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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Archive | Big Green Pocketbook

Some Illustrator!

In my next life, I’m coming back either as a cat living in our house (think Canyon Ranch for cats), or Melissa Sweet. I’ve followed her career since she illustrated James Howe’s Pinky and Rex (1990). I love this book for its atypical characters (Pinky is a boy who loves pink and stuffed animals, and Rex, his girl friend, is into dinosaurs), but also for Melissa’s fresh-faced characters and bright watercolors.

Then I heard her speak at a conference in 2005 about illustrating The Boy Who Drew Birds by Jacqueline Davis. I was enchanted by the collaged snippets—maps, music notes, handwriting—among her watercolor illustrations. One double-spread showcases a dried frog, a nest with eggshells, a dried lizard, lichen, a tiny skull. An insatiable collector, she used what was in her studio.

I too am a collector. I have at least 20 vintage suitcases filled with old magazines, photos, office supplies, scrapbooks, bought because people dump greeting cards, photograph albums, report cards and I have this pathetic need to rescue unwanted family memorabilia.

Candice Ransom Mixed Media Collage

Candice Ransom’s mixed media collage

I was moving away from scrapbooking to making—well, weird stuff. Seeing Melissa’s work, I realized I was creating mixed-media collages with heritage photographs (I never scrapped regular photos, like trips to Disney World, because I never went anywhere). Melissa uses collage to “say what I need to say.”

Each book got better: A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams (both written by Jen Bryant), Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems (written by Paul B. Janeczko). Then Melissa wrote and illustrated Balloons Over Broadway, about Tony Sarg, puppeteer and creator of the Macy’s parade balloons. She made toys and puppets to understand what it “felt like to be in Sarg’s world.” I pored over the art, realizing how committed Melissa was to the research and her illustrations. She takes no shortcuts.

In The Right Word, she stepped up her game. The assemblages in the final double-spread caused my head to explode. And then . . . Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White, a mash-up of older kids’ nonfiction, picture book, and scrapbook. After I came to from swooning, I carried it around and made people look at it. Much of the art is contained in shadow boxes, like those of Joseph Cornell. If I had to choose a favorite, it would be the scene of Wilbur at the fair.

Being a Melissa Sweet fan, I’ve learned it’s possible to combine research, art, words, and found things into a project. A few years ago, I began making scrapbooks for my novels, a sort of illustrated outline. From magazine clip files, I choose images that represent a character or scene. By not trying to match an image to what’s in my head, I keep the story mine. I add bits of dialog and description. If the story changes, that’s okay. I just keep moving forward in both the scrapbook and the writing.

The book I’m working on now is complex in setting, characters, and plot. I’ve started a new scrapbook, but the vintage and modern magazine images don’t seem to be enough. It needs real art. I’m not an artist, but I decided to include a drawn animal character, sort of the way Melissa Sweet combines watercolor paintings and collage. Draw like she does! But her art is deceptive. I gnawed my fingernails studying the expressive slant of the dog’s ears in Tupelo Rides the Rails. It looks easy—it’s not.

Illustrator Trina Schart Hyman once wrote about trying to copy the style of Tomie dePaola. In ten minutes, she figured, she’d whip up a “Tomie” drawing. “Six hours later sweaty, frustrated, and thoroughly puzzled, I tore up the thirty-eighth ruined piece of paper in despair,” she admitted. His folksy style and childlike color was more sophisticated than she realized. If an accomplished artist like Trina Hyman couldn’t imitate Tomie dePaola, there was no hope for me to draw a Melissa Sweet-type cat. One pen line on my finished scrapbook page, and it would be ruined.

Paging through The Sleepy Little Alphabet by Judy Sierra, I noticed Melissa Sweet’s clouds. They appear to be penciled on graph and loose-leaf paper, cut out, and pasted on watercolor skies. I could draw cats on notebook paper, snip out one that isn’t too awful, and paste it in my scrapbook! Using unimportant paper makes the drawing seem less precious and should lessen my anxiety.

In her author’s note for Balloons Over Broadway, Melissa stresses she tried to convey the sense that her subject was having fun. “[Sarg’s] legacy reminds me that ‘play’ may be the most important element in making art!” A sense of play is a hallmark of Melissa Sweet’s work. A lesson for all of us who make children’s books!


