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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Archive | Red Reading Boots


by Melanie Heuis­er Hill


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tales from Shakespeare

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

Red Reading Boots

One of my favorite class­es in col­lege was a Shake­speare class. It was well-known, well-loved, hard to get into, and manda­to­ry for all Eng­lish majors. It orga­nized my life the semes­ter I took it. The rhythm it dic­tat­ed was this: Arrive at class on Mon­day hav­ing read the assigned play and accom­pa­ny­ing crit­i­cal lit­er­a­ture. Inspir­ing lec­tures on Mon­day and Wednes­day on the week’s play. Dif­fi­cult test and var­i­ous movie clips of the play on Fri­day. Repeat. We made it through Shakespeare’s major plays stick­ing to this sched­ule.

It was a lot of read­ing. That’s what I remem­ber most—standing in line at the door to the library at noon on Sun­days (wait­ing for it to open—college libraries are open 247 now!) with snacks, tea, and my hefty bright red Com­plete Works of Shake­speare. I spent bliss­ful Sun­day after­noons read­ing the week’s assigned play…and nap­ping. I took a nap every Sun­day after­noon in the library. I left post-nap when the play was read, my notes made, and I could put off sup­per no longer. It has been many, many years since I spent a Sun­day after­noon in this way, but I think of it almost every Sun­day. I think it might be my True Rhythm.

Tales from ShakespeareI have retained more infor­ma­tion from that class than any oth­er, I think. But I still some­times get plots con­fused. If I don’t have a Sun­day after­noon to devote to read­ing a whole play through, I sim­ply pull the well-worn Tales From Shake­speare from my shelf and have a look there.

I don’t know when this book came to us—I think prob­a­bly my moth­er-in-law got it for our son when he was quite young. She loves Shake­speare. He loves Shakespeare—and it start­ed with this book, I know. He can tell you plots—seldom con­fus­es them—and it’s all because of this book.

Because of Tales From Shake­speare and the acces­si­bil­i­ty it pro­vid­ed for an inter­est­ed young child, we have seen many of Shakespeare’s plays on the stage, in the park, and on the screen over the years. Know­ing the basics of the plot and the char­ac­ters before you go can make all the dif­fer­ence, no mat­ter your age. He sat rapt at Shake­speare In the Park pro­duc­tions before he went to school. We saw a stun­ning pro­duc­tion of Mac­beth when he was still wear­ing a clip-on tie and I was wor­ried about the lev­el of vio­lence. Years ago, when he was a young teen, we saw Pro­peller, the all male Shake­speare troupe, in a per­for­mance of Tam­ing of the Shrew that we still talk about reg­u­lar­ly.

Tales From Shake­speare by Tina Pack­er, pres­i­dent and artis­tic direc­tor of Shake­speare & Com­pa­ny, has made these expe­ri­ences pos­si­ble. There is noth­ing all that fan­cy about this book—it’s beau­ti­ful, to be sure, but it isn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly pro­found in its beau­ty or in what it does. After a brief syn­op­sis, the sto­ry is told over a few pages. There is art here and there by a vari­ety of artists. There is a list of the main char­ac­ters and their rela­tion­ship to each oth­er. A Time & Place is list­ed, made all the more inter­est­ing when we see the play set in anoth­er time and place. That’s it. But our copy is well-worn—I used to read it to the kids. Then they read it on their own. Now we pret­ty much con­sult it as need­ed. And I should say that I use it as much as anyone—there’s noth­ing about it that makes it exclu­sive­ly a “kid book.”

HamletOver New Year’s we caught a Nation­al The­ater Live pro­duc­tion of Ham­let—Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch play­ing the title role, which was tremen­dous­ly excit­ing for our Sher­lock-lov­ing house­hold. We hadn’t seen Ham­let  before and although we could piece togeth­er the basics between us, we still pulled out Tales From Shake­speare and did our home­work before we went. It was a ter­rif­ic pro­duc­tion and young and old­er alike enjoyed it thor­ough­ly.

There’s a par­tic­u­lar kind of pride—I feel like there should be a long Ger­man word for it—that one feels when walk­ing behind one’s thir­teen and almost-nine­teen year old off­spring as they dis­cuss their favorite parts of a Shake­speare­an pro­duc­tion, com­par­ing and con­trast­ing with oth­er Shake­speare plays they’ve seen. Does this Eng­lish-Major Mama’s heart good.

I put Tales From Shake­speare back on the shelf this morn­ing. It won’t be long before it’s out again, I’m sure.


The Nativity

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

It was my job to read to the chil­dren. There were many oth­er stations—crafts and col­or­ing, games and songs—all built around the most impor­tant task of the morn­ing: The Try­ing On of the Cos­tumes for the Christ­mas Pro­gram, which was to be held lat­er that after­noon.

I had my own lit­tle nook. Chil­dren and some­times their par­ents came and went between find­ing shep­herd robes and angel halos. I would put three or four Christ­mas books out on a table and when­ev­er a new batch of kids came in I’d ask some­one to pick a book for us to read. (Research. Always inter­est­ing to see what they pick and ask why they picked it.)

And it came to pass that I read a series of my favorites to a pre­co­cious, prag­mat­ic sev­en-year-old and a whim­si­cal three-year-old, whose favorite ques­tions always begin with Why? After the three of us had read sev­er­al books togeth­er, I put out four more and asked them to choose the next one. I knew which one they’d pick. And sure enough—The Nativ­i­ty by Julie Vivas won again.

This book is bril­liant. I love read­ing it with kids. It is so vis­cer­al, so phys­i­cal, so fleshy. The text is tak­en from the King James Ver­sion of Luke’s Gospel—lots of thees and thous—but although they occa­sion­al­ly have a vocab­u­lary ques­tion (“What’s swad­dling clothes?”) kids aren’t in the least put off by the lan­guage.

And so we began with the Angel Gabriel and his fan­tas­tic wings—Vivas’s wings are tru­ly inspired.

In the days of Herod the King, the Angel Gabriel was sent from God to the
city of Nazareth. To a vir­gin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, and the virgin’s name was Mary.


3-year-old: (wist­ful­ly) Why don’t we have wings any­more?

7-year-old: Humans don’t have wings. Only birds and angels and insects have wings. What’s a vir­gin? And what does espoused mean?

We watched Mary’s bel­ly grow, and the sev­en-year-old said, “She real­ly IS great with child.” The three-year-old remarked that Mary’s butt was pret­ty big, too—there’s a great view when Joseph boosts her up on the don­key. And then both vol­un­teered details of their own birth that I’m guess­ing their moth­ers did not antic­i­pate would be shared.

We con­tin­ued, attempt­ing to count the peo­ple in crowd­ed Beth­le­hem in a gor­geous two-page word­less spread. And then before we knew it “the day came that she should be deliv­ered.”

