Archive | Two for the Show

John Steptoe’s Beautiful Books

This month we want to cel­e­brate the work of John Step­toe, bril­liant artist and writer, who was born on Sep­tem­ber 14, 1950. His work is a year-round birth­day present to all of us.

StevieHis first book, Ste­vie, was pub­lished by Harp­er & Row in 1969. Step­toe, in an inter­view in 1987, recalled that when he left high school a teacher sug­gest­ed he show Ursu­la Nord­strom his port­fo­lio. He soon did and she asked for a book. He had been think­ing about the Ste­vie sto­ry for a cou­ple of years. Harp­er pub­lished it when he was 19 years old. Life Mag­a­zine re-print­ed it. The book was cel­e­brat­ed as a “new kind of book for black chil­dren.”

Now, we have the advan­tage of time and of a ground-break­ing essay by Rudine Sims Bish­op about the way lit­er­a­ture can serve as a mir­ror to reflect one’s own self, a win­dow into anoth­er cul­ture, or a slid­ing glass door to allow read­ers to step into anoth­er cul­ture in their imag­i­na­tions. So, while we agree that Steptoe’s book should be read by Black chil­dren who need to see them­selves mir­rored in the books they read, we also know they should be read by all chil­dren who can move through the slid­ing glass door to the lives of chil­dren who are not themselves.i

And all chil­dren will under­stand Robert, the nar­ra­tor of Ste­vie, who has to deal with the entrance of the younger child Ste­vie into his life. Ste­vie stays at Robert’s house Mon­day through Fri­day while his moth­er works. Robert is not hap­py about Ste­vie, “his old baby self,” liv­ing at his house. He plays with Robert’s toys, leaves foot­prints on Robert’s bed. When Robert goes out­side to play with friends, his moth­er insists he take Ste­vie along. Robert’s friends call him “Bob­by the Babysit­ter,” which makes Robert even more unhap­py with this arrange­ment. Robert thinks Ste­vie has ruined his life and he doesn’t hes­i­tate to tell him. “’I’m sor­ry Robert. You don’t like me Robert. I’m sor­ry,’ Ste­vie says.” Then one day Stevie’s par­ents came to tell Robert and his fam­i­ly the news that Ste­vie and his par­ents are mov­ing. Ste­vie will not be stay­ing at Robert’s house.

After Ste­vie is gone Robert real­izes that he and Ste­vie did have good times, they ran in and out of the house togeth­er, they played on the stoop (“cow­boys and Indi­ans,” which we now see as an unfor­tu­nate choice), ate corn flakes togeth­er. With­out think­ing, Robert pours two bowls of corn­flakes — one for him­self and one for Ste­vie and as he reflects on his good times with Ste­vie, the corn flakes get sog­gy. “He was a nice lit­tle guy, my lit­tle broth­er Ste­vie.” We feel and under­stand his regret at not real­iz­ing that while Ste­vie was still in his life.

John Steptoe

Step­toe was an artist and the illus­tra­tions are done in bold intense col­ors that draw our eyes into the page. Heavy black lines define the sat­u­rat­ed col­ors and make us want to step into this world.

In 1987, John Step­toe was inter­viewed for an arti­cle in The Lion and the Uni­corn. His con­cerns remain our con­cerns thir­ty plus years lat­er.

But black peo­ple are told they’re not tal­ent­ed. We’re not sup­posed to read or pro­duce art; we’re sup­posed to play a lit­tle bas­ket­ball. We are not allowed to make deci­sions. Peo­ple have a def­i­nite way of think­ing about work­ing class peo­ple. But most good things that come out of this soci­ety come from the work­ing class. So I bear the bur­den of talk­ing about this to peo­ple. When I hold teacher work­shops, I am not afraid to say I am racist. We are all racist. When I talk to librar­i­ans I tell them to write let­ters to edi­tors say­ing, we are tired of what they’re pub­lish­ing because all the kids we’re teach­ing are not Dick and Jane. They don’t live in that world, they don’t look like that, they don’t talk like that, and they are being hurt and need some­thing bet­ter. I’m proud of Ste­vie because it addressed itself to work­ing class kids. But I can’t just do that any­more. I have to explore oth­er things.”

Mufaro's Beautiful DaughtersStep­toe want­ed to explore his African roots. In the same The Lion and the Uni­corn inter­view in 1987, Step­toe said of Mufaro’s Beau­ti­ful Daugh­ters:

… I want­ed to find out about African cul­ture. And my research took me to south­east Africa where there was trade with Chi­na as far back as 500 B.C. The sto­ry that I found was a fairy tale record­ed by a mis­sion­ary. It was orig­i­nal­ly called “The Sto­ry of Five Heads.” It took me about a year to research the sto­ry and about anoth­er year and a half to write and illus­trate it. I hear tell you are sup­posed to do three books a year and sup­port your­self that way, so that was not a great way to make a liv­ing. But the pic­tures are good qual­i­ty, it took a lot of work and I feel good about it.”

The illus­tra­tions are more than “good qual­i­ty.” They are arrest­ing, awe-inspir­ing. Every detail of bird feath­er or flower is exquis­ite­ly ren­dered.

And the sto­ry itself is so sat­is­fy­ing. Based on an African folk-tale, it is the sto­ry of two beau­ti­ful sis­ters, Man­yara and Niasha. But they are not the same. Man­yara has a bad tem­per, seems always unhap­py and teas­es her sis­ter, “when­ev­er her father’s back was turned.” Man­yara expects to be queen and tells Niasha, “You will be a ser­vant in my house­hold.” Niasha has no ambi­tions to roy­al­ty and is hap­py grow­ing mil­let, sun­flow­ers, yams, and veg­eta­bles and befriend­ing a small gar­den snake, Nya­ka.

When the King announces that he is look­ing for a queen, Mufaro decides to accom­pa­ny both of his daugh­ters to the roy­al city. Man­yara goes ahead at night, want­i­ng to be the first and ensure her place on the throne. She encoun­ters a hun­gry boy and does not offer food. She spurns an old woman’s advice.

Mufaro and Niasha are wor­ried about Manyara’s dis­ap­pear­ance but even­tu­al­ly set off for the roy­al city. When they encounter the hun­gry boy, Niasha gives him a yam. She gives sun­flower seeds to the old woman.

At the roy­al city, Man­yara rush­es out to tell them of a mon­ster sit­ting on the king’s throne. Niasha enters the throne room and finds the gar­den snake that she had loved.

He is also the king as well as the small boy and the old woman. He has wit­nessed the dif­fer­ence in the daugh­ters and asks Niasha to mar­ry him.

This is not an unfa­mil­iar sto­ry, but we don’t need sur­prise to be sat­is­fied. Per­haps we are hard-wired to love the jus­tice in this book. Good­ness is reward­ed. Self­ish­ness gets its right desserts. Would that that were always true!

Dur­ing Steptoe’s twen­ty year career (he died far too young at age 38) he illus­trat­ed 16 pic­ture books, eleven of which he wrote him­self and five by oth­er authors (includ­ing All Us Come Cross the Water by Lucille Clifton, one of our favorite pic­ture book writ­ers). With many libraries still closed because of the pan­dem­ic, access to books can be lim­it­ed, but one oth­er Step­toe book avail­able online is Baby Says.

Baby SaysThe text con­sists of only a few words typ­i­cal of very young chil­dren: Uh-oh, Here, No, no, Okay, and Baby says. The qui­et art shows two chil­dren, one a baby in a playpen and the oth­er, old­er, build­ing with blocks on the floor out­side the playpen. Baby throws a ted­dy bear out of the playpen, and the old­er boy returns it. Again baby throws the bear, again the boy returns it. The third time the bear hits the boy in the head, so he takes the baby out of the playpen. And, as babies delight in doing, the baby top­ples the blocks. A word­less spread shows the boy glar­ing at the baby, but on the next page baby charms the boy with a smile and a touch to his face, and they end up build­ing blocks togeth­er.

As a Horn Book arti­cle in 2003 points out, Baby Says is part of a con­tin­uüm. Kath­leen T. Horn­ing writes,

Over the span of his twen­ty-year career, Step­toe returned again and again to the com­plex­i­ties of sib­ling rela­tion­ships, approach­ing the sub­ject each time from a slight­ly dif­fer­ent angle. What remained con­stant was his gift for real­ism, first in lan­guage and lat­er in illus­tra­tions. What changed was his artistry: as his pic­tures became more detailed and real­is­tic, he depend­ed on them to car­ry more of the sto­ry, and the sto­ries them­selves were more care­ful­ly craft­ed. Ulti­mate­ly, with Baby Says, he was able to tell a sto­ry with just six words: baby; says; here; uh, oh; okay; and no.

Every child deserves to hear them­selves in books, and Step­toe let us hear their voic­es. Step­toe saw a “great and dis­as­trous need for books that black chil­dren could hon­est­ly relate to … [and] I was amazed that no one had suc­cess­ful­ly writ­ten a book in the dia­logue black chil­dren speak.”

Two of Steptoe’s books were named Calde­cott Hon­or Books, and two won the Coret­ta Scott King Award for illus­tra­tion. A Wash­ing­ton Post arti­cle calls Baby Says “a ten­der kiss good-bye — a gen­tle hug from Step­toe.”

We miss him.

Daddy is a Monster ... SometimesBooks by John Step­toe

Ste­vie, 1969
Uptown, 1970
Train Ride, 1971
Birth­day, 1972
My Spe­cial Best Words, 1974
Dad­dy is a Mon­ster … Some­times, 1980
Jef­frey Bear Cleans Up His Act, 1983
The Sto­ry of Jump­ing Mouse, 1984
Mar­cia, 1986
Mufaro’s Beau­ti­ful Daugh­ters, 1987
Baby Says, 1988

All Us Come Cross the Water by Lucille CliftonIllus­trat­ed by John Step­toe

Moth­er Croc­o­dile by Rosa Guy, 1961
All Us Come Cross the Water
by Lucille Clifton, 1973
She Come Bring­ing Me That Lit­tle Baby Girl
by Eloise Green­field, 1974
OUT­side INside Poems by Arnold Adoff, 1981
All the Col­ors of the Race by Arnold Adoff, 1982

Arti­cle Links

John Step­toe,” Wendy Wat­son, Wendy Wat­son’s Blog, 11 Nov 2014


The Very Amazing Eric Carle

Phyl­lis: Spring is final­ly here, and the pol­li­na­tors are buzzing in the blos­soms, so we thought we’d write about bugs this month. Plus, we’ve just fin­ished a book with our good friend and fel­low writer Liza Ketchum about the rusty-patched bum­ble­bee, the first bum­ble­bee to be list­ed as endan­gered. Once we start­ed look­ing for bug­gy books, we found so many by Eric Car­le, from very hun­gry cater­pil­lars to very grouchy lady­bugs to very lone­ly fire­flies that we decid­ed to look at his body of work.

Since A Very Hun­gry Cater­pil­lar was pub­lished in 1969 (his orig­i­nal idea was A Week With Willi Worm, but his edi­tor sug­gest­ed a cater­pil­lar as a more sym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ter), Car­le has pub­lished more than 70 pic­ture books that have sold more than 150 mil­lion copies around the world. In addi­tion, he and his late wife Bob­bie estab­lished the Eric Car­le Muse­um of Pic­ture Book Art in 2002.

Here are a few of our favorites:

"Slowly, Slowly, Slowly," said the SlothIn “Slow­ly, Slowy Slow­ly,” said the Sloth the sloth slow­ly, slow­ly, slow­ly crawls along a tree branch, eats a leaf, falls asleep, wakes up. All day, all night, even in the rain the sloth hangs upside down in a tree. The oth­er ani­mals ask the sloth, Why are you so slow? So qui­et? So bor­ing? The sloth doesn’t answer until the jaguar asks (rather rude­ly), “Why are you so lazy?” Then the sloth thinks for a long, long, long time and says, “It is true that I am slow, qui­et, and bor­ing. I am lack­adaisi­cal, I daw­dle, and I dil­ly-dal­ly. I am also unflap­pable, lan­guid, sto­ic, impas­sive, slug­gish, lethar­gic, pas­sive, calm, mel­low, laid-back, and, well, sloth­ful. I am relaxed and tran­quil, and I like to live in peace. But I am not lazy … That’s just how I am. I like to do things slow­ly, slow­ly, slow­ly.”

What a won­der­ful panoply of words to fall back on when I am feel­ing slow, which seems more and more often in this time of Covid-19. The sloth moves at sloth speed, and I, too, I can be unflap­pable, lan­guid, calm, mel­low — but nev­er lazy.

Carle’s web­site states, “Besides being beau­ti­ful and enter­tain­ing, his books always offer the child the oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn some­thing about the world around them.” Although the text doesn’t men­tion it, the sloth is the world’s slow­est mam­mal, so slow that algae grows on its fur, and Carle’s sloth’s fur has a def­i­nite and accu­rate green tinge to it. (I once did a ninth grade report on the growth of algae on the three-toed sloth, so Carle’s algaed sloth makes me espe­cial­ly hap­py.)

Jack­ie: I agree those words should be added to all of our lex­i­cons. I’m imag­in­ing wak­ing up and say­ing, “Today I feel unflap­pable, lan­guid, and mel­low.” And it seems that might make for a good day. It’s so sat­is­fy­ing that the sloth is hap­py with just who he is. He doesn’t wor­ry about those who are faster or more goal dri­ven. He’s good with his essen­tial sloth-ness.

Walter the BakerI have an Eric Car­le bak­ing book to share. Wal­ter the Bak­er was pub­lished in 1972 and was off my radar, but it’s a charm­ing sto­ry about a skilled and clever bak­er, Wal­ter, who was “the best bak­er in the whole duchy.” The Duke and Duchess loved his sweet rolls and ate them every morn­ing. And then, oh my gosh, Walter’s cat spilled the milk Wal­ter was plan­ning to use in the sweet rolls, so he had to make his rolls with water. The Duke and Duchess could tell some­thing was wrong and decid­ed to expel Wal­ter from the Duchy. Wal­ter asks for one last chance and the Duke agrees, but only if Wal­ter can invent a roll “through which the ris­ing sun can shine three times.” The roll must be made of one piece of dough and must taste good. AND it must be done by tomor­row morn­ing.

Wal­ter goes home and makes dough after dough. He’s ready to give up and throws a long piece of dough up to the ceil­ing. It twists its way down and twists itself into a pret­zel shape with three open­ing for the ris­ing sun to shine through. Wal­ter has done it! The Duke and Duchess are pleased. And Wal­ter makes pret­zels for the whole town. This sto­ry makes me want to make pret­zels. If it does the same you, there are many recipes online. Here’s just one.

Phyl­lis: I’m so hap­py Wal­ter invent­ed pret­zels, which I love. I love, too, the recog­ni­tion that some­times it’s just when we are ready to give up that we stum­ble upon a solu­tion, an acknowl­edge­ment both of the pow­er of per­sis­tence and also of serendip­i­ty.

Pancakes, Pancakes!While we’re on the top­ic of food, in Pan­cakes, Pan­cakes! Jack wakes up want­i­ng a big pan­cake for break­fast. His busy moth­er says he will have to help. She sends him with a sick­le to cut as much wheat as a don­key can car­ry to take to the miller to grind into flour. At the mill Jack first needs to help thresh the wheat with a flail, and the miller grinds the result­ing grain into flour. “Here’s the flour,” Jack tells his moth­er. “Let’s make a pan­cake.”

Now we need an egg,” his moth­er tells him and sends him to get an egg from the black hen.

Here’s an egg,” Jack says. “Let’s make a pan­cake.”

Now we need some milk,” she replies.

After each com­plet­ed task, Jack says, “Let’s make a pan­cake,” but the next task awaits.

The milk must be churned into but­ter, he must gath­er fire­wood for the fire and bring up some straw­ber­ry jam from the cel­lar. At last they are ready to mix the bat­ter: flour, egg, milk in a bowl, stirred smooth. The bat­ter cooks on one side, then Jack’s moth­er deft­ly flips it, cooks the oth­er side, and spreads straw­ber­ry jam on the pan­cake.

Now, Jack,” she begins.

Oh, moth­er, “ says Jack, “I know what to do now.” And he does, as he hap­pi­ly forks a bite of pan­cake into his mouth.

Talk about delayed grat­i­fi­ca­tion and all the often-unseen steps involved in mak­ing the food we eat! A sim­ple pan­cake recipe — flour and egg and milk — is includ­ed. I plan to try it imme­di­ate­ly — the more I read this book, the more rav­en­ous I became.

Jack­ie: The roost­er that begins this book is just arrest­ing­ly beau­ti­ful. It promis­es a good time, a read­ing adven­ture.

And, I real­ly enjoyed Carle’s intro­duc­tion of new process­es and new words. The wheat grains must be sep­a­rat­ed from the chaff. The miller and Jack use flails. What a great word for kids to know about. As you said, Phyl­lis, his books always offer kids an oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn some­thing.

The Grouchy LadybugThe Grouchy Lady­bug doesn’t flail about, but does have a rough day, as any­one who’s ever been grouchy will rec­og­nize. And these days my mood often swings between grouchy and grate­ful, so I was pleased to spend time with this lady­bug, who is just grouchy, no rea­son, maybe just woke up grouchy.

In any case her response to the friend­ly lady­bug she meets on a leaf is “Do you want to fight?” Then the grouchy lady­bug decides “You’re not big enough,” and she goes off search­ing for just the right spar­ring part­ner. Yel­low-jack­et, Stag Bee­tle, Pray­ing Man­tis, Spar­row, Lob­ster (Eric Carle’s lob­ster is too beau­ti­ful to eat), Skunk, and larg­er ani­mals up to a whale are among Ladybug’s encoun­ters. All have threat­en­ing fea­tures so all are deemed not big enough to fight. Lady­bug gets no reply from Whale so threat­ens its flip­per, fin, and tail. The tail responds with a smack and the Lady­bug is shot “across the sea and across the land.” At six in the evening it arrives where it had start­ed, “wet, and tired, and hun­gry,” and grate­ful for a share of the aphids. The two lady­bugs eat all the aphids and fall asleep togeth­er as the sun goes down and beau­ti­ful Eric Car­le fire­flies come out under the smil­ing moon.

Phyl­lis: Yes, the moon. In Papa, please get the moon for me, when Mon­i­ca wants to play with the round, full moon, who looks just the right size for a play­mate high in the sky, she can­not reach it no mat­ter how much she stretch­es. So she asks her papa, who gets a very long lad­der, so long that both pages of the dou­ble page spread must open up to the sides to show a lad­der four pages wide. On the next spread, the page unfolds from the top to make a very tall lad­der on the very high moun­tain where Papa places it. Papa climbs up, up, up to the moon, which unfolds pop-up-like beyond the edges of the page to immense size, so heavy Papa can­not budge it. The moon tells Monica’s papa that he gets a lit­tle small­er each night, until he will be the right size to take to play with Mon­i­ca. And the moon does shrink each night until, when it is just the right size, Papa takes it and climbs down, down, down the lad­der that now unfolds from the bot­tom of the page. Mon­i­ca jumps and dances and plays with the moon, which gets small­er and small­er until it dis­ap­pears. A few nights lat­er, Mon­i­ca sees a thin sliv­er of moon in the sky, which grows and grows and grows back into its full round self shin­ing in through Monica’s win­dow. All is well in the world of lov­ing papa, lucky child, and accom­mo­dat­ing moon.

Jack­ie: No mat­ter what the sto­ry, all is well at the end. The grouchy are grate­ful, the hun­gry have pan­cakes, the moon smiles down from the sky, the sloth has made his state­ment, the bak­er is rein­stat­ed. These are reward­ing books for hard times. They remind us to find lit­tle pock­ets where all is right — our gar­dens, our mix­ing bowls, the warm yel­low sun, the moon, won­der­ful sto­ries with beau­ti­ful illus­tra­tions.

Phyl­lis: And good friends to write blogs with.


Books about Baking Up Family Time

Jack­ie: We decid­ed to hon­or the nation’s new­found love of bak­ing with a col­umn on pic­ture books focused on bak­ing. We still don’t have libraries (a great ben­e­fit of this con­fine­ment is the reminder of how spe­cial and nec­es­sary are libraries in our lives) so we are lim­it­ed to books we can find read aloud on Youtube. Let’s start with an old favorite.

The Duchess Bakes a CakeThe Duchess Bakes a Cake by Vir­ginia Kahl has been around since 1955. The Duke and Duchess live with their thir­teen daugh­ters: Made­lyn, Gwen­dolyn, Jane, Catil­da, Car­olyn, Gwenevieve, Maud, Mathil­da, Willibald, Genevieve, Joan, Brun­hilde, and Gun­hilde. One day the Duchess decides to bake a cake — a love­ly, light lus­cious, delec­table cake. She gives the cook the day off and begins to assem­ble. “What­ev­er she found she put into the bat­ter.” And six times as much yeast for good mea­sure. When the cake begins to rise the Duchess sits on top of it to tamp it down. But the love­ly, light lus­cious delec­table cake will not be stopped. Soon the Duchess is high in the sky, hop­ing for good weath­er.

The long­bow­men are ordered to shoot down the cake but hit only spar­rows. The cat­a­pul­tiers, ordered to bring the cake down with boul­ders, “kept miss­ing.”

Final­ly, lit­tle Gun­hilde says, “I’m hun­gry.” And the solu­tion is appar­ent. They will eat the Duchess down from the sky. She starts at the top. The oth­ers eat up from the bot­tom. And even­tu­al­ly all is right­ed again.

The sto­ry shows its age a time or two, espe­cial­ly when the Queen and the Duchess are for­bid­den to do any more bak­ing. In our time we want the Queen and Duchess to decide that ques­tion. But it will always be fun to say, “A love­ly light lus­cious delec­table cake.” Even now it makes me hun­gry for the adven­ture of cake.

Phyl­lis:  Kahl’s lan­guage and rhythm are so much fun. I have been walk­ing around all day say­ing, “A love­ly, light, lus­cious, delec­table cake.”  The words them­selves are almost good enough to eat.  I love, too, the long list of what goes into the cake: “In went the sug­ar and flour and but­ter. In went the almonds the raisins, the suet. She added some vine­gar and dropped in the cruet…. She added some eggs, sev­er­al dozen, well beat­en, and some left­over pud­ding that they hadn’t eat­en. Bil­ber­ries, goose­ber­ries, cran­ber­ries, bog berries, black­ber­ries mul­ber­ries, burber­ries, dog­ber­ries”… on and on.  When it looks as though the chil­dren will have to say good-bye to their sky-bound moth­er, the hun­gry youngest of the thir­teen daugh­ters helps hits upon the solu­tion. 

Fry BreadJack­ie: Now for the brand new Fry Bread by Kevin Noble Mail­lard and illus­trat­ed by Calde­cott Hon­or illus­tra­tor Jua­na Mar­tinez-Neal. This love­ly book, with its seem­ing­ly sim­ple struc­ture, car­ries a lot of mean­ing, and is a delight to read. Win­ner of the 2020 Siebert Award, it begins: Fry­bread is food. /Flour, salt, water, /Corn meal, bak­ing pow­der, /Perhaps milk, maybe sug­ar. /All mixed togeth­er in a big bowl.”

A new state­ment about fry bread begins each sec­tion in the book. Fry bread is sound. Fry bread is col­or. Fry bread is fla­vor, time, art. “Fry bread is his­to­ry. /The long walk. The stolen land. /Strangers in our own world/With unknown food/We made new recipes/From what we had.” The illus­tra­tions are as arrest­ing as the text. When “Fry bread is place,” we see kids romp­ing on a gauzy but rec­og­niz­able map show­ing the places named in the text.

Each of the sec­tions gets its own expla­na­tion in the exten­sive back mat­ter. Clear­ly fry bread stands for a lot for Kevin Noble Mail­lard and he brings read­ers to agree with him. I want to pore over the back mat­ter in a way that YouTube real­ly doesn’t allow. And for those who want to make fry bread after read­ing the book, there’s a recipe.

Phyl­lis:; When I first heard about this book, I thought about how fry bread was made foods the con­querors gave to the con­quered, hav­ing tak­en away their own sources of food. So I was espe­cial­ly moved with how fry bread became a cel­e­bra­tion of resilience, per­sis­tence, and inclu­sion. The book ends, “Fry bread is us.”

Just like fry bread is all sorts of col­ors — “gold­en brown, tan, or yel­low, deep like cof­fee, sien­na, or earth, light like snow and cream, warm like rays of sun”–  so are the chil­dren pic­tured joy­ful­ly help­ing to make and eat fry bread. What bet­ter time than now to remem­ber that “We strength­en each other/ to learn, change, and sur­vive”?

Thunder CakeJack­ie: We can’t do a col­umn on cakes and bak­ing with­out includ­ing Thun­der Cake by Patri­cia Polac­co. This book is all about love: the love and trust that the nar­ra­tor has with her Babush­ka. And the love that the grand­moth­er has for the child. Polac­co shows it in the text and in the illus­tra­tions. The prob­lem, as we all remem­ber and the title reminds us, is thun­der, “thun­der that makes the win­dows shud­der.” When the storm clouds appear the child heads for under the bed. But Babush­ka says, “This is thun­der cake bak­ing weath­er, all right. Looks like a storm com­ing to me.”

While they gath­er the sup­plies for the cake from Nel­lie Peck Hen and Kick Cow, the girl keeps track of the approach­ing storm by count­ing the sec­onds between the light­ning and the thun­der. This “tick­ing clock” keeps us turn­ing the pages. Will they have time to bake the cake? What if they get caught out­side when the storm hits?

Mile by mile the storm approach­es, but they get the cake into the oven just in time. While it bakes Babush­ka reminds the nar­ra­tor of all she has done and tells her how brave she is. When the cake comes out of the oven, they each have a slice and a cup of hot tea. Per­fect reward for brav­ery. Per­fect cause for joy. And for us, there is a thun­der cake recipe at the end of the book.

Phyl­lis:  This book is so rich in detail: the thun­der that makes “the win­dows shud­der in their panes,” Babush­ka lov­ing­ly fin­ger­ing “the grease-stained pages to a creased spot,” three over-ripe toma­toes to put in the cake — some­thing I plan to try with my next batch of over-ripe toma­toes in a few months. Grand­ma counts the dis­tance of light­ning dif­fer­ent­ly than I learned as a child, but the count­down does make for a won­der­ful ten­sion.  And not only is the baked cake sat­is­fy­ing so is the lit­tle girl real­iz­ing she is brave after all.

Rude CakesJack­ie: One of the most sur­pris­ing cake books is about an anthro­po­mor­phized cake who is rude. Rude Cakes (2015) is writ­ten by Row­boat Watkins, who says on his web­page that Row­boat is not his real name, but a nick­name bestowed by his wife. But back to the sto­ry, “Rude cakes nev­er say please. /And they nev­er say thank you.” And we see a pink lay­er cake with legs say­ing “Gimme.” Rude cakes take things and they push oth­ers (whom they call “you clum­sy crumb”) out of the way to get to the slide first. Rude cakes are obnox­ious.

Still we are not quite pre­pared when a Giant Cyclops with a huge mouth reach­es in Rude Cakes’ bed­room win­dow and grabs the cake. “Giant Cyclops love…” we are told as its mouth opens wide. Page turn. “To wear cute hats.” It puts the cake on its head. Mean­while the cake is say­ing, “I’m not a hat.” The Cyclops doesn’t hear. None of its cyclops friends hear these dis­claimers, until Rude Cake says, “Please, I am not a hat.” Man­ners do make a dif­fer­ence.

Phyl­lis:  This book made me laugh out loud. The art fore­shad­owed the giant Cyclops with a draw­ing hang­ing over the bed where the rude cake is jump­ing rather than set­tling down to sleep, but who would have sus­pect­ed that giant Cyclops liked to wear jaun­ty lit­tle hats? And hats that dance, no less? This book gives me hope for all those who don’t lis­ten, behave rude­ly, and think only of them­selves.

Jack­ie: This is a delight­ful book. I would love to share it with kids. And I can imag­ine that nei­ther of us would look at cake in the same way again.

Bak­ing and read­ing, laugh­ing and think­ing, we will get through this time. And we hope we come out on the oth­er side delight­ed by what we had tak­en for grant­ed, grate­ful for so many kinds of gifts, and ready to share the good for­tune we didn’t know we had. And ready for cake.

Phyl­lis:  Yum!


Just Spring

Phyl­lis: e.e. cum­mings said it best when he described the world as mud-lus­cious and pud­dle-won­der­ful. Snow melts and runs bab­bling away, days length­en, green sprouts of skunk cab­bage and rhubarb poke out. This month we are look­ing at mud­dy, squishy, rainy, wet sto­ries in hon­or of spring.

MudMud by Mary Lyn Ray, illus­trat­ed by Lau­ren Stringer, begins, “One night it hap­pens.… earth comes unfrozen.” Dry leaves and small stones unfreeze, and the hills “remem­ber their col­ors.” With vivid lan­guage that evokes a child joy­ous­ly stomp­ing in mud­dy pud­dles, Ray wel­comes spring. “Win­ter will squish squash squck sop splat slurp melt in mud.” Lau­ren Stringer’s rich­ly col­ored, lush art with its cir­cu­lar, scal­lopy lines and close up views of a child joy­ous­ly stir­ring, stick­ing, dig­ging, and danc­ing in this new melt­ing world per­fect­ly cap­ture the delight of get­ting mud­di­er and mud­di­er – squooz­ing the mud between fin­gers, stomp­ing in it, feet and hands and face coat­ed with one of the surest signs of spring. “Hap­py mud. Gooey glop­py mucky mag­nif­i­cent mud.”

And we echo the last lines of this cheer­ful homage: “Come spring, come grass, come green.”

Jack­ie: This is a book to remind us of the impor­tance of verbs — “squish squash squck sop splat slurp melt in mud.” I want to read that out loud again and again. And I love Lau­ren Stringer’s mud­dy feet bot­toms on the last spread of this book. Per­haps we wel­come spring best with mud on our feet.

Harry the Dirty DogIn Har­ry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion, illus­trat­ed by Mar­garet Bloy Gra­ham, Har­ry, a white dog with black spots, likes every­thing — except a bath. So when he hears the water run­ning in the tub he buries the scrub brush in the back yard and runs away, dis­cov­er­ing all sorts of fas­ci­nat­ing places to play where he accu­mu­lates such a lay­er of grime that his fam­i­ly doesn’t rec­og­nize him when he does return home, a black dog with white spots. Har­ry tries to con­vince his fam­i­ly with his old tricks “he flip-flopped and he flop-flipped. He rolled over and played dead. He danced and he sang. But his fam­i­ly said, “’Oh no, it couldn’t be Har­ry.’” In des­per­a­tion, he digs up the scrub brush, runs up the stairs, and jumps into the tub, beg­ging for a bath. Restored to his for­mer self, Har­ry is rec­og­nized by his fam­i­ly as their very own white dog with black spots. Hap­py to be home with his fam­i­ly again, he falls asleep on his very own pil­low so sound­ly he doesn’t even feel the scrub­bing brush he has re-hid­den under the pil­low. I always won­dered if Harry’s fam­i­ly real­ly didn’t rec­og­nize him or were just pre­tend­ing, but read­ing this sto­ry again I’m con­vinced it’s an hon­est case of mis­tak­en iden­ti­ty. And did ever a dog look more glad to be him­self again back with the ones who love him?

Jack­ie: Lisa von Drasek put a link on her Face­book page to this won­der­ful video of Bet­ty White read­ing Har­ry the Dirty Dog. That was how I expe­ri­enced the book this morn­ing. What a treat!

I have thought that this is a message‑y kind of sto­ry — and maybe too much so for me. But this time when I lis­tened to Bet­ty White, I was just charmed by Har­ry the Dog. Maybe the mes­sage isn’t so much about the impor­tance of being clean (I guess I’m hav­ing to rethink that one, too, in these times when hand-wash­ing is what we need to do) but Harry’s sto­ry may be more about being part of a fam­i­ly. And if that involves occa­sion­al baths, then it seems Har­ry decides it’s worth it. And now the bath brush is only half hid­den.

Duck in the TruckPhyl­lis:  Duck in the Truck, writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Jez Albor­ough, is a rol­lick­ing romp of a read-aloud with spare, joun­cy, rhyming text and exu­ber­ant illus­tra­tions. “This is the duck dri­ving home in the truck…. this is rock struck by the truck. And this is the muck where the truck gets stuck.” Duck’s truck, loaded with pro­duce, bounces off the road into a mud pud­dle where it is firm­ly stuck. A frog in a near­by bush offers a push, but the truck is still stuck. A sheep in a jeep offers to help, but the truck is still stuck. When a goat ties a rope to his motor­boat and pulls while the oth­ers push, the truck final­ly breaks free, and the duck dri­ves mer­ri­ly off, leav­ing the frog, the sheep, and the goat, stuck. In the muck.

Jack­ie: I read a while ago that the “k” sound is one of the fun­ni­est sounds in the Eng­lish lan­guage. Jez Albor­ough must be aware of that. This book begins with won­der­ful k‑sound words. The duck is “dri­ving home in a truck,” on a trek tak­ing him back. “This is the muck where the truck becomes stuck.” And the muck is “yucky.”

It was also fun to see for­mat of this book. Albor­ough tells the sto­ry with “This is.” Each sen­tence begins with “This is…” and describes what is going on. It’s so imme­di­ate. We are right there push­ing along with the frog and the sheep. I have to admit I want­ed one more page, where the duck comes back to help pull his helpers out of the mud. But I do love the lan­guage and the for­mat.

Noah's ArkPhyl­lis: Noah’s Ark begins with a 17th cen­tu­ry poem trans­lat­ed from the Dutch of the bib­li­cal sto­ry of the flood and the ani­mals board­ing the ark: “crea­tures all, large and small, good and mean, fowl and clean, fierce and tame, in they came.” The rest of the book is word­less, the illus­tra­tions rich in details of the ark and the flood, pic­tures that kids love to pour over (at least ours did), includ­ing one of a worn-out Noah, most like­ly won­der­ing if they’ll ever make land­fall. I have always felt sor­ry for the ani­mals left out­side as the rain falls and the water ris­es, and Spier’s illus­tra­tion of the left-behinds as the water ris­es still tugs at my heart. On the storm-tossed and decid­ed­ly messy ark Noah at last spots a bit of land above the flood­wa­ters and sends out a bird who even­tu­al­ly returns with a green branch from the reap­pear­ing earth as the flood recedes. Every­one hap­pi­ly dis­em­barks to find a home in a new, green land with a rain­bow arc­ing in the sky.

Jack­ie: I love Peter Spi­er and only wish that I had writ­ten to him to tell him while he was still liv­ing. Those who also love Peter Spi­er might enjoy this short video. It’s such a treat to hear him singing “Fox went out on a chilly night.”

I agree, Phyl­lis, the most mov­ing sec­tion of Noah’s Ark is the spread of the left-behinds. And Spi­er has giv­en them puz­zled expres­sions, as if they are say­ing, “Only two ele­phants? Only two giraffes?” The poet writes: “But the rest/Worst and best/Stayed on shore./Were no more.” These left behind ani­mals remind me of the com­mon expe­ri­ence of not being part of the “cho­sen” crowd, not being cool, just scruff­ing along. But that’s where the real sto­ries are.

Noah's Ark spread

Back to the book, I love the lit­tle details on every page. They demand read­ers pore over the pages, check out every cor­ner. I had to read this book in e‑format today and found it frus­trat­ing that I could not get clos­er to the illus­tra­tions. When this social-dis­tanc­ing is over I’m going to have to real­ly read this book again.

RainPhyl­lis: Rain! by Lin­da Ash­man is pud­dle won­der­ful, a par­al­lel account of two peo­ple on a rainy day, one a cranky old­er man, the oth­er a young child. The man com­plains as he gets ready to go out in the rain: “Nasty galosh­es. Blast­ed over­coat. There goes my hair. ” The child, on the oth­er hand, eager­ly climbs into his green boots and puts on his frog hat and green rain coat.

The man and the boy (plus his moth­er) end up at the Rain or Shine Café, where the man sourly orders “Cof­fee, black, ” and the boy orders cocoa and cook­ies. When they both get up to leave, they bump into each oth­er. The man scowls and stomps away, the boy dis­cov­ers that the man’s hat has fall­en off and chas­es after him to return it. The sur­prised man also requests the boy’s frog hat to try on, which the boy hands him. His mood improved, the man walks home rel­ish­ing the rain, even rib­bet­ing at the door­man he had har­rumphed at ear­li­er. Chris­t­ian Robinson’s art cap­tures the fun of a child in the rain and the man’s crank­i­ness rem­i­nis­cent of James Stephenson’s Worst Per­son in the World.

Crankee DoodleJack­ie: There is some­thing fun about putting cranky peo­ple in pic­ture books. Per­haps it’s the sus­pense. Are they going to become un-cranky by the end? Remem­ber one of your favorites, Phyl­lis? Cran­kee Doo­dle? In Feb­ru­ary, 2016, we did an entire blog about cranky char­ac­ters.

In this sto­ry, the con­trast between the child’s delight in the rain and the man’s dis­gust is so much fun — “It’s rain­ing cats and dogs” says the man. “It’s rain­ing frogs and pol­li­wogs. Hip­pi­ty hop,” says the child.

Lin­da Ash­man loves lan­guage, too. The cranky man should have been cheered by the word “galosh­es,” as in “nasty galosh­es, blast­ed over­coat.” But he is not cheered until he tries on the frog hat. I wish we all had frog hats in these anx­ious days. But a good book is as effec­tive.

Phyl­lis: As we drip and driz­zle our way out of win­ter, these books make us hap­py for rain and mud and the awak­en­ing, pud­dle-won­der­ful, just-spring world.

Note: Because most of these books were not read­i­ly avail­able at my local library, (and which, as of this date, is cur­rent­ly closed) I read them online. As more and more of us shel­ter in place in the midst of the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic, we can find many of our favorite pic­ture books read aloud in videos online. We wish for us all a healthy spring. Stay well and take care of each oth­er.


Tree Talk

We have been think­ing of trees — green, leafy, bloom­ing, buzzing trees. It’s not that we’re tired of win­ter. We love win­ter. Phyl­lis even has snow­shoes — and uses them! Jack­ie loves walk­ing in the snowy qui­et and the near­ly mono­chro­mat­ic land­scape. We both love can­dles, sweaters, and hot soup. But every now and then we think of green. This month we decid­ed to write about trees.

Old Elm SpeaksWe have known kids, and oth­ers, who talked to trees. And maybe the trees talked back. The trees in Old Elm Speaks by poet Kris­tine O’Connell George (illus­trat­ed by Kate Kiesler) tell their own sto­ries. The book begins with oak’s intro­duc­tion. “I’ve been wondering//when you’d notice/me stand­ing here. //I’ve been watch­ing you grow taller. / I have grown too. /My branches/are strong. // Step closer./Let’s see. How high/ / you can/climb.”

Jack­ie:  One of my favorites in this book is “Tree Traf­fic,” writ­ten a bit like a traf­fic report we might hear on the radio. “Major tree traf­fic today — /commuters in both direc­tions, //rippling up and down, /tails unfurled. //The tree­way is heav­i­ly squir­reled.” I love the puns — tree­way, the rhymes — unfurled, squir­reled. It’s fun to read and fun to say out loud.

And final­ly, when Old Elm speaks, we are remind­ed of the turn­ing of time and sea­sons pass­ing into years: “It is as I told you, Young Sapling. //It will take autumns of patience/before you snag/your/first/moon.” This book will make read­ers want to try their own tree poems.

Phyl­lis:  Kate Kiesler’s warm­ly col­ored full-page art invites us in to climb trees, swing under ham­mock-hold­ing trees, pick plums from trees offer­ing fruit over a fence, or find tree seedlings sprout­ing unex­pect­ed­ly in a pump­kin patch (“the dirt was sweet and soft — /I guess/I must/have/dozed/off…”). The poem “Hide and Go Seek” takes on the con­crete shape of elbows stick­ing out from a child hid­ing behind a too-slen­der tree, and the lines of “Tree’s Place” shape a tree, trunk and crown. I love, too, how the nar­ra­tor of “Leav­ing Woods’ Lake, Col­orado” plans to take the whole place home with them in the car: pines, lake, row­boat, squir­rel, din­ner bell, log cab­in, columbine — “My broth­ers will ride home/in the trunk.”

These voic­es of trees are solemn, fun­ny, friend­ly, play­ful, wise, which I imag­ine trees would be if we could lis­ten hard enough to hear them speak.  This past win­ter I found a tree with a door­way I could crawl inside of, and although I didn’t hear the tree’s heart­beat, as the nar­ra­tor of “Kings Canyon” does, I plan to go back and lis­ten hard­er.

The Tree That Would Not DieJack­ie:  Anoth­er tree I’d like to con­verse with is the Treaty Oak that grows in Austin, Texas. And I want to lis­ten as this tree in our dear friend Ellen Levine’s book The Tree That Would Not Die (illus­trat­ed by Ted Rand) tells us its sto­ry. The Treaty Oak is hun­dreds of years old and was once one of the Coun­cil Oaks, reput­ed­ly the site of gath­er­ings of tribes of First Peo­ples. When this oak was the last one stand­ing, peo­ple say it was where Stephen Austin signed a treaty with lead­ers of First Peo­ples’ tribes. The tree was pur­chased for one thou­sand dol­lars in 1927 by the City of Austin. Peo­ple pic­nicked, danced, cel­e­brat­ed under that huge old oak until 1989, when a man poured a pow­er­ful poi­son around the base of the tree. He used enough poi­son to kill a hun­dred trees. No one thought this tree could live. Peo­ple came to hug the tree, to bring flow­ers — even chick­en soup. Arborists dug out the soil around the roots and washed them. They sprayed the tree, which could not shade itself, with water. Two-thirds of the tree died and had to be pruned away.

This love­ly book, pub­lished in 1995, could not answer the ques­tion whether the tree would sur­vive. But we know it has. The poi­son­er has passed, but the tree con­tin­ues to live and has pro­duced acorns. It has been cloned. It is still there to con­nect Tex­ans to their his­to­ry.

Phyl­lis:  The rich­ly col­ored illus­tra­tions show the tree grow­ing larg­er and larg­er as his­to­ry hap­pens around it. The treaty oak sur­vives with the help of a whole com­mu­ni­ty of car­ing peo­ple.  When­ev­er I read one of Ellen’s books, it is as though she is here with us again, fight­ing for jus­tice, car­ing about com­mu­ni­ty, mak­ing us all laugh as she shares her joy in life. We miss her.

Wangari Maathai The Woman Who Planted TreesJack­ie: Wan­gari Maathai, win­ner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, plant­ed trees. She has been writ­ten about sev­er­al times in pic­ture books for chil­dren. Among the books are Mama Miti, writ­ten by Don­na Jo Napoli and illus­trat­ed by recent Calde­cott recip­i­ent Kadir Nel­son; Plant­i­ng the Trees of Kenya writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Claire A. Nivola; Wangari’s Trees of Peace, writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Jeanette Win­ter. We want to focus here on Wan­gari Maathai The Woman Who Plant­ed Mil­lions of Trees, writ­ten by Franck Prévot and illus­trat­ed by Aurélia Fron­ty.

