrive. Crictor’s heroism is honored with a medal, a statue, and a park dedicated to him. “Loved and respected by the entire village, Crictor lived a long and happy life.”

Jackie: I once read an interview with Ungerer in which he said:

“I identify a little bit with all of [my heroes]. I’m always on the side of the underdog. I identify with my snake, my octopus, all of my rejected animals.“

Fog IslandPhyllis: As if absurd stories and boa constrictor heroes weren’t enough, among his other books Ungerer has written and illustrated Fog Island about a mysterious island where things might (or might not) have happened. Finn and Cara live on a farm with their mother and fisherman father, who makes them their own curragh, a boat constructed of reeds and tar. He tells them to stay clear of Fog Island, which looms offshore “like a jagged black tooth.” “It’s a doomed and evil place,” he says. “Those who have ventured there have never returned.”

One day when Finn and Cara are exploring in their curragh a fog rolls in, and strong currents carry them out to Fog Island. They follow steps up to a door, which is answered by a wizened, white-haired old man who calls himself the Fog Man and shows them how he makes fog by letting water flow in to a deep well of magma. He turns off the fog so they can return home safely the next day, then Finn, Cara, and the Fog Man have a singsong. He makes them a meal and shows them a bed for the night where they sleep covered by a quilt.

They wake the next morning surrounded by deserted ruins but with the quilt still tucked over them and two steaming bowls of stew beside them. When they leave the island a storm overtakes them, and they are saved by their father and the other fishermen who have come looking for them. All the neighbors celebrate Finn and Cara’s return, but no one believes them about the fog man, and no one wants to visit the island to see if their story is true. Weeks later, Cara pulls a long hair from her soup, and she and Finn chuckle, recognizing it as one of the Fog Man’s.

Fog Island

Jackie: This book seems typical of Tomi Ungerer’s work, so inclusive. There’s an affectionate family, a named Evil—Fog Island, and a wonderful ambiguity in the ending. Who was the fog man? And I also find it interesting that the father, following received community wisdom, I think, tells the children that Fog Island is a “doomed and evil place.” But they find singing and hot soup.

There may be another consistency here—a complex artist pushing us to see that a “doomed and evil place” can offer hot soup and a good night’s sleep, a boa constrictor can become a helpful part of the community.

“Most of my children’s books have fear elements,” Ungerer has said in an interview on Fresh Air. “But I must say, too, to balance this fact, that the children in my books are never scared. … I think fear is an element which is instilled by the adults a lot of time.”

We see this in Fog Island. When the children land on Fog Island Finn says, “This must be Fog Island./Let’s find out where those steps lead.” No fear, but curiosity.

Far Out Isn't Far EnoughPhyllis: In Far Out Isn’t Far Enough, a documentary about Ungerer, Maurice Sendak said of Ungerer’s influence on his own [Sendak’s] work: “I learned to be braver than I was. Ungerer didn’t mind scaring kids, because he believed in their ability to cope with and adapt to life’s difficulties.”

Ungerer himself learned about living in fearful situations from an early age: from eight to thirteen, he lived under Adolf Hitler’s occupation of Alsace and was told in school that Hitler needed artists to draw for him. In a Fresh Air interview he recalls, “…I had to do a portrait of the Führer, you know, giving a speech, and I put a stein of beer on this thing. Well, the Führer didn’t drink, but still, you know, nobody ever objected. The thing is, no matter what tyranny, you can always get away, maybe not with murder, but with a few other things. And your mind is always free. Nobody can take away your mind.” Years later in the United States Ungerer would draw anti-war posters during the Viet Nam war.

Zeralda's OgreJackie: He received the Hans Christian Anderson Award in 1998 and is truly a giant. I haven’t read close to all of his stories and especially want to read Zeralda’s Ogre, which Book World called “the most horrendous, ugliest—yet most beguiling—ogre imaginable.”

What I love about his work is that the dots do not have to connect. The stories do not get tied up neatly at the end. We don’t know about the Fog Man. Zink Slugg’s wonderful car rams into a tree and Zink “feels very bad” and that is the end. I also admire the way Ungerer combines edginess and heart—feeding a boa constrictor with a bottle is such a great example and only one of many we could point to.

Phyllis: It’s so fitting that for a time his children’s books were considered dangerous and evil, like Fog Island (because of erotic drawings he did for adults). But now when we do visit these books, we find strange and wondrous things, things not to answer but to ponder—dealing with fear, being subversive, and aspiring to live a fearless life.

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Gardening and Farming Delights

 

Jackie: At last—we made it to spring and all the usual accoutrements have shown up—lilacs, violets, the smell of apple blossoms, and thoughts of sprouting seeds and growing vegetables.  How could we not look at picture books about gardens and farming this month?

Miss Jaster's GardenI have to confess, Phyllis, I did not know of Miss Jaster’s Garden, written and illustrated by N. M. Bodecker and published in 1972. I’m so glad to meet Miss Jaster and Hedgie the hedgehog whom she treats with a bowl of milk each night. “But hedgehogs being the shape they are, and Miss Jaster being a little nearsighted, as often as not she put the saucer where the hedgehog’s head wasn’t. And Hedgie—so as not to cause distress—“politely dipped his tail in the milk and pretended to drink.” 

That’s not the only problem caused by Miss Jaster’s poor vision. When she is scattering flower seeds in her garden she does not see Hedgie and plants seeds on him too.  “…after a while he began feeling restless.” Hedgie is sprouting. Hedgie blooms! And feels like dancing. “Tomorrow I’ll be as quiet as an earthworm,” thought Hedgie, “but not today. Today is the greatest day of my life. There’ll never be another like it!” When Miss Jaster sees flowers dancing in the yard, she yells, “STOP THIEF!”  and poor Hedgie, frightened and chagrined, runs off. Eventually the Chief Constable, with a capable bit of sleuthing, finds Hedgie and brings him back—“a weary, worried, bedraggled little animal, down on his luck.” Miss Jaster feels bad at having given the hedgehog (“flowerhog”) such a scare. And they take breakfast together every morning—“And there was nothing but peace and sunshine and a touch of Sweet William.”

I love the tone of this book—Hedgie is up for the adventure of being a walking flower garden. The constable is thoughtful, “Did you by chance, happen to notice how many legs these flowers had when they made their getaway? In round numbers?” In round numbers! And I love the characters—the hedgehog who’s so thoughtful he pretends to drink with his tail so as not to upset Miss Jaster. And kind Miss Jaster who doesn’t mind sharing her garden with a hedgehog and is actually pleased when she realized that she also shared flower seeds with him.

This story has a lot of text. But the humor is so wonderful and the characters just the right degree of eccentric, I think it would be enjoyed  by the five to ninety crowd. What do you think?

Miss Jaster's Garden

Phyllis: I didn’t know this book, either, but I also love it. The double-page spread map at the beginning of the book is a little story all in itself, as good maps often are. From Hedgie’s corner to the birdbath (“For ancient inscription, see page 17”) to Miss J’s wicker chair and Sunrise Hill (“Elevation 9’”) Bodecker has created a whole world in art as well as text.

As someone who has become nearer and nearer sighted my whole life, I completely understand how Miss Jaster might make such a mistake. And who wouldn’t want a walking flower garden? Who wouldn’t want to be a flower garden? I love how the ending brings mutual satisfaction to Miss Jaster and to Hedgie, who have always been solicitous of each other—each morning they share “a leisurely breakfast … and a walk along the beach, followed by a small but persistent butterfly.”

Certainly the text is much longer than many more recent picture books, but what wonderful details! When Miss Jaster goes out to plant she does so in “a purple morning-dress and sturdy shoes” with a “large straw hat, trimmed with cornflowers on her head,” pulling “a small four-wheeled wagon full of garden tools and flower seeds.” Like a garden in full bloom, the story is lush with language.

I love, too, how Hedgie, as he discovers he’s sprouting, wonders which he will be:  “’Flower bed or vegetable garden? Vegetable garden or flower bed?’” until one day, “’I’m in bloom!’ cried Hedgie.”

Grandpa's Too Good GardenJackie:  I call James Stevenson the writer with the humor cure. He makes me laugh. And Grandpa’s Too Good Garden  is one of his curing-est. Mary Ann and Louie are disappointed with their gardening. Louis says, “We dig and rake and plant and water and weed—and nothing ever comes up. Our garden is no good.” Grandpa remains calm and tells them he once had a garden that was “a little too good.” There are some wonderful cartoon-y frames of Grandpa and Wainey in the garden (both as kids with little mustaches) but the story really begins when Father throws his Miracle Grow hair tonic out the window. It spills into the garden and gets rained in. Before Wainey even wakes up a vine snatches him up and almost out the window. The garden was taller than the house. Giant caterpillars came to eat the giant plants. The plants continued to grow and Grandpa got “snagged on a weather vane above our roof.” Grandpa is in trouble…only to be rescued by Wainey on a giant butterfly. This happy ending is accompanied by Wainey showing up to offer Grandpa and the kids some ice cream. I love the exaggeration, the total silliness of it.

Phyllis: Gardeners need patience, but not all of us wait quietly. When the seeds don’t grow quickly  enough, Wainey and Grandpa encourage them. “’Hello, beans? Tomatoes? Are you down there? Give us a sign!’ ‘Hello, carrumps?” The fortuitous hair tonic reminds me of old radio science fiction shows. “You threw the growth formula out back?” the scientist asks his assistant just before the now-giant earthworms come banging on the door. There’s a satisfying circularity to Grandpa’s garden story when one of the giant butterflies that metamorphed from the giant caterpillars rescues both brothers. Wonderful wackiness!

