Archive | Big Green Pocketbook

Porch School

As I write this, it’s August and school dis­tricts around the coun­try are strug­gling to man­age the 2020 fall term. Online, in-per­son, a hybrid? I under­stand all con­cerns and am glad I don’t have grand­chil­dren dur­ing this pan­dem­ic. Yet I sus­pect a lot of chil­dren wish class­es would start nor­mal­ly. As a kid, I couldn’t wait until the first day of school — a fresh begin­ning, when the heat and green of sum­mer make way for red plaid book­bags and cor­duroy jumpers.

The Child That Books BuiltUsing com­put­ers in school isn’t new. What is new is remote learn­ing in an age when infor­ma­tion increas­ing­ly is being acquired from devices. In The Child That Books Built, avid read­er Fran­cis Spufford says, “In a world washed to and fro by glassy floods of rep­re­sen­ta­tions, I choose to gaze at expe­ri­ence through the mesh of para­graphs.”

Me, too. After buy­ing a $5 school bus seat at a yard sale, I opened Porch School. Porch School starts with a walk, break­fast, then choos­ing the day’s mate­ri­als: a jour­nal, cur­rent work, books from my per­son­al library. Porch School gets me out­side, away from glassy floods of bad news, and lifts me from depres­sion. As Mer­lyn advis­es the future King Arthur in T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, “The best thing for being sad is to learn some­thing. That’s the only thing that nev­er fails. … Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

T.H. White Books

White learned a lot of things writ­ing The Sword in the Stone. As he con­fid­ed to his for­mer Cam­bridge tutor, “I some­how start­ed writ­ing a book … I am afraid it is rather warm-heart­ed — main­ly about birds and beasts. It seems impos­si­ble to deter­mine whether it is for grown-ups or chil­dren.” Thank heav­ens White just bar­reled on with­out wor­ry­ing about audi­ence. Pub­lished in 1938, Sword was the first book in his mas­ter­piece, The Once and Future King. White’s vision of the Arthuri­an saga was inspired by Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.

Ter­ence Han­bury White had less than king­ly begin­nings. Born in Bom­bay in 1908, his colo­nial child­hood end­ed when he was sent to Eng­land to attend a brutish board­ing school. Upon grad­u­a­tion from Cam­bridge, he taught Eng­lish in a prep school where his meth­ods includ­ed recit­ing Wil­fred Owens’ poet­ry and search­ing for grass snakes (though not at the same time). Always rest­less, White left teach­ing to write. He rent­ed a Vic­to­ri­an gamekeeper’s cot­tage in the woods and expand­ed his soli­tary life with two bad­gers, a tawny owl, a goshawk, and an Irish set­ter.

White strayed from Malory’s sto­ry to give young Arthur a child­hood. And what a child­hood! Arthur’s tutor was Mer­lyn. The class­room? Nature, but with a mag­i­cal twist. Mer­lyn knew the boy, called the Wart, would one day be king and required more than sums and let­ters to pre­pare him. “Edu­ca­tion is expe­ri­ence, and the essence of expe­ri­ence is self-reliance,” Mer­lyn says when he changes the Wart into a fish. The Wart learns how to swim, not as a boy turned into a fish, but as a fish, a les­son that saves him from being a pike’s din­ner.

Sub­se­quent sem­i­nars include being changed into an ant (to know about total­i­tar­i­an­ism), a wild goose (to under­stand why peace is bet­ter than war), an owl (to learn the wis­dom of trees, rocks, and stars), and a bad­ger (to real­ize the love of home). My favorite les­son was taught by a grass snake, “a piece of olive light­ning.” The Wart asked to be turned into a snake so he too could be “dry and del­i­cate­ly rough and liq­uid pow­er.”

The snake teach­es him to Dream. When snakes hiber­nate, they Dream about His­to­ry or Leg­ends. He tells the Wart the His­to­ry of the ancient, mighty rep­tiles from which they are descend­ed. His­to­ry, the Wart learns, is always sad, yet every­one needs mus­ings to keep them­selves com­pa­ny. “‘Is it a good thing to muse?’” asks the Wart. “‘Well, it pass­es the time,’” the snake replies. “Even H. sapi­ens has muse­ums …’” Where one can find bones of Dinosauria.

In Porch School, I read about dinosaurs, Dunkirk, and dark mat­ter. I watch the crea­tures around me — heavy-bod­ied cicadas like Huey heli­copters, shark-like hor­nets, song spar­rows that toss arias into the sky like loose sheet music, and a frog that does not croak or go rib­bit, but speaks in com­plete sen­tences to the frog at the oth­er end of the ditch. Porch School allows me to muse for hours but, oh, how I long for a teacher. There is still so much to learn. I would start with becom­ing a frog so I could join their con­ver­sa­tion.


Fillyjonk in Moominland

I’m try­ing hard not to be a Fil­lyjonk. Hon­est­ly, I am. Mrs. Fil­lyjonk is a char­ac­ter in Tove Jansson’s won­der­ful Moom­introll series. Fret­ful Mrs. Fil­lyjonk needs order in her world. If any­thing is out of place, or goes wrong, she is flat­tened by depres­sion and anx­i­ety.

Mrs. Fillyjonk in Moominland

Mrs. Fil­lyjonk, from the Moomin books by Tove Jans­son, cur­rent­ly pub­lished in the US by Square Fish

Is any­thing more out of order than the world we live in now? When the quar­an­tine first began in the U.S., and then Vir­ginia, I didn’t think it would be too bad. I’d get lots of writ­ing done. Our house would be spot­less for once. Overnight weeds would be plucked before dew dried the next morn­ing. I’d have time to cook decent meals.

Instead, I became a news junkie. Hour after hour, I scrolled online sto­ries. Like most of us, my day needs shape. In my nor­mal life, I’d get up at 5:30, feed the cats, make the bed, scoop lit­ter box­es, fix a bowl of cere­al, show­er, dress for exer­cise class, and leave the house at 7:00. On my way home after class, I’d stop at the library, maybe the gro­cery store. Then I’d write until my hus­band came home from work.

Bit by bit, my sup­port sys­tem — like every­one else’s — was kicked out from under me. My husband’s job, exer­cise class, the library. Gro­cery shop­ping was like run­ning a gaunt­let. I took morn­ing naps, after-lunch naps, late after­noon naps. After two weeks of flail­ing, I drew up a sched­ule. By then I’d devel­oped the con­cen­tra­tion of a new­born gnat. My plan was to do some­thing dif­fer­ent each hour: write for an hour, house­work for an hour, walk for an hour. The sched­ule last­ed all of forty-five min­utes before I was scroung­ing in our good­ie draw­er for a Reese’s peanut but­ter egg.

In a recent issue of Fresh Bookol­o­gy, linked to a New York­er piece about Tove Jans­son, author of the Moom­introll books, I real­ized I should try anoth­er avenue of cre­ativ­i­ty. A strug­gling painter, Jans­son cre­at­ed the whim­si­cal Moomins dur­ing World War II when, as she said, “I was feel­ing depressed and scared of the bomb­ing and want­ed to get away from my gloomy thoughts to some­thing else entire­ly.” This I under­stood. My own moods have veered between obses­sive think­ing and out­right fear. Jans­son cre­at­ed an escape hatch, “an unbe­liev­able world where every­thing was nat­ur­al and benign — and pos­si­ble.”

Moon­min­val­ley. A beau­ti­ful place with mead­ows and rivers, where the inhab­i­tants live in peace­ful har­mo­ny with nature. But not always. Moom­introlls face floods, vol­canic erup­tions, even a comet on a col­li­sion course with Earth.

Moominsummer Madness

Moomin­sum­mer Mad­ness, rep­re­sent­ed by the new cov­er (Square Fish) and the orig­i­nal cov­er (Schildts, 1954)

I found the adven­tures of the strange, child­like Moomins made for per­fect sum­mer read­ing. I longed to be care­free, har­mon­i­ca-play­er Snufkin, nev­er dream­ing I’d wind up a neu­rot­ic Fil­lyjonk, intro­duced in Moomin­sum­mer Mad­ness:

But inside a Fil­lyjonk was sit­ting, lis­ten­ing to the tick­ing of her clock and the pass­ing of time. She sighed and wan­dered around, sat down and got up again.                       

This was me to a T, house­bound, for­ag­ing for jelly­beans and choco­late eggs.

Jans­son wrote and illus­trat­ed sev­er­al Moomin sto­ries. Dur­ing the war, she said, “one’s work stood still; it felt com­plete­ly point­less to try to cre­ate pic­tures.” Once the war was over, she pub­lished The Moomins and the Great Flood in 1945. Comet in Moomin­land fol­lowed in 1946.

The Moomins and the Great Flood and Comet in Moominland

Orig­i­nal cov­ers for The Moomins and the Great Flood and Comet in Moomin­land, pub­lished by Schildts in 1945 and 1946

In the lat­ter sto­ry, the Moon­in­trolls lacked a comet-pre­pared­ness plan. (Sounds famil­iar?) To get instruc­tions, they endured tor­na­does, a plague of grasshop­pers, and a jour­ney to the bot­tom of the sea, which caused Snufkin’s har­mon­i­ca to rust. After the comet “whisked” past the cave where the Moomins were hid­ing, they crept out to safe­ty:

The sky was no longer red, but a beau­ti­ful blue once again, and the morn­ing sun shone in its usu­al place, look­ing as though it had been fresh­ly pol­ished … And [the sea] was rolling tire­less­ly in towards them, glit­ter­ing and gleam­ing like soft blue silk, the same old sea that they had always loved!

Mean­while Snufkin had tak­en out his mouth-organ and was giv­ing it anoth­er try. All the notes had come back, even the lit­tle ones, so that he could play to his heart’s con­tent.

I so long for a place where every­thing is nat­ur­al and benign. I’m not imag­i­na­tive enough to cre­ate one, too scat­tered to gath­er any words. The pan­dem­ic will end, though not as soon as we want. When it does, our words and songs and notes will come back. And we’ll emerge from our homes to a clean blue sky and a fresh­ly buffed sun, togeth­er once more.


Forgotten Treasures:
Scholastic Book Club Editions

The only “real” books we had in our house was a small selec­tion of adult nov­els from the Dou­ble­day Book Club. Mid-cen­tu­ry titles such as Panther’s Moon, Lost Hori­zon, and Wake of the Red Witch piqued my eight-year-old inter­est until I opened them, dis­mayed by the tiny print and lack­lus­ter dia­log. I had a shelf of Gold­en Books which I’d out­grown. The only chap­ter books and non­fic­tion I had access to came from our school library.Scholastic Book Club catalog

One day in sixth grade, we received a four-page brochure fea­tur­ing inex­pen­sive paper­backs from Scholas­tic Book Ser­vices. Priced between 35 to 50 cents, we could buy teen nov­els, mid­dle-grade fic­tion, and non­fic­tion. I scoured every syl­la­ble of the brochure. After much delib­er­at­ing, I chose what I call a “strange old lady” book (sort of a sub-cat­e­go­ry pop­u­lar in the 1950s): Miss Pick­erell Goes to Mars (35 cents). I think every boomer kid in Amer­i­ca had that book.

strange old lady books

Strange old lady” books fell into two groups: feisty, nosy old ladies, and old ladies who dab­bled in mag­ic. Miss Pick­erell Goes to the Moon, Miss Pick­erell and the Geiger Counter, Mrs. Coverlet’s Magi­cians, While Mrs. Cov­er­let Was Away, The Pecu­liar Miss Pick­ett, Mrs. Pig­gle-Wig­gle, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Mag­ic, Hel­lo, Mrs. Pig­gle-Wig­gle, and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm … you get the idea.

