Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | children's literature

No Wraiths or Fetches Necessary

To cel­e­brate our for­ti­eth anniver­sary this year, we decid­ed to take a Big Trip. My hus­band sug­gest­ed Paris. “Corn­wall,” I said. “Some­place old.” Not that Paris isn’t old. Instead of a crowd­ed city, I want­ed win­kles and pasties, lost gar­dens and stand­ing stones, piskies and Tin­tagel cas­tle. He agreed and I began putting togeth­er a trip that would send us back in time.

Hubble's BubbleMy motives weren’t entire­ly pure. True, I’ve been an Anglophile ever since I read the British children’s fan­ta­sy Hubble’s Bub­ble at the age of eleven and start­ed sav­ing pen­nies to go to Wales and Scot­land. Cur­rent­ly I’m writ­ing my first mag­i­cal real­ism mid­dle-grade nov­el. Build­ing the world of my sto­ry has tak­en near­ly three years, yet the book’s foun­da­tion feels as sta­ble as shiv­er­ing sands. By tramp­ing over ancient lands, I hoped Cornwall’s mythol­o­gy would seep through the soles of my Sketch­ers and I’d bring some back with me.

As much as I love America’s his­to­ry and var­ied land­scapes, I fret that the U.S. isn’t—well, Britain. Amer­i­ca has, as New Eng­land fan­ta­sy writer Jane Lang­ton once wrote, “less his­to­ry to draw on … It is bald of mythol­o­gy, bare of folk tale. Its open fields are not marked by stand­ing stones.” We do have Native Amer­i­can folk­lore and the tall tale adven­tures of larg­er-than-life char­ac­ters such as Paul Bun­yan and John Hen­ry. But those sto­ries are not part of my back­ground.

Langton’s essay is more than thir­ty years old and much has changed. Many fan­tasies today give read­ers pass­ports to worlds beyond medieval Europe, inspired by African, Asian, and indige­nous Amer­i­can cul­tures. My book is set in Vir­ginia, deeply linked to my Eng­lish roots, a place and voice I know. But Vir­ginia has no dead kings buried with bro­ken swords, no sleep­ing drag­ons under the hill, no fairies. How will I sat­u­rate the land­scape with mag­ic?

Seven-Day MagicWhen I think back, I didn’t always notice the set­tings of child­hood books. The open­ing line of Edward Eager’s Sev­en-Day Mag­ic hooked me right away. “‘The best kind of book,’” said Barn­a­by, “‘is a mag­ic book.’” I agreed and ripped through the Half-Mag­ic series, not car­ing that the books are placed vague­ly in Amer­i­ca (Ohio and Con­necti­cut, Eager’s stomp­ing grounds).

Mid­west­ern­er Eager grew up with the Oz books, the first true Amer­i­can fan­tasies for chil­dren. When he had his own chil­dren, he dis­cov­ered E. Nesbit’s books, which he praised for the “daili­ness of the mag­ic. Here is no land of drag­ons and ogres or Mock Tur­tles and Tin Wood­men … The world of E. Nes­bit is the ordi­nary or gar­den world we know, with just the right pinch of mag­ic added.” Every­day mag­ic, set wher­ev­er, suit­ed me fine.

A Diamond in the WindowYet when I found Jane Langton’s A Dia­mond in the Win­dow, I met an open­ing that left no ques­tion about its set­ting: “Edward Hall sat under the front porch of the big house on Walden Street in Con­cord, Mass­a­chu­setts, and thought about his two ambi­tions in life.” By page 4, I’d learned Con­cord was the site of the first bat­tle of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War, Walden Pond was near­by, and Ralph Wal­do Emer­son, Louisa May Alcott, and Hen­ry David Thore­au, who­ev­er they were, had lived there. This Vir­ginia kid, clue­less about New Eng­land, was intrigued. Not far into the story—a delight­ful com­bi­na­tion of fan­ta­sy and mystery—the children’s naïve Uncle Fred­dy quotes Emer­son to the trash col­lec­tor:

 “Oh, call not Nature dumb!
The trees and stones are audi­ble to me …”

It’s a fun­ny scene, but the quote set me to won­der­ing. I’d often thought trees talked (it turns out they do!) and some­times wor­ried when I walked on rocks—did they hurt? The Dia­mond in the Win­dow has mag­ic, but it also has nature, which was more acces­si­ble to me. As a child, there was so much I want­ed to know about the ground beneath my feet, the trees stretch­ing toward the sky, the clouds and weath­er.

The Magic CityIn Langton’s essay, she admits British fan­ta­sy writ­ers can tap into “the thick inter­twin­ing of field and for­est with myth and his­to­ry.” She men­tions that Scot­tish writer Mol­lie Hunter once told her that fan­ta­sy “could only be com­posed by some­one stand­ing upon a coun­try­side drenched in myth and folk­lore.” Real­ly? I went fly­ing to an essay by Mol­lie Hunter in which she cred­its leg­ends, “a suc­ces­sion of folk mem­o­ries fil­tered through the storyteller’s imag­i­na­tion,” as the basis for true fan­tasies.

Vir­ginia, I’m afraid, sad­ly lacks super­nat­ur­al beings such as Celtic fetch­es and wraiths. But it has an abun­dance of nature, the kind E.B. White tapped into by watch­ing ordi­nary spi­ders and pigs and rats at his Maine farm. Lang­ton argues that “nature tak­en pure, nature in its sim­plic­i­ty and silent grandeur” car­ries its own brand of mag­ic. Instead of long­ing for stand­ing stones, I’ll be hap­py to extract “mar­veling won­der­ment” from the seashell-capped Blue Ridge Moun­tains, horse-pas­tured Pied­mont, and osprey-nest­ed Chesa­peake Bay.

As for Corn­wall, we dis­cov­ered that the five-hour car trip after an overnight flight to Heathrow, in which the only age-qual­i­fied dri­ver (who can bare­ly park her small pick­up) would nev­er man­age dri­ving stick-shift from the left seat on the left-hand side of the road. It’s okay. We will glad­ly take a bus from Lon­don to Stone­henge. My Sketch­ers will nev­er know the dif­fer­ence.

Read more...

Enchanted Points of Entry

Only House, Margaret Wise Brown

Little Island by Margaret Wise BrownMy first glimpse of Mar­garet Wise Brown’s house on Vinal­haven Island, Maine, was from a boat. It topped a gran­ite slope, clap­board sid­ing paint­ed the same gray-blue as the sparkling Hur­ri­cane Sound. I was so excit­ed I near­ly fell over­board. We’d just passed the Lit­tle Island that Mar­garet had made famous in her Calde­cott-win­ning book and I’d spot­ted a seal doz­ing on the rocks.

Margaret’s Only House was not the only house on that end of the island, but it was to me. I’d been work­ing on a biog­ra­phy of Brown and was look­ing for the real Mar­garet. My pil­grim­age to Only House was pro­fes­sion­al, pri­ma­ry research. I came to Margaret’s work as an adult and placed her in her house, not myself as a child in the fic­tion­al site of one of her books.

I was not a Pot­ter fan clam­or­ing to find Plat­form 9 ¾ at King’s Cross sta­tion, or some­one with fond mem­o­ries of Eloise scop­ing out the lob­by of the Plaza. As a kid, I longed to see Sleep­y­side-on-the-Hud­son, the fic­tion­al set­ting of my beloved Trix­ie Belden mys­ter­ies, because I believed it was real. Recent­ly I learned the vil­lage was real, based on Ossin­ing, New York, where the author had lived.

Each year, thou­sands tour lit­er­ary hous­es such as the Bronte Par­son­age in York­shire or Hemingway’s home in Key West. When I went to Con­cord, Mass­a­chu­setts, I wad­ed in Walden Pond in hon­or of Thore­au, an author I admire as an adult. I think it requires a dif­fer­ent mind-set to vis­it the fic­tion­al sites of favorite children’s books and come away sat­is­fied.

If you loved the Anne of Green Gables books, a trip to Prince Edward Island may dis­ap­point with its bus­loads of tourists and mod­ern inter­pre­tive exhibits. How­ev­er, chil­dren still read­ing those books might eager­ly embrace fic­tion and real­i­ty in that lim­i­nal space, thrilled to see Anne’s tiny bed­room with her stock­ings draped over the bed­stead. Schol­ars main­tain that when chil­dren vis­it lit­er­ary sites, the expe­ri­ence enhances re-read­ings of those books.

The Wilder LifeBut how do adults fare on these jour­neys? I loved Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life: My Adven­tures in the Lost World of Lit­tle House on the Prairie. The Lit­tle House books McClure devoured as a child car­ried her to new places, new sights, new adven­tures. She found in those land­scapes “enchant­ed points of entry into a fan­ta­sy world,” as Nico­la Wat­son writes in The Lit­er­ary Tourist.

McClure craved to churn but­ter and play with a corn­cob doll. She imag­ined help­ing Laura—magically trans­port­ed to the 1970s—on the esca­la­tors of North River­side Mall. Then, like so many of us, she grew up and left her child­hood book friend behind. After the death of her moth­er, McClure re-read the books and decid­ed to trace Laura’s path, home­stead by home­stead.

The Wilder Life con­cludes with McClure remem­ber­ing the dif­fer­ent hous­es her moth­er, who grew up in a move-every-few-years-mil­i­tary fam­i­ly, tracked down on sum­mer vaca­tions. “I … thought of Lau­ra, too, of one lit­tle house after anoth­er form­ing the sto­ry of a life.” At last she declared to her patient hus­band that they were done Lau­ra-jaunt­ing. Home was with him, she real­ized. Time to re-enter the sto­ry of their life togeth­er.

Misty of ChincoteagueSarah Maslin Nir recounts a dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence in her New York Times arti­cle, “All the Pret­ty Ponies.” Grow­ing up “most­ly horse­less” in New York City, she trav­eled to Chin­coteague Island, Vir­ginia, on the trail of Mar­guerite Henry’s Misty of Chin­coteague. Misty had “stoked [her] eques­tri­an fan­tasies as a girl. Maslin Nir arrived dur­ing Pony-Pen­ning Days, when the wild hors­es swim from Assateague Island to Chin­coteague to be auc­tioned, a tra­di­tion dat­ing from 1925 to thin the herd and raise funds for the fire depart­ment.

She sat on her hands dur­ing the auc­tion to keep from bid­ding on adorable, shag­gy ponies. Then she vis­it­ed the Muse­um of Chin­coteague Island and saw taxi­der­mied Misty on dis­play. The expe­ri­ence was “crush­ing.” When she learned that Misty had nev­er been a wild pony, she knew “the crea­ture Hen­ry had con­jured on the page had nev­er real­ly lived.” She bought a copy of Misty of Chin­coteague as a sou­venir of her trip, pre­fer­ring her child­hood ver­sion to real­i­ty.

Diamond in the WindowWhen we as adults try to repos­sess a fic­tion­al land­scape that meant every­thing to us as chil­dren, we risk tram­pling the enchant­ed point of entry. On my trip to Con­cord, I was sore­ly tempt­ed. Not only is Con­cord the home of Emer­son, Thore­au, and the Alcotts, it was also the set­ting of my favorite child­hood book, The Dia­mond in the Win­dow, by Jane Lang­ton. The neo-Goth­ic house depict­ed on the cov­er was on 148 Walden Street. I could go there. I could take a pic­ture!

The lure was pow­er­ful. But I know that won­der­ful old hous­es were often parceled into apart­ments, added on to, changed. I didn’t couldn’t bear to see Eric Blegvad’s 1961 illus­tra­tion marred by the 21st cen­tu­ry.

In his 1935 trav­el mem­oir, In Search of Eng­land, H.V. Mor­ton climbed the rock steps to Tin­tagel, the rumored birth­place of King Arthur, even though he felt the cas­tle “was one of those places which no man should see.” Tin­tagel wasn’t the gaunt rocky ruins, but “a coun­try of dreams more real than real­i­ty.” Exact­ly so.

Not every­thing has to be seen, not every speck of curios­i­ty must be sat­is­fied, espe­cial­ly in a world where Google pro­vides the answer to any­thing. I remem­bered my first read­ing of Dia­mond, that sin­gu­lar moment when my imag­i­na­tion sprout­ed wings and I soared into the clouds. I didn’t go to 148 Walden Street. I would not ruin the mem­o­ry.