This beau­ti­ful book is a full account­ing of Wan­gari Maathai’s life. In the pro­logue Prévot writes: “When Wan­gari plant­ed a large-leafed ebony tree or an African tulip tree, she was remind­ed of her own roots. She was born in 1940 in the lit­tle vil­lage of Ihithe, across from the majes­tic vol­cano Mount Kenya, which her peo­ple con­sid­er holy.”

Her home was sur­round­ed by forests. She had her own lit­tle gar­den and was a con­sci­en­tious helper to her moth­er. But, unlike many girls in Kenya, she was sent to school. “She received her high-school diplo­ma at a time when very few African women even learn to read.” When Sen. John F. Kennedy invit­ed young Kenyans to pur­sue stud­ies in the Unit­ed States, Wan­gari trav­eled to the Unit­ed States. She stud­ied in the U.S. for six years. When she returned to Kenya, she found a dif­fer­ent home. So many trees had been cut that wild ani­mals were rare. Plan­ta­tions had replaced farms and peo­ple were going hun­gry.


In 1977, Wan­gari cre­at­ed the Green Belt Move­ment. She raised mon­ey and cre­at­ed tree nurs­eries in vil­lages across Kenya. She asked the vil­lage women to care for the nurs­eries and gave them mon­ey for each tree that grew. She opposed the plans of Pres­i­dent Daniel arap Moi to build a stat­ue of him­self in a park in Nairo­bi and to set up a real-estate project in a large for­est — and she won. But she also went to jail sev­er­al times. But she con­tin­ued to plant trees. Even­tu­al­ly, Daniel arap Moi was defeat­ed and Kenya had a new con­sti­tu­tion. Maathai was elect­ed to Par­lia­ment and appoint­ed “assis­tant min­is­ter of the envi­ron­ment, nat­ur­al resources, and wildlife.”

In 2004 she was award­ed the Nobel Peace Prize “for the count­less seeds of hope she plant­ed and grew over the years.”

Exten­sive back mat­ter and bib­li­og­ra­phy will be use­ful to read­ers who want to know more about this remark­able woman.

Phyl­lis: While I knew about Wangari’s work of plant­i­ng trees, I knew noth­ing about the polit­i­cal side of her efforts. “Wan­gari wants to make democ­ra­cy grow — like trees,” Prévot writes.  She demon­strates, stands up to a pow­er­ful gov­ern­ment, is impris­oned, receives death threats. When Pres­i­dent Daniel arap Moi tries to pit tribe against tribe to main­tain his hold on gov­ern­ment, Wan­gari and the Green Belt Move­ment offer saplings to neigh­bor­ing tribes to sym­bol­ize peace. Through all the strug­gles and even­tu­al tri­umphs, she nev­er for­gets her mother’s words that “a tree is worth more than its wood.” Aurélia Fronty’s vivid, dou­ble-page art is a joy.

BertoltJack­ie: Final­ly, a book about a sin­gle tree — a tree a young boy has named “Bertolt.” And the book is called Bertolt. Writ­ten in French and illus­trat­ed by Jacque Gold­styn, trans­lat­ed by Clau­dia Zoe Bedrick, the book doesn’t begin with a tree. It begins with a lost mit­ten. Our pro­tag­o­nist has lost a mit­ten and must replace the lost item with a mit­ten from “lost and found.” Of course, it doesn’t match. “Who cares. /I like it this way. Wear­ing two dif­fer­ent mit­tens is kind of fun­ny.”

But, he goes on, when you are dif­fer­ent peo­ple laugh, “or even worse.” The nar­ra­tor tells us he isn’t  like oth­er peo­ple. He doesn’t mind being alone. “I love doing lots of things by myself, but I love climb­ing my tree best of all.” He has named the tree Bertolt and guess­es it to be about five hun­dred years old. Climb­ing Bertolt is “like climb­ing a secret lad­der.” Up in the tree the view is great. Our hero can watch the goings-on in the vil­lage. And there are squir­rels, a crow, an owl, insects, and birds. He even loves the tree dur­ing storms.

But one spring, Bertolt does not leaf out. “Days pass. Then weeks. /I wait. I hope. I pray. / But final­ly I have to accept it. / Bertolt is dead.”

What to do? He wants to keep Bertolt from being turned into tooth­picks. The Lost and Found…some stolen clothes pins…And Bertolt blooms!

Phyl­lis:  I love the illus­tra­tion of Bertolt leafed out in many dif­fer­ent col­ored mit­tens.  I love, too, that this is not a book that sets out to teach us about death (although it does not shy away from it, either). A boy loves a tree, the tree dies, the boy hon­ors his friend and makes it beau­ti­ful again while still accept­ing that the tree is no longer alive. 

Jack­ie:  This lit­tle book is like a shared secret between the nar­ra­tor and the read­er. It reminds us of the fun of being by one­self, of the sad­ness of change, and the pow­er of cre­ative think­ing.

It reminds us, too, as all of these books do, of the joy of trees — in any sea­son.


A Blizzard of Snow Books

We’re snowed under right now, what with teach­ing and writ­ing and, well, snow, so we thought we’d offer up a bliz­zard of books about the white stuff that falls from our skies.  Curl up with a child, a cup of warmth, and enjoy win­ter in the pages of a book.

The Snow Party, Snow, Snowy Day

The Snow Par­ty by Beat­rice Schenk De Reg­niers and Ber­nice Myers

A lone­ly woman who lives with her hus­band on a Dako­ta farm wish­es for a par­ty.  When snow piles up out­side, knock after knock at the door brings strand­ed motorists who make her wish come true.  This sto­ry, says one source, was “inspired by a 1957 Life Mag­a­zine report” — most like­ly on a bliz­zard in Kansas.

Snow by Uri Shule­vitz

In a grey city, snow starts to fall, delight­ing a boy and his dog despite naysay­ers includ­ing radio and tele­vi­sion.  “But snowflakes don’t lis­ten to radio, snowflakes don’t watch tele­vi­sion.  All snowflakes know is snow, snow, and snow.” And they trans­form the town.

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

A clas­sic sto­ry about a lit­tle boy explor­ing a snowy day in the city, smack­ing a snow cov­ered tree, mak­ing a snow­man and snow angels, slid­ing down a snowy hill, and putting a snow­ball in his pock­et to save. Sad that night when the snow­ball has melt­ed, he wakes to new snow and goes out into the snow with a friend.

Snowflake Bentley, Wolf in the Snow, Over and Under the Snow

Snowflake Bent­ley by Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin and Mary Azar­i­an

Calde­cott-win­ning book about a man who loved snow more than any­thing from the time he was a boy, and patient­ly fig­ures out how to take the first-ever pho­tographs of snowflakes. (Jack­ie: Sor­ry for the self-pro­mo­tion, but Snowflake Bent­ley was all about snow and would give me trou­ble if we left him out of this list].

Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell

In this word­less book, a lit­tle girl going home from school in a snow­storm dis­cov­ers a lost wolf pup and braves the storm to return it to its moth­er. When she her­self is lost and exhaust­ed, the wolves sur­round her and howl until her par­ents find her and bring her home safe.

Over and Under the Snow by Kate Mess­ner and Christo­pher Silas Neal

A girl and her father ski through the woods, where wildlife abounds both above and below the snow. 

White Snow Bright Snow, Katy and the Big Snow, The Big Snow

White Snow Bright Snow by Alvin Tres­selt and Roger Duvoisin

A post­man, a farmer, a police­man (all male — the book was pub­lished in 1947) and a “policeman’s wife” go about their dai­ly tasks as snow falls and chil­dren exu­ber­ant­ly play in the snow until spring and the sun return.

Katie and the Big Snow by Vir­ginia Lee Bur­ton

Katie, a big trac­tor who bull­dozes in sum­mer and snow­plows in win­ter, is the only plow big enough to dig out the city of Geopo­lis fol­low­ing a huge snow­storm with blow­ing winds. The maps add to the fun of this sto­ry.

The Big Snow by Berta and Elmer Had­er

A 1949 Calde­cott medal win­ner, The Big Snow tells about the wood­land ani­mals as they pre­pare for the win­ter blow­ing down on them. Lots of text by today’s stan­dards. Gor­geous illus­tra­tions.

Small Walt, Toys Meet Snow, The Snowman

Small Walt by Eliz­a­beth Verdick and Marc Rosen­thal

Walt is the small­est snow­plow in the fleet, the last one picked by the dri­vers.  “I’ll dri­ve him,” says Gus as the snow starts to fall.  As the snow­storm turns into a bliz­zard, Walt plows and plows, even up to the top of the high, high hill and down the oth­er side.  Even Big Buck the biggest plow says Walt did a good job.   

Toys Meet Snow by Emi­ly Jenk­ins and Paul O. Zelin­sky

A stuffed buf­fa­lo, a plush stingray, and a rub­ber ball ven­ture out into the first snow­fall, build a snow­man (with Plas­tic, the rub­ber ball, for a head), make snow angels, sled down a hill, and pon­der what snowflakes are and what a sun­set is before they go in at the end of the day.

The Snow­man by Ray­mond Brig­gs

In this mag­i­cal word­less book a lit­tle boy builds a snow­man who comes alive at night and takes him on an adven­ture.

Goodbye Autumn Hello Winter, The Tea Party in the Woods

Good­bye Autumn, Hel­lo Win­ter by Kenard Pak

Two chil­dren greet the late autumn — the leaves, birds, deer, flow­ers, sun, clouds, stars, trees, all of whom greet them back and say how they are get­ting ready for win­ter.  Then, as snow falls, the chil­dren greet the ici­cles, snowflakes — and win­ter itself.

The Tea Par­ty in the Woods by Akiko Miyakoshi       

A lit­tle girl sets out through a snowy wood fol­low­ing her father to give him the pie he for­got to take along to her grandma’s and finds her­self at a tea par­ty of wel­com­ing ani­mals instead. Her red wool hat adds bright splash­es of col­or and echoes (at least to us)  Lit­tle Red Rid­ing Hood but with more cel­e­bra­to­ry results in this strange and won­drous sto­ry.

First Snow, Owl Moon

First Snow by Bomi Park

In this spare and beau­ti­ful book a lit­tle girl is awak­ened by pit pit pit, the sound of snow, and goes out in the night in her boots, coat, (red) scarf, and mit­tens.  Accom­pa­nied by her lit­tle dog she rolls and rolls a snow­ball into a mag­i­cal world of many chil­dren all build­ing snow peo­ple .  When she returns home, we see the snow per­son she built back in her own yard, wear­ing the bright red scarf. 

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and John Schoen­herr

Anoth­er Calde­cott win­ner, a lit­tle girl and her father go owl­ing in the woods on a win­ter night. This real­is­tic sto­ry has a mag­i­cal feel­ing. And why not? There is after all, some­thing won­drous about snow.

Hope you all are able to enjoy snow, even if it’s just read­ing about it, this win­ter.


Celebrating Winter Celebrations

Phyl­lis: Win­ter has come down like a snowy blan­ket, and ani­mals in our world have migrat­ed, hiber­nat­ed, or are shiv­er­ing their way through the months ahead. But ani­mals in pic­ture books have oth­er ideas. Why not be a part of December’s cel­e­bra­tions of Hanukkah, Christ­mas, Sol­stice or help a friend in frozen need? These books make us feel as cozy as a cup of tea, a light­ed tree.

Le Loup NoelMichael Gay’s The Christ­mas Wolf was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in France as Le Loup Noël. For­tu­nate­ly for us, it was also pub­lished in Eng­lish in 1980 by Green­wil­low Books. Father Wolf and his fam­i­ly live in the moun­tains in an aban­doned pow­er­house. When the wolf cubs won­der why Father Christ­mas nev­er comes to them, Father Wolf decide some­thing must be done and heads to town. He is run off the road by a truck and lands in the dump, where he fash­ions a dis­guise from a hat, boots, a long coat, and sun­glass­es. But it’s hard to hide his wolfish ten­den­cies at the store in town, where a revolv­ing door baf­fles him, and sales­peo­ple won­der when he says that his wife prefers a bone to jew­el­ry. In the toy sec­tion his excite­ment caus­es him to for­get his dis­guise, and his tail gives him away. In the out­cry, Father Wolf hides in a win­try win­dow dis­play, final­ly return­ing home emp­ty hand­ed that night. The same truck that ran him off the road, return­ing from town, man­ages to hit him, and when he howls in pain Moth­er Wolf finds him and helps him home. The truck dri­vers, fright­ened by the howl, leap from the truck, which pitch­es down the moun­tain­side, scat­ter­ing the presents it car­ried. In the morn­ing, the ani­mals find presents every­where — in trees, on the ground. A ban­daged and recov­er­ing Father Wolf real­ly has brought Christ­mas to the delight­ed ani­mals. The last two spread show a pleased Father Wolf and wife and ani­mals glee­ful­ly open­ing presents, read­ing books, play­ing a gui­tar, and find­ing all sorts of Christ­mas sur­pris­es. Even though each side of a spread shows a sep­a­rate image, Gay’s art flows seam­less­ly as we jour­ney along with Father Wolf and feel immense sat­is­fac­tion along with him at the end.

Storm Whale in WinterThe Storm Whale in Win­ter by Ben­ji Davies, is a sequel to The Storm Whale in which a lit­tle boy, Noi, res­cued a strand­ed whale washed up by a storm. Noi, who lives with his father and six cats by the sea, keeps search­ing the water for his whale friend with no suc­cess. Win­ter descends, and Noi’s father leaves for one last fish­ing trip, even though the sea is fill­ing with ice. When he doesn’t return by dark­ness, Noi thinks he sees his father’s boat out to sea and hur­ries across the ice to find it. The boat, when he reach­es it, is held fast by ice, and Noi’s father is not aboard. Afraid and not know­ing what else to do, Noi curls up tight in a blan­ket. Sud­den­ly the boat feels a BUMP. The storm whale and his whole fam­i­ly have come to help. They punch through the ice, singing, and push the boat back to the shore, where Noi’s father had been brought when res­cued by oth­er fish­er­men. The art shows Noi togeth­er with his father in the spring, paint­ing the boat which they rename The Storm Whale in hon­or of the night Noi’s friend had come back, then sail­ing togeth­er among the whales.

Both of these are sim­ply told, straight­for­ward sto­ries, and yet both touch the heart unsen­ti­men­tal­ly. Father Wolf wants to make his chil­dren hap­py with the gift of Christ­mas, and Noi wants both to find his friend and also his father. Both sto­ries end with goals achieved, but not until after dif­fi­cul­ty, which makes their suc­cess even sweet­er.

The Hanukkah BearJack­ie: The bear in The Hanukkah Bear (by Eric Kim­mell and illus­trat­ed by Mike Wohnout­ka; 2013) has an eas­i­er time of it. He wakes up mid-win­ter to a deli­cious smell, which he fol­lows to the house of 97-year old Bub­ba Bray­na. She doesn’t see as well as she used to, nor hear as well. But she still makes the best latkes around. And this night she makes twice as many because the Rab­bi is com­ing.

Bub­ba Bray­na wel­comes the bear, whom she mis­takes for the Rab­bi, and inter­prets his grunts and growls as the Rabbi’s part of the con­ver­sa­tion. He devours the latkes. Bub­ba Bray­na laughs at his appetite and wipes of his face. “You eat like a bear,” she says in a teas­ing way. She gives him a scarf and wish­es him a hap­py Hanukkah.

Bub­ba Bray­na is charm­ing in her sim­ple gen­eros­i­ty and accep­tance of a Rab­bi who eats with his paws. And she is gra­cious when the real rab­bi comes with neigh­bors, and the chil­dren see tracks and tell her it was a bear she had fed.

Some may see this sto­ry as fun at the expense of some­one who doesn’t see or hear as well as she used to. But I love it for the qual­i­ties in Bub­ba Bray­na that allow her to be gen­er­ous with a messy imag­ined Rab­bi, laugh at her own mis­take — and solic­it her friends’ help in whip­ping up anoth­er batch of latkes. Would that we all could over­come our mis­takes with such grace.

Emmet Otter's Jug-Band ChristmasOne last ani­mal sto­ry, or sort of. Rus­sell Hoban’s otters are the peo­ple we wish we could be. We have includ­ed this book in the past, but it is so good, so warm, we just have to men­tion it again. Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christ­mas (1971) was writ­ten by Rus­sell Hoban and illus­trat­ed by Lil­lian Hoban. I have loved this sto­ry for most of my adult life. We found it when our kids were young and read it for years – all year long. It is always fun to watch the Jim Hen­son 1977 Mup­pet pro­duc­tion of this sto­ry, but the book is my favorite telling.

Ma Otter says to her friend Irma Coon, “It’s been such a rock-bot­tom life for so long, just once I’d like to bust out with a real glo­ri­ous Christ­mas for Emmet — some­thing shiny and expen­sive.” And Emmet says to his friend Char­lie Beaver, “Some­times [Ma’s] got to have some­thing fine and fan­cy.” When they hear of the tal­ent show with the fifty-dol­lar prize, Emmet drills a hole in Ma’s wash­tub to be part of the Frog­town Hol­low Jug Band and Ma sells Emmet’s tool­box to buy fab­ric for a fan­cy dress to wear as she sings in the con­test.

But no one had count­ed on the River­bend Night­mare band with their elec­tri­cal instru­ments and rau­cous (rock-us?) sound. After the Night­mare per­for­mance, Ma sound­ed like a whis­per. Emmet’s band sound­ed like “crick­ets and night peep­ers.” Still, as they walk home, Ma says, “I guess I ought to feel pret­ty bad, but the fun­ny thing is I don’t. I feel pret­ty good.” And they start to make music. And their music is heard…and appre­ci­at­ed by all the cus­tomers at Doc Bullfrog’s River­side Rest. A free sup­per and a night of enter­tain­ing fol­low. And they all go home with a reg­u­lar job at Doc Bullfrog’s and mon­ey in their pock­ets.

Ma and Emmet are so spunky. Hoban’s lan­guage is so enter­tain­ing. We all have days that we want to call “rock-bot­tom.” And we hope for times when maybe we should feel pret­ty bad, but we feel pret­ty good. This sto­ry is a clas­sic and bears read­ing again and again.

The Shortest DayPhyl­lis: The sparest of poet­ic texts (121 words by my quick count) flows through Susan Cooper’s The Short­est Day, a sol­stice cel­e­bra­tion.

Jack­ie: An end note tells us Coop­er wrote the poem for “The Christ­mas Rev­els,” a sol­stice cel­e­bra­tion begun by John Langstaff in 1957 and revived in 1971 and cel­e­brat­ed in cities all over the coun­try.

Phyl­lis: The dark art, soft as a winter’s night, is lit by can­dles in win­dow and torch­es in hands as “every­where, down the cen­turies of the snow-white world came peo­ple singing, danc­ing, to dri­ve the dark away.” They hang homes with ever­greens and burn fires to wak­en the new year’s sun. When the sun returns, they “car­ol, feast, give thanks, and dear­ly love their friends, and hope for peace. And so do we, here, now….”

And we, too, wish­ing you dear friends that in the com­ing year we dri­ve the dark away, com­mit to cel­e­bra­tions, and find peace and joy.


Sense of Wonder

The Sense of WonderIn her book A Sense of Won­der, Rachel Car­son wrote:

If I had influ­ence with the good fairy who is sup­posed to pre­side over the chris­ten­ing of all chil­dren, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of won­der so inde­struc­tible that it would last through­out life, as an unfail­ing anti­dote against the bore­dom and dis­en­chant­ments of lat­er years, the ster­ile pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with things that are arti­fi­cial, the alien­ation from the sources of our strength.

To a young child or a lis­ten­ing heart every­thing is a won­der. How do bees find the right flow­ers for nec­tar and pollen? How do birds find their hid­den migra­tion high­ways in the sky? How does a seed turn into a tree?

This month we want to write about children’s books that nour­ish that sense of won­der and get kids out­side.

Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the MeadowBut­ter­fly Eyes and Oth­er Secrets of the Mead­ow by Joyce Sid­man, illus­trat­ed by Beth Krommes, is itself a won­der of poet­ry and art. Two poems per dou­ble page spread, each of which ends with the ques­tion “What am I?” alter­nate with a dou­ble page spread that answers the ques­tions (although the art gives plen­ty of clues) and gives more infor­ma­tion about the rela­tion­ship between the two sub­jects of the pre­vi­ous poems. So spread with a poem about sleep­ing rab­bits and one about a hunt­ing fox is fol­lowed by a spread explain­ing how fox­es use their incred­i­ble hear­ing to hunt rab­bits and how baby rab­bits hide until they are ready to go out into the mead­ow on their own. (Their moth­er vis­its them only occa­sion­al­ly so as not to reveal their nest to preda­tors.) This book is a won­der­ful reminder to all of us to look close­ly, to pay atten­tion.

We both love the poem in which the owl is apol­o­giz­ing for his sharp talons, keen eyes, silent wings, and hooked beak, not as one first thinks, because he is sor­ry to be a preda­tor.

I’m so sor­ry. For you, that is.
All this works out quite well for me.

The com­bi­na­tion of ques­tion poems, expla­na­tion of the inter­con­nec­tions of species, and vivid, bril­liant art reveal the com­plex­i­ty of the mead­ow and make us want to ven­ture more often into the mead­ow, where a web of life as intri­cate as a spider’s wed exists.

The Salamander RoomThe Sala­man­der Room by Anne Maz­er, illus­trat­ed by Steve John­son, tells how a lit­tle boy Bri­an finds a sala­man­der in the woods and takes him home, where his moth­er asks him, “Where will he [the sala­man­der] sleep?”

Bri­an answers,

 “I will make him a sala­man­der bed to sleep in. I will cov­er him with leaves that are fresh and green, and bring moss that looks like lit­tle stars to be a pil­low for his head. I will bring crick­ets to sing him to sleep and bull­frogs to tell him good-night sto­ries.”

To each of his mother’s ques­tions — Where will he play? What will he eat? — Bri­an tells how he will trans­form his room to make it a home for a sala­man­der and friends. Brian’s expla­na­tions and the lumi­nous art turn his room into a place for birds and bull­frogs with trees and ponds until he has lift­ed off the ceil­ing of his room. To the last ques­tion, “And you — where will you sleep?” Bri­an answers,

I will sleep on a bed under the stars, with the moon shin­ing through the green leaves of the trees; owls will hoot and crick­ets will sing; and next to me, on the boul­der with its head rest­ing on soft moss, the sala­man­der will sleep.”

He answers.

Who wouldn’t want to sleep in a sala­man­der room? Mag­i­cal.

Wild BerriesWild Berries, writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Julie Flett, one of our favorite authors and illus­tra­tors, tell how Grand­ma used to car­ry Clarence to pick wild berries and sing to him, but now he is big enough to car­ry his own buck­et, sing with Grand­ma, and pick berries with her tup tup.  [Flett so skill­ful­ly cap­tures the sound of berries drop­ping into a buck­et.] While they pick he and grand­ma eat berries until their lips turn pur­ple and Clarence observes the world around him.  An ant crawls up his leg, a spi­der spins a web, a fox sneaks past. He leaves berries on a leaf for the birds and oth­er ani­mals who say nanasko­mowak, Cree for thank you.

Each spread of this love­ly book includes Cree words print­ed in red in the same size font below the Eng­lish words in black. An end­note explains that this is Swampy Cree, one of sev­er­al dialects, and includes a pro­nun­ci­a­tion guide. A recipe for wild blue­ber­ry jam makes us wish it were ear­li­er in the sum­mer so we could go find some tart wild berries, pick them, and make jam.

Flett’s palette of greens, browns, blues, and soft yel­lows is punc­tu­at­ed by red on each page:  grandma’s red skirt, a red sun, red fox, red but­ter­flies, flow­ers, and red breast­ed birds that sing (nikamo) in the clear­ing.

Here again, we find the won­der of the nat­ur­al world. And the joy of look­ing close­ly.

Yellow TimeLau­ren Stringer’s Yel­low Time, illus­trat­ed by the author, is anoth­er lumi­nous book about fall and the turn­ing of leaves. The text describes yel­low time when the leaves all turn. It begins,

The squir­rels are too busy to notice.
And the geese have already gone.
Oth­er birds have left too,
But not the crows.
Crows love yel­low time.

So do the chil­dren, whom the art shows in increas­ing num­bers com­ing out to play, smelling the yel­low time air “like wet mud and dry grass with a sprin­kle of sug­ar,” run­ning in the swirling leaves, danc­ing in a whirl­wind of yel­low.

Every­where fills
with yel­low.
A sym­pho­ny
of yel­low.

 As the leaves all fall and the book winds down, the chil­dren return home, one by one with

bou­quets of yel­low
to press in thick books
to remem­ber…
what a love­ly yel­low time it was.

With lines and col­ors that swirl and with spare, poet­ic text, Stringer’s book is a sym­pho­ny to fall and the joy chil­dren take in leaves falling. And who is ever too old not to enjoy the swish of walk­ing through leaves?

Rab­bits, owls, sala­man­ders, berries, fox­es, leaves, crows, earth, trees, wind, sky: we are all relat­ed.

And isn’t that a won­der?



Watch­ing birds is one of the joys of the out­door year (or the indoor year, giv­en the right win­dow place­ment). Emi­ly Dick­in­son notes the “inde­pen­dent ecsta­sy” of their songs. And we can dis­cern per­son­al­i­ties in cer­tain birds. Jays will peremp­to­ri­ly take over a feed­ing sta­tion. Chick­adees perk­i­ly fly in for a seed or two or a sip of water. Spar­rows seem to eat any­thing and make up in num­bers for their drab gar­ments. With the com­ing of fall we have migra­tion. Many birds are on the move.

Look Up! Bird Watching in Your Own BackyardSo it seems a good time to look at books about birds. For those who are think­ing about notic­ing more in the bird world, Look Up! Bird Watch­ing In Your Own Back­yard by Annette LeBlanc Cate (Can­dlewick, 2013) is a good place to start. Cate tells us she is not an expert — even her binoc­u­lars don’t work quite right — she just loves watch­ing birds. This cap­ti­vat­ing book is a com­bi­na­tion of car­toon and prose. Begin­ning with “Bird-Watch­ing Do’s and Don’ts” a graph­ic sec­tion starts us out with an instruc­tion to “Do only go to places you know are safe. Do be respect­ful of birds, nature, and oth­er bird­watch­ers.” And con­tin­ues to “Don’t sit on poi­son ivy. Don’t tread on del­i­cate plants.”

Slight­ly snarky black­birds reg­u­lar­ly com­ment on the prose, adding a touch of humor and expand­ing on the infor­ma­tion in the text. Cate is clear on the rea­son for watch­ing birds. First, it can be fun. And it reminds is that “No mat­ter where you live, you are a part of the nat­ur­al world, just as the birds and oth­er crea­tures are.”

Cate opens the door to bird-watch­ing for read­ers of all ages. “You may not have a yard, but you do have a sky.” And the book takes us through the col­ors of birds, the shapes of birds, the sounds of birds, offers a close look at spar­rows and a dis­cus­sion of bird habi­tat.

Where Do Birds Live?An inter­est in birds in our own neigh­bor­hoods may also spark an inter­est in birds who do not live where we live. Clau­dia McGehee’s Where Do Birds Live (Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa Press, 2010) takes read­ers on a tour of “four­teen habi­tats where birds live in the sum­mer months.” Each spread offers a page of infor­ma­tion on a spe­cif­ic bird in a habi­tat (for exam­ple the bobolink in the Tall­grass Prairie) and an illus­tra­tion that includes oth­er res­i­dents of that habi­tat. Read­ers trav­el from the Tall­grass Prairie to the West­ern Moun­tain Mead­ow (Moun­tain Blue­bird) to the Pacif­ic Rain­for­est (Com­mon Raven) through habi­tats all over the Unit­ed States to end in a Mid­west­ern Back­yard, which fea­tures the Ruby-Throat­ed Hum­ming­bird and the back­yard in the book adjoins a house that looks very much like McGehee’s house, includ­ing her cat. Read­ers will want to find their own region of the coun­try but will also enjoy “trav­el­ing” to find the birds in oth­er regions.

How to Paint a BirdPhyl­lis: I’ve been watch­ing the hum­ming­bird come to the feed­er in my urban back­yard this sum­mer, and a neigh­bor saw a goshawk one night. What do birds need? Food, water, shel­ter. Even in a small back­yard it’s pos­si­ble to offer those things, then sit back and enjoy vis­i­tors. And if you want to paint a bird, Jacques Prévert has some advice in a fic­tion­al book apt­ly titled, How to Paint the Por­trait of A Bird, trans­lat­ed from the French and illus­trat­ed by Morde­cai Ger­stein. In spare and lyri­cal text Prévert tells us that we must first paint a cage with an open door and paint some­thing inside for the bird, “some­thing use­ful and beau­ti­ful, but sim­ple.” Then take the pic­ture out­side, put it under a tree, hide, and wait “years, if nec­es­sary.” If a bird does come, wait some more while it enters the cage, then close the cage door with your brush, care­ful­ly erase the case and paint the por­trait of the tree “with the pret­ti­est branch for the bird.” Paint “the green leaves and the sum­mer breeze…the smell of the sun­shine and the flow­ers and the songs of the bees and the but­ter­flies.” (It’s hard not to quote the whole, brief, love­ly book.) If the bird doesn’t sing, you tried your best, but if the bird sings, sign the por­trait, take it home, and hang it in your room. The last spread shows a sleep­ing boy and the bird fly­ing out the win­dow while the text tells us, “(Tomor­row you can paint anoth­er one.)” I first came across this book in the Amer­i­can Folk Art Muse­um in New York City and have since giv­en it away mul­ti­ple times to fel­low writ­ers. I can’t think of a bet­ter descrip­tion, not just of paint­ing a bird’s por­trait, but also of the whole cre­ative endeav­or. Tomor­row we can always write anoth­er one.

Ostrich and LarkOstrich and Lark, by the poet Mar­i­lyn Nel­son, is beau­ti­ful­ly illus­trat­ed by the San artists of the Kuru Art Project of Botswana, peo­ple who live in the Kalarhari desert and whose hunter-gath­er­er way of life has been slow­ly dis­placed by devel­op­ment, as we learn in a note at the begin­ning of the book. Nelson’s pro­ceeds from the book are donat­ed to the Kuru Art Project. The bril­liant­ly col­ored art is one rea­son alone to buy this book, but Nelson’s orig­i­nal tale is anoth­er.

Ostrich and Lark begin each day togeth­er “at first light, day in and day out.” They nib­ble an ongo­ing meal “every day, all day, over the cicada’s drone, a driz­zle of buzzings…and a down­pour of bird­song.” Every day Lark, too, sings, but Ostrich is silent. Some­times at night Ostrich dreams of “singing the sky full of stars,” but every­day he is silent until, one evening, Ostrich booms TWOO-WOO-WOOOT, “like thun­der­storms on the horizon…like the rain­storm that ends the dusty months of thirst, like the promise of jubi­lant green…Ostrich boomed Lark right off his perch.” Ostrich had found his voice, “his own beau­ty, his big, ter­rif­ic self.” The com­bi­na­tion of vivid words and vivid art bring me back to this book again and again.

Fic­tion­al and non-fic­tion­al, our feath­ered friends delight us. Put out a feed­er, a bowl of water. Sit back. Wait. Who knows who might come? If a bird comes, watch it. Paint it. Write a poem about it. Boom about it in your own big, ter­rif­ic voice.

And if no bird comes today, maybe tomor­row.


Celebrating the Square Pegs

This month the two of us are actu­al­ly in the same place at the same time, and we’re hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about square pegs.

We are all not just square pegs and round pegs. We are tri­an­gles, pen­tagons, hexa­gon, oval, rhom­boids, stars. There are shapes for every­one and places, too, where each of us fits best. But we all know what being a square peg means.

Sweety by Andrea ZuillSweety in the book Sweety by Andrea Zuill didn’t know, though, exact­ly what it meant when her grand­moth­er said, “Well, aren’t you Grandma’s lit­tle square peg?” Young read­ers might not know either, but we do learn that Sweety is awk­ward and doesn’t always fit in, can be intense, and has bizarre hob­bies like study­ing mush­rooms.

Jack­ie: Zuill tack­les the sub­ject with humor and com­pas­sion. She begins with humor in a par­en­thet­i­cal note. “(Please note that naked mole rats are born with­out fur but not with­out the love of clothes. The illus­tra­tor is grate­ful for this since she didn’t have to draw a bunch of high­ly embar­rass­ing pic­tures.)” I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw Sweety describe her doll: “Friend of the friend­less, destroy­er of evil, lover of choco­late beet cake with cream cheese frost­ing!”


Sweety gives her book report with inter­pre­tive dance! from Sweety by Andrea Zuill, Schwartz & Wade, 2019. illus­tra­tion copy­right Andrea Zuil

Phyl­lis: And she does it in an extreme­ly loud voice, aston­ish­ing her class­mates. Com­pas­sion comes to Sweety in the form of her Aunt Ruth, who talks about how she was called a square peg when she was young. She tells Sweety “that being dif­fer­ent was one of the best things about her life, and that if you stayed true to your­self, you’d find your peo­ple.”

Jack­ie: And by the end of the book Sweety does. This is so much more than a “mes­sage” book. It’s so much fun, and we are as hap­py as Sweety when her “peo­ple” appear in the form of a mush­room-lov­ing, cater­pil­lar-lov­ing naked mole rat named Sandy.

Phyl­lis: There’s even a secret hand­shake.

Red: A Crayon's StoryJack­ie: Red A Crayon’s Sto­ry by Michael Hall is not just a crayon’s sto­ry. It is a sto­ry of wear­ing a label that doesn’t match who you are; Red’s wrap­per says he’s red, but every­thing he col­ors comes out blue, and read­ers can see that he’s real­ly a blue cray­on. The crayons around him can only see his wrap­per.

Phyl­lis: The oth­er crayons try to fix him. “He’s got to press hard­er.” “He’s got to apply him­self.” But every­thing he col­ors keeps com­ing out blue — blue straw­ber­ries, blue bugs, blue hearts, blue fox­es, blue street­lights. Even­tu­al­ly with the help of a new berry-col­ored cray­on friend, Red comes out, too. He dis­cov­ers that he’s not lazy, not real­ly “not bright” as the oth­er crayons spec­u­lat­ed. He is just real­ly blue.

Jack­ie: And once he finds his true col­or, the oth­er crayons are glad for him, and one even says, “I always said he was blue.” They want to do projects with him and cel­e­brate, as we do, when he reach­es for the sky. This is an under­stat­ed sto­ry, and the illus­tra­tions, which appear under­stat­ed, too, are so effec­tive.

Red A Crayon's Story

Red does his best to draw straw­ber­ries, from Red: A Cray­on’s Sto­ry by Michael Hall, Green­wil­low, 2015. Illus­tra­tion copy­right Michael Hall.

Phyl­lis: This book makes us both so hap­py and even makes us want to reach for a box of crayons.

Fantastic Jungles of Henry RousseauPhyl­lis: The Fan­tas­tic Jun­gles of Hen­ri Rousseau by Michelle Markel, illus­trat­ed by Aman­da Hall, begins with a man who doesn’t fit. He is a forty-year-old toll col­lec­tor who wants to be an artist. “Not a sin­gle per­son has ever told him he is tal­ent­ed,” but he paints any­way because he loves nature and teach­es him­self tech­nique by going to the Lou­vre and exam­in­ing “the satiny paint­ings of his favorite artists.”

Jack­ie: One day he puts his can­vas­es in a hand­cart and wheels them to an exhi­bi­tion. It does not go well. Experts say mean things. He keeps paint­ing — pic­tures of plants and ani­mals from far away places. “Some­times Hen­ri is so star­tled by what he paints that he has to open the win­dow to let in some air.” And even though every year he takes his paint­ings to the exhib­it, the experts con­tin­ue to make fun of him. “They say it looks like he closed his eyes and paint­ed with his feet.”

Phyl­lis: He keeps paint­ing. “He spends all he earns on art sup­plies and pays for his bread and coal with land­scapes and por­traits.” No mat­ter what the experts say, “every morn­ing he wakes up and smiles at his pic­tures.” Final­ly, when he is six­ty-one, oth­er artists dis­agree with the experts, befriend­ing Hen­ri and com­ing to con­certs in his stu­dio. Picas­so throws a ban­quet for him. And when Hen­ri exhibits his paint­ing “The Dream,” few peo­ple make fun of him.

The Fantastic Jungles of Henry Rousseau

The Fan­tas­tic Jun­gles of Hen­ri Rousseau by Michelle Markel, illus­tra­tions by Aman­da Hall, Eerd­mans Books for Young Read­ers. Illus­tra­tion copy­right Aman­da Hall.

Jack­ie: The illus­tra­tor made a spe­cial trip to Paris before illus­trat­ing this book, and it shows. Her paint­ings cap­ture the wild spir­it of Rousseau’s work while still being unique­ly her own. In this book, Rousseau start­ed out as a square peg, and his tal­ent reshaped the world.

Julian is a Mermaid

Phyl­lis: Julián is a Mer­maid by Jes­si­ca Love is a book about a boy named Julián who loves mer­maids and about his abuela. Julián sees peo­ple dressed as mer­maids on a train, and he dreams (in gor­geous art) that he is a mer­maid, too, com­plete with tail. In his dream a benev­o­lent fish gives him beads. On the way home Julián tells his abuela he is a mer­maid, too. While she takes a bath he has an idea.

Jack­ie: With a fern and flow­ers for hair and a cur­tain for a tail, Julián trans­forms him­self. The book’s cri­sis occurs when his abuela comes out of the bath, sees him, frowns, and walks away. Uh-oh, says Julián. A wor­ried Julián looks again at his long beau­ti­ful tail. He looks in a mir­ror at his fer­ny and flow­ery hair. Has he done some­thing wrong? Then his grand­moth­er returns. “Come here, mijo,” she says right before a page turn — which we turn quick­ly. She gives him beads.

Julian is a Mermaid

from Julián is a Mer­maid by Jes­si­ca Love, Can­dlewick Press, 2018. Illus­tra­tion copy­right Jes­si­ca Love.

Phyl­lis: A smil­ing mer­maid Julián and his abuela head out for a walk. “Where are we going?” asks Julián. “You’ll see,” says Abuela. One more page turn shows us Julián and Abuela at the mer­maid parade on Coney Island. And like Sweety, Julián has found his peo­ple.

Jack­ie and Phyl­lis: Round pegs, square pegs, pegs of every shape — may we all, like Sweety and Hen­ri and Red and Julián, find our peo­ple.


Friends, Friends

Jack­ie: We two friends have been doing this blog since 2015. Yet, we’ve nev­er done a col­umn on books about friends. We know there are many, and many clas­sics, such as the always-sat­is­fy­ing Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel, or William Steig’s Amos and Boris, or James Marshall’s George and Martha. But today we want to look at three, one by one of our favorite writ­ers Lucille Clifton. (We are still hop­ing — cam­paign­ing — for a re-issue of her out-of-print Everett Ander­son books.) And two new­er “friend” books.

My Friend JacobMy copy of Lucille Clifton’s My Friend Jacob is a library copy that became avail­able because a library “with­drew” it from its own col­lec­tion. I don’t know why any­one would not want this book in their col­lec­tion. A child nar­ra­tor tells us: “My best friend lives next door…We do things togeth­er, Jacob and me. We love to play bas­ket­ball togeth­er. Jacob always makes a bas­ket on the first try.” (We see that Jacob is taller, old­er, than the nar­ra­tor.) …” My moth­er used to say, ‘Be care­ful with Jacob and that ball, he might hurt you.’  But now she doesn’t. He knows that Jacob wouldn’t hurt any­body, espe­cial­ly his very very best friend.”  And Jacob’s moth­er once said, “’You don’t have to have Jacob tag­ging along with you [to the gro­cery store] like that, Sam­my.’ But now she doesn’t. She knows we like to go to the store togeth­er. Jacob helps me to car­ry, and I help Jacob to remem­ber.’”  These two friends accept each oth­er for just who they are. Sam­my learns the makes and names of cars from Jacob, who knows them all. Jacob needs help remem­ber­ing what the street lights mean. He needs help remem­ber­ing to knock before enter­ing Sammy’s house. And the tri­umphal moment comes when he does remem­ber. “Next day at din­ner­time, we were sit­ting in our din­ing room when me and my moth­er and my father heard this real loud knock­ing at the door. Then the door popped open and Jacob stuck he’s head in./’I’m knock­ing, Sam!’ he yelled.”

Clifton does here what she often does so well — makes a sat­is­fy­ing sto­ry out of hum­ble accom­plish­ments. Her moments involve the stuff of all our lives, count­ing cars, shoot­ing bas­ket­balls, remem­ber­ing to knock. And we cheer for her char­ac­ters’ achieve­ments. And admire her abil­i­ty to present, with­out apol­o­gy or awk­ward­ness, a kid for whom it is sev­er­al afternoon’s work to make a birth­day card, or prac­tice to remem­ber to knock. Clifton cares about Jacob. And she helps us to share Sammy’s affec­tion for him. I want to live in Lucille Clifton’s world.

Phyl­lis:  Could I live there, too, please? My copy of My Friend Jacob, too, had been removed from a library (I’ve since passed it on to oth­er read­ers). Clifton’s books hon­or the lives, strug­gles, and hearts of the peo­ple who were not often found in pic­ture books at the time she wrote. It’s easy to dis­tance our­selves from peo­ple who seem dif­fer­ent; it takes a friend to see how we are not so dif­fer­ent and how we help hold each oth­er up.  Sam­my is that friend to Jacob, and Jacob is that friend to him.

The Lion and the BirdJack­ie: The Lion and The Bird by Mar­i­anne Dubul (trans­lat­ed by Clau­dia Zoe Bedrick, pub­lished by Enchant­ed Lion Books, 2014) fea­tures a lion who has a mod­est cot­tage, a gar­den, and a con­tent­ed life. One fall day, while work­ing in his gar­den he spots an injured bird. He ban­dages the bird’s wing and they both watch as the oth­er birds fly away. Lion invites the bird to spend the win­ter. “There’s more than enough room for both of us.” The bird eats at Lion’s table, lis­tens by the fire while Lion reads, and sleeps cozi­ly in one of Lion’s slip­pers. “They spend the win­ter togeth­er, enjoy­ing each day.” And we see them sled­ding, ice-fish­ing, Bird tucked snug­ly in his own place in Lion’s hat. Come spring, Bird flies away with his peers. We see Lion feel­ing small­er and lone­li­er. “And so it goes./Life is some­times like that.” Word­less pic­tures show Lion resum­ing his soli­tary life — emp­ty slip­pers, eat­ing alone. He grows his gar­den, fish­es, pass­es the sum­mer. And in the fall, Bird returns! ‘Togeth­er we’ll stay warm again this win­ter.”

This is a qui­et, love­ly sto­ry of kind­ness, friend­ship, shar­ing, and kind­ness returned. The illus­tra­tions so clear­ly reflect Lion’s emo­tions. I would love to read this with a child and talk about feel­ings.

Phyl­lis:  I love how Lion puts Bird ten­der­ly up on top of his mane to keep him warm, cov­er­ing him with his hat (with appro­pri­ate cut-out win­dow) in win­ter. “Win­ter doesn’t feel all that cold with a friend,” Dubul writes, and those of us in win­try cli­mates (as I write this there’s an April bliz­zard blow­ing out­side) espe­cial­ly rec­og­nize that warmth. Spring returns, and as the migrat­ing flock of birds fly over, Lion tells Bird he knows Bird must go. And even though “life is some­times like that,” some­times life also brings our friends back to us, just as Bird returns and choos­es to spend the win­ter again with Lion.  The soft spare art per­fect­ly match­es the spare text.  Spring’s return is a sin­gle flower open­ing on a dou­ble page spread, and a sin­gle note on a dou­ble page spread her­alds Bird’s return. Dubul does not gloss over the sense of loss Lion feels; like Lion, we yearn for Bird’s return, and that absence and yearn­ing makes the return even more sat­is­fy­ing.  I love that friend­ships can sur­vive dis­tance and time.

