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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Red Reading Boots

Mouse Books

We have mice. Hopefully just one, but it’s a brash one, scuttling around the kitchen during breakfast this morning.

This happens in the fall at our house. We’ve certainly tried to find where they might be getting in, but they say a mouse only needs a dime-sized hole, and we obviously haven’t found it. Caught two a couple of weeks ago.

They’re small. Cute, even. Which is good, because otherwise I’d have the heebie-jeebies. And I (mostly) don’t. It’s just a To-Do on the list—and I’m not the one who To-Do’s it even.

But it has me thinking…. We might not want them in our houses, but mice are beloved characters in kids’ books. Certainly at our house they have been. Ralph S. MouseThe Mouse and the Motorcycle…all of Kevin Henke’s wonderful mice picture books…The Brambly Hedge CollectionMrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMHA Mouse Called WolfStuart LittleThe Tale of Despereaux…Brian Jacques’ Redwall Series…Avi’s Poppy and Ragweed books…Bless This Mouse…. And these are just some of the books in which mice play the starring role. Plenty more have mousy “minor characters.” (Think Templeton in Charlotte’s Web, or Mouse in the Bear books by Bonnie Becker.)

I’ve written many Red Reading Boots columns about our favorite mice books. (I just looked back—many!) I look at the shelves in my office, which have been stocked with all of the family favorites I’m allowed to take from the #1 Son’s and Darling Daughter’s shelves, and goodness! It would appear we’ve raised them on mice! #1 Son had imaginary mice friends who accompanied through the trials and tribulations of early childhood—and no wonder! Did we read anything else?!

What is it about mice that are so appealing for storytelling? Is it that they’re the presumed underdog because of their size? Yet in story after story, they prove themselves to be intelligent, resourceful, and courageous—their size even advantageous. Certainly this is a theme worthy of putting before children.

Is it because they are so wee and dear (fictionally!) and lend themselves to illustrations? Some of my most favorite illustrations have mice in them (see the above list for starters!) Their little clothes! 

Or is it because we like to imagine parallel universes in which the smallest animals create homes and villages and worlds from our bits and bobs? Hidden away in the hedgerows, the rafters, beneath the floorboards…all these stories running along beside use.

It might be this last thing for me. When I’m on walks I often see tiny hollows, small pockets, and inviting dime sized (and larger) holes in the walls and hedges and trees. When I see these, I’m immediately furnishing a home for tiny ones inside—scraps artfully repurposed, cozy built-ins, winding passages….

I’m fully aware that other rodents could star in such scenes, but it’s always a bitty mouse with large ears and eyes and flickering whiskers that comes to mind. Perhaps it’s because of what I’ve read over the years? Certainly could be. There’s something about mice that fire our imaginations, I think.

I’m on the hunt for new mouse books. What do you have to recommend?

 

 

 

 

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Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

I have had the pleasure of entertaining a few young writers in my office in the last couple of months. They come with a Mom, usually. (My office doesn’t really hold more than three people at a time.) These Moms are so thankful that I would do this “generous thing” of having them over that I feel almost guilty. Because I do it for me. These writers, most of whom have not hit the double digits in age yet, are such an inspiration for me.

We often share our WIPs (works-in-progress). Theirs is beautiful, because they are almost always illustrators as well as writers. Some write picture books only, but some cross over into illustrated chapter books, filling notebook upon notebook. I usually show them some mess I’m working on, and although they’re polite, I can tell they’re startled (or amused) that I don’t have my act more together.

We discuss process. I ask them if they write most every day and they say things like, “Of course.” And “I use my free time in class efficiently.” These kids leave and I have the urge to clean my office, start a new notebook and calendar, and get my act together. They are good for my soul.

They usually try my Wesk (Walking Desk) and they spend a lot of time looking at my bookshelves. This is how I know they’re serious writers—they’re serious readers. I tell them this. And they nod smartly or look at me with the “Duh!” look on their face. Mostly we talk about newer books—those published within their lifetime—that we love. But I had one young writer recently who kept remarking on the books of my childhood.

Ramona the Brave! I love Ramona…. The Borrowers! Remember when we read that when we were visiting your friend, Mom? Wind in the Willows! I like Mr. Toad….”

And then she spied Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. She pulled it off the shelf and scrutinized the cover. “Is this the same Mrs. Frisby we have?” she asked her mother, doubt and suspicion in her young voice. Her mother answered that it was, this one just had a different cover. “Was this yours when you were a girl like me?” she asked, her eyes darting my way but then immediately back to Mrs. Frisby in her modest red cloak on the cover.