7-year-old: Deliv­ered where?

Me: Deliv­ered just means Baby Jesus would be born.

7-year-old: And deliv­ered where?

3-year-old: To his Mom.

And she brought forth her first­born son.


3-year-old: He has a penis.

7-year-old: Yes, he’s a boy. Because his name is Jesus.

And lo, the angels came to the shep­herds. Again—the wings!


7-year-old: I’m going to be an angel in the Christ­mas Pro­gram. I was last year, too. I have expe­ri­ence.

3-year-old: (wist­ful­ly again) Why don’t we still have wings?

7-year-old: We nev­er had wings. Human don’t have wings.

3-year-old: I used to.

And behold, the wise men came to Jerusalem….

3-year-old: I rode a camel. With my grand­ma and grand­pa.

7-year-old: Did you fol­low a star?

3-year-old: Yes.

When we were fin­ished, we went through the book again, telling the sto­ry in our own words. The sev­en-year-old cor­rect­ly used the words vir­gin, swad­dling clothes, and espoused. She also threw in a few thees and thous. Most impres­sive. And the three-year-old stood and deliv­ered an inspired “Fear not!” when Gabriel vis­it­ed Mary, and again when the angel­ic choir came to the shep­herds. We dis­cussed the wings and the penis again, as well as the size of Mary’s back­side. We mar­veled at the angels who rode the sheep and won­dered what that would be like.

It was holy time. Read­ing to chil­dren is holy.


Red Reading Boots: Lucia Morning in Sweden

ph_lussekatterbunThis week is full of prepa­ra­tions at our house. Lucia Day comes on Sun­day and our household’s Lucia wish­es to make the Lussekat­ter buns this year. I’ve learned not to stand in her way—she can­not be deterred.

The mag­ic of St. Lucia was intro­duced to our fam­i­ly four­teen years ago. It was a dif­fi­cult Decem­ber for us and our dark days were in need of some light and love, which was pro­vid­ed by some dear friends who arrived on our doorstep in the very ear­ly morn­ing, wak­ing us with song, can­dle­light, and a scrump­tious Swedish break­fast feast. It’s one of the kind­est gifts of friend­ship I’ve ever received. We knew noth­ing about Lucia pri­or to that mag­i­cal morn­ing, but our friends sat and told her sto­ries and their sto­ries of cel­e­brat­ing Lucia with their kids when they were small.

By the next Christ­mas we had a rosy-cheeked blue-eyed baby girl who looked like she’d be a blondie if she ever got hair. (She’s one-quar­ter Swedish, to boot!) And it came to pass. She’s thir­teen now, and has a full head of still-blonde hair. She’s been Lucy on Decem­ber 13th for the last ten years. She takes very seri­ous­ly the bring­ing of  light and song and Lucy cook­ies and treats to her fam­i­ly and friends.

When she was in sec­ond grade, her school did a unit on all the fes­ti­vals of light that occur in and around December—Hanukkah, Diwali, Kwan­zaa etc. and my girl vol­un­teered me to come teach about Lucia.


writ­ten by Ewa Rydåk­er,
illus. by Cari­na Ståhlberg

So I did a lit­tle research, wrote new Eng­lish words to the tra­di­tion­al Swedish song, bought a lot of Annas Swedish Wish Cook­ies, and went to my local Swedish Insti­tute (we have such things in Min­neso­ta) to see if there was a book I might read. Lucia Morn­ing in Swe­den by Ewa Rydåk­er fit the bill.

Class after class was rapt as the sto­ry of one mod­ern Swedish family’s Lucia Day prepa­ra­tions was read. The kids loved it. They sang the song lusti­ly, ate their cook­ies and made their wish­es (one for them­selves and one for some­one else, in homage to Lucia who brought light and love to oth­ers), and asked many many ques­tions of Lucia’s death, saint­hood, and her many Decem­ber cel­e­bra­tions around the world. They were utter­ly fas­ci­nat­ed with the crown of can­dles and only the lice epi­dem­ic the school was expe­ri­enc­ing that year (there’s always some­thing) pre­vent­ed us from hav­ing each and every child try the crown on.

gr_luciaIn research­ing the his­to­ry and sur­round­ing myths of Lucia, I learned that Swe­den is not the only coun­try to claim Lucy. There’s an Ital­ian part of the story—which led me to announce that some Lucias have blonde hair, blue eyes, and pale skin, while oth­er have black hair, dark eyes, and brown skin. Sud­den­ly the entire sec­ond grade felt free to be Lucia or one of her star boys.

Six years lat­er, I still occa­sion­al­ly run into a teenag­er who says, “Hey—you brought us those wish cook­ies and taught us about Lucia when we were lit­tle! I loved that book!”

The mem­o­ry of tak­ing the St. Lucia cel­e­bra­tion to the sec­ond grade warms my heart each year in Decem­ber. My own Lucy needs lit­tle help with prepa­ra­tions any more. Indeed, she told me she’d be my alarm clock this year and bring me lussekat­ter and cof­fee in bed on Sun­day.

This leads me to think my work here is about done.


Red Reading Boots: The Tapper Twins

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

I’m gen­er­al­ly a read­er of “tra­di­tion­al nov­els,” by which I mean nov­els that have chap­ters with titles, para­graphs with gram­mat­i­cal­ly cor­rect sen­tences, and per­haps the occa­sion­al com­ple­men­tary art under the chap­ter num­ber. I’m inten­tion­al about expand­ing my hori­zons and read­ing graph­ic nov­els, hybrids, and the like…but I still have to be inten­tion­al about it, I’m afraid. What can I say? I’m a suck­er for the com­fort­able, tra­di­tion­al for­mat, even as I’m often wowed by the untra­di­tion­al.

book_1_smallThe Tap­per Twins Go To War (With Each Oth­er) came across my radar and was accom­pa­nied by pos­i­tive reviews from peo­ple I respect a great deal, so I request­ed it at my friend­ly local library. It came. I stood in the library, flip­ping through, shocked at what I saw.

I must have the wrong book, I thought. It was the only expla­na­tion I could think of. So I looked up the rec­om­men­da­tion again. I had the right book.

I hand­ed it to my thir­teen-year-old daugh­ter, who is much more…open. And I lis­tened to her laugh in her room that evening while she read it. The next day, she hand­ed it to me and said, “Must read, Mom!”


You’ll love it. Besides, it’s a New York Book.”

I love New York Books.