When our teacher deliv­ered our books a few weeks lat­er, I could hard­ly stand it. I wasn’t worth a flit the rest of the day, sneak-read­ing my new book instead of doing arith­metic. New brochures arrived the begin­ning of the month. I pored over them as if try­ing to pass the bar exam. I’d check off an alarm­ing num­ber of books, then try to add the total, not easy since I was usu­al­ly read­ing dur­ing arith­metic lessons. My moth­er told me we couldn’t afford $8.50 worth of books. I could buy one, that was all. Book-order­ing day became an approach-avoid­ance event. When the books were deliv­ered, I shot the stink eye at kids who’d ordered four or five books.

Scholastic Book Services books

In a recent inter­view in the New York Times Book Review, Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, admit­ted that her expe­ri­ence with books from her child­hood was “one of long­ing.” She too received SBS brochures in ele­men­tary school. “I’d study those cat­a­logs for hours and metic­u­lous­ly filled out the order form on the back, as if I could buy then. But I couldn’t, I nev­er turned in the form because my fam­i­ly was too poor to pay for the books. It’s such a vis­cer­al mem­o­ry, aching for those books!” I can iden­ti­fy with her. It was so hard to choose a sin­gle book when I want­ed so many.

black spaniel mystery and other books

Aside from Miss Pick­erell Goes to Mars, three oth­er SBS books stand out in my mind. I read print off my copy of Bet­ty Cavanna’s The Black Spaniel Mys­tery, enticed by the back cov­er tags: “Two lost thor­ough­bred COCKERS, Deter­mined TEEN-AGERS, A fad­ed old SNAPSHOT, A mys­te­ri­ous LETTER, A dar­ing RESCUE, a sur­prise WINNER.” Who could resist?

Not long ago, I found Clarence the TV Dog in a used book­store. I’d for­got­ten I once had this book, but instant­ly rec­og­nized the orange and blue cov­er. An SBS book I’ve nev­er for­got­ten is The House of the Sev­en Gables. The brochure described a gloomy haunt­ed man­sion, witch­craft, and mur­der. I thought the sev­en gables were tow­ers or hid­den rooms. When the book came, I tore the cov­er back … and real­ized Nathaniel Hawthorne was a crook. I couldn’t read a sin­gle page of that musty sto­ry. And I’ve nev­er read a word by Hawthorne since.

The Silvery PastYears passed. I grew up to be a children’s book writer. My first books were pub­lished by Scholas­tic as orig­i­nal paper­backs. They were sold in Walden­books and B. Dal­ton book­stores and they were offered in Scholas­tic Book Clubs. My proud­est moment came hold­ing a club edi­tion of my first book, The Sil­very Past, a YA mys­tery that should have blared on the back cov­er: A town with a SECRET, An ancient, desert­ed CAROUSEL, three teenagers at ODDS, A hid­den TREASURE, An amaz­ing DISCOVERY.

Peo­ple online say they remem­bered some of their old books. Most were giv­en away or thrown away. I res­cue all the SBS books from my era at tag sales, used book­stores, and antique shops. Inex­pen­sive trea­sures back then. Price­less now.


Growing a Nonfiction Reader
and Even a Nonfiction Writer

It is more impor­tant to pave the way for the child to want to know
than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assim­i­late

—Rachel Car­son

One would nev­er guess from the fol­low­ing excerpts that a cer­tain nine-year-old would grow up to write more than 50 non­fic­tion children’s books.  This is from my fourth-grade book­let on Flori­da:

The Cypress swamp is a part of the Ever­glades.

The Cypress swamp is small­er than the Ever­glades even though it is a part of the Ever­glades.

It has Span­ish moss cling­ing from the trees. It has wild ani­mals and love­ly birds.  Maybe even alli­gaters [sic] and croc­o­diles.

I pulled the usu­al report-writ­ing trick, padding para­graphs with rep­e­ti­tious sen­tences. Only when I depart­ed from facts and reimag­ined my moth­er and father’s trip to Clear­wa­ter did my prose loosen up.

Clear­wa­ter is one place where peo­ple go in Tam­pa, Flori­da.

Tourists take a hotel near-by and with time off of pack­ing they take a glass­bot­tom boat to Clear­wa­ter.

Amaz­ing­ly, I got an A- (for mis­spelling “depths,” teacher didn’t catch “alli­gaters” because her eyes were prob­a­bly glazed), most like­ly for the maps and draw­ings I includ­ed. While I enjoyed writ­ing sto­ries, writ­ing non­fic­tion was a chore.

Virginia history

Strange Beasts of the PastYet I loved read­ing non­fic­tion. Kids today would revolt if they had to read what we did back then, long blocks of text leav­ened with occa­sion­al two-col­or spot illus­tra­tions. Since that was all we had, we didn’t know the dif­fer­ence. But the non­fic­tion books I checked out of our school library sparkled like stars next to our class­room units.

Our text­books were packed with dates, bat­tles, gen­er­als, and pho­to­syn­the­sis. I earned Ds in Vir­ginia his­to­ry and Cs in sci­ence. Edu­ca­tion­al TV, new in the ear­ly 60s, fea­tured seg­ments even duller. I would sit in the back of the class­room squint­ing at a library book while onscreen a hand dis­sect­ed a lima bean. My fam­i­ly grew lima beans; I would rather learn how to get to Mars.

Strange Beasts of the Past

After ele­men­tary school, I stopped read­ing non­fic­tion. Report writ­ing became even hard­er. Infor­ma­tion seeped in through recre­ation­al read­ing — his­tor­i­cal nov­els and sci­ence fic­tion. Fic­tion tapped into emo­tions pre­vi­ous­ly blunt­ed by facts. Char­ac­ters made me care. Soon I want­ed to know more about the Civ­il War, archae­o­log­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies, Sylvia Plath, and picked up non­fic­tion again. I could have just as eas­i­ly stayed off the non­fic­tion path, but my child­hood curios­i­ty came roar­ing back. In my late teens, I began writ­ing arti­cles for children’s mag­a­zines and, lat­er, non­fic­tion books.

Chil­dren are still tasked with writ­ing reports. But they have a wider vari­ety of sources: the inter­net, vis­it­ing speak­ers, field trips. Best of all, kids today have fab­u­lous non­fic­tion books. A very young child can flip through a board book on the solar sys­tem, pick up a pic­ture book on the sun, segue into a tran­si­tion­al read­er about the plan­ets, then delve into a mid­dle-grade biog­ra­phy on Galileo, assim­i­lat­ing facts at each stage.

Candice Ransome Nonfiction Recommendations

My fourth-grade self would have been deliri­ous to find the inspir­ing non­fic­tion pub­lished in recent years, such as Bal­loons Over Broad­way: The True Sto­ry of the Pup­peteer of Macy’s Parade by Melis­sa Sweet, Moon­shot: The Flight of Apol­lo 11 by Bri­an Flo­ca, And Then What Hap­pened, Paul Revere? by Jean Fritz (best open­ing para­graphs ever!), Barnum’s Bones: How Bar­num Brown Dis­cov­ered the Most Famous Dinosaur in the World by Tracey Fern, A Riv­er of Words: The Sto­ry of William Car­los Williams by Jen Bryant, Stub­by the War Dog: The True Sto­ry of  World War I’s Bravest Dog by Ann Bausum, and Stars Beneath Your Bed: The Sur­pris­ing Sto­ry of Dust by April Pul­ley Sayre.

Bones in the White HouseThe expe­di­tion from my tepid Flori­da report to my lat­est book, Bones in the White House: Thomas Jefferson’s Mam­moth (which com­bines his­to­ry and sci­ence) has been reward­ing because I’ve sam­pled and stud­ied non­fic­tion children’s books that often rival adult non­fic­tion.

I’ll con­tin­ue to research and write non­fic­tion, help pave the way for new non­fic­tion read­ers, who might also grow up to be non­fic­tion writ­ers.     


The Crack in the Door:
How I Came to Write Bones in the White House

All about DinosaursI’ve been keen on dinosaurs and Ice Age mam­mals my whole life, since I read Roy Chap­man Andrews’ All About Dinosaurs. When I was nine, I added pale­on­tol­o­gist to my string of future occu­pa­tions (writer, artist, bal­let dancer, detec­tive).

My love for Jef­fer­son began when we moved to Fred­er­icks­burg in 1996. I was tour­ing James Monroe’s Law Office down­town one day and learned how the build­ing was near­ly torn down in 1927 for a gas sta­tion when Monroe’s descen­dant stepped in and turned it into a muse­um.

One day, the woman’s son stood across from the muse­um. He saw two men in colo­nial dress in deep dis­cus­sion. Then they walked through the door of the Law Office, still talk­ing. A crack appeared in the wood­en door. Until the day he died, Lawrence Hoes insist­ed he saw young James Mon­roe and his men­tor, Thomas Jef­fer­son, walk through that door.

I always noticed that crack when­ev­er I walked down Charles Street, eas­i­ly imag­in­ing those two gen­tle­men. While Mon­roe was an inter­est­ing man in his own right, I believe Jefferson’s much stronger, more com­pli­cat­ed spir­it split the door.

Big Bone LickIn 2014, I read Stan­ley Hedeem’s Big Bone Lick and came across this sen­tence: “The delight­ed Jef­fer­son had the Lick’s fos­sils laid out in the White House stor­age area that lat­er became the ele­gant East Room.” That sin­gle image burned in my mind. Delight­ed Jef­fer­son! Lay­ing out crates of mastodon fos­sils in the East Room of the White House!

I didn’t know then that Jef­fer­son was retir­ing from a life­time of pub­lic ser­vice he often didn’t seek and that the box­es of fos­sils sym­bol­ized free­dom and recog­ni­tion of his sci­en­tif­ic efforts. The bones were the end of a sto­ry — I had to work back­wards to find out the rest.

My read­ing research jour­ney took me from Vir­ginia to Ken­tucky to upstate New York, from Paris, Lon­don, Madrid and Paraguay, from the halls of Philadelphia’s Con­ti­nen­tal Con­gress to the bat­tle­fields of Gen­er­al Washington’s Con­ti­nen­tal Army. Research­ing this sto­ry gave me a front-row seat in the growth of the new repub­lic, viewed through the lens of one man and his obses­sion for one ani­mal.


My phys­i­cal research jour­ney took me from Mon­ti­cel­lo, to Saltville, in the Vir­ginia High­lands, to Philadel­phia, Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and New York City. My ini­tial goal — to write about why Jef­fer­son was so hap­py to receive mastodon bones in the President’s House — blos­somed into a transat­lantic dra­ma set dur­ing the Age of Enlight­en­ment. Jef­fer­son was not alone. Many peo­ple shared the stage with him.

Iden­ti­fy­ing the mys­te­ri­ous giant bones found in Big Bone Lick was a col­lab­o­ra­tive effort between peo­ple of all ages, back­grounds, and nation­al­i­ties. Nei­ther rebel­lion nor war, geog­ra­phy nor polit­i­cal ide­olo­gies damp­ened the pur­suit of sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge. At the cen­ter of this con­ti­nen­tal the­ater stood Jef­fer­son, dogged in his deter­mi­na­tion to place Amer­i­ca in a com­mand­ing posi­tion in the sci­en­tif­ic world.

Yet I researched with increas­ing trep­i­da­tion. Who was I to write about Jef­fer­son? Jef­fer­son! Sur­pris­ing­ly, Kei­th Thom­son, pale­on­tol­o­gist, author, PhD from Har­vard, Dean of Arts and Sci­ences at Yale, Direc­tor of Oxford Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, for­mer Exec­u­tive Offi­cer of Amer­i­can Philo­soph­i­cal Soci­ety, con­fid­ed to me he felt the same way when he began writ­ing about Jef­fer­son.