“No,” I said. “This was my son’s copy.” The cover says: Celebrating the 35th anniversary of NIMH. It’s not nearly as well done as the art on the original, which I had—the book is nearly as old as me.

“This does not look like Mrs. Frisby,” she said, her nose scrunched up in disapproval.

“I don’t think so either,” I said. For the life of me, I do not know why they redid the cover. Zena Bernstein’s gorgeous (pen and ink?) drawings are still inside the book. Why did they change the cover to something that looks so…blah for the 35th anniversary?

“She looks…pretend.

Right. I remember so clearly being this young writer’s age, and my second grade teacher, Mrs. Perkins, reading us the story after recess each day. This was my favorite part of the day. I just fell into the world of Mrs. Frisby and her wee family in such danger in their cozy cinderblock home. There was nothing pretend about it. Young Timothy had pneumonia—I’d had pneumonia and I knew exactly what that felt like. I wheezed along with Timothy in solidarity. I remember visiting the Rats of NIMH with Mrs. Frisby, and my heart pounding with hers as she delivered the sleeping powder into the cat’s dish.

“I mean, I know it is pretend,” said my young visiting writer. “Technically. But it doesn’t feel pretend when you’re reading it.” She pushed the book back into my overcrammed bookshelf. “That’s the kind of book I want to write.”

Me, too, sweetheart. Me, too.

 

 

 

 

 

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E.B. White

A couple of weeks ago I was in the basement of the Science and Engineering Library at the University of Minnesota getting a little writing in before work. It’s a good spot—there’s a nice coffee shop, nothing in the stacks is intelligible to me on that floor so I’m not distracted, and it’s quiet and out of the hordes of university traffic. Only those looking for serious quiet go all the way down in the basement.

When I was done with my jolt of creativity caffeine, I packed up to head out. As I walked through the library’s security gate, I set off the alarm. I turned around and looked at the sleepy scruffly young man at the check-out desk. He looked as surprised as I did.

“I didn’t even go into the stacks this morning….” I said.

“Huh,” he said.

“Can I just go through then?” I asked.

“Well…I’m supposed to look in your bag.” He grimaced.

“Okay,” I said, heaving my giant bag up on the counter in front of him. He peeked in. Didn’t even touch it. Clearly, this was not something he did often.

“Would you like me to pull stuff out?” I asked.

“Yeah, sure.” So I pulled out the detritus that is my commuting bag—a couple of folders and notebooks, my knitting, sunglasses, The Horn Book magazine and two small books, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a bag of markers and colored pencils, the pouch of meds/lipstick/emergency supplies, some hand lotion, my wallet and phone, a pair of socks, the granola bar I couldn’t find the day before, my water bottle, lots of Kleenex and ticket stubs, and the program from my daughter’s band concert the night before. I threw out a couple of receipts while I was at it, and tidied the collection of post-it notes and recipe cards etc. while he stared at the pile. He looked to be completely overwhelmed.

“I can live on the streets for three weeks out of this bag,” I said.

“Wow,” he said.

“I’m kidding,” I said.

He looked at me nervously and then ran his hand half-heartedly over the paper items and picked up one of the books. The Wild Flag by E.B. White. (I wrote about it in Red Reading Boots a few weeks ago.) It’s the perfect size to slip into a purse and I’ve been carrying it around since I purchased it this summer. It’s also a pleasure to hold—worn, but solid linen-esque cover, comfortable size and shape etc.

“What’s this?” he asked, turning it over in his hands. He even sounded suspicious.

“It’s called The Wild Flag,” I said. “I purchased it in an antique store in Stonington, Maine this summer. The receipt is serving as a bookmark, I believe.” He pulled out the receipt, glanced at it, and then stuck it in somewhere else. Not that it matters. You can open this book up to most any page and start reading. It’s a collection of editorials.

“Who’s it by?” he asked.

“E.B. White.”

“Is that the dude that wrote Charlotte’s Web?” he asked, looking suddenly awake.

“The very dude,” I said.

“My Mom read that to me a bunch of times when I was little.” He smiled. “I loved the rat.”

“Templeton,” I said.

“Yeah, Templeton!” He handed me the book back.

“So, may I repack my bag?”

“Sure!” he said. “You have a lot of stuff. But I know you didn’t find that book down here.”