Read more...

The Quiltmaker’s Journey

Ear­li­er this week I pulled out our small stash of Thanks­giv­ing pic­ture books. The kids are old­er now, but they seem to like it when the old favorites come out. I got lost, as I always do, in The Quiltmaker’s Gift by Jeff Brum­beau, illus­trat­ed by Gail de Mar­ck­en. I’ve writ­ten about that book for Red Read­ing Boots—you can find that here.

I went in search of its com­pan­ion, The Quilt­mak­ers Jour­ney, which wasn’t with the Thanks­giv­ing books for some rea­son. Found it—and lost myself in it, as well. It’s a pre­quel, real­ly. Explains how the Quilt­mak­er came by her val­ues of gen­eros­i­ty, beau­ty, and love of peo­ple, not things.

When the Quilt­mak­er was a young girl, she lived a mate­ri­al­ly advan­taged and priv­i­leged life.  Because every­one in her town was rich, the girl assumed every­one in the world was. This was by design, we learn. A wall had been built—a stone wall, thick and high—around the town. The chil­dren in the town nev­er saw what was out­side, but they were warned by their elders that hor­ri­ble, ter­ri­ble things were on the oth­er side of the wall….

When I read this in sto­ry­time to kids, you can see them imag­in­ing what’s on the oth­er side of the wall. Their sweet faces morph into trou­bled ones—brows fur­row, eyes wor­ry, thumbs and fin­gers trav­el to their mouths…. Which is exact­ly what hap­pened to the chil­dren in the town. And so they under­stand­ably stay inside the wall where every­thing and more was pro­vid­ed and where an obscene abun­dance reigned; but not, we learn, the assumed hap­pi­ness that would come from such lux­u­ry.… Our young hero­ine grows rest­less!

The girl who becomes the quilt­mak­er goes out, of course—beyond the wall—that’s the main sto­ry. And she learns that the ter­rors on the oth­er side of the wall are noth­ing like what she’d imag­ined. No mon­sters or ghouls, witch­es or drag­ons. Rather, extreme pover­ty. And though she sees the rav­ages of hunger and unhap­pi­ness, she also wit­ness­es extra­or­di­nary gen­eros­i­ty and kind­ness. She learns that it’s not the peo­ple who are fright­ful, but the cir­cum­stances in which they live.

When she returns to her life inside the wall and makes a plea before the town elders for their town to help those who are out­side the wall…she faces resis­tance. Ignore the poor, she’s told. “If they want­ed to be rich, they shouldn’t have been born poor.”

This does not sit well with the girl who has now had her eyes, ears, and heart opened. She’s been out­side the wall—she knows things the elders do not. She leaves her life of com­fort and makes a new life out­side the wall as she strug­gles to fig­ure out what her gift to the world will be. Even­tu­al­ly, she sells the ring her moth­er gave her to buy bright cloth and thread…and she uses the skills bequeathed to her by the kind old seam­stress who sewed her gowns when she was a child…and she makes quilts. Thick and warm quilts. Beau­ti­ful quilts. Beau­ti­ful, warm quilts she gives, not sells, to those who need them most.

The Quiltmaker’s Jour­ney takes longer to read than many pic­ture books, but her jour­ney is an impor­tant one. Try read­ing the book dur­ing your Thanks­giv­ing fes­tiv­i­ties this week­end. It will not dis­ap­point. It’s an inspir­ing way to begin this sea­son of hol­i­days.

Read more...

The Princess and Her Panther

Last week, I was work­ing on my WIP, a sprawl­ing mess of a nov­el. I’d hit a rough patch and I set myself the assign­ment to just type away for ten minutes—ten min­utes of non­stop typ­ing just to Get Words Down—I wouldn’t let my fin­gers stop. I sim­ply need­ed some words to work with, I told myself. 

I do not usu­al­ly resort to this, but it was not a par­tic­u­lar­ly good writ­ing day. And so I typed and typed—and I knew it was dreck, but at least it was maybe (hope­ful­ly) a start­ing point for this piv­otal scene between two cousins…. Type­type­type­type­type…. And then, my fin­gers typed this line:

Signe was brave, and Riya tried to be.

I stopped typ­ing.

I’d writ­ten 873 words. 865 were lookin’ pret­ty use­less. But these eight…maybe these eight had some­thing I could work with? There was a rhythm to them, a qui­et spark of some sort. Some­thing famil­iar.… Com­fort­ing. They made me smile. I couldn’t quite put my fin­ger on it, but I high­light­ed the line so I wouldn’t lose it, then I con­tin­ued. The words that came after these were bet­ter, eas­i­er. The con­flict unknot­ted itself just a bit and I could begin the work with­in it.

This after­noon, I fig­ured out what was so famil­iar about the line. It’s basi­cal­ly a pla­gia­rized line from a favorite pic­ture book of mine: The Princess and Her Pan­ther by Wendy Orr, Illus­trat­ed by Lau­ren Stringer.

I love every­thing about this book.  I love the red “O” on the very first page, which begin “One after­noon…”.  I love the sto­ry told in the pic­tures. I love the imag­i­na­tions of the Princess and her Panther—sisters, the old­er one in charge, the younger fol­low­ing the nar­ra­tive that is set.

In the back­yard, the princess and her pan­ther cross the desert sand (sand­box), drink from the waters of wide blue lake (wad­ing pool), and pitch a red silk tent (red blan­ket over a tree branch.) Dar­ling Daugh­ter loved the tent when she was the panther’s age.

Through­out there is this won­der­ful per­fect refrain: The princess was brave, and the pan­ther tried to be. Wa-la! The source of my line!

This book is a won­der­ful read-a-loud—every word is pitch-per­fect. And the illustrations…well. The illus­tra­tions make us feel the con­fi­dence of the princess, the ner­vous­ness of the pan­ther. And we see when the princess los­es a lit­tle of her confidence—it’s the too-whit-too-whoo­ing and screechy hoo-hoo­ing that does it.

Then comes the vari­a­tion on the per­fect line, itself per­fect: The princess tried to be brave, and the pan­ther tried to try.

And then they both regain their brav­ery—the princess was brave, and the pan­ther was too—and togeth­er they shout “Enough is enough!” van­quish­ing the imag­ined wolf, mon­ster, witch, and slith­ery snakes. The sis­ters go back to their red silk tent, “and the full moon smiled as it shone its soft light on two sis­ters sleep­ing…”

It’s an immense­ly sat­is­fy­ing book—a pic­ture book extra­or­di­naire as both the pic­tures and the words are nec­es­sary for the full effect. The sto­ry arc is per­fect and that line—my favorite line!—put things right some­how for this frus­trat­ed writer. Just the sound of the words strung togeth­er. It’s exact­ly what my book need­ed this week.

I haven’t read The Princess and the Pan­ther in sto­ry­time for quite some time—it used to be in reg­u­lar rota­tion and received rave reviews, by which I mean my young sto­ry time friends sat rapt. I don’t know how it got parked on the book­shelves for so long. But I’ve pulled it off the shelf now and it’ll be head­lin­ing the very next sto­ry­time I do.

I’m grate­ful I still read to kids regularly—it helps this writer’s writ­ing. Good pic­ture books are like poetry—the lan­guage seeps in.

Read more...

The BIG Umbrella

I am extra­or­di­nar­i­ly lucky in that I have a group of wee ones who join me for sto­ry­time most weeks. They’re little—age three and under, with sev­er­al babies in the mix—so we don’t tell long sto­ries or read great doorstop­per books. But with pic­ture books, some of the best ones are pret­ty spare in terms of words.

I have a new favorite—new to the world, even—that I want to share wide­ly. The BIG Umbrel­la writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Amy June Bates, co-writ­ten with Juniper Bates. (A moth­er-daugh­ter pair, the daugh­ter being quite young, which is its own love­li­ness.) This book is an anti­dote for our ugly, con­tentious times. It is a sto­ry of inclu­sion and gladness—an “All are wel­come, please come!” invi­ta­tion leaps off its pages.

By the front door…

            there is an umbrel­la.

It is BIG.

It is a big friend­ly umbrel­la.

There’s a page turn with each of those lines—the bet­ter to show off the won­der­ful art. The bright red umbrel­la catch­es even the youngest’s eyes.

The umbrel­la fea­tures a smil­ing face. The eyes are smil­ing, too. I think it’s the first anthro­po­mor­phic umbrel­la I’ve seen, now that I think about it. The umbrel­la is being tak­en out and about by a child in a yel­low rain slick­er. We are told—and see—that this big friend­ly umbrel­la likes to help, likes to spread its arms wide, “lives” to shel­ter those who need shel­ter.

In the next sev­er­al page turns, the big umbrel­la takes in one friend after another—a blue jack­et­ed child first…then a tutu-clad dancer…and a red sneak­ered sports star.

And that is only the begin­ning of who the big red umbrel­la shel­ters. We learn it can take in the tallest among us (giant bird feet appear and are cut-off at the top of the page before we’re to the knee) as well as the hairi­est (a benev­o­lent hairy beast.) It takes in those clad in plaid and those with four legs. The umbrel­la just keeps get­ting big­ger as they all crowd under it togeth­er.

Towards the end of the book there is a gen­tle reminder that although some wor­ry there won’t be enough room, there always is.

I almost cried when I read it. But I was saved by the smiles around the circle—those wee ones got it! They can’t pro­nounce umbrel­la, many of them, but sit­ting in a crowd­ed space on their par­ents’ laps, with their young friends…they got it. There’s always room.

Read more...

The Penderwicks

I have a mixed his­to­ry with The Pen­der­wicks books by Jeanne Bird­sall. The first book, The Pen­der­wicks: A Sum­mer Tale Of Four Sis­ters, Two Rab­bits, and a Very Inter­est­ing Boy came out in 2005 when #1 Son was eight and Dar­ling Daugh­ter was three. It won the Nation­al Book Award that year and there was much flur­ry over it.

It’s the sort of book I love—a fam­i­ly sto­ry, gen­tle adven­tures, quo­tid­i­an details—and with a mod­ern set­ting, as opposed to the more dat­ed books that had inspired it like The Melendy Quar­tet, The Mof­fats, and the E. Nes­bit books.

Peo­ple pressed The Pen­der­wicks upon me. “Look at the cov­er!” they said.

It was an adorable cov­er. So we read it.

I must’ve been in a mood or some­thing…. I just didn’t love it. The kids liked it just fine. I was…very crit­i­cal. I won­der now if I was jeal­ous, actu­al­ly. It’s the kind of book I might like to write. 

Fast for­ward six years or so…. I was work­ing toward an MFA in writ­ing for chil­dren and young adults. I had to do a crit­i­cal thesis—a schol­ar­ly work of in-depth analy­sis and crit­i­cism. I decid­ed to write my crit­i­cal the­sis on The Twen­ty-First Cen­tu­ry Hap­py Fam­i­ly Sto­ry. I looked at the his­to­ry of the genre (the “Hap­py Fam­i­ly Sto­ry” was a rec­og­nized genre at one time) and many of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry exam­ples, which were all on my shelves as they are beloved works I’d read as a child and to my chil­dren.

After ana­lyz­ing these old­er books I loved so much, I pro­posed cer­tain changes—tweaks, really—that might be need­ed to make the genre appeal to twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry kid read­ers. In that process, I looked at The Pen­der­wicks again. Was it a good mod­el of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry hap­py fam­i­ly sto­ry I was propos­ing? Two more books had come out in the series in the mean­time. I read those, too, stub­born­ly hold­ing to my most­ly crab­by stance. Of course these books had their charms, but I picked apart places where I thought they’d fall­en short. I learned a lot doing this. I’d be grate­ful to Ms. Bird­sall if this was all I got from her books.

Mean­while, peo­ple con­tin­ued to press the Pen­der­wicks books upon me. My writ­ing teachers…librarians and book­sellers who know me well…my agent…my agent’s adorable daugh­ter…. “Why don’t you love the Pen­der­wicks?” they’d say. I start­ed to feel like a heel. And I had to admit it didn’t make sense. (This is when I formed the jeal­ousy hypoth­e­sis.)