Lack­ing Dr. Thomson’s deep schol­ar­ly back­ground, what could I bring to the table? I only had to look out my win­dow. I grew up — and still live — in rur­al Vir­ginia. Like young Jef­fer­son, I ram­bled through woods and fields, spot­ting turkey vul­tures and pos­sums, lis­ten­ing to peep­ers, watch­ing the green­ing of Vir­ginia springs.

At the heart of the man’s com­pli­cat­ed, flawed, bril­liant self was a boy who loved nature. Jef­fer­son nev­er out­grew his sense of won­der. Nei­ther have I. As I plowed through let­ters and doc­u­ments, I too hoped, as Jef­fer­son did, that Lewis and Clark would find a liv­ing “mam­moth” out West, even though I knew bet­ter.

The NaturalistAs Edward O. Wil­son says in his mem­oir, Nat­u­ral­ist: “A child comes to the edge of deep water with a mind pre­pared for won­der … Hand’s‑on expe­ri­ence at the crit­i­cal time, not sys­tem­at­ic knowl­edge, is what counts in the mak­ing of a nat­u­ral­ist. Bet­ter to be an untu­tored sav­age for a while, not to know the names or anatom­i­cal detail. Bet­ter to spend long stretch­es of time search­ing and dream­ing.”

As a boy, Thomas Jef­fer­son did that. I did, too, in near­ly the same ter­ri­to­ry.

Jef­fer­son seized the oppor­tu­ni­ty to advance sci­ence in our fledg­ling nation dur­ing a time when peo­ple were still try­ing to sus­tain a toe-hold in this vast land. He real­ized species need­ed to be rec­og­nized and cat­a­logued, dai­ly weath­er record­ed, sea­son cycles not­ed, and moun­tains climbed to see what was on the oth­er side.

Bones in the White HouseAs I read and took hun­dreds of pages of notes, I fell in love with Thomas Jef­fer­son and mastodons, Big Bone Lick and Louis XV’s roy­al cab­i­net of nat­ur­al his­to­ry spec­i­mens, Charles Will­son Peale and Georges Cuvi­er. I’m grate­ful to have spent time with those peo­ple.

My book changed in scope from a sim­ple tale about Thomas Jef­fer­son caper­ing in the East Room with his box­es of fos­sils to a sto­ry of ded­i­cat­ed men eager to bet­ter under­stand the plan­et.

I wrote Bones in the White House: Thomas Jefferson’s Mam­moth (Dou­ble­day, 2020) to explore Jefferson’s inter­est in sci­ence. What kept me going those three years was the romance of the sto­ry. I slipped through that crack in the door and was great­ly reward­ed for doing so.


Arnold Lobel at Home

Every win­ter I find myself miss­ing Arnold Lobel, a qui­et­ly bril­liant author-illus­tra­tor who left us far too ear­ly. I pull out my Lobel I Can Read col­lec­tion. Frog and Toad Are Friends was pub­lished in 1970, the year I grad­u­at­ed from high school, bent on my own career in children’s books. Hailed an instant clas­sic by many far-see­ing indi­vid­u­als, Frog and Toad earned a Calde­cott Hon­or. My copy, the first Harp­er Tro­phy edi­tion, is from 1979. That same year I bought a set of Frog and Toad stuffed dolls because they were so ridicu­lous. Lobel remarked in an inter­view, “Their pants kept falling down in the ear­ly mock-ups, but they’ve fixed that.”

Frog and Toad dolls

Not exact­ly. My Toad doll wears what can only be called plumber’s pants. Yet amphib­ians dressed in falling-down trousers is just the sort of thing that would amuse Lobel. He drew inspi­ra­tion from fab­u­list Edward Lear. Like Lear, Arnold Lobel pos­sessed an imag­i­na­tion unfet­tered by the laws of log­ic and prob­a­bil­i­ty. The sto­ries in the Frog and Toad quar­tet are absurd, ten­der, and decep­tive­ly sim­ple. They are also per­fect. When stu­dents ask my advice on writ­ing easy read­ers, I send them to Frog and Toad. “Aim for the pin­na­cle,” I tell them.

Owl at HomeAs much as I love Frog and Toad, I’m equal­ly fond — maybe a lit­tle more so — of Owl at Home. Lobel once described Owl as “a com­plete psy­chot­ic,” but I find his char­ac­ter charm­ing­ly eccen­tric. In each of the five sto­ries, Owl is all alone. No won­der he’s a bit dif­fer­ent. In “The Guest,” Owl feels sor­ry for poor old Win­ter out in the cold and invites Win­ter into his house. Gusts of snow and wind blow wild­ly through the room. Owl learns the hard way that not all guests have man­ners.

In anoth­er sto­ry, Owl is con­cerned that the upstairs of his house is lone­ly when he is down­stairs and vice ver­sa. He races up and down the stairs, try­ing to be in two places at once. Exhaust­ed, he final­ly sits on the mid­dle step. It’s utter non­sense but the child in me loves the fact Owl wor­ries that the floor he isn’t on miss­es him. Owl makes tear-water tea by think­ing of sad things like spoons dropped behind the stove, pen­cils too short to use, and songs that can’t be sung because the words have been for­got­ten. His tears fill the ket­tle for a salty but refresh­ing tea.

Owl goes for a walk in “Owl and the Moon.” When the moon ris­es, he rea­sons that if he sees the moon, then the moon sees him, and they must be friends. On his way home, Owl notices the moon fol­low­ing. He tells the moon to go back. “You real­ly must not come home with me. My house is too small. You would not fit through the door. And I have noth­ing to give you for sup­per.” My heart turns over at Owl’s dis­tress over being unable to feed the moon. In the end, Owl real­izes the moon is shin­ing in his bed­room: “What a good, round friend you are.” This book makes me want to knock on Owl’s door and ask him to lunch.

Frog and Toad Are FriendsThe Frog and Toad books were inspired by vaca­tions on Lake Bomoseen, Ver­mont, where Lobel’s chil­dren caught frogs and toads and oth­er small ani­mals. While Frog and Toad received the most praise (Calde­cott Hon­or, New­bery Hon­or, Nation­al Book Award final­ist, Children’s Book Show­case, George G. Stone Award) and are still high­ly regard­ed, I feel Owl at Home is a sleep­er. Owl reminds me of the boy Arnold, who strug­gled to make friends.

In both writ­ing and art, Lobel hit his stride with his I Can Read books. Spot illus­tra­tions and framed vignettes in only two or three col­ors gen­tly guide new read­ers through the texts. Lobel didn’t like bright col­ors in “those lit­tle books,” as he referred to them. “In my ear­ly years I used to do bright col­ors … and I real­ly wasn’t hap­py, so I grad­u­al­ly got muter and muter and became more pleased with the aes­thet­ic result.” It has been said that his begin­ning read­ers pro­mote inti­ma­cy, safe­ty, and a sense of order. To me, they feel like home.

The ani­mal char­ac­ters in those lit­tle books dwell in cozy hous­es, with com­fy fur­ni­ture, books, and flow­ers. They tell sto­ries, read — some­times to each oth­er — take walks, gar­den, and drink tea. Lobel loved cre­at­ing books for chil­dren: “There is a lit­tle world at the end of my pen­cil.” But he wasn’t always a ray of sun­shine. His child­hood was lone­ly. He kept part of his adult life hid­den. “When I am brought low by the vicis­si­tudes of life,” he once remarked, “I stum­ble to my book­shelves. I take a lit­tle dose of Zemach or Shule­vitz. I grab a shot of Goff­stein or Mar­shall … the treat­ment works. I always feel much bet­ter.”

FablesI met Arnold Lobel once. An illus­tra­tor friend and I went to hear him speak in the fall of 1980, the year he won the Calde­cott for his pic­ture book Fables. As a pre­sen­ter, he was mod­est, fun­ny, and gen­er­ous. After the event, my friend and I head­ed for the park­ing lot when we saw Lobel walk­ing alone to his rental car. We couldn’t believe that a Calde­cott win­ner was all by him­self. My friend asked him a few ques­tions about mak­ing pic­ture books, which he answered hon­est­ly. I stayed qui­et. It was enough to stand next to the man who brought Frog and Toad and Owl and oth­er char­ac­ters into my world.

In the win­ter of 1987, Arnold Lobel died at age 54, one of the first in the children’s book com­mu­ni­ty to fall vic­tim to AIDS. He once said in a speech, “To be mak­ing books for chil­dren is to be in a sort of state of grace.” I try to remem­ber those words when I’m feel­ing less than char­i­ta­ble toward the indus­try that’s been my home for near­ly 40 years. When I’m brought low by the vicis­si­tudes of life, I vis­it Frog and Toad, Owl, Grasshop­per, and Uncle Ele­phant. Lobel’s treat­ment works. I always feel wel­come.  


Pterodactyls and Dragons

The Boy chiefly dab­bled in nat­ur­al his­to­ry and fairy-tales, and he just took them as they came, in a sand­wichy sort of way, with­out mak­ing any dis­tinc­tions; and real­ly his course of read­ing strikes one as rather sen­si­ble.” The Reluc­tant Drag­on

Ken­neth Gra­hame wrote “The Reluc­tant Drag­on” as a chap­ter in his book Dream Days, in 1898, ten years before pub­lish­ing The Wind in the Wil­lows. The Boy in the sto­ry is the son of a shep­herd, dur­ing the time when drag­ons still need­ed slay­ing. Unlike most chil­dren of his sta­tion, Boy is a read­er, spend­ing “much of his time buried in big vol­umes.”

The Reluctant Dragon

the 1938 title page of The Reluc­tant Drag­on

I was the Boy, lost in that won­der­ful stage where I read “to escape, to uncov­er … to find com­pan­ion­ship … [to] set loose dreams,” as Pamela Paul and Maria Rus­so state in How to Raise a Read­er. I plowed through nov­els and “fac­tu­al” books. Vis­it­ing our tiny ele­men­tary school library was the high point of my week. We had no book lists. No one told us what we should be read­ing rel­a­tive to study units. We were only required to check out a book, two at the most.

Class­mates leafed through mag­a­zines or whis­pered to friends. For me, library peri­od was seri­ous busi­ness. Some kids couldn’t find a sin­gle book and Miss Sharp, the librar­i­an, would pull one off the shelves. I knew those kids would return their books unread the next week. Why couldn’t I have their check-out allot­ments instead of ago­niz­ing between three books, one of which I’d have to slide behind the stacks so no one else would check it out. I habit­u­al­ly chose a nov­el and a sci­ence book and read them in a sand­wichy sort of way.           

In his intro­duc­tion to A Hun­dred Fables of Aesop, pub­lished in 1899, Gra­hame wrote:

Vital­i­ty — that is the test; and, what­ev­er its com­po­nents, mere truth is not nec­es­sar­i­ly one of them. A drag­on, for instance, is a more endur­ing ani­mal than a ptero­dactyl. I have nev­er yet met any­one who real­ly believed in a ptero­dactyl, but every hon­est per­son believes in drag­ons — down in the back-kitchens of his con­scious­ness.

I didn’t know yet about ptero­dactyls, but I did learn about the world’s first bird, Archaeopteryx, in All About Birds. At nine, I wasn’t sure about drag­ons since there weren’t any in Vir­ginia, but this Juras­sic Age crea­ture, dis­cov­ered in Ger­many in 1861, seemed very real. The illus­tra­tion of its fos­sil remains ren­dered vital­i­ty in every line. I loved read­ing how the fly­ing rep­tile devel­oped, bone by bone, mus­cle by mus­cle, into today’s mod­ern birds. I repeat­ed soft­ly the word Archaeopteryx to myself, lov­ing the sound of it.


the orig­i­nal Ger­man archaeopteryx fos­sil in the Nat­ur­al His­to­ry Muse­um in Lon­don

All About BirdsThe borrower’s card in the pock­et of All About Birds bore my sig­na­ture every oth­er line, I checked it out so many times. The only bird book I owned was a small Gold­en Nature Guide. Birds made no men­tion of archaeopteryx or ptero­dactyls, but it set loose dreams of my becom­ing an ornithol­o­gist.