The sto­ry of Clau­dia and Reese Tap­per, twelve-year-old twins, and their war is told as an “oral his­to­ry.” It looks much like a screen play in many places. (Geoff Rod­key is, in fact, a screen­writer.) But it also includes com­put­er screen­shots, gam­ing dig­i­tal art, text mes­sages between the par­ents, and doc­tored pho­tos. There are hand­writ­ten “edits and addi­tions,” lots of arrows drawn with these edits and addi­tions, and many ref­er­ences to Wikipedia-told his­to­ry. It is, in short…well, quite dif­fer­ent than my usu­al tra­di­tion­al nov­els.

bk_tappertwins1Then I read it. And I laughed out loud. In my office, all by myself. Laughed and laughed. Loved it. I’ve spent quite a bit of time around mid­dle school­ers in recent years and Clau­dia and Reese and their friends beau­ti­ful­ly cap­ture the diver­si­ty of matu­ri­ty, zani­ness, and crazy ener­gy of this age group. Clau­dia is a pulled-togeth­er, bossy, know-it-all who is thor­ough­ly exas­per­at­ed by her twin broth­er. Reese is such a twelve-year-old boy, and there­fore sort of bewil­dered by his sis­ter. Their friends are vari­a­tions on sim­i­lar themes. The dia­logue is spot on, the esca­la­tion of the con­flict true to form, and the rela­tion­ship between sib­lings, friends, and the mid­dle school as a whole is pret­ty per­fect­ly depict­ed. Through com­put­er screen­shots, gam­ing art, text mes­sages, doc­tored phots…..

Clau­dia inter­views the com­bat­ants and serves as the pri­ma­ry nar­ra­tor of the sto­ry of the war, which starts as a series of pranks and esca­lates to seri­ous (though not fright­en­ing) pro­por­tions. She includes the tes­ti­mo­ny of her clue­less par­ents (hilar­i­ous all on their own), the inept nan­ny, the allies, bystanders, and ene­mies. She is the one who draws the arrows and makes the cor­rec­tions and addi­tions to everyone’s tes­ti­mo­ny.

book_2_smallThe rela­tion­ships are com­pli­cat­ed and the mis­un­der­stand­ings numer­ous. But the nov­el cir­cles back in a very good way—and there are some “teach­able moments,” actu­al­ly, if a par­en­t/teacher-type doesn’t ruin it by call­ing atten­tion to them. Kids can learn a lot about how things look from dif­fer­ent points of view, how social media can com­pli­cate things in ways you can’t pre­dict, and how embar­rass­ments can turn into more or less than that depend­ing on how we react to them. I’m glad my social media new­bie read it.

Pick­ing up my copy of The Tap­per Twins Tear Up New York tomor­row! I’m a fan!


Judy Blume

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

ph_blumeI had the extra­or­di­nary for­tune of see­ing Judy Blume a few weeks ago. I was going to say “see­ing Judy Blume in concert”—that’s sort of what it felt like, actu­al­ly. She’s a rock-star in my world. And she was inter­viewed by Nan­cy Pearl, no less, so the whole event felt like I’d won a prize and been dropped in A Dream Come True. Both were wonderful—profound, hon­est, fun­ny. It was such a treat.

Judy Blume played a large role in my childhood/adolescence.  My fourth grade teacher read us Tales of a Fourth Grade Noth­ing, of course, and from there I went on to Freck­le Juice and Oth­er­wise Known As Sheila the Great. By fifth grade I was read­ing Star­ring Sal­ly J. Freed­man As Her­self and learn­ing about anti-semi­tism, which I knew noth­ing about; and racism, which was a dai­ly part of life where I was grow­ing up; and lice, the rea­son we spent hours with our whole class in the nurse’s office being picked over. (If we’d spent as much time learn­ing as we did hav­ing our hair picked through, I prob­a­bly could’ve skipped a cou­ple of grades.)

I think it was prob­a­bly Sal­ly J. that got me active­ly look­ing for Judy Blume books. She’s the first author I remem­ber search­ing for at the library cat­a­log. I read Are You There God, It’s Me Mar­garet? many times in fifth grade. I was stunned to learn that a girl could wish for the changes brought on by puber­ty. Puber­ty hit me ear­ly, hard, and fast and I hat­ed the changes it brought. It was fas­ci­nat­ing to read about a girl who yearned for her peri­od, did exer­cis­es in hope of increas­ing her bust line (“We must! We must! We must increase our bust!”), and prayed to God to make her a woman.

blumestripMy daughter’s fifth grade Eng­lish teacher hand­ed her Margaret’s sto­ry. Per­haps I gushed too much about how I loved it, because Dar­ling Daugh­ter cared for it not. Our Moth­er-Daugh­ter Book­club tried a cou­ple of times to sug­gest the book—we moth­ers who came of age in the sev­en­ties had fond mem­o­ries. But as it turned out, the moth­ers (re)read it, and the daugh­ters refused. Not inter­est­ed. Not even about the reli­gious stuff, which I was sur­prised to find was real­ly the main con­flict in the sto­ry! I’d for­got­ten all about it—it was all bras and “san­i­tary nap­kins” in my mem­o­ry.

We moth­ers won­dered: was it because we were encour­ag­ing the girls to read Mar­garet that they didn’t want to? Our own moth­ers were not so keen on the book—Judy Blume’s books didn’t have a great rep­u­ta­tion among moth­ers in the 1970s. Ms. Blume cov­ered all kinds of top­ics quite frankly and some of those top­ics our moth­ers either want­ed to cov­er them­selves, or leave as a “mys­tery.” (Prob­a­bly most­ly the lat­ter.)

But I read a lot of Judy Blume, not hav­ing a cen­sor­ing moth­er, and I learned a lot from her books. I learned about sco­l­io­sis and bad deci­sions and wet dreams and peri­ods and inse­cu­ri­ties and mean­ness and kind­ness and fam­i­ly issues/secrets and mas­tur­ba­tion and gen­der and crush­es and sex. Well, actu­al­ly, I didn’t learn much about sex. The “key pages” from For­ev­er were passed around the sixth grade, but I was too ner­vous to actu­al­ly read them, which left things a lit­tle vague, giv­en that the play­ground dis­cus­sion around said pages was…a lit­tle vague.

Ms. Blume told us that those of us who grew up read­ing Are You There God, It’s Me, Mar­garet often ask her for a “sequel” bring­ing our friend Mar­garet full cir­cle as she goes through menopause. I would love this book, I must say. But Margaret’s author said, “Mar­garet is always twelve! Menopause is not her sto­ry.”

blume_eventAnd indeed—the book is pret­ty time­less (with a lit­tle vocab­u­lary updat­ed) because being twelve has a time­less­ness about it. Twelve (and the years just on either side of twelve) is a time of tremen­dous tran­si­tion and change, hopes and prayers, inse­cu­ri­ty and deci­sion. The details change a lit­tle gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion, but the impor­tant stuff—the stuff of cre­at­ing and dis­cov­er­ing your­self, of grow­ing up—stays remark­ably the same.