Still, I didn’t pick them up again until just recent­ly. I opened the first book to look at how Bird­sall uses point of view since I was stuck on a POV prob­lem in my own novel…and this time, for what­ev­er rea­son, I fell into the book. I asked my nieces who live just around the cor­ner to read it with me. Their moth­er had just ordered the book for them—it being exact­ly the sort of book they would love. (It’s genet­ic, this love of hap­py fam­i­ly sto­ries.) And they did love that first Pen­der­wicks book—we read the first chap­ters togeth­er this sum­mer and they fin­ished on their own, unable to wait for me.

Last week, while my sis­ter and broth­er-in-law were out, I had a chance to do one of my favorite things: sit on the floor in the hall­way between my nieces’ bed­rooms and read them to sleep. Only they couldn’t go to sleep. We are now on the sec­ond book in the series, The Pen­der­wicks on Gar­dam Street, and it was entire­ly too absorb­ing to put any­one to sleep. I even­tu­al­ly had to say, “It’s late. We real­ly need to be done for now….”

Today after school they came over for anoth­er cou­ple of chap­ters. Who knows how these things hap­pen, but I’m in love with the Pen­der­wicks at last! The fifth book came out this fall. We’re plan­ning on read­ing the whole series togeth­er.

Read more...

The Stuff of Stars

I’ve been anx­ious­ly await­ing the book birth of The Stuff of Stars by Mar­i­on Dane Bauer, illus­trat­ed by Ekua Holmes. I heard the text a year ago and for­got to breathe while the author read it out loud. And then I heard who the illus­tra­tor was. Let’s just say, what a pair­ing!

When I opened my much antic­i­pat­ed copy—after oohing and aaahing over the cover—and read the first page, I heard cel­lo. A deep deep cel­lo note, under the words.

In the dark,

in the dark,

in the deep, deep dark…. 

As I con­tin­ued to read, I con­tin­ued to hear cel­lo music—almost a synes­the­sia kind of expe­ri­ence, though thor­ough­ly explained, I sup­pose, by my intense love of cel­lo.

And so, when it came time to read it to an audience—storytime in wor­ship at church—I con­tact­ed a won­der­ful cel­list in our midst and asked if she was the sort of per­son who liked to impro­vise, draw­ing pic­tures with her cel­lo, etc. She is that sort of per­son, luck­i­ly enough. I emailed her the text and she emailed back her excite­ment.  I said, “Wait ‘til you see the art….” (She gasped when she saw the art.)

I gave her com­plete artis­tic free­dom. We agreed to meet before church to run through it a cou­ple of times. I sat so she could see the pic­tures as I read. We ran through it twice—different both times. Won­der­ful both times. We did it anoth­er two times in each of our church’s services—different those times, too, and won­der­ful in all new ways because the kids were lis­ten­ing.

She’s an extreme­ly tal­ent­ed musi­cian work­ing on a degree in composition—obviously not every­one could do this. But it was just glo­ri­ous, my friends.

She played how “the cloud of gas unfold­ed, unfurled, zigged, zagged, stretched, col­lid­ed, expand­ed…expand­edexpand­ed….” My heart near­ly burst when she played that expan­sion. The chil­dren sat rapt, their eyes wide at the  col­laged mar­bled papers illus­trat­ing the first moments of our cos­mos.

The cel­lo illus­trat­ed for our ears how the star­ry stuff turned into “mito­chon­dria, jel­ly­fish, spi­ders…” It helped us hear the ferns and sharks, daisies and gal­lop­ing hors­es. The gal­lop­ing hors­es were fan­tas­tic. 

When the dark refrain returned…

…one day…

in the dark,

in the dark,

in the deep, deep dark… 

…so did that low low note on the cel­lo. The chil­dren noticed. Their heads turned to look at the cello…and then back at the mar­bled dark­ness in the book.

It was pow­er­ful.

The Stuff of Stars is pow­er­ful with­out cel­lo music, I assure you. I’ve since read it to young and old alike with­out accom­pa­ni­ment, and it’s a delightful—I will even say holy—expe­ri­ence every time. If you’ve not seen this book, you must! Pick up a few copies—it makes a won­der­ful new baby or birth­day gift;  for the sto­ry of the birth of the cos­mos moves to the birth of our planet…and then to the birth of the indi­vid­ual child “spe­cial as Love.”

We need more books like this one—books that hold togeth­er won­der, sci­ence, awe, love, and our place in nature along­side the inevitable ten­sions of life. We need gor­geous books for chil­dren. Too much of the world is ugly right now. Chil­dren need beau­ty, sto­ries, and art. They need to hear:

You

   and me

      lov­ing you.

          All of us

              The stuff of stars.

 

For fur­ther read­ing, I high­ly rec­om­mend the fol­low­ing:

Mar­i­on Dane Bauer inter­views her illus­tra­tor, Ekua Holmes.

The writ­ing process for The Stuff of Stars.

Read more...

Story Time for All

A cou­ple of weeks ago, Dar­ling Daugh­ter and I made our way to the Farm­ers Mar­ket. I’ve been recov­er­ing from a bit of surgery, and truth be told, I wasn’t feel­ing great that morn­ing, but need­ed to get out and about. We wan­dered the stalls, got our veg­gies, our goat cheese, our sunflowers…then some cof­fee and lemon­ade and car­damom donuts so as to sit down and rest a bit. And then…

Sto­ry­time! STO­RY-time!” A voice sang out to the crowd.

As any read­er of this col­umn knows, I’m a huge fan of sto­ry time. Give me a kid or two and a stack of books and I will read and sing and play hap­pi­ly for as long as they will. Tru­ly, sto­ry time gives me Great Joy. I’m usu­al­ly the sto­ry­teller or sto­ryread­er, though. Too sel­dom do I attend sto­ry times now that my chil­dren are fair­ly grown.

I rec­og­nized the voice imme­di­ate­ly. It belonged to a local actor here in the Twin Cities—he’s part of the Guthrie com­pa­ny as well as being a reg­u­lar at sev­er­al oth­er the­aters. Most recent­ly he played the Lorax at the Children’s The­ater Com­pa­ny in Min­neapo­lis and the Old Globe in San Diego. His name: H. Adam Har­ris. And does he ever have a voice!

When I saw this tal­ent­ed man do sto­ry time at the farmer’s mar­ket last sum­mer I was also thrilled and car­ried away by the experience—I wrote about it for Red Read­ing Boots, in fact. This year, he was every bit as wonderful—and he read some new-to-me books I loved and have since added to my sto­ry time stack. But it was my per­son­al expe­ri­ence of the sto­ry time this year that was so mean­ing­ful.  

I, a mid­dle-aged moth­er with teen daugh­ter in tow, was not the tar­get audi­ence for this sto­ry time. But I enjoyed it every bit as much as the lit­tlest ones there.  Yes, I loved all the kids gathering…the fam­i­lies set­ting down their bas­kets and bags and sit­u­at­ing their kids on the blue mat and them­selves on the steps…I loved the kids’ laugh­ter, and Mr. Har­ris’ won­der­ful voic­es and expres­sions and enthu­si­asm. It was a beau­ti­ful day, the sto­ries he’d select­ed were ter­rif­ic….

But on that par­tic­u­lar Sat­ur­day, what my tired and recov­er­ing body loved most was sim­ply being read to. I loved the sto­ry time itself. I just melt­ed into the steps and gave myself over to the expe­ri­ence. What a gift it is to be read a sto­ry! Why do we not do this for each oth­er more often? While I think it the most fab­u­lous thing in the world that we read to chil­dren, the only thing more fab­u­lous would be also read­ing to each oth­er as adults.

Dar­ling Daugh­ter sug­gest­ed I bite the bul­let and just get Libro.fm already. I do adore audio­books. But I think it’s not quite the same as some­one read­ing to you live and in per­son. The rela­tion­ship between read­er and lis­ten­er is lost with­out a lit­tle eye con­tact, with­out a well-placed ques­tion or chuck­le. No, I think the thing has some­thing to do with being read to, not the lis­ten­ing itself.

So I com­mend it to you—find some­one to read to. Find some­one to read to you. Sit back and enjoy it.

Sto­ry­time! STO­RY-time!”

 

Read more...

Little Women

Dar­ling Daugh­ter and I watched the recent PBS ver­sion of Lit­tle Women last weekend.I was out of town when the first episode aired, but she wait­ed for me and we streamed it Fri­day night so we’d be caught up to watch the final two episodes Sun­day night.

I liked Lit­tle Women just fine as a kid. I read it tucked between the ban­is­ters and “the old book cab­i­net” at the top of my grand­par­ents’ stairs when I was prob­a­bly nine or ten. I liked Jo very much, and Beth, too. I found Meg too grown-up to iden­ti­fy with, and Amy…well, she seemed like a bit of a brat to me. I thought her sis­ters were…generous with her. I start­ed the nov­el again when I was in col­lege after an Amer­i­can Lit class taught me about the friend­ship of Emer­son, Thore­au, and the Alcotts, but I didn’t make it very far. There was a lot of tran­scen­den­tal preach­i­ness to it, I thought. I didn’t remem­ber those parts from my perch at the top of my grand­par­ents’ stairs.

Dar­ling Daugh­ter lis­tened to an audio­book of Lit­tle Women dur­ing a pneu­mo­nia recov­ery when she was nine-ish. She loved it. Kept lis­ten­ing to it over and over again, even after she was well. I think of that time as The Lit­tle Women Era. I could hear the tran­scen­den­tal ser­mons from her bed­room all the way down in the kitchen—right away in the morn­ing as I made break­fast. Again at night as she got ready for bed. Some­times I won­der if her mighty work eth­ic, dili­gence, and focus comes right out of that book. She lis­tened to those twen­ty-three CD’s over and over and over again. And when I got her the thick nov­el to read, she pored over that, too.

Last sum­mer, we took a trip to Con­cord, Mass­a­chu­setts, a place I’d want­ed to vis­it since I was in high school. I’m a Thore­au fan, you see, and it was a thrill to walk around beau­ti­ful Walden Pond accessed via the very trail (or close to it) Ralph Wal­do Emer­son used to vis­it his friend out in the lit­tle cab­in in the woods. It was also great fun to tour the Alcott house and hear about the fam­i­ly. Dar­ling Daugh­ter was as elat­ed with that part as I was with tramp­ing around Walden Pond. As we moved room to room, she whis­pered sup­ple­men­ta­tion to the (very good) tour guide’s words. Her cheeks were pink, her eyes aglow. She was in her ele­ment.

Some­where along the line, I’m sure we’ve watched a cou­ple of movie ver­sions of the famous March family’s adven­tures and tri­als. The PBS series was not that—a movie, that is. It was more like a col­lage we decided—episodes, snap­shots, very short acts—gor­geous­ly pre­sent­edIt deserves a cin­e­matog­ra­phy award, I think. Stun­ning light and images. We quib­bled hap­pi­ly over whether the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion was just right…or not. We glo­ried in our recog­ni­tion of cer­tain places in the Con­cord area. We ful­ly appre­ci­at­ed the self-reliance footage of the Alcott gar­dens, hen­house, and orchards. And we teared up with Beth’s death, even know­ing it was com­ing, rejoiced at the birth of Meg’s twins, felt all the con­flict­ed emo­tions sur­round­ing Amy’s jour­ney to Europe with Aunt March, root­ed for Jo through­out, and found Lau­rie very hand­some, indeed…. Though we missed the sub­tle­ty of Jo and Laurie’s rela­tion­ship in the book. They rather upped the roman­tic ele­ment in this pro­duc­tion.

At times I looked over at my girl, her face aglow by the light of the tele­vi­sion screen. Some­times her eyes were danc­ing, some­times her lips were pursed. She tends to be a purist…and as she said sev­er­al times, “the movie is nev­er as good….” But this was a special…“presentation,” we decid­ed. We won­dered if it would intro­duce a new gen­er­a­tion to a clas­sic, sort of doubt­ing that a pre-tween would find it very inter­est­ing.

As for me…I loved watch­ing with my Lit­tle Women-obsessed kid­do. I might’ve missed it with­out her, but I wasn’t about to know­ing that this book has so been her book. (Mine is Anne of Green Gables—and I watch all movie adap­ta­tions with my heart in my throat, wait­ing to see if they get it right.) As I brushed my teeth Sun­day night I won­dered about read­ing Lit­tle Women togeth­er this summer…we haven’t done that. Maybe this sum­mer is the time to do so.