Jerome by HeartJack­ie: Jerome By Heart by Thomas Scot­to with illus­tra­tions by Olivi­er Tal­lec (trans­lat­ed from the French by Clau­dia Zoe Bedrick and Karin Snel­son; Enchant­ed Lion Books, 2018) gives us a sto­ry told with humor and poignan­cy, of two friends who know they are friends. “He always holds my hand./It’s true./Really tight.” And we see two boys, bicy­cling, hold­ing hands as traf­fic backs up behind them. And the one dri­ver whose face we can see looks rather grumpy. They are friends every­where, “On field trips to the art museum,/it’s me he choos­es as his bud­dy.” Rafael loves Jerome. Rafael’s mom likes Jerome, but doesn’t real­ize that Rafael feels pro­tect­ed by Jerome’s friend­ship. Rafael’s Dad wish­es Jerome would play soc­cer.

Jerome is kind — sees Rafael and speaks to him when he’s with oth­er friends, defends Rafael when oth­er kids make fun of him (we don’t know why), and tells “sto­ries that are so good/they seem real…”

When Rafael tells his par­ents, “I had the best dream last night!/It was good in a Jerome kind of way,” his Dad stares at his shoelaces. His Mom says, “’Eat your cere­al, Rafael.’” Rafael replies, “Maybe I’ll just eat my dream on toast! … That way all you’ll hear is crunching/and it won’t both­er your ears so much.”  And Dad responds, “Now that’s enough!”

Rafael goes to his room, look­ing for a present for Jerome. He imag­ines them on vaca­tion togeth­er, rid­ing in a race car. “I cir­cle around and around my bed./Around and around my table./Around and around my ques­tions.”  At the end he affirms his true friend­ship, in spite of his par­ents. “And I say — yes./Rafael loves Jerome./I can say it./It’s easy.” And we cheer for him.

Phyl­lis: I love this book so much — it’s one of those books that cap­ti­vat­ed me and insist­ed I buy it. The title page of Jerome By Heart quotes French poet Jacques Prévert, who wrote the enchant­i­ng How to Paint the Por­trait of a Bird (illus­trat­ed by Morde­cai Ger­stein, Roar­ing Brook Press, 2007). Prévert wrote, “And the passers-by point­ed fin­gers at them.  But the chil­dren who love each oth­er aren’t there for any­one else.”

Jerome and Rafael are “there” for each oth­er. Raphael’s mom says Jerome is polite and charm­ing. “But she nev­er says any­thing about how warm his smile is. She doesn’t seem to notice that I have a secret hide­out there, where I feel pro­tect­ed by Jerome’s two eyes.” Jerome always sees Raphael, even when Jerome is with his friends. What do we real­ly want but to be seen and loved for who we real­ly are? And to love that per­son back. Raphael says it for us: “’I for­get my mom and dad./ I think only about Jerome/ who I know by heart.”

In The Lit­tle Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry the prince says, “And now here is my secret, a very sim­ple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see right­ly; what is essen­tial is invis­i­ble to the eye.” Friends like Sam­my and Jacob, Lion and Bird, Jerome and Rafael see what is essen­tial but invis­i­ble to the eye. May we all have such friends. May we all be such friends, see­ing and know­ing each oth­er heart to heart.

P.S. Two of these three books are pub­lished by Enchant­ed Lion, a press that’s bring­ing out books that quick­ly become some of our favorite book friends.


Weathering Weather

Phyl­lis: Min­neso­ta has had a win­ter full of weath­er this year. We’ve just fin­ished the snowiest Feb­ru­ary on record, and now March is blow­ing down on us with the promised of wind and rain and (most like­ly) still more snow. An anony­mous British poet wrote of the weath­er, “We’ll weath­er the weath­er what­ev­er the weath­er.” We decid­ed to not only weath­er the weath­er but to cel­e­brate it with a few weath­ery pic­ture books.

Come On, Rain!In Karen Hesse’s Come On, Rain, illus­trat­ed by Jon J. Muth, an urban African Amer­i­can child yearns for rain. Her mamma’s plants are parched, She is “siz­zling like a hot pota­to,” and the city droops with heat. Hope comes in gray clouds rolling in, and the nar­ra­tor runs to find her friend Jack­ie-Joyce and tell her to put on her swim­suit. They run out into the alley, where their friends join them, and rain­drops plop down, “mak­ing dust dance all around us.” The friends dance in cir­cles, open their mouths to catch the rain, chase each oth­er down the street. They make such a rack­et shout­ing, “Come on, rain!” that the grown-ups toss off their shoes and socks and join them in a joy­ous cel­e­bra­tion. When the clouds and rain at last move off and every­thing is “spring­ing back to life,” they head home soaked and soothed by the wel­come rain. I remem­ber the delight of run­ning out into my back yard into a rain­storm, pud­dle-jump­ing, rain­drop catch­ing, and rain­bow spot­ting. Hesse’s book makes me wish for a rain­storm right now so I could run out into one again.

Jack­ie: I love this book, too, for that feel­ing of a grow­ing cel­e­bra­tion that’s going to bring the whole neigh­bor­hood togeth­er. And it reminds me of the fun of being drenched by a warm rain. It always gives me a feel­ing of being one with the world to be out in the rain, just get­ting wet. I laugh at how even the dust dances in cel­e­bra­tion in this sto­ry.

AlbertPhyl­lis: Albert by Don­na Jo Napoli, illus­trat­ed by Jim LaMarche, is less about a par­tic­u­lar kind of weath­er and more about a man who only expe­ri­ences the weath­er by stick­ing his hand out the grill­work over his win­dow, decid­ing it’s too cold, too damp, too hot, or too breezy to go out­side.

One day when he sticks his hand out, a car­di­nal drops a twig in it, then anoth­er car­di­nal joins in. While Albert watch­es, they build a nest in his hand and set­tle in. Albert doesn’t want to dis­turb the nest by twist­ing his hand back in through the grill­work, so he stands there, hold­ing the nest, which soon con­tains eggs. Kind-heart­ed Albert sleeps stand­ing up at night, breath­ing on the eggs to keep them warm when­ev­er the moth­er leaves the nest, and scar­ing away a curi­ous cat, all the while watch­ing life go by on the street below. One morn­ing “when Albert opened his mouth, he peeped.” The father car­di­nal brings him a bee­tle, then black­ber­ries to eat. On the twelfth morn­ing the eggs hatch, and with­in a few weeks the hatch­lings fledge, even­tu­al­ly leav­ing the nest, the last with encour­age­ment from Albert. He lets the now emp­ty nest fall, pulls his hand back in, and real­iz­ing that he is part of the big won­der­ful world, whether cold or damp or hot or breezy, he heads out of his apart­ment. The book ends: “Now Albert walks often. And some­times, just some­times, when no one’s look­ing, he flies.” The art shows Albert soar­ing on a swing, a car­di­nal perched on his head. This is a book that invites us not only to be gen­er­ous and kind to ani­mals but also to step out into the “big won­der­ful world” of which we are all a part.

Jack­ie: And if we are lucky, per­haps some­times we will fly. My used copy of this book is signed by the illus­tra­tor Jim LaMarche. The car­di­nals he drew for this book are so won­der­ful. They look as if they might fly right off the page. Read­ers of this sto­ry may nev­er have a nest on their hands, but they will nev­er see car­di­nals the same again.

When the Wind BlewPhyl­lis: Two books about wind seem fit­ting for March, which has come in like a snow lion this year. In When the Wind Blew by Mar­garet Wise Brown, illus­trat­ed by Geof­frey Hayes, an old, old lady lives all by her­self by the ocean with sev­en­teen cats and one lit­tle blue gray kit­ten. Each morn­ing the old lady milks her cow and fills sev­en­teen pur­ple saucers and one lit­tle blue saucer to feed her cats and kit­ten, then fills a mug for her­self. The old woman wash­es up the dish­es, the cats wash them­selves, and they all enjoy the sun­shine. One day the wind blows off the ocean, and the old lady brings her cats and kit­ten in out of the wind, where they curl up by the fire. Then a ter­ri­ble toothache strikes her, for which she has no med­i­cine or even a hot water bot­tle to put on her toothache for the pain. She takes her toothache to bed and lis­tens to the wind tear­ing through the cracks in her house, wish­ing for a hot water bot­tle for her aching tooth. Click purr, click purr. The lit­tle blue gray kit­ten jumps onto the bed and curls up next to her cheek, a fur-cov­ered hot water bot­tle that takes her toothache away. The wind blows on, but the old lady and her cats and blue grey kit­ten all sleep peace­ful­ly in her lit­tle house by the ocean. A sim­ple tale, and a com­fort­ing one, with Mar­garet Wise Brown’s lov­ing atten­tion to the sim­ple details of every­day life.

Jack­ie: One of her details is the detail of pain. “Her toothache was all there seemed to be in the world.” And I love the verbs that MWB uses. The cats, “mewed and purred and gur­gled for break­fast.” And the wind that “blew the sun­light cold and almost blew the lit­tle gray kit­ten off his feet.” We have had those winds that blow the sun­light cold. This book is a peek into a self-con­tained world that gets blown awry and then right­ed and it is so sat­is­fy­ing.

What Color is the Wind?What Col­or is the Wind? by Anne Herbauts is a lyri­cal med­i­ta­tion on the wind, but it is also a tex­tur­al book. By run­ning one’s fin­gers over the pages one can feel the ruf­fled hair of a dog, the coarse fur of a wolf, the raised bumps of rain, the smooth skin of an apple. Com­bine this with cut out win­dows, and you have a book to fas­ci­nate the sens­es. In the sto­ry, a lit­tle giant of a child sets out to dis­cov­er the col­or of the wind, only to receive dif­fer­ent answers from the ani­mals and objects that he meets. Stream, tree, bird all weigh in, but it is an enor­mous giant who answers, “It is every­thing at once. This whole book.” Ruf­fling the pages of the book the enor­mous giant makes a gen­tle wind for the lit­tle giant. The wind of the book. Mag­i­cal.

ShelterSome­times a book touch­es us so much that we have to own it. As soon as I took Shel­ter by Celine Claire, illus­trat­ed by Qin Leng off the shelf at Red Bal­loon Book­shop and read through it, I knew I could not leave the store with­out it. The book begins with ani­mals prepar­ing for a com­ing storm, gath­er­ing wood for the a fire, squir­rel­ing away nuts. As the storm hits and the ani­mals are snug­gly tucked in their dens, two strangers, a big bear and a lit­tle bear, appear in the fog seek­ing shel­ter. They offer tea in exchange for the warmth of a fire at the first den they come to, and though the art shows a bright­ly burn­ing fire, the ani­mals inside claim their fire is out. “Try next door,” they say. Next door the hun­gry bears offer to trade tea for a few cook­ies but are told, “We have no food. Try next door,” even though the den is heaped with acorns. The fox­es next door turn the bears down because their den is crowd­ed, although Lit­tle Fox runs after the bears and offers them a lantern. Next door is only a hill, but the bears feel wel­come there, and once snow begin to fall, they know they will be all right. Back in the fox­es’ den, the weight of the snow caus­es the roof to col­lapse, and although the fox fam­i­ly escapes, the world out­side is cold and dark and full of snow. A light beck­ons, which turns out to be the lantern Lit­tle Fox gave the bears, glow­ing through the snow den they have built. Lit­tle Fox offers cook­ies for tea and the bears reply that their lantern is weak­en­ing, their den is small and crowd­ed, and they have no food but the fox­es are wel­come to share the den and their tea — which they do. The last illus­tra­tion shows the win­ter storm blus­ter­ing while inside the small snow shel­ter, the fox­es and bears sip tea and eat cook­ies togeth­er by lantern light. This sto­ry moved my heart, not least because it is about the gen­eros­i­ty of strangers and about how we nev­er know when we might be the stranger in need of aid who hopes some­one will open their heart to us.

Jack­ie: I agree. This is a won­der­ful book and so per­fect for our time. If one read­er shares one cook­ie with anoth­er, who then shares a cookie…Well, let’s hope.

So many more good weath­er books, some of which we’ve looked at in pre­vi­ous posts—The Snowy Day, Hide and Seek Fog, Lau­ren Stringer’s Win­ter is the Warmest Sea­son, Red Rub­ber Boot Day, Yel­low Time—we could keep list­ing them until the snow melts. Whether or not we like the weath­er, we’ll weath­er it with a good weath­ery book, know­ing, too, that if we just wait a lit­tle while, new weath­er will be upon us.


Making Something Out of Nothing

Jack­ie: We are in cold, cold win­ter. Too cold to read seed cat­a­logs – spring just seems too far away to imag­ine frag­ile green. We are con­fined to cab­in. What to do but think of repur­pos­ing, mak­ing some­thing out of noth­ing, or next to noth­ing?

Stone Soup by Marcia BrownStone Soup by Mar­cia Brown has always been one of my favorite some­thing-out-of-noth­ing (or at least some­thing out of stones) sto­ries. The three hun­gry sol­diers promise to teach the towns­folk, who claim to have no food to share, how to make soup from stones. The towns­folk quick­ly find a pot, wood for a fire, and three good stones. “’Any soup needs salt and pep­per,’ said the sol­diers, as they began to stir.” No prob­lem. And then it begins, “Stones like these gen­er­al­ly make good soup. But oh, if there were car­rots, it would be much bet­ter.” Françoise brings car­rots. Soon oth­ers bring cab­bage, beef and pota­toes, bar­ley and milk. Tables are set. And the peas­ants decide this won­der­ful soup requires “bread — and a roast — and cider.” They feast and dance into the night and offer the sol­diers warm beds in their homes. I love the idea of mak­ing soup from stones, the notion that the vil­lagers are will­ing to share to make a bet­ter stone soup, per­haps because it’s coöper­a­tive. They are mak­ing soup togeth­er.

In recent days, I have want­ed to see the vil­lagers become aware of the stone soup trick, but that is not part of this French folk tale. And I can still imag­ine to myself a vil­lage child wak­ing up with a smile on her face as she under­stands the real charm of stone soup.

Once Upon a Mouse by Marcia BrownPhyl­lis: I can under­stand the vil­lagers’ hes­i­tan­cy to share — they’ve been in the midst of war, feed­ing many sol­diers whether they chose to or not, and now that the war has end­ed, shouldn’t they be left in peace? But peace means more than just the ces­sa­tion of fight­ing. It means, too, learn­ing how to open hearts as well as cup­boards, a les­son the vil­lagers don’t even real­ize they have been sly­ly giv­en and have tak­en to heart.

I have been mak­ing lots of soup as the tem­per­a­ture dips to minus 28 with a wind chill of minus 47 or there­abouts. Like the say­ing about wood warm­ing a per­son twice, (once when you split it, once when you burn it) soup warms us in many ways. The cook­ing warms our kitchens, the eat­ing warms our bod­ies, and the shar­ing warms our hearts. When the ground thaws, I’m going to hunt for a smooth, round stone and try adding it to my soup pot. Who knows? It might be as secret ingre­di­ent, as it was for the vil­lagers in Stone Soup. And I love the flow­ing line of Brown’s art — I knew I want­ed to be a part of pic­ture books when, in col­lege, I dis­cov­ered a tucked-away shelf of children’s books that includ­ed her won­der­ful wood­cuts for Once A Mouse.

Thank You, Omu!Jack­ie: An inside-out- ver­sion of this soup sto­ry is Thank You, Omu! by Oge Mora, recent­ly named a Calde­cott Hon­or Win­ner by the ALA. Omu lives on the top floor of an apart­ment build­ing. One day she makes her­self a large pot of thick red stew. Its “scrump­tious scent waft­ed out the win­dow and out the door, down the hall towards the street and around the block” until Knock, Knock, Knock. A lit­tle boy stops in to ask for a bowl of the thick red stew. “It would not hurt to share,” decides Omu. After all she has a very large pot of stew. Then stops a police offi­cer, a hot dog ven­dor, the may­or, and oth­ers — all look­ing for stew. When it comes time for her deli­cious din­ner of stew, Omu’s pot is emp­ty. She hears Knock, Knock, Knock. But she has no more stew. “’We are not here to ask,” says the boy. ‘We are here to give.’” And all the neigh­bors who ate Omu’s stew have returned with meat and sweets, and plates of food. Omu’s small apart­ment is filled with peo­ple who “ate, danced, and cel­e­brat­ed.” Omu’s stew makes a com­mu­ni­ty cel­e­bra­tion out of an emp­ty pot. And who can resist sto­ries that end with eat­ing and danc­ing? (Here’s a link to an inter­view with Oge Mora.)

Phyl­lis: I love this book! Oge Mora also just won the 2019 Coret­ta Scott King Book Awards John Step­toe Award for New Tal­ent Illus­tra­tor for Thank You, Omu!, and it’s easy to see why — the col­or­ful col­lage art, her col­or palette, the way words and images leap off the page, the irre­sistible knocks on the door that pro­pel page turns, and, of course, the sto­ry of freely giv­ing and receiv­ing in return.

 In an inter­view Oge Mora talks about how the heart of the book cen­ters on giv­ing and grat­i­tude. She didn’t include a recipe for Omu’s scrump­tious stew in part, she says, because she wants read­ers to think about food that they have their own rela­tion­ships with — food that com­forts, food that calls up mem­o­ries of cooks who came before us. In an author’s note Mora tells how her grand­moth­er danced and swayed as she stirred a pot of soup, and her table was open to any­one who stopped by. “Every­one in the com­mu­ni­ty had a seat at my grandmother’s table,” she writes. And we are lucky enough to have a seat at Omu’s table as we share this book.

Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms TabackJack­ie: No soup involved in Simms Tabak’s Joseph Had a Lit­tle Over­coat, but there is much mak­ing some­thing out of some­thing less. We can enjoy time and again Joseph’s inge­nu­ity in mak­ing from his worn coat a jack­et, then a vest. When the vest is “old and worn,” he makes a scarf and “sang in a men’s cho­rus.” Then a neck­tie, a hand­ker­chief, and a but­ton. When the but­ton is lost, he makes a book about it. “Which shows you can always make some­thing out of noth­ing.”

Phyl­lis: Vivid art and clever cutouts show the overcoat/jacket/vest/scarf/necktie/handkerchief/button get­ting small­er and small­er. Joseph, who makes a sto­ry out of “noth­ing,” cheer­i­ly doesn’t seem to care at all that one sus­pender is miss­ing now a but­ton, and we have no doubt that he’ll find some oth­er noth­ing to make a new but­ton out of.

The Patchwork BikeThe Patch­work Bike by Max­ine Bene­ba Clarke, illus­trat­ed by Van Thanh Rudd, begins, “This is the vil­lage where we live inside our mud-for-wall home. These are my crazy broth­ers, and this is our fed-up mum.” The nar­ra­tor and her broth­ers build a sand hill to slide down, jump and climb in the big Fiori tree “out in the no-go desert, under the stretch­ing-out sky.” But the best thing in the vil­lage, she tells us, is the bike she and her broth­ers make out of scraps, with a “bent buck­et seat and han­dle­bar branch­es that shick­et­ty shake when we ride over sand hills.” Tin cans become han­dles, wheels cut from wood go win­ket­ty wonk, a flour sack becomes a flag, Mum’s milk pot becomes a bell (and is she fed-up about that, we won­der), lights are paint­ed on, and the license plate, made of bark, keeps falling off. “The best thing of all to play with under the stretch­ing-out sky at the edge of the no-go desert,” she tells us, “is me and my broth­ers’ bike.” As some­one who’s mend­ed cars with twisty ties and tem­porar­i­ly patched leaky gas tank leaks with bars of soap, I admire their inge­nu­ity. The art races across the page as a few exact­ly right words cre­ate set­ting and fam­i­ly and take us along with the nar­ra­tor and her broth­ers on their best-thing-of-all patch­work bike.

The Secret Kingdom by Barb Rosenstock and Claire A. NivolaJack­ie: And final­ly, back to stones. In The Secret King­dom by Barb Rosen­stock and illus­trat­ed by Claire A. Nivola, we learn of Nek Chand, forced out of his home vil­lage with the par­ti­tion­ing of India to a new­ly-con­struct­ed city. He longed for the sights and sounds of his home, now part of Pak­istan. He could not go back nor could he find the old sights and sounds in the gray city. He found a place on the edge of town, an unin­hab­it­ed jun­gle. He made him­self a home and over the next fif­teen years he scav­enged “bro­ken pieces of vil­lage life under the mod­ern city…chipped sinks, cracked water pots, and bro­ken glass ban­gles in red, blue, and green.” For sev­en years he “car­ried these trea­sures into the wilder­ness. He made cement and pressed porce­lain shards into it.” He “saved half-dead plants from the city dump,” watered them, and filled his king­dom with bougainvil­lea, ole­an­der, man­go and pipal trees. He con­struct­ed god­dess­es and queens, singing men, women, and laugh­ing chil­dren. “Nek built his king­dom over twelve acres and kept it secret for fif­teen years.” When gov­ern­ment offi­cers found his king­dom, they planned to destroy it.

Until the peo­ple of Chandi­garh came.” They loved this place! “By the hun­dreds, city peo­ple roamed sculp­tured walk­ways, ducked through arch­es, laughed and told vil­lage sto­ries, begin­ning to end and back again.” The peo­ple con­vinced the gov­ern­ment offi­cials to pre­serve the vil­lage.

With his col­lec­tion of scraps and shards, with his yearn­ing and his art, Nek Chand made a place that called forth sto­ries, laugh­ter, mem­o­ry.

Nek Chand's Outsider ArtPhyl­lis: This book is breath­tak­ing, both in the sto­ry it tells and also in the world of remem­bered home that Nek Chand cre­at­ed. The author came across this sto­ry by acci­dent while research­ing anoth­er book and was so gripped by Chand’s art and sto­ry that she put aside that project while she wrote The Secret King­dom. A short video offers a glimpse of Chand’s king­dom, and a book for grown-ups, Nek Chand’s Out­sider Art: the Rock Gar­den of Chandi­garh, is filled with pho­tos of his cre­ations made from the cast-off trash of the city. In the end, Chand’s art, built in secret soli­tude, cre­at­ed com­mu­ni­ty as peo­ple fought to save his king­dom.

Jack­ie: When we make some­thing out of noth­ing, we end up with more than the thing we have made, we end up with com­mu­ni­ty, love, healed hearts, home.


Knit One, Purl Two

Phyl­lis: Two sticks and some string. That’s the most basic def­i­n­i­tion of knit­ting. The sticks might be met­al or wood. The string might be yarn or flax. But in the hands of a knit­ter, even an unskilled one such as I, they become mag­ic.

In the chilly months, we bun­dle up in cozy sweaters, snug mit­tens, hats that hug our heads. And what’s bet­ter than a book on a cold day or night to help keep us warm, snug­gled up with a lit­tle lis­ten­er or read­er or even a cozy cat? This month we’re look­ing at a few of the pic­ture books that cel­e­brate knit­ting and yarn.

Extra YarnIn Extra Yarn by Mac Bar­nett, illus­trat­ed by Jon Klassen (Balz­er and Bray, 2012), a lit­tle girl in a cold, drab town finds a box filled with yarn of every col­or. She knits her­self a col­or­ful sweater and still has extra yarn, so she knits her dog a sweater. But she still has extra yarn. She knits a sweater for a boy Nate (who laughs at her sweater but is real­ly just jeal­ous) and one for his dog, and so it goes. She knits sweaters for her whole class, includ­ing her teacher, for her par­ents, her neigh­bors (except for Mr. Crab­tree who nev­er wears sweaters, who get a knit­ted hat), sweaters for dogs, cats, birds and “things that didn’t even wear sweaters” — hous­es, mail­box­es, bird­hous­es. And still she has extra yarn. When an arch­duke hears of the mag­i­cal box of yarn and demands to buy it for ten mil­lion dol­lars, Annabelle, who is knit­ting a sweater for a pick­up truck, polite­ly declines. The arch­duke hires rob­bers who steal the box for him, but when he opens the box it is emp­ty. He flings it out the win­dow along with a curse, “Lit­tle girl…you will nev­er be hap­py again!” The box floats back across the ocean straight to Annabelle, who finds it full of extra yarn and who is indeed hap­py as she con­tin­ues to knit a more col­or­ful world. I love how her gen­eros­i­ty makes her world warmer in more ways than one.

Jack­ie: I love this book, too! I love that knit­ting stands for love, and, as you say, her knit objects bring col­or to the town, as love is the col­or in our lives. I also love the pair­ing of the mun­dane — knit­ting — with the mag­i­cal, the unend­ing sup­ply of yarn.

Feeding the SheepPhyl­lis: Feed­ing the Sheep by Leda Schu­bert, illus­trat­ed by Andrea U’Ren (Far­rar, Straus & Giroux, 2010) begins with a lit­tle girl ask­ing her moth­er “What are you doing?” “Feed­ing the sheep,” the moth­er replies. This struc­ture of ques­tion, answer, and rhyming cou­plets con­tin­ues through shear­ing the sheep, wash­ing the wool, card­ing the wool, until final­ly the moth­er has knit a gor­geous blue sweater for her daugh­ter. At the end of the book the moth­er asks, “What are you doing?” and this time the lit­tle girl replies, “Feed­ing the sheep.” Each stan­za ends with a rhyming line: “Snowy day, corn and hay,” “Soft and deep, sheepy heap.” Such fun to say.

Feed­ing the Sheep has the ele­gant sim­plic­i­ty of beau­ti­ful lan­guage, rep­e­ti­tion, rhyming cou­plets, and an end­ing that echoes the begin­ning and res­onates with love between a moth­er and her daugh­ter through the every­day activ­i­ties of their lives. I love this spare and ten­der sto­ry more every time I read it.

Jack­ie: This ten­der sto­ry makes me want to have a sheep, or even bet­ter, be a part of this lov­ing fam­i­ly. Andrea U’Ren’s illus­tra­tions extend the sto­ry. The girl is doing some­thing in each spread that res­onates with what the mom is doing. When Mom is shear­ing the sheep, the girl is play­ing with the fleece. When the Mom is wash­ing the wool, the girl is wash­ing the dog, Mom card­ing the wool, girl brush­ing the dog.

And at the end, we have the love­ly twist. The girl the one feed­ing the sheep. The love is passed on.

Too Many MittensPhyl­lis: Too Many Mit­tens by Flo­rence and Louis Slo­bod­kin (Ran­dom House Children’s Books, 1958) was writ­ten at a time when pic­ture books often had many more words than today (and when most ser­vice peo­ple were men). When Don­nie los­es a red mit­ten while Grand­ma is stay­ing with him and his twin Ned while their par­ents are trav­el­ling, word about the lost mit­ten goes around the neigh­bor­hood. Neigh­bor after neigh­bor help­ful­ly bring over red mit­tens they have found. “Is this yours?” they ask, and Grand­ma replies, “I guess so,” stash­ing the mit­tens in a draw­er. When Don­nie and Ned’s par­ents return from their trip with a present for the boys — red mit­tens — Grand­ma opens the mit­ten draw­er, which explodes with red mit­tens. Ned’s solu­tion: hang the red mit­tens on a clothes­line out­side and post a sign for peo­ple to claim them, which they do, all but one. The neigh­bor­hood likes the mit­ten solu­tion so much that each win­ter the fam­i­ly strings a mit­ten clothes­line for lost red mit­tens to be reclaimed. Any­one who finds a red mit­ten any­where brings the mit­ten over to the twins’ house to hang on the clothes­line. Who knows? You might find your lost red mit­ten there! The mit­tens them­selves are vivid spots in the art.

Jack­ie: The art in this book is so won­der­ful. I love the red mit­tens appear­ing on the pages. They remind me of the joy of car­di­nals in win­ter. And I enjoy the neigh­bor­hood feel­ing of this sto­ry. A sign of how much we have changed since 1958 is that I miss the women who might car­ry mail, or deliv­er pack­ages, or pick up garbage. But we can add them in as we read and talk about this sto­ry.

A Hat for Mrs. GoldmanPhyl­lis: In A Hat for Mrs. Gold­man: A Sto­ry about Knit­ting and Love by Michelle Edwards, illus­trat­ed by G. Bri­an Karas (Schwartz & Wade Books, 2016) a lit­tle girl finds her own solu­tion to pro­vid­ing her gen­er­ous and beloved neigh­bor a hat to keep her head warm. When Sophie was born Mrs. Gold­man knit her a tiny baby hat to keep her kep­pie (head) warm. When Sophie grows big­ger, Mrs. Gold­man teach­es Sophie to knit, but what Sophie likes best is mak­ing the pom-poms for all the hats Mrs. Gold­man knits to keep oth­er people’s kep­pies warm which, Mrs. Gold­man says, is a mitz­vah, a good deed. Sophie wor­ries because Mrs. Gold­man is so busy knit­ting for oth­ers that she has no hat to keep her own kep­pie warm when they take Fifi for a walk. Sophie sets out to knit a hat as a sur­prise for Mrs. Gold­man. Sophie knits and knits and knits, but the fin­ished hat is lumpy and bumpy with “holes where there shouldn’t be holes.” Sophie remem­bers Mrs. Gold­man say­ing that Sophie’s pom-poms add beau­ty “and that’s a mitz­vah,” so Sophie dec­o­rates Mrs. Goldman’s hat with 20 pom-poms cov­er­ing the lumps and bumps and holes. Mrs. Gold­man loves her sur­prise and wears Sophie’s hat to keep her kep­pie warm.

Jack­ie: This is such a rich sto­ry, rich in emo­tion, rich in cre­ative solu­tions, rich in vocab­u­lary. I am glad to learn “kep­pie,” and that a good deed is a “mitz­vah.” And I am so glad for the instruc­tions that Michelle Edwards includ­ed in the book, so we can all make hats to keep the kep­pies of our loved ones warm.

And so, skills, and love, are passed down to new knit­ters. Knit one, purl two. A hat a scarf a sweater, pom-poms — what two sticks and some yarn are real­ly knit­ting is love. And that’s a mitz­vah.


Pie and Gratitude

Novem­ber is a month of grat­i­tude — and, for us, a month to cel­e­brate Pie. We all have a favorite. Many of us have child­hood mem­o­ries of good times and pie. We all wait for the days when we can eat pie for break­fast. So we two thought this would be the per­fect month to look at pic­ture books about pie. We so con­sis­tent­ly think of pie in Novem­ber that we also reviewed pie books last year. But we have a cou­ple of new ones this year. And who can think of pie too often?

How to Make an Apple PieWe want to start with the clas­sic—How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World by Mar­jorie Price­man (Drag­on­fly, 1994). We both love this book, love the idea of teach­ing geog­ra­phy through pie. If you want to make an apple pie and the mar­ket is closed what can you do? Well, you can go to Italy for wheat for your pie crust, France for an egg, Sri Lan­ka for cin­na­mon. Pick up a cow in Eng­land and on and on until you have col­lect­ed the ingre­di­ents for the pie. The two-page spread show­ing the mak­ing of the pie is charm­ing. And the last spread of shar­ing pie with friends — and the cow, the chick­en, a dog and cat is enough to make you want to get out and make a pie. And of course the book includes a recipe for an apple pie.

How to Make a Cherry PiePrice­man did anoth­er book—How to Make Cher­ry Pie and See the U.S.A. (Knopf, 2008) — which focus­es not on ingre­di­ents, but tools involved in pie mak­ing — pothold­ers, pie pan, rolling pin. It fea­tures the same spright­ly illus­tra­tion style and the same inde­fati­ga­ble char­ac­ter who will go to any lengths for pie.

Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie by Rob­bin Gour­ley (Clar­i­on, 2000) is a “pie-shaped” sto­ry fea­tur­ing one of the stars of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry food world — African Amer­i­can writer and chef, Edna Lewis. The book fol­lows the child Edna through­out the sea­sons as she enjoys and com­ments on the foods that come with each. Spring brings wild straw­ber­ries and for­aged greens. Each sea­son also fea­tures a rhyme from Edna:

But I have nev­er tast­ed meat,
nor cab­bage, corn, or beans,
nor milk or tea that’s half as sweet
as that first mess of greens.

Bring Me Some Apples and I'll Make You a PieSum­mer is hon­ey from the bees, cher­ries, berries and peach­es. “Six per­fect peach­es make a per­fect pie.” And then of course, toma­toes, corn, and beans. This is a book to get read­ers think­ing about foods and sea­sons. In a time when we can buy toma­toes and peach­es all year long, it’s good to remem­ber the best fruits and veg­eta­bles are the ones we find in their sea­sons.

When apple sea­son comes Edna’s poem reads:

Don’t ask me no ques­tions,
an’ I won’t tell you no lies.
But bring me some apples,
an’ I’ll make you some pies.

We learn in an Author’s Note that in her writ­ings Edna Lewis extolled the virtues of “pre­serv­ing tra­di­tion­al meth­ods of grow­ing and prepar­ing food and of bring­ing ingre­di­ents direct­ly from the field to the table … For Edna, the goal was to coax the best fla­vor from each ingre­di­ent, and the reward was the taste and sat­is­fac­tion of a deli­cious meal.”

Pie is for SharingPart of the sat­is­fac­tion of a deli­cious meal is in the shar­ing. And that is dou­bly true for pie. If we should ever for­get that and dream of eat­ing a whole pie all by our­selves Stephanie Pars­ley Led­yard and Jason Chin have writ­ten a book to jolt us back to com­mu­ni­ty—Pie is for Shar­ing (Roar­ing Brook, 2018). “Pie is for shar­ing,” this book begins. And we see kids and fam­i­lies gath­er­ing for a pic­nic. The best part is that the kids are all col­ors, all eth­nic­i­ties, and they are play­ing and eat­ing pie togeth­er. No one stands alone. No one is exclud­ed. They also share books, balls, even trees. They laugh and swim and build sand cas­tles. They are a flock of friends on a sum­mer day togeth­er.

This cel­e­bra­tion of pie and com­mu­ni­ty ends with, “Many can share one light. /And a blanket?/A breeze?/The sky?/These are for sharing./Just like pie.”

Gator PieShar­ing pie is the prob­lem and the solu­tion in Gator Pie by Louise Math­ews (illus­trat­ed by Jeni Bas­sett, pub­lished by Dodd, Mead 1979). We hope you can find this book. It is a charm­ing math les­son told with pie. Alvin and Alice are alli­ga­tor friends who hap­pen to find a pie “on a table near the edge of the swamp. /It was a whole pie that had not been cut. /’ I won­der what kind it is,’ said Alice. /’Let’s eat it and find out!’ cried Alvin.” But before they can cut it, an alli­ga­tor “with a nasty look in his eye” stomps up and demands some pie. They real­ize they will have to cut the pie into three pieces. Then comes anoth­er gator — four pieces. And four gators show up, “swag­ger­ing like gang­sters.” We see a pie cut into eight pieces. Then more gators — a hun­dred in all. Very tiny pieces of pie. Alice cuts the pie into one hun­dred pieces and you’d think that would be the end, but Alvin has an idea…

Per­haps we can tell this is an old­er book because it’s Alvin who’s in charge here. Alice could have had that brain­storm and if we were writ­ing this book now, she would. Still they are good friends, the math is fun, and so is end­ing up with a pie for two friends to share.

This month let’s be grate­ful for friends, for inclu­sive com­mu­ni­ty in a world rat­tled with oth­er­ing, and for the chance to make and eat pie.


Lucille Clifton: All About Love

Lucille Clifton, poet and author

Lucille Clifton, poet and author

Poet Lucille Clifton in a 1998 inter­view “Doing What You Will Do,” pub­lished in Sleep­ing with One Eye Open: Women Writ­ers and the Art of Sur­vival, said, “I think the oral tra­di­tion is the one which is most inter­est­ing to me and the voice in which I like to speak.” Asked about the most impor­tant aspect of her craft, she answered, “For me, sound … sound, the music of a poem, the feel­ing are most impor­tant. I can feel what I can hear.”

Clifton was a poet, but as any writer or read­er or hear­er of pic­ture books knows, pic­ture books and poet­ry are kin. Both are meant to be read out loud, savored by the ear and by the tongue.  Both depend on sound, on image, on emo­tion. Every word mat­ters in a poem and in a pic­ture book. So is it any won­der that Lucille Clifton, amaz­ing poet, was also a con­sum­mate pic­ture book writer?

Some of the Days of Everett Anderson

illus­trat­ed by Eva­line Ness

Clifton’s sto­ries hon­or both the every­day lives and also the emo­tion­al lives of chil­dren. Eight of her pic­ture books are about Everett Ander­son, a fic­tion­al African-Amer­i­can boy with a sin­gle moth­er who lives in a city apart­ment, a boy so real to read­ers that chil­dren wrote him let­ters. Some of the Days of Everett Ander­son intro­duces us to Everett Ander­son and takes us through his week, with themes of miss­ing dad­dy, of mama need­ing to work, of a boy who real­izes being afraid of the dark would mean being afraid of the peo­ple he loves and even afraid of him­self.

Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming

illus­trat­ed by Eva­line Ness; a lat­er edi­tion was illus­trat­ed by Jan Spivey Gilchrist

Everett Anderson’s Christ­mas Com­ing joy­ful­ly cel­e­brates a city Christ­mas through the days of expec­ta­tion and excite­ment for a boy who lives “In 14A  … between the snow that falls on down­er lives.” He thinks about what he would want if his Dad­dy was here, and how he should try hard­er to be good, and how boys with lots of presents have to spend the whole Christ­mas day open­ing them and nev­er have fun. When a tree blooms with col­or in his apart­ment, and Everett, we see from the art, gets a drum for Christ­mas, Everett Ander­son sees how “our Christ­mas bounces off the sky and shines on all the down­er ones.”

Everett Anderson's Year

illus­trat­ed by Ann Gri­fal­coni

Everett’s Anderson’s Year takes Everett Ander­son from Jan­u­ary when his Mama tells him to walk tall in the world through the months and events of Everett’s Anderson’s year: wait­ing for Mama to come home from work, want­i­ng to make Amer­i­ca a birth­day cake except the sug­ar is almost gone and he will have to wait until pay­day to buy more, miss­ing his Dad­dy wher­ev­er he is, not under­stand­ing why he has to go back to school again, and real­iz­ing, at the end of the year

It’s just about love,”
his Mama smiles.
“It’s all about Love and
you know about that.”

Everett Anderson's Friend

illus­trat­ed by Ann Gri­fal­coni

With Everett Anderson’s Friend his world expands. A new neigh­bor in 13A turns out to be a girl who can out­run and out­play Everett at ball, and he isn’t inter­est­ed in being friends. Then one day he locks him­self out of his apart­ment, and Maria invites him in to 13A where her moth­er “makes lit­tle pies called Tacos, calls lit­tle boys Mucha­chos, and likes to thank the Dios.” Everett real­izes he and Maria can be friends even if she wins at ball. “And the friends we find are full of sur­pris­es Everett Ander­son real­izes.” A sub­tle thread through­out the sto­ry is Everett Ander­son miss­ing his father, who if he were there when Everett locks him­self out, would make peanut but­ter and jel­ly for him and not be mad at all. We don’t know where Everett’s dad­dy is, but we feel his yearn­ing for his father even as Everett dis­cov­ers a new friend. 

Everett Anderson's 1-2-3

illus­trat­ed by Ann Gri­fal­coni

His world expands again in Everett Anderson’s 1−2−3 when Everett Anderson’s mama and a new neigh­bor, Mr. Per­ry, hit it off. One can be fun, Everett thinks, but one can be lone­ly if Mama is busy talk­ing with the new neigh­bor. Everett likes just the two of them, he and Mama. Mama tells Everett that while she miss­es his dad­dy two can be lone­ly – and things do go on. Everett thinks he can get used to being three, but the sto­ry refus­es a pat solu­tion. 

One can be lone­ly and One can be fun, and
Two can be awful or per­fect for some, and
Three can be crowd­ed or can be just right or
Even too many, you have to decide.
Mr. Per­ry and Everett Ander­son too
Know the num­ber you need
Is the num­ber for you. 

Everett Anderson's Goodbye

illus­trat­ed by Ann Gri­fal­coni

In Everett Anderson’s Good­bye we learn that Everett’s father has died. The spare and ten­der sto­ry takes Everett through the five stages of grief list­ed at the begin­ning of the book:  denial, anger, bar­gain­ing, depres­sion and, after a while, accep­tance. In the begin­ning Everett Ander­son holds his mama’s hand and dreams of “just Dad­dy, Dad­dy for­ev­er and ever.” An angry Everett declares he doesn’t love any­body, or any­thing, and a bar­gain­ing Everett promis­es to learn his nine times nine and nev­er sleep late or gob­ble his bread if Dad­dy can be alive again. Everett can’t even sleep because “the hurt is too deep.” After some time pass­es Everett comes to accep­tance of his daddy’s death and says, “I knew my dad­dy loved me through and through, and what­ev­er hap­pens when peo­ple die, love doesn’t stop, and nei­ther will I.”

Everett Anderson's Nine Month Long

illus­trat­ed by Ann Gri­fal­coni

The library’s copy of Everett Anderson’s Nine Month Long has a splen­did sur­prise on the title page: Lucille Clifton’s sig­na­ture and the inscrip­tion, For Ian — Joy! 281. The sto­ry tells about Everett deal­ing with a com­ing new baby in the fam­i­ly and ten­der­ly shows his feel­ings, from antic­i­pa­tion to feel­ing left out. Mr. Per­ry, who is now Everett’s step­fa­ther, helps Everett know that his mama

… is still the same
Mama who loves you what­ev­er her name
and what­ev­er oth­er sis­ter or broth­er
you know you are her
spe­cial one,
her first­born Everett Ander­son.

One of the Problems of Ann Grifalconi

illus­trat­ed by Ann Gri­fal­coni

Over the course of these sto­ries Everett Ander­son grows in empa­thy and under­stand­ing. In the last book One of the Prob­lems of Everett Ander­son he wor­ries  about what to do when a friend shows up every day “with a scar or a bruise or a mark on his leg” and has the “sad­dest sad­dest face like he was lost in the loneli­est place.”  When Everett tells Mama he doesn’t know how to help his friend Greg, she lis­tens and hugs him hard and holds his hand. 

and Everett tries to under­stand
that one of the things he can do right now
is lis­ten to Greg and hug and hold
his friend, and now that Mama is told,
some­thing will hap­pen for Greg that is new.

Some­times the lit­tle things that you do
make a dif­fer­ence.
Everett Ander­son hopes that’s true.

Clifton’s sto­ries rec­og­nize that not all prob­lems are eas­i­ly solved, but in the del­i­cate strength of this telling, Everett learns that doing lit­tle things might make a dif­fer­ence for his friend. We hope so, too.

From 1970 until her death in 2010 Lucille Clifton made poet­ry of every­day lives and hearts. Read some of the books of Lucille Clifton. Read them all.

They’re all about love, and we know about that.

P.S. Anoth­er month we want to share some of the oth­er won­der­ful children’s books by Lucille Clifton.