I’m so grate­ful to Judy Blume and grate­ful for the work she still does—the writ­ing and speak­ing and the stand she has tak­en on cen­sor­ship. Her newest book (for adults), In the Unlike­ly Event, is ter­rif­ic. I can hear her voice as I read it, which is a tremen­dous treat as both a read­er and a writer. Huz­zah to Judy! I say. Huz­zah!


Keeping Track

img_RRBJournalI’ve not kept track. Not real­ly. I mean, I can peruse our many book­shelves and make a sort of list, but it would be miss­ing things. What about all the library books we’ve read togeth­er?

I was in a book dis­cus­sion ear­li­er this week with a woman who keeps A Read­ing Jour­nal. She writes as she reads—notes and quotes, ques­tions and lists, impres­sions and rec­om­men­da­tions, etc. She has, she con­fessed under my too eager ques­tion­ing, mul­ti­ple vol­umes of these jour­nals. I imag­ine them sit­ting with their straight spines and gild­ed pages all on one book­shelf. I am jealous—not envi­ous, but flat out jeal­ous. She insists their res­i­dence is not so neat, that the prac­tice is not that admirable. She says the note­books are not all the same, that some are falling apart, that she keeps them in mul­ti­ple places etc. She says this as if she’s real­ly not so orga­nized and dili­gent, but she doesn’t fool me. She’s been keep­ing A Read­ing Jour­nal since she was eleven.

I’ve always want­ed to keep A Read­ing Jour­nal. I’ve nev­er kept A Read­ing Jour­nal. Not so much, even, as a list of the things I’ve read. I can for­give myself for this, but I’m envi­ous of those who do man­age to jot down the titles, even if noth­ing else.

img_RRBAuthorHenkesHowever…on the heels of meet­ing this won­der­ful read­er, I read this inter­view. Because I would read any­thing hav­ing to do with Kevin Henkes, on whom I might have a small writer­ly-crush. (Some­times, when I have a rough day, I watch the Meet Kevin Henkes video on his web­site. It’s bet­ter than a glass of wine. I watch him draw Lilly…and my thoughts set­tle. I lis­ten to him talk about the col­ors of Lil­ly and Ginger’s dresses…and I feel like I can go on. He flips through his note­books show­ing us how his ideas become books…sigh…and I am inspired and ready to work. I’m eas­i­ly moved by the keep­ing of note­books, appar­ent­ly.)

I adore this man’s books—especially the mouse pic­ture books. When I think of this won­der­ful author-artist in his book-lined, light-filled stu­dio cre­at­ing books for us, my heart is glad. I think I vague­ly knew he had a fam­i­ly, though I nev­er gave them a thought until this inter­view. Here, I learn that he read to his kids at break­fast. “Which was a great thing,” he says in his Kevin Henkes way, “because I would read to both of them and my wife would be mak­ing the lunch­es so all four of us had this shared expe­ri­ence.”

img_RRBmouseWelcomeI sigh. He reads to kids at break­fast and his wife makes the lunch­es and they have a Shared Expe­ri­ence. Do they know how lucky they are? And then I think: I read to my kids at break­fast some! My hus­band wasn’t mak­ing the lunch­es while I was doing so, since he leaves before the rest of us are up, but we as a fam­i­ly have oth­er Shared Expe­ri­ences around books, yes we do! So, Kevin Henkes and I have some­thing in com­mon! There’s that!

Then I learn that they’ve kept a list in the back hall of all the books they read togeth­er, “120 and some books.”

My heart sinks. We do not have a back hall. I have not kept a list. I’m sure we’ve read 120-some books togeth­er, but I do not have a list in a back hall to prove it. I find myself won­der­ing how the list was kept in the back hall. I imag­ine Kevin Henkes’ chil­dren scrib­bling titles on the wall, his wife wall­pa­per­ing with book­cov­er pho­tos, him slip­ping small scraps of paper with titles in a chinked wall of rock. Can you have a back hall made of rocks?

I call myself back to real­i­ty. It doesn’t mat­ter how Kevin Henkes and his lucky fam­i­ly keep their list. It doesn’t even mat­ter that they’ve kept the list. Not real­ly. What mat­ters is the Shared Expe­ri­ence. I feel sure Kevin Henkes would agree with me. And my fam­i­ly and I have the Shared Expe­ri­ence of books read together—hundreds of books read togeth­er, espe­cial­ly if you count all the times we read Kevin Henkes’ mouse books.

img_RRBmouseFlowerThere’s a part of me that wants to recre­ate the list—find a wall some­where in the house (I’m quite tak­en with the “back hall” aspect of this) to scrib­ble all of the titles of books we’ve read togeth­er. But it wouldn’t be accurate—it’d be like mark­ing the kids’ heights as they grew on the kitchen door­frame now that they’ve grown. (Anoth­er nos­tal­gic record keep­ing I wish I’d done.)

So I will kvell in the Shared Experience—I’m so grate­ful for all the time we’ve read togeth­er, whether I have a list in the back hall or in a jour­nal to show for it or not.


Mouse and Bear Books

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Berenstain Bears

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

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

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

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

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

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


Brambly Hedge

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Enola Holmes Mysteries

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

We are talk­ing a lot these days at our house about Harp­er Lee’s To Kill a Mock­ing­bird and bk_MockingbirdGo Set A Watch­man. As a fam­i­ly we lis­tened to To Kill A Mock­ing­bird, nar­rat­ed by Sis­sy Spacek, last sum­mer on our vaca­tion. Every­one in the car was riv­et­ed to the story…but both of the kids will tell you they real­ly didn’t like it.

I adore Harp­er Lee’s novel—the char­ac­ters, the set­ting, the sto­ry, the writ­ing. We spent much of eighth grade Eng­lish on it, in my (pos­si­bly revi­sion­ist) mem­o­ry, and I loved every minute of it. I am intrigued, chal­lenged, and often con­vict­ed by the argu­ments made by those who do not adore it, how­ev­er. Clos­er exam­i­na­tion of this beloved clas­sic this sum­mer hasn’t “ruined” To Kill a Mock­ing­bird for me, nor has Go Set A Watch­man; rather, I’m see­ing it through dif­fer­ent eyes and think­ing about things in new ways. This feels impor­tant. And I’ll make the dan­ger­ous­ly loose claim that any book that gets peo­ple talk­ing and read­ing like these two books have is a good book. (Of course there are exceptions—you just thought of some and so did I. Just go with it. You know what I mean.)


bk_I-KillLast week, I went to look for books for kids about To Kill a Mock­ing­bird and brought home a cou­ple of nov­els rec­om­mend­ed at my local inde­pen­dent book­store. My girl reads much faster than I do—especially in the sum­mer with its long read­ing hours—and so she agreed to read them and report back. I hand­ed her I Kill the Mock­ing­bird by Paul Acam­po­ra first. She read it in one sit­ting.

