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Beverly Cleary

Beverly Cleary, 1971

Bev­er­ly Cleary, 1971

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

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

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

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

illustration by Louis Darling

illus­tra­tion by Louis Dar­ling

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

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

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

Hap­py Birth­day, Bev­er­ly Cleary!

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Rose Meets Mr. Wintergarten

Rose Meets Mr. Wintergarten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey!” he said. “You skipped a line.”

I did?” I said.

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

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

He EATS kids?” a lit­tle girl said.

For real?” said anoth­er.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Worm Loves Worm

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

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

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

That got their atten­tion.

Worms?” they said.

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

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

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

Worm loves Worm.

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

Yes!” answers Worm.

Let’s be mar­ried.” 

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

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

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

Now can we be mar­ried?” asks Worm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rolling the Storytelling Blocks

by Vic­ki Palmquist

How to tell a storyLook­ing for hours of fun with a book the whole fam­i­ly can enjoy … or one per­son can eas­i­ly study to learn to write or tell a sto­ry … bet­ter? Then you’ll want to give this a try: How to Tell a Sto­ry, writ­ten by Daniel Nay­eri, illus­trat­ed by Bri­an Won, and pub­lished by Work­man Pub­lish­ing in 2015.

This book comes in a box. Inside the box there’s a small-for­mat book (5−1÷4” x 5−1÷4”, 143 pages) with lots of illus­tra­tions and visu­al cues to help under­stand the many ways telling a sto­ry can be not only fun but inter­est­ing and chal­leng­ing.

To help you “get ideas,” which kids often feel is the tough­est part of writ­ing or sto­ry­telling, there are 20 cubes. Each face of the cube con­tains a char­ac­ter, object, place, adjec­tive (descrip­tion or emo­tion), action, or rela­tion­ship. They’re col­or-cod­ed so you can set par­tic­u­lar para­me­ters for your “game play” or the chal­lenge you’ve made for your­self.

How to Tell a Story

 

With chap­ters on con­flict, moti­va­tion, dia­logue, char­ac­ter, plot, and theme, the basics of sto­ry­telling are packed into this guide.

The author has includ­ed a num­ber of games that can be played with two, up to 20, blocks. For instance, in “Debate,” we’ll roll 10 blocks. We’ll choose two blue blocks and one red block. Nay­eri writes, “Oh, no! There’s a dead­ly storm on the hori­zon and Cap­tain Lark has to decide what to do with a ship full of pre­cious (blue block), the crew of (red block), and the mag­i­cal (oth­er blue block), which can only be used to save one per­son or thing. What should Cap­tain Lark save first? Why? Come up with enough sto­ries to argue for sav­ing either the pre­cious (blue block), the crew of (red block), or him­self.” My fin­gers are itch­ing to roll the blocks, aren’t yours?

How to Tell a Story

The blocks can be used in sim­ple ways with young chil­dren or they can be engross­ing for adults. The author is very instruc­tive in the text:

 “As our sto­ry­teller, if you start in the mid­dle, then you’re going to have to intro­duce us to the impor­tant bits of the back­sto­ry as they become nec­es­sary.

The ancient Roman poet Horace called this method IN MEDIA RES, which means “in the mid­dle of things.”  He rec­om­mend­ed telling sto­ries this way so you can jump straight into the action and fill out the details as you go.”

The illus­tra­tions by Bri­an Won are appeal­ing to chil­dren, teens, and adults. They’re the same style as those used on the blocks (and often the same images) so we feel a con­nec­tion. They’re descrip­tive enough so that our brains begin mak­ing sto­ries out of them imme­di­ate­ly, but not so reduc­tive that they only con­vey one pos­si­bil­i­ty.

How to Tell a Story

That’s the beau­ty of this set of sto­ry starters. There’s a myr­i­ad of ways to use them, to learn from them, to play games with them, and to have fun. This is a per­fect gift for the sto­ry­tellers in your fam­i­ly.

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Reading Ahead: Levitate Your Brother!

Big Magic for Little Hands

by Vic­ki Palmquist

We recent­ly host­ed a Har­ry Pot­ter par­ty for adults for which every­one was asked to per­form a mag­ic trick. Some peo­ple fierce­ly addressed the chal­lenge. Some peo­ple pan­icked. Some peo­ple bought a trick off the inter­net. I turned to Joshua Jay’s Big Mag­ic for Lit­tle Hands (Work­man Pub­lish­ing Co).

Cit­ing all the ben­e­fits of learn­ing to per­form mag­ic, the author reveals that he wasn’t a read­er until he need­ed to know about mag­ic. Learn­ing mag­ic tricks and per­form­ing them gives a child con­fi­dence and helps with pub­lic speak­ing skills. “Oth­ers have inte­grat­ed mag­ic into their jobs, using effects to break the ice or com­plete a sale or relax a jury.”

There are dia­grams and ter­mi­nol­o­gy and sug­gest­ed stage setups. There are help­ful hints (over­com­ing stage fright). There are lists of mate­ri­als need­ed for each feat of pres­tidig­i­ta­tion.

With com­pelling black, white, and red illus­tra­tions, the dia­grams are easy to fol­low, con­vinc­ing even the most skep­ti­cal that they could make these tricks work.

The writ­ing is not just step-by-step instructional–Jay writes with humor and an appre­ci­a­tion of what’s prac­ti­cal.

The mate­ri­als are items you prob­a­bly have on hand in your house­hold. When one list includes a top hat, Jay writes “A top hat works great, but you could also dec­o­rate an emp­ty tis­sue box and use that, or use your dad’s cow­boy hat. (Note: This only works if your dad is a cow­boy.)”

Per­haps most of all, I enjoyed the real-life sto­ries of mag­ic such as “Houdini’s Great Plane Escape.” When Hou­di­ni was film­ing the movie The Grim Game, a stunt required climb­ing by rope from one plane to the oth­er. Dur­ing the stunt, the two planes col­lid­ed and crashed to the ground. What hap­pened? Well, that would be telling. Accord­ing to Jay, a good magi­cian nev­er shares a secret or tells how it is done. Big Mag­ic for Lit­tle Hands will tell you but I won’t.

High­ly rec­om­mend­ed for kids aged 8 and old­er (and the adults in their lives who will be just as fas­ci­nat­ed). It’s a large for­mat book with a big heart and plen­ty of fas­ci­na­tion between its cov­ers. A great gift. A good, read­able, and hours-of-fun addi­tion to your library.

 

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Gifted: Under the North Light

Under the North Light The Life and Times of Maud and Miska Peter­sham writ­ten by Lawrence Web­ster fore­word by Philip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead Wood­stock Arts, 2012 info@woodstockarts.com ISBN 978−0−9679268−6−5 My hus­band, Steve, and I have worked togeth­er for the last 25 years. We have been mar­ried for 32 years, so it took […]

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Books Plus: The Goods by McSweeney’s

The Goods by McSweeney’s: Games and Activ­i­ties for Big Kids, Lit­tle Kids, and Medi­um-Size Kids edit­ed by Mac Bar­nett and Bri­an McMullen fea­tur­ing Adam Rex, Jon Sci­esz­ka, and more Big Pic­ture Press, an imprint of Can­dlewick Press, 2013 For your hol­i­day gift-giv­ing con­sid­er­a­tion … An over­sized book filled with every imag­in­able dis­trac­tion, this should be […]

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