Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Archive | Red Reading Boots

One Day at the Farmers Market

Farmers MarketSat­ur­day was gor­geous, and (Oh joy! Oh rap­ture!) the open­ing day of the Mill City Farm­ers Mar­ket, one of my favorite mar­kets here in the Twin Cities. I got up and out the door in such a hur­ry I for­got my mar­ket bas­ket, but no matter—there were just the ear­li­est of crops avail­able: aspara­gus, spinach, rhubarb…. I could car­ry the few things I needed—and truth be told, I was real­ly after the expe­ri­ence more than the food. The chilly air com­ing off the Mis­sis­sip­pi, the vio­lin play­er on the cor­ner, the chat­ter of ven­dors and cus­tomers, small kid­dos look­ing for future crops like berries and corn-on-the-cob and apples…this is the kind of thing that will clear the rest of win­ter from the recess­es of your soul! I got my cof­fee and bliss­ful­ly wan­dered the stalls. If I were to design the per­fect morn­ing, this real­ly is it.

And then—an unex­pect­ed gift!

Just as I was leav­ing for the busy Sat­ur­day ahead of me, I heard a rich bari­tone sing out. “STO-ries! STO-ries! It’s sto­ry­time! STO­RY­time!” The hair on he back of my neck stood up (in a good way). STORYTIME! Well, I wasn’t going to leave with­out sto­ries!

I moseyed back over to the stone steps of the Guthrie The­ater, the usu­al spot for pro­gram­ming dur­ing the farm­ers mar­ket. And sure enough, a com­pa­ny actor was there with a stack of kid books. Par­ents were get­ting their sticky-farm­ers-mar­ket- smudged-up kids set­tled at the man’s feet, mov­ing to sit up a step or two and enjoy their cof­fee in peace. I fit right in, I told myself, even with­out any kids with me. I just sat down with the par­ents and smiled down benev­o­lent­ly on the squirmy mosh-pit of would-be sto­ry lis­ten­ers, as if one of them was mine.

Reading at the Mill City Farmers Market

Read­ing and Sto­ry­telling at the Mill City Farm­ers Mar­ket

No soon­er had the read­er begun than all wig­gles stopped. The first book: One Day In The Euca­lyp­tus, Euca­lyp­tus Tree by Daniel Bern­strom, illus­trat­ed by Bren­dan Wen­zel. I couldn’t believe my luck! Bern­strom and I had gone to grad school together—and the book was but days old! I hadn’t even made it to the book­store to get my copy yet!

One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus TreeWell, it’s a hoot of a book—as I knew it would be—and what I wit­nessed on the steps to the Guthrie was none oth­er than Sto­ry­time MAGIC. A mar­velous sto­ry, ter­rif­ic illus­tra­tions, and a fan­tas­tic read­er! (I mean, the guy is a pro­fes­sion­al!) The kids were rapt as this man belt­ed out the lines of the lit­tle boy who out­smarts the yel­low snake who swal­lowed him up.

It’s a sto­ry with some sim­i­lar­i­ties to I Know An Old Lady Who Swal­lowed a Fly and also to Brer Rab­bit. The boy in this sto­ry is the Smart One, a more pos­i­tive moniker, I think, than “Trick­ster,” as Brer Rab­bit is often called. The yel­low snake is tak­en by this smart boy. Every­time he swal­lows some­one or some­thing up, the boy talks about how much more room there is inside…and so the snake takes anoth­er vic­tim. And then anoth­er. And anoth­er. It’s the very small­est thing that proves too much, of course, and the gross results were most pleas­ing to the young audi­ence. One lit­tle girl clapped hard as the snake “expec­to­rat­ed” every­one and every­thing in his stom­ach.

Oh the kids loved it! The swingy rhymes, the fun word-rhythms—their lit­tle bod­ies swayed in time. The sus­pense! The fun! Their faith in the boy! Their joy as the snake’s bel­ly grew larg­er and larg­er. “Look at that bel­ly!” our sto­ry­teller exclaimed every oth­er page turn.

It all worked to make me quite teary behind my sun­glass­es as I sat there among the young fam­i­lies. I was so hap­py for Daniel, so grate­ful this won­der­ful actor lent his voice and sto­ry­telling to the morn­ing, so glad to have heard my classmate’s sto­ry before I read it. He has a won­der­ful gift with words and fun and rhythm and rhyme.

In my esti­ma­tion, it was quite the per­fect morn­ing. Per­haps the only thing that could’ve made it bet­ter was hav­ing a lit­tle sticky per­son of my own on my lap to hear the sto­ry with me. But alas, those days are pret­ty well gone for me. (Some­times I’m still able to bor­row.) So it’s just the pure joy of being read to now, which, as it turns out, I’ve not out­grown. Don’t plan to either.