Across the Atlantic, in Scot­land, sev­en-year-old Michael J. Ben­ton received a Gold­en Nature Guide called Fos­sils. Four years younger than me, Michael pored over the pic­tures (“481 Illus­tra­tions in Col­or”). Fos­sils cov­ered ancient life from cock­roach­es to corals, includ­ing Archaeopteryx and the aston­ish­ing Pter­a­n­odon, with its 25-foot wingspan. Michael was hooked:

What excit­ed me [about Fos­sils] was that the illus­tra­tions were all in colour — unusu­al still in the 1960s — and there were not only pic­tures of fos­sils, but recon­struc­tions too. The text reflect­ed the knowl­edge of the time — this is what Tyran­nosaurs looked like, based on the clas­sic stud­ies by Pro­fes­sor Hen­ry Osborn of the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, and this is how the dinosaurs died out, rather slow­ly, and per­haps as a result of long-term cool­ing cli­mates (or maybe because they were too stu­pid to adapt to a chang­ing world) … Nonethe­less, as a sev­en-year-old, that was all I need­ed. It nev­er entered my head to ques­tion the author­i­ty of some­thing writ­ten in a book …”

FossilsBenton’s ear­ly inter­est in dinosaurs led him to study pale­o­bi­ol­o­gy. Now a pro­fes­sor at Bris­tol Uni­ver­si­ty, Ben­ton is a world-renowned pale­on­tol­o­gist and author, with a dinosaur named in his hon­or. Despite grow­ing up in a coun­try stuffed with sto­ries of drag­ons, fairies, water hors­es, and oth­er myth­i­cal crea­tures, his dream was let loose by a 1.00 (in Amer­i­can cur­ren­cy) children’s field guide.

I didn’t become a sci­en­tist, after all. My sen­si­ble, sand­wichy method of read­ing — nov­els and non­fic­tion — sent me down a dif­fer­ent road. I became a writer of fic­tion and non­fic­tion, though much of my fic­tion depends on research. In the back-kitchen of my mind, there are griffins and grack­les. Both are vital, and both get along just fine.     

Charles Knight Mural

Charles Knight’s mur­al at
the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry in New York


No Wraiths or Fetches Necessary

To cel­e­brate our for­ti­eth anniver­sary this year, we decid­ed to take a Big Trip. My hus­band sug­gest­ed Paris. “Corn­wall,” I said. “Some­place old.” Not that Paris isn’t old. Instead of a crowd­ed city, I want­ed win­kles and pasties, lost gar­dens and stand­ing stones, piskies and Tin­tagel cas­tle. He agreed and I began putting togeth­er a trip that would send us back in time.

Hubble's BubbleMy motives weren’t entire­ly pure. True, I’ve been an Anglophile ever since I read the British children’s fan­ta­sy Hubble’s Bub­ble at the age of eleven and start­ed sav­ing pen­nies to go to Wales and Scot­land. Cur­rent­ly I’m writ­ing my first mag­i­cal real­ism mid­dle-grade nov­el. Build­ing the world of my sto­ry has tak­en near­ly three years, yet the book’s foun­da­tion feels as sta­ble as shiv­er­ing sands. By tramp­ing over ancient lands, I hoped Cornwall’s mythol­o­gy would seep through the soles of my Sketch­ers and I’d bring some back with me.

As much as I love America’s his­to­ry and var­ied land­scapes, I fret that the U.S. isn’t — well, Britain. Amer­i­ca has, as New Eng­land fan­ta­sy writer Jane Lang­ton once wrote, “less his­to­ry to draw on … It is bald of mythol­o­gy, bare of folk tale. Its open fields are not marked by stand­ing stones.” We do have Native Amer­i­can folk­lore and the tall tale adven­tures of larg­er-than-life char­ac­ters such as Paul Bun­yan and John Hen­ry. But those sto­ries are not part of my back­ground.

Langton’s essay is more than thir­ty years old and much has changed. Many fan­tasies today give read­ers pass­ports to worlds beyond medieval Europe, inspired by African, Asian, and indige­nous Amer­i­can cul­tures. My book is set in Vir­ginia, deeply linked to my Eng­lish roots, a place and voice I know. But Vir­ginia has no dead kings buried with bro­ken swords, no sleep­ing drag­ons under the hill, no fairies. How will I sat­u­rate the land­scape with mag­ic?

Seven-Day MagicWhen I think back, I didn’t always notice the set­tings of child­hood books. The open­ing line of Edward Eager’s Sev­en-Day Mag­ic hooked me right away. “‘The best kind of book,’” said Barn­a­by, “‘is a mag­ic book.’” I agreed and ripped through the Half-Mag­ic series, not car­ing that the books are placed vague­ly in Amer­i­ca (Ohio and Con­necti­cut, Eager’s stomp­ing grounds).

Mid­west­ern­er Eager grew up with the Oz books, the first true Amer­i­can fan­tasies for chil­dren. When he had his own chil­dren, he dis­cov­ered E. Nesbit’s books, which he praised for the “daili­ness of the mag­ic. Here is no land of drag­ons and ogres or Mock Tur­tles and Tin Wood­men … The world of E. Nes­bit is the ordi­nary or gar­den world we know, with just the right pinch of mag­ic added.” Every­day mag­ic, set wher­ev­er, suit­ed me fine.

A Diamond in the WindowYet when I found Jane Langton’s A Dia­mond in the Win­dow, I met an open­ing that left no ques­tion about its set­ting: “Edward Hall sat under the front porch of the big house on Walden Street in Con­cord, Mass­a­chu­setts, and thought about his two ambi­tions in life.” By page 4, I’d learned Con­cord was the site of the first bat­tle of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War, Walden Pond was near­by, and Ralph Wal­do Emer­son, Louisa May Alcott, and Hen­ry David Thore­au, who­ev­er they were, had lived there. This Vir­ginia kid, clue­less about New Eng­land, was intrigued. Not far into the sto­ry — a delight­ful com­bi­na­tion of fan­ta­sy and mys­tery — the children’s naïve Uncle Fred­dy quotes Emer­son to the trash col­lec­tor:

 “Oh, call not Nature dumb!
The trees and stones are audi­ble to me …”

It’s a fun­ny scene, but the quote set me to won­der­ing. I’d often thought trees talked (it turns out they do!) and some­times wor­ried when I walked on rocks — did they hurt? The Dia­mond in the Win­dow has mag­ic, but it also has nature, which was more acces­si­ble to me. As a child, there was so much I want­ed to know about the ground beneath my feet, the trees stretch­ing toward the sky, the clouds and weath­er.

The Magic CityIn Langton’s essay, she admits British fan­ta­sy writ­ers can tap into “the thick inter­twin­ing of field and for­est with myth and his­to­ry.” She men­tions that Scot­tish writer Mol­lie Hunter once told her that fan­ta­sy “could only be com­posed by some­one stand­ing upon a coun­try­side drenched in myth and folk­lore.” Real­ly? I went fly­ing to an essay by Mol­lie Hunter in which she cred­its leg­ends, “a suc­ces­sion of folk mem­o­ries fil­tered through the storyteller’s imag­i­na­tion,” as the basis for true fan­tasies.

Vir­ginia, I’m afraid, sad­ly lacks super­nat­ur­al beings such as Celtic fetch­es and wraiths. But it has an abun­dance of nature, the kind E.B. White tapped into by watch­ing ordi­nary spi­ders and pigs and rats at his Maine farm. Lang­ton argues that “nature tak­en pure, nature in its sim­plic­i­ty and silent grandeur” car­ries its own brand of mag­ic. Instead of long­ing for stand­ing stones, I’ll be hap­py to extract “mar­veling won­der­ment” from the seashell-capped Blue Ridge Moun­tains, horse-pas­tured Pied­mont, and osprey-nest­ed Chesa­peake Bay.

As for Corn­wall, we dis­cov­ered that the five-hour car trip after an overnight flight to Heathrow, in which the only age-qual­i­fied dri­ver (who can bare­ly park her small pick­up) would nev­er man­age dri­ving stick-shift from the left seat on the left-hand side of the road. It’s okay. We will glad­ly take a bus from Lon­don to Stone­henge. My Sketch­ers will nev­er know the dif­fer­ence.


Enchanted Points of Entry

Only House, Margaret Wise Brown

Little Island by Margaret Wise BrownMy first glimpse of Mar­garet Wise Brown’s house on Vinal­haven Island, Maine, was from a boat. It topped a gran­ite slope, clap­board sid­ing paint­ed the same gray-blue as the sparkling Hur­ri­cane Sound. I was so excit­ed I near­ly fell over­board. We’d just passed the Lit­tle Island that Mar­garet had made famous in her Calde­cott-win­ning book and I’d spot­ted a seal doz­ing on the rocks.

Margaret’s Only House was not the only house on that end of the island, but it was to me. I’d been work­ing on a biog­ra­phy of Brown and was look­ing for the real Mar­garet. My pil­grim­age to Only House was pro­fes­sion­al, pri­ma­ry research. I came to Margaret’s work as an adult and placed her in her house, not myself as a child in the fic­tion­al site of one of her books.

I was not a Pot­ter fan clam­or­ing to find Plat­form 9 ¾ at King’s Cross sta­tion, or some­one with fond mem­o­ries of Eloise scop­ing out the lob­by of the Plaza. As a kid, I longed to see Sleep­y­side-on-the-Hud­son, the fic­tion­al set­ting of my beloved Trix­ie Belden mys­ter­ies, because I believed it was real. Recent­ly I learned the vil­lage was real, based on Ossin­ing, New York, where the author had lived.

Each year, thou­sands tour lit­er­ary hous­es such as the Bronte Par­son­age in York­shire or Hemingway’s home in Key West. When I went to Con­cord, Mass­a­chu­setts, I wad­ed in Walden Pond in hon­or of Thore­au, an author I admire as an adult. I think it requires a dif­fer­ent mind-set to vis­it the fic­tion­al sites of favorite children’s books and come away sat­is­fied.

If you loved the Anne of Green Gables books, a trip to Prince Edward Island may dis­ap­point with its bus­loads of tourists and mod­ern inter­pre­tive exhibits. How­ev­er, chil­dren still read­ing those books might eager­ly embrace fic­tion and real­i­ty in that lim­i­nal space, thrilled to see Anne’s tiny bed­room with her stock­ings draped over the bed­stead. Schol­ars main­tain that when chil­dren vis­it lit­er­ary sites, the expe­ri­ence enhances re-read­ings of those books.

The Wilder LifeBut how do adults fare on these jour­neys? I loved Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life: My Adven­tures in the Lost World of Lit­tle House on the Prairie. The Lit­tle House books McClure devoured as a child car­ried her to new places, new sights, new adven­tures. She found in those land­scapes “enchant­ed points of entry into a fan­ta­sy world,” as Nico­la Wat­son writes in The Lit­er­ary Tourist.

McClure craved to churn but­ter and play with a corn­cob doll. She imag­ined help­ing Lau­ra — mag­i­cal­ly trans­port­ed to the 1970s — on the esca­la­tors of North River­side Mall. Then, like so many of us, she grew up and left her child­hood book friend behind. After the death of her moth­er, McClure re-read the books and decid­ed to trace Laura’s path, home­stead by home­stead.