You will love it,” she said.

Did you love it?” I asked. Some­times these opin­ions are mutu­al­ly exclu­sive.

Pret­ty much.”

And so I read it. It’s a quick­ie and it did not dis­ap­point. Very clever, great writ­ing, many lay­ers to enjoy but easy to read, and a won­der­ful “idea” for a sto­ry for young teens. My only com­plaint is that I wish it had been longer. It moves fast and is admirably compact…but the writ­ing is so good, the char­ac­ters so won­der­ful, their dia­logue so wit­ty, the sto­ry such a hoot, and the themes so impor­tant…well, I just would’ve enjoyed more of it.

Our con­ver­sa­tion around this book has large­ly been about the role of tech­nol­o­gy, not the orig­i­nal clas­sic around which the small nov­el revolves. Acampora’s book is full of social media—Facebook, Twit­ter, Insta­gram, chat rooms—it’s all there. In fact, it is absolute­ly nec­es­sary to the plot, which is why I didn’t mind it at all.

I remain Lud­dite-like and cranky enough to be frus­trat­ed when these very con­tem­po­rary (so con­tem­po­rary I won­der how they get the book pub­lished before every­thing changes) social media plat­forms show up in books. Often, in children’s books espe­cial­ly, it feels like men­tions of tech­nol­o­gy have been added in to make things seem more teen-friend­ly and “hip.” Since the social media scene is noto­ri­ous­ly fast-chang­ing (espe­cial­ly in how kids and teens use it), this seems short-sight­ed, not to men­tion unnec­es­sary.

But I Kill the Mock­ing­bird is actu­al­ly depen­dent on the social media in what I’ll call “a good way.” What the kids do—which is cre­ate a sit­u­a­tion in which To Kill A Mock­ing­bird seem­ing­ly dis­ap­pears and there­fore becomes The Hot “New” Book Every­one Must Read—could not have been done in one sum­mer with­out the expo­nen­tial pos­si­bil­i­ties and cat­a­stro­phes of social media.

ph_screen-and-bookPLUS—and this is important—these kids, all three going into high school, are not on screens and devices all the time. That would make a ter­ri­ble book, in my opin­ion. They text and post and tweet and chat, etc., but that’s all summed up in effi­cient nar­ra­tion (because who needs to watch it unfold?) and we’re back to the action of the sto­ry, back to the large and impor­tant themes, back to the unique per­son­al­i­ties and sweet friend­ship of the three main char­ac­ters.

You do not have to have read To Kill A Mock­ing­bird to enjoy I Kill the Mock­ing­bird, but you will enjoy it more if you have. You’ll also enjoy it more if you’re gen­er­al­ly well read—the chap­ter titles are very clever, as is the sub­tle homage to a whole shelf of well-loved books. I’m a fan. And so’s my kid. So we rec­om­mend it, the both of us. Take an after­noon in these last weeks of sum­mer and have a read. Let us know what you think.



In Which the Boy Cleans His Room …

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

We’re at the one-month mark before #1 Son leaves for his first year of col­lege. This is big for our fam­i­ly. (I real­ize it’s a big thing for every fam­i­ly, but it’s feel­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly per­son­al for us right now—indulge me.) It’s entire­ly right, he’s absolute­ly ready, and he’s going to a place that’s a good fit for him. But my heart squeezes to think of it. (I’m try­ing pos­i­tive visu­al­iza­tion for the good-bye.)

ph_RRB_bedroomThis week, he’s clean­ing his room—a parental man­date. His room will remain his room when he goes, but long over­due is this clean­ing out of the sci­ence projects from ele­men­tary school, the soc­cer medals from the same era, the dusty cer­tifi­cates and papers and binders, the mess and detri­tus of a boy’s life well lived and now out­grown. He’s doing the clos­et today—he won’t fin­ish. It’s like an archae­o­log­i­cal dig with its lay­ers. He says he’s sav­ing his book­shelf for last. “It’s not so bad,” he says.

bk_Frog_and_toad_coverLast week, I sat on his bed and looked at that book­shelf. It’s one of the first my hus­band built. Floor to ceil­ing, near­ly as wide as the boy’s wingspan. Or his wingspan a few years ago, any­way. It’s stuffed and it exhibits a pecu­liar com­bi­na­tion of clut­tered and orga­nized stor­age. It’s obvi­ous he once alpha­bet­ized his fic­tion by author. This astounds me—among all of his awards, there is nary a one com­mend­ing his orga­ni­za­tion­al skills. But he likes to find the book he’s look­ing for quick­ly, and so at some point he gave it a go, I guess.

Many of the pic­ture books have moved on. A few favorites remain: Caps for Sale, an anthol­o­gy of Thomas The Tank Engine sto­ries, Clever Ali, The Vel­veteen Rab­bit, The Quiltmaker’s Gift, Frog and Toad, sev­er­al books about inven­tors, sci­en­tists, and explor­ers, Win­nie-the-Pooh 

And then there are the glo­ri­ous chap­ter books that con­sumed weeks and months and years of his life. Some we read togeth­er, but many he devoured on his own. The well-worn Har­ry Pot­ter books in Eng­lish and Span­ish both, all of the Swal­lows and Ama­zons series, most any­thing Gary Schmidt has writ­ten…. There’s a sec­tion or two of math books—cool math, not text­book math—and there’s every­thing from sto­ries of drag­ons and wiz­ards to the biog­ra­phy of Mark Twain.

bk_SwallowsThe boy has always read wide­ly. His­to­ry is mixed in with sci­ence, which is mixed in with his banned books col­lec­tion and var­i­ous works of Shake­speare. Con­tem­po­rary nov­el­ists sit piled under ancient clas­sics. He has the entire col­lec­tion of Calvin and Hobbes sit­ting next to The Atlas of Indi­an Nations, and var­i­ous graph­ic nov­els are shelved in the midst of an exten­sive col­lec­tion of Peter Pan pre­quels and sequels. I see both books he was required to read and books he could not put down.

I’m almost as proud of this book­shelf as I am the boy—it stead­ies me to look at it. With just a few weeks left until he heads out, I catch myself with pan­icked thoughts: Will he wash his sheets? Does he know the details of our fam­i­ly med­ical his­to­ry? Is the sal­ad bar in the din­ing ser­vice nice enough to tempt him to eat his veg­eta­bles? Does he know the signs of a con­cus­sion? Frost­bite? Will he call home before he makes Big Life Deci­sions? WILL HE READ? 