Thanks Daniel, thanks Mr. Wenzel—your book is ter­rif­ic. Thank you Mill City Farm­ers Mar­ket and Guthrie The­ater. Thank you to the won­der­ful sto­ry­time read­er whose name I did not catch—your sung “STO-ries!” made my day. You were won­der­ful! The whole thing was won­der­ful.

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The Odious Ogre

The Odious OgreI’m a big fan of Phan­tom Toll­booth by Nor­ton Juster, illus­trat­ed by Jules Feif­fer. I can remem­ber read­ing it as a kid and think­ing it both hilar­i­ous and clever. And I loved the words! So many words!

So when the Juster-Feif­fer team came out with The Odi­ous Ogre a few years back, I leapt at it. A pic­ture book! A long pic­ture book! My favorite kind! Full of long words and clever phrasings—it is a hoot. I’ve read it to pre-school­ers through middle-schoolers—they and their adults laugh.

The Odi­ous Ogre lives on his rep­u­ta­tion mostly—and it’s a ghast­ly rep­u­ta­tion. He was, it was wide­ly believed, extra­or­di­nar­i­ly large, exceed­ing­ly ugly, unusu­al­ly angry, con­stant­ly hun­gry, and absolute­ly mer­ci­less.

At least that was his reputation—it’s what every­one thought or sup­posed or had heard or read …. As Juster says: No ogre ever had it so good. He ter­ror­ized the sur­round­ing vil­lages and every­one just … well, let him. They thought it was hope­less, that there was noth­ing they could do.

No one can resist me, says the Ogre. I am invul­ner­a­ble, impreg­nable, insu­per­a­ble, inde­fati­ga­ble, insur­mount­able …. He had an impres­sive vocab­u­lary hav­ing acci­dent­ly swal­lowed a large dic­tio­nary while eat­ing the head librar­i­an in one of the neigh­bor­ing towns.

Now I know there are those who will read that sen­tence of won­der­ful i‑words and and the detail of eat­ing librar­i­ans and they will think one of two things (if not both): There’s a vocab list! OR, why would she read that to pre-school­ers?!

My hus­band just looked over my shoul­der at the illus­tra­tions and said, “Wow. That looks vio­lent.” And there are vio­lent scenes, to be sure. (Although they’re pic­tures in sweet pen and inky water col­ors, so the impact is soft­ened.) The best scene is when the ogre throws a tem­per tantrum, leap­ing and hurl­ing him­self around the gar­den of a com­plete­ly unflap­pable young girl out­side of her beflow­ered cot­tage. She’d just offered him tea. And muffins. This floors the ogre. He wor­ries that his rep­u­ta­tion might be in jeop­ardy. So he bel­lows and stomps and blus­ters. He gri­maces and twitch­es and snorts, all while belch­ing, claw­ing and drool­ing in an attempt to fright­en the imper­turbable young woman. There’s a two-page spread of his reign of ter­ror. The chil­dren adore it. The younger they are, the more they delight in it.

gr_odious_ogre_tantrum

The girl is at first over­whelmed. Then she recov­ers her­self, sets down her plate of muffins and applauds with great enthu­si­asm for a full minute.

What fun, how mag­i­cal, how won­der­ful!” she exclaimed. “Would you con­sid­er doing that for the orphans’ pic­nic next week? I know the chil­dren would love it.”

It sim­ply doesn’t mat­ter that the three-year-olds can­not define all of the words. They know exact­ly what is going on—they’ve thrown such spec­ta­cles them­selves, after all! They think it hilar­i­ous that the young woman wants the ogre to do it again on pur­pose.

Tucked in my copy of The Odi­ous Ogre, I have sheets that I made that fold into a wee lit­tle book. It helps the kids to write their own sto­ry about  (Name) , The Most (adjec­tive) Ogre. It asks them to name their ogre, describe their ogre, draw the ogre‑y face, describe the ogre’s voice and sounds ….

Kids love this activ­i­ty! At first I thought it was the size of the book (maybe 2 inch­es by 3 inch­es). But I actu­al­ly think it’s the words. They come up with such cre­ative words after hear­ing such the­sauras­tic strings of adjec­tives from Juster. They name their ogres things like Chris­til­li­blly and Amdropis­ti­ly. They describe their ogres with words like humun­go, tiz­zl­ly, and grub­bling. They use all the crayons in the box when they draw their ogre’s por­trait, and they change their own lit­tle voic­es in the most amaz­ing ways to let me hear how their ogre sounds.