Pumpkins into Coaches

In 1961, when I was nine, I fell under the spell of a crumbling stone tower. It stood on the weed-choked property of the Portner Manor in Manassas, Virginia, catty-corner from my cousin’s house. As a devotee of Trixie Belden books, I craved mysteries the way other kids longed for ponies. Here was a mystery within spitting distance!

My cousin and I talked about the “Civil War look-out” tower until we finally had to climb it. Fighting briars, we thrashed our way to its base. Ivy cloaked the three-story red sandstone structure topped with gap-toothed battlements. Up close we noticed portholes and arrow slits. Some of the spiral steps outside the tower had caved in. We straddled the gaping hole, half-expecting a bony hand to grab our ankles, and crawled to the top.

The two upper floors had collapsed, but the round walls were intact, covered with creamy wallpaper and faded squares where pictures had once hung. We crept back down the steps and peered into the hole, certain a tunnel connected the tower to the estate gatehouse. Then we flailed through the brambles as if chased by Portner’s ghost. Back at my cousin’s, we threw ourselves on the ground, sweaty and victorious.

The “Civil War” tower really dated to 1882 when the mansion was built. But even if we’d known that fact as kids, we wouldn’t have cared. Manassas was steeped in history, but we traipsed through the decades, mixing rockets and cannons with gossip and make-believe in our daily play. We heard our grandfather, who’d been an undertaker long before we were born, say cryptically that during the Depression “people were too poor to die,” and wondered what happened to those people. Everything was a mystery.

An American ChildhoodIn An American Childhood, Annie Dillard wrote, “We children lived and breathed our [city’s] history … We knew bits of this story, and we knew none of it.” My cousins and I knew bits of our town’s story and yet none of it. Geography was a tool to suit our purposes. We raced around the nearby battlefield, dodging monuments, our games shaped more by our imaginations than what had actually happened there.

In the field between the lumber yard and my cousin’s house, we turned over stones, hoping to find arrowheads or cement-colored minieˊ balls. We chased milkweed fairies to make modest wishes and, once, marveled at a clutch of speckled killdeer eggs resting in a pebble nest. Our sneakers pressed into the past, kicked up the red dust of the present, and pointed toward the future. We walked, as Dillard said, “oblivious through littered layers” of history, trespassing, running across other people’s yards. We owned that town.

Now I live in Fredericksburg, Virginia, a town even richer in history. I step across the same cobblestones where Washington and Jefferson once walked. Five major battles ripped through here during the Civil War. I wouldn’t expect kids today to wonder about Jefferson or Chancellorsville as they drive down Route 3. But I don’t see their sneakers touch the ground much, either, except during soccer and softball games.

Where are their mysteries? Do they weave Walmart and Dollar General into their free play? Movies and TV bombard kids with enough toys, costumes, and spin-offs to fuel “imaginative” play into the next millennium. Why would they scrounge for arrowheads when they have the latest Happy Meal toy to keep them entertained for five seconds? Or the thrill of a flashy new app on their screens? What do they own?

“Know you what it is to be a child?” Frances Thompson wrote in 1909. “It is to turn pumpkins into coaches, and mice into horses, lowness into loftiness, and nothing into everything.”

Portner Manor was turned into a nursing home in the late 60s. After standing 86 years, the “look-out” tower was torn down in 1978. The nursing home moved to better facilities, and the mansion fell to neglect. It’s for sale now, possibly headed for the wrecking ball.

When I recall that twilight climb all these years later, I’m not sure if I really saw the creamy wallpaper, or made it up in heightened anticipation, or dreamed it. But I can still see dusty pink cabbage roses in my mind’s eye (though I question wallpapering the inside of a round stone tower).

Mostly I remember the smooth sandstone steps beneath my sneakers, the sun-warmed walls against my palms, the delicious floaty feeling in my stomach, and those lofty summers when we turned nothing into everything.


Unexpected Wonder

Last September, we drove to an empty lake deep in the Appalachians for a short vacation, a much-needed chance to relax.  I longed to escape writing and house chores and cats and reconnect with nature. 

When we arrived, clouds draped over the peaks and our room was gloomy. I missed civilization instantly and forced my husband to drive the seven crooked miles back down the mountain to the nearest hamlet so I could hit the Dollar store (the biggest concern). I raced through the aisles grabbing snacks, notebooks, pens, and word-search puzzle books. We’d come to unwind, but I’d dragged my Restless Self with us. 