The Wilder Life con­cludes with McClure remem­ber­ing the dif­fer­ent hous­es her moth­er, who grew up in a move-every-few-years-mil­i­tary fam­i­ly, tracked down on sum­mer vaca­tions. “I … thought of Lau­ra, too, of one lit­tle house after anoth­er form­ing the sto­ry of a life.” At last she declared to her patient hus­band that they were done Lau­ra-jaunt­ing. Home was with him, she real­ized. Time to re-enter the sto­ry of their life togeth­er.

Misty of ChincoteagueSarah Maslin Nir recounts a dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence in her New York Times arti­cle, “All the Pret­ty Ponies.” Grow­ing up “most­ly horse­less” in New York City, she trav­eled to Chin­coteague Island, Vir­ginia, on the trail of Mar­guerite Henry’s Misty of Chin­coteague. Misty had “stoked [her] eques­tri­an fan­tasies as a girl. Maslin Nir arrived dur­ing Pony-Pen­ning Days, when the wild hors­es swim from Assateague Island to Chin­coteague to be auc­tioned, a tra­di­tion dat­ing from 1925 to thin the herd and raise funds for the fire depart­ment.

She sat on her hands dur­ing the auc­tion to keep from bid­ding on adorable, shag­gy ponies. Then she vis­it­ed the Muse­um of Chin­coteague Island and saw taxi­der­mied Misty on dis­play. The expe­ri­ence was “crush­ing.” When she learned that Misty had nev­er been a wild pony, she knew “the crea­ture Hen­ry had con­jured on the page had nev­er real­ly lived.” She bought a copy of Misty of Chin­coteague as a sou­venir of her trip, pre­fer­ring her child­hood ver­sion to real­i­ty.

Diamond in the WindowWhen we as adults try to repos­sess a fic­tion­al land­scape that meant every­thing to us as chil­dren, we risk tram­pling the enchant­ed point of entry. On my trip to Con­cord, I was sore­ly tempt­ed. Not only is Con­cord the home of Emer­son, Thore­au, and the Alcotts, it was also the set­ting of my favorite child­hood book, The Dia­mond in the Win­dow, by Jane Lang­ton. The neo-Goth­ic house depict­ed on the cov­er was on 148 Walden Street. I could go there. I could take a pic­ture!

The lure was pow­er­ful. But I know that won­der­ful old hous­es were often parceled into apart­ments, added on to, changed. I didn’t couldn’t bear to see Eric Blegvad’s 1961 illus­tra­tion marred by the 21st cen­tu­ry.

In his 1935 trav­el mem­oir, In Search of Eng­land, H.V. Mor­ton climbed the rock steps to Tin­tagel, the rumored birth­place of King Arthur, even though he felt the cas­tle “was one of those places which no man should see.” Tin­tagel wasn’t the gaunt rocky ruins, but “a coun­try of dreams more real than real­i­ty.” Exact­ly so.

Not every­thing has to be seen, not every speck of curios­i­ty must be sat­is­fied, espe­cial­ly in a world where Google pro­vides the answer to any­thing. I remem­bered my first read­ing of Dia­mond, that sin­gu­lar moment when my imag­i­na­tion sprout­ed wings and I soared into the clouds. I didn’t go to 148 Walden Street. I would not ruin the mem­o­ry.


Richard Adams Gave Me Rabbits

Watership DownKnee-deep in spring! The rab­bits will be here soon, rangy after a long win­ter. They like our yard because we have low bush­es good for hid­ing and we let the lawn go to clover and dan­de­lions. I like to think rab­bits feel safe because they have lit­tle chance else­where. If ever there was an ani­mal with “a thou­sand ene­mies,” it’s the cot­ton­tail rab­bit, a crea­ture I nev­er paid much atten­tion to until Water­ship Down.

I found Water­ship Down in 1974. I was twen­ty-two, still in the thrall of The Lord of the Rings and The Once and Future King yet feel­ing jad­ed that the world was noth­ing like Mid­dle-earth or Gramerye. One day on my lunch hour, I walked into Wood­ward & Lothrop to browse the book depart­ment. On dis­play were stacks of a new nov­el with a com­pass rose and a rab­bit on the cov­er. It was thick — over 400 pages — British, and a fan­ta­sy. The hard­cov­er cost $6.95, a for­tune on my secretary’s salary, but I bought it. At work I kept the book on my knees, slid­ing out from my desk to sneak-read when no one was look­ing.

With the first fore­bod­ing sen­tence, “The prim­ros­es were over,” I knew this was not a sto­ry about bun­nies. It was dark­er, sharp­er, and exact­ly what I need­ed. At that time, my life seemed all edges and uncer­tain­ty. I felt a lot like Fiv­er, the ner­vous “out­skirter” (in the hier­ar­chy of Adams’ rab­bits, out­skirters lacked aris­to­crat­ic parent­age, weight, and strength). I want­ed to write for chil­dren, but, more than two years out of high school, couldn’t seem to move for­ward. Was I doomed to type oth­er people’s words for­ev­er?

I learned that the author, Richard Adams, worked for the civ­il ser­vice and didn’t start writ­ing until he was fifty. Water­ship Down began as a tale he told his daugh­ters on a dri­ve to Strat­ford-on-Avon. They urged him to write the sto­ry — it took two years. After four­teen rejec­tions, a small pub­lish­er print­ed 2500 copies. The book became an instant clas­sic, allow­ing Richard Adams to quit his job and write full-time.

The book won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fic­tion Prize. A review­er for The Econ­o­mist declared, “If there is no place for Water­ship Down in children’s book­shops, then children’s lit­er­a­ture is dead.” I’ve nev­er felt it is a children’s book, but that could be because I came to it as an adult. Adams him­self refused to pin down the book’s intend­ed audi­ence: “What age-group is it aimed at?” some­one would ask. “I don’t aim it, madam. It just goes off by itself.”

Adams cred­its Ronald Lockley’s The Pri­vate Life of the Rab­bit for nat­ur­al his­to­ry details, but in aim­ing for the truth in his sto­ry, he drew upon his child­hood love of Wal­ter de la Mare’s poet­ry, espe­cial­ly “The Chil­dren of Stare”:

Tis strange to see young chil­dren
In such a win­try house;
Like rab­bits’ on the frozen snow
Their tell­tale foot­prints go.

His reac­tion to the poem: “Cold, ghosts, grief, pain and loss stand all about the lit­tle cocoon of bright warmth, which is every­where pierced by a wild, numi­nous beau­ty, cat­a­lyst of fear and weep­ing.” The poem was far from com­fort­ing, but it told the truth, and led Adams to tack­le “the real­ly unan­swer­able things” in Water­ship Down, which is also about grief, pain, and loss, while every­where pierced by a wild, numi­nous beau­ty.

Water­ship Down changed my life (the last book to do so). I nev­er saw rab­bits — or the nat­ur­al world — the same way again. I turned to the works of Rachel Car­son and Hal Bor­land.

I took notice of the envi­ron­ment. And I watched rab­bits dur­ing evening sil­flay, Lap­ine for feed­ing above-ground.

Rab­bits kept me ground­ed to the plan­et. I bought rab­bit gar­den stat­u­ary, rab­bit fig­urines and paint­ings. A framed poster of Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait’s Rab­bits on a Log hangs in our bath­room. The porch is inhab­it­ed by rab­bits, and each spring I buy new pieces of rab­bit-themed chi­na.

In the pub­lic domain, Rab­bits on a Log by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, 1897, oil on can­vas, Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, acces­sion 1979.490.7

In 1978, before we were mar­ried, my fiancé and I saw the beau­ti­ful­ly-ani­mat­ed (and not for kids) movie. When Art Gar­funkel began singing “Bright Eyes” at the death of main char­ac­ter Hazel, I cried so hard my fiancé almost called an ambu­lance (yet still mar­ried me). I still haven’t got­ten over it.

Richard Adams gave me rab­bits, but he also gave me direc­tion. I decid­ed to get a move on with my career. Instead of shop­ping on my lunch hour, I went to the library, staked out a table in the children’s room, and wrote sto­ries. My first children’s mag­a­zine sale came from a lunch time work ses­sion.

Most of all, Richard Adams gave me human­i­ty. Through his band of small, ordi­nary ani­mals fac­ing home­less­ness and sur­vival, I saw myself, also small and ordi­nary, as a sto­ry­telling ani­mal. I give mys­ter­ies, fan­ta­sy, his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, biogra­phies, and con­tem­po­rary tales to chil­dren. One day, those read­ers will tell their own sto­ries. Maybe even about rab­bits.


On the Way to East Dene

Come Hither by Walter de la MareOne day dur­ing this drea­ry Vir­ginia win­ter, I came across a talk by Susan Coop­er, giv­en at Sim­mons Col­lege in 1980. The talk was titled, “Nahum Tarune’s Book.” To explain the title, she begins by quot­ing an aston­ish­ing pas­sage from the intro­duc­tion of Come Hith­er by Wal­ter de la Mare, an anthol­o­gy of poet­ry first pub­lished in 1923:

In my rov­ings and ram­blings as a boy I had often skirt­ed the old stone house in the hol­low. But my first clear remem­brance of it is of a hot summer’s day. I had climbed to the crest of a hill and stood look­ing down on its grey walls and chim­neys as if out of a dream. And as if out of a dream already famil­iar to me.

My real inten­tion in set­ting out from home that morn­ing had been to get to a place called East Dene. My moth­er had often spo­ken to me of East Dene — of its trees and waters and green pas­tures, and the rare birds and flow­ers to be found there. Ages ago, she told me an ances­tor of our fam­i­ly had dwelt in this place.

Susan Coop­er came to Come Hith­er when she was four­teen. She kept a copy of “this won­der for thir­ty years and must have turned to it at least as many times each year. It is my tal­is­man, my haunt­ing: a dis­til­la­tion of all the books to which I’ve respond­ed most deeply …”

I own a few de la Mare poet­ry col­lec­tions—Songs of Child­hood (1902) and Pea­cock Pie (1913). His work is mys­te­ri­ous and ethe­re­al, earn­ing him the man­tle “poet of dusk.” Coop­er hoped to cap­ture de la Mare’s mag­ic in her own work. (Her nov­el The Dark Is Ris­ing won a New­bery Hon­or, and The Grey King was a New­bery Medal­ist — I’d say she’s done fair­ly well in the mag­ic depart­ment.)

How fast did I order Come Hith­er? And when it came, this 800-page brick of a book, I leafed straight to the intro­duc­tion, sink­ing deeply into the dreamy prose. Simon, the “rov­ings and ram­blings” boy, describes the old stone house:

It was nev­er the same for two hours togeth­er. I have seen it gath­ered close up in its hol­low in the livid and cop­pery gloom of a storm; crouched like a hare in win­ter under a mask of snow; dark and silent beneath the chang­ing sparkle of the stars; and like a palace out of an Ara­bi­an tale in the milky radi­ance of the moon. Thrae was the name inscribed on its gate­way.

Simon meets the old lady of the house, Miss Taroone, who tells him of Sure Vine, which Simon believed was an ances­tral man­sion. The maid men­tioned vil­lages called Ten Laps, and how he might get to East Dene: through the quar­ry, by the pits, “and then you come to a Wall. And you climb over.” Then Simon hears of the boy Nahum Tarune. Explor­ing Nahum’s room in the stone tow­er, Simon is amazed by the fos­sils, rocks, nests, clocks, mod­el ships, strange musi­cal instru­ments, and a human skele­ton. Book­cas­es cov­er the walls.

He digs out an old vol­ume with Nahum’s hand-print­ed title: Theother­worlde. Inside, Nahum had copied poems — Shake­speare, Chaucer, Blake, Poe. Simon is not impressed. “‘Poet­ry!’ I would scoff to myself, and would shut up the cov­ers of any such book with a kind of yawn inside me.” But then he begins to read.