Big words, long ram­bly sen­tences, large art spreads—this is a great book for kids of all ages. I stand by my call for the longer pic­ture book. I wish Juster and Feif­fer would do a series for my per­son­al sto­ry­time plea­sure.

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Books as Therapy

FrindleI con­fess to using books ther­a­peu­ti­cal­ly. When my kids were lit­tle and the day had gone wonky and none of us were at our best, a pile of pic­ture books was a sure-fire way to reset us all. It was part­ly the snug­gles, but most­ly the shared expe­ri­ence of read­ing the sto­ries we loved. As they’ve grown, I’ve been known to read them hap­py books when they are sad (and some­times sad books, just to help us lean into it) and sil­ly books when anger and tears have had their way with us. I’ve picked “top­i­cal” books when it seemed that approach­ing an issue at a “slant” might be the way to go.  And I’ve picked up books and insist­ed we read when I didn’t know what else to do.

Recent­ly, I heard Andrew Clements talk about his writ­ing life and his books at the Fes­ti­val of Faith & Writ­ing. I reread Frindle, my favorite of his books, on the plane on the way to the con­fer­ence. Pre­dictably, it made me cry, just as the flight atten­dant came by with pret­zels and juice. I was a lit­tle afraid Mr. Clements him­self would make me cry just by, you know, being up there on stage; but he talked about his child­hood and his ear­ly mar­ried years and find­ing his way as a writer…. And it was delight­ful! He was exact­ly as you expect­ed Andrew Clements to be while pre­sent­ing to a group of teach­ers, writ­ers, librar­i­ans, and read­ers (most­ly adults, some kids).

And then, at the end he rifled through some papers, say­ing he wasn’t sure if he’d talk about this next thing…. But he did. Or rather he read it. He’d been pre­sent­ing for an hour extem­po­ra­ne­ous­ly, but now his eyes were glued to the page and he read us pre­pared remarks. He wasn’t even a full sen­tence in before we under­stood why he was read­ing and not telling the sto­ry “off-the-cuff.”

Not long after the Decem­ber 2012 school shoot­ing at Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary in New­town, Con­necti­cut, Clements was con­tact­ed with a request he both could not refuse and could not imag­ine. While the world watched and prayed, the school and com­mu­ni­ty worked hard to piece togeth­er life for the kids, teach­ers and staff, and their fam­i­lies. Some­one float­ed the idea of an all-school read—something for all ages, some­thing they might enjoy  togeth­er, some­thing besides the tragedy to help re-define them.

They need­ed a book that took place in a school. A book that both chil­dren and adults who were rid­dled with shock and ter­ror and grief could focus on. A book that was maybe a lit­tle funny—in spots, at least. A book that did not con­tain the names of any of the vic­tims of the vio­lence that had torn apart their school com­mu­ni­ty. They need­ed a book that could bring hope and light to their lives again.

They chose Frindle. They asked Clements to come and so he and his wife went. He told us how he was led through the police check points in the park­ing lot and at the school doors…. How he was escort­ed into the school gath­er­ing by the library work­er who had shield­ed eigh­teen kids in a clos­et in the library dur­ing the shoot­ing…. How they explained the impor­tance of not mak­ing any loud nois­es or sud­den move­ments…. 

And then he read Frindle to those kids and teach­ers. He said he and his wife agreed it was one of the holi­est spaces and times they’d ever expe­ri­enced.

There wasn’t, of course, a dry eye in the audi­to­ri­um. Those of us in the audi­ence could hard­ly breathe while he read this account. I can’t imag­ine the strength it must have tak­en for this beloved author to read his work to those chil­dren and their teach­ers. Such an hon­or, such a priv­i­lege.

Books can be so therapeutic—and the read­ing of them togeth­er even more so. I think the idea of an all-school read at Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary was bril­liant, the choice of book and author inspired. Read your way into some holi­ness with a kid (or a whole group of them) today if you can. When­ev­er and wher­ev­er we can gath­er over books…holy time and space is found.

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Beverly Cleary

Beverly Cleary, 1971

Bev­er­ly Cleary, 1971

For the last month I have been read­ing arti­cles, toasts, essays, and inter­views with one of my favorite authors of all time: Bev­er­ly Cleary. She turned 100 years old this week. Every­thing I read about her makes me misty-eyed—the birth­day plans in her home state of Ore­gon … her mem­o­ries of being in the low­est read­ing group, the Black­birds, in ele­men­tary school … that she writes while bak­ing bread … how she named her char­ac­ters … that she was a “well-behaved girl” but she often thought like Ramona (me, too!!!) … the fan mail she still receives in a steady stream … SIGH.

