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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Archive | Two for the Show

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.

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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.

Kari:

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.

Kari:

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.

Kari:

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.

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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…
…eat.

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.
CHOP, CHIP, CHOP!

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
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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.

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A Kindle* of Cats

Phyl­lis: 

Luna

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
come
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).

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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….

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

Or,

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.

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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.

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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
Light
And
Move­ment
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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

go.”

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.

 

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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.)

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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:
bk_TwoRamona
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.

Phyl­lis:
bk_TwoLittleOldLady
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.

Jack­ie:
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.

Phyl­lis:
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!”

Jack­ie:
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.

Phyl­lis:
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.

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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.

 

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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…

for­ev­er.

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
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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.

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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.

 

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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 hap­pened next—but Mon­ster Mama heard the echoes of his roar. She zoomed out of her cave…” and straight to Patrick Edward. Once things are set to right and they’ve all shared cake (which the bul­lies made) she says to Patrick Edward, “No mat­ter where you go, or what you do…I will be there. Because I am your moth­er, even if I am a monster—and I love you.”

What we love in this book is the shim­mer­ing ques­tion: Is she real­ly a mon­ster? She gar­dens, she toss­es light­ly, she likes sweets. But she is fierce and she can cast spells. There is humor in this ques­tion and humor in the language—“Villains, farewell!” Patrick Edward says to the bul­lies. And, “Strength is for the wise, not the reckless.—More cake please.”

Hazel coverIn Hazel’s Amaz­ing Moth­er by Rose­mary Wells (Dial, 1985) Hazel goes off on her own to “buy some­thing nice” for a pic­nic. She gets lost. And that’s when the bul­lies show up. They take Hazel’s doll and throw her until the stuff­ing falls out. Hazel cries, “Oh, Mother…Mother, I need you.” Just then a wind comes up, blows the pic­nic blanket—along with Hazel’s moth­er— right over the town into the very tree under which Hazel sat. Hazel’s moth­er takes charge.

A toma­to hit Doris smack between the eyes.

Don’t make a move with­out fix­ing Eleanor!” Hazel’s moth­er roared.

She also rum­bles, laughs thun­der­ous­ly, brings about repairs.

Oh, moth­er,” said Hazel, “‘how did you do it?”

It must have been the pow­er of love,” said Hazel’s moth­er.

These two sto­ries are fun­ny, not trea­cly. When Hazel’s moth­er tells the mean Doris to fix Hazel’s doll, she toss­es down a pock­et sewing kit—and three more toma­toes. The bul­lies don’t just work at fix­ing— “The boys scrubbed fever­ish­ly. Doris sewed like a machine.”

Nana coverAnd these sto­ries are reas­sur­ing. Kids know they can’t do it all—even though it seems we some­times expect them to in our books. How many times have we heard that kids should solve their own prob­lems in our sto­ries? Per­haps that’s chang­ing. Nana in the City by Lau­ren Castil­lo (Clar­i­on, 2014)—a 2015 Calde­cott Hon­or Book—features a grand­moth­er who knits a cape for her grand­son who’s wor­ried about being in the city. The cape does the trick, and the grand­son begins to enjoy the city. It’s not bad for kids to see exam­ples of grown-ups who can help. They are the bridge to get kids to their own stronger place.

A few oth­er books fea­tur­ing moth­ers:

  • Owl Babies by Mar­tin Wad­dell
  • Run­away Bun­ny by Mar­garet Wise Brown
  • Are you My Moth­er? by P.D. East­man
  • A Chair for My Moth­er by Vera B. Williams
  • Feed­ing the Sheep by Leda Schu­bert

 

 

 

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