Chasing Peace: Refugee Stories

This sum­mer, deeply trou­bling sto­ries about migrants and refugees at the US-Mex­i­can bor­der have come to us in news­pa­per sto­ries, record­ings, pho­tographs, and videos. In choos­ing to sep­a­rate chil­dren from their par­ents, our gov­ern­ment has shown a dis­turb­ing lack of empa­thy for peo­ple flee­ing vio­lence and tur­moil in their home coun­tries. It is our hope that these pic­ture books will help fos­ter empa­thy and shed light on the com­plex issues of migra­tion for young read­ers, while giv­ing a sense of the courage, resilience, and human­i­ty behind each jour­ney.


The Jour­ney
writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Francesca San­na 
Fly­ing Eye Books, 2016

This remark­able book had its begin­nings when author/illustrator Francesca San­na met two girls in a refugee camp in Italy and lis­tened to their sto­ry. Soon, she began col­lect­ing many more sto­ries of peo­ple forced to flee their home­lands and decid­ed to cre­ate a col­lage of these expe­ri­ences in this stun­ning pic­ture book. The Jour­ney feels at once uni­ver­sal and spe­cif­ic as it fol­lows one fam­i­ly on their long, dan­ger­ous voy­age from their beloved home­town, which has become a war­zone, toward an uncer­tain future in “a coun­try far away with high moun­tains”, where they can be safe. We don’t know the details, but evoca­tive illus­tra­tions use dark, abstract­ed shapes to great psy­cho­log­i­cal effect through­out the book to depict the fear the chil­dren feel as they flee the war that “took” their father.

from The Jour­ney, illus­tra­tion copy­right Francesca San­na

The jour­ney is a pre­car­i­ous one as the fam­i­ly trav­els first by car, then hides in trucks, trav­els at night by bicy­cle and then on foot, only to arrive at a bor­der, where they must hide and lat­er be smug­gled across. An illus­tra­tion depict­ing the crowd­ed boat pas­sage feels aching­ly famil­iar from images in the news. After cross­ing many bor­ders, the sight of migrat­ing birds fly­ing sug­gest the hope of a secure future for this brave and resource­ful fam­i­ly.

Susan Marie: 

A Dif­fer­ent Pond
writ­ten by Bao Phi
illus­trat­ed by Thi Bui
Cap­stone Press, 2017

A Dif­fer­ent Pond is a sto­ry from a Viet­namese refugee fam­i­ly liv­ing in Min­neapo­lis, Min­neso­ta. A boy and his father go fish­ing at a city lake in the chilly, ear­ly morn­ing dark: “We stop at the bait store on Lake Street. It always seems to be open.” When the two return home with their catch at sun­rise, the boy’s par­ents will head off to their Sat­ur­day jobs. Author Bao Phi and illus­tra­tor Thi Bui have received major awards for this pic­ture book, a Char­lotte Zolo­tow Award and a Calde­cott Hon­or, respec­tive­ly.

Both the text and the art weave togeth­er three strands: the grit­ti­ness of life in the city, the trau­ma of refugee strug­gle, and the sim­ple beau­ty of human expe­ri­ence. Take, for exam­ple, the moment when the boy and his father sit and eat togeth­er. Their break­fast is two sand­wich­es, plain cold bologna on white bread. The two talk for a moment about how the father used to fish by a pond with his broth­er who died in the war. And yet the moment is also beau­ti­ful. Bui’s illus­tra­tion recre­ates the glow of a small fire and the play of light on their faces, while Phi’s text cap­tures a bit of mag­ic: “There’s half a pep­per­corn, like a moon split in two, stud­ded into the meat.”

from the book A Dif­fer­ent Pond, illus­tra­tion copy­right Thi Bui.

A reward­ing read­ing project for adults inter­est­ed in this book is to read it along­side adult titles also pub­lished in 2017. Bao Phi’s most recent book of poems, Thou­sand Star Hotel, pub­lished by Cof­fee House Press, and Thi Bui’s graph­ic nov­el mem­oir, The Best We Could Do, pub­lished by Abrams, are pierc­ing and beau­ti­ful accounts of the expe­ri­ence of their refugee fam­i­lies.


Stepping Stones: a Refugee Family's JourneyStep­ping Stones: A Refugee Fam­i­ly’s Jour­ney
writ­ten by Mar­gri­et Ruurs
art­work by Nizar Ali Badr
Orca Book Pub­lish­ers, 2016

This sto­ry of a fam­i­ly leav­ing war-torn Syr­ia is anchored by unusu­al and evoca­tive stone col­lages cre­at­ed by Syr­i­an artist Nizar Ali Badr. A young girl, Rama, nar­rates the chang­ing land­scape of her dai­ly life with her fam­i­ly, where she goes from the peace of lis­ten­ing to Mama prepar­ing break­fast (“bread, yogurt, juicy red toma­toes from our gar­den”) to the vio­lence of flee­ing Syr­ia “when bombs fell too close to our home.” As the fam­i­ly under­takes this per­ilous jour­ney, the weight of stone in the illus­tra­tions con­veys a sense of grav­i­ty and resilience as the fam­i­ly forges ahead and makes new mem­o­ries “not of war, but of peace.” The text is bilin­gual in Eng­lish and Ara­bic and a por­tion of the pro­ceeds of this book goes to sup­port Syr­i­an refugees.

from The Step­ping Stones: A Refugee Fam­i­ly’s Jour­ney, illus­tra­tion copy­right Nizar Ali Badr

Susan Marie: 

Two White RabbitsTwo White Rab­bits
writ­ten by Jairo Buitra­go
illus­trat­ed by Rafael Yock­teng
trans­lat­ed by Elisa Ama­do
Ground­wood Books, 2015

This pic­ture book, Two White Rab­bits, is a work of art for all ages, told from the point of view of a young girl who is mak­ing her way north through Mex­i­co with her father. The dif­fi­cult world of the sto­ry is depict­ed with remark­able ten­der­ness. Del­i­cate shad­ing in the draw­ings details every­thing from the feath­ers on hens, to the rolled sleeves of men rid­ing atop freight cars, to the bushy tail of the chu­cho (mutt) that trav­els along on the har­row­ing jour­ney. At the open­ing of the sto­ry, the lit­tle girl explains, “When we trav­el I count what I see,” and she counts cows, birds, clouds, peo­ple by the rail­road tracks, while her ever-atten­tive father nav­i­gates their com­pli­cat­ed route. She rides with her father through the night in the back of a pick­up truck: “Some­times, when I’m not sleep­ing, I count the stars. There are thou­sands, like peo­ple. And I count the moon. It is alone. Some­times I see sol­diers, but I don’t count them any­more.”

illus­tra­tion from Two White Rab­bits, illus­tra­tion copy­right Rafael Yock­teng

Author Jairo Buitra­go, who lives in Mex­i­co, and artist Rafael Yock­teng, who lives in Colom­bia, have worked togeth­er on a num­ber of acclaimed books trans­lat­ed from the Span­ish, includ­ing Jim­my the Great­est! (2010), Walk with Me (2017), and On the Oth­er Side of the Gar­den (2018), all pub­lished by Ground­wood Books.


The Arrival
writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Shaun Tan
Loth­i­an Books, 2006

I think of The Arrival as an unusu­al and fas­ci­nat­ing pic­ture book/graphic nov­el hybrid. It is 128 pages, word­less, and makes use of both pan­els and full page spreads to tell the sto­ry of a man jour­ney­ing ahead of his fam­i­ly to forge a life for them in a new coun­try. This sur­re­al tale begins in the man’s home­land, which has been over­run by the loom­ing shapes of omi­nous mon­sters. The sto­ry unfolds after he arrives in an over­whelm­ing­ly for­eign city full of strange ani­mals, cus­toms, and an unfa­mil­iar lan­guage (cre­ator Shaun Tan made up a visu­al lan­guage to sim­u­late the expe­ri­ence of dis­ori­en­ta­tion for the read­er). The com­mon strug­gles many refugees face of find­ing work, hous­ing, and com­mu­ni­cat­ing are all present in the rich­ly detailed pen­cil illus­tra­tions.

from The Arrival, illus­tra­tion copy­right Shaun Tan

Through inno­v­a­tive use of fan­ta­sy ele­ments and emo­tion­al speci­fici­ty, Shaun Tan has cre­at­ed a sophis­ti­cat­ed nar­ra­tive that feels whol­ly orig­i­nal and is itself a visu­al jour­ney.


Taking Time for a Close Look

Jack­ie: Searching for Minnesota's Native WildflowersPhyl­lis is on the road with her beau­ti­ful and infor­ma­tive new book Search­ing for Minnesota’s Native Wild­flow­ers. [While Phyl­lis is out of the room, I will say that I love this book. It makes me want to get out and find flow­ers. Iowa has many plants in com­mon with Min­neso­ta and I look for­ward to tromp­ing with Phyl­lis and Kel­ly.)

Search­ing for Minnesota’s Native Wild­flow­ers puts me in mind of April Pul­ley Sayre’s won­der­ful nature books. She’s writ­ten many, but today I want to focus on a few of her bird books, plus one.

My first encounter with Sayre’s writ­ing was Vul­ture View (illus­trat­ed by Steve Jenk­ins, 2007). Sayre cap­tures the lives of vul­tures in few words.

Vulture ViewWings stretch wide
To catch a ride
On warm­ing air.
Going where?
Up, up!
Turkey vul­tures tilt, soar, scan
To find the food that vul­tures can…

Vul­tures like a mess.
They land and dine.
Rot­ten is fine.   

We see them eat­ing, clean­ing, preen­ing, and sleep­ing. Then the sto­ry cir­cles back to the begin­ning as the sun comes up and “Wings stretch wide/to catch a ride.”

We learn all we need to know to appre­ci­ate vul­tures in these terse rhymes. And if we want to know more, the book has two dense pages of back mat­ter. Turkey vul­tures are easy to spot, range — in the sum­mer — all over the east­ern U.S. They would be a great bird for begin­ning bird­ers to study.

Woodpecker Wham!In 2015 Sayre took a look at wood­peck­ers—Wood­peck­er Wham! (illus­trat­ed by Steve Jenk­ins). Once again, the birds’ sto­ry is told with quick, live­ly rhymes:

Swoop and land.
Hitch and hop.
Shred a tree stump.

In the case of this book, dessert comes first. Steve Jenkins’s gor­geous cut and torn paper col­lages com­bine with April Pul­ley Sayre’s rhyth­mic telling of wood­peck­ers’ lives to keep us turn­ing pages until we get to the back mat­ter — six pages packed with addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion about wood­peck­ers. “How do wood­peck­ers know where to dig? First the wood­peck­er taps the tree. This caus­es insects inside to move. The wood­peck­er hears the move­ment or feels the vibra­tions through its bill.” Sayre also tells read­ers how they can help wood­peck­ers. “Plant bush­es, trees, and cac­ti that sup­ply fruits and nuts.

And she pro­vides tips on how to find wood­peck­ers. 

This books is a sim­ple and thor­ough intro­duc­tion to wood­peck­ers. Per­fect pre­lude to a walk in the woods.

Warbler WaveAnd just this year Beach Lane books has pub­lished War­bler Wave, an amaz­ing book about war­blers with pho­tographs tak­en by Sayre and her hus­band. I have trou­ble iden­ti­fy­ing war­blers with binoc­u­lars. I am amazed that April and Jeff Sayre were not only able to spot these busy birds but spot them long enough to pho­to­graph them.

I want to quote the entire book but will leave you to find that plea­sure. We learn that they fly at night, cross oceans, “Then bedrag­gled, they drop. /A refu­el­ing stop. /They must find food/ or die.” Then fol­lows a few pages of stun­ning pho­tographs. “They flit, like fly­ing flow­ers.”  They snag insects and are on their way north again.

For those who want to learn more about war­blers, there are again six fact-packed pages con­cern­ing war­bler life his­to­ry, how to help war­blers, and the impor­tance of war­blers. “War­blers and oth­er migrat­ing birds cross moun­tains, oceans, and human polit­i­cal bound­aries. …Their beau­ti­ful songs, col­or­ful pat­terns, and sea­son­al arrival bring joy to peo­ple from Alas­ka to Peru. Whether you live in North Amer­i­ca, South Amer­i­ca, or the Caribbean, you can help wel­come the war­blers and share in this nat­ur­al con­nec­tion between diverse habi­tats, wild birds, and peo­ple.”

The book was a labor of love. April Sayre writes in the Acknowl­edg­ments sec­tion “For twen­ty-eight years, my hus­band, Jeff, and I have set aside the first cou­ple weeks of May to cel­e­brate war­bler migra­tion. So, it’s extra spe­cial to me that he’s joined me by tak­ing some of the pho­tos and review­ing text for this book about our shared love: war­blers.”

Raindrops RollFinal­ly, anoth­er book with April Sayre’s stun­ning pho­tographs Rain­drops Roll (2015). The book opens with a tree frog look­ing quite philo­soph­i­cal about rain. (A pho­to­graph Sayre notes that was tak­en by her hus­band). We see a drenched blue jay, rain drops on leaves, petals, pump­kins, even a moth.

These books make me want to get out­side, to look, to see again what I have been miss­ing.

I hope — and I know Phyl­lis joins me in this — that you have that kind of sum­mer, that you are stunned by the beau­ty in your neigh­bor­hood, see again and see anew.

We’ll be back with more books in the fall.


Summoning Spring

Jack­ie: Spring is a lit­tle late com­ing to the Mid­west this year. But we can remem­ber sun­ny days with vio­lets and tril­li­um bloom­ing and rainy days that turn the grass green (instead of the snow we con­tin­ue to get in mid-April). Rainy days make us think of ducks and we are going to beck­on reluc­tant spring with sto­ries of ducks.

In the Rain with Baby Duck I want to start with an old favorite In the Rain with Baby Duck by Amy Hest, with illus­tra­tions by Jill Bar­ton. This is one of those books I wish I had writ­ten. The sto­ry sets up the prob­lem imme­di­ate­ly. Baby Duck has to go out in the rain. She hates the rain. But at the end of the walk are pan­cakes — and Grand­pa. Baby Duck loves both pan­cakes and Grand­pa as much as she hates the rain.

And the lan­guage is so much fun! First there’s the sound of rain, “Pit pat. Pit-a-pat. Pit-a-pit-a-pat.” And then there are the verbs: Mama Duck and Papa Duck love the rain. They wad­dled, and shim­mied, and hopped. Baby Duck hates the rain that brings wet feet, wet face, mud. She daw­dled and dal­lied and pout­ed.

Leave it to Grand­pa to solve the prob­lem with a trip to the attic. Once she’s equipped Baby Duck and Grand­pa go out in the rain. And Baby Duck and Grand­pa wad­dled and shim­mied, and hopped in all the pud­dles.

I need new boots.

Phyl­lis: Jack­ie, if Amy hadn’t writ­ten this book, and if you hadn’t writ­ten it either, I would have want­ed to have writ­ten it. I, too, love this book for its lan­guage, its won­der­ful rhythms and verbs, and its under­stand­ing Grand­pa who remem­bers what Mama Duck has for­got­ten, that she, too, once didn’t like rain.  And of course, I love pan­cake Sun­day. My red rub­ber boots are still going strong, and once the rain comes down (rain, not snow), I plan to go splash in some pud­dles.

The Tale of Jemima Puddle-duckJack­ie: Beat­rix Pot­ter can help us sum­mon spring. Jemi­ma Pud­dle-duck wants to hatch her own eggs, instead of let­ting one of the farm hens sit on them. “I will sit on them all by myself,” she says. And she leaves the farm to make a nest in the wood. “Jemi­ma Pud­dle-duck was not much in the habit of fly­ing,” but she man­ages to get up over the tree­tops and flies to an open place in the woods. She encoun­ters an “ele­gant, well-dressed gen­tle­man” with two black ears and a long full tail. We are told “Jemi­ma Pud­dle-duck was a sim­ple­ton.” And we see that in action as she agrees that the gen­tle­man has a won­der­ful spot for a nest in a wood­shed full of feath­ers. Nor does Jemi­ma sus­pect any­thing after the eggs are laid, when the “gen­tle­man” sug­gests they share a meal. He asks Jemi­ma to pro­vide from the farm two onions and var­i­ous herbs. While gath­er­ing these sup­plies she runs into the farm dog Kep, who is not a sim­ple­ton. And Jemi­ma is saved from her impend­ing doom by Kep and two fox­hound pup­pies. Unfor­tu­nate­ly the pup­pies eat the eggs before Kep can stop them. Jemi­ma goes back to the farm and even­tu­al­ly hatch­es four duck­lings. I love this sto­ry. There’s such fun in know­ing more than the char­ac­ters in the sto­ry.  And we can sym­pa­thize with Jemima’s wish to do it her­self, even if she’s not quite up to it on her own. Per­haps the best part of the sto­ry for me is Kep, whose nature seems to be to watch over the sim­ple­tons.  We need more of Keps in our world.

Phyl­lis: Along with the accu­rate and beau­ti­ful water­col­ors, Beat­rix Potter’s won­der­ful lan­guage evokes the coun­try­side of her time so vivid­ly:  the two bro­ken buck­ets on top of each oth­er for the “gentleman’s” chim­ney, the “tum­ble­down shed make of old soap box­es.” I sym­pa­thize with Jemi­ma, who wants to hatch her eggs her­self and who, although we are told she is a sim­ple­ton, seems guilty main­ly of igno­rance and inno­cent trust. Our fam­i­ly once fos­tered a duck­ling for a month that had hatched lat­er than its fel­low egglings, and it was indeed a sweet and trust­ing duck­ling who fol­lowed us every­where, peep­ing wild­ly if left alone.  Pot­ter is also unsen­ti­men­tal in her assess­ment of farm life:  when Jemi­ma final­ly does get to sit her own eggs, we learn that she is not real­ly much of a sit­ter after all, but she looks con­tent with her own four duck­lings, hatched by her­self in the safe­ty of the farm­yard, under the pro­tec­tion of Kep.

Duck! Rabbit!Jack­ie: Last April we cel­e­brat­ed the work of Amy Krouse Rosen­thal, who had recent­ly died. We want to hon­or her again with a look at Duck, Rab­bit. This book is such a fun exer­cise in per­spec­tive, thanks to illus­tra­tor Tom Licht­en­held. “Hey, look! A duck!” And we see long bill, slight­ly open, oval head and eye.

That’s not a duck./ That’s a rab­bit.” And what had been the duck bill becomes the rabbit’s ears, the rab­bit is look­ing in the oppo­site direc­tion. Turn the page and the illus­tra­tion is the same, but the con­ver­sa­tion con­tin­ues. “Are you kid­ding me?/It’s total­ly a duck.”

It’s for sure a rab­bit.”

The two con­tin­ue. Is the ani­mal cool­ing its long ears or get­ting a drink in the pond? Is it fly­ing or hop­ping? Then the argu­ment caus­es the crea­ture to leave. And the two reverse (what could be more fun?) “You know, maybe you were right./Maybe it was a rab­bit.”

Thing is, now I’m actually/thinking it was a duck.”

This sto­ry is so much fun. I can imag­ine that it would spark many dis­cus­sions and exper­i­ments about objects or crea­tures that could be eas­i­ly tak­en for oth­er objects or crea­tures.

Phyl­lis:  The book itself is its own exer­cise in tricks of per­cep­tion and point of view:  it’s all in how you inter­pret what you see and where you see it from.  And the book ends with a won­der­ful twist:  each voice hav­ing con­ced­ed that per­haps the oth­er is right after all, one says,

Well, anyway…now what do you want to do?”

I don’t know.  What do you want to do?”

Hey, look! An anteater!”

Thant’s not an anteater. That’s a bra­chiosaurus!”

This bold and clever book makes me smile. All win­ter I’ve been watch­ing the city bun­nies in my back yard (who have eat­en my rasp­ber­ry canes down to the top of the snow).  Now maybe I’ll look out and find they have turned into ducks.

Jack­ie: There are so many duck sto­ries. Of course, Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Duck­lings is the clas­sic.

The Ugly DucklingAnd if it’s not a clas­sic already, Jer­ry Pinkney’s The Ugly Duck­ling soon will be. His inter­pre­ta­tion of the Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­son fairy tale takes us so close to the Mama duck’s nest and the new duck­lings, it’s as if we are stand­ing in the barn­yard. We know the sto­ry — the biggest duck­ling is so ugly that even­tu­al­ly even his broth­ers and sis­ters chase him and taunt him. He leaves, only to encounter hunters, and dogs with huge mouths. Even­tu­al­ly he finds tem­po­rary shel­ter in the bro­ken-down cab­in of an old woman who has a cat and a hen. The ani­mals can’t under­stand anoth­er who nei­ther lays eggs or purrs but they don’t chase after him. After three weeks the duck­ling leaves to find water to swim in. When icy win­ter freezes him into the ice he is res­cued by a kind man who takes him home to his warm cab­in and chil­dren. The chil­dren want to play, but the duck­ling, hav­ing seen most­ly taunts and cru­el­ty, does not rec­og­nize play and runs away. Pinkney does not dwell on the rest of the win­ter, except to say it was mis­er­able. Relief comes in the spring when the “duck­ling” finds a home with his own kind, the swans. There are many ver­sions of this sto­ry but this is my favorite. Pinkney takes the sto­ry so seri­ous­ly. His ducks are real ducks and he wants us to notice them and the cat and the hen.  He grabs our atten­tion with his own atten­tion to the details of these crea­tures’ lives. He makes them real while also imbu­ing them with the human char­ac­ter­is­tics of judg­ment, cru­el­ty, curios­i­ty, and even kind­ness.

Phyl­lis: And who doesn’t want to find fel­low crea­tures and be rec­og­nized just for being their own self?

The ugly duckling’s moth­er loves him so much she gives up her bath to sit on his egg after her oth­er eggs have hatched, and she fierce­ly tries to pro­tect him from the oth­er barn­yard ani­mals. But even a mother’s love can’t always con­quer prej­u­dice and nei­ther is the world kind. Our hearts hurt for the “duckling’s” suf­fer­ings and are immense­ly sat­is­fied when he finds his own place in the world.

DuckA few oth­er duck books among a flock of them, Duck by author and illus­tra­tor Randy Cecil, about a carousel duck who longs to fly and who  ends up fos­ter­ing a lit­tle lost duck­ling. Duck real­izes it’s up to him to teach the lit­tle duck­ling how to fly, but his lessons are only part­ly suc­cess­ful, so she straps Duck­ling to her back with her scarf and walks off to find the ones “who could teach Duck­ling what she could not.” When they do find a flock of ducks, the ducks take off, and the lit­tle duck­ling flies up to join them. But Duck, still strapped to Duck­ling, weighs Duck­ling down and real­izes she must lit­er­al­ly let duck­ling go.  She frees her­self from the scarf, duck­ling goes up, duck does down down down. The ducks fly away, a scarf­less duck limps home, and the long win­ter com­mences, with so much snow duck that almost dis­ap­pears in the drifts. Come spring, a grown-up duck wear­ing a scarf returns with his flock and takes duck on his back. 

The book ends with the immense­ly sat­is­fy­ing last line: “And final­ly Duck knew what it was to fly.”

Cold Little Duck, Duck, DuckCold Lit­tle Duck Duck Duck by Lisa West­berg Peters, with illus­tra­tions by Sam Williams, tells a rhyth­mic and rhyming sto­ry of a duck who comes a lit­tle too ear­ly in a mis­er­able and frozen spring,  and her feet freeze to the ice. She warms her­self with thoughts of spring:  bub­bly streams, glassy pud­dles, wig­gly worms, shiny bee­tles, cro­cus­es and apples buds and blades of grass and squishy mud.  By the time a vee of ducks fly in to join her, the ice is melt­ing, and the lit­tle duck dives into spring. With many won­der­ful rep­e­ti­tions of con­so­nant sounds — quick quick quick, blink blink blink, creak creak creak — the book is a delight to read aloud.

And, like the cold lit­tle duck duck duck, we might be find­ing spring right now as well. The snow out­side my win­dow has almost melt­ed, the first wild­flow­ers are bloom­ing, and our hearts are hap­py in the sun­shine. Good work, ducks. Thanks, thanks, thanks!


Dearie Darling Cuddle Hug: A Tribute to Wendy Watson

Father Fox's PennyrhymesWhen our chil­dren were young we both spent many hours with them pour­ing over Wendy Wat­son’s illus­tra­tions for her sis­ter Clyde’s rhymes in Father Fox’s Pen­nyrhymes and delight­ing in the sounds and the silli­ness of the rhymes them­selves. We felt as though we had lost a per­son­al friend when Wendy Wat­son died, even though we had nev­er met her.

Here’s just one pen­nyrhyme:

Mis­ter Lis­ter sassed his sis­ter
Mar­ried his wife ‘cause he couldn’t resist her,
Three plus four times two he kissed her:
How many times is that, dear sis­ter?

The illus­tra­tions wel­comed us into Father Fox’s fam­i­ly, a large rol­lick­ing cre­ative crew in a house filled with writ­ing, art, music, and chil­dren, much like the Wat­son fam­i­ly. Clyde has said that their father was the orig­i­nal Father Fox, and Wendy wrote of the art, “Many fox­es wear favorite gar­ments that still hang in clos­ets in Put­ney; and spe­cial fam­i­ly occu­pa­tions and times of the year and occa­sions are in almost every poem and pic­ture.” In the pic­tures (and per­haps in the clos­ets) the clothes are patched show­ing both wear and care.

Small sto­ries unfold in the illus­tra­tions.

You might read,

Som­er­sault & Pep­per-upper
Sim­mer down and eat your sup­per,
Arti­chokes & Mus­tard Pick­le
Two for a dime or six for a nick­el.

Mean­while in four pan­els on a dou­ble-page spread, a horse gal­lops by draw­ing a coach piled high with bun­dles, a fid­dle case, and a young fox rid­ing on top. The coach hits a bump, the salt shak­er falls out the win­dow, a bowl of sup­per falls on the coach dri­ver, and, leav­ing bits and pieces behind, the coach dri­ves on.

Wendy WatsonWhen Wendy had chil­dren of her own she often hid famil­iar things in her art that only they would know, “like dish­es that we owned or fur­ni­ture.”

Our friend Liza Ketchum, who knew Wendy very well, said that the time she spent on each draw­ing was incred­i­ble. In a draw­ing of a coun­try store you can find boots, slip­pers, pots, pans, paint­brush­es, pen­ny can­dy, even bolts of fab­ric and a horse col­lar.

 “Wendy had a throaty laugh that was just won­der­ful,” Liza told us, “and she cared so much about every­thing. When she could not take her cat on an air­plane, she drove cross-coun­try with her cat instead.”

Bedtime BunniesWendy wrote and illus­trat­ed twen­ty-one books for chil­dren and illus­trat­ed over six­ty books by oth­er authors. We could say so much more about so many of her books that we love, (you can read a list and descrip­tions of her pub­lished books), but we have to share one more of our favorites, Bed­time Bun­nies. The bun­ny par­ents call to five lit­tle bun­nies, “Bed­time, bun­nies.” The heart of this spar­e­ly writ­ten book is verbs, four to a spread — skip, scam­per, scur­ry, hop — while the art shows the bun­nies com­ing in for the night, hav­ing sup­per, brush­ing their teeth — Squirt Scrub Splut­ter Spit — tak­ing a bath, get­ting into their paja­mas, hear­ing a sto­ry, get­ting into bed — climb bounce jump thump, and get­ting tucked in — Dearie Dar­ling Cud­dle Hug. The book ends with “Good­night, Bun­nies.”

The illus­tra­tions are spare but full of expres­sion and love, and the col­or palette is soft and warm, with yel­lows, ros­es, green, blues. In each of the live­ly pic­tures the lit­tlest bun­ny does things in their unique style. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this bun­ny fam­i­ly, or Father Fox’s fam­i­ly? It’s as if Wendy Wat­son is call­ing to us — Dearie Dar­ling Cud­dle Hug. Each time we open one of her books, we are invit­ed in to her warm cir­cle of fam­i­ly. And that will nev­er change.


Spend the Day with Arnold Lobel

Arnold Lobel

Arnold Lobel

Phyl­lis: Feb­ru­ary is the month of valen­tines and lovers, and we spent a day (through his books) with some­one we love: Arnold Lobel.

He wrote easy read­er sto­ries that help chil­dren crack the code of read­ing, give them fun sto­ries with char­ac­ters who remind us of peo­ple we know and that give read­ers of all ages plen­ty to think about. In his fifty-four years, he illus­trat­ed almost a hun­dred children’s sto­ries and wrote many of them.

An edi­tor once, when asked if Arnold Lobel was more like Frog or Toad, respond­ed, after think­ing about it, that he is more like Owl.

Owl at HomeJack­ie: Some­times I read Owl at Home just to myself. What do we love about owl? Owl is always on the edge of sad­ness. He has a young child’s par­tial under­stand­ing of the world. Kids can see them­selves in Owl — and some­times they can see that they even know more than owl. Part of the joy of the sto­ry “Strange Bumps” is that kids know what the bumps are. When the two strange bumps at the foot of Owl’s bed obsess him, Owl looks under cov­ers. No bumps. He pulls the cov­ers back up and there are the bumps. He jumps up and down yelling, “Bumps. Bumps. Bumps, I will nev­er sleep tonight.” And when the bed col­laps­es, he leaves it to the bumps and goes down­stairs to sleep in a chair. He nev­er iden­ti­fies the bumps. But read­ers do.

Phyl­lis: “Tear­wa­ter Tea” is anoth­er sto­ry that always sat­is­fies. One after­noon Owl decides to brew a pot of tear­wa­ter tea. He thinks of things that are sad– chairs with bro­ken legs, songs that can­not be sung because the words are for­got­ten, books that can­not be read because some of the pages have been torn out. After a while he has accu­mu­lat­ed suf­fi­cient tears. He puts his tea ket­tle on and makes the tea. That cheers him up because, even though it tastes salty, “Tear­wa­ter tea is always very good.”

In the last sto­ry, the moon seems to fol­low Owl home despite his protes­ta­tions that he has noth­ing to give the moon for sup­per and has a very small house. When the moon dis­ap­pears behind a cloud, he says, “It is always a lit­tle sad to say good-bye to a friend.” But the moon reap­pears at his win­dow and Owl says, “Moon you have fol­lowed me home, what a good round friend you are.” Owl doesn’t feel sad at all In these brief chap­ters. So, Owl goes through sad­ness to the oth­er side. A pro­gres­sion.

Frog and Toad Are FriendsJack­ie: When we read the Frog and Toad sto­ries to our chil­dren we read them with joy and the plea­sure of shar­ing with our kids and didn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly look deep­er into them. The Frog and Toad books are a primer on the ups and downs of friend­ship — includ­ing the foibles and quib­bles of being a good friend. In “Spring” (Frog and Toad are Friends) Frog tricks Toad into wak­ing up ear­ly from his win­ter nap because Frog is lone­ly with­out Toad. Frog is not above laugh­ing at his friend. In “A Swim” (Frog and Toad are Friends) Toad refus­es to come out of the water because, he says, “I do not want [any­one] to see me in my bathing suit.” He is wor­ried they will laugh. Even­tu­al­ly the tur­tle, lizard, snake, drag­on­flies, and a field mouse sit on the river­bank wait­ing to see if toad looks fun­ny. Even­tu­al­ly Toad has to come out of the water. He is catch­ing cold. As Toad pre­dict­ed, every­one laughs, includ­ing Frog, who says “You do look fun­ny in your bathing suit.” “’Of course I do,’ said Toad, and he picked up his clothes and went home.”

They don’t always see eye to amphib­ian eye. In “Cook­ies” (Frog and Toad Are Friends) Frog, in pur­suit of willpow­er so as not to eat all the cook­ies Toad has baked, ends up giv­ing them to the birds. “Toad goes into the house to bake a cake.”

Phyl­lis: And who doesn’t rec­og­nize them­selves in “The List,” where, when the list blows away, Toad claims he can’t run after it because “Run­ning after my list is not one of the things I wrote on my list of things to do?”

In “The Sto­ry” (Frog and Toad Are Friends) Frog is sick (“look­ing quite green”) and he asks Toad for a sto­ry. Writ­ers will rec­og­nize what Toad does when he can­not think of a sto­ry. He walks up and down, he stands on his head, he pours a glass of water over his head, but he still can­not think of a sto­ry. He bangs his head against the wall. By then Frog feels bet­ter, Toad feels worse and asks Frog for a sto­ry. Frog tells Toad the sto­ry of the Toad who could not think of a sto­ry. We can’t help but think this delight­ful tale is per­haps based on a day when Lobel could not think of a sto­ry.

Frog and Toad TogetherIn “The Dream (Frog and Toad Togeth­er),” Toad has a dream where he can­not fail. He plays the piano, he dances, he walks on the high wire while a voice pro­claims that he is “The Great­est Toad in the World.” Each time he asks Frog if he, too, could do these won­der­ful things. Each time Frog says no and shrinks a bit until Toad says, ”Frog, can you be as won­der­ful as this?” There is no answer. Frog has shrunk so small that he can­not be seen or heard. Toad shouts at the voice pro­claim­ing his great­ness to shut up and says, “Come back Frog. I will be lone­ly.” He is des­per­ate. Then Toad wakes from his dream to see Frog, who says, “I am right here, Toad.” “I am so glad you came over,” says Toad. “I always do,” said Frog.

Forty years lat­er their friend­ship is still com­fort­ing to read­ers of all ages.

Uncle ElephantJack­ie: We can’t leave this appre­ci­a­tion with­out a men­tion of Uncle Ele­phant, in which a wise Uncle Ele­phant com­forts his lone­ly ele­phant nephew when his father and moth­er do not come back from sea. On the train to Uncle Elephant’s, they eat peanuts, count hous­es and tele­phone poles, and final­ly peanut shells, which are much eas­i­er to count. Uncle Ele­phant intro­duces his nephew to the flow­ers in his gar­den, his favorite place in the world. They make crowns of flow­ers and trum­pet the dawn togeth­er. Uncle Ele­phant tells him a sto­ry about a king with many wrin­kles and a prince who was young and smart. When they meet a lion, they trum­pet so loud­ly every one of the lion’s teeth pop out. When lit­tle ele­phant gets sad, Uncle Ele­phant puts on all his clothes at once to make the lit­tle ele­phant smile. They end up laugh­ing so hard at the “pile of clothes with two ears” that they for­get to feel sad. They sing a song togeth­er, and they dance for joy when lit­tle elephant’s moth­er and father are found and return home. On the train Uncle Ele­phant counts the won­der­ful days that they had spent togeth­er, and they promise to see each oth­er often. Uncle Ele­phant is the calmest, best-lis­ten­ing uncle ever there was. He hears what the lit­tle ele­phant can’t even say about fear and sad­ness.

Charlie & MousePhyl­lis: He offers small com­forts in the face of great of loss. We hope you all get to spend a day with Arnold Lobel and Frog and Toad and Grasshop­per and Owl and Mouse and Uncle Ele­phant — soon — for silli­ness and com­fort and friend­ship.

Side­bar: We just want to men­tion sto­ries writ­ten in the same spir­it as Arnold Lobel’s sto­ries, Char­lie and Mouse, easy read­ers by Lau­rel Sny­der, which was just named win­ner of the Geisel Medal, the ALA prize for Best Easy Read­er of 2017.


Laughing Matters

This month, Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin and Phyl­lis Root, the usu­al hosts of this col­umn, have invit­ed Kari Pear­son to share her rec­om­men­da­tions for fun­ny pic­ture books.

Kari Pearson

Kari Pear­son

Let’s play a game! It’s called Funny/Not Fun­ny. It goes like this:

Fun­ny: Eat­ing greasy bloaters with cab­bage-and-pota­to sog (see: How Tom Beat Cap­tain Najork and His Hired Sports­men)

Not Fun­ny: Shov­el­ing gigan­tic snow­drifts out of my dri­ve­way into piles almost as tall as myself.

Laugh­ing mat­ters, as any­one who has sur­vived a Min­neso­ta win­ter will tell you.

Whether you’re snow­bound or not, I hope you will enjoy the warmth and wit this quirky col­lec­tion of pic­ture books has to offer. Some of them are old (look for them at your library or online through Alib­ris), oth­ers are new­er. Most impor­tant­ly, all are guar­an­teed to be more hilar­i­ous than dis­cov­er­ing you have to kick your own front door open from the inside because it has frozen shut overnight in a bliz­zard (file under: not fun­ny). Not that that hap­pened, because that would be ridicu­lous.

The Big Orange SplotThe Big Orange Splot by Daniel Pinkwa­ter (Scholas­tic, 1977)

It all starts with The Big Orange Splot. More specif­i­cal­ly, with a seag­ull who is car­ry­ing a buck­et of orange paint (no one knows why), which he drops onto Mr. Plumbean’s house (no one knows why). Unfazed, Mr. Plumbean allows the splot to remain and goes about his busi­ness, much to the neigh­bors’ cha­grin. On this neat street such things sim­ply aren’t done. Even­tu­al­ly, Plumbean agrees that this has gone far enough. He buys some paint and gets to work cor­rect­ing the prob­lem.

Overnight, the big orange splot is joined by small­er orange splots, stripes, pic­tures of ele­phants and lions, steamshov­els, and oth­er images befit­ting a rain­bow jun­gle explo­sion. “My house is me and I am it,” Plumbean tells his flab­ber­gast­ed neigh­bors. “My house is where I like to be and it looks like all my dreams.” But Plumbean does­n’t stop there. Palm trees, frangi­pani, alligators…nothing is too out­landish for his new dream house. “Plumbean has popped his cork, flipped his wig, blown his stack, and dropped his stop­per” the neigh­bors exclaim in dis­may. They go about hatch­ing a plan to get things back to nor­mal on their neat street. But as they soon dis­cov­er, once a Big Orange Splot appears, there’s no going back. Plumbean’s unbri­dled imag­i­na­tion far out­strips even their most ardent­ly held pedes­tri­an sen­si­bil­i­ties. Wigs have only begun to flip.

Nino Wrestles the WorldNiño Wres­tles the World by Yuyi Morales (Roar­ing Brook, 2013)

Seño­ras y Señores, put your hands togeth­er for the fan­tas­tic, spec­tac­u­lar, one of a kind…Niño!” So begins the most improb­a­ble lucha libre wrestling com­pe­ti­tion of all time. Our hero is Niño, a diminu­tive boy in a red mask with more than a few tricks up his (non-exis­tent) sleeves. Armed with lit­tle more than a pop­si­cle, a decoy doll, and assort­ed puz­zle pieces, Niño pre­vails against a col­or­ful array of foes. La Llorona (the weep­ing woman), Cabeza Olme­ca (a sculpt­ed basalt head from the Olmec civ­i­liza­tion), and the ter­ri­fy­ing Gua­na­ju­a­to Mum­my are just a few of the char­ac­ters in this win­ning trib­ute to the the­atri­cal world of lucha libre. Cer­tain illus­tra­tions might be a bit scary for the youngest read­ers, but they are pre­sent­ed in a sil­ly way that make them less fright­en­ing and more fun. And lest you think that Niño has no seri­ous com­pe­ti­tion, rest assured that all bets are off once his lit­tle sis­ters, las her­man­i­tas, wake up from their nap…

Slow LorisSlow Loris by Alex­is Dea­con (Kane/Miller, 2002)

If you’ve ever been to the zoo, you prob­a­bly noticed that some ani­mals are just not that excit­ing. Or are they? This sto­ry delves into the dai­ly life of Slow Loris, an impos­si­bly bor­ing ani­mal who earns his name by spend­ing ten min­utes eat­ing a sat­suma, twen­ty min­utes going from one end of his branch to the oth­er, and a whole hour scratch­ing his bot­tom. But Slow Loris has a secret. At night, he gets up and does every­thing fast! When the oth­er zoo ani­mals get over their sur­prise at how wild Slow Loris real­ly is, they don’t hes­i­tate to join his all-night par­ty, which includes (among oth­er things) a mul­ti­tude of hats, col­or­ful ties, danc­ing, and an epic drum solo (by Slow Loris, of course). As you would imag­ine, it’s a slow day at the zoo after that as the par­ty ani­mals sleep off the pre­vi­ous night’s shenani­gans. Bor­ing!

Stop That Pickle!Stop That Pick­le! by Peter Armour, illus­trat­ed by Andrew Shachat (Houghton Mif­flin, 1993)

As fast as Slow Loris may be by night, I’m guess­ing he still could­n’t catch the run­away pick­le from Mr. Adolph’s deli. Rather than be eat­en by one Ms. Elmi­ra Deeds, this plucky pick­le leaps out of the jar and makes a break for it. Stop That Pick­le! is a delight­ful­ly wacky sto­ry of one pick­le’s dar­ing escape and ulti­mate tri­umph over a host of oth­er foods try­ing to catch it. (And if you were won­der­ing if there is any sol­i­dar­i­ty in the food world, this book answers that ques­tion with a resound­ing NO.) 

When Mr. Adolph is imme­di­ate­ly over­whelmed by the pick­le’s speed, a dis­grun­tled peanut but­ter and jel­ly sand­wich joins the chase. “Every­one knows that a peanut but­ter and jel­ly sand­wich is not the fastest sand­wich in the world, but it does have great endurance.” Page by page ten­sion builds as more foods join the pack, all shout­ing: Stop That Pick­le!. By the end of the book the pick­le is being pur­sued by not only the sand­wich (hel­lo, endurance!), but also a braid­ed pret­zel, green pip­pin apple, sev­en­teen toast­ed almonds, a crowd of raisins, a cake dough­nut, a cool grape soda, and an ele­gant vanil­la ice cream cone. How will our pick­le pre­vail??? The sto­ry cul­mi­nates in a back alley moment of truth which I won’t spoil for you, but rest assured that this pick­le lives to run anoth­er day. With its sat­is­fy­ing (yet total­ly inef­fec­tu­al) refrain, Stop That Pick­le! is a great read aloud book and will def­i­nite­ly make you think twice about the moral advis­abil­i­ty of skew­er­ing the last pick­le in the jar.

Sophie's SquashSophie’s Squash by Pat Ziet­low Miller, illus­trat­ed by Anne Wils­dorf (Schwartz & Wade Books, 2013)

When Sophie spots a but­ter­nut squash at the farm­ers’ mar­ket, it is love at first sight. Her squash is “just the right size to hold in her arms. Just the right size to bounce on her knee. Just the right size to love.” Final­ly, Sophie has found the per­fect friend! Except…her par­ents seem to want to eat her friend. “Don’t lis­ten, Ber­nice!” Sophie cries at the sug­ges­tion of cook­ing Ber­nice with marsh­mal­lows. And so Ber­nice becomes part of the fam­i­ly. She goes to sto­ry time at the library, rolls down hills, vis­its oth­er squash. Every­thing is fine until one day Ber­nice is not quite her­self. She starts look­ing spot­ty and her som­er­saults don’t have “their usu­al style.” What to do? This heart­warm­ing sto­ry is has a sim­ple, fun­ny sweet­ness to it as Sophie learns about being a loy­al friend and what it means to let go. Don’t miss the illus­trat­ed end­pa­pers which fea­ture Sophie in her unpar­al­leled squashy exu­ber­ance! This book also offers a sea­son­al­ly appro­pri­ate les­son: win­ter might seem like the end, but some­times it is only the begin­ning.  