Farmer DuckJackie: Farmer Duck by Martin Waddell (illustrated by Helen Oxenbury) is set on a farm and Farmer Duck does farm work so we are including it. It’s all about friends. And friends are important to gardeners. Who else would take our extra zucchini? or help us pull weeds? or share plants with us?

This is such an exuberant telling. Was there ever a lazier farmer than the human farmer who stays in bed all day, yelling to the duck, “How goes the work?” Farmer Duck always responds the same way, “Quack.” This goes on day after day. While the lazy farmer eats bon bons, the duck saws wood, spades the garden, washes dishes, irons clothes. The other animals can’t stand to see their friend work so hard. One night they meet in the barn and make a plan. “’Moo!’ said the cow./’Baa!’ said the sheep./ ‘Cluck!’ said the hens. And that was the plan.” 

When they carry out their plan the lazy farmer runs away and never returns. “…mooing and baaing and clucking and quacking, they all set to work on their farm.” We just can’t help but think hay will be sweeter, corn will be taller, and there may be dancing in the barn.

Farmer Duck

Phyllis: I adore this book, text and art. The duck looks wearier and wearier, and who wouldn’t want to be comforted by such caring hens and the other animals as well?  And I love how the animals that the duck tended to at the beginning of the story, including carrying a sheep from the hill, all pitch in to help at the end as “mooing and baaing and clucking and quacking, they all set to work on their farm.” Animals, unite! The fruits of the labor belong to the laborers!

When the Root Children Wake UpJackie:  I would be remiss not to mention your namesake book, Phyllis—When The Root Children Wake Up, retold by Audrey Wood and illustrated by Ned Bittinger. It’s a story of seasons. A robin comes to the window of Mother’s Earth’s underground “home” and calls, “Root Children! Root Children …Wake up! It’s time for the masquerade.” The children awaken the bugs and paint them and head out for the masquerade. But it’s not too long before “Cousin Summer slips his knapsack on his back and quickly strides over the hills and far away.” Time for Uncle Fall. And soon it will be time for another winter’s nap. 

There’s a lot about this story that I like—the circle of seasons, painting the bugs. I’m a little put off by the very realistic drawings of children as the “Root Children.” I’m not sure why. Maybe because they seem too real to be sleeping underground all winter. Makes me feel  claustrophobic. Maybe I’m just grumpy. I’d love to know what others think.

When the Root Children Wake UpPhyllis: It’s true that what caught my eye about When the Root Children Wake Up was my name in the title, but I also love the story and art in the version I have, a reprint of the 1906 Sybelle Olffers book  first published in Germany and republished in English in 1988 by Green Tiger Press. The charmingly old-fashioned original illustrations remind me of books I loved as a child and include a joyous spread of the root children emerging above ground carrying flowers and grasses “into the lovely world.” Interesting how art can change the perception of a story!

Lola Plants a GardenA garden book for the very young is Lola Plants a Garden by Anna McQuinn, illustrated by Rosaline Beardshaw. The straightforward story tells how Lola loves the poem “Mary Mary Quite Contrary” and  wants to plant a garden of her own. She and Mommy read books about gardens, make a list of Lola’s favorite flowers, buy seeds, and plant them. While she waits for them to grow, Lola makes their own book about flowers, strings beads and shells and bells, and makes a little Mary Mary doll. Lola’s patience and work are rewarded as the flowers grow big and “Open toward the sun.” Daddy helps her hang her bells, her friends come to her garden to eat Mommy’s peas and strawberries, and Lola makes up a story for them about Mary Mary. The book concludes, “What kind of garden will Lola plant next?” Simply told and satisfying, the book makes me want to run out and buy more packets of flower seeds, then invite friends to come visit in the garden and encourage them to grow.

Lola Plants a Garden

Jackie: Friends and gardens and the cycle of seasons. We are all rooted on this earth. And that’s good to remember. Let’s go plant some beans.

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Spring, Where Are You?

The Boy Who Didn't Believe in SpringPhyllis: Each year, as soon as the snow melts, I’m eager to go search for native wildflowers. Two of the earliest flowers bloom in two different protected places a car ride away. And every year, I go too early—either the ephemeral snow trilliums aren’t even up yet or the pasque flowers are still such tiny, tight, furry brown buds that they’re hard to spot in the dried grass on the hillside where they grow. When I do finally find snow trilliums and pasque flowers in bloom, I know spring really has arrived.

A little boy named King Shabazz also goes looking for spring in Lucille Clifton’s The Boy Who Didn’t Believe in Spring, illustrated by Brinton Turkle. His search takes him down city streets rather than up windy hillsides, but the impetus is the same.

When King Shabazz’s teacher talks about spring, he whispers, “No such thing.” When his mother talks about spring, he demands, “Where is it at?”

One day after his teacher has talked about blue birds and his Mama had talked about crops coming up, King Shabazz has had enough.

“Look here, man,” he tells his friend Tony Polito, “I’m going to get me some of this spring.” They set off through their urban neighborhood, searching for spring. They look around the corner, by the school and playground, by the Church of the Solid Rock, past a restaurant and apartment buildings until they come to a vacant lot walled in by tall buildings with an abandoned car sitting in the middle.

 When the boys go to investigate a sound coming from the car, Tony Polito trips on a patch of little yellow pointy flowers. “Man, the crops are coming up!” King Shabazz shouts. The sound turns out to be birds who fly out of the car, where the boys discover a nest with four light blue eggs.

 “Man, it’s spring!” says King Shabazz.

As do picture books by Vera B. Williams, Ezra Jack Keats, and Matt de la Peña, Clifton’s book celebrates the city where so many of us live and where spring arrives, as well, even if you don’t yet believe in it.

Lucille CliftonJackie: I loved this book so much that I had to do a little research on Lucille Clifton, who wrote more than twenty books for children. You mentioned celebration, Phyllis. Here’s what New Yorker magazine writer Elizabeth Alexander said of Clifton after her death in 2010:

Clifton invites the reader to celebrate survival: a poet’s survival against the struggles and sorrows of disease, poverty, and attempts at erasure of those who are poor, who are women, who are vulnerable, who challenge conquistador narratives. There is luminous joy in these poems, as they speak against silence and hatred.

There is luminous joy in this book—joy in the characters who are best friends and wait at the stoplight, which they have never gone past before, to see what the other will do; joy in the discovery of a bird’s nest on the front seat of a beat-up car. This is a story of survival, too. The boys do cross the street, even though Junior Williams has said he will beat them up if he sees them. They will survive. They have courage, each other, and appreciation for spring.

and then it's springPhyllis: Julie Fogliano’s book and then it’s spring is another story of waiting, this time in a more rural setting, told in second person in one long extended sentence whose syntax captures the feeling of waiting and waiting and waiting.

“First you have brown,
all around you have brown,

the book begins, and proceeds to seeds, a wish for rain, rain, a “hopeful, very possible sort of brown” but still brown. As time passes (and the single sentence continues) the child gardener worries that the birds might have eaten the seeds or bears tromped on them, until finally the brown

“still brown,
has a greenish hum
that you can only hear
if you put your ear to the ground
and close your eyes…”
until finally, on a sunny day,
“…now you have green,
all around you have green.”

Jackie: I love Julie Fogliano’s language: “…a hopeful, very possible sort of brown.” And the brown with the greenish hum just makes me smile. I know this is a blog about writing but I have to mention Erin Stead’s illustrations. Her possible-birds-eating-seeds painting is full of jokes—there’s a bird wearing a bib, a bird flat on its back, birds billing (as in billing and cooing) a bird trilling. It would be worth giving up a few seeds to see these lively birds in one’s yard.

Phyllis: And the sign to keep bears away (which the bear is using to scratch under his arm) made me laugh out loud: “Please do not stomp here. There are seeds and they are trying.”

Iridescence of birdsThe Iridescence of Birds, A Book about Henri Matisse by Patricia MacLachlan also uses the syntax of an elongated sentence to heighten a sense of yearning and show how Matisse’s love of color and light might have bloomed from his childhood “in a dreary town in northern France where the skies were gray and the days were cold” and his mother brightened their home with painted plates and flowers and red rugs on the dirt floor, and his father raised pigeons “with colors that changed with the light as they moved.” The single long interrogative sentence is answered by another, shorter question:

“Would it be a surprise that you became
A fine painter who painted
Light
And
Movement
And the iridescence of birds?”

Jackie: This book does for me what all good picture books do, it makes me want to know more about Henri Matisse—and his remarkable mother. She knew that a red rug trumps a dirt floor any day—and she must have had a lode of artistic ability herself. And this book makes me want to try to write a story in one sentence.

Waiting-for-Spring StoriesPhyllis: Waiting-for-Spring Stories by Bethany Robert was a baby gift to my first daughter, and it continues to enchant. Papa Rabbit, “like Grandpa Rabbit before him and Great-Grandpa Rabbit before that,” helps to pass the time with his little rabbits until Spring arrives by telling stories, seven in all. And true to a child’s sensibility of the world, wind talks, a star yearns to sing, the little rabbit’s too big feet complain about the ways he tries to shrink them, a worm reassures a rabbit, and, in my favorite, “The Garden,” vegetables rebel against a farmer who plans to eat them for supper.

“’Get him, boys,’ called the onion.” And they do. The onion makes him cry, potato trips him, the carrot whacks him on the head, and they escape by rolling out the door.

“After that, the farmer rabbit always ate pancakes for his dinner.”

Jackie: Those vegetables could be in a horror picture book, for sure. But maybe they are too funny for a horror picture book.

