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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Maine

Following The Ducklings

We have just returned from a trip to the Boston/Concord area and Maine. It was a bit of a literary trip. Three days in Concord, Massachusetts set the stage as we toured Louisa May Alcott’s house and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, too. We followed The Amble, which became more of A Ramble, between Emerson’s home and Thoreau’s cottage at Walden Pond. We visited museums and archives, bookshops and the library. It all made this English major very happy—I’ve wanted to visit Concord since my Walden obsession in high school.

We made sure to see The Ducklings in Boston Public Garden, of course. #1 Son had refused to pose with them, as other small children do, when he was four. He loved Make Way for Ducklings, however, and insisted we buy it in Boston since “we only have the library book.” So, of course, we did. (Side Note: If you don’t know the story about Robert McCloskey’s attention to his art with regard to this book, check out Anita Silvey’s telling of it on Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac.) Darling Daughter was game to pose with The Ducklings on this trip, but she didn’t want to get in the way of the little ones who climbed all over them, so we have no pictures of either child with this monument. But the mere thought of those bronze ducks makes me smile.

What I didn’t realize as we stood watching the kids on the ducks, is that we were merely starting our Robert McCloskey tour. Our next stop after Boston was Deer Isle, Maine, an island in Penobscot Bay reached by a stunning suspension bridge from the mainland. Deer Isle was home to Robert McCloskey, who moved to the idyllic island in search of peace after World War II. I had no idea, though I knew he was a Mainer, of course. (So many of my favorite writers are.) Turns out, The McCloskeys raised a family on Deer Isle and we recognized the place from Blueberries for Sal, Time of Wonder, and One Morning in Maine.

We had a lovely stay and enjoyed perusing Maine authors in every library, bookstore, antique store, and even one gas station. The McCloskey sections were especially large. It was in an antique store in Stonington that I had the delightful surprise of coming across the Henry Reed books in the McCloskey section. I reached for Henry Reed’s Babysitting Service as if in a dream—it was like time slowed…the sounds around me became distorted…and the movie of my life rewound itself to Parson’s Elementary school. There was the Henry Reed section, right in the corner where the shelves came together in our school’s library….. Henry Reed, Inc., Henry Reed’s Journey, Henry Reed’s Babysitting Service, Henry Reed’s Big Show, Henry Reed’s Think Tank—we had them all! I read them all—many times!

I’d wager I haven’t thought about Henry Reed in nearly 40 years, however. I know I didn’t read these delightful books by Keith Robertson with our kids—how could I not have read these with them?! Oh, how I loved Henry and his friend Midge! I can’t remember much about the plots of the books—I paged through Henry Reed’s Babysitting Service standing there in the store and remembered it viscerally but with almost no detail. Robert McCloskey illustrated them—and you can recognize his style immediately. I have the Henry Reed books all mixed in with the Ramona Quimby books—same look and feel (different illustrators, as well as authors) and similar stories about wonderfully ordinary kids. These books were my childhood.

Our kids are twenty and almost fifteen now. I wonder if I could convince them the Henry Reed series would make for great porch reading this summer…? We used to drink lemonade and eat popcorn while we read books on the porch in the hot afternoons of summer waiting for Dad to come home from work. I miss this. Maybe they do, too? I feel like I’ve left a terrible hole in their reading lives by inadvertantly skipping Henry Reed! I shall procure the books and then suggest it. Maybe someone will join me out on the swing…..

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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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“Borrowed Magic”

Thirteen years.  The project I began in 2003 has had that many birthdays.  It occupies two large crates in my office.  It has dominated my life, involving travel, research, reading.  It has spawned four versions, each dragging multiple drafts.  Rejections span ten years.

Nobody, it seems, wants this book.  “Kids won’t be interested.”  The subject, Margaret Wise Brown, would find this funny.  I am not amused, especially since it was Margaret herself who demanded (she’s not the asking type) that I tell her story.

Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the MoonThe journey began in 1992 when I read Leonard Marcus’ biography, Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon.  I re-read that book every night for eight years.  Clearly something was awakening in me: a fascination with Margaret’s story and the desire to write for the very young.  In 2003, I gave in to Margaret’s insistence and started researching.

Tangled up in Margaret’s story is my own, both writers for children, though our backgrounds are vastly different.  No matter what genre I work in—picture books, middle grade, nonfiction—I always draw upon my own life.  But because my youngest years were traumatic, I never could reach my three-year-old self.  Writing for the very young eluded me.  Margaret made it look so easy.  She wrote Goodnight Moon in bed one morning and literally phoned it in to her editor.

little island 1 webEarlier this year, I was asked to speak and give a workshop on Vinalhaven Island, Maine, where Margaret had owned a summer house, in August.  I accepted, but decided my Margaret book would stay in the crates.  I would not resurrect a failed project.

Days before my flight, Margaret beckoned once more.  A whole week on Vinalhaven!  A rare chance to see Only House!  How could I pass up that opportunity?  I dug out the crates and pored over my notes and drafts, letting Margaret fill my soul again.

On the ferry to the Island, I prayed for a new way into my story.  Would I be able to borrow some of Margaret’s magic from her special place?

I visited Only House.  I sat on Margaret’s dock.  I gazed at the little pine-topped island she made famous in The Little Island and waited for lightning to strike.

mwb house 1 webAt Only House, Margaret lived a “cat life,” just being.  I only had a week, not enough time to “be.”  But I fell in love with Vinalhaven, just as she had.  Waking to the country’s first sunrises.  Ospreys gliding over the rental house I stayed in.  Butterflies working tansy and thistle.  Lobster boats dotting the bay.  Once, the call of a late-night loon.

During Margaret’s first summer there, she wrote to a friend, “Life goes on in Transition.  This summer it is better than it has been in a long time, and still [things hang] in the balance.”

One night, I watched a full moon climb over the cove.  I turned off the bedroom lamp and noticed glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling.  My effort to tell Margaret’s story one more time was faltering.  She had been inspired by the real moon.  I only had pasted-on stars that shined from borrowed light as my guide.

mwb gravestoneThe next day, I stood at Margaret’s grave site up the hill from Only House.  She had died suddenly at the age of 42 and her fiancé had scattered her ashes at the place she loved best. The granite marker is inscribed with a quote from The Little Island.

Life is always in transition. Any moment balance can be tipped. Margaret may have found magic here, but she still did the work in the short time allotted to her.

And so will I.


 
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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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