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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | children’s literature

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.

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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.

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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!”

 

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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.

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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!

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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….

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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?

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

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Bookstorm™: No Monkeys, No Chocolate

No Monkeys Bookmap

 

No Monkeys, No ChocolateWe are pleased to fea­ture No Mon­keys, No Choco­late as our August book selec­tion, in which author and sci­ence writer Melis­sa Stew­art, along with Allen Young and illus­tra­tor Nicole Wong share the inter­de­pen­dent ecosys­tem that cre­ates the right con­di­tions for cacao beans to be grown and har­vest­ed so we can pro­duce choco­late.

This ecosys­tem is set in the rain­for­est of the Ama­zon, but there are inter­de­pen­dent ecosys­tems all over the world, vital ani­mals, rep­tiles, birds, insects, humans, and plants that are nec­es­sary for our lives to con­tin­ue on this earth. We all rely on each oth­er. We all have a part to play in pre­serv­ing a healthy Earth. We are grate­ful to authors and illus­tra­tors like Melis­sa, Allen, and Nicole who bring these con­nec­tions to our atten­tion so we can share them with chil­dren who will become the stew­ards of this plan­et.

In each Book­storm™, we offer a bib­li­og­ra­phy of books that have close ties to the the fea­tured book. You’ll find books, arti­cles, and videos for a vari­ety of tastes and inter­ests. This month, we’re focus­ing on books about Amer­i­can light­hous­es, light­house keep­ers, and biogra­phies of female heroes. 

Downloadables

 

 

You’ll find more infor­ma­tion about Melis­sa Stew­art on her web­site. Illus­tra­tor Nicole Wong’s web­site will show you more of her port­fo­lio.

BOOKSTORM TOPICS

Choco­late. I know there are peo­ple who don’t like choco­late, but sure­ly they are a small per­cent­age of peo­ple in the world! As we move between descrip­tions of deca­dent choco­late plea­sures to news that it’s healthy for us to foun­tains and per­son­al­ized choco­late … these books share facts, sto­ries, and tan­ta­liz­ing pho­tographs.

Ecosys­tems. Our fea­tured book is an excel­lent descrip­tion of an ecosys­tem in which plants, ani­mals, and insects work togeth­er to cre­ate the bean that cre­ates choco­late. There are a num­ber of good exam­ples of ecosys­tems through­out the world in the books we’ve includ­ed.

Grow­ing Food. We appre­ci­ate and thank the peo­ple who work so hard to grow our food. From urban farms to rur­al ranch­es to rain­forests, the foods we tend and grow and har­vest are essen­tial to all life on earth. We hope that teach­ing chil­dren about the sources of their food, the peo­ple who grow it, and the care giv­en to the stuff of life will encour­age a healthy lifestyle.

Mon­keys. Mon­keys, chim­panzees, goril­las, apes … pri­mates have been fas­ci­nat­ing peo­ple, espe­cial­ly chil­dren, since time began. And now we now they’re essen­tial for choco­late! We’ve includ­ed books that will start dis­cus­sions, answer ques­tions, and enter­tain young read­ers.

Pol­li­na­tion. The process of pol­li­na­tion, and all the ways it hap­pens, is incred­i­ble. These books are guar­an­teed to inter­est young read­ers.

Rain For­est Preser­va­tion. It’s vital for all the peo­ple of the earth to sup­port efforts to keep the rain forests of our world healthy. The more we know and under­stand about their role in our cli­mate, our air, our abil­i­ty to breathe, the more we can com­mit to doing our part as indi­vid­u­als. 

Author’s Web­site Resources. Author Melis­sa Stew­art cre­at­ed a writ­ing time­line that is use­ful in teach­ing writ­ing, espe­cial­ly expos­i­to­ry writ­ing, to your stu­dents. She has a reader’s the­ater, teach­ing guide, and sev­er­al more teach­ing aids to offer. We’ve pro­vid­ed links.

Let us know how you are mak­ing use of this Book­storm™. Share your ideas and any oth­er books you’d add to this Book­storm™.

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Bookstorm™: Jazz Day

Bookmap for Jazz Day

 

Jazz DayThis month we’re fea­tur­ing Jazz Day, a book that’s all about jazz and a pho­to­graph that record­ed a moment in time, peo­ple at the top of their musi­cal careers and peo­ple who were just get­ting start­ed. Author Rox­ane Orgill is famil­iar with the jazz cul­ture; she’s writ­ten sev­er­al books about the music and the peo­ple. Illus­tra­tor Fran­cis Valle­jo took ele­ments of pho­tog­ra­phy, graph­ic design, acrylic, and pas­tels to illus­trate his first book. This pow­er­ful team has received no few­er than six starred reviews for the pic­ture book biog­ra­phy they’ve cre­at­ed togeth­er.