Phyllis: The book and the storytelling end with sunlight pouring in the window and the snow beginning to melt from the windowpanes.

“Spring is here at last!”

Jackie: These stories remind me of Arnold Lobel’s work in their sure portrayal of characters I care about in just a few words. And I so love the talking grass and the talking feet and the feisty onion, carrot, and potato. I don’t know why but I found myself wanting to hear something from the little rabbits between the stories, something about the waiting or the upcoming spring. But that’s another book. These stories are cozy and charming and just right to read while we wait.

pasque flowers trilliumPhyllis: Last week I saw pasque flowers and snow trilliums. This week I found green leaves growing in my garden. This year’s time of yearning is over. It’s time to go outside and glory in springtime, here at last.

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Celebrating Ezra Jack Keats

The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack KeatsJackie: This is the time of year when I read the Travel Section of the Sunday paper. I just want to go away from gritty snow, brown yards and come back to Spring. Well, there are no tickets on the shelf this year so Phyllis and I are taking a trip to the city created by Ezra Jack Keats. And why not? This month, this year marks his one-hundredth birthday.

As our travel guide we’re taking The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats (Yale University Press, 2011), written by Claudia Nahsen to coincide with The Snowy Day’s 50th anniversary and the showing of many of his works at the Jewish Museum, New York

Last Stop on Market StreetI’ve been thinking of Keats since I read Last Stop on Market Street, this year’s Newbery Award winner, written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson. Robinson’s wonderful depictions of the urban landscape and the text’s suggestion that beauty is all around us, reminded me of Keats’s city scenes. Often they are set in his childhood home in Depression Era Brooklyn but enhanced with Keats’s brilliant collages, sketches, and jazzy palette.

A bit about his life, which I learned from Nahsen’s beautiful book: Jacob Ezra Katz was born in New York, on March 11, 1916. He was the youngest of three children born to immigrant parents in a “loveless marriage.” He grew up in a family marked by strife and unhappiness. He felt invisible as a child and believed “’life was measured by anguish.’” (Nahsen,p. 5). Art saved him. And in his art he gave life and validity to the streets he remembered from his childhood and to the kids, often invisible to society, who live on those streets.

The Snowy DayPhyllis: And up until publication of A Snowy Day, the first full-color picture book to feature an African American protagonist, those kids were virtually invisible in picture books as well. I especially love how Keats makes us see the city and the children and grown-ups who live in it with fresh eyes—his art includes graffiti, trashcans, and the struggles and celebrations of childhood. Nahsen quotes Keats: “Everything in life is waiting to be seen!” While some people criticized Keats, a white writer, for writing about black characters in The Snowy Day, the poet Langston Hughes wished he had “grandchildren to give it [the book] to.” Keats felt the criticisms deeply but continued to tell and illustrate the stories in his world “waiting to be seen.”

LouieJackie: Keats wrote and illustrated twenty-two books in his career. The ones I know are just as fresh, just as in tune with the lives of children as they were when he wrote them. We all know Peter of A Snowy Day, Peter’s Chair, A Letter to Amy. But Keats’s Louie is not quite as familiar. Louie is a quiet, kid who hardly ever speaks. But when he sees the puppet Gussie (Keats’s mother’s name) at Susie and Roberto’s puppet show, he stands up and yells “Hello!, Hello! Hello!” Susie and Roberto decide to have Gussie ask Louie to sit down so they can get on with the show. After the show they bring Gussie out so Louie can hold the puppet. Then the boy goes home, eventually sleeps and dreams he is falling and kids are laughing at him. When he wakes up, his mother tells him someone slipped a note under the door—“Go outside and follow the long green string.” At the end of the green string is—Gussie! There is so much to love about this story—a sensitive portrayal of a child who is somehow different, gets laughed at, yelled at by some kids; two kids, Susie and Roberto, who treat Louie with great kindness; and a hopeful ending.

Nahsen says: “…neglected characters, who had hitherto been living in the margins of picture books or had simply been absent from children’s literature take pride of place in Keats’s oeuvre.” She quotes from his unpublished autobiography: “When I did my first book about a black kid I wanted black kids and white kids to know that he’s there.” So it is with Louie. Keats reminds readers that the quiet kids, the kids who march to a different drum, the kids who live behind the broken doors, or on broken-down buses and can only have a cricket for a pet (Maggie and the Pirate) are there.

Maggie and the PiratePhyllis: Just as Keats portrays the real lives of kids who live in buses or city apartments without “even any steps in front of the door to sit on,” he doesn’t shy away from the small and large griefs and troubles of childhood. In Maggie and the Pirate, Maggie’s pet cricket, taken by a boy who admires the cricket’s cage, accidentally drowns in a river. Maggie and her friends hold a cricket funeral, and when the “pirate,” a boy who didn’t mean for the cricket to die but wanted the cage “real bad,” brings Maggie the cage with a new cricket, the children

                “all sat down together.
                Nobody said anything.
                They listened to the new cricket singing.
                Crickets all around joined in.”

Tragedies and consolation in the death of a cricket—a world seen through children’s eyes.

The Trip, Louie's Search, Regards to the Man in the Moon

Jackie: Keats came back to Louie with three other books and used this character to help him present some of the other problems of childhood—The Trip (1978), Louie’s Search (1980), and Regards to the Man in the Moon (1981).

The Trip tells us that Louie and his Mom move to a new neighborhood. Louie’s Search takes place after Louie has moved to a new neighborhood. “’What kind of neighborhood is this?’ thought Louie. “Nobody notices a kid around here.” He puts on a paper sack hat and paints his nose red and goes out for a walk. Eventually he picks up an object which has fallen off a junk wagon and so encounters the scary junkman Barney. Barney is huge and thinks Louie has stolen this object. “’Come back, you little crook,’ Barney bellowed.” They go to Louie’s house where Barney tells his Mom, “Your son’s a crook!’”

What Louie had found was a music box. When he holds it the box makes music. When he drops it, it stops. Barney decides to give the music box to Louie and stays for tea with Louie and his mom. It’s the beginning of a wonderful relationship that ends with a wedding and Louie finding the Dad he hoped for.

The Trip, Jennie's Hat, Dreams

Phyllis: Another thread throughout Keats’ work is the power of imagination. Louie in The Trip imagines a plane flying him to his old neighborhood. Jennie in Jennie’s Hat imagines a beautiful hat instead of the plain one her aunt has sent, and the birds, who she feeds daily, swoop down and decorate her hat with leaves, pictures, flowers (paper and real), colored eggs, a paper fan, and a pink valentine. In Dreams, Roberto imagines (or does it really happen?) that when a paper mouse he has made tumbles from his windowsill, its shadow “grew bigger—and bigger—and BIGGER” until it scared off the dog terrorizing his friend’s kitten on the sidewalk below.

Ezra Jack Keats: Artist and Picture-book MakerWe haven’t really even talked about his art and his brilliant use of collage and color. Just as Keats’s books celebrate the power of the imagination, Anita Silvey says that Keats took “absolute joy in the creative process.” We can share that joy in his books in stories and art that recognize that everyone needs to be seen, everyone has a place, and everyone, joyously, matters.

Jackie: Brian Alderson in Ezra Jack Keats: Artist and Picture-Book Maker writes that in The Snowy Day Keats “came home to his proper place: a colorist celebrating the hidden lives of the city kids.” I would add that that can be said for most of his works. And we are the richer for it.

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Feeling Cranky

Phyllis: February is the month for lovers and for love. And it’s the month where some of us also get a little grumpy. Gray slushy snow—no good for skiing or building snow people—lines the streets. The weight of winter coats wears old. And even though we do love February, we thought we’d look at books about grumpiness—just in case anyone else might feel a little, well, cranky once in a while.

Crankee DoodleCrankee Doodle by Tom Angleberger with pictures by Cece Bell, stretches the conventions of picture books with art and text in dialogue balloons depicting a conversation between a soldier and his horse. “We could go to town,” the horse cheerily proposes. Crankee Doodle’s response? A long list of reasons NOT to go. Each of the horse’s suggestions, to go shopping, buy a feather, get a new hat, is met with more negativity. “Shopping? I hate shopping … I might as well throw my money down an outhouse hole.” Crankee Doodle oversteps a line when the horse offers to carry him to town and Crankee says, “No way. You smell terrible.” Seeing how much he has hurt his horse’s feelings, Crankee capitulates, and they drive to town with Crankee yelling “Yee-HAW!” out the car window. “Nice hat,” “the horse tells Crankee in the last spread where they are happily laden with purchases. “Thanks, pal,” Crankee replies.

For a day when you or your kids feel cranky, reading this book out loud and throwing yourself into the crankiness can be cathartic. And just plain fun. 

Jackie: I love the way this story ties into the song Yankee Doodle. Crankee Doodle, the grumpy brother to the original, doesn’t want to go to town, (especially not riding a pony), doesn’t want a feather for his hat, and refuses to call his hat “macaroni” (lasagna, maybe, but definitely not macaroni). A reading of this story should always be preceded by a singing of the song.

Man Who Enjoyed GrumblingPhyllis: The Man Who Enjoyed Grumbling by Margaret Mahy, with illustrations by Wendy Hodder (published in 1987 and found on the used book rack of an Allen County public library). features scratchy Mr. Ratchett, who enjoys a good grumble. His neighbors, the Goat family, give him plenty of opportunity to grumble at them.

The Goat family liked making trouble.
They bunted and bleated.
They nibbled his hedge.
Sometimes they put their horns down
And chased the cat.