Indeed.

Wherever this man-child’s mother is—she should be proud. He woke up early one morning and remembered Templeton all these years later. That’s the power of reading to a child.

 

 

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Pinkerton & Friends

I had a “Why in the world….?” moment the other day. It was unexpected and a little strange and it was this: When I imagine picture books that I am writing and/or thinking about writing, I imagine very specific illustrations. From a very specific illustrator. Even though I admire the work of many illustrators. (I admire this one, too, of course.) But always, always, in my first imagining, I “picture” the illustrations by Steven Kellogg.

I love Mr. Kellogg’s work. But I love the work of a lot of illustrators and would aspire and hope for many (very different) illustrators to make art to help tell my stories. I can switch my imagination to other illustrators if I think about it, but without thinking about it…it’s Steven Kellogg’s art. When this realization came to me I pulled some of his books off the shelves in my office with the question: Why is Kellogg my default, the first one whose work I imagine?

All I can think is that the years 1999-2002 were what I think of as The Pinkerton Years. You might think it strange that I can pinpoint the years, but I know we were less involved with Pinkerton (and by that I mean not reading Pinkerton stories on a daily basis) by the time Darling Daughter came along late in 2002. Prior to that, we could hardly leave the house without a Pinkerton story with us.

These were also the first of the allergy/asthma years—#1 Son was critically ill too much of the time, and with his doctors we were struggling to figure out what was causing such severe reactions. The only clear allergens were pets, and he came to understand first that he could not be around puppies or kitties, or anything else furry and cuddly and fun. A terrible sentence, of course, when you are three and wheezy.

So we read a lot of books about pets, and before we read Ribsy and Because of Winn-Dixie we read Pinkerton stories. A lot of Pinkerton stories. #1 Son adored Pinkerton. Pinkerton, a Great Dane, is possibly the most hilarious dog to ever be featured in a book—he is huge and ungainly and always getting himself in a fix. His expressions, his “knees and elbows,” his giant floppiness, and his curiosity and giant heart make him quite a character.

Very quickly we learned to spot Kellogg illustrations from across the library/bookstore, and pretty much wherever there are Kellogg pictures, there are animals. Not just great danes, but boa constrictors, mice, cats, pigs, ducks in a row, horses, spaniels….. And wherever there are animals, there’s a fair amount of chaos—at least in a Kellogg book. (Articles and interviews suggest he has lived the fun and chaos in a home we could not have entered and lived to breathe—lots of pets!)

The detail in Kellogg’s illustrations is tremendous, the hilarity aptly conveyed, and the sweetness and rollercoaster high emotions of kids and Great Danes alike comes alive on the page. I could read stacks of the books in one sitting to my wheezing boy. We used them to get through nebulizer treatments, and to “push fluids,” and to encourage rest for a kid all amped up on steroids. They were magical and we poured over the illustrations long after the reading of the story was done. The medicine could go down without much fuss as long as Pinkerton was along.

Those were exhausting, worried years, and all I can think is that I somehow absorbed Steven Kellogg’s art in my sleep-deprived anxious state…and it’s now in my bones. Thank you, Mr. Kellogg, for your stories, your art, and your presence in our family’s life. You are the default in my imagination and I’m grateful.

 

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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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The Reading Summer

A stressed mother of a first grader sought my counsel this week. The issue was reading. Her son wasn’t. And at the close of first grade he was expected to. There was talk of testing, remedial help over the summer, reading logs, etc. She and her spouse were dreading it, worried, and a little irked—not at the not-yet-reader, but at the expectations and the pressure. I listened for a long time and when she finally took a breath, I asked what she was most worried about—for instance, was she worried there was a learning issue that needed to be addressed? “No!” she said. “I’m worried he’s going to hate reading if we spend the summer doing these things!”

And that response completed the time-warp I was experiencing while listening to her story—twelve years I vaulted back in the space-time continuum. Twelve years ago this week we received the phone call that was the culmination of an entire school year of frustration and concern. #1 Son was not reading—he’d staunchly refused to even try to read the testing selections his second-grade teacher asked him to in the last weeks of school. He just sat there—a conscientious objector of sorts.

Our kids went to a wonderful Spanish-immersion school and there was a little extra time built in before they started suggesting interventions simply because the students learn to read first in a language that is not their first language. But it was clear that he was “behind” by the time second grade was drawing to a close—The Other Children were reading well in Spanish, and some of them quite well in English, too. The school recommended summer school, a reading program, and a Spanish tutor for the summer.