SaveSave

Read more...

The Giant Jam Sandwich

Recent­ly, I was invit­ed to a baby show­er. I love shop­ping for baby show­ers, because I almost always give books and knit a wee lit­tle hat—two of my most favorite things. I had the hat all done except for the top lit­tle curly-cues, but I was fresh out of board books and so went on a hap­py lit­tle jaunt to one of my local book­stores.

And there—BE STILL MY HEART—was a book I’d not thought of in over forty years, but which had so cap­ti­vat­ed my imag­i­na­tion when I was ear­ly-ele­men­tary age that I’ve nev­er for­got­ten it. The Giant Jam Sand­wich, sto­ry and pic­tures by John Ver­non Lord, with vers­es by Janet Bur­roway. I bought it imme­di­ate­ly for the baby. And I bought myself a copy, too.

I nev­er had this book as a child. My mem­o­ry of it is entire­ly a tele­vi­sion expe­ri­ence. We didn’t watch much tele­vi­sion, so I was very curi­ous as to where I might’ve seen it. I’m too old to have watched Read­ing Rain­bow as a child, so I did a lit­tle dig­ging, and found that it was read on Cap­tain Kan­ga­roo in 1977 (we did watch Cap­tain Kan­ga­roo). The book was read, per­haps by the Cap­tain him­self, and the cam­era zoomed in on the pages—very low-tech.

I didn’t read this book to my own kids—it wasn’t repub­lished until 2012—but you can bet I’ll be read­ing this sto­ry of the four mil­lion wasps that come into Itch­ing Down one hot sum­mer day to any kid who cross­es the thresh­old from now on. Because, I am still utter­ly enthralled with this book! The detailed pic­tures, the effort­less rhyme, May­or Mud­dlenut and Bap the Bak­er….  So great!

I think it was the very idea of cre­at­ing an enor­mous jam sand­wich to trap those four mil­lion wasps that got me. The logis­tics are astound­ing. My moth­er made bread—I knew all about the knead­ing and the ris­ing and the bak­ing and I was floored by the efforts of the cit­i­zens of Itch­ing Down. The bread dough filled an entire ware­house-like structure—the towns­peo­ple had to crawl all over it to knead it. They had to build an oven on a hill….

For hours and hours they let it cook.

It swelled inside till the win­dows shook.

It was pip­ing hot when they took it out,

And the vil­lagers raised a mighty shout.

Isn’t it crusty! Aren’t we clever!”

But the wasps were just as bad as ever….

 

A giant saw is used to slice the loaf, eight fine hors­es pull the slice to the gigan­tic pic­nic cloth set out in a field. A truck dumps the but­ter and the peo­ple use spades and trac­tors to spread it out! Same with the jam!

Six fly­ing machines ‘whirled and wheeled” in the sky wait­ing for the wasps, who came at last lured by the smell of the jam. They dived and struck…and they ate so much that they all got stuck!

Ker­splat! The oth­er slice came down and only three wasps got away. The rest were stuck in that giant jam sand­wich….

I thought a lot about this book as a kid. (Rich Inte­ri­or Life, they call this.) The improb­a­ble prob­lem solv­ing, the bak­ing logis­tics, the sheer amounts of but­ter and jam…..  An amaz­ing effort.

[The wasps] nev­er came back to Itch­ing Down,

Which is not a waspish sort of town,

But a very nice place to dance and play,

And that’s what the vil­lagers did that day. 

What became of the sand­wich, you ask? Well, you’ll just have to pick up a copy your­self. It’s a pret­ty per­fect pic­ture book, in my opin­ion. And inter­est­ing­ly enough, I count only a cou­ple of kids in the illus­tra­tions…. Fas­ci­nat­ing all the way around!

Read more...

Waiting

I had the plea­sure this past week­end of accom­pa­ny­ing an ener­getic eight-year-old boy down Wash­ing­ton Avenue on the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta cam­pus. We were on foot—his feet faster than the rest in our par­ty, but we eas­i­ly caught up at each of the pedes­tri­an inter­sec­tions because he stopped at the light at each and every one.

Before Sun­day, I’d nev­er real­ized there were so many cross­walks on this stretch. The stop­lights “talk” in this busy urban area—there are bus­es, bikes, and light rail trains—and when you push the but­ton to cross the street, whether once or sev­en­ty-two times, a dis­em­bod­ied voice with great author­i­ty says “WAIT.”

There’s no excla­ma­tion point to the word as vocal­ized by the stop­light, but it does sound like it’s in all caps and has a defin­i­tive period—its own dec­la­ra­tion. “WAIT.” Our young charge repeat­ed the word per­fect­ly match­ing the pitch, vol­ume, and author­i­ty of the mech­a­nized voice.

WAIT.” said the light.

WAIT.” he repeat­ed. Then he hit the but­ton again.

WAIT.” it said.

WAIT.” he told us as he hit the but­ton again.

WAIT.” the light respond­ed.

WAIT.” he said. And then…well, you can prob­a­bly guess how it con­tin­ued. 

When we final­ly actu­al­ly need­ed to cross Wash­ing­ton Avenue, he pushed the but­ton a bazil­lion times while we stood await­ing the instruc­tion to cross safe­ly. (I’m not sure I’ve ever wait­ed so long to cross a street, actu­al­ly.) As we stood there I thought: this is what so much of child­hood is. WAITING. You’re for­ev­er waiting—on oth­ers, for every­thing to be ready, for some great thing, for your next birth­day, for what­ev­er will hap­pen next, for “just a minute”.… Life, at some lev­el, is a long series of WAITS. Maybe espe­cial­ly when you’re a kid, because when you’re a kid you are also wait­ing to grow up.

On Tues­day I was back at the U of M to hear Kevin Henkes, one of my pic­ture book writ­ing heros. The title of his talk was 3 Kinds of Wait­ing: A Pic­ture Book Tril­o­gy. I thought of my young friend as I lis­tened to Mr. Henkes talk about this theme of wait­ing present in so many of his books. He has thought deeply about waiting—from a child’s point of view, but any age’s point of view, real­ly. We wait for good things and hard things, he said. We do both wist­ful and seri­ous wait­ing. He talked about win­dows and wait­ing, treat­ing us to illus­tra­tions from his books and oth­ers that includ­ed some­one look­ing out a win­dow, wait­ing for the next thing.

I was in pic­ture book heaven—Kevin Henkes is a mas­ter.

I thought of my new friend who so loved push­ing the walk but­tons on Wash­ing­ton Avenue. He wait­ed a long time to be adopt­ed, to come to his new home with his lit­tle sis­ter, to have a Mama and a Papa, to be part of a fam­i­ly. He’s a sponge for lan­guage and music and his new culture—he’s learned so much in the last cou­ple of months. He loves books and sto­ries, and I think it might be time to intro­duce him to Lil­ly and her Pur­ple Plas­tic Purse…to Wil­son and Chester…to Chrysan­the­mum and Penny.…and Owen and Wen­dell and Julius and Wem­ber­ly and Sheila Ray, too.

Henkes’ books are spare in their text, but you read them slow­ly, because so much of the sto­ry is told in the illus­tra­tions. They’re good books for lan­guage learn­ers, which is every kid, of course. And I like this theme that’s going on in all of his mice books (and his oth­er books, too), this theme of wait­ing. Wait­ing to show-and-tell, wait­ing for the new baby, wait­ing for new friends, wait­ing to learn how, wait­ing for an appro­pri­ate time, wait­ing to grow up.… It’s pret­ty uni­ver­sal, this WAIT.

I nev­er thought of Henkes “mouse books” as falling under this theme of wait­ing until he point­ed it out. But when I got home, I looked at my (sub­stan­tial) col­lec­tion of his books and real­ize that they all have some­thing to do with wait­ing. And I can’t wait to intro­duce them to my new friend who so solid­ly says and under­stands the word WAIT. I think he’s going to love them.

 

Read more...

Pablo and Birdy

 

There are books I read with my eyes leak­ing begin­ning to end. Count­ing by Sevens…Swallows and Amazons…The View From Saturday…Because of Winn Dixie…Orbiting Jupiter…. I don’t mean to say these books make me cry—that’s anoth­er cat­e­go­ry, the ones that make you ugly cry so you can’t read it out­loud. Rather, these leaky-eye books are sto­ries read through a watery prism from the first page on. I nev­er sob or snif­fle, I just wipe at my eyes with my sleeve for the entire length of the book. If I read them aloud to my kids when they were lit­tle, they com­ment­ed. “Mom­my, are you cry­ing?” And I quite cheer­ful­ly could say, “Not exact­ly. This one just makes my eyes leak.”

It’s like the book fills my heart to such an extent—With what? Won­der? Beau­ty? Grat­i­tude? Bit­ter­sweet­ness? Truth?—that some­thing has to over­flow. And that some­thing is my eyes, I guess. I love many many books, but the eye leak­ers are in a spe­cial cat­e­go­ry unto them­selves.

Ali­son McGhee’s Pablo and Birdy joined the list most recent­ly. I knew from the first line.

Ready Birdy?” Pablo said, and he held out his fin­ger for her. “Up you go.”

This is the sto­ry of a boy named Pablo who washed up on the beach in an inflat­able swim­ming pool as a baby. Birdy is the par­rot who was found cling­ing to the ropes that held Pablo safe. The book opens as Pablo is turn­ing ten. He is sur­round­ed by the love of an eccen­tric group of islanders who try to pro­tect him from the sto­ry of his past for which they have no answers. But that doesn’t mean Pablo doesn’t have ques­tions.

Birdy is a flight­less and voice­less par­rot. She is laven­der-feath­ered and man­go-scent­ed and the bond she has with her Pablo is a fierce one. Their rela­tion­ship is large­ly respon­si­ble for my leak­ing eyes.

There are slap­sticky fun­ny moments as well as sad and wor­ri­some moments in Pablo and Birdy. There’s an eclec­tic cast, human and not, includ­ing the Com­mit­tee, a group of rag-tag island birds who com­ment on all of the goings-on. Also a pas­try-steal­ing dog thread that can break your heart. And through it all, there is the mys­te­ri­ous myth of the sea­far­ing par­rot who knows and can repro­duce all of the sounds of the world that have ever been made.

A strange wind blows in dur­ing the events of this nov­el. Island wis­dom holds that “the winds of change mean for­tune lost or for­tune gained.” As Pablo says at the end, it’s not always easy to tell what has been lost and/or gained. That’s fun­da­men­tal­ly what the sto­ry is about, I think—that elu­sive and/or—and as such, it is a beau­ti­ful one to press into the hands of kids you love.

Two of my nieces turn eleven this spring. They each bear a slight resem­blance to Pablo in dif­fer­ent ways—and they are loved just as fierce­ly by we, their “islanders.” There is still space in their heads, hearts, and lives for won­der and imag­i­na­tion, which is the only thing this book requires. I’ll even go as far as to say this book can restore won­der and imag­i­na­tion if it’s on the way out. They’re both get­ting a signed copy for their birth­days—shh­hh don’t tell! I don’t know if their eyes will leak or not. But I’ve dreamt of read­ing it with each of them—leaky eyes and all—and I think they’ll love it.

 

SaveSave

Read more...

The Hate You Give

 

This past week­end, Dar­ling Daugh­ter and I par­tic­i­pat­ed in a par­ent-teen book dis­cus­sion about The Hate You Give by Ang­ie Thomas. This book has won many awards, received fan­tas­tic reviews, and is a hot top­ic of dis­cus­sion in both the book and teen world—especially where those worlds over­lap. It’s about the after­math of a police shoot­ing of an unarmed black teen. It cov­ers var­i­ous racial issues, grief, friend­ship, eco­nom­ic dis­par­i­ty, and polit­i­cal activism, just to name a few of the chal­leng­ing the­mat­ic ele­ments.