I remem­ber see­ing Come Hith­er in my small ele­men­tary school library, the same edi­tion I have now, print­ed in 1957 with dec­o­ra­tions by War­ren Chap­pell. Hun­gry for sto­ries back then, I had no inter­est in poems. In high school, I grew slow­ly into poet­ry, falling hard for Frost, Sand­burg, and, espe­cial­ly Edgar Lee Mas­ters’ Spoon Riv­er Anthol­o­gy.

Soon Simon does what Nahum Tarune did so many years ago — he copies the poems he likes best. He vis­its Thrae many times, often stay­ing late. Once Miss Taroone warns him to leave: “There’s a heavy dew tonight, and the owls are busy.” Then comes the inevitable day when Simon must go to school and leave Thrae for good. But he keeps his book of poet­ry.

Susan Coop­er points out the ran­dom notes that Simon scat­ters between the poems like coins. Ben Jonson’s “The Witch­es’ Song” spurred four dense pages of notes on the folk­lore and old names of plants. The next time I pick cat mint, I’ll think “Robin-run-in-the-hedge” instead. The intro­duc­tion acts as a frame sto­ry — Simon copy­ing the poems Nahum copied which ulti­mate­ly became the book Come Hith­er. Like poet­ry, the frame sto­ry can be read on many lev­els, the mean­ing nev­er the same twice.

Simon doesn’t see Nahum because, as Coop­er clar­i­fies, “he is all of us.” Nahum Tarune is an ana­gram of human nature. Thrae is earth, Ten Laps are the plan­ets, Sure Vine is the uni­verse. Miss Taroone is prob­a­bly Moth­er Nature. And East Dene? Des­tiny.

I could see why Coop­er dipped into Come Hith­er “some­times for solace, some­times for sun­shine.” This great col­lec­tion of words that Simon learns to read “very slow­ly, so as ful­ly and qui­et­ly to fill up the time allowed for each line and to lis­ten to its music,” to see even com­mon and famil­iar things dif­fer­ent­ly from the actu­al object. That is the pow­er of poet­ry. On our way to East Dene, poet­ry helps us climb over the Wall.

April is Nation­al Poet­ry Month. Teach­ers every­where will be intro­duc­ing chil­dren to the works of Valerie Worth, David McCord, Shel Sil­ver­stein, Jack Pre­lut­sky, Nik­ki Grimes, and many oth­ers. I’ll be read­ing Spoon Riv­er Anthol­o­gy for the first time since high school, while wait­ing for a spring night when the dew is heavy, and the owls are busy.


The Arrow of Time

When you walk into our house, you know imme­di­ate­ly my hus­band and I are read­ers. The din­ing room is des­ig­nat­ed as the library, but there are book­cas­es and books in every sin­gle room, includ­ing the bath­rooms. We sub­scribe to The Wall Street Jour­nal and the Sun­day New York Times, as well as Smith­son­ian, Audubon, and Sky and Tele­scope. 

The Enchanted HourMy hus­band has been teach­ing him­self quan­tum physics the last few years. I take books to the movies. Yet we both would have failed the “Goldilocks effect” if that test had been giv­en to us as young chil­dren. In her book, The Enchant­ed Hour: The Mirac­u­lous Pow­er of Read­ing Aloud in the Age of Dis­trac­tion, Meghan Cox Gur­don dis­cuss­es Dr. John Hutton’s research on how read­ing aloud to chil­dren affects their cog­ni­tive devel­op­ment.

Hut­ton, a pedi­a­tri­cian and pro­fes­sor at the Cincin­nati Children’s Hos­pi­tal, dis­cov­ered through MRI scans that the brains of preschool­ers who had been read to on a reg­u­lar basis “lit up” in areas asso­ci­at­ed with lan­guage and pro­cess­ing infor­ma­tion. Com­pared to peers who had lit­tle or no access to books, or who were giv­en screens instead of shar­ing a pic­ture book with a care­giv­er, the sto­ry-rich chil­dren were miles ahead in “lan­guage, emo­tion­al con­trol, vision, hear­ing … lay­ing the path­ways for future thought and rea­son­ing.”

The “Goldilocks effect” per­tains to chil­dren age three to five, when their brains are grow­ing fast. MRI scans showed “too hot” brain activ­i­ty in chil­dren view­ing videos. Not as ter­rif­ic as it sounds, the watch­ers were actu­al­ly pas­sive. Audio — lis­ten­ing to sto­ries through head­phones — pro­duced tepid reac­tions, “too cold.” The “just right” com­bi­na­tion was being read to from a pic­ture book. Chil­dren must process the pic­tures while lis­ten­ing. Their brains are engaged and active. And they have the added ben­e­fit of phys­i­cal con­nec­tion to a per­son.

When I read this study, I remem­bered my own years between two and five. There were no children’s books in the house I lived in. No one read to me. I was sel­dom spo­ken to and heard no sto­ries. Howdy Doo­dy and The Mick­ey Mouse Club (screen) kept me com­pa­ny. At the age of six, I entered first grade. The “look-say” or “whole word” method was still going strong. Read­ing didn’t click with me until sec­ond grade.

Kids Fort

My hus­band was born in the Depres­sion when children’s books were far down on the list of neces­si­ties. Next came the war, and his par­ents were busy with war work. He wasn’t read to and doesn’t remem­ber any books until he start­ed first grade. His sto­ries came over radio waves (audio), Inner Sanc­tum and One Step Beyond.

I can’t say either of us grew up in a time of few dis­trac­tions. For my hus­band, the war ruled everyone’s lives. By the time it was over, he was twelve, well past those vital devel­op­ment years. My life sta­bi­lized when I turned five, but my par­ents had mul­ti­ple jobs. Learn­ing to read and being exposed to books was left to teach­ers.

The Enchant­ed Hour cov­ers oth­er stud­ies that prove the impor­tance of read­ing aloud to young chil­dren, such as vocab­u­lary. Read­ing two pic­ture books aloud to a child each day for a year expos­es him or her to more than 438,000 words of text. Cather­ine Tamis-LeMon­da of New York Uni­ver­si­ty believes that pic­ture book time is the only set­ting in which par­ent and child talk about things oth­er than dai­ly rou­tines. Where else can you dis­cuss the moon or ele­phants or how birth­days are cel­e­brat­ed in oth­er coun­tries?

The book includes test results of chil­dren in low­er socioe­co­nom­ic sit­u­a­tions: book- and word-poor house­holds. My back­ground. And yet I did learn to read, though rather late. Once the door to sto­ries was open, I read and wrote them. Library books had to be returned, but the sto­ries I wrote were mine. No one could take them away from me.

My hus­band did fine in lan­guage arts, but his inter­ests lay in math­e­mat­ics and sci­ence. My moth­er want­ed me to get a desk job. My husband’s father urged him to join his build­ing busi­ness. With­out encour­age­ment, we found our own moti­va­tion and fol­lowed our own paths.

Gurdon’s book made me wist­ful. What would my life had been like if some­one read me bed­time sto­ries? If I was tak­en to the library? If some­one stopped to lis­ten to one of my own sto­ries? But I can’t go back to my preschool years and fill that gap. The arrow of time — a the­o­ry devel­oped by physi­cist Arthur Edding­ton in 1927 — only moves in one direc­tion, for­ward. The past is fixed and immutable.

The Read_Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease and Read to Your Bunny by Rosemary Wells

I wor­ry about chil­dren like me, grow­ing up in word- and book-poor homes. The plea of The Enchant­ed Hour is for par­ents to carve out an hour a day to read aloud to their chil­dren. This isn’t a new idea. Jim Trelease’s 1979 The Read-Aloud Hand­book paved that road for par­ents forty years ago. In 1998, Read to Your Bun­ny by Rose­mary Wells was pub­lished as part of her ini­tia­tive urg­ing fam­i­lies to set aside twen­ty min­utes a day of read-aloud time. Down from an hour to twen­ty min­utes, and yet the prob­lem still exists.

Here we are at the same cross­roads, but now the ene­my is screen time. No one read­ing this col­umn is unaware that screens are in the hands of younger and younger chil­dren. I see babies with cell­phones “to keep them qui­et” and I see the expres­sion­less faces of their par­ents, also on screens. Chil­dren in fam­i­lies that are poor in books but rich in screens — no mat­ter where they land on the socioe­co­nom­ic scale — will strug­gle to devel­op live­ly imag­i­na­tions, to escape the pull of social media, to fol­low their own paths, with or with­out encour­age­ment.

The arrow of time only moves in one direc­tion, for­ward. Once passed by, those impor­tant years can’t be reclaimed and fixed.


When a Map Is a Journey

The first map I remem­ber was flashed briefly on TV, part of a com­mer­cial for Sto­ry Book Land. It aired on “Cap­tain Tugg,” a local kid­die pro­gram. I adored Cap­tain Tugg, so any­thing he endorsed must be gold. Like the home-movie type kid shows of the 50s and 60s, Sto­ry Book Land was a fam­i­ly-owned amuse­ment park. And for my ninth birth­day, I was going to Sto­ry Book Land!

The day of my trip brought a fam­i­ly cri­sis. After things had set­tled down, we went to Sto­ry Book Land. My moth­er sat on a bench while I fol­lowed the col­ored map giv­en at the tick­et booth to Robin Hood’s Tree House and Ali Baba’s Cave. The map promised adven­ture, but the park itself, with its fiber­glass hous­es and nurs­ery rhyme fig­ures, fell short. This may have been my ear­li­est expe­ri­ence with antic­i­pa­tion exceed­ing the actu­al event, yet my love for maps grew out of that dis­ap­point­ment.

Maps Finding Your Place in the WorldThe fan­ta­sy books I read abound­ed with maps. The Hob­bit, Water­ship Down, The Phan­tom Toll­booth, The Wiz­ard of Oz, the Nar­nia books, all pro­vid­ed maps to help read­ers pic­ture imag­i­nary worlds. As Richard Padron says in Maps: Find­ing Our Place in the World, “[ver­bal map­ping does] not have the same impact, [or] pro­vides quite the same expe­ri­ence. That impact has every­thing to do with the seduc­tions of see­ing a world that is not our own.”

I was enchant­ed with the map in Car­ol Kendall’s The Gam­mage Cup. Erik Blegvad’s draw­ing of The Land Between the Moun­tains gave me a sense of the topog­ra­phy, essen­tial to under­stand­ing the sto­ry. My fin­ger traced the riv­er tum­bling from Snow­drift Moun­tain to the for­bid­ding Frost­bite Moun­tains. The riv­er was the source of life for the tiny Min­nip­ins. If I ever found myself in the Land Between the Moun­tains, some­thing I wished for might­i­ly, I’d eas­i­ly make my way to Slip­per-on-the-Water, the best of the twelve vil­lages. The map added to my read­ing expe­ri­ence, kept me anchored in that world longer, which was fine by me. My own world was a grease spot in the road in rur­al Fair­fax Coun­ty, sad­ly lack­ing rivers and moun­tains, giants and tiny peo­ple.

Land Between the Mountains map from The Gammage Cup

Map of the Land Between the Moun­tains from The Gam­mage Cup

The Long SecretMaps in con­tem­po­rary fic­tion serve the same pur­pose. When I read The Long Secret, the sequel to Har­ri­et the Spy, I entered a place as for­eign as any fan­ta­sy: the ham­let of Water­mill, Long Island. It was a stretch to nav­i­gate the ref­er­ences of well-heeled peo­ple, such as the fact Beth Ellen’s moth­er was in Biar­ritz. Was that a men­tal insti­tu­tion, I won­dered? The map showed me that rich peo­ple lived in the coun­try, too, if only “sum­mer­ing.” Metic­u­lous­ly ren­dered roads, hous­es, shops gave me con­fi­dence I could walk down Mon­tauk High­way to Harriet’s or Beth Ellen’s house.