That last one pops up a lot for this Eng­lish major Mama. He wants to be an engi­neer. That cur­ricu­lum does not fea­ture much in the way of lit­er­a­ture cours­es; though I’m impressed they have an all-cam­pus-read that plays a sig­nif­i­cant part in ori­en­ta­tion. Will our boy read for fun, or be so con­sumed with engi­neer­ing and math that he won’t have time for sto­ries? If he decides to have a beer, will he pick up a new nov­el or an old favorite to enjoy with it? (A mom can dream.) Will he find a banned book to read in Sep­tem­ber dur­ing Banned Books Week, like we’ve always done? Will he lose him­self in the stacks of that fan­cy cam­pus library and maybe car­ry a pile of books back to his dorm room? If he stays up much too late, will it be—please let it be—because he’s fall­en into a sto­ry and can’t get out?

And then he shuf­fles into my office, laugh­ing at anoth­er arti­fact he’s uncov­ered in the deep dark recess­es of his clos­et. We agree it can be “passed on.”

Hey Mom?” he says. “What do you do with your books when you go to col­lege?”

I tell him there’s not much room in the typ­i­cal dorm room to house books out­side of those you need for your stud­ies.

Maybe I can just take a few favorites?” he says.

I ask which few those would be.

I’ll have to think about it,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of favorites.”

Oh, I’m going to miss that boy.



Anne of Green Gables

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “How do you play womble?” said Tom.

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

   “Who’s on my side?” said Tom.

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

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

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

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

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



The Betsy Books

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

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

How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird

Jacques Prévert, Illus­tra­tions and Trans­la­tion by Mordi­cai Ger­stein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Princess of the Midnight Ball

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

Princess coverMy twelve-year-old daugh­ter is inhal­ing books these days—a stack at a time out of the library, every book­shelf in the house pil­laged, major insid­er trad­ing at school, etc. There’s no way I can keep up, but when I move a book from here to there I often flip through or ask her opin­ion. When she start­ed read­ing Princess of the Mid­night Ball, I assumed, based on the PBS Mas­ter­piece The­ater-like attire on the cover’s princess, that it was “just-anoth­er-princess book.” I didn’t even ask about it—I’m not a huge princess book fan and she reads whole series of them.

And then, while I was chop­ping veg­eta­bles for din­ner one after­noon, she looked up from the book and said, “You should read this, Mom.”

Now, she doesn’t say this about every book. She’s hap­py to tell me the plot, cri­tique the writ­ing, acknowl­edge when she’s read­ing what we some­times call M&M lit­er­a­ture (i.e., junk), and admit that a deep dark choco­late book is usu­al­ly more sat­is­fy­ing, even as the M&M books can be fun. We love to talk books togeth­er, but we only rec­om­mend the real­ly good ones to each oth­er.

I said, “Is it an M&M princess sto­ry?” 

Nope.” She gig­gled and turned the page.

Plot sum­ma­ry?” I inquired.

Grimm Broth­ers’ Twelve Danc­ing Princess­es,” she said, not lift­ing her eyes from the page.

Okay, maybe more intrigu­ing. I driz­zled olive oil over the pota­toes.

Who’s the author?”

Jes­si­ca Day George,” she said.

The name som­er­sault­ed through my brain. Why did I know that name?

Tuesdays coverYou know—she wrote Tues­days At The Cas­tle, and Drag­on Slip­pers…”

Aha! Not the usu­al princess books!

Tell me more,” I said, and I start­ed chop­ping broc­coli.

Well, the princess­es are all named for flowers—and they’re this great fam­i­ly and there’s the thing about how they’re danc­ing holes into their slip­pers every night and no one can fig­ure out what’s going on…. The guys who arrive to “save” them are such idiots.” She rolled her eyes. “But the one who’s going to save them…he knits.”

A knit­ting hero? Well, there’s some­thing you don’t see every day.

Knits casu­al­ly or as a plot point?” I’m not sure how knit­ting can be a plot point, but I hold out hope.

I think it’s going to be a plot point….” she said in her most beguil­ing way. Danc­ing green eyes peered at me over the top of the book’s pages.

Inter­est­ing,” I said, ever so casu­al­ly.

I’ll be done before sup­per,” she said. “Then you can have it.”

It’s ter­rif­ic. Knit­ting is indeed a plot point. Knit­ting pat­terns are includ­ed at the end of the book, even! Jes­si­ca Day George’s web­site explains—she’s a knit­ter. And she loves men who knit.

Set in nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Europe (which explains the book cover—totally appro­pri­ate), this fresh retelling of the Twelve Danc­ing Princess­es is full of humor, inter­est­ing char­ac­ters, and fun twists and turns of plot. The princess­es are smart, cre­ative and feisty; the hero a dash­ing, sen­si­tive, knit­ting gar­den­er. (Be still my own princess heart.)

This book is a romp and delight. I didn’t read it quite as fast as my daugh­ter, but almost. I look for­ward to the oth­er two in the series—I have it on good author­i­ty that they are equal­ly wonderful—and Ms. George hints on her web­site that there could be more.



If You Plant a Seed

by Melanie Heuser Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



In God’s Hands

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

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

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



Me, too!”

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

You should read That Book About Bread EVERY week.”

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

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

Aahhh…not that one!”

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

Can you read That Book About Bread?”

Yeah! Read That Book About Bread!”

In God’s Hands begins like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read it again!” the kids say.

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



Library Lion

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

I recent­ly read about a series of get-to-know-you games to play with kids. One sug­gest­ed mak­ing a list of hard and fast rules that every­one could agree to—a series of sen­si­ble pro­hi­bi­tions, perhaps—and then tak­ing turns think­ing of the excep­tions to those rules.

RULE:  No run­ning in the hall­ways. EXCEPTION: Run if the build­ing is on fire.

RULE: Only qui­et voic­es in the library. EXCEPTION: Shout as loud as you can if there is an emer­gency.

Library Lion cover

by Michelle Knud­sen illus­tra­tions: Kevin Hawkes Can­dlewick, 2006

Vari­a­tions on these two rules appear in Library Lion, one of my favorite pic­ture books ever. And I wish I’d had this book when my two rule-fol­low­ers were little—it might’ve helped us play the game above.

I was quite smit­ten with Library Lion the first time I saw it. Some­thing about the cov­er evokes a nos­tal­gic feel­ing for me—the illus­tra­tions by Kevin Hawkes are done in a soft palate of acrylics and pen­cil. The gigan­tic lion calm­ly read­ing over the shoul­der of a young girl looks entire­ly plau­si­ble.

The sto­ry, too, some­how feels plau­si­ble. You don’t ques­tion it at all when you read on page one: “One day, a lion came to the library. He walked right past the cir­cu­la­tion desk and up into the stacks.”