The con­ver­sa­tion over piz­za and sal­ad was excel­lent. I came with a list of ques­tions, but we real­ly didn’t need it. We won­dered togeth­er about all we don’t know and can’t know about anoth­er person’s sit­u­a­tion. We won­dered if dif­fer­ences make it hard­er to under­stand one another…and/or if there’s a way to use those dif­fer­ences some­how to strength­en what we have in com­mon. We reflect­ed on how com­pli­cat­ed life can be—how so many traps can catch a kid, an adult, too. We talked about the dif­fer­ence one car­ing adult, or one good friend, can make in a kid’s life. And we talked about when that isn’t enough. We dis­cussed insti­tu­tion­al and sys­temic racism. And they pro­vid­ed real life illus­tra­tions from school that week.

It was pret­ty eye open­ing. These teens are white stu­dents at very diverse urban high schools (three dif­fer­ent ones.) We par­ents had gone to high schools, back in the day, with­out near­ly as much diver­si­ty in terms of cul­ture, lan­guage, skin col­or, reli­gion, and socio-eco­nom­ic sta­tus. It was clear they thought we’d missed out. Speak­ing for myself, I think we did, too.

Our kids are pret­ty flu­ent in things we nev­er thought about as high school stu­dents because of the rich make-up of their stu­dent bod­ies. Their lunch­rooms accom­mo­date an array of dietary restric­tions and eco­nom­ic neces­si­ties. The sched­ul­ing of tests has to take into account var­i­ous reli­gious obser­vances. There are some­times heat­ed dis­cus­sions and even fights hap­pen­ing in lan­guages the bystanders and staff don’t under­stand. There are cul­tur­al val­ues they find mys­te­ri­ous, but want to respect, even as they won­der about the source of their own val­ues. There are racial issues that play out in both ugly and inter­est­ing ways. It’s quite a mix of peo­ple and issues they nav­i­gate each day in their class­es, hall­ways, and lunch­room.

Our kids loved The Hate You Give—for the “real­ness” of it, the con­tem­po­rary feel, for what it helped explain, and for the ques­tions it made them ask of them­selves, their schools, and their com­mu­ni­ties. When we talked about “mir­rors and windows”—whether a book mir­rors a reader’s life sit­u­a­tion or pro­vides a win­dow to see into another’s life situation—they all said they thought this was a win­dow book. It was writ­ten for white peo­ple, they said, to help them flesh out sto­ries in the news, help them build empa­thy. I asked if they had black friends read­ing the book. They did. They did not spec­u­late as to whether their black friends read The Hate You Give as a mir­ror or win­dow book, but they said every­one who reads it is talk­ing about it.

We par­ents loved The Hate You Give, too—for the peek inside our kids’ days and thoughts, for expla­na­tions of things we’re not famil­iar with (like rap lyrics), and for its com­plex­i­ty. The sit­u­a­tions and the char­ac­ters in this book are enor­mous­ly com­pli­cat­ed. Our days are filled with tweets and posts and head­lines that gross­ly sim­pli­fy things, there­by caus­ing fur­ther harm. This books blows open issues of race and fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty by show­ing their com­plex­i­ty. It makes for a rich, heart-break­ing sto­ry that some­how man­ages to give a glim­mer of hope at the end.

The Hate You Give is a heck of a cross-over book. Some of us read YA and kidlit books reg­u­lar­ly, but many adults do not. This one works for adults. And if you have a teen you can read it with—well, sit back and lis­ten to them. They also give you a sense of hope.

 

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Read more...

A Porcupine Named Fluffy

It’s Read Across Amer­i­ca Week this week and I had the priv­i­lege of haul­ing a bag of books to a local ele­men­tary school and read­ing to five dif­fer­ent classes—K‑2nd grade—last Tues­day. A tru­ly won­der­ful way to spend the after­noon, I must say.

#1 Son’s 21st birth­day was Tues­day, which made me all nos­tal­gic for the days of pic­ture books, and so I’d packed a bag full of his long-ago favorites (and a cou­ple new­er ones, too). In each class we’d chat for a few min­utes and I’d kin­da suss out what they might like most. Small Walt was a hit with a kinder­garten class, The Odi­ous Ogre with the sec­ond graders. One Dog Canoe works for just about any age, of course. As does A Por­cu­pine Named Fluffy. I think I read A Por­cu­pine Named Fluffy by Helen Lester, illus­trat­ed by Lynn Mun­singer, in three of the five class­rooms. It nev­er fails.

When #1 Son was small, we used that book to get things done. “When you’re all done with bath and have brushed your teeth…we can read Fluffy.” “Just as soon as you fin­ish your lunch, we can read Fluffy out in the ham­mock….” He loved Fluffy.

The book opens with Mr. and Mrs. Por­cu­pine tak­ing a stroll with their first child in a stroller. They’re try­ing to find exact­ly the right name for him. They con­sid­er Spike. Too com­mon. Lance? Too fierce for their sweet lit­tle guy. Needlerooz­er?

It’s Needlerooz­er that gets the kids laughing—it’s almost like a mag­ic word that unlocks some­thing.

Needlerooz­er?!” they say.

That’s a ter­ri­ble name!”

It’s hard to spell!”

Prick­les? I say. They shake their heads. Pokey? More head shakes. How about Quil­lian?

What kind of name is that?” said one lit­tle boy.

Then togeth­er Mr. and Mrs. Por­cu­pine have an idea. “Let’s call him Fluffy. It’s such a pret­ty name. Fluffy!”

 Lots of gig­gles at this. Por­cu­pines aren’t fluffy! They all know this and so the name is hilar­i­ous! It’s a pret­ty won­der­ful intro­duc­tion to irony, if you ask me.

So Fluffy grows up, beloved and some­what pro­tect­ed, with his iron­ic name. At some point he begins to sus­pect he’s not fluffy—things hap­pen. The illus­tra­tions car­ry the humor in these instances and kids love love love it. And so he embarks on the chal­lenge of mak­ing his sharp quills fluffier—more hilar­i­ty ensues.

And then one day, Fluffy meets a very large rhi­noc­er­os. And the rhi­noc­er­os tells him right out that he’s going to give Fluffy a “rough time.”

What’s your name, small prick­ly thing?” the rhi­noc­er­os asks.

Fluffy,” says Fluffy.

And this just slays the rhino—he can hard­ly breathe he laughs so hard. By then, every­one is laughing—a prop­er read­ing depends on the laugh­ter in fact.

And what is your name?” Fluffy asks, despite his embar­rass­ment.

And then we find out the rhino’s name, which I shall not divulge here. Suf­fice to say, it gives the irony of Fluffy’s name a run for its mon­ey.

The books ends with the two as fast friends, of course. And the book ends with readers—young and older—smiling and laugh­ing. There’s just some­thing about this book! If you haven’t read it, or don’t remem­ber it (it was pub­lished before I grad­u­at­ed from high school!) look for it in your library. I saw it there just a few weeks ago—it is still very much in cir­cu­la­tion.

SaveSave

Read more...

The Human Alphabet

At my local library, a cou­ple of weeks ago, I flipped through the books that were for sale by the Friends of the Library. These are most­ly books that have been removed from the shelves for one rea­son or anoth­er. The kids’ books cost $.50—fifty cents, peo­ple! I’ve found some great ones in these bins.

The find this time: Pilobo­lus Dance Com­pa­ny’s The Human Alpha­bet. I snapped it up. As in I dropped the oth­er books I was hold­ing, I grabbed it so fast. It’s in pret­ty good con­di­tion. You can tell it’s been read hard, but frankly it might be the very copy that was read hard in our house, so I don’t mind the evi­dence of pre­vi­ous reads.

This book reg­u­lar­ly found its way into our library bag when #1 Son was young. He hat­ed alpha­bet books with an almost patho­log­i­cal hatred, being a child who could fer­ret out an adult’s agen­da (learn­ing let­ters, for instance) quick­er than you could open a book. He dis­dained any books that were designed to help a young per­son learn let­ters or num­bers. Except for Pilobolus’s alpha­bet book. For this rea­son, I con­sid­er this book mag­i­cal.

It opens with this sim­ple invi­ta­tion: Here are 26 let­ters of the alpha­bet and 26 pictures—all made of peo­ple! Can you guess what each pic­ture shows? And what fol­lows are the most amaz­ing pic­tures. Each let­ter is made of peo­ple, and so is a pic­ture that goes with each letter—a line of ants for A, but­ter­fly for B etc. They are astound­ing, each and every one.

Some­thing about these let­ters made of peo­ple spoke to our boy who was “not so very fond of let­ters and num­bers.” (A direct quote, age four—we read a lot of Win­nie-the-Pooh, hence the British syn­tax.) Occa­sion­al­ly he would humor me and we would make let­ters with our bod­ies. But only occa­sion­al­ly. Most­ly he just flipped through the book, study­ing each let­ter, each pic­ture. Some­times I’d posi­tion myself so I could see his eyes as he looked at the book. He’d take in the whole page, lean in a bit…and then the recog­ni­tion! His eyes would widen almost imper­cep­ti­bly, and a lit­tle smile would come—he’d dis­cov­ered some­thing. The let­ter N! Or an ice cream cone! (MADE OF HUMANS!)

I tried so hard not to ruin it by hav­ing him trace the let­ters, or say them out loud, or won­der togeth­er what oth­er words might start with that let­ter. I bit my tongue, and we just enjoyed. Reg­u­lar­ly.

The copy­right on this book says 2005. In my mem­o­ry, he was much younger when we were look­ing at this book. But he was a lat­er read­er (you can read more on that adven­ture here), so per­haps it fell in that time when he already “should’ve” known his let­ters, but gave no indi­ca­tion he did on any of the usu­al tests and per­for­mances.

When I showed him my find, #1 Son, who will be 21 years old in a cou­ple of weeks, smiled with recog­ni­tion. Maybe I’ll send it to him for his birth­day….

Read more...

The Pushcart War

I first heard of  Jean Merrill’s The Push­cart War in grad school. I read it because a fel­low stu­dent spoke with absolute glee about it. I’ve not heard a book rec­om­mend­ed with such laugh­ter and vig­or before or since. And I fell into the book just as she insist­ed I would. Fell, I tell you. Lost my head, real­ly.

My kids did, too. I hand­ed it to them with a casu­al, “It’s real­ly good and I think you’ll like it…” sort of rec­om­men­da­tion. I want­ed to see if they would, as I did, google “push­cart war” to see when this had hap­pened and why we didn’t know more about it. They did. Well, the lit­tle one said, “Wait…did this real­ly hap­pen?!”

Appar­ent­ly, we each read over the dates of the for­ward and the author’s intro­duc­tion. Both are dat­ed in the year 2036, which would’ve been a clue, of course…but so absorbed were we in the “report­ing” of the Push­cart War—in the strug­gle, the unfair tac­tics and pol­i­tics of the truck­ers, and the plight of the push­cart vendors—that we missed the clues, I guess.

When The Push­cart War was pub­lished in 1964, it was set in New York City in 1976. When it was repub­lished in 1974, it was set in 1986. The 1985 edi­tion is set in 1996—always the not-so-dis­tant future, in oth­er words. When the New York Review Children’s Col­lec­tion pub­lished the 50th anniver­sary edi­tion a cou­ple of years ago, the date changed to 2026 (this is the edi­tion I have). This book has had polit­i­cal res­o­nance in each of the eras in which it has pub­lished and repub­lished, and the plight of the push­cart ven­dors cer­tain­ly still rings True, hilar­i­ous­ly and poignant­ly, today.

The sto­ry could be cat­e­go­rized as “nar­ra­tive jour­nal­ism,” pub­lished ten years after the events of the war. The for­ward, writ­ten by one Pro­fes­sor Lyman Cum­ber­ly of New York Uni­ver­si­ty says “…it is very impor­tant to the peace of the world that we under­stand how wars begin….” The Push­cart War shows us. Kids under­stand the issue at hand—the big truck­ing com­pa­nies want the roads cleared for trucks and only trucks. The truck­ing indus­try cites the impor­tance of deliv­er­ies being on time, the gen­er­al agree­ment that traf­fic is awful etc. The pushcarts—the lit­tle guys—are the first tar­get.

But they fight back! And the fight is glo­ri­ous and one that any­one who has ever been bul­lied or wit­nessed bul­ly­ing or has bul­lied will under­stand. There’s The Daf­fodil Mas­sacre, which starts it all off, and then we’re quick­ly intro­duced to Mor­ris the Florist, and Frank the Flower, and Max­ie Ham­mer­man, the Push­cart King. Movie star, Wan­da Gam­bling, sees the dan­ger signs—don’t we all? I mean, the taxi dri­vers grew cau­tious in their driving!—and pret­ty soon there are famous speech­es and secret meet­ings, trig­ger­ing words and secret weapons. Then there’s an all out War. It’s basi­cal­ly David and Goliath all over again.