How Tom Beat Captain NajorkHow Tom Beat Cap­tain Najork and His Hired Sports­men by Rus­sell Hoban, illus­trat­ed by Quentin Blake (Atheneum, 1974)

No self-respect­ing list of fun­ny pic­ture books would be com­plete with­out How Tom Beat Cap­tain Najork and his Hired Sports­men. This gem is from an era where pic­ture books were a bit longer, but that just means there is more hilar­i­ty here to enjoy. Tom is a boy who knows fool­ing around. He fools around “with sticks and stones and crum­pled paper, with mews­es and pas­sages and dust­bins, with bent nails and bro­ken glass and holes in fences.” You get the idea. He’s an expert.

This deeply trou­bles Aunt Fid­get Wonkham-Strong, a for­mi­da­ble woman in an iron hat who believes boys should spend their time mem­o­riz­ing pages from the Nau­ti­cal Almanac instead of doing things that sus­pi­cious­ly resem­ble play­ing. So she calls in Cap­tain Najork and his hired sports­men to teach Tom a les­son in fool­ing around. As you might imag­ine, Cap­tain Najork has wild­ly under­es­ti­mat­ed Tom’s exper­tise in these mat­ters and gets his come­up­pance accord­ing­ly. Quentin Blake’s won­der­ful­ly zany line draw­ings are the per­fect accom­pa­ni­ment to the hijinks of this weird and total­ly sat­is­fy­ing sto­ry. Greasy bloaters, any­one? There’s also some cab­bage-and-pota­to sog left. Some­how.


Let It Snow!

Phyl­lis: The first real snow has fall­en overnight, and the qual­i­ty of light when I wake up is lumi­nous out­side the win­dow. Sol­stice approach­es, and we’ve turned our thoughts to books about win­ter and snow. So many to choose from! Here are a few.

Katy and the Big SnowWhen my grown daugh­ter saw a copy of Katy and the Big Snow by Vir­ginia Lee Bur­ton on my book­shelf, she cried, “Oh! Katy!” Since it was first pub­lished in 1943, this book has been beloved by chil­dren and grown-ups alike. Katy, “a beau­ti­ful red crawler trac­tor,” works as a bull­doz­er in the sum­mer and even pulls a steam­roller out of the pond when it falls in. In win­ter, Katy’s bull­doz­er is changed out for her snow plow, but she is “so big and strong” that she must stay in the garage until enough snow falls for her to plow. When the Big Snow final­ly does pile up with drifts up to sec­ond sto­ry win­dows, the oth­er plows break down and Katy comes to the res­cue. She plows out the city’s roads so the mail can get through (remem­ber when mail was a main way to com­mu­ni­cate?), tele­phones poles can be repaired, bro­ken water mains fixed, patients can get to hos­pi­tals, fire trucks can reach fires, air­planes can land on cleared run­ways, and all the side streets are plowed out. “Then … and only then did Katy stop.” I’ve lived in Min­neso­ta through enough win­ters to see hous­es on the prairie buried by snow­drifts and trick-or-treaters strug­gling through the three-foot deep Hal­loween bliz­zard. Thanks to Katy and her kin, we get around even­tu­al­ly, and thanks to Vir­ginia Bur­ton we can share in Katy’s tri­umph. And what child doesn’t love big machines?

Jack­ie: Big machines are auto­mat­ic atten­tion-grab­bers. And I love the cer­tain­ty of this world. There are prob­lems to be solved in this big snow and Katy can solve them. So, the mail gets through, the sick peo­ple get treat­ed, the fire trucks put out fires. It feels safe. And that is such a good feel­ing for a child — and for all of us. We adults may know that things don’t always work out that neat­ly, but it’s nice, even for us, to vis­it a world where they do work out.

Small WaltPhyl­lis: Small Walt by Eliz­a­beth Verdick with pic­tures by Marc Rosen­thal has just been pub­lished, and Katy’s descen­dant Walt waits, too, for a chance to plow snow. Unlike Katy who must wait for a big snow, Walt, the small­est plow in the fleet, must wait and wait for some­one will­ing to take out “the lit­tle guy” when a snow­storm buries the streets and all the big plows and their dri­vers go out to clear the roads.. Enter Gus, who checks out Walt and dri­ves him on his route. Walt chugs along, his engine thrum­ming his song:

My name is Walt.
I plow and salt,
They say I’m small,
But I’ll show them all.

And Walt does, until they con­front a high hill with drifts big­ger than Walt has ever seen. Gus sug­gests they can let Big Buck behind them plow the hill, but Walt is deter­mined. He “skids, slips down, down…He shud­ders, sput­ters.” When they final­ly make it to the top of the hill and down, dawn has arrived and they head back to the city lot where Big Buck says, “The lit­tle guy did a bet­ter job than I thought.” Replete with ono­matopo­et­ic sounds, rhythm, and syn­tax, this is a won­der­ful read-aloud. The art is rem­i­nis­cent in col­or and line of Burton’s art, and Walt, like Katy, is a jaun­ty red. A great pair­ing of books when the snow piles high.

Jack­ie: This is such a sat­is­fy­ing sto­ry. And as you said, Phyl­lis, the lan­guage is won­der­ful. My favorite, and I may adopt it this win­ter, is, “Plow and salter. Nev­er fal­ter.” There are days when it’s good to remem­ber not to fal­ter, whether or not salt is in the pic­ture.

Over and Under the SnowPhyl­lis: Over and Under the Snow by Kate Mess­ner with art by Christo­pher Silas Neal chron­i­cles a win­ter day ski­ing where a “whole secret king­dom” exists out of sight under the snow that a child and par­ent glide, climb, and swoosh over. Fat bull­frogs snooze, snow­shoe hares watch from under snow-cov­ered pines, squir­rels, shrews, voles, chip­munks, queen bum­ble­bees hide under the snow where deer mice “hud­dle up, cud­dle up. And a bushy-tailed red fox leaps to catch the mouse that his sharp ears detect scritch­ing beneath the snow. Exten­sive back mat­ter offers sci­en­tif­ic infor­ma­tion about how the ani­mals sur­vive win­ter. Read­ing this book makes me want to strap on skis and go glid­ing through a snowy world over a secret king­dom.

Jack­ie: I had that same thought — “where are my skis? Where is the snow?” It’s so much fun in this book to see into places we don’t usu­al­ly see, the vole’s tun­nel, the beavers’ den, the place in the mud where the bull­frog lives. It’s like being giv­en a mag­ic pill that makes us small enough to get into these places, usu­al­ly locked to us. And I love the back infor­ma­tion. The more we know the more we see when we look. And the more con­nec­tion we have to what is under the snow.

Has Winter Come?Phyl­lis: Anoth­er old favorite in our fam­i­ly is Wendy Watson’s Has Win­ter Come? I love Wendy Watson’s work, and this book, text and art, enchant­ed me when we first read it and still does.

On the day that it start­ed to snow,
Moth­er said,
“Win­ter is com­ing now.
I can smell it in the air.”

The wood­chuck chil­dren sniff but can’t smell win­ter. As the fam­i­ly gath­ers “acorns and wal­nuts, hick­o­ry nuts and hazel­nuts, sun­flower seed and pump­kin seeds … apples and corn, and pears and parsnips” and piles up wood to keep them warm the chil­dren keep try­ing to smell win­ter. When the snow stops falling their moth­er gath­ers a star for each of them from the star­ry sky. As they get ready for bed the lit­tle wood­chucks smell “warm beds, and pine cones burn­ing, and apple cores siz­zling on the hearth.” As their par­ents tuck them under warm down quilts, the chil­dren say, “We smell sleep com­ing, and a long night … Is this win­ter?”

Yes, their par­ents whis­per. “This is win­ter.” The soft­ly col­ored illus­tra­tions cap­ture falling snow, the trunks and roots of the wood­chucks’ wood­land home, and the small lumi­nosi­ties of the stars that the lit­tle wood­chuck clutch in their paws as they fall asleep. Who wouldn’t want such a win­ter nap, cozy, and well-fed, lit by starlight and watched over by lov­ing par­ents?

Father Fox's PennyrhymesJack­ie: Wendy Wat­son has always been one of my favorites. Her books tell a tale of fam­i­ly love and, like Geopo­lis, always present read­ers a won­der­ful world to vis­it. At our house we spent many con­tent­ed hours enjoy­ing the pic­tures and por­ing over the rhymes in Father Fox’s Pen­nyrhymes, writ­ten by Clyde Wat­son and illus­trat­ed by her sis­ter, Wendy.

As a result of work­ing on this col­umn I have vis­it­ed Wendy Watson’s web page and espe­cial­ly love her blog, with its fam­i­ly tales and recipes.

Winter is the Warmest SeasonPhyl­lis: Lau­ren Stringer’s Win­ter is the Warmest Sea­son offers proof in spare text and exu­ber­ant illus­tra­tions that, con­trary to what we might think, win­ter is indeed our warmest time. Puffy jack­ets, hats that “grow earflaps,” hands wear­ing wooly sweaters, a good cup of some­thing warm to drink, cats that curl in laps, cozy blan­kets and star­ry quilts to snug­gle under, fires and can­dles, hot baths, and a book to read cud­dled close by peo­ple who love us will all warm our hearts as the snow piles up out­side.

Jack­ie: This is an ode to the joys of win­ter. It reminds me of the appre­ci­a­tion we all have for hot choco­late (which of course tastes best, when one is a lit­tle chilled), fire­places, and the sweet­ness of being warmed after being cold. This book begs read­ers to cre­ate a com­pan­ion — Sum­mer is the Coolest Sea­son. This would be a fun class­room writ­ing assign­ment.

Snow CrystalsWe start­ed this col­umn with mounds of snow that had to be cleared away for vil­lage life to con­tin­ue. We looked under the snow, found win­ter, and found it to be warm. I’d like to add a look at indi­vid­ual snow crys­tals. Because Snowflake Bent­ley is on our list of addi­tion­al books [Thanks Phyl­lis!] I want to men­tion that his book of snow crys­tal pho­tographs is still in print—Snow Crys­tals—and is pub­lished by Dover Pub­li­ca­tions. Also, Voyageur, in 2006 pub­lished Ken­neth Libbrecht’s A Field Guide to Snowflakes, pho­tographs of snow crys­tals tak­en with a more mod­ern cam­era than Bentley’s.

Phyl­lis: Whether you are tucked under a warm blan­ket or glid­ing through snowy woods over crea­tures tucked in beneath your feet, we wish you the warmth of loved ones, the won­der of snow crys­tals, a pile of books to read, and a peace­ful time as the earth tilts into win­ter and toward the sol­stice light.

Snowflake BentleyA few more of the bliz­zard of books about snow and win­ter:

  • Brave Irene by William Steig
  • Snowflake Bent­ley by Jack­ie Brig­gs Mar­tin (Jack­ie might not men­tion this book, but Phyl­lis will) and Mary Azar­i­an
  • Snowflakes Fall by Patri­cia MacLach­lan and Steven Kel­logg
  • Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

Pie Season

Jack­ie: This is grat­i­tude sea­son and that is a good reminder. Many of us have plen­ty to be grate­ful for and we often for­get that while wait­ing for the next good things. It’s also Pie Sea­son. It is the one time of the year at my house when we have no holds barred on pie. Every­one gets to have a favorite at Thanks­giv­ing. Pie for din­ner, pie for break­fast (the best!). So Phyl­lis and I decid­ed to find some pie books.

How to Make a Pie and See the WorldOne book that I wish I had writ­ten is Mar­jorie Priceman’s How To Make Apple Pie and See the World (Pen­guin, Ran­dom House, 1994; paper­back, 2008). This is a delight­ful sto­ry of gath­er­ing the ingre­di­ents for apple pie and then mak­ing the pie and shar­ing with friends. This book can be used to teach math (frac­tions in the recipe), geog­ra­phy (of course), and pie-mak­ing. And, more impor­tant­ly, it’s fun. The lan­guage is live­ly and orig­i­nal. After prepar­ing for the trip by find­ing a “shop­ping list and walk­ing shoes,” get on a boat. Go to Italy for semoli­na wheat, then to France. In France, “locate a chick­en. French chick­ens lay ele­gant eggs.” “Make the acquain­tance of a cow” in Eng­land. The cow and the chick­en accom­pa­ny our intre­pid pie-mak­er for the rest of the book as she gets bark for cin­na­mon from Sri Lan­ka, sug­ar cane from Jamaica, salt from the ocean, and “eight rosy apples” from Ver­mont.

Phyl­lis: There’s so much to love in this book (which I, too, wish I had writ­ten): the sources of our food which we often take for grant­ed, the friends the lit­tle girl makes as she trav­els the world, the resilience of find­ing what you need (and, in a twist at the end, mak­ing do with­out the ice cream), the treat­ment of ani­mals who give us milk and eggs, the humor of the art, which shows the pilot drop­ping the lit­tle girl off in Ver­mont by means of a para­chute, the inter­con­nect­ed­ness of what we eat. It makes me want to bake a pie her way, and it also makes me grate­ful for the gro­cery store and farmer’s mar­ket.

Gator PieJack­ie: Anoth­er long-time favorite of mine is Gator Pie by Louise Math­ews with illus­tra­tions by Jeni Bas­sett (Dodd, Mead, 1979). Alvin and Alice are gator friends who live in a swamp. One day they find a love­ly pie. They decide to share, but before Alice can cut two halves anoth­er alli­ga­tor comes up and demands a share. Now Alice must cut the pie in thirds. And Alvin is not too hap­py about shar­ing. It gets worse — Alvin thinks he’ll get a quar­ter of the pie, then an eighth and final­ly one one-hun­dredth. Then he gets a bril­liant idea. And he and Alice get to share the pie them­selves. The illus­tra­tions make this book delight­ful. The sub­ject mat­ter makes it per­fect for talk­ing about how frac­tions work.

Phyl­lis: Because we are often look­ing at old­er books (I remem­ber read­ing this one to my now-grown kids when they were lit­tle), we some­times have prob­lems putting our hands on those books. Some reside on our book­shelves, some are avail­able through inter­li­brary loan, some we find online, and on occa­sion, if one of us has a copy but the oth­er can’t find it, we read the sto­ry to each oth­er on Skype. This time, because Gator Pie hadn’t yet arrived at my local library from anoth­er library, I watched a YouTube video of a young boy read­ing with his father, who helped his son when he wasn’t sure of a word. At one point, the boy grins at his father and says, “Excuse me, I drooled.” I love think­ing that a book about a pie was so deli­cious that it made the boy’s mouth water, but I love more see­ing the ten­der inter­ac­tion between child and par­ent and book. This is why we write, for those con­nec­tions.

Bring Me Some Apples and I'll Make You a PieJack­ie: Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie by Rob­bin Gour­ley (Clar­i­on, 2009) fea­tures Edna Lewis, African Amer­i­can chef who wrote sev­er­al cook­books “teach­ing peo­ple how to pre­pare food in the south­ern region­al style.” This book focus­es on Edna’s child­hood and imag­ines Edna and her fam­i­ly gath­er­ing the foods of the sea­son: wild straw­ber­ries and fresh greens in the spring­time; hon­ey, cher­ries, and black­ber­ries in the sum­mer. The round fruits — peach­es and toma­toes — fill sum­mer bas­kets and box­es. Corn for corn­bread, water­mel­ons, but­ter beans (“’We’re rich as kings as long as we have beans,’ says Mama.”) and mus­ca­dine grapes fin­ish out the sum­mer. Back to school sea­son means apples for pie and apple crisp. This is a book to remind us to savor the foods of our area. Read­ing it will make you hun­gry — and make you want to get out bowl and spoon, flour and fruit, and cook some­thing.

Phyl­lis: Which you can do with this book, because it ends with an author’s note and some mouth-water­ing recipes. It’s a book, too, rich in fam­i­ly and lan­guage. Mama says, ‘Bet­ter hur­ry! You’ll need to out­run the rab­bits to get the berries.” Dad­dy says to fill as many bas­kets as they can because the larder’s emp­ty. When Aun­tie helps Edna and her lit­tle sis­ter gath­er wild greens, she says, “A fresh crisp sal­ad to nour­ish the heart and soul as well as the body.” Broth­er helps gath­er cher­ries and black­ber­ries. When the fam­i­ly gath­ers round to find the per­fect mel­on, Granny says, “Mel­ons are just like friends. Got­ta try ten before you get a good one.” Sas­safras roots tossed up by the plow will fla­vor root beer. Water­mel­on rind will become pick­les. As Edna sur­veys the cel­lar packed with good things, she says, “You can nev­er have too much sum­mer.” When I look at the wealth of squash and onions and gar­lic and pota­toes piled high on my counter from my CSA farm share, I agree with Edna. And you can nev­er have too many books as deli­cious as this one.

Enemy PieJack­ie: Final­ly, we want to look at a charm­ing book that uses pie to solve a prob­lem–Ene­my Pie by Derek Mun­son and illus­trat­ed by Tara Cala­han King (Chron­i­cle, 2000). When Jere­my Ross moves into the narrator’s neigh­bor­hood, things start to go bad. Jere­my laughs at the nar­ra­tor when Jere­my strikes him out in a base­ball game, Jere­my didn’t invite him to a par­ty at his house. Jere­my Ross became the top — and only name — on the new “ene­my list.” But Dad has the answer, Ene­my Pie. What goes into Ene­my Pie? Dad won’t tell. The boy brings his dad weeds, no need. He brings earth­worms and rocks, used gum. Not in the recipe. Dad says the oth­er impor­tant part of Ene­my Pie is that the boy has to spend a day with the ene­my. Dad says, “Even worse you have to be nice to him. It’s not easy. But that’s the only way Ene­my Pie can work. Are you sure you want to go through with this?”

So the boy spends one day with Jere­my Ross to get him “out of my hair for the rest of my life.” By the end of the day, when it’s time for Ene­my Pie, the boy tries to pre­vent Jere­my from eat­ing it. By then he doesn’t want him to eat the awful pie. But Dad was eat­ing. Then Jere­my took a bite. Would their hair fall out? It turned out that Ene­my Pie was deli­cious!

This is such a sweet book, with a won­der­ful pie-mak­ing Dad, and a boy who learns that ene­mies don’t always stay ene­mies.

Hap­py pie-bak­ing to all. I’m eager for fruit pie. What’s your favorite Phyl­lis?

Phyl­lis: Pump­kin is lus­cious, but one of the best pies I ever tast­ed was on a road trip in Cana­da — bum­ble­ber­ry pie, which I think might be made of all the fruit pie fruits in one.

How­ev­er you slice it, we love pie and pie books. We hope your hous­es are rich as kings in books and pies this sea­son.


A Kindle* of Cats



Phyl­lis Root’s cat, Luna

*Even though kin­dle means cats born in the same lit­ter, the allit­er­a­tion was hard to resist.

All my work is done in the com­pa­ny of cats,” writes Nico­la Bay­ley, won­der­ful pic­ture book artist and writer, in her book The Nec­es­sary Cat.

I know what she means. Right now my cat Luna is sit­ting on the open copy of The Kit­tens’ ABC, clear­ly a cat of dis­cern­ing lit­er­ary taste.

Cats and writ­ers seem to have a par­tic­u­lar rela­tion­ship. Cats wan­der in and out of our pic­ture books, take naps on our key­boards, and curl up in our hearts. This month we looked at a few of the many pic­ture books where cats play a role.

The Kittens' ABCI was intro­duced to Claire Turlay New­ber­ry when I found a used copy of The Kit­tens’ ABC and was enchant­ed by her draw­ings of cats in which she cap­tures them with a few lines in char­coal, pen­cil, and pas­tels. (Of her sev­en­teen pic­ture books, all but three are about cats.) The rhymes with each let­ter of this ABC are sim­ple, but I could linger over those wise, play­ful, cozy pic­tures for hours. And if Luna has her way, curled up now on N is for Nap, I will.

Kit­tens like to take their naps
In box­es, bureau draw­ers, and laps;
Or else, along the sofa pil­lows,
In rows, like lit­tle pussy­wil­lows.

Green EyesAnoth­er used book find is Green Eyes by A. Birn­baum, win­ner of a 1953 Calde­cott hon­or. The sto­ry fol­lows the first year of a spring­time-born kitten’s life, from scram­bling out of a large box to explor­ing the farm life around him — chick­ens, cows, pigs, goats. By the time leaves fall, fol­lowed by snow, the now almost grown cat fits more snug­ly in his box. The art is superb, strong black lines and bright col­ors. This is the only pic­ture book Birn­baum both wrote and also illus­trat­ed, but his work appeared on The New York­er cov­ers over more than forty years. Scrolling through images of those cov­ers, I found myself wish­ing he had illus­trat­ed a whole stack of pic­ture books (two of my favorite images:  the wood­peck­er rat­tling away after a bug to feed the nest of lit­tle wood­peck­ers and the exu­ber­ant cro­cus in a pot).  

It’s hard for YouTube to do jus­tice to the art, but you can see and hear Green Eyes, now reis­sued.

Millions of CatsMil­lions of Cats, writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Wan­da Gag, with dou­ble page spreads, black and white lith­o­graph prints, and hand let­tered text has been called the first true Amer­i­can pic­ture book. Mil­lions of Cats won a New­bery hon­or in 1929 (the Calde­cott did not yet exist) and has been in print ever since. The text and art roll rhyth­mi­cal­ly through the sto­ry, and the small­est cat, who didn’t con­sid­er her­self pret­ty enough to argue with the oth­er cats about who was pret­ti­est, is the only one left after the hun­dreds of cats, thou­sands of cats, mil­lions and bil­lions and tril­lions of cats fight so much they eat each oth­er up. The lit­tlest kit­ten, adopt­ed  and loved by the lit­tle old lady and the lit­tle old man (cat own­ers might say the peo­ple were adopt­ed by the kit­ten) becomes the pret­ti­est cat of all.

Cats in Krasinski SquareCats are the heroes in The Cats in Krasns­ki Square by Karen Hesse, a fic­tion­al sto­ry based on a true sto­ry of cats help­ing out­wit the Gestapo and smug­gle food into the War­saw ghet­to dur­ing World War II.

The cats
from the cracks in the Wall,
the dark cor­ners,
the open­ings in the rub­ble

With her old­er sis­ter (all that is left of her fam­i­ly) the nar­ra­tor, who escaped the Pol­ish ghet­to and now lives out­side its walls, is part of the resis­tance smug­gling food to Jews still impris­oned inside the ghet­to, includ­ing her friend Michael.  When the resis­tance learns that the Gestapo is com­ing with dogs on leash­es to sniff out the food arriv­ing by train to be smug­gled behind the walls, the nar­ra­tor knows what to do:  round up as many cats as pos­si­ble and take them to the sta­tion.  As the train arrives, the nar­ra­tor and her friends  release the cats, which dri­ves the dogs wild; dur­ing the dis­trac­tion the food van­ish­es  from the sta­tion

through the Wall, over the Wall,  under the Wall,
into the Ghet­to.

Wendy Wat­son, one of my favorite artists, illus­trat­ed the books in somber tones reflect­ing the grav­i­ty of the sto­ry, where acts of great courage can resist great dark­ness.

So many more cat books to love!  Here are a few to check out:

Cat books

All Archie says to the stray cat on the city side­walk is, “Hi, Cat!” in Hi, Cat! by Ezra Jack Keats, but the cat fol­lows him and man­ages to ruin every act of the show Archie and his friend Peter are putting on. Still, Archie decides that the cat “just kin­da liked me!”

Cats aren’t men­tioned in This is Our House by Hye­won Yum, but gen­er­a­tions of cats and kit­tens weave in and out of the art of this decep­tive­ly sim­ple sto­ry of immi­gra­tion, fam­i­ly, and home.

Gin­ger writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Char­lotte Voake, is a tale of “sib­ling” rival­ry when the cat of the house must deal with a new kit­ten.

Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes tells of a kit­ten who thinks the first full moon of her life is a bowl of milk in the sky, but all her efforts to drink that milk end in dis­as­ter.  Luck­i­ly, when she returns home, a bowl of milk is wait­ing just for her.

Lola and the Rent-a-Cat, writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Ceseli Jose­phus Jit­ta, tells how Lola, whose hus­band of many years has died, finds a cat to belong to (and keep) through the Inter­net. Lola choos­es num­ber 313 Tim:

  • Home­ly, slight­ly old­er cat
  • Loves atten­tion and care
  • Fond of diet food

Lola and Tim are togeth­er all the time, and she is able to recall the good mem­o­ries as she and Tim sit on a bench in the evenings, and Tim purrs as she strokes him. 

Octo­ber 29 is Nation­al Cat Day, but any day is a good day to curl up with a cat book (and a cat, if one is handy).


The Funny and the Heart

Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Amy Krouse Rosen­thal

Jack­ie: Recent­ly Phyl­lis and I read a heart-break­ing col­umn in The New York Times, writ­ten by author Amy Krouse Rosen­thal, who wrote many children’s books, and a cou­ple of books for adults.

The col­umn, writ­ten as a love-note to her hus­band from a dying wife, was heart­felt, sad, and fun­ny all at the same time. We both wished we had known Amy Krouse Rosen­thal. But it was too late. We looked at a few of her books and found the fun­ny and the heart that char­ac­ter­ized that col­umn.

As a way of pay­ing trib­ute, we want to share just a few of her books with you. And I should add that we both want to do this but Phyl­lis is out tramp­ing around after Min­neso­ta wild­flow­ers for a book project so I am on my own this month. I will miss my big-heart­ed friend in writ­ing a col­umn about anoth­er writer with heart, but will do my best.

Yes Day!Humor and heart char­ac­ter­ize all the Amy Krouse Rosen­thal books I have read. A favorite of my grand­chil­dren is Yes Day! Once a year the exu­ber­ant child in this book wakes up to a day in which his par­ents answer all his ques­tions with, “Yes.”

Can I please have piz­za for break­fast?” Turn the page and he is about to enjoy what we know to be, because it’s steam­ing with fla­vor, deli­cious sausage piz­za.

Can I use your hair gel?” Turn the page and the fam­i­ly is pos­ing for a por­trait with our hero stand­ing in front with superbly spiked hair.

Can I clean my room tomor­row?” Yes. Or pick all the cere­als?  And we see in the gro­cery cart Puffed Sug­ar Cere­al, Marsh­mal­low Fluff cere­al (“with bits of actu­al cere­al”), Hot Fudge Sun­dae Flakes (“1 whole oat per serv­ing”).  There are no bad wish­es. Mario can come for din­ner. Our hero can stay up real­ly late. And on the last two pages we see the Yes Day cel­e­brant lying on the ground,  under the stars with his Dad. “Does this day have to end? We know the answer. But his last words are “See you again next year!”

This pic­ture book is so sat­is­fy­ing. Our grand­daugh­ter Ella is sev­en and enjoys the Har­ry Pot­ter books, Bev­er­ly Cleary books, as well as many graph­ic nov­els. But she loved this book, too. And sat through repeat­ed read­ings, laugh­ing at all the jokes.

ChopsticksElla also loved Chop­sticks. This sto­ry of the friend­ship of two chop­sticks is loaded with visu­al and ver­bal puns. “They go every­where togeth­er. They do every­thing togeth­er.” Until one of them snapped. “Chop­stick was quick­ly whisked away,” car­ried by a kitchen whisk. “The oth­ers all wait­ed qui­et­ly. /No one stirred,/ not even Spoon.”

When Chop­stick returns from his surgery, he tells his friend to go off, have adven­tures on his own. One of his hilar­i­ous adven­tures is con­duct­ing an orches­tra of kitchen imple­ments. The turkey baster plays French horn, a fork plays an oven ther­mome­ter that looks like a bas­soon. Who could not love this page?

Who could not love this book which ends with the chop­sticks play­ing “Chop­sticks” on the piano?

Exclamation PointAmy Krouse Rosen­thal had a light touch with seri­ous sub­jects, too. Excla­ma­tion Mark is the sto­ry of a punc­tu­a­tion mark that does not fit in. Hilar­i­ous already, right?  The text and illus­tra­tions appear on what looks like the wide-lined school paper of the ear­ly grades. The book begins “He stood out from the very begin­ning — on the next page we see a row of cir­cle-drawn peri­ods with lit­tle faces and one peri­od with a long line above it — the Excla­ma­tion Mark. “He tried every­thing to be more like them./But he just wasn’t like every­one else. [Line of peri­ods.] Peri­od.”  After a while he meets a ques­tion mark. Of course it only speaks in ques­tions. “Who are you? What grade are you in? What’s your favorite col­or? Do you like frogs?” And on and on — until Excla­ma­tion Mark says, STOP!” The Ques­tion Mark loves it and asks him to do it again. “Hi!” And again, “Howdy!”  And more. “It was like he broke free from a life sen­tence.” With all its puns and sil­ly phras­es, this is at its core a sto­ry of find­ing one’s place in the world. And that is always sat­is­fy­ing

SpI was famil­iar with only two of Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s books, Spoon, the sto­ry of a spoon who is unhap­py with its role in life, envies the oth­er imple­ments. He says of Chop­sticks, “Every­one thinks they’re real­ly cool and exot­ic! No one thinks I’m cool or exot­ic.” Even­tu­al­ly Spoon real­izes a spoon’s work can be cool — and fun. Such a great idea to tell this tale from the point of view of a spoon. We all need to be remind­ed and remind­ed that we all have a place in the world. And how light-heart­ed to let a spoon char­ac­ter do the remind­ing. And there’s the advan­tage of giv­ing kids per­mis­sion to talk to their spoons.  How many kids now have con­ver­sa­tions with their spoons when they eat their morn­ing cere­al and have Amy Krouse Rosen­thal to thank?

from Spoon by Amy Krouse Rosen­thal, illus­tra­tion copy­right Scott Magoon

Duck! Rabbit!The sec­ond book in my AKR men­tal library was Duck! Rab­bit!, It’s a sto­ry told total­ly in dia­logue about two friends who see a crea­ture that could be a rab­bit with long ears or a duck with a beak. ”Are you kid­ding me?/It’s total­ly a duck./It’s for sure a rabbit./See there’s his bill./What are you talk­ing about?/Those are ears, sil­ly.” It’s a clever turn on two char­ac­ters who can look at the same picture/event/person and come to com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions.  Final­ly one says, “You know, maybe you were right./Maybe it was a rab­bit.” And the oth­er says, “Thing is, now I’m actu­al­ly think­ing it was a duck.” After this com­ing togeth­er, the sto­ry ends with them see­ing an anteater/brachiosaurus. And we take off again.

If I were a teacher I’d keep a stash of Amy Krouse Rosen­thal books in my bag for those times when kids are antsy, or stand­ing in line to get into the audi­to­ri­um, or just need a good laugh or a good pun. I’m def­i­nite­ly going to keep a stash for my grand­kids. I wish I had said, “Thanks,” when she was still liv­ing. The best I can do is pass these books along to read­ers of all ages who need a smile or actu­al­ly would like to start the day talk­ing to their spoons — or their chop­sticks.

Phyl­lis:  Thank you, Jack­ie, for this month’s col­umn.  Like these books and their author, you, too, have an amaz­ing heart and a sense of joy and delight.  Now, back to my book dead­line….


Our Hearts Will Hold Us Up

Jack­ie: It seems per­fect­ly appro­pri­ate that the Man­ag­er of Hol­i­day Place­ment  has placed Valentine’s Day, a day to cel­e­brate love and affec­tion, right in the mid­dle of cold, dark Feb­ru­ary. I want that cel­e­bra­tion to spread out for the whole month (why not the whole year?) the way the smell of bak­ing bread fills an entire house, not just the kitchen. Why can’t all of Feb­ru­ary be Heart Month? We are choos­ing books this month with that goal in mind. We want to cel­e­brate heart, love, ties of affec­tion. And we have cho­sen a new book, a cou­ple of medi­um new books and an old book to help us.

More, More, More Said the BabyA while back we did an entire col­umn on Vera B. Williams. But I am still miss­ing her. I need her polit­i­cal activism and her huge heart in my neigh­bor­hood. I turned to More, More, More Said the Baby. (Green­wil­low, 1990). 

This book is a huge cel­e­bra­tion of the love between dad­dies and kids:

Just look at you
With your per­fect bel­ly but­ton
Right in the mid­dle
Right in the mid­dle
Right in the mid­dle
Of your fat lit­tle bel­ly.
Then Lit­tle Guy’s dad­dy
Brings that baby
Right up close
And gives that lit­tle guy’s bel­ly
A kiss right I the mid­dle
Of the bel­ly but­ton.

Between grand­mas and kids:

Then Lit­tle Pumpkin’s grand­ma
Brings that baby right up close
And tastes each
Of Lit­tle Pumpkin’s toes.

And mamas and kids:

Just look at you
With your two closed eyes
Then Lit­tle Bird’s Mama…
Gives that lit­tle bird a kiss
Right on each of her lit­tle eyes.

I nev­er tire of read­ing about these chil­dren, diverse chil­dren, who are so loved and so val­ued. This book will be fresh as long as we laugh and kiss babies with bel­ly but­tons and ten lit­tle toes.

Phyl­lis:; I miss Vera B. Williams, too, and I love see­ing her spir­it still alive in her books and also in the hearts of peo­ple every­where who care about peo­ple every­where. Her lan­guage in More More More is so deli­cious – along with the rep­e­ti­tion we have live­ly verbs of inter­ac­tion between grown-ups and beloved chil­dren (swing, scoot, catch that baby up).  Lit­tle Guy, Lit­tle Pump­kin, and Lit­tle Bird have names that could be any child’s. I love, too, the exu­ber­ant art and hand let­tered mul­ti-col­ored text. Every­thing about this book cel­e­brates tak­ing joy in our chil­dren.

My Heart Will Not Sit DownJack­ie: In My Heart Will Not Sit Down, (Alfred Knopf, 2012) empa­thy and car­ing for oth­ers trav­el around the world. Rock­liff cre­ates a school child Kedi, who hears from her teacher about the hun­gry chil­dren in New York City and can­not stop think­ing about them. She asks her moth­er for a coin to send them. Her moth­er says they have no coins to spare. “Kedi knew Mama was right. Still, her heart would not sit down.” She asks an uncle, a sweep­ing moth­er with a baby on her back, a grand­moth­er pound­ing cas­sa­va, laugh­ing girls who car­ried pots of riv­er water, old men play­ing a game of stones, even the head­man. No one has coins… Until the next morn­ing when her mama gives her one coin. She takes the coin to school, think­ing that one coin can do lit­tle good for the hun­gry chil­dren. Then the vil­lagers show up — each bear­ing a coin. “We have heard about the hunger in our teacher’s vil­lage,” said the head­man. “Our hearts would not sit down until we helped.” 

Phyl­lis:  This is one of those books that called to me from the shelf in a book­store and cap­ti­vat­ed my heart once I opened it. Kedi’s heart stands up for the hun­gry chil­dren in New York, Amer­i­ca, as she calls it. When the vil­lagers bring their coins, which the author notes would be a small for­tune to the vil­lage even though $3.77 would not go far in Amer­i­ca even in the Depres­sion, her mama asks, “Now will your heart sit down in peace?” Kedi answers, “Yes, Mama, Yes!”  The author notes, too, that in Cameroon, where the event occurred on which the sto­ry is based, peo­ple shared with any­one in need, even strangers, because, as they said, “You may meet him [a stranger] again, and in his own place.” This sto­ry reminds me that the actions of one small per­son can touch many hearts and feed hun­gry chil­dren.

The Heart and the BottleJack­ie: Hearts can spur us to action. Hearts can break. And the last two books are gen­tle sto­ries of the heartache of loss. Oliv­er Jef­fers writes of a “lit­tle girl…whose head was filled with all the curiosi­ties of the world.” Jef­fers shows us this lit­tle girl talk­ing with her grand­pa who sits in a chair, lying under the stars with her grand­pa. He accom­pa­nies her on all her explores. And then one day the chair is emp­ty. She decides to put her heart in a bot­tle to keep it safe. After that she wasn’t curi­ous. She grows up and the bot­tled heart is heavy around her neck.  When she wish­es to retrieve her heart she can’t — until she meets anoth­er lit­tle girl.

This is a sto­ry about deal­ing with sad­ness — we want to pro­tect our hearts but we lose so much when we wall them up.

Phyl­lis:  Oliv­er Jef­fers both wrote and illus­trat­ed The Heart and the Bot­tle, and the illus­tra­tions help car­ry the events and the emo­tions of the sto­ry.  When the girl who has bot­tled her heart decides as a grown-up to take her heart out again, the art shows her try­ing to shake the heart out, grip it with pli­ers, break the bot­tle with a ham­mer, and final­ly, aban­don­ing her work bench cov­ered with a drill, a cross cut saw, a wood­en mal­let, screw­driv­er, and oth­er assort­ed tools includ­ing a vac­u­um clean­er lean­ing again the bench, she climbs a lad­der to the top of an enor­mous­ly tall brick wall and drops the bot­tle which still doesn’t break but just “bounced and rolled…right down to the sea” where a lit­tle girl eas­i­ly frees the heart from the bot­tle and returns it.  The book ends, “The heart was put back where it came from.  And the chair wasn’t emp­ty any­more. But the bot­tle was.” Here, too, the art reflects that the woman’s  world is once again filled with won­der.  We need our hearts with­in us.

Cry, Heart, But Never BreakJack­ie: Cry, Heart, But Nev­er Break comes to us from Den­mark. It was writ­ten by Glenn Ringtved, illus­trat­ed by Char­lotte Par­di and trans­lat­ed by Robert Moulthrop (Enchant­ed Lion Books, 2016).  This book also deals with loss. Four chil­dren live with their grand­moth­er — “A kind­ly woman, she had cared for them for many years.” Then Death knocks at the door. The chil­dren decide to fore­stall Death’s mis­sion with cof­fee. They will keep him drink­ing cof­fee all night so he can­not take their grand­moth­er, thus giv­ing her anoth­er day of life. Even­tu­al­ly he has had enough. And one of the chil­dren asks why grand­moth­er has to die. And then comes: “Some peo­ple say Death’s heart is as dead and black as a piece of coal, but that is not true. Beneath his inky cloak, Death’s heart is as red as the most beau­ti­ful sun­set and beats with a great love of life.” He tells them a sto­ry of Sor­row and Grief meet­ing and falling in love with Delight and Joy. “What would life be worth if there were no death? Who would enjoy the sun if it nev­er rained? Who would yearn for day if there were no night?”

When Death goes to the Grandmother’s room, he says to the chil­dren, “Cry, Heart, but nev­er break. Let your tears of grief and sad­ness begin a new life.” Char­lotte Pardi’s illus­tra­tions are per­fect for this book, sim­ple and ten­der. We see what appears to be quick­ly-sketched fur­ni­ture in the night kitchen — we know this is a sto­ry. And yet we con­nect with the emo­tions on the children’s faces.

Cry, Heart, But Never Break

Cry, Heart, But Nev­er Break. Illus­tra­tion © Char­lotte Par­di.

Phyl­lis: I love that the chil­dren ply Death with cof­fee, which Death loves, strong and black, and that it’s the youngest child who looks right at Death and even­tu­al­ly puts her hand over his. But even cof­fee can’t stop Death; when he goes  upstairs the chil­dren hear the win­dow open and Death say, “Fly, soul, fly away.” Their hearts grieve and cry but do not break. Some (but not all) of the best books about Death come, inter­est­ing­ly, from oth­er coun­tries. But this book is not only about Death it is about the neces­si­ty of a life with both sor­row and grief and also joy and delight. This is a book that makes me cry and hope for all our hearts that they nev­er com­plete­ly break.

Jack­ie: We start­ed with con­nec­tion — the con­nec­tions of babies and fam­i­lies, and we have come round to loss of con­nec­tion, when what remains is love. Our hearts will hold us up.


The Books in the Night

Phyl­lis: Night means many things: the ter­ri­fy­ing dark­ness behind the garage where I had to car­ry the garbage after sup­per as a child, the dark night of the soul that depres­sion brings, the hours between sun­set and sun­rise that grow longer and longer as our earth turns into win­ter. But night holds com­fort as well as fear, and this month we want to look at books about the gifts that night and dark­ness can bring.

In the Night KitchenWho hasn’t heard of Mick­ey who “heard a rack­et in the night and shout­ed ‘Qui­et down there!’ and fell through the dark out of his clothes past the moon and his mama and papa sleep­ing tight and into the light of the night kitchen?” (Mau­rice Sendak moves through more action in his mar­velous first sen­tences than almost any oth­er author we can think of.)  The Night Kitchen is Sendak’s imag­ined answer to what might have hap­pened after he had to go to bed as a child, and his com­ic-book art pays trib­ute to the comics that influ­enced his work. This book has encoun­tered both pub­lic and pri­vate cen­sor­ship, includ­ing librar­i­ans paint­ing dia­pers or clothes on Mick­ey to cov­er his nudi­ty, but chil­dren love the adven­ture he dis­cov­ers in the night kitchen.

Jack­ie: Sendak’s edi­tor, the leg­endary Ursu­la Nord­strom, was elo­quent in defend­ing her books from such cen­sor­ship. She once wrote to a teacher who had burned a copy of In the Night Kitchen, “I think young chil­dren will always react with delight to such a book as In the Night Kitchen, and that they will react cre­ative­ly and whole­some­ly. It is only adults who ever feel threat­ened by Sendak’s work.” (Dear Genius, p.302)

Where Does the Brown Bear Go?Phyl­lis: Sendak imag­ines a rol­lick­ing adven­ture mak­ing cake for break­fast, while Nik­ki Weiss, right from the title, asks, Where Does the Brown Bear Go? Love­ly in its sim­plic­i­ty and strong at its heart, this series of rhyming ques­tions, one to a spread, won­ders where ani­mals go when night falls:

When the lights go down on the city street
Where does the white cat go, hon­ey?
Where does the white cat go?
When evening set­tles
On the jun­gle heat,
Where does the mon­key go, hon­ey?
Where does the mon­key go?

After every two ques­tions, the same answer comes: 

They are on their way.
They are on their way home.

This would be a sweet cat­a­log of ani­mals head­ed home at night, but the book res­onates more deeply when it asks: 

When the junk­yard is lit
By the light of the moon
Where does the junk­yard dog go, hon­ey?
 Where does the junk­yard dog go? 

Know­ing that even the junk­yard dog is on his way home moves me almost to tears. 

Jack­ie: Same here. And it urges me to imag­ine what is home for the junk­yard dog and to put myself in that home for just a bit.

Phyl­lis: The last page shows a boy snug­gled in bed sur­round­ed by his stuffed ani­mals (who resem­ble the ani­mals of the pre­ced­ing pages), and the book’s last line reas­sures us that every­one is home. It’s what we wish for every one of us, that a home awaits us at night where we are safe and cher­ished.

Night on Neighborhood StreetEloise Greenfield’s Night on Neigh­bor­hood Street uses a vari­ety of poet­ic forms to tell the sto­ries of the chil­dren and grown-ups who live on Neigh­bor­hood Street as night falls and bed­time arrives. Juma stretch­es out his bed­time with a will­ing dad­dy, a new baby cries and is rocked lov­ing­ly to sleep, a fam­i­ly gath­ers for “fam­bly time” on the floor, Tonya’s moth­er plays her horn for Tonya’s friends at an overnight, the church con­gre­ga­tion sings songs of praise, and Karen lets her sis­ter be the mama when their mama has to work at night.  But the dark­er side of life appears as well:  a lone­some boy wait­ing for his friend to come home looks at the moon “with a sad, sad eye/poking out his mouth/getting ready to cry.” A drug deal­er comes around, but the chil­dren “see behind his easy smile” and head inside. A “broth­er who tries to pick a fight” is shut down when every­one else nods and smiles and lets him know they’re not inter­est­ed in fight­ing. The book ends with Tonya’s mama blow­ing lul­la­by sounds on her horn into the silence of the street. And the chil­dren “hear and smile…and they are at peace with the night.” 