I have made the mis­take, while read­ing to a group of chil­dren, of say­ing, “Can you believe it? A lion in the library!” They look at me with weari­ness, their faces clear­ly say­ing, “Hush up, Sto­ry Lady. Just keep read­ing.”

Only Mr. McBee ques­tions the pro­pri­ety of the lion. Not Miss Mer­ri­weath­er. (Could there be more per­fect names for {nos­tal­gi­cal­ly stereo­typ­i­cal} librar­i­ans? I think not.) Miss Mer­ri­weath­er is as calm as Mr. McBee is ner­vous. “‘Is he break­ing any rules?’” she asks. Mr. McBee, obvi­ous­ly famil­iar with the rules and their impor­tance, admits that the lion has not tres­passed in any way. “‘Then leave him be,’” says the unflap­pable Miss Mer­ri­weath­er.

Gor­geous spreads of the lion’s pres­ence and assis­tance in the library abound. He sniffs the card cat­a­log, rubs his head on the new book col­lec­tion, and joins sto­ry hour. Nobody quite knows what to do as “there weren’t any rules about lions in the library.”

When he lets out a small but star­tling RAAAHHRRRR! at the end of sto­ry hour, Miss Mer­ri­weath­er informs him of the library rule that cov­ers every­thing from too much talk­ing to roar­ing. “‘If you can­not be qui­et, you will have to leave,” she [says] in a stern voice. “Those are the rules!’”

Well, as we know—and as chil­dren must learn—there are times when it is entire­ly right to break the rules. And when that time comes in this book, the lion knows what to do. This time, his roar is much larg­er. I always have the kids read it with me—we raaahhrr as loud as we pos­si­bly can. As we work up to a prop­er vol­ume (they always have to be encour­aged), we take turns run­ning our fin­gers over the illus­trat­ed let­ters that blow the spec­ta­cles off Mr. McBee’s face.


Library Lion illustration

© 2006 Kevin Hawkes

I was so smit­ten with Library Lion when I first dis­cov­ered it that I was lit­tle ner­vous about read­ing it to a group of young chil­dren. What if they didn’t like it? What if it was too old-fash­ioned, implau­si­ble, too sweet? What if chil­dren today were some­how too jad­ed to prop­er­ly appre­ci­ate this gem of a book?!

I need not have wor­ried. This is one of those pic­ture books that sucks kids in right away. They become one of the chil­dren in Miss Merriweather’s library on page one. When the book fin­ish­es, they look around the bookstore/library/room as if they expect to see a lion pad in.

Michele Knud­sen and Kevin Hawkes are an inspired pair—this is a beau­ti­ful book and I love shar­ing it with kids. It’s a love­ly thing to go hoarse while roar­ing with chil­dren.



Mother-Daughter Book Club

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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




Reading With Older Kids

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

Our first-born turned eigh­teen this week. This prompt­ed many trips down mem­o­ry lane about his child­hood, as he is now an “adult.” I was rather tick­led to real­ize that so many of our fam­i­ly mem­o­ries have to do with books—all the cool books we’ve read, the cool places we read them in, and the times we’ve read when the oth­er par­ent­ing pro­to­cols didn’t quite seem to fit. (When in doubt, read togeth­er, I say. It will sure­ly nev­er make things worse, and almost always improves the sit­u­a­tion in some way.) 

Gone are the days when I read a book aloud to him. I know there are fam­i­lies who do this through the high school years and even beyond. I admire this very much, but we haven’t. For­mal­ly, at least. I can’t remem­ber exact­ly when we stopped—reading aloud time was prob­a­bly extend­ed for him because he has a much younger sib­ling. Even now he some­times “lis­tens in” as we read to her. But I strug­gle to pin­point when we stopped curl­ing up on the couch togeth­er before bed­time to read. Prob­a­bly when the home­work took over his life. 

QuietWhat has changed is the prepo­si­tion. We no longer read to the man-child, but rather with him. This hap­pens in a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent ways. He tends to read many of the same news arti­cles, pro­files, and human-inter­est sto­ries that I do. This is, as I see it, one of the best things to come from tech­nol­o­gy in our moth­er-son relationship—we both have easy access to the New York Times, The Atlantic, The New York­er etc. In anoth­er time, these might not have been lying around in the liv­ing room for serendip­i­tous read­ing. He also zones in on the same sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy news, as well as the same fan­ta­sy or detec­tive nov­els, as his Dad. 

Each per­son might read these shared inter­est read­ing mate­ri­als at dif­fer­ent times, but when two or more have read the same thing, there is often con­ver­sa­tion at sup­per, dis­cus­sion as stalling/procrastination tech­nique (he hasn’t out­grown all the lit­tle-boy behav­iors), or shar­ing ideas in the car. 

We’ve also start­ed shar­ing books more fre­quent­ly. We gave him Qui­et: The Pow­er of Intro­verts In a World That Just Can’t Stop Talk­ing for Christ­mas. He inhaled it and pressed it into my hands with a “You have to read this!” The audio­book came in for me at the library and I am now lis­ten­ing to it as I com­mute. “Mom, have you got­ten to the part about…..?” he asks again and again. 

The Double BindHe looks on the liv­ing room book­shelf and notices a bat­tered copy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Dark­ness. “Hey, we’re read­ing that next in Eng­lish,” he says. And so I re-read the book I haven’t read since I was his age, in fresh­man Eng­lish class. When he read The Great Gats­by, I said, “And now you must read The Dou­ble Bind by Chris Boh­jalian.” 

We read and dis­cuss banned books togeth­er, share book­lists and arti­cles, and read and attend Shake­speare plays togeth­er. We often find that our book­shelves are not as per­son­al as they once were—they’re more famil­ial. If I can’t find a cer­tain book in my office, I head to his room and see if it is on his shelves, or to his sister’s shelves and see if it is there. They share quite a lot now, too, so a book search can some­times take a while. 

He’s a read­er, which I feel a lit­tle proud about and a lot relieved. All of those hours and hours and hours of read­ing to him have led to very enjoy­able teen years of read­ing with him. I hope this will con­tin­ue as he grows into adult­hood. I had no idea when we start­ed that read­ing was the gift that would keep on giv­ing. I know the two don’t always cor­re­late, but I’m awful­ly glad they have in our house.