I chose this spot not just for its seclusion but also because of the lake’s mystery. Every 50 or 100 years, Mountain Lake performs a disappearing act.  Scientists believe it drains itself and, when conditions are right, fills again by springs beneath the lake bed. Yet after years of tests, they still aren’t sure. Well, I wanted to know for sure. In addition to Restless Self, I also brought along Nosy-Got-To-Learn-More-Right-Now Self (yes, the car was crowded). Why did the lake empty? I grilled the poor guy running the gift shop. When was it coming back?

Like many of us, I look up stuff before I’ve finished thinking of it. Lack of a smartphone doesn’t slow me down—I run upstairs to my computer so fast I could medal in track. But the satisfaction of ferreting a fact in seconds doesn’t last and sometimes flat-out ruins the wonder of not knowing. 

Gone-Away LakeOn the edge of sleep that night, I realized why I’d picked such a remote place: a children’s book, of course. Gone-Away Lake (1957) by Elizabeth Enright was one of my favorite books, along with its sequel Return to Gone-Away (1961). A community of summer houses were built around a lake in the late 1800s. The lake dried up in 1905 and the houses were abandoned. Present-day kids (well, in the ’50s) discover the “ship-wrecked” houses and two elderly people living there. These aren’t slam-bang, cliff-hanger stories, but a rich, luscious summer idyll with just enough mystery and the most gorgeous writing in children’s literature.

Each day, rain or shine, is packed with wonder at Gone-Away Lake. Brimming with curiosity, the kids discover plants, animals, insects that changed the landscape after the lake vanished. They listen to stories about the good old days when the community was in full swing. They pick out a not-too-falling-down house and make it their own.

When I woke up our first morning at Mountain Lake, the sun was bright. I left Restless and Nosy to the word-search puzzles and went exploring. I waded into the 55-acre site, marveling at the variety of plants and tiny critters that had adapted within the last five years.  I paused by dry-docked rocks with strange formations. Overhead, the sky was paint box blue and I felt content. I didn’t need to identify that slug, or those purple flowers, or the snake that whipped nearly across my shoes. It was enough to let unexpected wonder wash over me.

Suddenly I didn’t want to go home. I wanted to explore every inch of that dried-up lake and wander the back roads that crisscrossed the mountain. I wanted to give myself over to wonder.

In Gone-Away Lake, ten-year-old Portia weeds the garden with her Aunt Hilda. 

“If you could just hold onto it,” said Portia, sitting back on the warm grass. “Summer starting to be.  Everything just exactly right.”

“But if it were this way every day, all the time, we’d get too used to it,” said Aunt Hilda. “It’s because it doesn’t and can’t last that a day like this is so wonderful.”

 “Good things must have comparers, I suppose,” said Portia. “Or how would we know how good they are?”

Those few, perfect days at Mountain Lake became my comparer. I didn’t find a vacant colony of Victorian houses, but I gathered odd pebbles from the bottom of the lake bed, possibly created millions of years ago. I took some photos. I did not take notes. 

Back home, I fell into my busy routine. Yet I made sure I checked the morning sky when I fetched the paper, watched starlings at stoplights, lingered at the door to catch a rare southeast breeze. I quit looking up every single question that flashed through my mind. Some things should remain a mystery.

E.B. White quote


Behind the Sign

I came down with the flu. After weeks of dragging myself to the computer, I finally listened to the doctor and let myself be sick. One afternoon I pulled out my old journals. I haven’t kept a journal in the last few years, instead a planner dictates my days. My composition notebooks are a mishmash of thoughts, memories, observations, scribblings on books in progress, and notes from writer’s conferences. I’ve never been a dedicated diary keeper, but carrying around a handmade journal felt less like “being a writer” and more like staying in touch with the world.

Candice Ransom's Journals

Back then, I didn’t frequent Starbucks or museums or university libraries. My observations were made in diners where the first course for the special is cole slaw with Saltines, in general stores that carry weekly newspapers reporting a man was shot and became dead, and along back roads where people live in abandoned gas stations. I captured scenes like this:

In Goodwill today, a mother and daughter came in talking sixty to the minute. Naturally I eavesdropped. Mother: Look, they got Dale Earnhart glasses. Daughter: No, I seen ‘em before. I remembered shopping trips with my mother and sister, how we’d “find” stuff for each other.

