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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Jacqueline Briggs Martin

Pie Season

Jackie: This is gratitude season and that is a good reminder. Many of us have plenty to be grateful for and we often forget that while waiting for the next good things. It’s also Pie Season. It is the one time of the year at my house when we have no holds barred on pie. Everyone gets to have a favorite at Thanksgiving. Pie for dinner, pie for breakfast (the best!). So Phyllis and I decided to find some pie books.

How to Make a Pie and See the WorldOne book that I wish I had written is Marjorie Priceman’s How To Make Apple Pie and See the World (Penguin, Random House, 1994; paperback, 2008). This is a delightful story of gathering the ingredients for apple pie and then making the pie and sharing with friends. This book can be used to teach math (fractions in the recipe), geography (of course), and pie-making. And, more importantly, it’s fun. The language is lively and original. After preparing for the trip by finding a “shopping list and walking shoes,” get on a boat. Go to Italy for semolina wheat, then to France. In France, “locate a chicken. French chickens lay elegant eggs.” “Make the acquaintance of a cow” in England. The cow and the chicken accompany our intrepid pie-maker for the rest of the book as she gets bark for cinnamon from Sri Lanka, sugar cane from Jamaica, salt from the ocean, and “eight rosy apples” from Vermont.

Phyllis: There’s so much to love in this book (which I, too, wish I had written): the sources of our food which we often take for granted, the friends the little girl makes as she travels the world, the resilience of finding what you need (and, in a twist at the end, making do without the ice cream), the treatment of animals who give us milk and eggs, the humor of the art, which shows the pilot dropping the little girl off in Vermont by means of a parachute, the interconnectedness of what we eat. It makes me want to bake a pie her way, and it also makes me grateful for the grocery store and farmer’s market.

Gator PieJackie: Another long-time favorite of mine is Gator Pie by Louise Mathews with illustrations by Jeni Bassett (Dodd, Mead, 1979). Alvin and Alice are gator friends who live in a swamp. One day they find a lovely pie. They decide to share, but before Alice can cut two halves another alligator comes up and demands a share. Now Alice must cut the pie in thirds. And Alvin is not too happy about sharing. It gets worse—Alvin thinks he’ll get a quarter of the pie, then an eighth and finally one one-hundredth. Then he gets a brilliant idea. And he and Alice get to share the pie themselves. The illustrations make this book delightful. The subject matter makes it perfect for talking about how fractions work.

Phyllis: Because we are often looking at older books (I remember reading this one to my now-grown kids when they were little), we sometimes have problems putting our hands on those books. Some reside on our bookshelves, some are available through interlibrary loan, some we find online, and on occasion, if one of us has a copy but the other can’t find it, we read the story to each other on Skype. This time, because Gator Pie hadn’t yet arrived at my local library from another library, I watched a YouTube video of a young boy reading with his father, who helped his son when he wasn’t sure of a word. At one point, the boy grins at his father and says, “Excuse me, I drooled.” I love thinking that a book about a pie was so delicious that it made the boy’s mouth water, but I love more seeing the tender interaction between child and parent and book. This is why we write, for those connections.

Bring Me Some Apples and I'll Make You a PieJackie: Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie by Robbin Gourley (Clarion, 2009) features Edna Lewis, African American chef who wrote several cookbooks “teaching people how to prepare food in the southern regional style.” This book focuses on Edna’s childhood and imagines Edna and her family gathering the foods of the season: wild strawberries and fresh greens in the springtime; honey, cherries, and blackberries in the summer. The round fruits—peaches and tomatoes—fill summer baskets and boxes. Corn for cornbread, watermelons, butter beans (“’We’re rich as kings as long as we have beans,’ says Mama.”) and muscadine grapes finish out the summer. Back to school season means apples for pie and apple crisp. This is a book to remind us to savor the foods of our area. Reading it will make you hungry—and make you want to get out bowl and spoon, flour and fruit, and cook something.

Phyllis: Which you can do with this book, because it ends with an author’s note and some mouth-watering recipes. It’s a book, too, rich in family and language. Mama says, ‘Better hurry! You’ll need to outrun the rabbits to get the berries.” Daddy says to fill as many baskets as they can because the larder’s empty. When Auntie helps Edna and her little sister gather wild greens, she says, “A fresh crisp salad to nourish the heart and soul as well as the body.” Brother helps gather cherries and blackberries. When the family gathers round to find the perfect melon, Granny says, “Melons are just like friends. Gotta try ten before you get a good one.” Sassafras roots tossed up by the plow will flavor root beer. Watermelon rind will become pickles. As Edna surveys the cellar packed with good things, she says, “You can never have too much summer.” When I look at the wealth of squash and onions and garlic and potatoes piled high on my counter from my CSA farm share, I agree with Edna. And you can never have too many books as delicious as this one.