But there’s some­thing about the way it’s written—I guess it’s the “nar­ra­tive jour­nal­ism” tone—before you know it, you’re search­ing Wikipedia to get the details nailed down.

If I were a teacher of fourth graders, I’d read a chap­ter of this time­less clas­sic every day. And I’d notice, and pon­der, as I did and do, that this book, a sto­ry for chil­dren, has only the briefest men­tion of any kids. The main char­ac­ters are entire­ly adults.

Fas­ci­nat­ing, don’t you think?

 

Read more...

Skinny Dip with Brenda Sederberg

Brenda SederbergBren­da Seder­berg is the cur­rent facil­i­ta­tor of the Chap­ter & Verse Book Club in Duluth, Min­neso­ta. She’s an enthu­si­as­tic read­er and won­der­ful­ly avid about shar­ing the books she reads. A retired teacher, she con­tin­ues to inspire learn­ing wher­ev­er she goes.

How many book­cas­es do you have in your home?

Oh … soooo many! When I retired from 34 years of teach­ing I brought very lit­tle home from my class­room, but I did bring 24 box­es of chil­dren’s books! I’m just not ready to part with them. They take up book­shelves on an entire wall in my house. From time to time I will be chat­ting with some­one about some­thing, and end up say­ing, “oh … you should see this book by .…”, and I find the book and loan it out. When guests with chil­dren vis­it they often end up read­ing books from my shelves.

I also have shelves of books in anoth­er room in our house, orga­nized:

  • nature and out­doors books
  • books by His­pan­ic authors (I taught mid­dle and high school Span­ish for a num­ber of years … before teach­ing ele­men­tary school)
  • trav­el books
  • an assort­ment of Nobel Prize win­ning lit­er­a­ture
  • chil­dren’s books from places I’ve vis­it­ed (Maine, Texas, Rhode Island, France, Ger­many)
  • favorite fic­tion and non­fic­tion books I’ve read or want to read

Brenda Sederberg's bookcases

Have you trav­eled out­side the Unit­ed States?

I love to trav­el, and when I do I look for chil­dren’s books from the area I’m vis­it­ing, or read a book while I’m there that was writ­ten by an author from that region. I read Hei­di in Switzer­land last fall, and Pinoc­chio in Italy the year before. I enjoy hik­ing and bik­ing in the wide open spaces in these coun­tries, the small towns … and I stay away from the big cities.

Mt. Royal Public Library, Duluth, MN

Mt. Roy­al Pub­lic Library, Duluth, MN

Which library springs to mind when some­one says that word?

It’s hard to choose one! We lived in a small town in North Dako­ta when I was young, and I biked to the Pub­lic Library there and checked out as many books as the book clamp on my bike would hold. It was a beau­ti­ful build­ing, of course, as libraries are! There were large steps lead­ing up to the door, and columns along­side the steps. The old pub­lic library near Lin­coln Park School was a favorite when I went to school there, and now I LOVE the Mt. Roy­al Library in Duluth. When I was in col­lege in Duluth, I worked 10 hours a week in the Chil­dren’s Library at UMD, run by Lor­raine Bis­sonette. She arranged books beau­ti­ful­ly, with stuffed ani­mal book char­ac­ters next to books, col­or­ful mobiles hang­ing above the shelves, green and flow­er­ing plants through­out, and com­fort­able chairs in which to sit and read. It was a library like no oth­er, to be sure … more like some of the won­der­ful chil­dren’s book­stores … the Wild Rum­pus, for exam­ple.

Do you read the end of a book first?

NEVER. I do not usu­al­ly read any infor­ma­tion on the flap or the back, either. I like to start with the ded­i­ca­tion, and then the first line of the book, and con­tin­ue from there. I want to read it and let it speak for itself, I don’t like to know much at all about a book before I read it! First lines are impor­tant to me … I sort of “col­lect” first lines!

"In the Carpenter Shop," Carl Larsson

In the Car­pen­ter Shop,” Carl Lars­son

Who is your favorite artist?

It is hard to choose one … I like the art of Carl Lars­son, Swedish painter, and vis­it­ed his home in Swe­den where one can see the paint­ing he did IN his home, above door­ways, around walls. I copied a “say­ing” he paint­ed in his house, above a door­way in our home: “Whef Du Vad, Var God Och Glad,” in Swedish (for­give any errors!), in Eng­lish: “I’ll tell you what, be good and glad.” I love Bet­sy Bowen’s wood­cuts, and the prints of Rick Allen, who has a stu­dio in Canal Park in Duluth and each spring releas­es a new print of “The Trap­per’s Daugh­ter”! He has prac­ti­cal­ly writ­ten a book in print­ing her many adven­tures! The let­ter­ing and text he some­times incor­po­rates in his work is won­der­ful, and often humor­ous.

Read more...

A Wrinkle in Time

It was a dark and stormy night. 

When I read this aloud one chilly fall evening on the porch to my kids, I laughed out loud. It was Banned Books week and we were “cel­e­brat­ing” by read­ing Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrin­kle in Time, one of the peren­ni­al repeaters on banned books lists. #1 Son was in fourth grade, which is when I’d been intro­duced to A Wrin­kle in Time. Dar­ling Daugh­ter was a lit­tle young, but she was accus­tomed to col­or­ing while we read books that were sup­pos­ed­ly “over her head”—books that she often quot­ed lat­er.

I can’t imag­ine I laughed the first time I heard the open­ing line of this impor­tant book. But as an adult, it struck me as ter­ri­bly clever—taking the most clichéd open­ing line ever and start­ing an astound­ing, break-all-the-rules book with it.

My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Hen­der­son read us A Wrin­kle in Time. I remem­ber the hair on my arms stand­ing up as she read a chap­ter each after­noon after lunch and recess. I could hard­ly breath I loved that book so much. Meg was a Smart Girl, a Strong Girl—a smart and strong girl in ways not always rec­og­nized, but fre­quent­ly squelched, in my expe­ri­ence. There were not near­ly enough Smart/Strong Girl pro­tag­o­nists when I was in fourth grade. I adored her. I want­ed to be her. Plus, I had a mad crush on Calvin.

The book was smart, too—filled with lan­guages Mrs. Hen­der­son could not pro­nounce, pep­pered with say­ings from peo­ple I did not know (like Seneca), and there was math and sci­ence and space adven­ture! Oh my! (I want­ed des­per­ate­ly to be a sci­en­tist when I was in fourth grade.) Read­ing time after lunch and recess was always my favorite part of the school day, but dur­ing those few weeks that we read A Wrin­kle in Time, I was in the high­est read­ing heav­en.

When we reached the chap­ter called “The Tesser­act,” Mrs. Hen­der­son declared it “too dif­fi­cult con­cep­tu­al­ly” and she skipped it. I can’t decide whether to nev­er for­give her for this, or be ter­ri­bly grate­ful. Because I went to the library and found the book so I could read the skipped part. I was deter­mined to under­stand it, and I did. (The draw­ing of the ant on the line helped.) I under­stood it sit­ting on the floor in the library at age nine bet­ter than I did when I read it to my kids on the porch dur­ing Banned Books Week thir­ty years lat­er, I think. Dar­ling Daugh­ter copied the pic­ture of the ant in her art­work. #1 Son stud­ied it after we’d fin­ished read­ing.

I don’t remem­ber read­ing ahead once I’d found the book in the library—I prob­a­bly didn’t, since I enjoyed hear­ing the chap­ter install­ments each day. In fact, I don’t remem­ber read­ing A Wrin­kle in Time on my own at all—and there were plen­ty of books I read in a com­pul­sive man­ner again and again.

But it was like I’d nev­er left it when I read it to my kids. I remem­bered it all—the excitement…the ter­ror of IT…the fast-paced dia­log between all the smart smart people…the iden­ti­cal chil­dren bounc­ing balls in front of iden­ti­cal hous­es, which I think of every time I’m in a sub­ur­ban devel­op­ment with only beige/grey hous­es and town­hous­es… Most of all: Meg’s frus­tra­tion and fear, fierce strength and smarts.

The hair on my arms stood up again when I saw the pre­view to the movie of A Wrin­kle in Time that’s com­ing out this March. It’s going to be won­der­ful, I can just tell. This ground­break­ing, unusu­al nov­el that couldn’t be cat­e­go­rized when it was pub­lished and con­tin­ues to resist cat­e­go­riza­tion near­ly six­ty years lat­er … this book that has been banned again and again and again … this book is about to take the world by a storm again, I pre­dict, even as it’s nev­er lost favor (except with those who would ban it, I guess). I open its pages and the hair on my arms stands up still—it remains incred­i­bly rel­e­vant, I believe. Per­haps more so now than when it was pub­lished. I can’t wait to see it on the big screen.

Read more...

Skinny Dip with DeDe Small

DeDe Small

DeDe Small shares her enthu­si­asm about books, read­ing, and lit­er­a­cy with her stu­dents at Drake Uni­ver­si­ty in Des Moines, Iowa. We invit­ed DeDe to Skin­ny Dip with us, our first inter­view in the New Year.

When did you first start read­ing books?

I don’t actu­al­ly remem­ber learn­ing to read but I do always remem­ber hav­ing books. I even came up with my own cat­a­loging sys­tem in the lat­er ele­men­tary grades.

Din­ner par­ty at your favorite restau­rant with peo­ple liv­ing or dead: where is it and who’s on the guest list?

I don’t know where it is but I know I am eat­ing a real­ly good steak and we need a big table because I am invit­ing Barak Oba­ma, JK Rowl­ing, Buck O’Neill, St. Ignatius of Loy­ola, Jane Goodall, my par­ents, and my aunts.

All-time favorite book?

This is real­ly hard because there are too many to name! I loved it when my moth­er read The Secret Gar­den to me. As a young child, I loved read­ing Andrew Henry’s Mead­ow by Doris Burn. In upper ele­men­tary, Island of the Blue Dol­phins by Scott O’Dell was my favorite. All-time favorite might have to be the entire Har­ry Pot­ter series because it speaks to choos­ing kind­ness, love, and integri­ty over pow­er and fame.

DeDe Small's favorite books

Favorite break­fast or lunch as a kid?

I was cuck­oo for Cocoa Puffs.

What’s your least favorite chore?

Doing the laun­dry.

What’s your favorite part of start­ing a new project?

I love the feel­ing when every­thing starts click­ing and you can sense where the project might go. That sense of poten­tial is ener­giz­ing.

SocksBare­foot? Socks? Shoes? How would we most often find you at home?

Bare­foot in warm weath­er and socks when it is cold. You will most often find me curled up on my couch with a book, doing school work or watch­ing a movie. The activ­i­ty changes but my loca­tion does not.

When are you your most cre­ative?

I am most cre­ative when I step back and take the time to let an idea per­co­late a bit.

Your best mem­o­ry of your school library?

My strongest mem­o­ry is actu­al­ly of my pub­lic library. We would go once a week. It became a great bond­ing expe­ri­ence with my moth­er and I came to think of the library as a spe­cial place. I now have four library cards.

Favorite fla­vor of ice cream?

Mint Chip.

Book(s) on your bed­side table right now?

Wishtree by Kather­ine Apple­gate, Wolf Hol­low by Lau­ren Wolk, and La Rose by Louise Erdrich.  I recent­ly read The Under­ground Rail­road by Col­son White­head, Refugee by Alan Gratz and Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds.

Best inven­tion in the last 200 years?

Vac­cines

Which is worse: spi­ders or snakes?

Spi­ders. Way too many legs and eyes.

What’s your best con­tri­bu­tion to tak­ing care of the envi­ron­ment?

Recy­cling

Why do you feel hope­ful for humankind?