My sec­ond grade teacher, Mrs. Perkins, read us Ramona the Brave. It was a new book that year—she used it to show us how to open a brand-new book and “break in” the bind­ing so that the pages would turn eas­i­ly. She told us that it was part of a series and I remem­ber being out of sorts that she would start mid-series, but then I was so engrossed in the sto­ry that I dropped my grudge.

Reading Is FundamentalMy ele­men­tary school was a RIF (Read­ing Is Fun­da­men­tal) school. RIF day was eas­i­ly my favorite day of the year. I under­stood that RIF exist­ed to put books in the hands of kids who would not oth­er­wise own books. I had books at home, though many of my class­mates did not, and I was always a lit­tle ner­vous that some­how I would be excluded—what if some­one report­ed my lit­tle book­shelf, or the fact that I received a book every birth­day? What if I was pulled aside—not allowed to go pick a book?! But it nev­er hap­pened. No ques­tions asked—just encour­age­ment to pick a book of my very own. RIF Bliss!

Ramona the PestThat sec­ond-grade-year, when my class went down to the entrance lob­by of the school to vis­it the tables and tables piled with books (this remains my image of abun­dance), the very first book I saw was Ramona the Pest. I knew it had to be relat­ed to Ramona the Brave, and was proud to have the pres­ence of mind—my heart beat hard in the excite­ment of my discovery!—to con­firm that the author’s name, Bev­er­ly Cleary, was list­ed under the title. Mrs. Cleary lived in Ore­gon, Mrs. Perkins said. It was a place so far away from cen­tral Illi­nois that I was sur­prised one of her books could have made its way to our RIF tables. I scooped it up and car­ried it around with me as I perused all of the oth­er books. We were allowed to choose only one book, but none of the oth­ers even came close to tempt­ing me to put down Ramona the Pest.

illustration by Louis Darling

illus­tra­tion by Louis Dar­ling

I’m astound­ed when I look at lists of Bev­er­ly Cleary’s books and their pub­li­ca­tion dates. She start­ed the Ramona series in 1955. My moth­er was nine years old! The last in the series, Ramona’s World, was writ­ten when my son was two, in 1999. And that’s just the Ramona books! What a career! At least three gen­er­a­tions have read and loved Cleary’s books.

I still have that lit­tle trade-paper­back book. It’s well worn—I read it many times as a kid. And I read it to my kids, too, of course. It’s the only Ramona book I own—through all of the cov­er changes and box sets, I’ve just stuck with my one lit­tle RIF book.

I might change that this week, though. I think per­haps I’ll buy myself a boxed set of Ramona and make a dona­tion to RIF in Bev­er­ly Cleary’s hon­or.

Hap­py Birth­day, Bev­er­ly Cleary!

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Rose Meets Mr. Wintergarten

Rose Meets Mr. Wintergarten

Rose meets Mr. Win­ter­garten by Bob Gra­ham has been around for awhile. I’ve been read­ing it to kids for almost as long as it’s been on this side of the pond. But I’ve read it two dif­fer­ent ways, and I’m ready to con­fess that now.

I love most every­thing about this sweet pic­ture book. I adore the Summerses—what a great hip­pie-like family!—especially Mom in her loose fit­ting dress and san­dals and crazy ear­rings. I love the illustrations—particularly the gobs and gobs of flow­ers. And I expe­ri­ence noth­ing but delight with the mar­velous con­trast pro­vid­ed by Mr. Wintergarten—his dark house that the sun nev­er hits; his cold, gray, uninvit­ing din­ner with float­ing gris­tle and mos­qui­toes breed­ing on top; his dusty coat­tails and huge emp­ty din­ing room table. I think the not-so-sub­tle puns found in the neigh­bors’ last names (which a four-year-old had to point out to me) are bril­liant.

And the sto­ry itself! Sweet Rose, brave enough to ven­ture over to her neighbor’s house despite the neigh­bor­hood children’s sto­ries of Mr. Wintergarten’s mean and hor­ri­ble rep­u­ta­tion, his wolf-dog and salt­wa­ter croc­o­dile, his pen­chant for eat­ing chil­dren…. I love it all.

Except that last bit. “No one ever goes in there,” said Arthur, “in case Mr. Win­ter­garten eats peo­ple.” I hate that. And it func­tions almost like a spell in the sto­ry, because as soon as Arthur deliv­ers this worst-of-the-worse news, Rose’s ball goes over Mr. Wintergarten’s fence.