The daughter was ahead of me in the check-out line. One of her items, a NASCAR throw, wasn’t priced. Her mother—a large woman in an ill-fitting dress—squeezed past me to stand behind her daughter. “Pardon me, sweetie,” she said. The clerk allowed the NASCAR throw was $14.99. Too much, the daughter said and paid for her other things.

Her mother set down two glasses, the Dale Earnhart ones. She pulled two dollars folded into tiny squares from her wallet. I wondered if she purchased the Earnhart glasses for her daughter, knowing she wanted them but didn’t have enough money. She thanked me again for letting her cut in front. The women talked all the way out the door. I wondered where they were headed next. I longed to go with them.

I know families like that. They’re everywhere, but most of us living our busy, forward-focused lives don’t notice the margin-dwellers. I see them because I once existed on the periphery. Deep inside, I still do. People at the ragged edge will give you their time and anything else, even if they can’t spare it. When they speak, in what Anne Tyler calls “pure metaphor,” I come home.

Reading my journals made me wonder where I’ve been lately and why my recent work feels so … safe. I was once on track to tell the stories of kids who have fallen through the cracks. Not in a poor-me-we-live-in-a-trailer-and-Daddy-chews-Red-Man way, but with dignity and even humor. After several failed attempts, I quit because I knew the stories I wanted to write would hardly be a top pick in an editor’s inbox.

Oct. 3, 2014: Some days—weeks—it feels as if I haven’t written a word. Not my words. I’m reminded how much I want to say, how little time I have to do it.

So I stopped keeping a journal. Stopped driving down back roads to get lost on purpose. Worse, I faced forward and ignored the edges where the lovely, important things are.

No Outlet signI found advice from Jack Gantos’s opening speech at the 2014 SCBWI Mid-winter conference. The slide on the screen showed the cover of his Newbery award-winner, Dead End in Norvelt, with the title written on a road sign and a boy standing behind it.

Feb. 22: “Always go behind the sign,” Gantos said. “It’s where the real stories are.” I already do that.

When I finished reading, I stacked the notebooks, reluctant to put them back on the dusty shelf. If I did, I’d bury a treasure trove of stories, sketches, places, names, scenes, and rare glimpses of my own true self. I moved them to the bedroom to dip into, hoping my dreams will urge me to record once more the soft cadence of forgotten voices.

I’m the only one standing in the way. No one will beg me to tell the stories I’ve already shot and declared dead without writing a syllable, hearing an editor say, No, I have seen this before. It’s up to me to find the edges, to unfold the tiny, tight squares of my confidence. To get lost on purpose and slip behind the sign. To see what I’m really part of.


Poetry from Stones


[photo credit: Candice Ransom]

Outside my window right now: bare trees, gray sky, a brown bird. No, let’s try again. Outside my window, the leafless sweetgum shows a condo of squirrels’ nests, a dark blue rim on the horizon indicates wind moving in, and a white-crowned sparrow scritches under the feeders. Better. Even in winter, especially in winter, we need to wake up our lazy brains, reach for names that might be hibernating. 

Candice Ransom

[photo credit: Candice Ransom]

In November, I taught writing workshops at a school in a largely rural county. I was shocked to discover most students couldn’t name objects in their bedrooms, much less the surrounding countryside. Without specific details, writing is lifeless. More important, if children can’t call up words, can’t distinguish between things, they will remain locked in wintry indifference. Some blame falls on us.

Oxford Junior DictionaryA recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary swapped nature words for modern terms. Out went acorn, wren, dandelion, nectar, and otter. In went blog, bullet-point, attachment, chatroom, and voicemail. Updating dictionaries isn’t new. And maybe cygnet isn’t as relevant as database, but it’s certainly more musical.  If we treat language like paper towels, it’s no wonder many kids can’t name common backyard birds.

When I was nine, my stepfather taught me the names of the trees in our woods, particularly the oaks. I learned to identify red, white, black, pin, post, and chestnut oaks by their bark, leaves, and acorns. Labeling trees, birds, and wildflowers didn’t give me a sense of ownership. Instead, I felt connected to the planet. I longed to know the names of rocks, but they kept quiet.