Jack­ie: I love how the fam­i­lies watch out for each oth­er in this book. There is such a strong sense that chil­dren are cared for. Tonya’s Mama is a good exam­ple of this:

When Tonya’s friends come to spend the night
Her mama’s more than just polite
She says she’s glad they came to call
Tells them that she loves them all
Lis­tens to what they can do
Tells them what she’s good at, too.
Plays her horn and lets them sing
(Do they make that music swing!)…

We aren’t sure why Tonya’s friends are there. Per­haps there was trou­ble, per­haps it’s just a vis­it. But we are sure that Tonya’s moth­er is strong and will love and take care of  these chil­dren. Neigh­bor­hood Street is a neigh­bor­hood indeed, where all are made stronger by watch­ing out for each oth­er.

The House in the NightPhyl­lis: Susan Marie Swanson’s The House in the Night, inspired by a nurs­ery rhyme from The Oxford Nurs­ery Rhyme Book, is also decep­tive­ly sim­ple in its text. The sto­ry is told in short declar­a­tive sen­tences, one sen­tence each to a dou­ble page spread of Beth Krommes’ Calde­cott-win­ning scratch­board illus­tra­tions illu­mi­nat­ed with bright yel­low stars, lamp­light, moon, and oth­er objects. “Here is the key to the house,” the book begins.  In the house a light burns, a book rests on a bed, a bird flies with a song about star­ry dark, moon, sun, all of which cir­cles back (in short­er phras­es, a beau­ti­ful use of syn­tax) to the house in the night where art shows a par­ent lov­ing­ly tuck­ing in the child who has read the book in “the house full of light.” Utter­ly beau­ti­ful and sat­is­fy­ing.

Jack­ie: There is so much to notice in this book. First the trav­el and the won­der­ful verbs:  In the house burns a light/In the light rests a bed./On that bed waits a book./In that book flies a bird./In that bird breathes a song….” We go all the way to the moon and the sun — and return. And for the jour­ney back Susan Marie Swan­son uses no verbs. We zoom from one place to the next. It real­ly feels like space trav­el.

Sun in the moon,
moon in the dark,
dark in the song,
song in the bird,
bird in the book,
book on the bed,
bed in the light,
light in the house,…

You are right, Phyl­lis. This is such a sat­is­fy­ing trip back to the cozy bed­room of the house in the night.

Sweetest KuluPhyl­lis:  Not all nights are dark. The sum­mer sun nev­er real­ly sets in the arc­tic, although some­one who lives there told me how the qual­i­ty of light changes under the mid­night sun. (Some­day I hope to see for myself.) In the Arc­tic Sum­mer of Sweet­est Kulu by Celi­na Kalluk nature comes to give its gifts to lit­tle Kulu on the day he is born. The sun gives him “blan­kets and rib­bons of warm light,” wind tells how weath­er forms, snow buntings bring seeds of flow­ers and Arc­tic cot­ton, “remind­ing you to always believe in your­self.” Arc­tic Char, Fox, Nar­wahl and Bel­u­ga, Muskrat, Polar Bear, and the Land itself all offer gifts  both tan­gi­ble and intan­gi­ble. This is a child wel­comed and cher­ished by all.  A final piece of art shows Kulu nes­tled with a polar bear cub in a cir­cle of grass and flow­ers.  Exquis­ite­ly beau­ti­ful and lov­ing, this is a book as full of light and joy as the end­less Arc­tic sum­mer days. 

Jack­ie: I am so impressed with the lan­guage of this book. Many phras­es caught my ear. Here are a cou­ple of exam­ples: “Melodies of wind arrived,” “Fox, so thought­ful and swift,/came to tell you to get out of bed as soon as you wake,/and to help any­one who may need your help along your way…”

This bed­time lul­la­by res­onates with old­er read­ers, too.  We are dai­ly remind­ed in our own lives of Muskox’s gift. “Muskox shared her­itage and empow­er­ment with you,/magnificent Kulu,/showing you how to pro­tect what you believe in.”

These night­time books, whether in the kitchen, on Neigh­bor­hood Street, in the cozy house in the night, or in the Arc­tic urge us to qui­et, to being in a qui­et world, where we have space and time to appre­ci­ate what is around us in the phys­i­cal world as well as what is in our hearts and how they are strength­ened by affec­tion and care.

Phyl­lis: This is the sea­son for qui­et, after the bloom­ing and buzzing of sum­mer. As days short­en and the nights stretch out toward sol­stice, choose a book or sev­er­al to read aloud, an act as com­fort­ing as a cup of warm cocoa and a fire in the fire­place.

Here are a few more night sto­ries:

Can’t Sleep by Chris Rasch­ka

Good Night Sleep Tight by Mem Fox

Good Night, Goril­la by Peg­gy Rath­man

Night Flight by Joanne Ryder

Night Nois­es by Mem Fox

Ten Nine Eight by Mol­ly Bang


William Steig and Transmogrification

bk_sylvester_200pxJack­ie: After Phyl­lis and I read Amos and Boris for our last month’s arti­cle on boats we both won­dered why we hadn’t looked at the work of William Steig. He so often exe­cutes that very sat­is­fy­ing com­bi­na­tion of humor and heart. Steig’s lan­guage is fun­ny but his sto­ries reg­u­lar­ly involve wor­ri­some sep­a­ra­tion and then return to a lov­ing fam­i­ly.

William Steig was born to immi­grant Jew­ish par­ents from East­ern Europe in 1907. His father was a painter and dec­o­ra­tor and his moth­er was a seam­stress. When the Depres­sion came, Steig sup­port­ed the fam­i­ly by sell­ing car­toons to The New York­er mag­a­zine. At age six­ty he began to write children’s books and wrote more than two dozen before his death in 2003 at age 95.

Roger Angell, writ­ing in The New York­er, quot­ed a New York school teacher [his wife] speak­ing about Steig’s children’s books: “They’re touch­ing but not sen­ti­men­tal, and they bring young chil­dren ideas they’ve not expe­ri­enced before.”

Solomon the Rusty NailThey’re touch­ing and they are fun­ny — some­times they are down­right sil­ly. In Solomon The Rusty Nail (1985), Solomon the rab­bit fig­ures out that if he scratch­es his nose and wig­gles his toes at exact­ly the same time he becomes a rusty nail. Not to wor­ry, this is not Sylvester and the Mag­ic Peb­ble, not yet at least. Solomon also fig­ures out that if he says to him­self, “I’m no nail, I’m a rab­bit,” he will quick­ly become a rab­bit again.

Phyl­lis: I thought I knew most of Steig’s work but I didn’t know this book, and I love it, not least for Steig’s won­der­ful­ly play­ful lan­guage. When Solomon dis­cov­ers his abil­i­ty to trans­form, his first thought is to show his fam­i­ly what a “prize pazoo­zle of a rab­bit” he is but decides instead to keep his “secret secret.” When Solomon trans­forms into a rusty nail behind a tree to fool a cat who has cap­tured him, the cat is “dis­com­bob­u­lat­ed “and search­es for Solomon “clock­wise, counter clock­wise, and oth­er­wise.”

But for all their deli­cious lan­guage, Steig’s sto­ries have high stakes: when Solomon refus­es to turn back into a rab­bit so the cat and his wife can eat him, the irate cat pounds him into the wall of their cab­in where Solomon, unable to trans­form back into his true self, won­ders, “Do nails die?”

Doctor De SotoJack­ie: Steig’s Doc­tor DeS­o­to, (1982) the mouse den­tist has always been a favorite of mine. It is the per­fect com­bi­na­tion of humor and sen­si­tiv­i­ty, even com­pas­sion. Even though he has sworn not to treat fox­es and wolves, Doc­tor Des­o­to agrees to treat the suf­fer­ing fox. And the fox repays this kind­ness by won­der­ing if it would be “shab­by” to eat Dr. and Mrs. DeS­o­to. [Is “shab­by” not the per­fect, hilar­i­ous word here?] We root for Doc­tor DeS­o­to who says he always fin­ish­es what he starts and we love his remark­able prepa­ra­tion that allows him to fix the fox’s tooth and save the lives of him and his wife.

Per­haps every­one knows Sylvester and the Mag­ic Peb­ble (1969), Steig’s Calde­cott win­ner. Sylvester’s unfor­tu­nate wish turns him into a rock. His par­ents grieve. He sits and drows­es as a rock until a remark­able series of cir­cum­stances results in his return to his old don­key form. So sat­is­fy­ing.

Steig loved this theme of trans­for­ma­tion and clear­ly wasn’t done with it after Sylvester. He gave us the above-men­tioned Solomon the Rusty Nail, The Toy Broth­er (1996), Gorky Ris­es (1980), all of which involve some sort of mag­i­cal prepa­ra­tion or incan­ta­tion and some sort of “stuck­ness.”

Amazing BonePhyl­lis: Steig is a mas­ter at mak­ing us believe these seem­ing­ly inex­plic­a­ble vicis­si­tudes. In The Amaz­ing Bone Pearl the pig finds a bone that can talk in any lan­guage and imi­tate any sound — a trumpet’s call to arms, the wind blow­ing, the rain pat­ter­ing down, snor­ing, sneez­ing. When Pearl asks the bone how it can sneeze, it replies, “I don’t know. I didn’t make the world.” When a hun­gry fox cap­tures Pearl and the bone pleads for him to let her go, the fox replies, “I can’t help being the way I am. I didn’t make the world.”

Toy BrotherJack­ie: The Toy Broth­er (1996) is a won­der­ful turn­around book about two sib­lings who live with their par­ents — Mag­nus Bede, a famous alchemist, and his “hap­py-go-lucky wife” Euti­l­da. The old­er son, Yorick, “con­sid­ers lit­tle Charles a first-rate pain in the pants.” Yorick is his father’s appren­tice and hopes to turn don­key dung into gold. When the par­ents go off for a wed­ding Yorick sneaks into his father’s lab. Things don’t work out as he hoped and Yorick next appears the size of a mole. Charles enjoys his role as big broth­er and is actu­al­ly kind to Yorick, builds him a house, feeds him crumbs of cheese, tries to amuse him by cos­tum­ing him­self and the fam­i­ly ani­mals. But the two can­not get Yorick back to his orig­i­nal size, and nei­ther can Mag­nus. Until Yorick remem­bers one very impor­tant detail.

Once again, Steig’s lan­guage is such a joy. When they real­ize what is need­ed, Mag­nus says, “Gin­ger! That’s a fish from anoth­er pond. Is it any won­der there was no trans­mo­gri­fi­ca­tion?” What child is not going to love that? I almost feel trans­mo­gri­fied read­ing it.

Gorky RisesGorky the frog makes a potion, too, in a kitchen lab, with “a lit­tle of this and a lit­tle of that: a spoon each of chick­en soup, tea, and vine­gar, a sprin­kle of cof­fee grounds, one shake of tal­cum pow­der, two shakes of papri­ka, a dash of cin­na­mon, a splash of witch hazel, and final­ly a bit of his father’s clear cognac and a lot of attar of ros­es (!!).”… “This obvi­ous­ly was the mag­ic for­mu­la he had long been seek­ing.”

He doesn’t know what it will do but soon real­izes that it enables him to rise in the sky and float. He star­tles the groundlings, includ­ing a fox who looks like he just dropped by before his gig in Doc­tor DeS­o­to. Gorky endures a storm and longs for home…and even­tu­al­ly fig­ures out how to get there.

Amos & BorisPhyl­lis: In Amos and Boris, I was star­tled by the for­tu­itous appear­ance of two ele­phants who help Amos the mouse roll Boris the whale back into the sea when he is beached by a storm. I didn’t real­ize that more ele­phants wan­der through Steig’s sto­ries — Ele­phant Rock where Gorky even­tu­al­ly lands real­ly is a trans­formed ele­phant, restored to his real self by the last drops of Gorky’s for­mu­la.

Brave IreneStorms are also recur­ring char­ac­ters in Steig’s books. Irene encoun­ters a storm in Brave Irene, an inim­itable one that yodels a warn­ing: “Go home….GO HO-WO-WOME,” as she attempts to deliv­er a dress her moth­er has made for the duchess. When the wind car­ries off the dress, Irene press­es on in the wors­en­ing storm to tell the duchess what hap­pened to her beau­ti­ful gown. Irene twists her ankle, she gets lost, night falls, she shiv­ers from the cold, and just when she final­ly spots the cas­tle below she is swal­lowed by a snow­drift up to her hat. In despair, she won­ders if she should give up and freeze to death, since she is already buried. But the mem­o­ry of her moth­er “who always smelled like fresh-baked bread” gives her the ener­gy to fight free of the snow­drift, find a way to the cas­tle (where the wind has plas­tered the gown to a tree) and even­tu­al­ly arrive home, dri­ven by the doc­tor who tells her moth­er “what a brave and lov­ing per­son Irene was. Which, of course, Mrs. Bob­bin knew. Bet­ter than the duchess.”

Back cover of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, illustration copyright William Steig

Back cov­er of Sylvester and the Mag­ic Peb­ble, illus­tra­tion copy­right William Steig

Jack­ie: These char­ac­ters are all sur­prised by cir­cum­stance. Storms fly in. The potions do not work exact­ly as planned. Deal­ing with these cir­cum­stances is not always easy. And so it is with the lives of chil­dren. Things do not go along as planned. They hear: “We are mov­ing. You’ll be going to a new school.” “Your father and I are sep­a­rat­ing.” “We’re hav­ing a new baby. You’ll need to share your room.” It’s hard to get back to the old life. That is true in Steig’s sto­ries. Sylvester’s par­ents grieve when they lose him. Gorky’s par­ents search for him all night and are tremen­dous­ly relieved to see him.

All of his char­ac­ters are returned to the lov­ing arms of fam­i­ly, changed per­haps by their adven­tures, but not alone. I would love to do a ses­sion with stu­dents in which we read these books and then wrote our own sto­ry of trans­mo­gri­fi­ca­tion. What a free­ing expe­ri­ence to change into something/someone else, to float, to talk to a bone — that talked back.

Phyl­lis: What a ter­rif­ic idea. I want to read all of his books aloud, savor­ing his deliri­ous­ly delec­table lan­guage in book after book after book. Steig is a prize pazoo­zle of a writer as well as an artist.

Jack­ie: Though he was not writ­ing tracts for chil­dren Steig was well aware of the pow­er of sto­ry. He said in his Calde­cott Accep­tance Speech:

Art, includ­ing juve­nile lit­er­a­ture, has the pow­er to make any spot on earth the liv­ing cen­ter of the uni­verse, and unlike sci­ence, which often gives us the illu­sion of under­stand­ing things we real­ly do not under­stand, it helps us to know life in a way that still keeps before us the mys­tery of things. It enhances the sense of won­der. And won­der is respect for life. Art also stim­u­lates the adven­tur­ous­ness and the play­ful­ness that keep us mov­ing in a live­ly way and that lead us to use­ful dis­cov­ery.

Books for chil­dren are some­thing I take seri­ous­ly. I am hope­ful that more and more the work I do for chil­dren, as well as the work I do for adults, will approach the con­di­tion of art. I believe that what this award and this cer­e­mo­ny rep­re­sent is our mutu­al striv­ing in the same direc­tion, and I feel encour­aged by the faith you have expressed in me in hon­or­ing my book with the Calde­cott Medal. (Calde­cott Accep­tance Speech, June, 1970).

His sto­ries remind us that the “mys­tery of things … stimulate[s] adven­tur­ous­ness and play­ful­ness” in both theme and lan­guage. In Steig’s books we can share the fun of sound, the joy of adven­ture, and the sweet­ness of return.

Phyl­lis: And they remind us, too, that in the inex­plic­a­ble events of the uni­verse, our fam­i­lies love us, search for us when we are lost, and wel­come us home again with immea­sur­able delight.

See also: The Col­lec­tion of William Steig at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia.


Coming Home to Safe Harbor

Lake Superior

Phyl­lis: This sum­mer I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to sail for a week in Lake Supe­ri­or, so we are turn­ing our thoughts to books about the sea (includ­ing the great inland sea that bor­ders Min­neso­ta, so vast it makes its own weath­er).  If we can’t go sail­ing right now, we can at least read about it in a fleet of good pic­ture books.

Jack­ie:  And I am a self-con­fessed water gaz­er. I’m not a boater of any kind but I can’t get enough of being next to water, watch­ing and lis­ten­ing.

The Mousehole Cat

Phyl­lis: I can­not tell you how much I love The Mouse­hole Cat by Anto­nia Bar­ber with lumi­nous art by Nico­la Bay­ley.  As many times as I’ve read it, the sto­ry still gives me shiv­ers and makes me want to cry. Mouse­hole (pro­nounced Mowzel by the Cor­nish peo­ple who live there) is a small town where the peo­ple go out every day through the nar­row break­wa­ter open­ing into the ocean to fish for their liv­ing. Old Tom and his cat Mowz­er fish as well, for Mowz­er in par­tic­u­lar is par­tial to a plate of fresh fish. 

One day a ter­ri­ble win­ter storm blows in. “’The Great Storm-Cat is stir­ring,’ thinks Mowz­er,” and although the Great Storm – Cat flings the sea against the break­wa­ter and claws at the har­bor gap, the boats are safe “as mice in their own mouse­hole,” but the peo­ple are hun­gry because no one can go out into the ocean to fish.

Final­ly, on Christ­mas Eve, Old Tom decides he should go out to try to fish, for he can­not stand to see the chil­dren starv­ing at Christ­mas. Mowz­er goes with him, “for he was only a man, she thought, and men were like mice in the paws of the Great Storm-Cat.”

The Mousehole Cat

illus­tra­tion copy­right Nico­la Bay­ley

And it is Mowzer’s singing that dis­tracts the Great Storm-Cat long enough for the boat to escape the har­bor and play out the nets in the ocean. All day Mowz­er sings to the Great Storm-Cat, but she knows he will strike when they run for the har­bor and safe­ty.  As she thinks of the food they might make with the catch they have hauled in, Mowz­er begins to purr, a sound the Great Storm-Cat has not heard since he was a Storm-Kit­ten. They purr togeth­er, the seas calm, and Old Tom and Mowz­er come into the har­bor on the “small­est, tamest Storm-Kit­ten of a wind” where the whole town is wait­ing with lit can­dles to guide them home.  (Even writ­ing this gives me shiv­ers of delight.) 

Every year since then the vil­lage of Mouse­hole is lit with a thou­sand lights at Christ­mas time, “a mes­sage of hope and a safe haven to all those who pass in per­il of the sea.”

Jack­ie: The lit can­dles that guide them home after the adven­ture is such a won­der­ful touch. Don’t we all want to be guid­ed home after a great strug­gle? The plot is so sat­is­fy­ing as well. It’s the small cat that saves them because she begins to purr.  As I was think­ing about Mowzer’s purr I real­ized how calm­ing a cat’s purr is.  I think we all become more relaxed if we have a purring cat on our lap. Same for the Great Storm Cat.

This is a love­ly illus­trat­ed short sto­ry that I think would charm mid­dle graders, as well as pri­ma­ry graders.

Amos and BorisPhyl­lis:  Anoth­er favorite is William Steig’s Amos and Boris, the sto­ry of a mouse who builds a boat, chris­tens it the Rodent, pro­vi­sions it with a delight­ful list of items, and sets sail on the ocean. Amos is less lucky than Old Tom and Mowz­er; one night, gaz­ing at the vast and star­ry sky while lying on his boat, he rolls over­board, and the Rodent in full sail bowls along with­out him. Amos man­ages to stay afloat through the night, lead­ing to one of my favorite com­fort­ing lines in all of pic­ture books: “Morn­ing came, as it always does.” And with morn­ing comes Boris the whale, just as Amos’s strength is fail­ing. Boris gives Amos a ride home by whale­back, and on the week­long jour­ney they become “the clos­est pos­si­ble friends.”

Jack­ie: I just love that!

Phyl­lis:  When they near shore, Amos thanks Boris and offers his help if Boris ever needs it, which amus­es Boris. He can’t imag­ine how a lit­tle mouse could ever help him.

Amos and Boris by William Steig

illus­tra­tion copy­right William Steig

Years pass. Hur­ri­cane Yet­ta flings Boris ashore right by Amos’s house. Boris will die unless he gets back in the water, and Amos runs off to get help: two ele­phants who roll the whale back into the ocean while Amos stands on one of their heads, yelling instruc­tions that no one can hear. Soon Boris is afloat again, whale tears rolling down his cheeks. Know­ing they might nev­er meet again, the friends say a tear­ful good-bye, know­ing, too, that they will always remem­ber each oth­er.

In anoth­er writer’s hands, I might make some com­ment about the con­ve­nient “ele­phants ex machi­na” that Amos finds, but I accept it com­plete­ly here, because Steig makes me believe. And cry, again.

Jack­ie: There is so much to love in this sto­ry. First, the list of items: cheese, bis­cuits, acorns, hon­ey, wheat germ [Steig must have includ­ed wheat germ because he liked the sound. Wheat germ?] fresh water, a com­pass, a sex­tant, a tele­scope, a saw, a ham­mer and nails and some wood, … a nee­dle and thread for the mend­ing of torn sails and var­i­ous oth­er neces­si­ties such as ban­dages and iodine, a yo-yo and play­ing cards.” I just love the notion of a mouse on a boat prac­tic­ing his yo-yo tricks. And I think read­ers will be called to ask them­selves what they might find essen­tial for a sea jour­ney.

And I’m admir­ing of the nuanced way Steig moves the plot along. Amos doesn’t roll off the boat because he falls asleep, or because a high wind blows him off. He falls off because he is “over­whelmed by the beau­ty and mys­tery of every­thing.” His own capac­i­ty for awe is what caus­es the prob­lem.

You have talked about the won­der­ful back and forth of help­ing between Amos and Boris. I want to men­tion, too, Boris’s won­der­ful voice. When the mouse meets the whale, he says. “’I’m a mouse, which is a mam­mal, the high­est form of life. I live on land.’

Holy clam and cut­tle­fish!’ said the whale. I’m a mam­mal myself, though I live in the sea. Call me Boris,’ he added.” [A lit­tle nod to “Call me Ish­mael?”]

Some­times good luck hap­pens. When the worst looks inevitable, fate inter­venes. And some­times fate gives us life-sav­ing ele­phants. They are such a relief. And so out­landish. It’s as if Steig is say­ing, “I’m the author. I can do this.”

Little Tim and the Brave Sea CaptainPhyl­lis:  Edward Ardiz­zone wrote and illus­trat­ed a series of eleven books about Lit­tle Tim, who goes to sea, begin­ning with Lit­tle Tim and The Brave Sea Cap­tain and end­ing with Tim’s Last Voy­age. We loved these books when my chil­dren were grow­ing up, and we still do. Vis­it this site so you can hear a sam­ple of Lit­tle Tim and The Brave Sea Cap­tain read aloud and see Ardizzone’s won­der­ful art. 

Jack­ie:  I love the lan­guage of this book: “’Some­times Tim would aston­ish his par­ents by say­ing, ’That’s a Cunarder’ or ‘Look at that bar­quen­tine on the port bow.’” [I want to say that again and again.] When his par­ents say he is much too young to go to sea, Tim is “so sad that he resolved, at the first oppor­tu­ni­ty, to run away to sea.”

Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain

illus­tra­tion copy­right Edward Ardiz­zone

But best of all, I had the sense through­out this sto­ry that the sto­ry­teller was going to give me a won­der­ful yarn and that, with or with­out ele­phants, Lit­tle Tim was going to get through this adven­ture safe­ly.

Keep the Lights Burning, AbbiePhyl­lis:  Keep the Lights Burn­ing, Abbie by Peter and Con­nie Roop is a book for those who pass in per­il of the sea. Based on the true sto­ry of 16-year old Abbie Burgess, whose father was the light­house keep­er on Matini­cus Rock off the coast of Maine, the book tells how Abbie’s father heads out one morn­ing to get much need­ed sup­plies from Matini­cus Island and is storm-bound there for weeks before he can return. Abbie takes care of her three younger sis­ters and her ail­ing moth­er and “keeps the lights burn­ing” so that ships can pass safe­ly by. She lights the lamps, scrapes ice off the win­dows so the lights can be seen, trims wicks, cleans lamps, fills them with oil, and saves her chick­ens when waves threat­en to wash them away, all until her father can safe­ly sail back to the light­house. A won­der­ful strong char­ac­ter for girls and boys to know about.

Jack­ie:  There is some­thing so allur­ing about light­hous­es and islands. I won­der how many kids have fan­tasies of liv­ing in a light­house on an island. I sure did. I real­ly enjoyed the mat­ter-of-fact tone of this sto­ry. As Abbie is first light­ing the lamps a match blows out, but the next one doesn’t, nor the next and she goes on to light them all, night after night for a month. No dra­ma, just a telling of what she did. No dra­ma but touch­ing emo­tion at the end when we learn that her father was watch­ing for those lights every night as evi­dence that his fam­i­ly was still there. That detail almost made me tear up.

In a Village by the SeaPhyl­lis:  We could sail on through sea sto­ry after sea sto­ry. A more recent book, In a Vil­lage by the Sea by Muon Van is a ele­gant­ly sim­ple and love­ly sto­ry that begins, “In a fish­ing vil­lage by the sea there is a small house.” Each page moves clos­er in, from the house to the kitchen to the fire to a pot of soup to a woman watch­ing the soup to a sleepy child to a dusty hole in the floor where a crick­et is hum­ming and paint­ing a pic­ture of a fish­er­man in his storm-tossed boat hop­ing for the storm to end so that he can return to his vil­lage by the sea where in a small house, his fam­i­ly waits for him to come home. April Chu’s beau­ti­ful art con­cludes the book with the crick­et paint­ing a pic­ture of that fish­er­man and his boat sail­ing home into a calm har­bor.

Jack­ie:  This book is so art­ful and so sat­is­fy­ing in the way we cir­cle in on the sto­ry and then cir­cle back out. And I agree about April Chu’s illus­tra­tions. They are won­der­ful­ly expres­sive. I almost expect the dog to talk.

In a Village by the Sea

illus­tra­tion copy­right April Chu

Thanks for choos­ing these books, Phyl­lis. I’m sit­ting at my desk on a qui­et, cloudy day but feel as if I have been on adven­tures. My head is stretched, and I look at my house and yard with new appre­ci­a­tion. The sea, or sto­ries about the sea, take us out of our lives, our kitchens, toss us around a bit, and with hope and help — and occa­sion­al ele­phants — bring us back home, where, as Lit­tle Tim might say, we are ever so glad for warmth and choco­late.


A Few Tall Tales from the Land of Rampaging Zucchini

zucchiniJack­ie:  Phyl­lis, the zuc­chi­ni seeds you gave me have grown into a plant that knocked on our back door this morn­ing. I gave it cof­fee and it retreat­ed to the yard, head­ing toward the alley.

When I was a kid one of my favorite sto­ries was the tall tale of Paul Bun­yan. I laughed at the exag­ger­a­tion, the total wack­i­ness of an ox so large his foot­prints made the Great Lakes. As an adult, I real­ized that Paul Bun­yan was actu­al­ly a clear-cut­ter and that took some of the lus­ter off the sto­ries. But I still love tall tales. What fun to come up with a rol­lick­ing tale of exag­ger­a­tion! We found some old favorites — and some new favorites.

Swamp AngelSwamp Angel by Anne Isaacs, (illus­trat­ed by Paul O. Zelin­sky, (Dut­ton, 1994) is a win­ning com­bi­na­tion of under­state­ment and exag­ger­a­tion: “…when Angel­i­ca Lon­grid­er took her first gulp of air on this earth, there was noth­ing about the baby to sug­gest that she would become the great­est woodswoman in Ten­nessee. The new­born was scarce­ly taller than her moth­er and couldn’t climb a tree with­out help…she was a full two years old before she built her first log cab­in.” Of course it’s the Swamp Angel’s bat­tle with the huge bear Thun­der­ing Tar­na­tion that is at the heart of the sto­ry. The bear dis­patch­es four woods­men before Swamp Angel sets out. But real­ly, who cares who wins? It’s the out­sized odd­i­ty that’s fun: Swamp Angel las­sos the bear with a tor­na­do; they cre­ate the Great Smoky Moun­tains from the dust of their fight­ing; their snor­ing cre­ates a rock­slide. The unfor­tu­nate Tarnation’s pelt became the Short­grass Prairie. 

This sto­ry calls us all to look around and imag­ine what won­der­ful larg­er-than-life char­ac­ter cre­at­ed our rivers and hills, caves and prairies.

Phyl­lis:  I love this book, with its out­size sto­ry and out­size art. And I love that this is a woman who can lift a whole wag­on train out of Dejec­tion Swamp (which is how she got her name Swamp Angel). When the men sign­ing up to hunt Thun­der­ing Tar­na­tion tell her to go home and quilt or bake a pie, Swamp Angel responds that quilt­ing is men’s work and that she aims to bake a pie — “A bear pie.”  When Thun­der­ing Tar­na­tion meets his end under a tree that Swamp Angel snores down while they are fight­ing in their sleep, she “plucked off her hat, bowed her head, and offered up these words of praise: ‘Con­found it, varmint, if you warn’t the most won­der­ous heap of trou­ble I ever come to grips with!’” Not only does she bake bear pie, she also makes “bear steaks and bear cakes, bear muffins and bear stuf­fin,’ bear roast and bear toast,” enough for a feast and to restock the all the root cel­lars in Ten­nessee just in time for win­ter.

Jack­ie: All sto­ries cre­ate a shared com­mu­ni­ty between writer, or teller, and read­ers, but it seems to me that tall tales have the added advan­tage that we are shar­ing a joke. We all know that a bear and a fight­in’ woman did not cre­ate the Great Smoky Moun­tains. We are all in on the joke. We get it. And that is fun in a world where there is so much we don’t get.

Burt Dow, Deep-Water ManI have always loved the title of Robert McCloskey’s Burt Dow Deep-Water Man. And the book has a musi­cal­i­ty to it that makes me want to read it aloud. Burt is a retired deep-water man with two boats — one he fills with gera­ni­ums and sweet peas (McCoskey calls them “Indi­an peas,” I can’t find ver­i­fi­ca­tion of the sweet peas, but they are climbers and the flow­ers look like sweet peas.) And the oth­er is Tide­ly-Idley with a “make-and-break engine.”  Burt says, “She’s got a few ten­der places in her plank­ing, but you can’t see day­light through her nowhere.” 

One day Burt takes out the Tide­ly-Ide­ly and has an unex­pect­ed adven­ture. He’s fish­ing for cod and hooks a whale. “’Ahoy there, whale!’ bel­lowed Burt. ‘Hold your hors­es! Keep our shirt on! Head into the wind and slack off the main sheet!’ But the whale couldn’t hear because his hear­ing gear was so far upwind from his steer­ing gear.”  This is just the begin­ning. Burt has to hitch a ride inside the whale, paint his way out, then escape a school of whales demand­ing band-aids on their tales. It might have been too much for a younger fish­er­man, but not Burt Dow. He pla­cates the whales and makes it home just as the cock begins to crow.

This book is so much fun. It’s a Mainer’s retelling of Jon­ah with a lit­tle “whale insid­er” art thrown in for fun. And I have to men­tion the lan­guage. McCloskey wrote a sto­ry that should be read out loud on someone’s porch. Burt’s roost­er crows  “Cock­ety-doo­d­ly;” his water pump goes “slish-cashlosh, slish-caslosh;”  Burt always keeps a “firm hand on the tiller;” and the make-and-break engine always goes “clack­ety-bangety.”

An entry on Wikipedia notes that there was a Bert Dow, deep-water man, on Deer Isle where McCloskey lived. He is buried in a Deer Isle ceme­tery. His tomb­stone says: “Bert Dow, Deep Water Man, 1882 – 1964.”  Robert McCloskey helped pay for the stone.

Phyl­lis:  Burt isn’t phys­i­cal­ly larg­er than life in the way that Swamp Angel or Paul Bun­yan are, but his prob­lems are whale sized, and as with oth­er tall tale fig­ures, no prob­lem is so big Burt can’t solve it.  Along with lan­guage that delights and tick­les, McCloskey makes good use of page turns. Once Burt acci­den­tal­ly hooks the whale’s tail and his gig­gling gull waits to see “what would hap­pen next,” so does the read­er, since start­ing on the next dou­ble-page spread and on many of the fol­low­ing spreads, McCloskey breaks off his sen­tences in the mid­dle. “But the very next moment it came to Burt’s atten­tion that he’d pulled up a”….

We turn the page to fin­ish the sen­tence and read WHALE OF A TAIL. Spread after spread, McCloskey builds sus­pense, and spread after spread, while the sit­u­a­tion seems to wors­en, Burt is nev­er dis­mayed, even when he real­izes that when he asked the whale to swal­low him to save him and his boat AND gull from “a gale of a wind,” he doesn’t know for sure that the whale heard the part where they were sup­posed to be “tem­po­rary guests, so to speak.” Once they are burped free and also sat­is­fy all the oth­er whales who want bandaids on their tales, pump out the Tide­ly-Idley, slish-caslosh, slish-caslosh, crank up the make and break, clack­ety-BANG! Clack­ety-BANG! Burt and his gull sail home in time, we assume, for break­fast. A rol­lick­ing sto­ry full of rol­lick­ing lan­guage and fun.

Lies and Other Tall TalesJack­ie: We are also con­sid­er­ing an inter­gen­er­a­tional effort. Christo­pher Myers illus­trat­ed some of the “Lies and Oth­er Tall Tales” col­lect­ed by Zora Neale Hurston (Harper­Collins, 2005). These are not long sto­ries but are won­der­ful­ly rich in play with lan­guage and exag­ger­a­tion, so won­der­ful that we want to include it even though it’s a fair­ly recent book. “I seen a man so short he had to get up on a box to look over a grain of sand.” That’s one-upped by “That man had a wife and she was so small that she got in a storm and nev­er got wet because she stepped between the drops.” 

This live­ly book might work best for old­er chil­dren. Younger chil­dren could be dis­turbed by some of the exag­ger­a­tions (a man so mean he swal­lows anoth­er man whole).  For those who are ready, this book will bring some smiles — and some under­stand­ing of the ver­bal games of the African Amer­i­can cul­ture. Christo­pher Myers notes that these tales, “were used in some ver­sion of play­ing the dozens…an African Amer­i­can cul­tur­al prac­tice, which if you haven’t heard about it, you bet­ter ask your mama! It includes mama jokes and humor­ous diss­ing, which if you don’t know what diss­ing is, you don’t have the sense God gave a flea.”

Phyl­lis:  As Christo­pher Myers writes, “Liars, back in the day, could tell a lie so good, you didn’t even want to know the truth.” And these lies are so delight­ful and fan­cy-tick­ling that I agree with him. One of my favorites is the folks who built a church on “the poor­est land I ever seed” and had to use ten sacks of fer­til­iz­er before they could “raise a hymn on it.” An author’s note tells how the illus­tra­tions are made from found bits of fab­ric  and paper that Myers has trans­formed into “’quilts’ as wit­ty and beau­ti­ful as the phras­es Zora Neal Hurston found.”

Paula BunyanJack­ie:  Phyl­lis, I can’t quit with­out men­tion­ing your tall tale—Paula Bun­yan (Far­rar, Straus & Giroux, 2009). Paula has way more sense than God gave a flea. She actu­al­ly replants trees where oth­er log­gers have cut them down. And she’s fast. “Paula could run so fast that once when she for­got to do her chores, she ran all the way back to yes­ter­day to fin­ish them.” It must have been fun to re-tell the Paul Bun­yan sto­ry as a green­ing of the earth.

Phyl­lis:  It was fun. The sto­ry start­ed as some­thing my kids and I told one fall while rid­ing on a hay­wag­on to pick Har­al­son apples, our favorites.  And why not anoth­er tall tale woman? What’s against it?

None of us may be as large or fight as fierce­ly as Swamp Angel, we may not know a man so hun­gry he swal­lowed him­self, we may nev­er have to fig­ure out how to get on the out­side of a whale. But these tales remind us that even in our ordi­nary lives we can keep a firm hand on the tiller, come to grips with what­ev­er “won­drous heap of trou­ble” comes our way, and still make it home in time for break­fast.

And speak­ing of break­fast, I don’t mean to brag, but my zuc­chi­ni pound­ed on the door this morn­ing and demand­ed a lat­te and a cin­na­mon crois­sant.  With but­ter.


Tomi Ungerer: Far Out Toward the Heart

Tomi UngererPhyl­lis: Tomi Unger­er has writ­ten and illus­trat­ed over 30 books for chil­dren, along with over 100 oth­er books. I didn’t know much about him until Jack­ie sug­gest­ed we do a blog on him, and I’m so glad she did. I came home from the library with a stack of his books, which range wide­ly from the ridicu­lous to the mys­te­ri­ous.

One of my favorites is I am Papa Snap and These Are My Favorite No Such Sto­ries, six­teen most­ly absurd sto­ries with illus­tra­tions. One sto­ry is only 14 words long, anoth­er is told in three sen­tences (although the first sen­tence runs for 14 lines and gives a whole brief his­to­ry of the pink gaso­line sta­tion). I par­tic­u­lar­ly love the sto­ry of the very hun­gry sofa and also the sto­ry about Mr. and Mrs. Limpid. Here is the Limpid sto­ry in its entire­ty:

Mr. Limpid is blind.
Mrs. Limpid is lame.
They are old.
They are hap­py.
They have each oth­er.

There’s a whole ten­der life of two peo­ple con­tained in these words, which remind me of my par­ents when they grew elder­ly, one able to dri­ve, the oth­er able to remem­ber where they were going and how to get back home.

Mr. and Mrs. Tuber Sprout

I also love Mr. Tuber Sprout, who every morn­ing for sev­en years runs for the train to work and miss­es it. “The sta­tion clock is always five min­utes ahead of mine,” he exclaims. “But at least it keeps me from going to work.”

These brief, ridicu­lous sto­ries make me want to try to write my own no such sto­ries in which no such things prob­a­bly ever hap­pened (that we know of). But, like Unger­er, we can still imag­ine a world of wacky pos­si­bil­i­ties.

I am Papa Snap and Other No Such StoriesJack­ie: I love these sto­ries, Phyl­lis! And I have nev­er seen them before. Read­ing them was like eat­ing pota­to chips. I kept turn­ing the pages for one more. And some of Ungerer’s phras­es are just hilar­i­ous: Mr. and Mrs. Kaboo­dle buy a new nest from a “local nidol­o­gist.”

Or here is the Doc­tor Stig­ma Lohengreen’s diag­no­sis of Mr. Lido Ran­cid:

There is a PICKLE jammed in your vena cava,
and the gan­gli­at­ed chords of your sym­pa­thet­ic
are all tan­gled up.”


Zink Slugg bought a new car.
It had lots of cylin­ders,
coör­di­nat­ed cram-notch gears,
cou­pled crush-brakes, two-speed grinders,
cobra uphol­stery,
an elec­tron­ic police detec­tor,
strobe head­lights, and a quan­ti­ty of what­nots.”

CrictorPhyl­lis: I also love Cric­tor, a Read­ing Rain­bow choice that chron­i­cles the adven­tures of an old lady named Madame Louise Bodot in a lit­tle French town and the boa con­stric­tor her son sends her for her birth­day. Upon open­ing the box she first screams but, being prac­ti­cal, then takes the snake to the zoo to make sure he’s not poi­so­nous. He isn’t, and she names him Cric­tor. Most of the book relates their lives togeth­er; I par­tic­u­lar­ly love her cradling Cric­tor in her arms and feed­ing him a bot­tle of milk. She gets palm trees so he will feel at home and knits him a sweater to keep him warm when he wrig­gles behind her in the snow on their walks. Cric­tor goes with her to school one day, where he shapes let­ters and num­bers for the chil­dren, but the real dra­ma begins late in the book, when a bur­glar breaks in and gags and ties Madame Bodot to a chair. Cric­tor attacks and traps the bur­glar in his coils until the police arrive. Crictor’s hero­ism is hon­ored with a medal, a stat­ue, and a park ded­i­cat­ed to him. “Loved and respect­ed by the entire vil­lage, Cric­tor lived a long and hap­py life.”

Jack­ie: I once read an inter­view with Unger­er in which he said:

I iden­ti­fy a lit­tle bit with all of [my heroes]. I’m always on the side of the under­dog. I iden­ti­fy with my snake, my octo­pus, all of my reject­ed ani­mals.“

Fog IslandPhyl­lis: As if absurd sto­ries and boa con­stric­tor heroes weren’t enough, among his oth­er books Unger­er has writ­ten and illus­trat­ed Fog Island about a mys­te­ri­ous island where things might (or might not) have hap­pened. Finn and Cara live on a farm with their moth­er and fish­er­man father, who makes them their own cur­ragh, a boat con­struct­ed of reeds and tar. He tells them to stay clear of Fog Island, which looms off­shore “like a jagged black tooth.” “It’s a doomed and evil place,” he says. “Those who have ven­tured there have nev­er returned.”

One day when Finn and Cara are explor­ing in their cur­ragh a fog rolls in, and strong cur­rents car­ry them out to Fog Island. They fol­low steps up to a door, which is answered by a wiz­ened, white-haired old man who calls him­self the Fog Man and shows them how he makes fog by let­ting water flow in to a deep well of mag­ma. He turns off the fog so they can return home safe­ly the next day, then Finn, Cara, and the Fog Man have a singsong. He makes them a meal and shows them a bed for the night where they sleep cov­ered by a quilt.

They wake the next morn­ing sur­round­ed by desert­ed ruins but with the quilt still tucked over them and two steam­ing bowls of stew beside them. When they leave the island a storm over­takes them, and they are saved by their father and the oth­er fish­er­men who have come look­ing for them. All the neigh­bors cel­e­brate Finn and Cara’s return, but no one believes them about the fog man, and no one wants to vis­it the island to see if their sto­ry is true. Weeks lat­er, Cara pulls a long hair from her soup, and she and Finn chuck­le, rec­og­niz­ing it as one of the Fog Man’s.

Fog Island

Jack­ie: This book seems typ­i­cal of Tomi Ungerer’s work, so inclu­sive. There’s an affec­tion­ate fam­i­ly, a named Evil — Fog Island, and a won­der­ful ambi­gu­i­ty in the end­ing. Who was the fog man? And I also find it inter­est­ing that the father, fol­low­ing received com­mu­ni­ty wis­dom, I think, tells the chil­dren that Fog Island is a “doomed and evil place.” But they find singing and hot soup.

There may be anoth­er con­sis­ten­cy here — a com­plex artist push­ing us to see that a “doomed and evil place” can offer hot soup and a good night’s sleep, a boa con­stric­tor can become a help­ful part of the com­mu­ni­ty.

Most of my chil­dren’s books have fear ele­ments,” Unger­er has said in an inter­view on Fresh Air. “But I must say, too, to bal­ance this fact, that the chil­dren in my books are nev­er scared. … I think fear is an ele­ment which is instilled by the adults a lot of time.”

We see this in Fog Island. When the chil­dren land on Fog Island Finn says, “This must be Fog Island./Let’s find out where those steps lead.” No fear, but curios­i­ty.