For a long time, I just left off the incaseMr.Wintergarteneatspeople part of what Arthur says. I thought it suf­fi­cient­ly excit­ing for my wee sto­ry-lis­ten­ers that nobody ever went in there…(drumroll!)…and now Rose would go in there. It was but a small change—a tiny omis­sion, I rea­soned. It’s not like I total­ly changed the sto­ry.

Rose Meets Mr. WintergreenWhen Rose goes to ask her moth­er what to do and her moth­er sug­gests, like all good hip­pie-moth­ers, that she sim­ply go ask Mr. Win­ter­garten to give her ball back, Rose says she can’t  “Because he eats kids.” To which her no-non­sense hip­pie-moth­er says, “We’ll take him some cook­ies instead.”

Again, the can­ni­bal­is­tic innu­en­do was just too much for me. I’d look at those sweet lit­tle faces, rapt in the sto­ry I was read­ing them…and it was just eas­i­est to have Rose remain silent when her moth­er asks why she doesn’t just go make the prop­er inquiry. Then all I had to do was leave off the word “instead” when her moth­er sug­gests the cook­ie idea. The book taught hos­pi­tal­i­ty among neighbors—excellent!

I read it like this for years. I didn’t feel bad about it at all. I was pro­tect­ing the chil­dren! And then one day, amongst the crowd of chil­dren at my feet, there was a read­er.

Hey!” he said. “You skipped a line.”

I did?” I said.

The boy stood and approached. “Yeah, right here. “No one ever goes in there,” said Arthur, “in case Mr. Win­ter­garten eats peo­ple.” He under­lined the words with his index fin­ger. I feigned sur­prise upon see­ing them. I com­pli­ment­ed him on his astute read­ing skills.

Ner­vous­ly, I checked on the rest of the wee vul­ner­a­ble sto­ry­time chil­dren at my feet. They were look­ing up at me in what I can only describe as thor­ough­ly delight­ed hor­ror.

He EATS kids?” a lit­tle girl said.

For real?” said anoth­er.

Rose Meets Mr. WintergartenProb­a­bly not,” said the read­ing child. “They prob­a­bly just think he eats kids.”

Oh….” Big eyes looked at me and the old­er, wis­er, more world­ly read­ing boy.

So when Rose’s Mom says they’ll take cook­ies, I, of course, put in the word “instead.”

That’s a good idea,” said a sweet lit­tle girl with dark curls. She nod­ded vig­or­ous­ly. “A real­ly good idea.”

Yeah,” said her lit­tle broth­er. “Every­one likes cook­ies.”

As you might guess, Rose’s brave over­tures earn her a new friend in Mr. Win­ter­garten. Turns out her old neigh­bor hadn’t even opened his drapes in years. Once he goes out­side and kicks Rose’s ball back over the fence—losing his slip­per in the process—he’s pret­ty much a new man. As are the chil­dren, who learn their reclu­sive neighbor’s rep­u­ta­tion might be a bit exag­ger­at­ed.

I’ve not omit­ted the can­ni­bal­is­tic lines since. I bite my tongue so I don’t soft­en them with a “Oh that’s just sil­ly, isn’t it?!” I just read it straight. Kids love this book—I think, much as it pains me to admit it, all the more so because of the pre­vi­ous­ly cen­sored lines. They can take it, I guess. Who knew?

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Caps for Sale

Caps for SaleMy col­lege boy is home this week. So far his spring break has been spent fight­ing a doozy of a virus, lying about fever­ish and wan. Per­haps there is slight com­fort in Mom mak­ing tea and soup, vers­es the non-homi­ness of the dorm, I don’t know. He seems grate­ful. I asked if he want­ed some­thing to read and went to his book­shelves to see if there was some­thing light a98nd fun—an old favorite, perhaps—to while away the lan­guish­ing hours on the couch.

I’d imag­ined a nov­el he could lose him­self in—Swal­lows & Ama­zons or Har­ry Pot­ter, maybe, but I found myself flip­ping through pic­ture books. Most of the pic­ture books are in my office these days, but some of the extra spe­cial ones are kept on each of the kid­dos’ book­shelves. Caps for Sale: The Tale of a Ped­dler, Some Mon­keys and Their Mon­key Busi­ness by Esphyr Slo­bod­ki­na is one such pic­ture book for #1 Son.

Good­ness how he loved that book when he was a lit­tle boy! For awhile we had it per­pet­u­al­ly checked out from the library. I renewed and renewed until I could renew no more, then I found a sym­pa­thet­ic librar­i­an who checked it back in and let me check it right back out. She did this for us twice. Then I lost my nerve to ask for such spe­cial favors yet again and I bought the book.