One day the Goat family, wanting more room for jumping around and tired of their scratchy neighbor, move to the high hills. Mr. Ratchett tries to find satisfaction in the peace and quiet but, without his neighbors to grumble at, things are too quiet. “Trust those Goats to go off and have a good time,” he grumbles. “They don’t spare a thought for the poor old man next door.”

Up in the hills the Goat family, too, finds things too quiet. “We like making trouble and we need a scratchy neighbor close by,” they tell Mr. Ratchett when they move back in next door. Mr. Ratchettt does a little grumbler’s tap dance where the Goats can’t see him because “he was so glad they were back.”

Jackie: This book is so much fun to read out loud:“They bunted and bleated./They nibbled his hedge.”

And it’s packed full of great words and phrases: Scratchy Mr. Ratchett (as he is always called in this book) wears “moaning boots.” And he believes “A man needs a bit of grumbling to bring a sparkle to his eyes.”

Worst Person in the WorldPhyllis: James Stevenson’s The Worst Person in the World has a yard full of poison ivy, yells at anyone who comes near his house, eats lemons for breakfast (“Ugh! Too sweet!”), and hits flowers with his umbrella. When the Worst encounters the ugliest thing in the world, who has a self-confessed “pleasing personality,” Ugly enthusiastically plans a party in the Worst’s house with decorations, cake, party hats, and invitations to the neighborhood children. The Worst tells Ugly he wants no party, no children, and no Ugly. The crestfallen Ugly leaves, but the Worst eventually finds a striped party hat in the corner and tries it on. “Hmmm,” he says, and goes off to find Ugly and the children to invite them back to a party. Stevenson doesn’t transform his character into a sunshiney person, but the Worst does have a smile on his face as he leads everyone back to his house.

Jackie: James Stevenson is so funny! Ugly recites the old saw, “if you’ve got a pleasing personality that’s all that counts,” in such a deadpan and earnest way that somehow emphasizes the clichéd quality. I almost think Stevenson invented Ugly so he could use that line.

He, like Margaret Mahy, is funny in the way he uses language. The party is not just a party. When the Worst asks what he’s doing Ugly replies, “Getting ready for the big shebang!” Shebang—much more fun than a party.

You are right, Phyllis, that the Worst continues to be grumpy right up until the end of the story, but we know it’s not quite the same level of grumpiness because he’s changed. At the beginning of the story he looks right at their ball and tells the kids he hasn’t seen it. At the end he looks at it and returns it to them.

The Worst is the grump we love to laugh at, so this seems like just the right amount of change. We don’t want him to totally reform.

Phyllis: Stevenson’s other Worst books include The Worst Person in the World at Crab Beach, The Worst Goes South, The Worst Person’s Christmas, and Worse than the Worst. In all of the books Stevenson’s scratchy illustrations capture the Worst’s crankiness in his person and his surroundings. By the end of each book, if he’s not smiling, the Worst’s frown has at least relaxed a little.

James Stevenson Worst Books

Jackie: My favorite of those I have read on this list is The Worst Goes South. Worst leaves home to avoid a fall festival next door—way too much hog-calling and polka music. He’s the first guest since 1953 in the motel he finds. The owner says, “Clean [your room] yourself. And don’t be bothering me for towels and soap and all that nonsense … don’t be whining for breakfast, … this is not some fancy spoil-you-rotten hotel.” It turns out that there are two Worsts. And the motel owner is Worst’s brother, Ervin.

Phyllis: Stevenson’s Worst books can be hard to put your hands on—within a large metropolitan library system The Worst Person in the World was only available from an outstate library. But his books, along with Crankee Doodle and The Man Who Enjoyed Grumbling, will put a smile on the crankiest face.

Jackie: The Worst books that I found came from Gallatin, Missouri, Newton, Iowa, and Waverly, Iowa. These are not books we can read on a whim, at least not now. Getting them requires advance planning. I wish some publisher would reprint these books.

Phyllis: Spring is on the way, but February has much to celebrate: love, lovers, friends, and perhaps the chance, once in a while, to enjoy being just a little cranky.

Jackie: Phyllis and I were actually a little cranky about how hard it was to find the Worst books and The Man Who Enjoyed Grumbling. I could not find it nor successfully order it. Phyllis had to read it to me over Skype. As we said, we’d love to see them reprinted. Are there books that you love that you can’t find easily, that you think should be reprinted? Let us know in the comments below. We want to start a list.

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That Lovely Ornament, the Moon

by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Phyllis Root

Jackie: We’ve passed the Solstice but we still have more night than day. We can watch the moon with our breakfast and with our dinner. We thought we’d celebrate this season of the moon by sharing some stories featuring that lovely ornament.

Phyllis: And Christmas Eve we saw an almost full moon casting shadows on the snow before the clouds blew in. Moonlight really is magical.

Papa Please Get the Moon For MeJackie: There’s lovely magic in Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me by Eric Carle. This book has been a favorite of mine since my days as a preschool teacher. It never fails to please the sit-on-the-rug crowd. What’s not to love? There’s Eric Carle’s wonderful moon, and a father so dedicated that he finds a “very long ladder” and takes it to “a very high mountain.” Then he climbs to the moon and waits until it’s just the right size. He brings it back and gives it to his daughter. She hugs it, jumps and dances with it—until it disappears.

The combination of fantasy and real-moon, family affection and joy is just timeless. This thirty year old story could have been written yesterday.

Kitten's First Full MoonPhyllis: In Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes, Kitten, too, yearns for the moon, mistaking it for a bowl of milk. “And she wanted it.” Closing her eyes and licking toward the moon only gives her a bug on her tongue, jumping at the moon ends in a tumble, and chasing the moon ends with Kitten up a tree and the moon no closer. After each attempt, the text reminds us of Kitten’s yearning: “Still, there was the little bowl of milk, just waiting.” When Kitten sees the moon’s reflection in the pond and leaps for it, she ends up tired, sad, and wet. Poor kitten! She returns home… to find a big bowl of milk on the porch, just waiting for her to lap it up.

Thirteen Moons on Turtle's BackJackie: Kittens and children and all of us are fascinated by the moon. Thirteen Moons on Turtle’s Back: a Native American Year of Moons (Penguin, 1992) by Joseph Bruchac and Jonathan London is a collection of thirteen poems about the seasons of the moon from “each of the thirteen Native American tribal nations in different regions of the continent [chosen] to give a wider sense of the many things Native American people have been taught to notice in this beautiful world around us.” The noticing is one thing I love about this book. Reading these poems makes me want to walk in the woods and see something in a new way.

Moon of Popping TreesIt feels as if we are in the season of the “Moon of Popping Trees.”

Outside the lodge
the night air is bitter cold.
Now the Frost giant walks
with his club in his hand.
When he strikes the trunks
of the cottonwood trees
we hear them crack
beneath the blow.
The people hide inside
when they hear that sound….

And that is much better than saying, “it’s cold.”

Phyllis: In “Baby Bear Moon” we learn how a small child lost in the snow was saved by sleeping all through the winter with a mother bear and her cubs. The poem concludes:

“when we walk by on our snowshoes
we will not bother a bear
or her babies. Instead
we think how those small bears
are like our children.
We let them dream together.”

Who wouldn’t want to sleep the winter away sharing dreams with bears?

Jackie: I love the poetry of this book—

“…Earth Elder
made the first tree,
a great oak with twelve branches
arching over the land.
Then, sitting down beneath it,
the sun shining bright,
Earth Elder thought
of food for the people,
and acorns began to form.”

Perhaps the best is that Bruchac and London encourage us to see more than trees and grass, to imagine a landscape, a thrumming with history, community, and the spirits of sharing.

MoonlightJackie: Moonlight by Helen V. Griffith (Greenwillow, 2012) is also a poetic text—and spare:

Rabbit hides in shadow
under cloudy skies
waiting for the moonlight
blinking sleepy eyes.

But he goes into his burrow and doesn’t see “Moonlight slides like butter/skims through outer space/skids past stars and comets/leaves a butter trace.”

What a wonderful image! “Moonlight slides like butter.” Who can look at moonlight the same again?

Phyllis: I love the spare language of this book, and I love Laura Dronzek’s luminous art as well, where moonlight really does butter every tree and slips into Rabbit’s dreams, awaking him to dance in the moonlight. So few words, but so well chosen—verbs such as skims and skids and skips and skitters. A wonderful pairing of words and art that makes me want to dance in the moonlight, too.

Owl MoonJane Yolen’s Owl Moon, which won a Caldecott for its evocative wintry art, is a story of an owl, patience, hope, and love. On a snowy night the narrator sets out to go on a long-awaited outing owling with Pa. She knows, because Pa says, that when you go owling you have to be quiet, you have to make your own heat, and you have to have hope. Their hope is finally rewarded when they spot an owl and stare into the owl’s eyes as it stare back before it flies away. The last image shows the small narrator being carried toward the lights of home by her pa. The book concludes:

When you go owling
you don’t need words
or warm
or anything but hope.
That’s what Pa says.
The kind of hope
that flies
on silent wings
under a shining
Owl Moon.

Jackie: “When you go owling/you don’t need words/or warm/ or anything but hope.” The shining moon, a light in the night, a lamp of hope that we turn into a friend in the sky. These books make me grateful for long nights.

Phyllis: And for moonlight and dreams and dancing.

 

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Two for the Show: Winter Stories

by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Phyllis Root

Jackie: Ah winter. Season of holidays and snow. Such a richness of stories.