I find hope in the char­ac­ters of good books and real-life sto­ries. Lloyd Alexan­der was specif­i­cal­ly ref­er­enc­ing fan­ta­sy but I think it is true of all good sto­ries: “Some­times heart­break­ing, but nev­er hope­less, the fan­ta­sy world as it ‘should be’ is one in which good is ulti­mate­ly stronger than evil, where courage, jus­tice, love, and mer­cy actu­al­ly func­tion.” Books allow us to rec­og­nize our own human­i­ty in oth­ers and that makes me hope­ful. If we read more, con­nect more, and under­stood more, the world would be a bet­ter place.

Read more...

The Grinch

I’m just going to say it. Go on the record.

I do not like The Grinch. I do not like the book. I do not like the char­ac­ter. I do not like the sto­ry of How The Grinch Stole Christ­mas. I do not like the bril­liant the­ater pro­duc­tions of the sto­ry (though I acknowl­edge the bril­liance.) I do not like the TV spe­cial, which I grew up watch­ing, and which I did not let my kids watch. I do not like the movie or the song. I do not like any of it, Sam-I-Am.

Lest you think I’m sim­ply grinchy about all things Grinch, I will tip my hand here at the begin­ning and say that I love the name “Grinch.” It’s per­fect. As per­fect as Ebe­neez­er Scrooge’s name, and let’s be hon­est, How The Grinch Stole Christ­mas is real­ly just a knock-off of Dicken’s A Christ­mas Car­ol. It’s just not as well done. It lacks…subtlety, among oth­er things.

Scrooge is afflict­ed with his own per­son­al bah hum­bug­ness, but you sus­pect even before all of the Christ­mas Ghosts vis­it that he could be a dif­fer­ent man with a lit­tle ther­a­py and some home­made Christ­mas cook­ies. But the Grinch is just mean. He’s not all “Bah hum­bug!” when Christ­mas friv­o­li­ties get on his nerves—he’s all “I MUST stop this Christ­mas from com­ing.”

Dude. Take your two-sizes-too-small heart and get back to your cave.

I’m tired of mak­ing excus­es for the grinch­es of the world. He takes the stock­ings and presents, the treats and the feast of the wee Whos! He takes the last can of Who-hash, for heaven’s sake! And then The Tree—he shoves the Whos’ Christ­mas tree up the chim­ney! Who does that?!

It’s Cindy­Lou Who and her sweet trust­ing nature that just undoes me. 

San­ty Claus, why…Why are you tak­ing our Christ­mas tree? WHY?”

The Grinch pos­es as San­ta Claus—can we agree this is an abom­i­na­tion?

He tells her there’s a light that won’t light, and so he’s tak­ing it back to his work­shop to fix. Sweet Cindy­Lou believes him—she trots back to bed with her cold cup of water. My heart! And the Grinch takes the very log for the fire; then goes up the chim­ney, him­self, the old liar.

We did not have this book grow­ing up. We watched the TV spe­cial but I’d nev­er read it until I babysat a fam­i­ly who had it. They had three boys, ages nine, six, and three. They were wild. Dif­fi­cult. Not kind to each oth­er. And they were exhaust­ing to put to bed. I think this is why their par­ents went out.

I sug­gest­ed a few books to wind down one sum­mer night, and the six-year-old demand­ed that I read How The Grinch Stole Christ­mas.

YEAH!” said the nine-year-old. “It makes babies cry!” And as if on cue, the three-year-old start­ed to whim­per. I said we weren’t going to read a book that made any­one cry. And besides, it wasn’t even Christ­mas.

But two hours lat­er, after the old­er two had passed out, the three-year-old brought How The Grinch Stole Christ­mas down to me and asked me to read it. His eyes were huge. His thumb was in his mouth. He said he had to go pot­ty first. Then he need­ed a cold cup of water—just like Cindy­Lou Who.

When we final­ly sat down to read the book, we did not get past the first page before huge tears welled in his eyes. I told him I could not in good con­science read him a book that made him so sad. He sug­gest­ed we just look at the pic­tures. And so we did. We talked through the pic­tures, and he trem­bled as we did. He obvi­ous­ly knew the sto­ry.

And it did not mat­ter one bit that The Grinch could not final­ly take away Christmas—that Christ­mas came in fine style even with­out all the trap­pings he’d stolen. It did not mat­ter that The Grinch’s heart grew three sizes in the end and that he him­self carved the roast beef. This, I sup­pose, is meant to be the “les­son,” the take-away that makes the rest of it all okay. Too lit­tle too late, I say.

I had a three-year-old on my lap try­ing so hard to brave, try­ing not to be The Baby his broth­ers told him he was. His lit­tle heart ham­mered as we turned those pages and by the time we were done, I was done with The Grinch.

So there.

SaveSave

Read more...

Thanksgiving Tea

The week before Thanks­giv­ing I was part of a won­der­ful Thanks­giv­ing-themed Sto­ry­time. Excel­lent books were read: Otis Gives Thanks by Loren Long and Thank­ful by Eileen Spinel­li. We sang through There Was An Old Lady Who Swal­lowed A Turkey by Lucille Colan­dro, and Sim­ple Gifts by Chris Rasch­ka. All was going swimmingly—beautiful chil­dren, rapt and smil­ing. They were very young, but you could tell they were read to reg­u­lar­ly. They knew how to sit on cush­ions, raise their hands, use their inside voic­es, etc.

And then I decid­ed to “tell” an orig­i­nal sto­ry about set­ting the table for a Thanks­giv­ing Tea. I pulled out #1 Son’s tea set from when he was three and very into tea par­ties. I gave it a good wash—quite dusty as he has used larg­er tea cups for years now—and packed it into a “sto­ry box” with a few oth­er props.

We will set a beau­ti­ful table togeth­er, I thought. I will invite them to pour the tea for one another…to imag­ine what they’d like to eat…we will give thanks for all the good­ness in life…. Warm cozy feel­ings flood­ed my sto­ry­telling heart.

I placed a small end table in front of them. They all stood up and gath­ered around. This was unexpected—the standing—but it made sense, of course. They would be right there and able to see the sto­ry unfold. I smiled, opened my sto­ry box, and began.

This is our Thanks­giv­ing table for tea… They stood still stock still, star­ing at the table in front of them. I love the innate dra­ma of telling sto­ries!

This is the table­cloth, ironed so smooth, that cov­ers our Thanks­giv­ing table for tea…. I spread a col­or­ful sun­flower nap­kin. Imme­di­ate­ly they all were touch­ing the nap­kin, rub­bing the table with the nap­kin, pulling the nap­kin to one side and then the oth­er, wip­ing their noses on the nap­kin. I sug­gest­ed we put our hands at our sides.

Nope.

I sug­gest­ed we put our hands behind our backs.

Ha!

So I con­tin­ued. I’m semi-unflap­pable.

This is the light, that shines in the mid­dle…. A quick glance at my fel­low sto­ry­time leader con­firmed that we might not want to light the can­dle as planned in my ridicu­lous­ly cozy vision of this sto­ry telling. This was an excel­lent choice as instant­ly there were hun­dreds, maybe thou­sands, of lit­tle hands all over the unlit can­dle. They passed it around, grabbed it from one anoth­er, blew on it. I insist­ed we put the light in the mid­dle as the sto­ry said.

When it was reluc­tant­ly placed there and we imag­ined the cozy flame, I con­tin­ued through the sto­ry. They con­tin­ued touch­ing the can­dle and adjust­ing the cloth.

But things didn’t real­ly fall apart until I brought out the small plates of “all dif­fer­ent col­ors” with their “match­ing cups for our Thanks­giv­ing tea.”

These were rearranged, stacked and unstacked, clat­tered togeth­er, passed around, dropped on the floor, sipped from, and licked. My fel­low sto­ry­teller flinched with every clat­ter, but I knew what those dish­es had been through and although they are pot­tery, they are the mag­i­cal sort that some­how does not break.

When I placed the teapot and cream and sug­ar “that match the cups and plates, all dif­fer­ent col­ors” on the table, fre­net­ic pour­ing and com­mon cup swig­ging ensued. Clear­ly they under­stood the con­cept of teatime. A small skir­mish broke out over the cream pitch­er and its imag­i­nary cream. Heaps more sug­ar than the wee sug­ar bowl could pos­si­bly hold was sprin­kled around all over the cloth and on each oth­er. A thou­sand or more chil­dren man­aged to gath­er around that tiny table and “manip­u­late” the props.

WHAT A FEAST! I cried. WHAT A TREAT! WHAT SHALL WE EAT FOR OUR TEA?! 

Cere­al!” was the first answer. Then ‘taters and pie and pop­corn and can­dy and turkey and more can­dy and toast and gold­fish and jel­ly and mac­a­roni-and-cheese and cup­cakes and milk and apples and but­tered noo­dles and bananas and hot­dogs and meat and corn-on-the-cob and hot choco­late and water­mel­on and more can­dy. Marsh­mal­lows, too. For the hot choco­late. But also just to eat.

All of these things we pre­tend­ed to place and plop and sprin­kle and slop on the wee lit­tle plates and in the wee lit­tle cups as they were mov­ing, no less. It was chaos—everything con­stant­ly being passed and clat­tered and exchanged and grabbed.

WE GIVE THANKS FOR THIS FOOD AND DRINK, THIS TABLE, AND OUR FRIENDS! I yelled above the may­hem. AND NOW WE CLEAN UP!

Half of the group imme­di­ate­ly went and sat on their cush­ions. The oth­er half did indeed “help” put every­thing back in the sto­ry­box. My sto­ry­teller part­ner and I heaved a sigh of relief as I put the lid on. Noth­ing broke. No one was cry­ing. There was no blood.

Now we have a craft!” we said. Which was, curi­ous­ly, a much calmer activ­i­ty. Except for the glue sticks—small bat­tles erupt­ed over those. More than one child used them as chap­stick. Per­haps this made for a qui­et ride home.

Read more...

Mouse Books

We have mice. Hope­ful­ly just one, but it’s a brash one, scut­tling around the kitchen dur­ing break­fast this morn­ing.

This hap­pens in the fall at our house. We’ve cer­tain­ly tried to find where they might be get­ting in, but they say a mouse only needs a dime-sized hole, and we obvi­ous­ly haven’t found it. Caught two a cou­ple of weeks ago.

They’re small. Cute, even. Which is good, because oth­er­wise I’d have the hee­bie-jee­bies. And I (most­ly) don’t. It’s just a To-Do on the list—and I’m not the one who To-Do’s it even.

But it has me think­ing…. We might not want them in our hous­es, but mice are beloved char­ac­ters in kids’ books. Cer­tain­ly at our house they have been. Ralph S. MouseThe Mouse and the Motor­cy­cle…all of Kevin Henke’s won­der­ful mice pic­ture books…The Bram­bly Hedge Col­lec­tionMrs. Fris­by and the Rats of NIMHA Mouse Called WolfStu­art Lit­tleThe Tale of Des­pereaux…Bri­an Jacques’ Red­wall Series…Avi’s Pop­py and Rag­weed books…Bless This Mouse…. And these are just some of the books in which mice play the star­ring role. Plen­ty more have mousy “minor char­ac­ters.” (Think Tem­ple­ton in Charlotte’s Web, or Mouse in the Bear books by Bon­nie Beck­er.)

I’ve writ­ten many Red Read­ing Boots columns about our favorite mice books. (I just looked back—many!) I look at the shelves in my office, which have been stocked with all of the fam­i­ly favorites I’m allowed to take from the #1 Son’s and Dar­ling Daughter’s shelves, and good­ness! It would appear we’ve raised them on mice! #1 Son had imag­i­nary mice friends who accom­pa­nied through the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of ear­ly childhood—and no won­der! Did we read any­thing else?!

What is it about mice that are so appeal­ing for sto­ry­telling? Is it that they’re the pre­sumed under­dog because of their size? Yet in sto­ry after sto­ry, they prove them­selves to be intel­li­gent, resource­ful, and courageous—their size even advan­ta­geous. Cer­tain­ly this is a theme wor­thy of putting before chil­dren.

Is it because they are so wee and dear (fic­tion­al­ly!) and lend them­selves to illus­tra­tions? Some of my most favorite illus­tra­tions have mice in them (see the above list for starters!) Their lit­tle clothes! 

Or is it because we like to imag­ine par­al­lel uni­vers­es in which the small­est ani­mals cre­ate homes and vil­lages and worlds from our bits and bobs? Hid­den away in the hedgerows, the rafters, beneath the floorboards…all these sto­ries run­ning along beside use.

