As we bring this year-like-no-other to a close, Raising Star Readers contributor Constance Van Hoven shares a reflection on the power that books hold to connect us in so many ways: across time, across space, and across generations. Here is Connie’s moving reminder that “’tis the season for Reading Team angels”:
Here’s my reading team ready to head outdoors. One of Priya and Nikhil’s recent favorite books is the much loved Froggy Gets Dressed, written by Jonathan London (illustrated by Frank Remkiewicz). It’s the first of London’s popular series of books featuring Froggy the frog.
On a snowy winter day, despite his mother telling him not to, Froggy rushes outside to play. He repeatedly flop, flop, flops from house to yard, forgetting key pieces of clothing, including the always funny — underwear. The humor, repetition, and silly sounds make this story a hit with kids who are well acquainted with the layers of clothes required for winter dress.
When I asked Priya if she ever forgets to put anything on before she goes outside, she quickly replied, “I never forget.” Ahh, spoken like a true big sister….
If my mom (Priya’s great-grandmother) were here, she would tell Priya a story about a clothing mishap her son had. One winter morning he forgot to put his school clothes on; he wore his pajamas to school! And she didn’t even notice when he left the house to walk to school that he was wearing pajamas underneath his jacket. When the other children laughed at him, the teacher called my mom and asked her to bring appropriate clothes to school immediately.
Whenever I share books with Priya and Nikhil, I feel that there are angels looking over my shoulder, enjoying the stories as much as we do. My love of books, particularly children’s books, comes from my parents. And this time of year, I can’t help but think about the last books we read together.
Quite a few years ago when I was applying for an MFA program in writing for children, I told my folks about my plan. They were living in a senior residence at the time. It was December, the last one before Dad passed away. My husband and I would sometimes bring Sunday dinner to them. Often it was homemade carrot soup and butterscotch pudding — things my dad particularly liked and could easily eat with Parkinson’s disease.
Though he was an avid reader and an excellent writer, my dad didn’t understand my desire to pursue a master’s degree in writing for children. He doubted the value of it. The last children’s book he had spent time with was Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever. He routinely hid the 70-page book under the couch because it took so long to read it to my youngest brother.
On that winter evening while they savored their soup, I told my parents, “I want to write books like this.” And I read out loud Jacqueline Briggs Martin’s picture book biography, Snowflake Bentley (illustrated by Mary Azarian). The award-winning book is the story of how one man “developed the technique of micro-photography to reveal the grandeur and mystery of the snowflake.” When I finished reading, my dad smiled as best he could and said, “Now, I get it.”
Dad was born less than 40 years after Wilson Bentley. He was a code-cracker during the Second World War and a computer engineer after that, but he grew up on a farm, attended a one-room schoolhouse, and faced many skeptics during his career in the computer industry. He whole-heartedly related to Bentley’s lifelong passion and the precision of his work.
This exquisite picture book also appealed to my mom’s love of nature. She appreciated wonderful details like Bentley’s method for photographing spider webs. He had nieces and nephews rub coat hangers with sticky pine pitch so he could use them to gently lift webs without disturbing any dew drops. Engaging and inspirational, Snowflake Bentley is the kind of children’s literature I aspire to write.
Several years later, just before Christmas, my first book came out. Mom was struggling with the loss of my dad and also with dementia. She was not well enough to attend the launch party for The Twelve Days of Christmas in Minnesota, (illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka). I had created a slideshow for the party, so I brought the slides to her the next day, along with a piece of cake. She listened to the presentation with tears brimming in her eyes. Then she held the book close and said with halting words, “I wrote this.”
I knew she was confusing the fact that she had written stories for children during her lifetime and had always wanted to get them published. Besides being one of the first kindergarten teachers in the state of West Virginia, she raised eight children of her own. She adored children’s books and had snippets of handwritten stories saved in a big brown envelope. I smiled at her and replied, “Yes, Mom, you wrote this book.” And that was the truth of it, because without her enthusiasm for children’s literature I might never have pursued writing. Plus, her enthusiasm for her adopted state of Minnesota inspired many of my choices for items included in the book.
On the last Christmas of Mom’s life, I was dreading a dinner that I knew would be solemn. She had grown very quiet. I decided we should read a picture book at dinner to lift our spirits.
I chose to read Great Wolf and the Good Woodsman by Helen Hoover (illustrated by Betsy Bowen). It’s the story of forest animals and birds coming together on Christmas Eve to help an injured woodsman. The message in the story is that everyone, even enemies, can join together and do the right thing.
Mom put down her fork that evening to enjoy the book. Being a birder, she recognized the chickadee in the story at once — pointing at it and nodding. She ran her fingers over each of the gorgeous woodcuts as if there were real feathers, fur, and seeds. And she giggled at the bird and animal sounds that I made — especially the howling wolf. On that night, the gift of a picture book connected us once more.
It is said that traditions are the magic of holidays. So, as the years have passed, we often read Great Wolf and the Good Woodsman with our grandchildren who come to Christmas dinner. What I should say is: we read the book and perform a puppet show with it. Besides an assortment of puppet creatures, some found in the story and some added for additional parts, my husband, Greg, dons a wolf hat and growls and howls.
This year I have a different book to read and use for a Christmas puppet show via Zoom. Priya and Nikhil have five older cousins. I’ve asked one of them, Tate, to read Jan Brett’s new picture book, Cozy, while my husband and I operate the puppets.
The main character in the story is Cozy, a musk ox. Various Arctic animals seek shelter from harsh weather under Cozy’s thick winter coat. Because we don’t have a giant musk ox puppet, I stretched my artistic skills to the max and made a cardboard prop. Greg will be Cozy’s voice, proclaiming the “house rules” with loads of improvisation.
Cozy is truly a fitting story for 2020. There’s so much to talk about in this book! The collection of “less familiar to us” Arctic animals seems especially relevant given the ongoing environmental concerns of climate change and oil drilling in Alaska. Besides Cozy the musk ox, there are lemmings, a snowshoe hare, a snowy owl, a wolverine and more. These are animals we need to know more about and care about.
Like Great Wolf and the Good Woodsman, Cozy is also a story about getting along. Kids see a community of “sometimes enemies” adhering to rules in order for all to survive. Yes, cooperating gets old and yes, the guests get cranky, but living in harmony is possible.
When spring finally comes it’s time for Cozy to kick up his heels and celebrate. Kind of like what we all hope and pray will happen for us this coming year. Meanwhile, we’ll live by the rules and we’ll share stories however we can, certain that our Reading Team angels are right there with us, listening and enjoying!
Bookology is always looking for new Reading Teams to help us celebrate the joys of reading aloud together. Contact Lisa Bullard for further information if you’re interested in participating.