That same year we fourth graders were issued Thorndyke-Barnhart’s Junior Dictionary. I fell on mine like a duck on a June bug, enchanted by new words. My parlor trick was spelling antidisestablishmentarianism, the longest word in the dictionary. Kids can Google the longest word in the English language, but the experience isn’t the same as browsing through a big book of words. 

Emerson wrote, “… the poet is the Namer, or Language-maker … The poets made all the words, naming things after their appearance, sometimes after their essence, and giving to every one its own name and not another’s.” I believe young children are poets, assigning names and making up words to mark new discoveries. After they become tethered to technology, they parrot words from commercials, programs, and video games. That fresh language is lost.

The Lost Words: a Spell BookSo imagine my delight when I found a new book for children, The Lost Words: A Spell Book. British nature-writer Robert MacFarlane paired with artist Jackie Morris to rescue 20 of the words snipped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Words like newt and kingfisher are showcased as “spells,” rather than straight definitions. MacFarlane’s spells let the essence of the creature sink deep, while Morris’s watercolors create their own magic.

On their joint book tour throughout England, MacFarlane and Morris introduced children to words—and animals. On her blog Morris writes: “I was about to read the wren spell to a class of 32 six-year-olds when the booksellers stopped me. ‘Ask the children if they know what a wren is, first, Jackie.’ I did. Not one child knew that a wren is a bird. So they had never seen a wren, nor heard that sharp bright song. But now they know the name of it, the shape of it, so perhaps if one flits into sight they will see it, hear it, know it.”

The Lost Words makes me want to take children by the hand and tell them the names of the trees and birds and clouds that illustrate our winter landscape. By giving kids specific names, they can then spin a thread from themselves to the planet.


Ammonite [photo credit: Candice Ransom]

“Language is fossil poetry,” Emerson continues in his essay, “as the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.”

Rock rasps, what are you?
I am Raven! Of the blue-black jacket and the boxer’s swagger,
Stronger and older than peak and than boulder, raps Raven in reply.

From The Lost Words

Let’s dig up lost words before they become buried beneath the rubble of STEM-worthy terms. Feel the shape of them, polish their shells, let them shine.


True Story

Recently I attended a writer’s conference mainly to hear one speaker. His award-winning books remind me that the very best writing is found in children’s literature. When he delivered the keynote, I jotted down bits of his sparkling wisdom.

At one point he said that we live in a broken world, but one that’s also filled with beauty. My pen slowed. Something about those words bothered me. The crux of his speech was that as writers for children, we are tasked to be honest and not withhold the truth.

After the applause pattered away, the air in the ballroom seemed charged. Everyone was eager to march, unfurling the banner of truth for young readers! If we had been given paper, we would have started brilliant, authentic novels on the spot.

The keynote’s message carried over into break-out sessions. Panelists admitted to craving the truth when they were kids, things parents wouldn’t tell them. Participants agreed. We should show kids the world as it really is! The implication being that children leading “normal” lives should be aware of harsher realities and develop empathy. Kids living outside the pale would find themselves, maybe learn how to cope with their situations.

I stopped taking notes.

Here’s my truth: I was born into a broken world. By age four, I’d experienced scores of harsher realities. At seven, I learned the hardest truth of all: that parents aren’t required to want or love their children. I spent most of my childhood fielding one real-world challenge after the other. I did not want to read about them, though few books fifty years ago explored issues of alcoholism, homelessness, and domestic violence.

Christmas Day when I was 11 with my sister and my cousins. I was already a writer at this age.

I read to escape, delving into stories where the character’s biggest challenge was finding grandmother’s hidden jewels, as in The Secret of the Stone Griffins. Fluff? So what? In order to set the bar, I had to seek normal and didn’t care if Dick-and-Jane families weren’t real. Even Mo, the alien girl in Henry Winterfield’s Star Girl who’d tumbled from her spaceship, lived a normal life with her family on Asra, climbing trees on that faraway planet like I did on Earth.

In a family of non-readers, I broke free of the norm. Not only did I read constantly, but decided to be a writer at an early age. I’d write the kind of books I loved, books where secrets involved buried treasure, not things I had to keep quiet about; books where kids felt protected enough to embark on adventures.