Phyllis: I have a shelf full of favorite Christmas books. What most of them have in common is story, not just about Christmas itself but also about families celebrating their connection to each other.  They meet my own test for a good Christmas story—take away Christmas from the setting and the story still has a strong heartbeat about love, family, community, and caring for each other. 

bk_Two_EmmetOne of our family favorites is Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas by Russell Hoban with pictures by Lillian Hoban (Parents Magazine Press, 1971). Emmet’s dad has died. His mother takes in washing while Emmet does handyman chores to help make ends meet, using the toolbox his father left him.

With Christmas coming, both Emmet and his mother wish they could make the day special for each other, even though, as Irma Coon says, “It’s a bad year for that.” Emmet yearns to buy a used piano for his mother, and she hopes to give him a second hand guitar. 

Jackie: Hoban’s language brings the story to life. Emmet’s mother says: “It’s been such a rock-bottom life for so long, just once at least I’d like to bust out with a real glorious Christmas for Emmet—something shiny and expensive.” Rock-bottom life. What a useful phrase!

Phyllis: Ma and Emmet both see a way to “bust out” when they hear of a talent show with a fifty-dollar prize. They each secretly make plans to win the prize money,  Ma pawning Emmet’s tool box to get fabric for a dress to sing in and Emmet putting a hole in Ma’s washtub to make a string bass to play in the Jug band with his friends—actions which stake everything on winning.

But alas, the Nightmare band with electric instruments, a light show, and wailingly loud music wins the prize. Yet walking home, Emmet and his Ma and his friends realize they are glad that, like Pa who took a chance on selling snake oil, they took a chance on the prize.  And when they sing their joy outside of Doc Bullfrog’s restaurant they are rewarded by him with dinner and a regular gig.

Jackie: This plot is so satisfying. Despair, then relief—and reward.

It struck me reading this book this time that Russell Hoban was writing about the same kinds of characters that Vera B. Williams wrote about—families who loved each other but didn’t have a lot of money, had to make do.

Phyllis: And who wouldn’t love the pastel world Lillian Hoban creates in the art?  In her obituary she is quoted as saying, that what she liked better than anything is “just messing around with color.”

Jackie: And we should also mention that this book was made into a movie by Jim Henson.

bk_Two_MolePhyllis: The Hobans also wrote and illustrated another favorite, The Mole Family’s Christmas (Parents’ Magazine Press, 1969), in which Delver [Russell Hoban is still laughing about that name], a mole whose family does “straight tunneling work,” learns of the stars which he can’t see. At the same time he learns about telescopes and the existence of a fat man in a red suit who brings presents by way of chimneys. The mole family builds an above-ground chimney in hopes of a visit, but each also secretly makes presents for the others just in case the man in the red suit doesn’t bring gifts to animals.  As they build their chimney they are plagued by Ephraim Owl, who goal is to catch and eat them some night. “If not this time, then some time,” he hoots.

Yet when the moles all fall asleep on the chimney waiting for the fat man in the red suit and Ephraim spots them there, he decides it would be funny if the moles woke up and found themselves not eaten—which is exactly what they do find come morning, along with a telescope from the man in the red suit. Again, a family that wants to meet each other’s needs and make each other happy.

Jackie: Russell Hoban once said, “People say that every artist has a particular theme which he goes through over and over again, and I suppose mine has to do with … finding a place.”

bk_Two_SnowDanceIn James and Joseph Bruchac’s tale Rabbit’s Snow Dance (Dial, 2012) Rabbit (whose tail is long) has his place and he wants it covered with snow, more and more snow, so he can eat the tasty buds and leaves up in the trees.

Phyllis: I love the word he chants, AZIKANAPO, which the Bruchacs explain means “It will snow foot wrappers, great big flakes of snow.” Even though it’s summer, Rabbit sings his snow song, reasoning that if a little snow is good, more is better. The other animals aren’t pleased, but Rabbit sings snow down as deep as the tree tops, then falls asleep on the top of a tree.  While he sleeps, sun melts snow, and when Rabbit wakes up he sleepily steps off into what he thinks is snow and tumbles to the ground, losing bits of his tail on the branches. By the end of the book he has lost his tail, gained patience, and only sings his snow song in the winter. 

Jackie: This YouTube video in which Bruchac talks about the origins of the story and the kind of tree rabbit might have been trapped in is charming and reminds us all to look closely at the world.

bk_Two_LatkesAlso a seasonal family story, Papa’s Latkes by Michelle Edwards (Candlewick, 2004) portrays a family that must cope with loss. Mama has died “before school started” and Papa and Selma and Dora must make the latkes for Chanukah. Papa goes at it with gusto and plenty of potatoes, onions, and oil. But his latkes look like mudpies and Selma just can’t accept a Chanukah without Mama. Papa brings the family together in a long family hug and Selma brings her mother into the picture by lighting the Chanukah candles just the way her mother had taught her. This is a lovely story, for all families, where loss is not denied or glossed over but lived and loved through.

bk_Two_Willoughby Another story about community, unintentional community, is Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree by Robert Barry (McGraw-Hilll, 1963) Mr. Willowby lives at the other end of easy street from Emmet Otter and Ma. He’s got a big house and orders a big Christmas tree, too big.

But once the tree stood in its place

Mr. Willowby made a terrible face.

The tree touched the ceiling then bent like a bow.

“Oh, good heavens,” he gasped. “Something must

go.”

Moving the word “go” to the next line—chopping it off— is a subtle touch that made me laugh out loud. 

The butler trims off the top and takes it to the upstairs maid. But her tree is too big—and so on through Mr and Mrs. Timm, a bear family, a rabbit family and finally a mouse family who live just behind the wall in Mr. Willowby’s parlor. 

Though this book, if written today, would include more kinds of families, not more animals but different configurations than the “Mr. and Mrs. and kids,” there is still something joyous in the rhymes, the successive trimmings, and each new group’s delight in their section of green.

Phyllis: I love how the characters all make something from what’s been tossed away—it’s another story about making do and celebrating what we have.

Happy Celebrations to you all and wishes for many good story times.

 

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Chair of Honor for Vera B. Williams

by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Phyllis Root

photo credit: Thane Peterson

photo credit: Thane Peterson

Jacqueline Briggs Martin: Some writers teach us craft. Some writers inspire us. Vera B. Williams does both. As part of celebrating her wonderful life and career we want to take another look at her lovely stories and her busy life. One of the many remarkable things about her books is that they “erupt” (as she said) from the activities of her life.

bk_williams_canoeThree Days on the River in a Red Canoe was based on Williams’ own 500-mile journey down the Yukon River. It starts when a kid notices a canoe for sale in a neighbor’s yard. His mom and her sister and his cousin pool their money and buy it. This is a family that thinks about buying something. There is not a lot of cash lying around. Amber Was Brave Essie Was Smart gives readers a loving family (based on Williams and her sister) whose father is in prison.  

One of her best-loved stories, A Chair for My Mother, grew out of her experience growing up “in a family that had a lot of trouble making a living.” She never forgot that. In a Greenwillow publicity interview she recounted that her mother worked very hard, just as Rosa’s mother, and actually did buy herself a chair so she would have a place to sit when she was tired. Williams said, “I’m very proud of having introduced a kind of character and family and experience to children’s books… people who work for a living in very ordinary professions.”

Phyllis Root: Yes, one of the many things I love about Vera B. Williams is how both her work and her life celebrate everyday people, working class people, people with problems, family, community.

bk_williams_chairJacqueline Briggs Martin: And that focus on community comes from her life, too. Her mother was very community-minded. She was one of a group of people who would gather on the sidewalk during the Depression when a family’s furniture was being repossessed and “defy the bailiff” by carrying that furniture back to the family’s apartment. I love picturing that and think the two page spread in A Chair for My Mother in which neighbors bring pieces of furniture to Rosa’s family after the fire must be partly inspired by William’s early neighbors carrying furniture back upstairs.

Phyllis Root:  Williams said that as a child she didn’t understand her mother’s need for “new cushiony chair.” In A Chair for my Mother Rosa, her mother, and grandmother all work together saving nickels and dimes and quarters in a jar to buy a chair for the whole family. Williams transforms her childhood experience, just as she worked to transform the world—she was a member of the War Resistor’s League and went to prison for protesting the Vietnam War. She not only wrote about what she believed, she lived those beliefs.

bk_williams_cherriesCherries and Cherry Pits, too, is about transformation. As a child, Vera drew pictures and told stories about them, just as Bidemmi does in Cherries and Cherry Pits. In each story Bidemmi tells, someone shares cherries—a father with his children, a grandmother with her parrot, a boy with his little sister. And all of them are “eating cherries and spitting out the pits.” In the last story she tells, Bidemmi, too, has a bag of cherries. She eats the cherries and plants the pits in her “junky old yard,” where they grow into trees full of cherries, and people come from “Nairobi and Brooklyn, Toronto and Saint Paul” to eat those cherries and spit out the pits, which grow “until there is a whole forest of cherry trees right on our block.”

Jacqueline Briggs Martin: And we can learn craft from this story, too. Look at this character description:

This is the door to the subway and THIS is a man leaning

on the door… His face is a nice face. But it is also not so

nice. He has a fat wrinkle on his forehead. It’s like my

mother’s wrinkle. It’s from worrying and worrying, my

mother says. And his neck is thick and his arms are thick

with very big, strong muscles. His shirt is striped blue and

white and his skin is dark brown and in his great big hands

he has a small white bag. This man looks so strong I think

he could even carry a piano on his head. But he is only

carrying this little white bag…

What great information we get about the Bidemmi and her mother from the description of this man who has a fat wrinkle “from worrying and worrying.” Who could ever forget a man strong enough to carry a piano on his head?

bk_williams_morePhyllis Root: Williams believed that if children’s needs are met in “the way of love and adventures, we would have a lot more happiness in the world.” Her book “More, More, More,” Said the Baby: Three Love Stories joyously celebrates three babies whose needs are met, (and includes a white grandmother and her brown grandchild, one of the first times such a family was shown in a picture book).