In a blog post on maps in lit­er­a­ture, Nicholas Tam says, “Fic­tion­al maps intro­duce the com­pli­ca­tion of hav­ing, at min­i­mum, two lay­ers of author­ship: the lay­er out­side the text that has the pow­er to dic­tate and reshape the world, and the lay­er that belongs to the real­i­ty of the world. The author is in the first and the char­ac­ters are in the sec­ond.”

The map by Christo­pher Robin in Win­nie-the-Pooh, with its child­like lan­guage (“100 Aker Wood,” “Floody Place”) lets read­ers believe the place is real because it was drawn by a peer. Christo­pher Robin may be a char­ac­ter in the sto­ry, but he is also a kid that read­ers can trust. I came to Win­nie-the-Pooh as an adult, yet Hun­dred Acre Wood seemed real (it is!). It’s safe to assume that Tam’s sec­ond lay­er dom­i­nates the author­ship of that map.

Yet author­ship of a novel’s map isn’t always reli­able. Look at Robert Lawson’s gor­geous end­pa­pers for Rab­bit Hill. Ani­mals are depict­ed big­ger than the land­scape and build­ings, cer­tain­ly not to scale, though their larg­er-than-life size sug­gests their impor­tance against the human back­drop. To the right, “Our Bur­row” indi­cates the rab­bit nar­ra­tor drew the map. But would a child­like rab­bit be able to cre­ate such a love­ly piece of art? It’s clear to me that the first lay­er — the lay­er out­side the text dic­tat­ing and reshap­ing the world — is the author. This doesn’t both­er me one whit. If Rab­bit Hill is this daz­zling, I’m ready to move there.

Rabbit Hill

Robert Law­son’s map of The Hill from Rab­bit Hill.

The Writer's MapMaps in children’s books made me notice my own sur­round­ings. Sud­den­ly the grease spot in the mid­dle of Lee High­way wasn’t that bor­ing. Hous­es, barns, the auto garage, the motel, all were mag­ic land­marks that I knew by their secrets. When I began writ­ing for pub­li­ca­tion, I set most of my sto­ries where I grew up, car­ry­ing in my head those hous­es and barns, long after I left, long after the place changed dras­ti­cal­ly. Their secrets stayed with me.

In Abi Elphinstone’s essay in The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imag­i­nary Lands (brand-new and won­der­ful), she too uses the map of her child­hood in her books. But she goes one step fur­ther, she draws her own maps, espe­cial­ly on “those days when the words sit stub­born­ly out of reach.” “I have nev­er found myself at a loss when doo­dling an imag­ined world,” she says.

For my new work in progress, I’ve brought out col­ored pen­cils and Micron pens. I don’t draw that well, but I know my cre­at­ed world won’t be made of fiber­glass.


Teaching Passion

When the direc­tor of Hollins University’s grad­u­ate pro­gram in children’s lit­er­a­ture asked me to teach a crit­i­cal class on the his­to­ry of children’s book illus­tra­tors, I said no. Even with an MFA in writ­ing for chil­dren from Ver­mont Col­lege, an MA in children’s lit­er­a­ture from Hollins, scores of pub­lished books, and years of teach­ing grad­u­ate-lev­el cre­ative class­es, I still felt like a fraud. Some­day I’d be called out because I nev­er got an under­grad­u­ate degree or under­stood what “dia­log­ic” meant. But the direc­tor insist­ed I was the only one who could teach this course, required for stu­dents in the new MFA Writ­ing and Illus­trat­ing Children’s Books pro­gram.

Pub­lish­ers Week­ly cov­er illus­tra­tion by Bill Peet

Maybe … When I was nine­teen, I bought a children’s lit­er­a­ture text­book at a yard sale. That one-dol­lar book became the first in my children’s lit­er­a­ture library, with a heavy con­cen­tra­tion in illus­tra­tors. What I lacked in aca­d­e­m­ic expe­ri­ence, I could make up for in pas­sion. As a kid, I longed to be an illus­tra­tor, switch­ing to ani­ma­tion when I was a teenag­er. Those dreams nev­er tran­spired, but my love for art stayed true.

Once home from that sum­mer of teach­ing, I gath­ered my books on illus­tra­tion. The floor near­ly fell in! I had so much mate­r­i­al, I didn’t need to leave my house. The course would begin with the ear­li­est children’s book illus­tra­tors, up to the end of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Hollins sum­mer res­i­dence terms are six weeks, two class­es a week, each class three hours.

I would cov­er the ear­ly illus­tra­tors in the first class, then spend the rest of the term high­light­ing tech­nique, print­ing meth­ods, and ground-break­ing artists. My out­line looked dead­ly. I tossed it and any pre­ten­sion I had of being a “real” aca­d­e­m­ic. I’d teach the class the way I wish some­one would have taught me — mov­ing chrono­log­i­cal­ly through time, giv­ing back­grounds of illus­tra­tors, and, most impor­tant, telling sto­ries along with show­ing the art. Stu­dents would get plen­ty of infor­ma­tion, but they would also have a sense of the artists’ lives.

The out­come for the stu­dents? Rather than turn them into walk­ing ency­clo­pe­dias, I want­ed them to fall in love. Fall for one illus­tra­tor, one artist that would change their lives, change the way they made their own art.

I began scan­ning illus­tra­tions for Pow­er­Point pre­sen­ta­tions. My lit­tle flatbed scan­ner hummed day after day until I had 1000 slides. A thou­sand! Even spread out over twelve class­es, a thou­sand slides would send stu­dents fly­ing for the exit. I cut and cut, until I had 500 slides. Well, they’d get their money’s worth.

Mon­strosi­ties of 1825,” by George Cruik­shank

On the first day of our class, I told the stu­dents to buck­le up, their first lec­ture would be like a motor­cy­cle ride through the Lou­vre. We cov­ered 150 years of illus­tra­tion, from the 1830s (George Cruik­shank) to the 1930s (E.H. Shep­ard), criss-cross­ing between Eng­land and Amer­i­ca. There were 75 slides, my script was 35 pages. Amaz­ing­ly, they all came back for the next class.

Toad told Rat all his adven­tures”, by Ernest H. Shep­ard, from The Wind in the Wil­lows

Halfway through the term, I added anoth­er facet to the unit on mid-cen­tu­ry illus­tra­tors. Artists who’d start­ed at Dis­ney Stu­dios and gone on to pro­duce children’s books — peo­ple like Bill Peet, the Provensens, and Gyo Fujikawa. Twelve class­es was not enough! So, I cre­at­ed a thir­teenth class, some­thing no one had ever done before. Work­ing around stu­dents’ sched­ules, we met dur­ing lunch. I opened the lec­ture up to every­one in our pro­gram. After that, oth­er fac­ul­ty mem­bers began hold­ing lunchtime lec­tures.

from The Ani­mal Fair, Alice and Mar­tin Provensen, Gold­en Books

A Child’s Good Night Book, illus­trat­ed by Jean Char­lot

Instead of a sin­gle text, stu­dents were required to dis­cuss ten pic­ture books I’d select­ed. Many had nev­er seen Robert Lawson’s tech­ni­cal­ly bril­liant line-work for Fer­di­nand the Bull. They all knew Clement Hurd’s art for Mar­garet Wise Brown’s Good­night Moon but had missed Jean Charlot’s mas­ter­ful pas­tels in A Child’s Good Night Book. Although I’d put togeth­er a zil­lion slides, I stag­gered into each class with more exam­ples of the fea­tured artist’s work. Slides are great, but noth­ing beats pag­ing through actu­al books, most vin­tage or hard-to-find.

We had “spe­cial” days, such as sam­pling every black form of media I could lay my hands on for stu­dents to emu­late Wan­da Gag’s printer’s black. We ate blue­ber­ry Dan­ish dur­ing the Robert McCloskey class. Stu­dents tore pieces of col­ored paper and made Leo Lion­ni-style col­lages as we dis­cussed Lit­tle Blue and Lit­tle Yel­low.

Katy and the Big Snow, writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Vir­ginia Lee Bur­ton

Stu­dents began bring­ing in books from mad-dash trips home to share. They showed sketch­es in the style of Vir­ginia Lee Bur­ton or Don­ald Crews. And they did what I hoped — they fell in love.

After my ini­tial run, I repeat­ed the course every oth­er year. Stu­dents pro­claimed it was their very favorite class in the pro­gram. On the last day of the term, we tra­di­tion­al­ly eat Krispy Kreme donuts and I ask the stu­dents who they fell in love with dur­ing the term. Often, it’s more than one illus­tra­tor. Then there are hugs and heart­felt good­byes, even a few tears.

Sum­mer 2018 was the final time I taught that love­ly course. After thir­teen years at Hollins, I need­ed to spend sum­mers home for per­son­al rea­sons. Instead I’ll teach inten­sives at the uni­ver­si­ty, as I have — and will con­tin­ue to do — for oth­er pro­grams and orga­ni­za­tions. As it turned out, my stu­dents changed my life, and teach­ing became my pas­sion.

On the last day of my last illus­tra­tion class, I gath­ered my mate­ri­als one last time, looked around at the emp­ty class­room where’d I’d taught so many years, and turned out the light. The tears were mine.


The Books We Keep Forever

J.R.R. Tolkien Maker of Middle-EarthA few weeks ago, I stood at the cor­ner of 37th and Madi­son Avenue in New York City and gazed long­ing­ly at the ele­gant pink mar­ble build­ing that housed J.P. Morgan’s library, now the Mor­gan Library and Muse­um. In late Jan­u­ary 2019, the Mor­gan will host the “Tolkien: Mak­er of Mid­dle-earth” exhib­it. I’m too ear­ly.

I only trav­el to New York every three or four years, but I’ll come back to see this exhib­it, even if I have to crawl. You see, I read The Lord of the Rings when I was thir­teen. After­ward, I moved to Mid­dle-earth and stayed the next eleven years. I drew pic­tures of hob­bits and Gan­dalf and thumbed to page 126 in The Return of the King again and again to expe­ri­ence the most thrilling sen­tence in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture — “Rohan had come at last.”

I have sev­er­al copies, includ­ing the 70s hard­cov­er edi­tions in slip­case, a heavy one-vol­ume edi­tion I read with the book propped on a pil­low, and the movie-based ver­sions. But the books I prize most are the 1967 Bal­lan­tine mass mar­ket paper­back edi­tions with Bar­bara Remington’s strange cov­er art. Orig­i­nal­ly, I checked out each vol­ume from the library, read it in school, in bed, in the car, as I walked, and returned it fever­ish­ly pray­ing the next vol­ume would be on the shelves. When I found the paper­backs in the first book­store in Fair­fax, I near­ly faint­ed. My very own Lord of the Rings!

Lord of the Rings

The fan­ta­sy made me want to tell every­one about the tril­o­gy and at the same time tell no one. I want­ed Tolkien’s mas­ter­piece all to myself. This is a com­mon notion among bib­lio­philes. In her mem­oir, My Life with Bob: Flawed Hero­ine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, Pamela Paul writes, “I con­sid­ered cer­tain books mine, and the idea that oth­er peo­ple liked them and thought of them as theirs felt like an intru­sion.” I also want­ed more Lord of the Rings, but there wasn’t any. And The Hob­bit didn’t cut it.

Those paper­backs went every­where with me, house to house, state to state. In each move, things got left behind: year­books, my high school diplo­ma, my mother’s kitchen table, the dress I was mar­ried in (not a wed­ding dress). But nev­er Lord of the Rings.

boy reading while walking to school

On my last morn­ing in New York, I wan­dered around the Upper West Side with chil­dren walk­ing to the var­i­ous P.S.’s and pri­vate schools I’d read and won­dered about in books like Har­ri­et the Spy. They walked with par­ents and nan­nies and baby broth­ers. They walked with friends and dogs and sib­lings on scoot­ers. These three chil­dren stayed ahead of me. At first I thought the boy was star­ing at a device. But he was read­ing a book! He wasn’t catch­ing up on home­work, he turned the pages too fer­vent­ly. His book was so engross­ing, he couldn’t put it down.