It might be this last thing for me. When I’m on walks I often see tiny hol­lows, small pock­ets, and invit­ing dime sized (and larg­er) holes in the walls and hedges and trees. When I see these, I’m imme­di­ate­ly fur­nish­ing a home for tiny ones inside—scraps art­ful­ly repur­posed, cozy built-ins, wind­ing pas­sages….

I’m ful­ly aware that oth­er rodents could star in such scenes, but it’s always a bit­ty mouse with large ears and eyes and flick­er­ing whiskers that comes to mind. Per­haps it’s because of what I’ve read over the years? Cer­tain­ly could be. There’s some­thing about mice that fire our imag­i­na­tions, I think.

I’m on the hunt for new mouse books. What do you have to rec­om­mend?

 

 

 

 

SaveSave

Read more...

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

I have had the plea­sure of enter­tain­ing a few young writ­ers in my office in the last cou­ple of months. They come with a Mom, usu­al­ly. (My office doesn’t real­ly hold more than three peo­ple at a time.) These Moms are so thank­ful that I would do this “gen­er­ous thing” of hav­ing them over that I feel almost guilty. Because I do it for me. These writ­ers, most of whom have not hit the dou­ble dig­its in age yet, are such an inspi­ra­tion for me.

We often share our WIPs (works-in-progress). Theirs is beau­ti­ful, because they are almost always illus­tra­tors as well as writ­ers. Some write pic­ture books only, but some cross over into illus­trat­ed chap­ter books, fill­ing note­book upon note­book. I usu­al­ly show them some mess I’m work­ing on, and although they’re polite, I can tell they’re star­tled (or amused) that I don’t have my act more togeth­er.

We dis­cuss process. I ask them if they write most every day and they say things like, “Of course.” And “I use my free time in class effi­cient­ly.” These kids leave and I have the urge to clean my office, start a new note­book and cal­en­dar, and get my act togeth­er. They are good for my soul.

They usu­al­ly try my Wesk (Walk­ing Desk) and they spend a lot of time look­ing at my book­shelves. This is how I know they’re seri­ous writers—they’re seri­ous read­ers. I tell them this. And they nod smart­ly or look at me with the “Duh!” look on their face. Most­ly we talk about new­er books—those pub­lished with­in their lifetime—that we love. But I had one young writer recent­ly who kept remark­ing on the books of my child­hood.

Ramona the Brave! I love Ramona…. The Bor­row­ers! Remem­ber when we read that when we were vis­it­ing your friend, Mom? Wind in the Wil­lows! I like Mr. Toad….”

And then she spied Mrs. Fris­by and the Rats of NIMH. She pulled it off the shelf and scru­ti­nized the cov­er. “Is this the same Mrs. Fris­by we have?” she asked her moth­er, doubt and sus­pi­cion in her young voice. Her moth­er answered that it was, this one just had a dif­fer­ent cov­er. “Was this yours when you were a girl like me?” she asked, her eyes dart­ing my way but then imme­di­ate­ly back to Mrs. Fris­by in her mod­est red cloak on the cov­er.

No,” I said. “This was my son’s copy.” The cov­er says: Cel­e­brat­ing the 35th anniver­sary of NIMH. It’s not near­ly as well done as the art on the orig­i­nal, which I had—the book is near­ly as old as me.

This does not look like Mrs. Fris­by,” she said, her nose scrunched up in dis­ap­proval.

I don’t think so either,” I said. For the life of me, I do not know why they redid the cov­er. Zena Bernstein’s gor­geous (pen and ink?) draw­ings are still inside the book. Why did they change the cov­er to some­thing that looks so…blah for the 35th anniver­sary?

She looks…pre­tend.

Right. I remem­ber so clear­ly being this young writer’s age, and my sec­ond grade teacher, Mrs. Perkins, read­ing us the sto­ry after recess each day. This was my favorite part of the day. I just fell into the world of Mrs. Fris­by and her wee fam­i­ly in such dan­ger in their cozy cin­derblock home. There was noth­ing pre­tend about it. Young Tim­o­thy had pneumonia—I’d had pneu­mo­nia and I knew exact­ly what that felt like. I wheezed along with Tim­o­thy in sol­i­dar­i­ty. I remem­ber vis­it­ing the Rats of NIMH with Mrs. Fris­by, and my heart pound­ing with hers as she deliv­ered the sleep­ing pow­der into the cat’s dish.

I mean, I know it is pre­tend,” said my young vis­it­ing writer. “Tech­ni­cal­ly. But it doesn’t feel pre­tend when you’re read­ing it.” She pushed the book back into my over­crammed book­shelf. “That’s the kind of book I want to write.”

Me, too, sweet­heart. Me, too.

 

 

 

 

 

SaveSave

Read more...

E.B. White

A cou­ple of weeks ago I was in the base­ment of the Sci­ence and Engi­neer­ing Library at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta get­ting a lit­tle writ­ing in before work. It’s a good spot—there’s a nice cof­fee shop, noth­ing in the stacks is intel­li­gi­ble to me on that floor so I’m not dis­tract­ed, and it’s qui­et and out of the hordes of uni­ver­si­ty traf­fic. Only those look­ing for seri­ous qui­et go all the way down in the base­ment.

When I was done with my jolt of cre­ativ­i­ty caf­feine, I packed up to head out. As I walked through the library’s secu­ri­ty gate, I set off the alarm. I turned around and looked at the sleepy scruffly young man at the check-out desk. He looked as sur­prised as I did.

I didn’t even go into the stacks this morn­ing….” I said.

Huh,” he said.

Can I just go through then?” I asked.

Well…I’m sup­posed to look in your bag.” He gri­maced.

Okay,” I said, heav­ing my giant bag up on the counter in front of him. He peeked in. Didn’t even touch it. Clear­ly, this was not some­thing he did often.

Would you like me to pull stuff out?” I asked.

Yeah, sure.” So I pulled out the detri­tus that is my com­mut­ing bag—a cou­ple of fold­ers and note­books, my knit­ting, sun­glass­es, The Horn Book mag­a­zine and two small books, a peanut but­ter and jel­ly sand­wich, a bag of mark­ers and col­ored pen­cils, the pouch of meds/lipstick/emergency sup­plies, some hand lotion, my wal­let and phone, a pair of socks, the gra­nola bar I couldn’t find the day before, my water bot­tle, lots of Kleenex and tick­et stubs, and the pro­gram from my daughter’s band con­cert the night before. I threw out a cou­ple of receipts while I was at it, and tidied the col­lec­tion of post-it notes and recipe cards etc. while he stared at the pile. He looked to be com­plete­ly over­whelmed.

I can live on the streets for three weeks out of this bag,” I said.

Wow,” he said.

I’m kid­ding,” I said.

He looked at me ner­vous­ly and then ran his hand half-heart­ed­ly over the paper items and picked up one of the books. The Wild Flag by E.B. White. (I wrote about it in Red Read­ing Boots a few weeks ago.) It’s the per­fect size to slip into a purse and I’ve been car­ry­ing it around since I pur­chased it this sum­mer. It’s also a plea­sure to hold—worn, but sol­id linen-esque cov­er, com­fort­able size and shape etc.

What’s this?” he asked, turn­ing it over in his hands. He even sound­ed sus­pi­cious.

It’s called The Wild Flag,” I said. “I pur­chased it in an antique store in Ston­ing­ton, Maine this sum­mer. The receipt is serv­ing as a book­mark, I believe.” He pulled out the receipt, glanced at it, and then stuck it in some­where else. Not that it mat­ters. You can open this book up to most any page and start read­ing. It’s a col­lec­tion of edi­to­ri­als.

Who’s it by?” he asked.

E.B. White.”

Is that the dude that wrote Charlotte’s Web?” he asked, look­ing sud­den­ly awake.

The very dude,” I said.

My Mom read that to me a bunch of times when I was lit­tle.” He smiled. “I loved the rat.”

Tem­ple­ton,” I said.

Yeah, Tem­ple­ton!” He hand­ed me the book back.

So, may I repack my bag?”

Sure!” he said. “You have a lot of stuff. But I know you didn’t find that book down here.”

Indeed.

Wher­ev­er this man-child’s moth­er is—she should be proud. He woke up ear­ly one morn­ing and remem­bered Tem­ple­ton all these years lat­er. That’s the pow­er of read­ing to a child.

 

 

SaveSave

Read more...

Pinkerton & Friends

I had a “Why in the world….?” moment the oth­er day. It was unex­pect­ed and a lit­tle strange and it was this: When I imag­ine pic­ture books that I am writ­ing and/or think­ing about writ­ing, I imag­ine very spe­cif­ic illus­tra­tions. From a very spe­cif­ic illus­tra­tor. Even though I admire the work of many illus­tra­tors. (I admire this one, too, of course.) But always, always, in my first imag­in­ing, I “pic­ture” the illus­tra­tions by Steven Kel­logg.

I love Mr. Kellogg’s work. But I love the work of a lot of illus­tra­tors and would aspire and hope for many (very dif­fer­ent) illus­tra­tors to make art to help tell my sto­ries. I can switch my imag­i­na­tion to oth­er illus­tra­tors if I think about it, but with­out think­ing about it…it’s Steven Kellogg’s art. When this real­iza­tion came to me I pulled some of his books off the shelves in my office with the ques­tion: Why is Kel­logg my default, the first one whose work I imag­ine?

All I can think is that the years 1999–2002 were what I think of as The Pinker­ton Years. You might think it strange that I can pin­point the years, but I know we were less involved with Pinker­ton (and by that I mean not read­ing Pinker­ton sto­ries on a dai­ly basis) by the time Dar­ling Daugh­ter came along late in 2002. Pri­or to that, we could hard­ly leave the house with­out a Pinker­ton sto­ry with us.

These were also the first of the allergy/asthma years—#1 Son was crit­i­cal­ly ill too much of the time, and with his doc­tors we were strug­gling to fig­ure out what was caus­ing such severe reac­tions. The only clear aller­gens were pets, and he came to under­stand first that he could not be around pup­pies or kit­ties, or any­thing else fur­ry and cud­dly and fun. A ter­ri­ble sen­tence, of course, when you are three and wheezy.

So we read a lot of books about pets, and before we read Rib­sy and Because of Winn-Dix­ie we read Pinker­ton sto­ries. A lot of Pinker­ton sto­ries. #1 Son adored Pinker­ton. Pinker­ton, a Great Dane, is pos­si­bly the most hilar­i­ous dog to ever be fea­tured in a book—he is huge and ungain­ly and always get­ting him­self in a fix. His expres­sions, his “knees and elbows,” his giant flop­pi­ness, and his curios­i­ty and giant heart make him quite a char­ac­ter.

Very quick­ly we learned to spot Kel­logg illus­tra­tions from across the library/bookstore, and pret­ty much wher­ev­er there are Kel­logg pic­tures, there are ani­mals. Not just great danes, but boa con­stric­tors, mice, cats, pigs, ducks in a row, hors­es, spaniels….. And wher­ev­er there are ani­mals, there’s a fair amount of chaos—at least in a Kel­logg book. (Arti­cles and inter­views sug­gest he has lived the fun and chaos in a home we could not have entered and lived to breathe—lots of pets!)

The detail in Kellogg’s illus­tra­tions is tremen­dous, the hilar­i­ty apt­ly con­veyed, and the sweet­ness and roller­coast­er high emo­tions of kids and Great Danes alike comes alive on the page. I could read stacks of the books in one sit­ting to my wheez­ing boy. We used them to get through neb­u­liz­er treat­ments, and to “push flu­ids,” and to encour­age rest for a kid all amped up on steroids. They were mag­i­cal and we poured over the illus­tra­tions long after the read­ing of the sto­ry was done. The med­i­cine could go down with­out much fuss as long as Pinker­ton was along.

Those were exhaust­ing, wor­ried years, and all I can think is that I some­how absorbed Steven Kellogg’s art in my sleep-deprived anx­ious state…and it’s now in my bones. Thank you, Mr. Kel­logg, for your sto­ries, your art, and your pres­ence in our family’s life. You are the default in my imag­i­na­tion and I’m grate­ful.

 

Read more...

Bookstorm™: No Monkeys, No Chocolate