In an interview in Show Me a Story, Conversations with 21 of the World’s Most Celebrated Illustrators compiled and edited by Leonard S. Marcus, Williams talks about luck, a word that shows up not only in Lucky Song but also in A Chair for My Mother when the grandmother thanks the neighbors for all their help moving into and furnishing their new apartment. “It’s lucky we’re young and can start all over,” she says. Even the grocery whose owners give away watermelons in The Great Watermelon Birthday is named Fortuna’s Fruits.

bk_williams_gingerbreadOur family has been lucky to know Williams’s books for many years. Since we discovered her first—It’s a Gingerbread House: Bake It, Build It, Eat It!—we’ve been making gingerbread houses and delighting in her stories.

Here’s hoping many, many more children will be lucky enough to read and enjoy her books and to grow up in a peaceful world where the grown-ups make sure that every child’s needs are met.  A world Vera B. Williams envisioned, worked for, and made into beautiful, deeply felt books.

Here’s a list of her books, all published by Greenwillow:

  • Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart: The Story of Amber and Essie Told Here in Poems and Pictures (2001)
  • A Chair for Always (2009)
  • A Chair for My Mother (1982)
  • Cherries and Cherry Pits (1986)
  • It’s a Gingerbread House: Bake It, Build It, Eat It! (1978)
  • Lucky Song (1997)
  • “More, More, More,” Said the Baby: Three Love Stories (1990)
  • Music, Music for Everyone (1984)
  • Scooter (1993)
  • Something Special for Me (1983)
  • Stringbean’s Trip to the Shining Sea, with Jennifer Williams (1988) 

And here’s where you can order a 1989 Peace Calendar (365 reasons not to have another war) by Grace Paley and Vera B. Williams. (Extra bonus: the 1989 calendar repeats in 2017, but even if it didn’t, it’s well worth buying for the art and writing and to support the War Resisters League.)

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Two for the Show: What Scares You?

Note to readers: we are trying a new format this month. We want to make our blog more conversational. Let us know what you think.

Phyllis Root:
bk_TwoRamona
What scares you? How do you deal with that fear? And why do so many of us like to scare ourselves silly, as long as we know that everything will be all right in the end?

An article in The Atlantic, Why Do Some Brains Enjoy Fear,” explains how the hormone dopamine, released during scary activities makes some of us feel good, especially if we feel safe. If we know those ghosts in the haunted house aren’t really ghosts, we can let ourselves be as scared as we want by their sudden appearance.

In Ramona the Brave Ramona hides a book with a scary gorilla picture under a couch cushion when the book becomes too terrifying. She’s in charge of how scared she wants to be, and books offer us that opportunity: we can close them if they’re scary, or even look ahead to the end to be sure everything will be fine.

Jacqueline Briggs Martin:
We can give ourselves little doses of scare. Doses that feel like fun because we are watching events happen to someone else.

Phyllis:
bk_TwoLittleOldLady
The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams, illustrated by Megan Lloyd, is a deliciously scary experience. On her way home through the forest as it starts to get dark, the little old lady meets two big shoes that go CLOMP, CLOMP. Since she’s not afraid of anything, she continues toward home—but the shoes clomp behind her, as do, eventually, a pair of pants that go WIGGLE, WIGGLE, a shirt that goes SHAKE, SHAKE, gloves that go CLAP, CLAP, and a hat that goes NOD, NOD. To all of them she says “Get out of my way!” because, of course, she’s not afraid of anything—although she does walk faster and faster. When she meets the scary pumpkin head that goes BOO, BOO! she runs for home and locks the door. Then comes the KNOCK, KNOCK on the door. Because she’s not afraid of anything she answers the door and sees the whole assemblage of clothing and pumpkin head. “You can’t scare me,” she says. “Then what’s to become of us?” the pumpkin asks. The little old lady’s idea for a solution makes everyone happy. Part of the genius of this book is that it invites listeners to join in on the sound effects, giving them an active part in the story as well as an outlet for building tension.

bk_TwoSeussThe narrator in What Was I Scared Of?, written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss, only has to confront a pair of empty pants (a fun twist on having the pants scared off of one), and like the old lady, this narrator claims he isn’t scared of anything. Still, when the pants move, he hightails it out of there, and each time the pants show up again, whether riding a bike or rowing a boat, the narrator runs from them. When he unexpectedly encounters the pants and hollers for help, the pants break down in tears; it turns out they are as scared of him as he is of them. The narrator responds empathetically by putting his arm around the pants’ waist and calming the “poor empty pants with nobody inside them.” Neither is scared of the other any longer.

Jackie:
This book has always been a favorite at our house. Who would not be scared of such pants? And this list of frightened responses is so inclusive—and so fun to read out loud:

I yelled for help. I screamed. I shrieked.

I howled. I yowled. I cried,

“Oh save me from these pale green pants

With nobody inside!”

Dr. Seuss’s language in this story frequently makes us laugh. One of my favorites:

And the next night, I was fishing

for Doubt-trout on Roover River

When those pants came rowing toward me!

Well, I started in to shiver.

I’m not a fishing person, but I might head out to Roover River for a couple of Doubt-trout.

bk_TwoNightmareAnother story in which the fearsome is also fearful is There’s a Nightmare in my Closet. I can’t believe this Mercer Mayer book is forty-seven years old. It seems as current a childhood worry as stepping on a crack in the sidewalk. Mayer’s illustrations are perfect—we can almost hear the silence in the illustration in which the kid tiptoes back to bed, after closing the closet door.

Phyllis:
Facing your fears and befriending them runs through all of these stories. Virginia Hamilton’s Wee Winnie Witch’s Skinny, an original tale based on research into black folklore and illustrated by Barry Moser, involves actually out-witting a very scary being. With more text and a more story-telling tone, the tale relates how James Lee’s Uncle Big Anthony is attacked by a cat who is really Wee Winnie Witch in disguise and who rides him through the sky at night. As weeks pass, Uncle Big Anthony “got lean and bent-over tired. He looked like some about gone, Uncle Shrunken Anthony.” Mama Granny comes to the rescue with her spice-hot pepper witch-be-gone.

bk_TwoWeeWitchWhen Wee Winnie Witch takes off her skin that night to ride Uncle Big Anthony, she snatches James Lee from his window and takes him riding with them through the sky where he is both terrified and thrilled. When Wee Winnie Witch returns to the ground and puts on her skin again, she finds that Mama Granny has treated the skin’s inside with her spice-hot pepper witch-be-gone. The skin squeezes Wee Winnie Witch so hard that she shrivels into pieces on the floor. Uncle Big Anthony gradually returns to his former self, and although James Lee never wants to see a “skinny” again, the thought of the night-air ride up in the twinkling stars still makes him say “Whew-wheee!”

Jackie:
This tale is gripping—and for me, a bit disturbing, or maybe thought-provoking. I was troubled by the thought and image of the Wee Winnie Witch riding Big Uncle Anthony with the bridle in his mouth. But, as I thought about it, I wondered if Hamilton was possibly reminding us of the degradation that slavery brought to black people. So many were bridled and lashed and worked to death. Hard to say. In any case this story has plenty of scare and a strong hero in Mama Granny.

Phyllis:
Terrified, thrilled, and brought back to a sense of safety again: these stories do all that but with different levels of bk_TwoHamburgerterror. And because picture books are usually read aloud by a comforting adult and because we’re free to shut them and even put them under the couch cushion, we can choose how scared to be, knowing that we can safely close the book. But like James Lee, we might also say “Whew-wheee!”—then open the book to read it again.

And what kinds of stories do ghosts tell to scare themselves? Read The Haunted Hamburger by David LaRochelle and find out.

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Two for the Show

by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Phyllis Root

9_9TwoForMufaroWe want to start by saying that we are loving the chance to look at forgotten books or wonderful classics from the past that this blog has given us. And this time, when we were thinking of what we might look at, John Steptoe came to mind— maybe because we were considering possibilities in August and he died in August of 1989. We all remember Steptoe was one of the first African Americans to write and illustrate children’s books. He was brilliant, wrote his first book, Stevie, when he was sixteen years old, and was only eighteen when it was published. He wrote and illustrated many other books in his short life. (He died at age 39).

One of his best known is Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (1987). We think this is a classic. The daughters are indeed beautiful, the setting is beautiful and so carefully rendered that we wanted to touch the stones and caress the birds. For this re-telling of a Zimbabwean folktale Steptoe researched the flora and fauna of Zimbabwe for two years. And though it reads like a folk tale, the illustrations are done with such care that when we read it we almost believe it had happened. Of course a green snake could become a handsome African king.

The story is lovely. Mufaro has two daughters who look beautiful but only one who acts with beauty and grace. Manyara is “almost always in a bad temper. She teased her sister whenever their father’s back was turned, and she had been heard to say, ‘Someday, Nyasha, I will be a queen, and you will be a servant in my household.’” Nyasha grows vegetables, and is so kind that birds are not afraid to be close and a snake becomes her companion. Because her beauty is internal and external, she is the one chosen by the king and Manyara becomes her servant.