In an essay in the Octo­ber Harper’s, William Gass writes of his beloved Trea­sure Island, a cheap paper­back that saw him through “high school mis­eries,” went with him to col­lege, and was stowed in his Navy duf­fle dur­ing WWII. Despite the yel­lowed, brit­tle pages, Gass admits, “That book and I loved each oth­er.” He doesn’t mean the text, but the phys­i­cal book. Books on a screen, he main­tains, “have no mate­ri­al­i­ty … off the screen they do not exist … they do not wait to be reseen, reread; they only wait to be remade, relit.” I can’t imag­ine squint­ing at The Lord of the Rings on a Kin­dle, try­ing to find page 126 in the third vol­ume, unable to lose myself in Remington’s cov­er art that forms a trip­tych when the indi­vid­ual books are lined up.

As a child in the 80s, Pamela Paul sought vin­tage “yel­low back” Nan­cy Drews. The orig­i­nal 30s blue spine books were too old, and the new paper­backs were “loath­some.” She pre­ferred the 60s edi­tions with their inte­ri­or draw­ings and “broody cov­er paint­ings.” The qual­i­ty of the paper, the bind­ing glue, the end papers made the book a trea­sured object, “the vase as much a plea­sure as the flow­ers.”

The books we keep for­ev­er are the ones we owned back when buy­ing a book was a big deal. When we made the effort to track down spe­cial edi­tions. When we would walk and read because the book would not leave our hands. I hope the book that New York school­boy was read­ing was chang­ing his life, that it was his, and that he would keep it for­ev­er, no mat­ter where he went in life.

After high school, I got a job as a sec­re­tary. I hung a poster of Remington’s Lord of the Rings cov­er art over my desk. (Clear­ly, I was not your aver­age sec­re­tary). At the age of 24, I decid­ed it was time to leave Mid­dle-earth. This com­ing Jan­u­ary or Feb­ru­ary, I’ll return to New York to see Tolkien’s orig­i­nal papers and draw­ings and maps. Mean­while, I’ll re-read my Bal­lan­tine paper­backs. The door to Mid­dle-earth is always open.


Tonight is the Night …

… when dead leaves fly like witch­es on switch­es across the sky … 

In the cen­ter of our Wegman’s is all the stuff that is not food. Of course, I head there first. Brows­ing tea tow­els and sun­flower coast­ers is my reward from hav­ing to shop in the too-big gro­cery store. 

Halloween plate

Recent­ly I found a plate among the Hal­loween décor. I didn’t need a Hal­loween plate but this one made me stop. The design remind­ed me of the lit­tle treat bags peo­ple gave out on Hal­loween, filled with pop­corn balls or home­made cook­ies (yes, the old­en trick-or-treat­ing days were bet­ter).  Hal­loween was my favorite hol­i­day when I was a kid. I pulled out my witch cos­tume in August. I drew pic­tures of haunt­ed hous­es. At nine, I want­ed to be a witch liv­ing in a haunt­ed house.

Blue-Nosed WitchAfter I grew up, Hal­loween, slammed against Thanks­giv­ing and Christ­mas, slid back. (East­er is now my favorite hol­i­day, because you don’t have to do any­thing, because it’s spring, because the col­ors and bun­nies are cheer­ful.)

As I stared at that orange and black plate, a door opened, just a sliv­er and just for an instant. I was nine again, flap­ping through our house in my pur­ple (prob­a­bly flam­ma­ble) witch’s cape, eager for Hal­loween even though school hadn’t start­ed yet. What a deli­cious feel­ing, all shiv­ery and excit­ing at the same time.  Then the door shut, and I had to think about let­tuce and cat food and show­er clean­er.

Although I’ve been writ­ing children’s books for near­ly forty years and have spent more years read­ing children’s books or writ­ing about children’s lit­er­a­ture, I have increas­ing­ly lim­it­ed access to my own child­hood. Mem­o­ries fade due to age, med­ica­tion, and Great Big World Prob­lems. It’s hard­er to keep the door to child­hood open when you’re wor­ried about lab results, tax­es, and frack­ing.

This past sum­mer, I taught my last sum­mer term at Hollins Uni­ver­si­ty. My final class in the Children’s Lit­er­a­ture Grad­u­ate Pro­gram was the his­to­ry of children’s book illus­tra­tors. My stu­dents, most­ly young illus­tra­tors, set­tled into this course as if they’d come home.  

Bedknob and BroomstickThey loved see­ing the ground-break­ing work of Wan­da Gâg and Vir­ginia Lee Bur­ton. They loved the sur­prise of Leo Lion­ni and oth­er mod­ernists. They loved the ver­sa­til­i­ty of Mar­cia Brown and the Dil­lons. In each class, a stu­dent would gasp or smile with recog­ni­tion dur­ing the dis­cus­sion of an artist or spe­cif­ic pic­ture book. I could almost see the door swing open. “My moth­er read me that book!” Or, “My grand­moth­er had that book! I for­got about it!”

Most of my stu­dents weren’t that far removed from their child­hoods. But they were so tight­ly focused on learn­ing craft and tech­nique that they had lost track of why they chose this field. It’s not enough to “love children’s books” (though we do). As cre­ators, we must stay con­nect­ed to the child inside.

One of my stu­dents pref­aced her final paper with this quote by Howard Pyle, illus­tra­tor and founder of the Brandy­wine School: “The sto­ries of child­hood leave an indeli­ble impres­sion, and their author always has a niche in the tem­ple of mem­o­ry from which the image is nev­er cast out to be thrown on the rub­bish heap of things that are out­grown and out­lived.” 

HalloweenThose sto­ries may be for­got­ten, buried at the bot­tom of mem­o­ries that are more imme­di­ate, until the unex­pect­ed moment that sin­gle, indeli­ble image ris­es to the top. For me, a $7 plate in a gro­cery store gave me a glimpse of past Octo­bers, and the mem­o­ry of the books I read back then that let me expe­ri­ence shiv­ery, excit­ing feel­ings any day of the year.

Yeah, I bought the plate I didn’t need, but some­how did. My old Hal­loween books keep it com­pa­ny, along with Har­ry Behn’s Hal­loween, illus­trat­ed by Greg Couch, a poem some of us remem­ber from school … 

…When elf and sprite flit through the night on a moony sheen.

It’s delight­ful­ly witchy — look the rest of it up for Hal­loween! 


The Need for Secret Places

honeysuckleIn the fifth grade, my best friend and I dis­cov­ered a tan­gle of hon­ey­suck­le in the scrub­by woods bor­der­ing our school play­ground. It would make the per­fect recess refuge. All we had to do was pull the hon­ey­suck­le from inside the cir­cle of saplings it was twined around, leav­ing a cur­tain of vines.

The next day, we sprint­ed into the thick­et and began rip­ping out vines. Hon­ey­suck­le, we learned, often grows with poi­son ivy. When we were no longer coat­ed in calamine lotion, we fin­ished our hide­out. Each recess, we dashed down the hill when the teacher wasn’t look­ing and zipped into Hon­ey­suck­le Hide­out. Hav­ing a secret place at school, where we were cor­ralled by adults, gave us an exhil­a­rat­ing sense of free­dom.

Until the day three sixth graders invad­ed our Hide­out. The pres­ence of sneer­ing, old­er girls shat­tered our pri­va­cy. Our haven sud­den­ly seemed child­ish and the pow­er we’d felt spy­ing on oth­ers dimin­ished in an instant. We were back in the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion of ordi­nary kids.

Although I had my own room at home, I made a den from a blan­ket-cov­ered card table, cob­bled a makeshift play­house inside my clos­et, and claimed the nook behind the fur­nace in our base­ment. In these places I felt safe and seclud­ed. The books I read fueled the need for secre­cy: the gate­house-turned-club­house in the Trix­ie Belden mys­ter­ies, the Melendy sib­lings’ Office in The Sat­ur­days, the dumb­wait­er Har­ri­et the Spy squeezed into, the Bor­row­ers’ realm beneath the floor­boards.

four books

Once, I spread a tarp inside a roll of unused chick­en wire sit­ting along one side of our gar­den. I crawled inside. Rag­weed and tall grass cloaked the fence roll from view. The tarp floor smelled musty. I tucked a box of Milk Duds and my library book in a fold at one end. The cat joined me. We whiled away sum­mer after­noons as bum­ble­bees drowsed in the clover and a thrush sang sweet­ly deep in the woods.

I didn’t know then that place-mak­ing helped con­nect me to the plan­et. Qui­et and hid­den, I began to under­stand I was part of the larg­er space shared by the bum­ble­bees, the thrush, and the cat. I con­tin­ued to cre­ate these sanc­tu­ar­ies no mat­ter where I lived. As poet Kim Stafford said in his essay, “A Sep­a­rate Hearth:” I would take any refuge from the thor­ough­fare of plain liv­ing … there I pledged alle­giance to what I knew, as opposed to what was com­mon.

The geog­ra­phy of our pasts is lit­tered with snow forts and retreats beneath rhodo­den­dron bush­es, tree hous­es and havens under front porch­es. Secret spaces, no mat­ter how tiny or crude, expand to accom­mo­date kids’ fan­tasies and imag­i­na­tion. Children’s den-mak­ing, says Col­in Ward in The Child in the City, car­ries over into adult­hood. “Behind all our pur­po­sive activ­i­ties, our domes­tic world, is this ide­al land­scape we acquired in child­hood.” I still carve out sanc­tu­ar­ies to escape dish­es and laun­dry and, nowa­days, the inva­sion of email.

In my 1920s themed sit­ting room, the small­est room in our house, I sit on the floor sur­round­ed by vin­tage children’s books, old per­fume bot­tles, and McCoy vio­let pots filled with col­ored pen­cils. I write notes using my grandfather’s cedar chest as a desk, read, or work on art projects. Each evening, I wind down in this cozy room and let the day waft out the win­dow.

Secret PlacesWhere do today’s chil­dren craft their pri­vate spaces? I nev­er see kids in my neigh­bor­hood build­ing forts or play­hous­es or even sit­ting under a tree. As Eliz­a­beth Good­e­nough says in her book, Secret Spaces of Child­hood, “With­out a cor­ner to build a world apart, [chil­dren] can’t plant what [author] Diane Ack­er­man calls ‘the small crop of self.’”

Many kids escape adults in their bed­rooms, holed up with lap­tops or Play Sta­tions. Apps and games let chil­dren cre­ate mar­velous king­doms. A house made of sticks can hard­ly com­pete with, say, the sophis­ti­ca­tion of Fortnite’s “Loot Lake.” Yet a space of the child’s own mak­ing pro­vides soli­tude and expands to accom­mo­date fan­tasies and imag­i­na­tion. Secret places in games are bound­ed by adult-cre­at­ed rules, the prod­uct of some­one else’s imag­i­na­tion. Those seem­ing­ly lim­it­less options are con­tained in a box.

How will chil­dren find their place in the world in front of screens? Hands tap­ping plas­tic keys can’t feel the fiber tough­ness of hon­ey­suck­le vines or the rough sur­face of a sun-warmed tarp. Eyes focus­ing on flick­er­ing avatars can’t track the up-and-down flight of a blue­bird. The player’s sense of iden­ti­ty, dis­guised in a “skin,” is mere­ly a reflec­tion in the glass.

Bet­ter to seed that small crop of self with books which give a child ideas, words that flour­ish into men­tal pic­tures, and send her out the door to build her own pri­vate king­doms.


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