I bet we read that book every day for over a year. It was before he was real­ly talking—he called mon­keys key-keys and he thought they were hilar­i­ous. He’d shake his fin­ger, just like the ped­dler in absolute delight. “You mon­keys, you! You give me back my caps!” Then he’d shake both hands, again just like the ped­dler; then kick one foot against the couch when the ped­dler stamped his foot, and both feet when the ped­dler stamped both feet. Each time he’d make the mon­key reply “Tsz, tsz, tsz!” as well.

Caps for Sale

He liked to pile lay­ers of hats (or shirts or socks) on his head like the ped­dler stacked his caps, and he loved to throw them on the ground, which is how the ped­dler even­tu­al­ly gets the mon­keys to give back the caps they’ve stolen from his nap­ping head. I watched him re-enact the entire book once when he was sup­posed to be tak­ing a nap.

He learned sort­ing as he noticed the dif­fer­ent col­ors and pat­terns of the caps and how the ped­dler stacked them up to take his inven­to­ry under the tree. He did this with play­dough disk. “Caps!” he’d say when he made tall columns of red cir­cles, blue cir­cles, and yel­low cir­cles. I remem­ber think­ing this was uncom­mon­ly bril­liant for an under two-year-old.

I offered to read it to him this after­noon. He declined, but the smile was wide, if still weary, when I showed him the book. I left it next to the couch, just in case he starts to feel bet­ter and wants to revis­it it.

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Worm Loves Worm

Worm Loves Wormfinal­ly had a chance to read one of my new favorite pic­ture books—Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Aus­tri­an, illus­trat­ed by Mike Curato—to a group of kids. It was Valentine’s Day—the kids were mak­ing valen­tines, learn­ing origa­mi, and lis­ten­ing to love sto­ries read by moi.

My mis­take was try­ing to call them away from the origa­mi and stick­ers and scraps by say­ing: Hey kids! Let’s read some love sto­ries!

A cou­ple of them looked up and made a face, but most ignored me. The adults came to my aid and tried to get every­one to cir­cle up, but the assur­ances that every­one could go back to their craft­ing did lit­tle to per­suade. They’re read­ers, but they’re also crafters. Unfair to make them choose, but I did. I announced grand­ly, “The first book is about worms….”

That got their atten­tion.

Worms?” they said.

I thought you said you were read­ing love sto­ries,” said one child (who will be a lawyer some day.)

Yes,” I said. “This is a love sto­ry. About worms.”

A few left their scraps and stick­ers and came over to see. I start­ed the sto­ry.

Worm loves Worm.

Let’s be mar­ried,” says Worm to Worm.

Yes!” answers Worm.

Let’s be mar­ried.” 

I didn’t know worms could get mar­ried!” said one child. More joined our cir­cle.

I turned the page. Worm and Worm’s friend Crick­et vol­un­teers to mar­ry them, because you have to have some­one to mar­ry you—“that’s how it’s always been done.”  

That’s How It’s Always Been Done is a major refrain in this book.

Now can we be mar­ried?” asks Worm.

But no, not yet. Bee­tle insists on a best bee­tle, and vol­un­teers him­self for the role. The Bees insist on being bride’s bees. And then there are the rings to consider—because, of course, “that’s how it’s always been done.”

It goes on and on—the usu­al trap­ping of a wed­ding, the ways “it’s always been done”—are trot­ted out as hur­dles, if not quite objec­tions. Patient­ly the worms adapt. Their friends see how things can be dif­fer­ent. They’ll wear the rings like belts, not hav­ing fin­gers. They’ll do The Worm at the dance, not hav­ing feet to dance with. Their friend Spi­der will attach the hat and flow­ers with sticky web and eat the cake “along with Crick­et and Bee­tle,” since worms do not eat cake.

Now, the adults in the room under­stood the sto­ry as a clever way to turn the same-gen­der vs. dif­fer­ent-gen­der mar­riage debate upside down. They were delight­ed. These are par­ents who have raised their kids to sup­port mar­riage for all—indeed, some of the kids in my audi­ence are being raised in a fam­i­ly with two moms/dads.

The kids under­stood the more sub­tle mes­sage behind the sto­ry, though. It’s about change. It’s about learn­ing to see past How It’s Always Been Done. They didn’t even blink when one worm wore a veil and tux and the oth­er wore a dress and top hat. This is how kids play dress up, after all. Details do not stymie chil­dren the way they do adults.

Worm Loves Worm0797

The end­ing to this book is hap­py. When Crick­et objects that “That isn’t how it’s always been done.” Worm says, “Then we’ll just change how it’s done.” The oth­er worm said, “Yes.”

And the chil­dren said, “Yes.” And then they went back to their Valen­tines.