It’s a great experience to read his books now and think back on how revolutionary they must have seemed when they were published. He was revolutionary and visionary. He wanted to write books in which African American children could see themselves and be proud of their culture. And that is so similar to what we want today with the campaign We Need Diverse Books. We found ourselves profoundly wishing that he had lived to give us more books, lived to comment on the reading lives of children.

Wendy Watson did a lovely appreciation of John Steptoe’s art in her blog in August 2014.

9_10TwoForBeautyWe found a more recent re-telling of an old tale on the Kirkus “Best Books of 2014 Which Feature Diverse Characters” list–Beauty and the Beast by H. Chuku Lee and illustrated by his wife Pat Cummings. Once again we have beautiful daughters–three who present their father with a long list when he goes to the city and one who only asks for a rose. The story is set in West Africa and is told in the first person by “Beauty,” in direct and expressive language. And the illustrations are fascinating, full of detail and pattern, done with care and respect. This is what H. Chuku Lee said about writing this book in The Horn Book (June 2015):

Our version of “Beauty” is an act of hope, the belief that when given a new and different perspective on an accepted story with universal themes of love, magic, and promises made, we can transcend the notion that only some people are equipped for change. That universal feelings like love, fear, and hope are in fact found in all people. And that the story is just as powerful no matter what the cultural setting. Most audiences appreciate and even cheer at the idea that someone would sacrifice her own safety in the hope of protecting someone she loves. And that kindness and love can magically transform a beast into a prince.

And Pat Cummings’s comments:

His [H. Chuku Lee’s] version, told from Beauty’s point of view, seemed elegant and contemporary. And I wanted to update Beauty as well, to show her as a young woman of color whose world clearly evokes Africa. The Beast’s scarifications even suggest a particular tribe. But although classics transcend time, trends, and cultures, some elements of the story seemed etched in stone: it had to be a rose, and the Beast had to be part animal. “Beauty and the Beast” has more than its share of classic themes: love conquers all, true beauty lies within, appearances can be misleading, magic can save the day…But Chuku hit upon one I hadn’t considered before, one that resonated with me while illustrating the story. For me, it has become the new timeless theme at the heart of the story: the power of a promise.

Our only complaint is that the Beauty on the cover is quite a bit lighter than the Beauty in the book. It will be a wonderful day when that is not so. But we have hope. And the power of the promise to strive to do better, to value all the peoples of the world and all the colors of the world.

 

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Two for the Show: How Does Your Garden Grow?

by Phyllis Root and Jacqueline Briggs Martin

It’s high summer in the garden, with an abundance of vegetables to harvest and flowers abuzz with pollinators. Crunchy carrots, leafy kale, sun-warm tomatoes, garlic bulbs, green beans, zucchini (some gigantic) all offer themselves to the gardener. But more grows in a garden than plants. People grow, too, and connections between people take root and blossom. Two lovely picture books about growing things and the people who grow with them are The Gardener by Sarah Stewart with pictures by David Small (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux , 1997) and The Grandad Tree by Trish Cooke, illustrated by Sharon Wilson (Candlewick Press, 2000).

bk_gardner178The Gardener is an epistolary picture book (a category worthy of its own blog post), told in letters from a young girl, Lydia Grace, sent from her home in the country to live in the city with her Uncle Jim during the Depression until “things get better.” She writes first to her Uncle Jim, then back home to Mama, Papa, and Grandma. Although Uncle Jim doesn’t ever smile, Lydia Grace is excited by the window boxes she sees in the city, by learning to bake bread in her uncle’s bakery, and by the store cat Otis who sleeps on her bed.

With help from her family back home who sends her bulbs and seedlings and seed catalogues, from Emma who works in the bakery with her husband Ed, and from neighbors who give her containers in which to plant flowers and call her “the gardener,” Lydia Grace sets about making gardens in pots and filling windows boxes with radishes onions, and lettuce. But what fills her with “great plans” is her discovery at the top of a fire escape of the building’s roof (shown in a wordless spread), littered with trash and just waiting for the dirt she hauls from a vacant lot.

All the while, Lydia hopes for a smile from Uncle Jim.

When her “secret place” is ready, Lydia Grace, Emma, and Ed bring Uncle Jim to the roof garden in a glorious double page wordless spread, which parallels the first view of the roof, now transformed.

A week later, when Lydia Grace learns that her papa has got a job and that she’s going home Uncle Jim closes the shop, sends Ed and Emma and Lydia Grace to the roof garden, and brings Lydia Grace a cake covered in flowers. Lydia Grace writes, “I truly believe that cake equals one thousand smiles.” The last page, also wordless, shows Uncle Jim hugging Lydia Grace as they wait for her to board the train home. In the grim grey city, Lydia Grace has grown more than beautiful flowers and a garden, she has grown a connection with her uncle, Emma, Ed, and the neighbors. As she writes in the P. S. of her last letter, “We gardeners never retire.” In this book, the deepest emotions are not said in words but with flowers, with cake, and with silent hugs. Even the wordless spreads convey the book’s heart—that plants and people can bloom in the grayest surroundings.

bk_grandadtreeLGThe spare poetic words of The Grandad Tree begin,

There is a tree

at the bottom of Leigh’s garden.

An apple tree.

Vin, Leigh’s big brother, said

it started as a seed

and then grew

and grew.

And Vin said

that tree,

where they used to play

with Grandad,

that apple tree

will be there…

forever.

The text goes on to tell how Grandad was a baby once, then a boy who climbed coconut trees near the sea where he lived, then a man and a husband and a dad and a granddad for Leigh and Vin. “That’s life,” Grandad would say.

 The apple tree blossoms in spring as the art shows Vin and Leigh playing ball with Grandad. In summer, as the apples grow, Grandad plays his violin for the children under the tree. He watches them harvest apples as the leaves fall, and he watches from the window as they build a snowman in the winter. The text continues,

And sometimes things die,

like trees,

like people…

            like Grandad.

Leigh and Vin and their momma remember Grandad as Vin plays his violin, and Leigh plants a seed beside the apple tree to grow and grow, to go through changes, and for them to love forever and ever

            just like they’ll always love Grandad.

In few words and glowing illustrations, Cooke and Wilson bring together the seasons of a tree and of a life lived and show how while things change, some things, like Leigh and Vin’s love for Grandad and his for them, will last forever.

Comfort, love, relationships can all bloom along with the wide world of growing things. Even when harvest is upon us gardeners, it’s good to remember that seeds will hold next year’s gardens close inside. Who knows what will blossom there beyond fruits and flowers?

Other books about growing things that we love:

  • Cherries and Cherry Pits by Vera B. Williams
  • Farmer Duck by Martin Waddell
  • Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
  • The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by H. Joseph Hopkins
  • Wangari’s Trees of Peace by Jeanette Winter
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Two for the Show: Three Books on the River

by Phyllis Root and Jacqueline Briggs Martin

Summertime. And whether we live by water or only dream of living by water, reading about river adventures is fun. We are fortunate to have a number of wonderful books that take us out onto the water. We are unfortunate that only one of the books on today’s list can easily be found at a library.

We two bloggers dream of a library that does not “weed,” but keeps books on the shelves because they are timeless and will always appeal to children. Perhaps that’s what we are trying to do with this blog: create our own “library” of books that nourish wonder, grow sympathy, fill brains with possibility.

What better place to do all that than the river? Let’s shove off.

Mr Gumpy's Outing coverMr. Gumpy’s Outing, by John Burningham. Some library copies of Mr. Gumpy’s Outing look like they are one hundred years old, not merely forty-five. It is such a good story that it deserves not to be overlooked because it looks worn. Time to summon the library angels of our nature to donate new copies. As you all may know, “Mr. Gumpy owned a boat and his house was by a river.” When he goes out in his boat various characters come up to the river bank and ask to go along. He says yes to all but there are some rules. The children are not to squabble, the rabbit not to hop about, the cat not to chase the rabbit, the dog not to chase the cat, the pig not to muck about, the sheep not to bleat, the chickens not to flap (it’s hard not to list them all because the verbs are so wonderful), the calf not to trample, and the goat not to kick. For a while all goes along well, but life is life. And we know they will do what they are not to do. …So the boat tips over, but no lectures from Mr. Gumpy. That may be the best part of the book. He says, “We’ll walk home across the fields…It’s time for tea.” Mr. Gumpy knew something like this would happen. It’s in the nature of children to squabble and calves to trample. We can still drink tea and eat sweets. This book is sure to please, whether being read or acted out by young actors. It’s a joy.

Three Days coverSo is Vera B. Williams’ Three Days on a River in a Red Canoe a joy. Though this book is not available in any of three eastern Iowa libraries, an Amazon check shows it is still being purchased and loved by readers. Published in 1981, it is written as a child’s journal of a canoe trip that takes place after the narrator, walking home from school, notices a red canoe for sale. She, Sam, Mom and Aunt Rosie “pool” their money and buy the canoe. Mom and Aunt Rosie come up with a three-day trip. They buy supplies and then “drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove.” What child does not have that memory of a long car trip?

The book includes so much—Mom and Aunt Rosie lowering the boat over a waterfall, camp cooking, instructions on how to tie a half hitch, a recipe for pancakes and fruit stew, and dumplings, sketches of fish and fowl. It is as if we were on the trip.

The tone also contributes to the special-ness of this book. Vera B. Williams has captured the leisurely feeling of a river trip: let’s stop to swim, tell stories at night, watch a muskrat. And there’s the unspoken caring. When Sam stands up and falls out of the canoe, he gets towed to shore. “Mom doesn’t say much, but she looks upset. Aunt Rose looks scared. Sam changes to dry clothes and we canoe on.” Vera B. Williams doesn’t need to say how much Mom and Aunt Rosie love the kids. That love and caring infuses the story, as in all of Williams’s work—and that’s why we keep going back to it.