My mother and stepfather regarded me with odd respect, as if unsure what planet this kid had come from. So long as “story-writing” didn’t interfere with schoolwork (it did), my mother excused me from chores. Only once did she declare reading material inappropriate.

I was nine and fresh out of library books. I found a True Story magazine and was deep into story about an abused boy when my mother caught me. She thought I was learning about sex. I was outraged by the injustice: punished for reading about a kid my age! Now I think about the irony.

Judy ScuppernongThen I grew up and wrote children’s books. Most of my fiction was light and humorous. Yet some brave writers tackled serious subjects. My colleague Brenda Seabrooke wrote a slender, elegant verse novel called Judy Scuppernong. This coming-of-age story touches on family secrets and alcoholism. The format was perfect for navigating difficult subjects.

I sat down and wrote a poem called “Nobody’s Child.” More followed, until I’d told my own story. My agent submitted my book Nobody’s Child. One editor asked me to rewrite it as a YA novel. “You’ve already done the hard part,” he said. He was wrong. Each time I revised (many times over the years), I had to crawl back into that dark place. Some people said that by telling my story, I’d be able to put it behind me. They were wrong. I never will.

The truth is, I wrote Nobody’s Child to find answers. I already knew the what and the how. I wanted to know why. But by then everyone involved was gone, taking their reasons with them. If I were to fictionalize my story to help another child in the same situation, I couldn’t make the ending turn out any better.

In the fantasies and mysteries and books about animals I read as a kid, I figured out I’d probably be okay. When I looked up from whatever library book I was reading, or whatever story I was writing, I noticed the real world around me. Not all of it was broken. There were woods and gardens and cats and birds and, yes, at last, people who cared about me.

Author Peter Altenberg said, “I never expected to hold the great mirror of truth up before the world; I dreamed only of being a little pocket mirror …one that reflects small blemishes, and some great beauties, when held close enough to the heart.”

Valiant children’s writers will flash the great mirror of truth in bolder works than mine. I’m content to shine my little pocket mirror at small truths, no bigger than a starling’s sharp eye, from my heart to my reader’s.


The Sameness of Sheep

Once, when I discussed my work-in-progress, middle-grade novel with my agent, I told her the character was eleven. “Make her twelve,” she said. “But eleven-year-olds aren’t the same as twelve-year-olds,” I protested. “Those are different ages.” “Make her twelve,” she insisted. “The editor will ask you to change it anyway.”

I didn’t finish the book (don’t have that agent anymore, either). The age argument took the wind out of my sails. I understood the reasoning—create older characters to get the most bang for the middle-grade buck by snaring younger readers. Better yet, stick the character in middle school.

The true middle-grade novel is for readers eight to twelve with some overlap. Chapter books for seven- to ten-year-olds bisect the lower end of middle grade. “Tween” books, aimed at twelve- to fourteen-year-olds, straddle the gap between MG and YA. If my characters are twelve, I hit the middle grade and tween target and everybody wins. Maybe not.

At our public library, I pulled more than a dozen new MG novels off the shelves. Opened each book, checked the age of the main character. Twelve. Twelve. Eleven! No, wait, turning twelve in the next chapter. While the characters and stories were all different, there was a sheeplike sameness reading about twelve-year-olds.

It worries me. Publishers contribute to pushing elementary school children as quickly as possible into middle school. Where are the middle-grade books about a ten-year-old character? An eight-year-old character? Ah, now we’ve backed into chapter book territory.

Charlotte's WebSupposedly, kids prefer to “read up” in age. This assumes that, say, fifth graders want to know what to expect when they’re in eighth grade. (Lord help them.) Reading about a character who is two or three years older might generate anxiety in some readers. And they may disdain shorter, simpler chapter books.

In the past, before publisher and bookstore classifications, age wasn’t much of an issue. Wilbur is the main character in Charlotte’s Web, although the book opens with Fern saving him. Fern is eight, a fact mentioned on the first page. Does anyone care what grade Fern is in once he lands in Zuckerman’s richly-depicted barnyard?