The Magic Valentine's Potato

Big Bob and The Magic Valentine’s Day Potato

Sev­er­al years ago, a mys­te­ri­ous pack­age arrived at our house on Valentine’s Day: a plain brown box addressed to our entire fam­i­ly with a return address “TMVDP.” The pack­age weighed almost noth­ing. It weighed almost noth­ing because the box con­tained four lunch­box serv­ing-size bags of pota­to chips. Noth­ing else. Or at least I thought there […]

Three Wise Women

Three Wise Women

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany. More than just an end to the sea­son of Christ­mas, Epiphany is a Chris­t­ian cel­e­bra­tion all its own com­mem­o­rat­ing the rev­e­la­tion of God the Son in the human­i­ty of Jesus Christ. There are var­i­ous tra­di­tions observed around the world, but the sto­ry of the magi who came from […]

Hannukah Bear

Hanukkah Bear

We cel­e­brate Christ­mas at our house, but we live in a com­mu­ni­ty in which many cel­e­brate Hanukkah. As we light our Advent can­dles and string our Christ­mas lights, our Jew­ish friends and neigh­bors light the can­dles on their Hanukkah meno­rah and fry deli­cious pota­to latkes. Dear friends invite us to join them for one of […]

Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree

Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree

Oh, wasn’t it grand to have a tree— Exact­ly like Mr. Wil­low­by? My first­born received Mr. Willowby’s Christ­mas Tree (by Robert Bar­ry) from his best friend for Christ­mas 2001. I know this because their names are scrawled inside the front cov­er with the date. I prob­a­bly could’ve nar­rowed it down to the right year, though. […]

Quiltmaker's Gift

The Quest for the Perfect Thanksgiving Book

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

Too Many Pumpkins

Too Many Pumpkins

I have a thing for pumpkins—their orange­ness, their round­ness.… I’m not sure what it is, exact­ly. They’re sort of a har­bin­ger of autumn, my favorite sea­son, so maybe that’s it. Real­ly, I just find them sat­is­fy­ing some­how. Giv­en my love of the orange autum­nal globes, it’s a lit­tle odd, per­haps, that my favorite pump­kin book is […]

Read to Them

Three Things This Past Week

The begin­ning of the school year caught up with every­one last week, I think. My kids are exhaust­ed, a lit­tle over­whelmed, a lit­tle crispy around the edges. The oth­er kids in and around my life seem about the same. Fall tran­si­tions can be hard even when they go rel­a­tive­ly smooth­ly. My youngest (age twelve) came […]

Old Bear

Old Bear

A cou­ple of weeks ago, I wrote about our family’s obsession—I mean love—of Christo­pher Robin’s Sil­ly Old Bear. Our fam­i­ly also has a deep and abid­ing love for Old Bear by Jane Hissey and I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about it. We’ve found that too many peo­ple do not know about […]

Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh


There are a lot of “chal­lenges” hap­pen­ing in the social media sphere these days—books, ice buck­ets, kind­ness, grat­i­tude, etc. All great things—perhaps one of the bet­ter uses for social media even, though it doesn’t quite beat out birth­day greet­ings and first-day-of-school pic­tures, in my book. Last week, a good friend and fel­low read­er “chal­lenged” me […]


Just Like A Baby

I’m miss­ing a dear friend who died very sud­den­ly this past spring. Liz was old enough to be my moth­er and my kids’ grand­moth­er. She loved to give gifts and had an almost mag­i­cal way of doing so. Her taste in books for kids was exquis­ite and she always found the most per­fect, most unique […]


On Flower Girls

A year ago this week­end, I had the hon­or of offi­ci­at­ing at the wed­ding of dear friends. They’d planned a grand celebration—organ and trum­pet, dra­mat­ic read­ings, fantab­u­lous atten­dants, fam­i­ly and friends, and not one but two flower girls. In my expe­ri­ence, flower girls and ring bear­ers increase the “chance ele­ment” in a wed­ding cer­e­mo­ny. I’m […]


Kuplink, Kaplank, Kuplunk!

We missed straw­ber­ry pick­ing, and there­fore jam mak­ing, this year. We were in the moun­tains, a dandy excuse to be sure, but now we’re in a bit of a pick­le (no can­ning pun intend­ed). We have a strong home­made jam habit at our house, and last year’s boun­ty is dwin­dling. We’re try­ing to fig­ure out […]


We Need Longer Picture Books, Too!

I’ve just read yet anoth­er arti­cle about the new length of pic­ture books. Some say pub­lish­ers won’t even con­sid­er pub­lish­ing a pic­ture book over five hun­dred words any­more. Oth­ers say they should be under three hun­dred words. Why? Inevitably, the short­er atten­tion spans of chil­dren are cit­ed some­where in the rea­son­ing. Rub­bish, I say! As […]


Harry Potter

Har­ry Pot­ter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first book in the Har­ry Pot­ter series, came out a few months after Child #1 was born. In my sleep-deprived stu­por, I didn’t notice for awhile; but it quick­ly became dif­fi­cult to be a cit­i­zen of the world and not know about Har­ry Pot­ter. Suf­fice to say, the […]


This Vacation’s Audiobooks

Many have asked what our fam­i­ly lis­tened to on vaca­tion this year. We have recent­ly returned and I can now report back. We had a lot of hours in the car—Minnesota through the Black Hills and into the Tetons and up through Mon­tana etc. And back, of course. Good to have three dri­vers. Good to […]


The Ruby in the Smoke Audio-book

In our roadtrip/vacation van there are four very dif­fer­ent readers—different inter­ests, dif­fer­ent read­ing inter­ests, vary­ing atten­tion spans, etc. In addi­tion to these dif­fer­ences and vari­ances, the kids are five and a half years apart. Find­ing a book that keeps every­one enter­tained and is appro­pri­ate for all ages can be a chal­lenge. Two years ago, The […]


The Borrowers (audio book)

One of the first books we lis­tened to in the car was Mary Norton’s The Bor­row­ers. We had one child and he was very small. But he’d been well-trained on audio books. He fell asleep to The Vel­veteen Rab­bit (Meryl Streep and George Win­ston) or Win­nie-the-Pooh (The BBC ver­sion) every night. So we popped in […]


Pulling Radishes, Thinking About Books

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


Fevered Reading

Let me be very clear. I do not ever want my kids to be sick. We’ve had run-o-the-mill child­hood sick­ness and we’ve had seri­ous sickness—I don’t like either kind. I would wish only good health, hap­pi­ness, sun­shine, and lol­lipops for my chil­dren and the chil­dren of the world. And we are for­tu­nate and grate­ful to […]


Touching the Reading Spot

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


An Ode To Beeswax

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


The Privilege & Responsibility of Reading in Bed

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


The Miss Rumphius Challenge

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


Seussical the Musical!

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


Of Knitting and Books and Tattoos

I met her while knit­ting. She worked at the children’s book­store next to the yarn store I fre­quent. I was knit­ting with the usu­al group gath­ered around the table at the yarn store when she came in. “Cat!” my table­mates called out that day. (I’m embar­rassed to admit I don’t know if she spells it […]