Enemy PieJackie: Finally, we want to look at a charming book that uses pie to solve a problem–Enemy Pie by Derek Munson and illustrated by Tara Calahan King (Chronicle, 2000). When Jeremy Ross moves into the narrator’s neighborhood, things start to go bad. Jeremy laughs at the narrator when Jeremy strikes him out in a baseball game, Jeremy didn’t invite him to a party at his house. Jeremy Ross became the top—and only name—on the new “enemy list.” But Dad has the answer, Enemy Pie. What goes into Enemy Pie? Dad won’t tell. The boy brings his dad weeds, no need. He brings earthworms and rocks, used gum. Not in the recipe. Dad says the other important part of Enemy Pie is that the boy has to spend a day with the enemy. Dad says, “Even worse you have to be nice to him. It’s not easy. But that’s the only way Enemy Pie can work. Are you sure you want to go through with this?”

So the boy spends one day with Jeremy Ross to get him “out of my hair for the rest of my life.” By the end of the day, when it’s time for Enemy Pie, the boy tries to prevent Jeremy from eating it. By then he doesn’t want him to eat the awful pie. But Dad was eating. Then Jeremy took a bite. Would their hair fall out? It turned out that Enemy Pie was delicious!

This is such a sweet book, with a wonderful pie-making Dad, and a boy who learns that enemies don’t always stay enemies.

Happy pie-baking to all. I’m eager for fruit pie. What’s your favorite Phyllis?

Phyllis: Pumpkin is luscious, but one of the best pies I ever tasted was on a road trip in Canada—bumbleberry pie, which I think might be made of all the fruit pie fruits in one.

However you slice it, we love pie and pie books. We hope your houses are rich as kings in books and pies this season.

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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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Chef Roy Choi’s Story

Chef Roy ChoiEvery time I re-read this book, it makes me happier. I’ve grown quite fond of the books being published by Readers to Eaters and I eagerly anticipate each new book.

Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix is another food artisan biography from Jacqueline Briggs Martin, this time co-written with June Jo Lee. Jackie writes the flavorful essence of the artist in an irresistible recipe of words. June Jo is a food ethnographer, “studying how America eats,” and the co-founder of Readers to Eaters. As a kid-at-heart, I want a biography written about her next. Studying food?

But this book is about a boy born in South Korea who travels to America at age two with his family and attends school in California. His mother is a talented cook, specializing in kimchee, a Korean food staple. Her cooking is so good that she and her husband open a restaurant. And Roy is fascinated by what happens there.

He becomes a chef. The authors relate his journey in a way that every kid will understand. Eventually, Chef Roy Choi launches the Kogi BBQ Taco Truck with a mixture of Korean and Mexican food. He prepares ingredients by hand, with love, to share with his community. Healthy fast food is a rare thing in his neighborhood and Kogi is a hit.

One of the main ingredients for this LA-connected book is street art turned into book art by Man One. Don’t miss the authors’ and illustrator’s notes in this book. They will have your students wanting to know more about these talented book creators. The art in this book (I’m paraphrasing from his Note) started with spray-painting the backgrounds on large canvases, photographing them, and then working with them digitally, adding pencil and Sharpie to create truly unique picture book art. He includes many scenes from his community—you can sense the love imbuing these pages. His palette, the textures … they’re yummy.

This is a book filled with so much respect for readers, eaters, and kids with aspirations … it’s completely satisfying.

Don’t miss this for your inspirational school and classroom library!

Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix
written by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and June Jo Lee
illustrated by Man One
Readers to Eaters, 2017.

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Bookstorm™: Creekfinding

Creekfinding Bookstorm

CreekfindingWe were very excited to read Creekfinding: a True Story because it tells the story of restoring a long-ago creek in an Iowa prairie setting. Just imagine: bringing back the burbling waters, the fish, the insects, the grasses … everything that makes up the health and character of the land. It took bulldozers and determination, partners and imagination, but it was a project that brought ecological success!

Our Bookstorm will take you into further exploration, studying ecosystems, water conservation, community action, fish, and more.