The Year of Billy MillerMore recently, Kevin Henkes broke the “age” barrier with his terrific middle grade novel, The Year of Billy Miller (2013). Fuse 8’s Betsy Bird compared it to Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books. Billy is seven and starting second grade, a character normally found in a briskly-written, lower-end chapter book. Yet Billy Miller clocks in at a grand 240 pages. Bird praises Henkes, “[He] could have … upped his hero’s age to nine or ten or even eleven. He didn’t. He made Billy a second grader because that’s what Billy is. His mind is that of a second grader … To falsely age him would be to make a huge mistake.”

Tru and NelleAuthor G. Neri took on a bigger challenge. In Tru & Nelle (2016), the characters are seven and six. This hefty MG explores the childhood friendship between Truman Capote and Harper Lee. Neri chose fiction rather than biography because, as he states in his author’s note, “[This] story was born from real life.” He didn’t shy away from writing a lengthy, layered book about a first and second grader.

We need more books featuring eight-, nine-, ten-year-old characters that are true middle grade novels and not chapter books. Children grow up too fast. Let them linger in the “middle” stage, find themselves in books with characters their own age.

Let them enjoy the cycle of seasons, “the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep.” Soon enough, they’ll race away from the barnyard and into middle school.


The Book Box

For a fiction workshop, I asked participants to bring in childhood books that influenced them to become a writer. Naturally, I did the assignment myself. Choosing the books was easy, but they felt insubstantial in my hands, vintage hardbacks that lacked the heft of, say, the last Harry Potter. When it came my turn to talk, I figured I’d stammer excuses for their shabby, old-fashioned, stamped jackets. (“Well, this is the way library books looked in the fifties.”)

I wanted to tuck my beloved books in a box to keep them safe, like baby robins fallen out of a nest. Really, what is a book, but ideas, adventures, people, and places protected by cardboard, shaped like a box? I carried this notion with me on a trip to Michael’s, where I found a sturdy box with a jigsaw of little boxes stacked under the front flap. I knew just what I’d do with this prize: showcase my favorite books in an assemblage. 

The Book Box

At FedEx Office, I color photocopied the book covers, reduced them several sizes, then dashed through A.C. Moore’s miniature section to collect tiny endowed objects. Next, I happily sorted through my scrapbook and ephemera stash for just-right window dressing. I glued on paper, adding the objects. Pictures and trinkets were pretty, but not enough. The box needed words to set the stories—and their meaning—free.

Home for a BunnyI typed quotes and notes into strips folded accordion-style. Margaret Wise Brown’s Home for a Bunny gently reminded me that once I had lived “under a rock, under a stone.” Like the bunny, I had no home of my own until I was five. This was my first book, my first experience in identifying with a character.

The title of Trixie Belden and the Secret of the Mansion contained “secret” and “mansion,” words that made my heart thump. Trixie lived in the country like me, and had to work in the garden, like I did. Trixie stumbled into mysteries and I did, too, when I furiously scribbled whodunnits in fourth grade. Just like that, I became a writer.

Diamond in the WindowThe Diamond in the Window opens with a quote from Emerson: “On him the light of star and moon / Shall fall with purer radiance down … / Him Nature giveth for defense / His formidable innocence; / The mounting up, the shells, the sea, / All spheres, all stones, his helpers be …” At eleven, I skipped those words, but I didn’t ignore the small lessons from Emerson and Thoreau sprinkled throughout this fantasy / adventure / family / mystery story. This book changed my life.

I had to be married on Valentine’s Day, after the “Bride of Snow” chapter (and I was one, too, in three feet of snow!). Our powder room has a Henry Thoreau theme and we have a gazing globe (“The crystal sphere of thought”) in our back yard, like the Hall family.

Gazing Globe

With some thought and imagination, a book box can be a tangible book report. Supplies required: a cigar box, construction paper, glue, and a favorite book. A box covered in red construction paper could represent Wilbur’s barn. A lid could replicate the map of Hundred Acre Wood. Or Mr. Lemoncello’s library.

Making my book box helped me slow down and think about what my favorite books meant to me. How Diamond in the Window led me to the works of Thoreau and Emerson, inspired me to look up from the printed page and truly see the great sphere of our world.  

I still fill my pockets with rocks, pick up shells at the beach, and stare at the stars. I wonder if the rocks were broken off from ancient glaciers, and what happened to the sea creatures inside the shells. The shells and rocks stay in jars and boxes. The stars cannot be contained, thankfully.

Book Box Interior