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A Walk in the Woods

I tend to win things. Not always, of course…but if there’s an “enter to win” offer that shows up on Face­book and I don’t mind the spon­sor­ing par­ty hav­ing my email or mail­ing address (usu­al­ly they already do), I enter. I’ve won con­cert and play tick­ets, music, din­ner, and books this way. I think maybe not many oth­er peo­ple enter. Or I’m extra­or­di­nar­i­ly lucky. Per­haps I should buy lot­tery tick­ets?

Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the WoodsThe lat­est thing I won was two copies of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods plus two movie tick­ets (it was a pro­mo for the movie); though now that I think about it, I nev­er received the movie tick­ets. Doesn’t mat­ter. Two copies of the book arrived at my house from Pen­guin Ran­dom House as soon as I gave them my address; which I might add, they already had.

A few weeks lat­er I threw one of the copies in a care-pack­age head­ed to #1 Son at col­lege. He’s at an engi­neer­ing school and I’m just so afraid he’ll for­get to read what with all the math and sci­ence. (This real­ly isn’t like­ly, but I have to wor­ry about some­thing.) He’s in a hyper-woodsy-out­doorsy loca­tion and had recent­ly announced an inter­est in doing some longer hikes.

Me: How long?

#1 Son: A long trail, maybe….

Me: Like the Pacif­ic Crest Trail or the Appalachi­an Trail? That kind of long?

#1 Son: Yeah, maybe….

Me: By your­self? I texted back as relaxed as I could.
Notice there’s no excla­ma­tion point after the ques­tion mark—that means I was [fak­ing] relaxed.)

#1 Son: Yeah, that’d be cool….

So there’s some­thing else for me to wor­ry about. But I try to alter­nate that wor­ry­ing with my wor­ries about the snow shel­ters he’s now into build­ing. (They’re engi­neer­ing stu­dents—this means they have all the yearn­ings and yet not all the skills to build things safe­ly. Ven­ti­la­tion, for instance—that’s my wor­ry this week. When you fac­tor in the still devel­op­ing pre-frontal cor­tex of these lit­tle boys, I mean, young men…well, like I said, I have to wor­ry about some­thing.)

ANYWAY…a week or so after I sent the book, I asked if he’d read it. He said he’d start­ed it but had to put it down because of finals. “I can tell it would be dis­tract­ing,” he said. And what’s a moth­er to say to that? So he packed it and brought it home for win­ter break—it’s a well-trav­eled book at this point. He curled up in the red read­ing chair in the liv­ing room his first full day home and pret­ty much only put it down to eat. He read and laughed and kept say­ing “You have to read this!” to any of us who passed through the liv­ing room.

So here we are a month lat­er and I still haven’t read it. (Still intend to.) But #1 Daugh­ter picked it up as soon as her broth­er left. She also lounged about in the red read­ing chair and gig­gled through the whole thing. “You have to read this!” she said when­ev­er her father and I walked into the liv­ing room.

This marks a mile­stone of some sort in our fam­i­ly. We have read so many books togeth­er, and our eldest has hand­ed down books he loved to his sis­ter over the years, but they were books I’d read (and pur­chased for him). This is the first time, I do believe, that both of them have devoured a book (an adult book at that) and nei­ther of their par­ents have got­ten to it yet. They laugh and joke and talk about it and just keep repeat­ing: You have to read it!

It’s com­ing up in the pile. In fact, I might just start it tonight….

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Little Peggy Ann McKay

I might have insta­mat­ic flu,” said the young girl as her moth­er checked her in at the doctor’s office.

Let’s hope not,” her moth­er replied.

Insta­mat­ic flu. Instamatic…flu….

The words bounced around in my head.

My mouth is wet, my throat is dry…” the girl said in half-heart­ed sing-songy voice as they took a chair in the wait­ing room.

Her moth­er dropped a kiss onto her daughter’s fore­head in that way moth­ers do to check for fever.

Are you going blind in your right eye?” she asked. The lit­tle girl gig­gled soft­ly.

Shel Silverstein | Where the Sidewalk EndsAh! Yes! “Sick” from Shel Silverstein’s Where the Side­walk Ends. A poem about Lit­tle Peg­gy Ann McK­ay, who could not go to school (today) for all of the mal­adies she suffered—a gash, a rash and pur­ple bumps…her hip hurt when she moved her chin and her bel­ly but­ton was cav­ing in…her nose was cold, her toes were numb, she had a sliv­er in her thumb….