We trust you will find inspiration and resources aplenty within the Bookstorm to accompany your study of Creekfinding: a True Story. We know you’ll share our appreciation for Dr. Michael Osterholm, who conceived of the project, Jacqueline Briggs Martin, the author, Claudia McGehee, the illustrator, and the University of Minnesota Press, which understood how much readers and innovative thinkers need this book.

Downloadable

Bookology interviewed the author, Jacqueline Briggs Martin, and the illustrator, Claudia McGehee, about their work on this book.

You’ll find more information about Jacqueline Briggs Martin on her website. And read about illustrator Claudia McGehee on her website.

BOOKSTORM TOPICS

  • Dr. Michael Osterholm (who conceived of the Creekfinding project)
  • driftless region
  • ecosystems
  • fiction
  • fish
  • prairies
  • preserving and restoring our natural world
  • think globally, act locally
  • urban farming, restoring greenery and growth to the city
  • water

Let us know how you are making use of this Bookstorm™. Share your ideas and any other books you’d add to this Bookstorm™.

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Creekfinding with author Jacqueline Briggs Martin

Jacqueline Briggs Martin

Jacqueline Briggs Martin

A stewardship for our one and only Earth are an abiding concern for many of our planet’s inhabitants. When an author finds an opportunity to share with the world of readers her own passion for conserving our ecosystems, the book Creekfinding: A True Story is created. We hope you’ll find inspiration for your own exploration and conservation in this interview with Jacqueline Briggs Martin. Don’t miss reading the book … it’s a treasure.

Do you remember when you first had the idea to write this story?

I had been wanting to collaborate on a story with Claudia because I love her art so much. So, I was noodling about what we might do. On November 30, 2011, the Cedar Rapids Gazette published a story on Mike Osterholm’s creek restoration project. As soon as I read it I knew that was the story I wanted to tell and I hoped Claudia would want to do the illustrations.

Have you met Dr. Michael Osterholm? How did that meeting add to your story?

Shortly after reading the article I contacted the reporter, Orlan Love. He said I should talk with Mike and gave me his email address. I emailed him. Within a half hour I received an answer, “Call me. Mike.” That was the first of many conversations. About a month after that conversation my husband and I drove to Northfield, Minnesota to St. Olaf College where Mike was giving a talk on creek restoration.

The Creekfinding team

Dr. Michael Osterholm, Jacqueline Briggs Martin,
and Claudia McGehee, the Creekfinding team

Have you visited Brook Creek?

I have now visited Brook Creek. When I was writing the story, I read many articles about Mike’s restoration project and watched several videos. I visited Brook Creek in my imagination.

Your word choices are often evocative in a way another word would not be.

“Years later, a man named Mike
bought that field and the hillside.
Mike wanted to grow a prairie in
the old cornfield,
to partner with the sun and soil,
grow tall grasses and flowers.

The word “partner” evokes a sense of working with the land, as though the land were a conscious entity. Do words like this come naturally from your mind or do you find yourself hunting for them? 

Author Jacqueline Briggs Martin getting to know Brook Creek

Mike had told me a story about the oak savannah that he also restored: once they cleaned out the weed trees so sunlight could get down to the forest floor, seeds germinated that had been waiting for a hundred years. It just seemed like he was partnering with the earth. And that word came to me as I was thinking about his work on the prairie.

There are ribbons of text woven into the illustrations, often highlighting a factual statement. Were these statements an original part of your manuscript?

The statements were originally just sidebars. It was Claudia’s decision to include them on a blade of grass or a ripple in the trout stream and I love the way the information looks and works. It’s there if readers want to find it, but it’s unobtrusive if they just want to read the text.

illustration from Creekfinding: A True Story
by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by and copyright Claudia McGehee

Did you discuss the illustrations for the book with Claudia McGehee, the illustrator?

Claudia lives only 19 miles from me so we talked together with an Iowa geologist about the Driftless. Claudia showed me her early sketches (and I loved them). And I went to her house to see her later sketches arranged on her dining room table. Once I saw them I realized I needed to do some editing—so that was a great part about working so closely. We even removed a sidebar or two that were just getting in the way of the story.

CreekfindingThere are a number of joyful words in this book, “laughter” and “chuckle.” Why did you choose these words?

The sound of water has always been joyous to me. When I was growing up there was a seasonal “stream,” maybe a ditch, across the street from our house. I loved waiting next to that stream for the schoolbus. Also, this is a joyful story of restoration. There is also a hint of anthropomorphizing in the notion of “partnering” with the earth. I guess in my head it seemed as if the natural world can be a partner maybe it can also have or express joy.