I calmly asked if anyone was concerned that there was a learning difference/disability that needed to be addressed. They didn’t think so. I called a reading specialist and wise mother and told her of the school’s recommendations. And then I told her that our collective parenting gut was telling us to decline any programming whatsoever in favor of simply reading good books together all summer.

She was silent on the phone for several seconds. And then she whispered (whispered!) that she thought this was a wonderful idea. I’d been a storytime reader in her classroom before and she said she wondered if #1 Son wasn’t reading simply because he couldn’t read like I read quite yet—with all the inflection, voices, and fun. She said it was obvious to her that stories were very much alive for him, and when you’re being asked to read those very early books in which each word is not longer than four letters and most of them rhyme [Mat sat on the cat.]…well, it’s harder to make them come alive.

“Take the summer and read!” she whispered, as if she was telling me a secret that reading specialists don’t impart to the masses. “Read the very best books you can find and read your very best. See where he is in the fall.”

And so we did—we read all summer long. We read The Sword in the Stone and The Mouse and The Motorcycle. We read Peter and the Star Catchers and Stuart Little. We listened to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the car on vacation and read Swallows and Amazons in the tent while camping. We went to the library every Friday and then on a picnic where we read stacks of picture books (his sister was two!) while we ate our PB&J. We visited our local kids’ bookstore with regularity and took our new books down to the lake and I read while they fed the ducks. I did not ask him to read “the next paragraph” or to sound out a word here and there. I just read—until I was hoarse, sometimes, I read.

At the end of the summer, we went to meet #1 Son’s third grade teacher. She was a no-nonsense grandmother and she got his number immediately. I loved her just as immediately. She took away the Clifford El Gran Perro Colorado picture books and handed him Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal. And he opened that thick novel and started reading—just like that. 

It was a wonderful summer. She was a wonderful teacher. #1 Son is A Wonderful Reader (in two languages!), and he always was. He just didn’t “perform” until he was good and ready. (He still resists performing.)

I told the worried mother our story. She nodded smartly. “That’s what we’re going to do,” she said. “If there’s actually a reading problem that needs to be addressed, we’ll address it, but I just don’t think we know that when he’s just six.” I wished them well and shared a booklist. 

I envy the summer ahead of them. The Reading Summer was one of the best parenting decisions we ever made, I think. I hope it turns out as well for them.

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The Bluest Eye

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Some Writer!

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

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

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

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

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

“Then why are you reading it?”

“It’s a really good book,” I said.

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

“Yes, I do,” I said. “Lots.”

Why?”

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

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

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

“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry about that.”

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

But the questions continued.

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

“Elwyn,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do hope so.

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This Is Just To Say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pop-up Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hidden Figures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Frog and Toad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The Awards

 

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

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

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

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

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

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The Velveteen Rabbit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Girl Who Drank the Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Santa’s Favorite Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Wish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Her name is Charlie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope,” I said.

She handed the book back to me.

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

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

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

And my heart was blessed.

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

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

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

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The Tapper Twins Run For President

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thomas the Tank Engine: The Complete Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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Bambi

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mouse and Bear Books

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Berenstain Bears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Brambly Hedge

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Enola Holmes Mysteries

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Anne of Green Gables

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “How do you play womble?” said Tom.

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

   “Who’s on my side?” said Tom.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Betsy Books

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

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

How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird

Jacques Prévert, Illustrations and Translation by Mordicai Gerstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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If You Plant a Seed

by Melanie Heuser Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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In God’s Hands

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

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

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

“YAY!” 

I LOVE THAT BOOK!

“Me, too!”

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

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

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

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

“Aahhh…not that one!”

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

“Can you read That Book About Bread?”

“Yeah! Read That Book About Bread!”

In God’s Hands begins like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Read it again!” the kids say.

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

 

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Mother-Daughter Book Club

by Melanie Heuiser Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The Quest for the Perfect Thanksgiving Book

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

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Kuplink, Kaplank, Kuplunk!

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We Need Longer Picture Books, Too!

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Harry Potter

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This Vacation’s Audiobooks

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The Borrowers (audio book)

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Pulling Radishes, Thinking About Books

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

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Fevered Reading

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Touching the Reading Spot

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

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An Ode To Beeswax

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

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The Privilege & Responsibility of Reading in Bed

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

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The Miss Rumphius Challenge

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

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Seussical the Musical!

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

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