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Archive | Red Reading Boots

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 cover“You 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

(c) 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

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Old Bear

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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

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We Need Longer Picture Books, Too!

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Harry Potter

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This Vacation’s Audiobooks

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Pulling Radishes, Thinking About Books

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Fevered Reading

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Touching the Reading Spot

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

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An Ode To Beeswax

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

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The Privilege & Responsibility of Reading in Bed

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

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The Miss Rumphius Challenge

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

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Seussical the Musical!

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Of Knitting and Books and Tattoos

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My Son’s First Book

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