In recent years, you’ve been working on books about people who are changing our world. Will Allen, Alice Waters, Dr. Michael Osterholm, and your newest book about Chef Roy Choi. Are these stories you feel compelled to tell? 

I do. I love these stories of people who act out of passion (and that goes back to Wilson Bentley), do what they must do to make our world whole—restore creeks, grow good food in school yards or urban lots, serve good food in food deserts. I think I do this for myself, to remind myself that, though we have many problems in our world, many things to be worried about, there are people who are working out of love and conviction to make a better world for all.

As a writer, how do you see your role in creating a better world?

I want to write books that children will carry with them for the rest of their lives. I will never know if I succeed. But if one of my stories remained with children as part of “the furniture of their minds” I would feel good. I hope children will mix that memory with whatever else they have stored up and do something for this world that I cannot even imagine.

Don’t miss the companion interview with illustrator Claudia McGehee or the Bookstorm for Creekfinding: A True Story offering companion books and websites for further exploration or incorporation into lesson plans.

The restored Brook Creek

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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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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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Slideshow: Block Print Illustration

Eric Rohmann’s wonderful illustrations for Bulldozer’s Big Day were made using block prints, also called relief prints.  This technique has long been used to illustrate children’s books, especially early ABC books such as the The Ladder to Learning by Miss Lovechild, published in 1852 by the New York firm R.H. Pease.

Ladder

The Bookologist has put together a slide show of some of our more recent print-illustrated books. Many of these are Caldecott medal or honor books. You can find an interesting discussion of Caldecott books illustrated with printmaking techniques here.

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From the Editor

by Marsha Qualey

written by Candace Fleming  illustrated by Eric Rohmann  Atheneum, 2015

Atheneum, 2015

Welcome! It’s the first Tuesday of the month and time to launch a new month of Bookology. Our October Bookstorm™ has as its centerpiece the wonderful picture book Bulldozer’s Big Day, the first time we’ve focused on a picture book for young readers.

Bulldozer’s Big Day was written by Sibert honor author Candace Fleming and illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Eric Rohmann. We will feature interviews with both, beginning today with our conversation with Eric Rohmann.

Rohmann’s block print art for Bulldozer triggered a discussion between various bookologists about other print-illustrated children’s books, and put together a slide show of some of the stand-outs of the last couple of decades. Have your own favorite? Let us know.

Our regular columnists will be writing through the month about their latest book or writing discoveries; today: Reading Ahead author Vicki Palmquist on Isabelle Day Refuses to Die of a Broken Heart, a new middle grade novel by Jane St. Anthony and many other books that deal with “Laughter and Grief.”

Don’t forget to check out our two latest Authors Emeritus posts about Virginia Lee Burton and Lynd Ward, who both used block print techniques in their illustration work.  

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Eric Shabazz Larkin, illus.
Readers to Eaters, 2013

October is a month of change in the northern hemisphere, so why not change a world record? Two organizations are looking to claim the world record of most children-read-to-in-a-day.

On October 19, 2015, Points of Light, a Houston-based nonprofit, will attempt to establish a new world record by rallying volunteers to read to over 300,000 children in 24 hours. The campaign book for this attempt is Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table, written by Bookology columnist Jackie Briggs Martin!

The current world record is held by the nonprofit Jumpstart, which in association with Candlewick Press, has for ten years run a global campaign, Read for the Record® that generates public support for high-quality early learning by mobilizing millions of children and adults to take part

Noah Z. Jones, illus. Candlewick, 2005

Noah Z. Jones, illus.

Candlewick, 2005

in the world’s largest shared reading experience. This year’s attempt is scheduled for October 22; the campaign book is Not Norman: A Goldfish Story, by Kelly Bennett.

And, finally, it is a truth universally acknowledged that any October issue of a magazine must include something related to Halloween.  We’ve got that covered with this month’s Two for the Show column: “What Scares You?,” in which Phyllis Root and Jackie Briggs Martin discuss the role of fear in books for young readers and spotlight a few books that deliver on a scary promise. Look for their conversation October 14.

As always, thank you for taking the time to visit Bookology.

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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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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.

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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.

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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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Gifted: Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table

Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table written by Jacqueline Briggs Martin illustrated by Eric-Shabazz Larkin afterword by Will Allen Readers to Eaters, 2013 Introduction My second passion in life after books and reading is sustainable agriculture and organic farming. There are a few good books for children on this topic, but I’m always delighted […]

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