Far Out Isn't Far EnoughPhyl­lis: In Far Out Isn’t Far Enough, a doc­u­men­tary about Unger­er, Mau­rice Sendak said of Ungerer’s influ­ence on his own [Sendak’s] work: “I learned to be braver than I was. Unger­er did­n’t mind scar­ing kids, because he believed in their abil­i­ty to cope with and adapt to life’s dif­fi­cul­ties.”

Unger­er him­self learned about liv­ing in fear­ful sit­u­a­tions from an ear­ly age: from eight to thir­teen, he lived under Adolf Hitler’s occu­pa­tion of Alsace and was told in school that Hitler need­ed artists to draw for him. In a Fresh Air inter­view he recalls, “…I had to do a por­trait of the Führer, you know, giv­ing a speech, and I put a stein of beer on this thing. Well, the Führer did­n’t drink, but still, you know, nobody ever object­ed. The thing is, no mat­ter what tyran­ny, you can always get away, maybe not with mur­der, but with a few oth­er things. And your mind is always free. Nobody can take away your mind.” Years lat­er in the Unit­ed States Unger­er would draw anti-war posters dur­ing the Viet Nam war.

Zeralda's OgreJack­ie: He received the Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­son Award in 1998 and is tru­ly a giant. I haven’t read close to all of his sto­ries and espe­cial­ly want to read Zeralda’s Ogre, which Book World called “the most hor­ren­dous, ugli­est — yet most beguil­ing — ogre imag­in­able.”

What I love about his work is that the dots do not have to con­nect. The sto­ries do not get tied up neat­ly at the end. We don’t know about the Fog Man. Zink Slugg’s won­der­ful car rams into a tree and Zink “feels very bad” and that is the end. I also admire the way Unger­er com­bines edgi­ness and heart — feed­ing a boa con­stric­tor with a bot­tle is such a great exam­ple and only one of many we could point to.

Phyl­lis: It’s so fit­ting that for a time his children’s books were con­sid­ered dan­ger­ous and evil, like Fog Island (because of erot­ic draw­ings he did for adults). But now when we do vis­it these books, we find strange and won­drous things, things not to answer but to pon­der — deal­ing with fear, being sub­ver­sive, and aspir­ing to live a fear­less life.


Gardening and Farming Delights


Jack­ie: At last — we made it to spring and all the usu­al accou­trements have shown up — lilacs, vio­lets, the smell of apple blos­soms, and thoughts of sprout­ing seeds and grow­ing veg­eta­bles.  How could we not look at pic­ture books about gar­dens and farm­ing this month?

Miss Jaster's GardenI have to con­fess, Phyl­lis, I did not know of Miss Jaster’s Gar­den, writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by N. M. Bodeck­er and pub­lished in 1972. I’m so glad to meet Miss Jaster and Hedgie the hedge­hog whom she treats with a bowl of milk each night. “But hedge­hogs being the shape they are, and Miss Jaster being a lit­tle near­sight­ed, as often as not she put the saucer where the hedgehog’s head wasn’t. And Hedgie — so as not to cause dis­tress — “polite­ly dipped his tail in the milk and pre­tend­ed to drink.” 

That’s not the only prob­lem caused by Miss Jaster’s poor vision. When she is scat­ter­ing flower seeds in her gar­den she does not see Hedgie and plants seeds on him too.  “…after a while he began feel­ing rest­less.” Hedgie is sprout­ing. Hedgie blooms! And feels like danc­ing. “Tomor­row I’ll be as qui­et as an earth­worm,” thought Hedgie, “but not today. Today is the great­est day of my life. There’ll nev­er be anoth­er like it!” When Miss Jaster sees flow­ers danc­ing in the yard, she yells, “STOP THIEF!”  and poor Hedgie, fright­ened and cha­grined, runs off. Even­tu­al­ly the Chief Con­sta­ble, with a capa­ble bit of sleuthing, finds Hedgie and brings him back — “a weary, wor­ried, bedrag­gled lit­tle ani­mal, down on his luck.” Miss Jaster feels bad at hav­ing giv­en the hedge­hog (“flow­er­hog”) such a scare. And they take break­fast togeth­er every morn­ing — “And there was noth­ing but peace and sun­shine and a touch of Sweet William.”

I love the tone of this book — Hedgie is up for the adven­ture of being a walk­ing flower gar­den. The con­sta­ble is thought­ful, “Did you by chance, hap­pen to notice how many legs these flow­ers had when they made their get­away? In round num­bers?” In round num­bers! And I love the char­ac­ters — the hedge­hog who’s so thought­ful he pre­tends to drink with his tail so as not to upset Miss Jaster. And kind Miss Jaster who doesn’t mind shar­ing her gar­den with a hedge­hog and is actu­al­ly pleased when she real­ized that she also shared flower seeds with him.

This sto­ry has a lot of text. But the humor is so won­der­ful and the char­ac­ters just the right degree of eccen­tric, I think it would be enjoyed  by the five to nine­ty crowd. What do you think?

Miss Jaster's Garden

Phyl­lis: I didn’t know this book, either, but I also love it. The dou­ble-page spread map at the begin­ning of the book is a lit­tle sto­ry all in itself, as good maps often are. From Hedgie’s cor­ner to the bird­bath (“For ancient inscrip­tion, see page 17”) to Miss J’s wick­er chair and Sun­rise Hill (“Ele­va­tion 9’”) Bodeck­er has cre­at­ed a whole world in art as well as text.

As some­one who has become near­er and near­er sight­ed my whole life, I com­plete­ly under­stand how Miss Jaster might make such a mis­take. And who wouldn’t want a walk­ing flower gar­den? Who wouldn’t want to be a flower gar­den? I love how the end­ing brings mutu­al sat­is­fac­tion to Miss Jaster and to Hedgie, who have always been solic­i­tous of each oth­er — each morn­ing they share “a leisure­ly break­fast … and a walk along the beach, fol­lowed by a small but per­sis­tent but­ter­fly.”

Cer­tain­ly the text is much longer than many more recent pic­ture books, but what won­der­ful details! When Miss Jaster goes out to plant she does so in “a pur­ple morn­ing-dress and stur­dy shoes” with a “large straw hat, trimmed with corn­flow­ers on her head,” pulling “a small four-wheeled wag­on full of gar­den tools and flower seeds.” Like a gar­den in full bloom, the sto­ry is lush with lan­guage.

I love, too, how Hedgie, as he dis­cov­ers he’s sprout­ing, won­ders which he will be:  “’Flower bed or veg­etable gar­den? Veg­etable gar­den or flower bed?’” until one day, “’I’m in bloom!’ cried Hedgie.”

Grandpa's Too Good GardenJack­ie:  I call James Steven­son the writer with the humor cure. He makes me laugh. And Grandpa’s Too Good Gar­den  is one of his cur­ing-est. Mary Ann and Louie are dis­ap­point­ed with their gar­den­ing. Louis says, “We dig and rake and plant and water and weed — and noth­ing ever comes up. Our gar­den is no good.” Grand­pa remains calm and tells them he once had a gar­den that was “a lit­tle too good.” There are some won­der­ful cartoon‑y frames of Grand­pa and Wainey in the gar­den (both as kids with lit­tle mus­tach­es) but the sto­ry real­ly begins when Father throws his Mir­a­cle Grow hair ton­ic out the win­dow. It spills into the gar­den and gets rained in. Before Wainey even wakes up a vine snatch­es him up and almost out the win­dow. The gar­den was taller than the house. Giant cater­pil­lars came to eat the giant plants. The plants con­tin­ued to grow and Grand­pa got “snagged on a weath­er vane above our roof.” Grand­pa is in trouble…only to be res­cued by Wainey on a giant but­ter­fly. This hap­py end­ing is accom­pa­nied by Wainey show­ing up to offer Grand­pa and the kids some ice cream. I love the exag­ger­a­tion, the total silli­ness of it.

Phyl­lis: Gar­den­ers need patience, but not all of us wait qui­et­ly. When the seeds don’t grow quick­ly  enough, Wainey and Grand­pa encour­age them. “’Hel­lo, beans? Toma­toes? Are you down there? Give us a sign!’ ‘Hel­lo, car­rumps?” The for­tu­itous hair ton­ic reminds me of old radio sci­ence fic­tion shows. “You threw the growth for­mu­la out back?” the sci­en­tist asks his assis­tant just before the now-giant earth­worms come bang­ing on the door. There’s a sat­is­fy­ing cir­cu­lar­i­ty to Grandpa’s gar­den sto­ry when one of the giant but­ter­flies that meta­mor­phed from the giant cater­pil­lars res­cues both broth­ers. Won­der­ful wack­i­ness!

Farmer DuckJack­ie: Farmer Duck by Mar­tin Wad­dell (illus­trat­ed by Helen Oxen­bury) is set on a farm and Farmer Duck does farm work so we are includ­ing it. It’s all about friends. And friends are impor­tant to gar­den­ers. Who else would take our extra zuc­chi­ni? or help us pull weeds? or share plants with us?

This is such an exu­ber­ant telling. Was there ever a lazier farmer than the human farmer who stays in bed all day, yelling to the duck, “How goes the work?” Farmer Duck always responds the same way, “Quack.” This goes on day after day. While the lazy farmer eats bon bons, the duck saws wood, spades the gar­den, wash­es dish­es, irons clothes. The oth­er ani­mals can’t stand to see their friend work so hard. One night they meet in the barn and make a plan. “’Moo!’ said the cow./’Baa!’ said the sheep./ ‘Cluck!’ said the hens. And that was the plan.” 

When they car­ry out their plan the lazy farmer runs away and nev­er returns. “…moo­ing and baaing and cluck­ing and quack­ing, they all set to work on their farm.” We just can’t help but think hay will be sweet­er, corn will be taller, and there may be danc­ing in the barn.

Farmer Duck

Phyl­lis: I adore this book, text and art. The duck looks wea­ri­er and wea­ri­er, and who wouldn’t want to be com­fort­ed by such car­ing hens and the oth­er ani­mals as well?  And I love how the ani­mals that the duck tend­ed to at the begin­ning of the sto­ry, includ­ing car­ry­ing a sheep from the hill, all pitch in to help at the end as “moo­ing and baaing and cluck­ing and quack­ing, they all set to work on their farm.” Ani­mals, unite! The fruits of the labor belong to the labor­ers!

When the Root Children Wake UpJack­ie:  I would be remiss not to men­tion your name­sake book, Phyl­lis—When The Root Chil­dren Wake Up, retold by Audrey Wood and illus­trat­ed by Ned Bit­tinger. It’s a sto­ry of sea­sons. A robin comes to the win­dow of Mother’s Earth’s under­ground “home” and calls, “Root Chil­dren! Root Chil­dren …Wake up! It’s time for the mas­quer­ade.” The chil­dren awak­en the bugs and paint them and head out for the mas­quer­ade. But it’s not too long before “Cousin Sum­mer slips his knap­sack on his back and quick­ly strides over the hills and far away.” Time for Uncle Fall. And soon it will be time for anoth­er winter’s nap. 

There’s a lot about this sto­ry that I like — the cir­cle of sea­sons, paint­ing the bugs. I’m a lit­tle put off by the very real­is­tic draw­ings of chil­dren as the “Root Chil­dren.” I’m not sure why. Maybe because they seem too real to be sleep­ing under­ground all win­ter. Makes me feel  claus­tro­pho­bic. Maybe I’m just grumpy. I’d love to know what oth­ers think.

When the Root Children Wake UpPhyl­lis: It’s true that what caught my eye about When the Root Chil­dren Wake Up was my name in the title, but I also love the sto­ry and art in the ver­sion I have, a reprint of the 1906 Sybelle Olf­fers book  first pub­lished in Ger­many and repub­lished in Eng­lish in 1988 by Green Tiger Press. The charm­ing­ly old-fash­ioned orig­i­nal illus­tra­tions remind me of books I loved as a child and include a joy­ous spread of the root chil­dren emerg­ing above ground car­ry­ing flow­ers and grass­es “into the love­ly world.” Inter­est­ing how art can change the per­cep­tion of a sto­ry!

Lola Plants a GardenA gar­den book for the very young is Lola Plants a Gar­den by Anna McQuinn, illus­trat­ed by Ros­aline Beard­shaw. The straight­for­ward sto­ry tells how Lola loves the poem “Mary Mary Quite Con­trary” and  wants to plant a gar­den of her own. She and Mom­my read books about gar­dens, make a list of Lola’s favorite flow­ers, buy seeds, and plant them. While she waits for them to grow, Lola makes their own book about flow­ers, strings beads and shells and bells, and makes a lit­tle Mary Mary doll. Lola’s patience and work are reward­ed as the flow­ers grow big and “Open toward the sun.” Dad­dy helps her hang her bells, her friends come to her gar­den to eat Mommy’s peas and straw­ber­ries, and Lola makes up a sto­ry for them about Mary Mary. The book con­cludes, “What kind of gar­den will Lola plant next?” Sim­ply told and sat­is­fy­ing, the book makes me want to run out and buy more pack­ets of flower seeds, then invite friends to come vis­it in the gar­den and encour­age them to grow.

Lola Plants a Garden

Jack­ie: Friends and gar­dens and the cycle of sea­sons. We are all root­ed on this earth. And that’s good to remem­ber. Let’s go plant some beans.


Spring, Where Are You?

The Boy Who Didn't Believe in SpringPhyl­lis: Each year, as soon as the snow melts, I’m eager to go search for native wild­flow­ers. Two of the ear­li­est flow­ers bloom in two dif­fer­ent pro­tect­ed places a car ride away. And every year, I go too ear­ly — either the ephemer­al snow tril­li­ums aren’t even up yet or the pasque flow­ers are still such tiny, tight, fur­ry brown buds that they’re hard to spot in the dried grass on the hill­side where they grow. When I do final­ly find snow tril­li­ums and pasque flow­ers in bloom, I know spring real­ly has arrived.

A lit­tle boy named King Shabazz also goes look­ing for spring in Lucille Clifton’s The Boy Who Didn’t Believe in Spring, illus­trat­ed by Brin­ton Turkle. His search takes him down city streets rather than up windy hill­sides, but the impe­tus is the same.

When King Shabazz’s teacher talks about spring, he whis­pers, “No such thing.” When his moth­er talks about spring, he demands, “Where is it at?”

One day after his teacher has talked about blue birds and his Mama had talked about crops com­ing up, King Shabazz has had enough.

Look here, man,” he tells his friend Tony Poli­to, “I’m going to get me some of this spring.” They set off through their urban neigh­bor­hood, search­ing for spring. They look around the cor­ner, by the school and play­ground, by the Church of the Sol­id Rock, past a restau­rant and apart­ment build­ings until they come to a vacant lot walled in by tall build­ings with an aban­doned car sit­ting in the mid­dle.

 When the boys go to inves­ti­gate a sound com­ing from the car, Tony Poli­to trips on a patch of lit­tle yel­low pointy flow­ers. “Man, the crops are com­ing up!” King Shabazz shouts. The sound turns out to be birds who fly out of the car, where the boys dis­cov­er a nest with four light blue eggs.

 “Man, it’s spring!” says King Shabazz.

As do pic­ture books by Vera B. Williams, Ezra Jack Keats, and Matt de la Peña, Clifton’s book cel­e­brates the city where so many of us live and where spring arrives, as well, even if you don’t yet believe in it.

Lucille CliftonJack­ie: I loved this book so much that I had to do a lit­tle research on Lucille Clifton, who wrote more than twen­ty books for chil­dren. You men­tioned cel­e­bra­tion, Phyl­lis. Here’s what New York­er mag­a­zine writer Eliz­a­beth Alexan­der said of Clifton after her death in 2010:

Clifton invites the read­er to cel­e­brate sur­vival: a poet’s sur­vival against the strug­gles and sor­rows of dis­ease, pover­ty, and attempts at era­sure of those who are poor, who are women, who are vul­ner­a­ble, who chal­lenge con­quis­ta­dor nar­ra­tives. There is lumi­nous joy in these poems, as they speak against silence and hatred.

There is lumi­nous joy in this book — joy in the char­ac­ters who are best friends and wait at the stop­light, which they have nev­er gone past before, to see what the oth­er will do; joy in the dis­cov­ery of a bird’s nest on the front seat of a beat-up car. This is a sto­ry of sur­vival, too. The boys do cross the street, even though Junior Williams has said he will beat them up if he sees them. They will sur­vive. They have courage, each oth­er, and appre­ci­a­tion for spring.

and then it's springPhyl­lis: Julie Fogliano’s book and then it’s spring is anoth­er sto­ry of wait­ing, this time in a more rur­al set­ting, told in sec­ond per­son in one long extend­ed sen­tence whose syn­tax cap­tures the feel­ing of wait­ing and wait­ing and wait­ing.

First you have brown,
all around you have brown,

the book begins, and pro­ceeds to seeds, a wish for rain, rain, a “hope­ful, very pos­si­ble sort of brown” but still brown. As time pass­es (and the sin­gle sen­tence con­tin­ues) the child gar­den­er wor­ries that the birds might have eat­en the seeds or bears tromped on them, until final­ly the brown

still brown,
has a green­ish hum
that you can only hear
if you put your ear to the ground
and close your eyes…”
until final­ly, on a sun­ny day,
“…now you have green,
all around you have green.”

Jack­ie: I love Julie Fogliano’s lan­guage: “…a hope­ful, very pos­si­ble sort of brown.” And the brown with the green­ish hum just makes me smile. I know this is a blog about writ­ing but I have to men­tion Erin Stead’s illus­tra­tions. Her pos­si­ble-birds-eat­ing-seeds paint­ing is full of jokes — there’s a bird wear­ing a bib, a bird flat on its back, birds billing (as in billing and coo­ing) a bird trilling. It would be worth giv­ing up a few seeds to see these live­ly birds in one’s yard.

Phyl­lis: And the sign to keep bears away (which the bear is using to scratch under his arm) made me laugh out loud: “Please do not stomp here. There are seeds and they are try­ing.”

Iridescence of birdsThe Iri­des­cence of Birds, A Book about Hen­ri Matisse by Patri­cia MacLach­lan also uses the syn­tax of an elon­gat­ed sen­tence to height­en a sense of yearn­ing and show how Matisse’s love of col­or and light might have bloomed from his child­hood “in a drea­ry town in north­ern France where the skies were gray and the days were cold” and his moth­er bright­ened their home with paint­ed plates and flow­ers and red rugs on the dirt floor, and his father raised pigeons “with col­ors that changed with the light as they moved.” The sin­gle long inter­rog­a­tive sen­tence is answered by anoth­er, short­er ques­tion:

Would it be a sur­prise that you became
A fine painter who paint­ed
And the iri­des­cence of birds?”

Jack­ie: This book does for me what all good pic­ture books do, it makes me want to know more about Hen­ri Matisse — and his remark­able moth­er. She knew that a red rug trumps a dirt floor any day — and she must have had a lode of artis­tic abil­i­ty her­self. And this book makes me want to try to write a sto­ry in one sen­tence.

Waiting-for-Spring StoriesPhyl­lis: Wait­ing-for-Spring Sto­ries by Bethany Robert was a baby gift to my first daugh­ter, and it con­tin­ues to enchant. Papa Rab­bit, “like Grand­pa Rab­bit before him and Great-Grand­pa Rab­bit before that,” helps to pass the time with his lit­tle rab­bits until Spring arrives by telling sto­ries, sev­en in all. And true to a child’s sen­si­bil­i­ty of the world, wind talks, a star yearns to sing, the lit­tle rabbit’s too big feet com­plain about the ways he tries to shrink them, a worm reas­sures a rab­bit, and, in my favorite, “The Gar­den,” veg­eta­bles rebel against a farmer who plans to eat them for sup­per.

’Get him, boys,’ called the onion.” And they do. The onion makes him cry, pota­to trips him, the car­rot whacks him on the head, and they escape by rolling out the door.

After that, the farmer rab­bit always ate pan­cakes for his din­ner.”

Jack­ie: Those veg­eta­bles could be in a hor­ror pic­ture book, for sure. But maybe they are too fun­ny for a hor­ror pic­ture book.

Phyl­lis: The book and the sto­ry­telling end with sun­light pour­ing in the win­dow and the snow begin­ning to melt from the win­dow­panes.

Spring is here at last!”

Jack­ie: These sto­ries remind me of Arnold Lobel’s work in their sure por­tray­al of char­ac­ters I care about in just a few words. And I so love the talk­ing grass and the talk­ing feet and the feisty onion, car­rot, and pota­to. I don’t know why but I found myself want­i­ng to hear some­thing from the lit­tle rab­bits between the sto­ries, some­thing about the wait­ing or the upcom­ing spring. But that’s anoth­er book. These sto­ries are cozy and charm­ing and just right to read while we wait.

pasque flowers trilliumPhyl­lis: Last week I saw pasque flow­ers and snow tril­li­ums. This week I found green leaves grow­ing in my gar­den. This year’s time of yearn­ing is over. It’s time to go out­side and glo­ry in spring­time, here at last.


Celebrating Ezra Jack Keats

The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack KeatsJack­ie: This is the time of year when I read the Trav­el Sec­tion of the Sun­day paper. I just want to go away from grit­ty snow, brown yards and come back to Spring. Well, there are no tick­ets on the shelf this year so Phyl­lis and I are tak­ing a trip to the city cre­at­ed by Ezra Jack Keats. And why not? This month, this year marks his one-hun­dredth birth­day.

As our trav­el guide we’re tak­ing The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats (Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2011), writ­ten by Clau­dia Nah­sen to coin­cide with The Snowy Day’s 50th anniver­sary and the show­ing of many of his works at the Jew­ish Muse­um, New York

Last Stop on Market StreetI’ve been think­ing of Keats since I read Last Stop on Mar­ket Street, this year’s New­bery Award win­ner, writ­ten by Matt de la Peña and illus­trat­ed by Chris­t­ian Robin­son. Robinson’s won­der­ful depic­tions of the urban land­scape and the text’s sug­ges­tion that beau­ty is all around us, remind­ed me of Keats’s city scenes. Often they are set in his child­hood home in Depres­sion Era Brook­lyn but enhanced with Keats’s bril­liant col­lages, sketch­es, and jazzy palette.

A bit about his life, which I learned from Nahsen’s beau­ti­ful book: Jacob Ezra Katz was born in New York, on March 11, 1916. He was the youngest of three chil­dren born to immi­grant par­ents in a “love­less mar­riage.” He grew up in a fam­i­ly marked by strife and unhap­pi­ness. He felt invis­i­ble as a child and believed “’life was mea­sured by anguish.’” (Nahsen,p. 5). Art saved him. And in his art he gave life and valid­i­ty to the streets he remem­bered from his child­hood and to the kids, often invis­i­ble to soci­ety, who live on those streets.

The Snowy DayPhyl­lis: And up until pub­li­ca­tion of A Snowy Day, the first full-col­or pic­ture book to fea­ture an African Amer­i­can pro­tag­o­nist, those kids were vir­tu­al­ly invis­i­ble in pic­ture books as well. I espe­cial­ly love how Keats makes us see the city and the chil­dren and grown-ups who live in it with fresh eyes — his art includes graf­fi­ti, trash­cans, and the strug­gles and cel­e­bra­tions of child­hood. Nah­sen quotes Keats: “Every­thing in life is wait­ing to be seen!” While some peo­ple crit­i­cized Keats, a white writer, for writ­ing about black char­ac­ters in The Snowy Day, the poet Langston Hugh­es wished he had “grand­chil­dren to give it [the book] to.” Keats felt the crit­i­cisms deeply but con­tin­ued to tell and illus­trate the sto­ries in his world “wait­ing to be seen.”

LouieJack­ie: Keats wrote and illus­trat­ed twen­ty-two books in his career. The ones I know are just as fresh, just as in tune with the lives of chil­dren as they were when he wrote them. We all know Peter of A Snowy Day, Peter’s Chair, A Let­ter to Amy. But Keats’s Louie is not quite as famil­iar. Louie is a qui­et, kid who hard­ly ever speaks. But when he sees the pup­pet Gussie (Keats’s mother’s name) at Susie and Roberto’s pup­pet show, he stands up and yells “Hel­lo!, Hel­lo! Hel­lo!” Susie and Rober­to decide to have Gussie ask Louie to sit down so they can get on with the show. After the show they bring Gussie out so Louie can hold the pup­pet. Then the boy goes home, even­tu­al­ly sleeps and dreams he is falling and kids are laugh­ing at him. When he wakes up, his moth­er tells him some­one slipped a note under the door — “Go out­side and fol­low the long green string.” At the end of the green string is — Gussie! There is so much to love about this sto­ry — a sen­si­tive por­tray­al of a child who is some­how dif­fer­ent, gets laughed at, yelled at by some kids; two kids, Susie and Rober­to, who treat Louie with great kind­ness; and a hope­ful end­ing.

Nah­sen says: “…neglect­ed char­ac­ters, who had hith­er­to been liv­ing in the mar­gins of pic­ture books or had sim­ply been absent from children’s lit­er­a­ture take pride of place in Keats’s oeu­vre.” She quotes from his unpub­lished auto­bi­og­ra­phy: “When I did my first book about a black kid I want­ed black kids and white kids to know that he’s there.” So it is with Louie. Keats reminds read­ers that the qui­et kids, the kids who march to a dif­fer­ent drum, the kids who live behind the bro­ken doors, or on bro­ken-down bus­es and can only have a crick­et for a pet (Mag­gie and the Pirate) are there.

Maggie and the PiratePhyl­lis: Just as Keats por­trays the real lives of kids who live in bus­es or city apart­ments with­out “even any steps in front of the door to sit on,” he doesn’t shy away from the small and large griefs and trou­bles of child­hood. In Mag­gie and the Pirate, Maggie’s pet crick­et, tak­en by a boy who admires the cricket’s cage, acci­den­tal­ly drowns in a riv­er. Mag­gie and her friends hold a crick­et funer­al, and when the “pirate,” a boy who didn’t mean for the crick­et to die but want­ed the cage “real bad,” brings Mag­gie the cage with a new crick­et, the chil­dren

                “all sat down togeth­er.
                Nobody said any­thing.
                They lis­tened to the new crick­et singing.
                Crick­ets all around joined in.”

Tragedies and con­so­la­tion in the death of a crick­et — a world seen through children’s eyes.

The Trip, Louie's Search, Regards to the Man in the Moon

Jack­ie: Keats came back to Louie with three oth­er books and used this char­ac­ter to help him present some of the oth­er prob­lems of child­hood—The Trip (1978), Louie’s Search (1980), and Regards to the Man in the Moon (1981).

The Trip tells us that Louie and his Mom move to a new neigh­bor­hood. Louie’s Search takes place after Louie has moved to a new neigh­bor­hood. “’What kind of neigh­bor­hood is this?’ thought Louie. “Nobody notices a kid around here.” He puts on a paper sack hat and paints his nose red and goes out for a walk. Even­tu­al­ly he picks up an object which has fall­en off a junk wag­on and so encoun­ters the scary junkman Bar­ney. Bar­ney is huge and thinks Louie has stolen this object. “’Come back, you lit­tle crook,’ Bar­ney bel­lowed.” They go to Louie’s house where Bar­ney tells his Mom, “Your son’s a crook!’”

What Louie had found was a music box. When he holds it the box makes music. When he drops it, it stops. Bar­ney decides to give the music box to Louie and stays for tea with Louie and his mom. It’s the begin­ning of a won­der­ful rela­tion­ship that ends with a wed­ding and Louie find­ing the Dad he hoped for.

The Trip, Jennie's Hat, Dreams

Phyl­lis: Anoth­er thread through­out Keats’ work is the pow­er of imag­i­na­tion. Louie in The Trip imag­ines a plane fly­ing him to his old neigh­bor­hood. Jen­nie in Jennie’s Hat imag­ines a beau­ti­ful hat instead of the plain one her aunt has sent, and the birds, who she feeds dai­ly, swoop down and dec­o­rate her hat with leaves, pic­tures, flow­ers (paper and real), col­ored eggs, a paper fan, and a pink valen­tine. In Dreams, Rober­to imag­ines (or does it real­ly hap­pen?) that when a paper mouse he has made tum­bles from his win­dowsill, its shad­ow “grew big­ger — and big­ger — and BIGGER” until it scared off the dog ter­ror­iz­ing his friend’s kit­ten on the side­walk below.

Ezra Jack Keats: Artist and Picture-book MakerWe haven’t real­ly even talked about his art and his bril­liant use of col­lage and col­or. Just as Keats’s books cel­e­brate the pow­er of the imag­i­na­tion, Ani­ta Sil­vey says that Keats took “absolute joy in the cre­ative process.” We can share that joy in his books in sto­ries and art that rec­og­nize that every­one needs to be seen, every­one has a place, and every­one, joy­ous­ly, mat­ters.

Jack­ie: Bri­an Alder­son in Ezra Jack Keats: Artist and Pic­ture-Book Mak­er writes that in The Snowy Day Keats “came home to his prop­er place: a col­orist cel­e­brat­ing the hid­den lives of the city kids.” I would add that that can be said for most of his works. And we are the rich­er for it.


Feeling Cranky

Phyl­lis: Feb­ru­ary is the month for lovers and for love. And it’s the month where some of us also get a lit­tle grumpy. Gray slushy snow — no good for ski­ing or build­ing snow peo­ple — lines the streets. The weight of win­ter coats wears old. And even though we do love Feb­ru­ary, we thought we’d look at books about grumpi­ness — just in case any­one else might feel a lit­tle, well, cranky once in a while.

Crankee DoodleCran­kee Doo­dle by Tom Angle­berg­er with pic­tures by Cece Bell, stretch­es the con­ven­tions of pic­ture books with art and text in dia­logue bal­loons depict­ing a con­ver­sa­tion between a sol­dier and his horse. “We could go to town,” the horse cheer­i­ly pro­pos­es. Cran­kee Doodle’s response? A long list of rea­sons NOT to go. Each of the horse’s sug­ges­tions, to go shop­ping, buy a feath­er, get a new hat, is met with more neg­a­tiv­i­ty. “Shop­ping? I hate shop­ping … I might as well throw my mon­ey down an out­house hole.” Cran­kee Doo­dle over­steps a line when the horse offers to car­ry him to town and Cran­kee says, “No way. You smell ter­ri­ble.” See­ing how much he has hurt his horse’s feel­ings, Cran­kee capit­u­lates, and they dri­ve to town with Cran­kee yelling “Yee-HAW!” out the car win­dow. “Nice hat,” “the horse tells Cran­kee in the last spread where they are hap­pi­ly laden with pur­chas­es. “Thanks, pal,” Cran­kee replies.

For a day when you or your kids feel cranky, read­ing this book out loud and throw­ing your­self into the crank­i­ness can be cathar­tic. And just plain fun. 

Jack­ie: I love the way this sto­ry ties into the song Yan­kee Doo­dle. Cran­kee Doo­dle, the grumpy broth­er to the orig­i­nal, doesn’t want to go to town, (espe­cial­ly not rid­ing a pony), doesn’t want a feath­er for his hat, and refus­es to call his hat “mac­a­roni” (lasagna, maybe, but def­i­nite­ly not mac­a­roni). A read­ing of this sto­ry should always be pre­ced­ed by a singing of the song.

Man Who Enjoyed GrumblingPhyl­lis: The Man Who Enjoyed Grum­bling by Mar­garet Mahy, with illus­tra­tions by Wendy Hod­der (pub­lished in 1987 and found on the used book rack of an Allen Coun­ty pub­lic library). fea­tures scratchy Mr. Ratch­ett, who enjoys a good grum­ble. His neigh­bors, the Goat fam­i­ly, give him plen­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ty to grum­ble at them.

The Goat fam­i­ly liked mak­ing trou­ble.
They bunt­ed and bleat­ed.
They nib­bled his hedge.
Some­times they put their horns down
And chased the cat.

One day the Goat fam­i­ly, want­i­ng more room for jump­ing around and tired of their scratchy neigh­bor, move to the high hills. Mr. Ratch­ett tries to find sat­is­fac­tion in the peace and qui­et but, with­out his neigh­bors to grum­ble at, things are too qui­et. “Trust those Goats to go off and have a good time,” he grum­bles. “They don’t spare a thought for the poor old man next door.”

Up in the hills the Goat fam­i­ly, too, finds things too qui­et. “We like mak­ing trou­ble and we need a scratchy neigh­bor close by,” they tell Mr. Ratch­ett when they move back in next door. Mr. Ratch­ettt does a lit­tle grumbler’s tap dance where the Goats can’t see him because “he was so glad they were back.”

Jack­ie: This book is so much fun to read out loud:“They bunt­ed and bleated./They nib­bled his hedge.”

And it’s packed full of great words and phras­es: Scratchy Mr. Ratch­ett (as he is always called in this book) wears “moan­ing boots.” And he believes “A man needs a bit of grum­bling to bring a sparkle to his eyes.”

Worst Person in the WorldPhyl­lis: James Steven­son’s The Worst Per­son in the World has a yard full of poi­son ivy, yells at any­one who comes near his house, eats lemons for break­fast (“Ugh! Too sweet!”), and hits flow­ers with his umbrel­la. When the Worst encoun­ters the ugli­est thing in the world, who has a self-con­fessed “pleas­ing per­son­al­i­ty,” Ugly enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly plans a par­ty in the Worst’s house with dec­o­ra­tions, cake, par­ty hats, and invi­ta­tions to the neigh­bor­hood chil­dren. The Worst tells Ugly he wants no par­ty, no chil­dren, and no Ugly. The crest­fall­en Ugly leaves, but the Worst even­tu­al­ly finds a striped par­ty hat in the cor­ner and tries it on. “Hmmm,” he says, and goes off to find Ugly and the chil­dren to invite them back to a par­ty. Steven­son doesn’t trans­form his char­ac­ter into a sun­shiney per­son, but the Worst does have a smile on his face as he leads every­one back to his house.

Jack­ie: James Steven­son is so fun­ny! Ugly recites the old saw, “if you’ve got a pleas­ing per­son­al­i­ty that’s all that counts,” in such a dead­pan and earnest way that some­how empha­sizes the clichéd qual­i­ty. I almost think Steven­son invent­ed Ugly so he could use that line.

He, like Mar­garet Mahy, is fun­ny in the way he uses lan­guage. The par­ty is not just a par­ty. When the Worst asks what he’s doing Ugly replies, “Get­ting ready for the big she­bang!” She­bang — much more fun than a par­ty.

You are right, Phyl­lis, that the Worst con­tin­ues to be grumpy right up until the end of the sto­ry, but we know it’s not quite the same lev­el of grumpi­ness because he’s changed. At the begin­ning of the sto­ry he looks right at their ball and tells the kids he hasn’t seen it. At the end he looks at it and returns it to them.

The Worst is the grump we love to laugh at, so this seems like just the right amount of change. We don’t want him to total­ly reform.

Phyl­lis: Stevenson’s oth­er Worst books include The Worst Per­son in the World at Crab Beach, The Worst Goes South, The Worst Person’s Christ­mas, and Worse than the Worst. In all of the books Stevenson’s scratchy illus­tra­tions cap­ture the Worst’s crank­i­ness in his per­son and his sur­round­ings. By the end of each book, if he’s not smil­ing, the Worst’s frown has at least relaxed a lit­tle.

James Stevenson Worst Books

Jack­ie: My favorite of those I have read on this list is The Worst Goes South. Worst leaves home to avoid a fall fes­ti­val next door — way too much hog-call­ing and pol­ka music. He’s the first guest since 1953 in the motel he finds. The own­er says, “Clean [your room] your­self. And don’t be both­er­ing me for tow­els and soap and all that non­sense … don’t be whin­ing for break­fast, … this is not some fan­cy spoil-you-rot­ten hotel.” It turns out that there are two Worsts. And the motel own­er is Worst’s broth­er, Ervin.

Phyl­lis: Stevenson’s Worst books can be hard to put your hands on — with­in a large met­ro­pol­i­tan library sys­tem The Worst Per­son in the World was only avail­able from an out­state library. But his books, along with Cran­kee Doo­dle and The Man Who Enjoyed Grum­bling, will put a smile on the cranki­est face.

Jack­ie: The Worst books that I found came from Gal­latin, Mis­souri, New­ton, Iowa, and Waver­ly, Iowa. These are not books we can read on a whim, at least not now. Get­ting them requires advance plan­ning. I wish some pub­lish­er would reprint these books.

Phyl­lis: Spring is on the way, but Feb­ru­ary has much to cel­e­brate: love, lovers, friends, and per­haps the chance, once in a while, to enjoy being just a lit­tle cranky.

Jack­ie: Phyl­lis and I were actu­al­ly a lit­tle cranky about how hard it was to find the Worst books and The Man Who Enjoyed Grum­bling. I could not find it nor suc­cess­ful­ly order it. Phyl­lis had to read it to me over Skype. As we said, we’d love to see them reprint­ed. Are there books that you love that you can’t find eas­i­ly, that you think should be reprint­ed? Let us know in the com­ments below. We want to start a list.


That Lovely Ornament, the Moon

by Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin and Phyl­lis Root

Jack­ie: We’ve passed the Sol­stice but we still have more night than day. We can watch the moon with our break­fast and with our din­ner. We thought we’d cel­e­brate this sea­son of the moon by shar­ing some sto­ries fea­tur­ing that love­ly orna­ment.

Phyl­lis: And Christ­mas Eve we saw an almost full moon cast­ing shad­ows on the snow before the clouds blew in. Moon­light real­ly is mag­i­cal.

Papa Please Get the Moon For MeJack­ie: There’s love­ly mag­ic in Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me by Eric Car­le. This book has been a favorite of mine since my days as a preschool teacher. It nev­er fails to please the sit-on-the-rug crowd. What’s not to love? There’s Eric Carle’s won­der­ful moon, and a father so ded­i­cat­ed that he finds a “very long lad­der” and takes it to “a very high moun­tain.” Then he climbs to the moon and waits until it’s just the right size. He brings it back and gives it to his daugh­ter. She hugs it, jumps and dances with it — until it dis­ap­pears.

The com­bi­na­tion of fan­ta­sy and real-moon, fam­i­ly affec­tion and joy is just time­less. This thir­ty year old sto­ry could have been writ­ten yes­ter­day.

Kitten's First Full MoonPhyl­lis: In Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes, Kit­ten, too, yearns for the moon, mis­tak­ing it for a bowl of milk. “And she want­ed it.” Clos­ing her eyes and lick­ing toward the moon only gives her a bug on her tongue, jump­ing at the moon ends in a tum­ble, and chas­ing the moon ends with Kit­ten up a tree and the moon no clos­er. After each attempt, the text reminds us of Kitten’s yearn­ing: “Still, there was the lit­tle bowl of milk, just wait­ing.” When Kit­ten sees the moon’s reflec­tion in the pond and leaps for it, she ends up tired, sad, and wet. Poor kit­ten! She returns home… to find a big bowl of milk on the porch, just wait­ing for her to lap it up.

Thirteen Moons on Turtle's BackJack­ie: Kit­tens and chil­dren and all of us are fas­ci­nat­ed by the moon. Thir­teen Moons on Turtle’s Back: a Native Amer­i­can Year of Moons (Pen­guin, 1992) by Joseph Bruchac and Jonathan Lon­don is a col­lec­tion of thir­teen poems about the sea­sons of the moon from “each of the thir­teen Native Amer­i­can trib­al nations in dif­fer­ent regions of the con­ti­nent [cho­sen] to give a wider sense of the many things Native Amer­i­can peo­ple have been taught to notice in this beau­ti­ful world around us.” The notic­ing is one thing I love about this book. Read­ing these poems makes me want to walk in the woods and see some­thing in a new way.

Moon of Popping TreesIt feels as if we are in the sea­son of the “Moon of Pop­ping Trees.”

Out­side the lodge
the night air is bit­ter cold.
Now the Frost giant walks
with his club in his hand.
When he strikes the trunks
of the cot­ton­wood trees
we hear them crack
beneath the blow.
The peo­ple hide inside
when they hear that sound….

And that is much bet­ter than say­ing, “it’s cold.”

Phyl­lis: In “Baby Bear Moon” we learn how a small child lost in the snow was saved by sleep­ing all through the win­ter with a moth­er bear and her cubs. The poem con­cludes:

when we walk by on our snow­shoes
we will not both­er a bear
or her babies. Instead
we think how those small bears
are like our chil­dren.
We let them dream togeth­er.”

Who wouldn’t want to sleep the win­ter away shar­ing dreams with bears?

Jack­ie: I love the poet­ry of this book—

…Earth Elder
made the first tree,
a great oak with twelve branch­es
arch­ing over the land.
Then, sit­ting down beneath it,
the sun shin­ing bright,
Earth Elder thought
of food for the peo­ple,
and acorns began to form.”

Per­haps the best is that Bruchac and Lon­don encour­age us to see more than trees and grass, to imag­ine a land­scape, a thrum­ming with his­to­ry, com­mu­ni­ty, and the spir­its of shar­ing.

MoonlightJack­ie: Moon­light by Helen V. Grif­fith (Green­wil­low, 2012) is also a poet­ic text — and spare:

Rab­bit hides in shad­ow
under cloudy skies
wait­ing for the moon­light
blink­ing sleepy eyes.

But he goes into his bur­row and doesn’t see “Moon­light slides like butter/skims through out­er space/skids past stars and comets/leaves a but­ter trace.”

What a won­der­ful image! “Moon­light slides like but­ter.” Who can look at moon­light the same again?

Phyl­lis: I love the spare lan­guage of this book, and I love Lau­ra Dronzek’s lumi­nous art as well, where moon­light real­ly does but­ter every tree and slips into Rabbit’s dreams, awak­ing him to dance in the moon­light. So few words, but so well cho­sen — verbs such as skims and skids and skips and skit­ters. A won­der­ful pair­ing of words and art that makes me want to dance in the moon­light, too.

Owl MoonJane Yolen’s Owl Moon, which won a Calde­cott for its evoca­tive win­try art, is a sto­ry of an owl, patience, hope, and love. On a snowy night the nar­ra­tor sets out to go on a long-await­ed out­ing owl­ing with Pa. She knows, because Pa says, that when you go owl­ing you have to be qui­et, you have to make your own heat, and you have to have hope. Their hope is final­ly reward­ed when they spot an owl and stare into the owl’s eyes as it stare back before it flies away. The last image shows the small nar­ra­tor being car­ried toward the lights of home by her pa. The book con­cludes:

When you go owl­ing
you don’t need words
or warm
or any­thing but hope.
That’s what Pa says.
The kind of hope
that flies
on silent wings
under a shin­ing
Owl Moon.

Jack­ie: “When you go owling/you don’t need words/or warm/ or any­thing but hope.” The shin­ing moon, a light in the night, a lamp of hope that we turn into a friend in the sky. These books make me grate­ful for long nights.

Phyl­lis: And for moon­light and dreams and danc­ing.



Two for the Show: Winter Stories

by Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin and Phyl­lis Root

Jack­ie: Ah win­ter. Sea­son of hol­i­days and snow. Such a rich­ness of sto­ries.

Phyl­lis: I have a shelf full of favorite Christ­mas books. What most of them have in com­mon is sto­ry, not just about Christ­mas itself but also about fam­i­lies cel­e­brat­ing their con­nec­tion to each oth­er.  They meet my own test for a good Christ­mas sto­ry — take away Christ­mas from the set­ting and the sto­ry still has a strong heart­beat about love, fam­i­ly, com­mu­ni­ty, and car­ing for each oth­er. 

bk_Two_EmmetOne of our fam­i­ly favorites is Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christ­mas by Rus­sell Hoban with pic­tures by Lil­lian Hoban (Par­ents Mag­a­zine Press, 1971). Emmet’s dad has died. His moth­er takes in wash­ing while Emmet does handy­man chores to help make ends meet, using the tool­box his father left him.