I checked myself in and took a seat direct­ly across from the moth­er-daugh­ter pair. I stud­ied them sur­rep­ti­tious­ly over my mag­a­zine. The girl leaned on her Mom. Despite her sense of humor, she obvi­ous­ly didn’t feel well. It was her moth­er I was inter­est­ed in, how­ev­er. She was per­haps the right age. I searched her face, look­ing for a lit­tle girl I might have known once upon a time….

She smiled tight­ly at me in that way that said, “What are you look­ing at?” I went back to my mag­a­zine. Noth­ing about her looked famil­iar. It would’ve been reas­sur­ing had she been Terese or Bel­la or Jazmine…. It would be com­fort­ing to know she’d made it to adult­hood, had a daugh­ter when she was close to thir­ty and a doctor’s office she could take that daugh­ter to when she was sick. It’d be nice to know they had lit­tle moth­er-daugh­ter jokes about a sil­ly poem. That would’ve made my day, actu­al­ly.

Twen­ty years ago I worked in an after­school pro­gram for kids who had lit­tle poet­ry in their lives—metaphorically or lit­er­al­ly. Their lives in and out of school were filled with “issues,” dra­ma they didn’t choose, and “chal­lenges” that made sea­soned teach­ers weep.

Sto­ry time was hard. Every­thing was hard. I read to them while they ate their snack. It was the only time they were quiet—they were always hun­gry. They had favorite books, but I can’t remem­ber the titles any more. But I do remem­ber the Shel Sil­ver­stein poems. They glo­ried in the rhythms and loved the length of his longer poems. They “per­formed” them—spoken word in a group—when we were out and about and you could tell that they felt like they’d accom­plished some­thing after they rat­tled off a long sto­ried poem filled with big words and sil­ly rhymes.

We’d learn a cou­plet or so a day, patient­ly mem­o­riz­ing our way through “the two-page poems,” as they called them. They adored “Sick,” with its mar­velous joke at the end about it being Sat­ur­day. They enjoyed “Sarah Cyn­thia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take The Garbage Out,” even as they tried to out­do each oth­er with tall tales (I hope, but prob­a­bly not in some cas­es) of the heaps of trash in and around their homes.

bkart_crocodiles-toothache_250We learned “The Crocodile’s Toothache” in record time—technically a one-page poem, but the illus­tra­tion on the fac­ing page made it wor­thy of excep­tion. They enjoyed the short­er poems, too, but they didn’t want to learn them. Just read them occa­sion­al­ly.

We whis­pered poems while wait­ing out­side the bath­rooms, we jumped rope to them on the play­ground, we shout­ed them out in the park for a group of peo­ple who slept in the park. Build­ing staff, police, bus dri­vers, old peo­ple, drunk peo­ple, and lit­tle babies lis­tened to our recita­tions. Those kids weren’t applaud­ed for much in their lives, but their abil­i­ty to recite a poem en masse was an impres­sive feat and they were cel­e­brat­ed for it every­where we went.

I didn’t know oth­er poets for kids then. I’d be so much more pre­pared now—we’d do Langston Hugh­es, Jack Pre­lut­sky, Joyce Sid­man, Jon Sci­esz­ka, Mar­i­lyn Singer, Ken Nes­bitt, Lau­ra Pur­die Salas, Gwen­dolyn Brooks, Alma Flor Ada…

I won­der how many poems they could’ve mem­o­rized? I won­der if they still remem­ber any of the ones we did? Would they rec­og­nize the words insta­mat­ic flu if they over­heard it at the doctor’s office? If so, I hope it makes them smile.

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Bambi

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

gr_rrb_header

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.
 

boots_Nativity1

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.

boots_Baby

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!

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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.

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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.

bk_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.

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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!”

Real­ly?”

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!

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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!

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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.

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Mouse and Bear Books

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Berenstain Bears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Brambly Hedge

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Enola Holmes Mysteries

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Mockingbird…

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.

 

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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.

 

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Anne of Green Gables

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   “How do you play womble?” said Tom.

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

   “Who’s on my side?” said Tom.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Betsy Books

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

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

How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird

Jacques Prévert, Illus­tra­tions and Trans­la­tion by Mordi­cai Ger­stein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

 

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If You Plant a Seed

by Melanie Heuser Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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In God’s Hands

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

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

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

YAY!” 

I LOVE THAT BOOK!

Me, too!”

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

You should read That Book About Bread EVERY week.”

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

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

Aahhh…not that one!”

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

Can you read That Book About Bread?”

Yeah! Read That Book About Bread!”

In God’s Hands begins like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read it again!” the kids say.

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

 

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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.

RAAAHHHRRR!

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.

 

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Mother-Daughter Book Club

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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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.

 

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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 […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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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. […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh

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 […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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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 […]

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