The Cow Who Fell coverPerhaps it’s not the same as a parent’s love for a child, but how can we not love Hendrika, the Dutch cow, envisioned by Phyllis Krasilovsky and illustrated by the wonderful Peter Spier? The Cow Who Fell in the Canal was first published in 1957. According to Krasilovsky’s obituary in the New York Times the book became so popular in the Netherlands that the author was feted by the Dutch Consul in New York. The book begins: “Hendrika was an unhappy cow. She lived on a farm in Holland, where it is very flat. All summer long she ate grass. All winter long she ate hay. All winter and all summer she did nothing but eat.” She’s learned about the city from Pieter, the horse, who comes to pick up the milk. One day while out eating grass she falls into the canal. Of course she continues eating and then stumbles upon a raft. Spier shows us the entire process of pushing and maneuvering and finally falling onto the raft. Then the adventure begins! Hendrika is the mischievous child in all of us. She runs, she tramples, she wears a straw hat and finally she goes home, where “she had so much to think about.” If this book had no words it would be wonderful because Peter Spier’s illustrations are so full of detail and energy. But the words tell us of a great adventure that left the wanderer changed—as all good adventures do, as all good books do.

Other river picture books:

Give Her the River, by Michael Dennis Browne illus by Wendell Minor. Atheneum, 2004. A father’s thoughts about his daughter.

River Friendly, River Wild, by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by Neil Brennan. Aladdin Reprint, 2007. A story inspired by the flooding of the Red River.

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Going Wild

By Phyllis Root and Jackie Briggs Martin

Who doesn’t go a little wild when spring finally arrives? And even though we set out to choose pairs of books to write about, this month we couldn’t resist a hat trick of three books. At the heart of each is not only wildness but also how those around us react when our wild natures leak out.

cover image

by Maurice Sendak

At the center of the first two books is a yearning to live in the world of one’s own choosing. In Where the Wild Things Are, the book against which we still measure all other picture books, Max, sent supperless to his room for wild behavior, conjures up a forest, a boat, and an ocean and sails away to where the wild things live. The wild things make him their king, and he declares a wild rumpus—until he becomes lonely and wants to be “where someone loved him best of all.” When Max sails back into his own room, his supper awaits him, still hot and proof that his mother does indeed love him. With Sendak’s clear concision of language and syntax, we’ve gone on a wild journey, complete with rumpus, and returned to know we are loved. Best of all.

cover image

by Peter Brown

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild’s eponymous protagonist also yearns to live by his own rules. Even Brown’s art makes the case in the beginning that Mr. Tiger is a more colorful character than the upright townspeople, shown in shades of brown and gray while Mr. Tiger himself is orange down to his dialogue bubbles. Bored with being proper in a proper society, he walks on all fours, roars in public, and swims in a public fountain. When he emerge clothes-free, he has clearly gone too far, and the townspeople strongly suggest he take his wild self off to the wilderness, where he goes complete wild—until he, too, grows lonely. Returning to the town he dons a tee shirt and shorts that his friends provide him and discovers that the townspeople themselves have changed. Some go on all fours, some walk upright, some still dress elegantly, some wear casual clothes. In this changed society (and changed, we infer, because of Mr. Tiger’s actions) “Mr. Tiger felt free to be himself. And so did everyone else.”

by David Small

by David Small

Imogene in Imogene’s Antlers has wildness thrust upon her in the form of an enormous pair of antlers with which she awakens one Thursday. While the antlers complicate her morning routine (“Getting dressed was difficult, and going through a door now took some thinking”) Imogene seems cheerily accepting of the transformation. Not so Imogene’s mother who faints when she sees her daughter’s new appendages. Imogene’s brother Norman takes the academic approach and announces that Imogene has turned into a rare miniature elk. Their mother faints again. An attempt to hide the antlers under an enormous hat leads to still more fainting. Unlike Max’s mother, who loves her wild son best of all, or the townspeople who ultimately accept Mr. Tiger for himself, Imogene’s mother cannot cope. Luckily, the cook and kitchen maid admire Imogene’s antlers, deck her out with donuts for the birds, and look forward to decorating her come Christmas. At the end of her eventful day Imogene kisses her family and heads to bed. The next morning her antlers have disappeared. As she peeks around the corner into the kitchen, her mother is overjoyed that Imogene is back to normal—until a smiling Imogene enters the room, her peacock tail spread behind her. We assume that fainting follows.

While Imogene doesn’t choose her changes and never engages in anything wilder than sliding down the banister, she copes admirably with the unpredictability that marks childhood. At times we all might need to look for support and love beyond the folks from whom we most expect it and remember to love our own wild, clothes-free, or antlered selves.

Wildness, love, acceptance. Who doesn’t want it all? And why not? What’s against it?

So go ahead.

Be a little wild.

Like characters in these books, we promise we’ll still love you.

 

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Two for the Show

 

by Jackie Briggs Martin and Phyllis Root

Martin and Root

Jackie Briggs Martin (l) an Phyllis Root (r)

We both love finding forgotten treasures in the “removed from circulation” sections of libraries or in second hand bookstores. Some of these books call to us because we remember them from our childhoods: the Babar books written out in longhand, the Flicka, Ricka, Dicka stories about Swedish triplets, Marcia Brown’s Stone Soup.

Some books enchant that we’ve never read before: When the Wind Blew by Margaret Wise Brown, Run, Run, Run by Clement Hurd, The Treasure of Topolobampo by Scott O’Dell (and illustrated by the wonderful Lynd Ward). These books seem like forgotten treasures that we wish would be remembered. They remind us, as well, that the stories we tell now are very much akin to the stories told before us. The length may differ, the tone may have changed with time, but the hearts of these stories still connect with readers today.

We want to look at stories whose hearts have stayed strong, whether those stories are fifty years old or fifteen years old—or even more recent. We hope you, too, will find the older stories enchanting enough to look them up, either in libraries on in online book sites such as Alibris or AbeBooks. Or perhaps, like we do, you might wander the aisles of bookstores and library shops, looking for that book that reaches out, taps you on the shoulder, and says, “Read me. You’ll be glad you did.”

Our first finds have to do with mothers, a good topic for early May. We are calling it “What’s a mother to do?”

Moms are the pole stars of childhood, the ones who make us feel safe in the scariest, worrying-est of times. And in this, our first Two for the Show column, we want to take a look at two classic picture books about Moms and see what the moms are doing.

Monster Mama coverMonster Mama, written by Liz Rosenberg and illustrated by Stephen Gammell (Philomel, 1993) celebrates language and Moms. It begins:

Patrick Edward was a wonderful boy, but his mother was a monster. She lived in a big cave at the back of the house. [page turn]

Sometimes she painted, sometimes she gardened, and sometimes she tossed Patrick Edward lightly up and down in the air, for fun.

She also teaches Patrick Edward how to roar and how to cast a spell that could put almost anyone to sleep. One day he runs into bullies who tie him to a tree and say, “Your mother wears army boots.” Patrick Edward roars, breaks away, and chases the boys. “Who knows what might have happened next—but Monster Mama heard the echoes of his roar. She zoomed out of her cave…” and straight to Patrick Edward. Once things are set to right and they’ve all shared cake (which the bullies made) she says to Patrick Edward, “No matter where you go, or what you do…I will be there. Because I am your mother, even if I am a monster—and I love you.”

What we love in this book is the shimmering question: Is she really a monster? She gardens, she tosses lightly, she likes sweets. But she is fierce and she can cast spells. There is humor in this question and humor in the language—“Villains, farewell!” Patrick Edward says to the bullies. And, “Strength is for the wise, not the reckless.—More cake please.”

Hazel coverIn Hazel’s Amazing Mother by Rosemary Wells (Dial, 1985) Hazel goes off on her own to “buy something nice” for a picnic. She gets lost. And that’s when the bullies show up. They take Hazel’s doll and throw her until the stuffing falls out. Hazel cries, “Oh, Mother…Mother, I need you.” Just then a wind comes up, blows the picnic blanket—along with Hazel’s mother— right over the town into the very tree under which Hazel sat. Hazel’s mother takes charge.

A tomato hit Doris smack between the eyes.

“Don’t make a move without fixing Eleanor!” Hazel’s mother roared.

She also rumbles, laughs thunderously, brings about repairs.

“Oh, mother,” said Hazel, “‘how did you do it?”

“It must have been the power of love,” said Hazel’s mother.

These two stories are funny, not treacly. When Hazel’s mother tells the mean Doris to fix Hazel’s doll, she tosses down a pocket sewing kit—and three more tomatoes. The bullies don’t just work at fixing— “The boys scrubbed feverishly. Doris sewed like a machine.”

Nana coverAnd these stories are reassuring. Kids know they can’t do it all—even though it seems we sometimes expect them to in our books. How many times have we heard that kids should solve their own problems in our stories? Perhaps that’s changing. Nana in the City by Lauren Castillo (Clarion, 2014)—a 2015 Caldecott Honor Book—features a grandmother who knits a cape for her grandson who’s worried about being in the city. The cape does the trick, and the grandson begins to enjoy the city. It’s not bad for kids to see examples of grown-ups who can help. They are the bridge to get kids to their own stronger place.

A few other books featuring mothers:

  • Owl Babies by Martin Waddell
  • Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown
  • Are you My Mother? by P.D. Eastman
  • A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams
  • Feeding the Sheep by Leda Schubert

 

 

 

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