With Christ­mas com­ing, both Emmet and his moth­er wish they could make the day spe­cial for each oth­er, even though, as Irma Coon says, “It’s a bad year for that.” Emmet yearns to buy a used piano for his moth­er, and she hopes to give him a sec­ond hand gui­tar. 

Jack­ie: Hoban’s lan­guage brings the sto­ry to life. Emmet’s moth­er says: “It’s been such a rock-bot­tom life for so long, just once at least I’d like to bust out with a real glo­ri­ous Christ­mas for Emmet — some­thing shiny and expen­sive.” Rock-bot­tom life. What a use­ful phrase!

Phyl­lis: Ma and Emmet both see a way to “bust out” when they hear of a tal­ent show with a fifty-dol­lar prize. They each secret­ly make plans to win the prize mon­ey,  Ma pawn­ing Emmet’s tool box to get fab­ric for a dress to sing in and Emmet putting a hole in Ma’s wash­tub to make a string bass to play in the Jug band with his friends — actions which stake every­thing on win­ning.

But alas, the Night­mare band with elec­tric instru­ments, a light show, and wail­ing­ly loud music wins the prize. Yet walk­ing home, Emmet and his Ma and his friends real­ize they are glad that, like Pa who took a chance on sell­ing snake oil, they took a chance on the prize.  And when they sing their joy out­side of Doc Bullfrog’s restau­rant they are reward­ed by him with din­ner and a reg­u­lar gig.

Jack­ie: This plot is so sat­is­fy­ing. Despair, then relief — and reward.

It struck me read­ing this book this time that Rus­sell Hoban was writ­ing about the same kinds of char­ac­ters that Vera B. Williams wrote about — fam­i­lies who loved each oth­er but didn’t have a lot of mon­ey, had to make do.

Phyl­lis: And who wouldn’t love the pas­tel world Lil­lian Hoban cre­ates in the art?  In her obit­u­ary she is quot­ed as say­ing, that what she liked bet­ter than any­thing is “just mess­ing around with col­or.”

Jack­ie: And we should also men­tion that this book was made into a movie by Jim Hen­son.

bk_Two_MolePhyl­lis: The Hobans also wrote and illus­trat­ed anoth­er favorite, The Mole Fam­i­ly’s Christ­mas (Par­ents’ Mag­a­zine Press, 1969), in which Delver [Rus­sell Hoban is still laugh­ing about that name], a mole whose fam­i­ly does “straight tun­nel­ing work,” learns of the stars which he can’t see. At the same time he learns about tele­scopes and the exis­tence of a fat man in a red suit who brings presents by way of chim­neys. The mole fam­i­ly builds an above-ground chim­ney in hopes of a vis­it, but each also secret­ly makes presents for the oth­ers just in case the man in the red suit doesn’t bring gifts to ani­mals.  As they build their chim­ney they are plagued by Ephraim Owl, who goal is to catch and eat them some night. “If not this time, then some time,” he hoots.

Yet when the moles all fall asleep on the chim­ney wait­ing for the fat man in the red suit and Ephraim spots them there, he decides it would be fun­ny if the moles woke up and found them­selves not eat­en — which is exact­ly what they do find come morn­ing, along with a tele­scope from the man in the red suit. Again, a fam­i­ly that wants to meet each other’s needs and make each oth­er hap­py.

Jack­ie: Rus­sell Hoban once said, “Peo­ple say that every artist has a par­tic­u­lar theme which he goes through over and over again, and I sup­pose mine has to do with … find­ing a place.”

bk_Two_SnowDanceIn James and Joseph Bruchac’s tale Rabbit’s Snow Dance (Dial, 2012) Rab­bit (whose tail is long) has his place and he wants it cov­ered with snow, more and more snow, so he can eat the tasty buds and leaves up in the trees.

Phyl­lis: I love the word he chants, AZIKANAPO, which the Bruchacs explain means “It will snow foot wrap­pers, great big flakes of snow.” Even though it’s sum­mer, Rab­bit sings his snow song, rea­son­ing that if a lit­tle snow is good, more is bet­ter. The oth­er ani­mals aren’t pleased, but Rab­bit sings snow down as deep as the tree tops, then falls asleep on the top of a tree.  While he sleeps, sun melts snow, and when Rab­bit wakes up he sleep­i­ly steps off into what he thinks is snow and tum­bles to the ground, los­ing bits of his tail on the branch­es. By the end of the book he has lost his tail, gained patience, and only sings his snow song in the win­ter. 

Jack­ie: This YouTube video in which Bruchac talks about the ori­gins of the sto­ry and the kind of tree rab­bit might have been trapped in is charm­ing and reminds us all to look close­ly at the world.

bk_Two_LatkesAlso a sea­son­al fam­i­ly sto­ry, Papa’s Latkes by Michelle Edwards (Can­dlewick, 2004) por­trays a fam­i­ly that must cope with loss. Mama has died “before school start­ed” and Papa and Sel­ma and Dora must make the latkes for Chanukah. Papa goes at it with gus­to and plen­ty of pota­toes, onions, and oil. But his latkes look like mud­pies and Sel­ma just can’t accept a Chanukah with­out Mama. Papa brings the fam­i­ly togeth­er in a long fam­i­ly hug and Sel­ma brings her moth­er into the pic­ture by light­ing the Chanukah can­dles just the way her moth­er had taught her. This is a love­ly sto­ry, for all fam­i­lies, where loss is not denied or glossed over but lived and loved through.

bk_Two_Willoughby Anoth­er sto­ry about com­mu­ni­ty, unin­ten­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, is Mr. Willowby’s Christ­mas Tree by Robert Bar­ry (McGraw-Hilll, 1963) Mr. Wil­low­by lives at the oth­er end of easy street from Emmet Otter and Ma. He’s got a big house and orders a big Christ­mas tree, too big.

But once the tree stood in its place

Mr. Wil­low­by made a ter­ri­ble face.

The tree touched the ceil­ing then bent like a bow.

Oh, good heav­ens,” he gasped. “Some­thing must


Mov­ing the word “go” to the next line — chop­ping it off— is a sub­tle touch that made me laugh out loud. 

The but­ler trims off the top and takes it to the upstairs maid. But her tree is too big — and so on through Mr and Mrs. Timm, a bear fam­i­ly, a rab­bit fam­i­ly and final­ly a mouse fam­i­ly who live just behind the wall in Mr. Willowby’s par­lor. 

Though this book, if writ­ten today, would include more kinds of fam­i­lies, not more ani­mals but dif­fer­ent con­fig­u­ra­tions than the “Mr. and Mrs. and kids,” there is still some­thing joy­ous in the rhymes, the suc­ces­sive trim­mings, and each new group’s delight in their sec­tion of green.

Phyl­lis: I love how the char­ac­ters all make some­thing from what’s been tossed away — it’s anoth­er sto­ry about mak­ing do and cel­e­brat­ing what we have.

Hap­py Cel­e­bra­tions to you all and wish­es for many good sto­ry times.



Chair of Honor for Vera B. Williams

by Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin and Phyl­lis Root

photo credit: Thane Peterson

pho­to cred­it: Thane Peter­son

Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin: Some writ­ers teach us craft. Some writ­ers inspire us. Vera B. Williams does both. As part of cel­e­brat­ing her won­der­ful life and career we want to take anoth­er look at her love­ly sto­ries and her busy life. One of the many remark­able things about her books is that they “erupt” (as she said) from the activ­i­ties of her life.

bk_williams_canoeThree Days on the Riv­er in a Red Canoe was based on Williams’ own 500-mile jour­ney down the Yukon Riv­er. It starts when a kid notices a canoe for sale in a neighbor’s yard. His mom and her sis­ter and his cousin pool their mon­ey and buy it. This is a fam­i­ly that thinks about buy­ing some­thing. There is not a lot of cash lying around. Amber Was Brave Essie Was Smart gives read­ers a lov­ing fam­i­ly (based on Williams and her sis­ter) whose father is in prison.  

One of her best-loved sto­ries, A Chair for My Moth­er, grew out of her expe­ri­ence grow­ing up “in a fam­i­ly that had a lot of trou­ble mak­ing a liv­ing.” She nev­er for­got that. In a Green­wil­low pub­lic­i­ty inter­view she recount­ed that her moth­er worked very hard, just as Rosa’s moth­er, and actu­al­ly did buy her­self a chair so she would have a place to sit when she was tired. Williams said, “I’m very proud of hav­ing intro­duced a kind of char­ac­ter and fam­i­ly and expe­ri­ence to children’s books… peo­ple who work for a liv­ing in very ordi­nary pro­fes­sions.”

Phyl­lis Root: Yes, one of the many things I love about Vera B. Williams is how both her work and her life cel­e­brate every­day peo­ple, work­ing class peo­ple, peo­ple with prob­lems, fam­i­ly, com­mu­ni­ty.

bk_williams_chairJacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin: And that focus on com­mu­ni­ty comes from her life, too. Her moth­er was very com­mu­ni­ty-mind­ed. She was one of a group of peo­ple who would gath­er on the side­walk dur­ing the Depres­sion when a family’s fur­ni­ture was being repos­sessed and “defy the bailiff” by car­ry­ing that fur­ni­ture back to the family’s apart­ment. I love pic­tur­ing that and think the two page spread in A Chair for My Moth­er in which neigh­bors bring pieces of fur­ni­ture to Rosa’s fam­i­ly after the fire must be part­ly inspired by William’s ear­ly neigh­bors car­ry­ing fur­ni­ture back upstairs.

Phyl­lis Root:  Williams said that as a child she didn’t under­stand her mother’s need for “new cush­iony chair.” In A Chair for my Moth­er Rosa, her moth­er, and grand­moth­er all work togeth­er sav­ing nick­els and dimes and quar­ters in a jar to buy a chair for the whole fam­i­ly. Williams trans­forms her child­hood expe­ri­ence, just as she worked to trans­form the world — she was a mem­ber of the War Resistor’s League and went to prison for protest­ing the Viet­nam War. She not only wrote about what she believed, she lived those beliefs.

bk_williams_cherriesCher­ries and Cher­ry Pits, too, is about trans­for­ma­tion. As a child, Vera drew pic­tures and told sto­ries about them, just as Bidem­mi does in Cher­ries and Cher­ry Pits. In each sto­ry Bidem­mi tells, some­one shares cher­ries — a father with his chil­dren, a grand­moth­er with her par­rot, a boy with his lit­tle sis­ter. And all of them are “eat­ing cher­ries and spit­ting out the pits.” In the last sto­ry she tells, Bidem­mi, too, has a bag of cher­ries. She eats the cher­ries and plants the pits in her “junky old yard,” where they grow into trees full of cher­ries, and peo­ple come from “Nairo­bi and Brook­lyn, Toron­to and Saint Paul” to eat those cher­ries and spit out the pits, which grow “until there is a whole for­est of cher­ry trees right on our block.”

Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin: And we can learn craft from this sto­ry, too. Look at this char­ac­ter descrip­tion:

This is the door to the sub­way and THIS is a man lean­ing

on the door… His face is a nice face. But it is also not so

nice. He has a fat wrin­kle on his fore­head. It’s like my

mother’s wrin­kle. It’s from wor­ry­ing and wor­ry­ing, my

moth­er says. And his neck is thick and his arms are thick

with very big, strong mus­cles. His shirt is striped blue and

white and his skin is dark brown and in his great big hands

he has a small white bag. This man looks so strong I think

he could even car­ry a piano on his head. But he is only

car­ry­ing this lit­tle white bag…

What great infor­ma­tion we get about the Bidem­mi and her moth­er from the descrip­tion of this man who has a fat wrin­kle “from wor­ry­ing and wor­ry­ing.” Who could ever for­get a man strong enough to car­ry a piano on his head?

bk_williams_morePhyl­lis Root: Williams believed that if children’s needs are met in “the way of love and adven­tures, we would have a lot more hap­pi­ness in the world.” Her book “More, More, More,” Said the Baby: Three Love Sto­ries joy­ous­ly cel­e­brates three babies whose needs are met, (and includes a white grand­moth­er and her brown grand­child, one of the first times such a fam­i­ly was shown in a pic­ture book).

In an inter­view in Show Me a Sto­ry, Con­ver­sa­tions with 21 of the World’s Most Cel­e­brat­ed Illus­tra­tors com­piled and edit­ed by Leonard S. Mar­cus, Williams talks about luck, a word that shows up not only in Lucky Song but also in A Chair for My Moth­er when the grand­moth­er thanks the neigh­bors for all their help mov­ing into and fur­nish­ing their new apart­ment. “It’s lucky we’re young and can start all over,” she says. Even the gro­cery whose own­ers give away water­mel­ons in The Great Water­mel­on Birth­day is named Fortuna’s Fruits.

bk_williams_gingerbreadOur fam­i­ly has been lucky to know Williams’s books for many years. Since we dis­cov­ered her first—It’s a Gin­ger­bread House: Bake It, Build It, Eat It! — we’ve been mak­ing gin­ger­bread hous­es and delight­ing in her sto­ries.

Here’s hop­ing many, many more chil­dren will be lucky enough to read and enjoy her books and to grow up in a peace­ful world where the grown-ups make sure that every child’s needs are met.  A world Vera B. Williams envi­sioned, worked for, and made into beau­ti­ful, deeply felt books.

Here’s a list of her books, all pub­lished by Green­wil­low:

  • Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart: The Sto­ry of Amber and Essie Told Here in Poems and Pic­tures (2001)
  • A Chair for Always (2009)
  • A Chair for My Moth­er (1982)
  • Cher­ries and Cher­ry Pits (1986)
  • It’s a Gin­ger­bread House: Bake It, Build It, Eat It! (1978)
  • Lucky Song (1997)
  • More, More, More,” Said the Baby: Three Love Sto­ries (1990)
  • Music, Music for Every­one (1984)
  • Scoot­er (1993)
  • Some­thing Spe­cial for Me (1983)
  • Stringbean’s Trip to the Shin­ing Sea, with Jen­nifer Williams (1988) 

And here’s where you can order a 1989 Peace Cal­en­dar (365 rea­sons not to have anoth­er war) by Grace Paley and Vera B. Williams. (Extra bonus: the 1989 cal­en­dar repeats in 2017, but even if it didn’t, it’s well worth buy­ing for the art and writ­ing and to sup­port the War Resisters League.)


Two for the Show: What Scares You?

Note to read­ers: we are try­ing a new for­mat this month. We want to make our blog more con­ver­sa­tion­al. Let us know what you think.

Phyl­lis Root:
What scares you? How do you deal with that fear? And why do so many of us like to scare our­selves sil­ly, as long as we know that every­thing will be all right in the end?

An arti­cle in The Atlantic, Why Do Some Brains Enjoy Fear,” explains how the hor­mone dopamine, released dur­ing scary activ­i­ties makes some of us feel good, espe­cial­ly if we feel safe. If we know those ghosts in the haunt­ed house aren’t real­ly ghosts, we can let our­selves be as scared as we want by their sud­den appear­ance.

In Ramona the Brave Ramona hides a book with a scary goril­la pic­ture under a couch cush­ion when the book becomes too ter­ri­fy­ing. She’s in charge of how scared she wants to be, and books offer us that oppor­tu­ni­ty: we can close them if they’re scary, or even look ahead to the end to be sure every­thing will be fine.

Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin:
We can give our­selves lit­tle dos­es of scare. Dos­es that feel like fun because we are watch­ing events hap­pen to some­one else.

The Lit­tle Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Any­thing by Lin­da Williams, illus­trat­ed by Megan Lloyd, is a deli­cious­ly scary expe­ri­ence. On her way home through the for­est as it starts to get dark, the lit­tle old lady meets two big shoes that go CLOMP, CLOMP. Since she’s not afraid of any­thing, she con­tin­ues toward home — but the shoes clomp behind her, as do, even­tu­al­ly, a pair of pants that go WIGGLE, WIGGLE, a shirt that goes SHAKE, SHAKE, gloves that go CLAP, CLAP, and a hat that goes NOD, NOD. To all of them she says “Get out of my way!” because, of course, she’s not afraid of any­thing — although she does walk faster and faster. When she meets the scary pump­kin head that goes BOO, BOO! she runs for home and locks the door. Then comes the KNOCK, KNOCK on the door. Because she’s not afraid of any­thing she answers the door and sees the whole assem­blage of cloth­ing and pump­kin head. “You can’t scare me,” she says. “Then what’s to become of us?” the pump­kin asks. The lit­tle old lady’s idea for a solu­tion makes every­one hap­py. Part of the genius of this book is that it invites lis­ten­ers to join in on the sound effects, giv­ing them an active part in the sto­ry as well as an out­let for build­ing ten­sion.

bk_TwoSeussThe nar­ra­tor in What Was I Scared Of?, writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Dr. Seuss, only has to con­front a pair of emp­ty pants (a fun twist on hav­ing the pants scared off of one), and like the old lady, this nar­ra­tor claims he isn’t scared of any­thing. Still, when the pants move, he high­tails it out of there, and each time the pants show up again, whether rid­ing a bike or row­ing a boat, the nar­ra­tor runs from them. When he unex­pect­ed­ly encoun­ters the pants and hollers for help, the pants break down in tears; it turns out they are as scared of him as he is of them. The nar­ra­tor responds empa­thet­i­cal­ly by putting his arm around the pants’ waist and calm­ing the “poor emp­ty pants with nobody inside them.” Nei­ther is scared of the oth­er any longer.

This book has always been a favorite at our house. Who would not be scared of such pants? And this list of fright­ened respons­es is so inclu­sive — and so fun to read out loud:

I yelled for help. I screamed. I shrieked.

I howled. I yowled. I cried,

Oh save me from these pale green pants

With nobody inside!”

Dr. Seuss’s lan­guage in this sto­ry fre­quent­ly makes us laugh. One of my favorites:

And the next night, I was fish­ing

for Doubt-trout on Roover Riv­er

When those pants came row­ing toward me!

Well, I start­ed in to shiv­er.

I’m not a fish­ing per­son, but I might head out to Roover Riv­er for a cou­ple of Doubt-trout.

bk_TwoNightmareAnoth­er sto­ry in which the fear­some is also fear­ful is There’s a Night­mare in my Clos­et. I can’t believe this Mer­cer May­er book is forty-sev­en years old. It seems as cur­rent a child­hood wor­ry as step­ping on a crack in the side­walk. Mayer’s illus­tra­tions are per­fect — we can almost hear the silence in the illus­tra­tion in which the kid tip­toes back to bed, after clos­ing the clos­et door.

Fac­ing your fears and befriend­ing them runs through all of these sto­ries. Vir­ginia Hamilton’s Wee Win­nie Witch’s Skin­ny, an orig­i­nal tale based on research into black folk­lore and illus­trat­ed by Bar­ry Moser, involves actu­al­ly out-wit­ting a very scary being. With more text and a more sto­ry-telling tone, the tale relates how James Lee’s Uncle Big Antho­ny is attacked by a cat who is real­ly Wee Win­nie Witch in dis­guise and who rides him through the sky at night. As weeks pass, Uncle Big Antho­ny “got lean and bent-over tired. He looked like some about gone, Uncle Shrunk­en Antho­ny.” Mama Granny comes to the res­cue with her spice-hot pep­per witch-be-gone.

bk_TwoWeeWitchWhen Wee Win­nie Witch takes off her skin that night to ride Uncle Big Antho­ny, she snatch­es James Lee from his win­dow and takes him rid­ing with them through the sky where he is both ter­ri­fied and thrilled. When Wee Win­nie Witch returns to the ground and puts on her skin again, she finds that Mama Granny has treat­ed the skin’s inside with her spice-hot pep­per witch-be-gone. The skin squeezes Wee Win­nie Witch so hard that she shriv­els into pieces on the floor. Uncle Big Antho­ny grad­u­al­ly returns to his for­mer self, and although James Lee nev­er wants to see a “skin­ny” again, the thought of the night-air ride up in the twin­kling stars still makes him say “Whew-wheee!”

This tale is grip­ping — and for me, a bit dis­turb­ing, or maybe thought-pro­vok­ing. I was trou­bled by the thought and image of the Wee Win­nie Witch rid­ing Big Uncle Antho­ny with the bri­dle in his mouth. But, as I thought about it, I won­dered if Hamil­ton was pos­si­bly remind­ing us of the degra­da­tion that slav­ery brought to black peo­ple. So many were bri­dled and lashed and worked to death. Hard to say. In any case this sto­ry has plen­ty of scare and a strong hero in Mama Granny.

Ter­ri­fied, thrilled, and brought back to a sense of safe­ty again: these sto­ries do all that but with dif­fer­ent lev­els of bk_TwoHamburgerter­ror. And because pic­ture books are usu­al­ly read aloud by a com­fort­ing adult and because we’re free to shut them and even put them under the couch cush­ion, we can choose how scared to be, know­ing that we can safe­ly close the book. But like James Lee, we might also say “Whew-wheee!” — then open the book to read it again.

And what kinds of sto­ries do ghosts tell to scare them­selves? Read The Haunt­ed Ham­burg­er by David LaRochelle and find out.


Two for the Show

by Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin and Phyl­lis Root

9_9TwoForMufaroWe want to start by say­ing that we are lov­ing the chance to look at for­got­ten books or won­der­ful clas­sics from the past that this blog has giv­en us. And this time, when we were think­ing of what we might look at, John Step­toe came to mind— maybe because we were con­sid­er­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties in August and he died in August of 1989. We all remem­ber Step­toe was one of the first African Amer­i­cans to write and illus­trate children’s books. He was bril­liant, wrote his first book, Ste­vie, when he was six­teen years old, and was only eigh­teen when it was pub­lished. He wrote and illus­trat­ed many oth­er books in his short life. (He died at age 39).

One of his best known is Mufaro’s Beau­ti­ful Daugh­ters (1987). We think this is a clas­sic. The daugh­ters are indeed beau­ti­ful, the set­ting is beau­ti­ful and so care­ful­ly ren­dered that we want­ed to touch the stones and caress the birds. For this re-telling of a Zim­bab­wean folk­tale Step­toe researched the flo­ra and fau­na of Zim­bab­we for two years. And though it reads like a folk tale, the illus­tra­tions are done with such care that when we read it we almost believe it had hap­pened. Of course a green snake could become a hand­some African king.

The sto­ry is love­ly. Mufaro has two daugh­ters who look beau­ti­ful but only one who acts with beau­ty and grace. Man­yara is “almost always in a bad tem­per. She teased her sis­ter when­ev­er their father’s back was turned, and she had been heard to say, ‘Some­day, Nyasha, I will be a queen, and you will be a ser­vant in my house­hold.’” Nyasha grows veg­eta­bles, and is so kind that birds are not afraid to be close and a snake becomes her com­pan­ion. Because her beau­ty is inter­nal and exter­nal, she is the one cho­sen by the king and Man­yara becomes her ser­vant.

It’s a great expe­ri­ence to read his books now and think back on how rev­o­lu­tion­ary they must have seemed when they were pub­lished. He was rev­o­lu­tion­ary and vision­ary. He want­ed to write books in which African Amer­i­can chil­dren could see them­selves and be proud of their cul­ture. And that is so sim­i­lar to what we want today with the cam­paign We Need Diverse Books. We found our­selves pro­found­ly wish­ing that he had lived to give us more books, lived to com­ment on the read­ing lives of chil­dren.

Wendy Wat­son did a love­ly appre­ci­a­tion of John Steptoe’s art in her blog in August 2014.

9_10TwoForBeautyWe found a more recent re-telling of an old tale on the Kirkus “Best Books of 2014 Which Fea­ture Diverse Char­ac­ters” list–Beau­ty and the Beast by H. Chuku Lee and illus­trat­ed by his wife Pat Cum­mings. Once again we have beau­ti­ful daugh­ters – three who present their father with a long list when he goes to the city and one who only asks for a rose. The sto­ry is set in West Africa and is told in the first per­son by “Beau­ty,” in direct and expres­sive lan­guage. And the illus­tra­tions are fas­ci­nat­ing, full of detail and pat­tern, done with care and respect. This is what H. Chuku Lee said about writ­ing this book in The Horn Book (June 2015):

Our ver­sion of “Beau­ty” is an act of hope, the belief that when giv­en a new and dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on an accept­ed sto­ry with uni­ver­sal themes of love, mag­ic, and promis­es made, we can tran­scend the notion that only some peo­ple are equipped for change. That uni­ver­sal feel­ings like love, fear, and hope are in fact found in all peo­ple. And that the sto­ry is just as pow­er­ful no mat­ter what the cul­tur­al set­ting. Most audi­ences appre­ci­ate and even cheer at the idea that some­one would sac­ri­fice her own safe­ty in the hope of pro­tect­ing some­one she loves. And that kind­ness and love can mag­i­cal­ly trans­form a beast into a prince.

And Pat Cummings’s com­ments:

His [H. Chuku Lee’s] ver­sion, told from Beauty’s point of view, seemed ele­gant and con­tem­po­rary. And I want­ed to update Beau­ty as well, to show her as a young woman of col­or whose world clear­ly evokes Africa. The Beast’s scar­i­fi­ca­tions even sug­gest a par­tic­u­lar tribe. But although clas­sics tran­scend time, trends, and cul­tures, some ele­ments of the sto­ry seemed etched in stone: it had to be a rose, and the Beast had to be part ani­mal. “Beau­ty and the Beast” has more than its share of clas­sic themes: love con­quers all, true beau­ty lies with­in, appear­ances can be mis­lead­ing, mag­ic can save the day…But Chuku hit upon one I hadn’t con­sid­ered before, one that res­onat­ed with me while illus­trat­ing the sto­ry. For me, it has become the new time­less theme at the heart of the sto­ry: the pow­er of a promise.

Our only com­plaint is that the Beau­ty on the cov­er is quite a bit lighter than the Beau­ty in the book. It will be a won­der­ful day when that is not so. But we have hope. And the pow­er of the promise to strive to do bet­ter, to val­ue all the peo­ples of the world and all the col­ors of the world.



Two for the Show: How Does Your Garden Grow?

by Phyl­lis Root and Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin

It’s high sum­mer in the gar­den, with an abun­dance of veg­eta­bles to har­vest and flow­ers abuzz with pol­li­na­tors. Crunchy car­rots, leafy kale, sun-warm toma­toes, gar­lic bulbs, green beans, zuc­chi­ni (some gigan­tic) all offer them­selves to the gar­den­er. But more grows in a gar­den than plants. Peo­ple grow, too, and con­nec­tions between peo­ple take root and blos­som. Two love­ly pic­ture books about grow­ing things and the peo­ple who grow with them are The Gar­den­er by Sarah Stew­art with pic­tures by David Small (Far­rar, Strauss, Giroux , 1997) and The Grandad Tree by Trish Cooke, illus­trat­ed by Sharon Wil­son (Can­dlewick Press, 2000).

bk_gardner178The Gar­den­er is an epis­to­lary pic­ture book (a cat­e­go­ry wor­thy of its own blog post), told in let­ters from a young girl, Lydia Grace, sent from her home in the coun­try to live in the city with her Uncle Jim dur­ing the Depres­sion until “things get bet­ter.” She writes first to her Uncle Jim, then back home to Mama, Papa, and Grand­ma. Although Uncle Jim doesn’t ever smile, Lydia Grace is excit­ed by the win­dow box­es she sees in the city, by learn­ing to bake bread in her uncle’s bak­ery, and by the store cat Otis who sleeps on her bed.

With help from her fam­i­ly back home who sends her bulbs and seedlings and seed cat­a­logues, from Emma who works in the bak­ery with her hus­band Ed, and from neigh­bors who give her con­tain­ers in which to plant flow­ers and call her “the gar­den­er,” Lydia Grace sets about mak­ing gar­dens in pots and fill­ing win­dows box­es with radish­es onions, and let­tuce. But what fills her with “great plans” is her dis­cov­ery at the top of a fire escape of the building’s roof (shown in a word­less spread), lit­tered with trash and just wait­ing for the dirt she hauls from a vacant lot.

All the while, Lydia hopes for a smile from Uncle Jim.

When her “secret place” is ready, Lydia Grace, Emma, and Ed bring Uncle Jim to the roof gar­den in a glo­ri­ous dou­ble page word­less spread, which par­al­lels the first view of the roof, now trans­formed.

A week lat­er, when Lydia Grace learns that her papa has got a job and that she’s going home Uncle Jim clos­es the shop, sends Ed and Emma and Lydia Grace to the roof gar­den, and brings Lydia Grace a cake cov­ered in flow­ers. Lydia Grace writes, “I tru­ly believe that cake equals one thou­sand smiles.” The last page, also word­less, shows Uncle Jim hug­ging Lydia Grace as they wait for her to board the train home. In the grim grey city, Lydia Grace has grown more than beau­ti­ful flow­ers and a gar­den, she has grown a con­nec­tion with her uncle, Emma, Ed, and the neigh­bors. As she writes in the P. S. of her last let­ter, “We gar­den­ers nev­er retire.” In this book, the deep­est emo­tions are not said in words but with flow­ers, with cake, and with silent hugs. Even the word­less spreads con­vey the book’s heart — that plants and peo­ple can bloom in the grayest sur­round­ings.

bk_grandadtreeLGThe spare poet­ic words of The Grandad Tree begin,

There is a tree

at the bot­tom of Leigh’s gar­den.

An apple tree.

Vin, Leigh’s big broth­er, said

it start­ed as a seed

and then grew

and grew.

And Vin said

that tree,

where they used to play

with Grandad,

that apple tree

will be there…


The text goes on to tell how Grandad was a baby once, then a boy who climbed coconut trees near the sea where he lived, then a man and a hus­band and a dad and a grand­dad for Leigh and Vin. “That’s life,” Grandad would say.

 The apple tree blos­soms in spring as the art shows Vin and Leigh play­ing ball with Grandad. In sum­mer, as the apples grow, Grandad plays his vio­lin for the chil­dren under the tree. He watch­es them har­vest apples as the leaves fall, and he watch­es from the win­dow as they build a snow­man in the win­ter. The text con­tin­ues,

And some­times things die,

like trees,

like peo­ple…

            like Grandad.

Leigh and Vin and their mom­ma remem­ber Grandad as Vin plays his vio­lin, and Leigh plants a seed beside the apple tree to grow and grow, to go through changes, and for them to love for­ev­er and ever

            just like they’ll always love Grandad.

In few words and glow­ing illus­tra­tions, Cooke and Wil­son bring togeth­er the sea­sons of a tree and of a life lived and show how while things change, some things, like Leigh and Vin’s love for Grandad and his for them, will last for­ev­er.

Com­fort, love, rela­tion­ships can all bloom along with the wide world of grow­ing things. Even when har­vest is upon us gar­den­ers, it’s good to remem­ber that seeds will hold next year’s gar­dens close inside. Who knows what will blos­som there beyond fruits and flow­ers?

Oth­er books about grow­ing things that we love:

  • Cher­ries and Cher­ry Pits by Vera B. Williams
  • Farmer Duck by Mar­tin Wad­dell
  • Miss Rumphius by Bar­bara Cooney
  • The Tree Lady: The True Sto­ry of How One Tree-Lov­ing Woman Changed a City For­ev­er by H. Joseph Hop­kins
  • Wangari’s Trees of Peace by Jeanette Win­ter

Two for the Show: Three Books on the River

by Phyl­lis Root and Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin

Sum­mer­time. And whether we live by water or only dream of liv­ing by water, read­ing about riv­er adven­tures is fun. We are for­tu­nate to have a num­ber of won­der­ful books that take us out onto the water. We are unfor­tu­nate that only one of the books on today’s list can eas­i­ly be found at a library.

We two blog­gers dream of a library that does not “weed,” but keeps books on the shelves because they are time­less and will always appeal to chil­dren. Per­haps that’s what we are try­ing to do with this blog: cre­ate our own “library” of books that nour­ish won­der, grow sym­pa­thy, fill brains with pos­si­bil­i­ty.

What bet­ter place to do all that than the riv­er? Let’s shove off.

Mr Gumpy's Outing coverMr. Gumpy’s Out­ing, by John Burn­ing­ham. Some library copies of Mr. Gumpy’s Out­ing look like they are one hun­dred years old, not mere­ly forty-five. It is such a good sto­ry that it deserves not to be over­looked because it looks worn. Time to sum­mon the library angels of our nature to donate new copies. As you all may know, “Mr. Gumpy owned a boat and his house was by a riv­er.” When he goes out in his boat var­i­ous char­ac­ters come up to the riv­er bank and ask to go along. He says yes to all but there are some rules. The chil­dren are not to squab­ble, the rab­bit not to hop about, the cat not to chase the rab­bit, the dog not to chase the cat, the pig not to muck about, the sheep not to bleat, the chick­ens not to flap (it’s hard not to list them all because the verbs are so won­der­ful), the calf not to tram­ple, and the goat not to kick. For a while all goes along well, but life is life. And we know they will do what they are not to do. …So the boat tips over, but no lec­tures from Mr. Gumpy. That may be the best part of the book. He says, “We’ll walk home across the fields…It’s time for tea.” Mr. Gumpy knew some­thing like this would hap­pen. It’s in the nature of chil­dren to squab­ble and calves to tram­ple. We can still drink tea and eat sweets. This book is sure to please, whether being read or act­ed out by young actors. It’s a joy.

Three Days coverSo is Vera B. Williams’ Three Days on a Riv­er in a Red Canoe a joy. Though this book is not avail­able in any of three east­ern Iowa libraries, an Ama­zon check shows it is still being pur­chased and loved by read­ers. Pub­lished in 1981, it is writ­ten as a child’s jour­nal of a canoe trip that takes place after the nar­ra­tor, walk­ing home from school, notices a red canoe for sale. She, Sam, Mom and Aunt Rosie “pool” their mon­ey and buy the canoe. Mom and Aunt Rosie come up with a three-day trip. They buy sup­plies and then “drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove.” What child does not have that mem­o­ry of a long car trip?

The book includes so much — Mom and Aunt Rosie low­er­ing the boat over a water­fall, camp cook­ing, instruc­tions on how to tie a half hitch, a recipe for pan­cakes and fruit stew, and dumplings, sketch­es of fish and fowl. It is as if we were on the trip.

The tone also con­tributes to the spe­cial-ness of this book. Vera B. Williams has cap­tured the leisure­ly feel­ing of a riv­er trip: let’s stop to swim, tell sto­ries at night, watch a muskrat. And there’s the unspo­ken car­ing. When Sam stands up and falls out of the canoe, he gets towed to shore. “Mom doesn’t say much, but she looks upset. Aunt Rose looks scared. Sam changes to dry clothes and we canoe on.” Vera B. Williams doesn’t need to say how much Mom and Aunt Rosie love the kids. That love and car­ing infus­es the sto­ry, as in all of Williams’s work — and that’s why we keep going back to it.

The Cow Who Fell coverPer­haps it’s not the same as a parent’s love for a child, but how can we not love Hen­dri­ka, the Dutch cow, envi­sioned by Phyl­lis Krasilovsky and illus­trat­ed by the won­der­ful Peter Spi­er? The Cow Who Fell in the Canal was first pub­lished in 1957. Accord­ing to Krasilovsky’s obit­u­ary in the New York Times the book became so pop­u­lar in the Nether­lands that the author was fet­ed by the Dutch Con­sul in New York. The book begins: “Hen­dri­ka was an unhap­py cow. She lived on a farm in Hol­land, where it is very flat. All sum­mer long she ate grass. All win­ter long she ate hay. All win­ter and all sum­mer she did noth­ing but eat.” She’s learned about the city from Pieter, the horse, who comes to pick up the milk. One day while out eat­ing grass she falls into the canal. Of course she con­tin­ues eat­ing and then stum­bles upon a raft. Spi­er shows us the entire process of push­ing and maneu­ver­ing and final­ly falling onto the raft. Then the adven­ture begins! Hen­dri­ka is the mis­chie­vous child in all of us. She runs, she tram­ples, she wears a straw hat and final­ly she goes home, where “she had so much to think about.” If this book had no words it would be won­der­ful because Peter Spier’s illus­tra­tions are so full of detail and ener­gy. But the words tell us of a great adven­ture that left the wan­der­er changed — as all good adven­tures do, as all good books do.

Oth­er riv­er pic­ture books:

Give Her the Riv­er, by Michael Den­nis Browne illus by Wen­dell Minor. Atheneum, 2004. A father’s thoughts about his daugh­ter.

Riv­er Friend­ly, Riv­er Wild, by Jane Kurtz, illus­trat­ed by Neil Bren­nan. Aladdin Reprint, 2007. A sto­ry inspired by the flood­ing of the Red Riv­er.


Going Wild

By Phyl­lis Root and Jack­ie Brig­gs Mar­tin

Who doesn’t go a lit­tle wild when spring final­ly arrives? And even though we set out to choose pairs of books to write about, this month we couldn’t resist a hat trick of three books. At the heart of each is not only wild­ness but also how those around us react when our wild natures leak out.

cover image

by Mau­rice Sendak

At the cen­ter of the first two books is a yearn­ing to live in the world of one’s own choos­ing. In Where the Wild Things Are, the book against which we still mea­sure all oth­er pic­ture books, Max, sent sup­per­less to his room for wild behav­ior, con­jures up a for­est, a boat, and an ocean and sails away to where the wild things live. The wild things make him their king, and he declares a wild rum­pus — until he becomes lone­ly and wants to be “where some­one loved him best of all.” When Max sails back into his own room, his sup­per awaits him, still hot and proof that his moth­er does indeed love him. With Sendak’s clear con­ci­sion of lan­guage and syn­tax, we’ve gone on a wild jour­ney, com­plete with rum­pus, and returned to know we are loved. Best of all.

cover image

by Peter Brown

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild’s epony­mous pro­tag­o­nist also yearns to live by his own rules. Even Brown’s art makes the case in the begin­ning that Mr. Tiger is a more col­or­ful char­ac­ter than the upright towns­peo­ple, shown in shades of brown and gray while Mr. Tiger him­self is orange down to his dia­logue bub­bles. Bored with being prop­er in a prop­er soci­ety, he walks on all fours, roars in pub­lic, and swims in a pub­lic foun­tain. When he emerge clothes-free, he has clear­ly gone too far, and the towns­peo­ple strong­ly sug­gest he take his wild self off to the wilder­ness, where he goes com­plete wild — until he, too, grows lone­ly. Return­ing to the town he dons a tee shirt and shorts that his friends pro­vide him and dis­cov­ers that the towns­peo­ple them­selves have changed. Some go on all fours, some walk upright, some still dress ele­gant­ly, some wear casu­al clothes. In this changed soci­ety (and changed, we infer, because of Mr. Tiger’s actions) “Mr. Tiger felt free to be him­self. And so did every­one else.”

by David Small

by David Small

Imo­gene in Imogene’s Antlers has wild­ness thrust upon her in the form of an enor­mous pair of antlers with which she awak­ens one Thurs­day. While the antlers com­pli­cate her morn­ing rou­tine (“Get­ting dressed was dif­fi­cult, and going through a door now took some think­ing”) Imo­gene seems cheer­i­ly accept­ing of the trans­for­ma­tion. Not so Imogene’s moth­er who faints when she sees her daughter’s new appendages. Imogene’s broth­er Nor­man takes the aca­d­e­m­ic approach and announces that Imo­gene has turned into a rare minia­ture elk. Their moth­er faints again. An attempt to hide the antlers under an enor­mous hat leads to still more faint­ing. Unlike Max’s moth­er, who loves her wild son best of all, or the towns­peo­ple who ulti­mate­ly accept Mr. Tiger for him­self, Imogene’s moth­er can­not cope. Luck­i­ly, the cook and kitchen maid admire Imogene’s antlers, deck her out with donuts for the birds, and look for­ward to dec­o­rat­ing her come Christ­mas. At the end of her event­ful day Imo­gene kiss­es her fam­i­ly and heads to bed. The next morn­ing her antlers have dis­ap­peared. As she peeks around the cor­ner into the kitchen, her moth­er is over­joyed that Imo­gene is back to nor­mal — until a smil­ing Imo­gene enters the room, her pea­cock tail spread behind her. We assume that faint­ing fol­lows.

While Imo­gene doesn’t choose her changes and nev­er engages in any­thing wilder than slid­ing down the ban­is­ter, she copes admirably with the unpre­dictabil­i­ty that marks child­hood. At times we all might need to look for sup­port and love beyond the folks from whom we most expect it and remem­ber to love our own wild, clothes-free, or antlered selves.

Wild­ness, love, accep­tance. Who doesn’t want it all? And why not? What’s against it?

So go ahead.

Be a lit­tle wild.

Like char­ac­ters in these books, we promise we’ll still love you.



Two for the Show


by Jack­ie Brig­gs Mar­tin and Phyl­lis Root

Martin and Root

Jack­ie Brig­gs Mar­tin (l) an Phyl­lis Root ®

We both love find­ing for­got­ten trea­sures in the “removed from cir­cu­la­tion” sec­tions of libraries or in sec­ond hand book­stores. Some of these books call to us because we remem­ber them from our child­hoods: the Babar books writ­ten out in long­hand, the Flic­ka, Ric­ka, Dic­ka sto­ries about Swedish triplets, Mar­cia Brown’s Stone Soup.

Some books enchant that we’ve nev­er read before: When the Wind Blew by Mar­garet Wise Brown, Run, Run, Run by Clement Hurd, The Trea­sure of Topolobam­po by Scott O’Dell (and illus­trat­ed by the won­der­ful Lynd Ward). These books seem like for­got­ten trea­sures that we wish would be remem­bered. They remind us, as well, that the sto­ries we tell now are very much akin to the sto­ries told before us. The length may dif­fer, the tone may have changed with time, but the hearts of these sto­ries still con­nect with read­ers today.

We want to look at sto­ries whose hearts have stayed strong, whether those sto­ries are fifty years old or fif­teen years old — or even more recent. We hope you, too, will find the old­er sto­ries enchant­i­ng enough to look them up, either in libraries on in online book sites such as Alib­ris or Abe­Books. Or per­haps, like we do, you might wan­der the aisles of book­stores and library shops, look­ing for that book that reach­es out, taps you on the shoul­der, and says, “Read me. You’ll be glad you did.”

Our first finds have to do with moth­ers, a good top­ic for ear­ly May. We are call­ing it “What’s a moth­er to do?”

Moms are the pole stars of child­hood, the ones who make us feel safe in the scari­est, wor­ry­ing-est of times. And in this, our first Two for the Show col­umn, we want to take a look at two clas­sic pic­ture books about Moms and see what the moms are doing.

Monster Mama coverMon­ster Mama, writ­ten by Liz Rosen­berg and illus­trat­ed by Stephen Gam­mell (Philomel, 1993) cel­e­brates lan­guage and Moms. It begins:

Patrick Edward was a won­der­ful boy, but his moth­er was a mon­ster. She lived in a big cave at the back of the house. [page turn]

Some­times she paint­ed, some­times she gar­dened, and some­times she tossed Patrick Edward light­ly up and down in the air, for fun.

She also teach­es Patrick Edward how to roar and how to cast a spell that could put almost any­one to sleep. One day he runs into bul­lies who tie him to a tree and say, “Your moth­er wears army boots.” Patrick Edward roars, breaks away, and chas­es the boys. “Who knows what might have hap­pene