In Jazz Day, each sto­ry is told with a poem, among them free verse, a pan­toum, and a list poem. There are poems about the pho­tog­ra­ph­er, the musi­cians, the young neigh­bor­hood boys who showed up for the pho­to­graph out of curios­i­ty, the jazz life, and the process of tak­ing the pho­to, Harlem 1958, which is famous for cap­tur­ing a large num­ber of musi­cians in their time, their cloth­ing, their com­mu­ni­ty, but with­out their instru­ments (except for one guy, Rex Stew­art, but it earned him a poem).

In each Book­storm™, we offer a bib­li­og­ra­phy of books that have close ties to the the fea­tured book. You’ll find books, web­sites, and videos for a vari­ety of tastes and inter­ests. This month, we’re focus­ing on books about jazz, music, singers, and pho­tog­ra­phy. 

Downloadables

 

 

You’ll find more infor­ma­tion about Rox­ane Orgill on her web­site. The illustrator’s web­site will show you more of Fran­cis Vallejo’s port­fo­lio.

BOOKSTORM TOPICS

Jazz Musi­cians in Pic­ture Books. Here you’ll find excel­lent pic­ture books about jazz musi­cians includ­ing Trom­bone Shorty, John Coltrane, Thelo­nius Monk, Louis Arm­strong, Dizzy Gille­spie, Mary Louise Williams, Mel­ba Lis­ton, Duke Elling­ton, and Ben­ny Good­man. Many of these books help us under­stand how the child­hood of these renowned musi­cians launched them into their careers.

Jazz Singers. Ella Fitzger­ald? Scat. Josephine Bak­er? Show­man­ship. Civ­il rights. The Sweet­hearts of Rhythm? Swing musi­cians who rose to promi­nence dur­ing the war. Excep­tion­al books about excep­tion­al singers.

Jazz for Old­er Read­ers. From Rox­ane Orgill’s own book, Dream Lucky, one of the best books about jazz musi­cians, to high­ly respect­ed books like Jazz 101, and The His­to­ry of Jazz, and Marsalis on Music, there’s a lot of infor­ma­tion here to get you talk­ing pro­fi­cient­ly about, and teach­ing, jazz.

Pho­tog­ra­phy. Art Kane wasn’t a pho­tog­ra­ph­er but he took one of the most famous pho­tographs, Harlem 1958. But there are children’s books about famous pho­tog­ra­phers such as Gor­don Parks and Snowflake Bent­ley. You’ll find more sug­ges­tions in the Book­storm.

The Music. Your stu­dents who are already inter­est­ed in rap or jazz rap or hip-hop or pop music, will be fas­ci­nat­ed to lis­ten to the dif­fer­ent gen­res of jazz music that came before … and we’ve includ­ed URLs where you can find excel­lent exam­ples. Or per­haps you’re a jazz afi­ciona­do and you have your own music to share.

Web­sites. There are help­ful web­sites such as the Jazz Edu­ca­tion Net­work and Smith­son­ian Jazz that will help you put togeth­er a mul­ti­me­dia set of les­son plans for explor­ing jazz, our most Amer­i­can form of music.

Let us know how you are mak­ing use of this Book­storm™. Share your ideas and any oth­er books you’d add to this Book­storm™.

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Bookstorm™: Miss Colfax’s Light

Bookmap Miss Colfax's Light

 

Miss Colfax's LightWe are pleased to fea­ture Miss Colfax’s Light as our June book selec­tion, in which author Aimée Bis­sonette and illus­tra­tor Eileen Ryan Ewen tell the fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry of a woman who served as the Michi­gan City Light­house keep­er from 1861 to 1904. Cap­tains and nav­i­ga­tors on Lake Michi­gan relied on her light­house to keep them from founder­ing on the rocks or crash­ing onto the shore in rough weath­er.

Every day heroes. That’s how author Aimée Bis­sonette refers to the peo­ple in his­to­ry who intrigue her. She trav­eled to research her cho­sen sub­ject, Har­ri­et Col­fax, talk­ing with peo­ple in Indi­ana who could proud­ly pro­vide infor­ma­tion. Miss Col­fax faith­ful­ly kept a log, so Aimée was able to read about Harriet’s work and her dai­ly life in Harriet’s own words. Illus­tra­tor Eileen Ryan Ewen paint­ed a wealth of accu­rate, time-appro­pri­ate details into the pages of the book, help­ing read­ers visu­al­ly under­stand the time in which Miss Col­fax lived. We think you’ll be inspired by Miss Colfax’s sto­ry as much as we are.

In each Book­storm™, we offer a bib­li­og­ra­phy of books that have close ties to the the fea­tured book. You’ll find books, arti­cles, and videos for a vari­ety of tastes and inter­ests. This month, we’re focus­ing on books about Amer­i­can light­hous­es, light­house keep­ers, and biogra­phies of female heroes. 

Downloadables

 

 

You’ll find more infor­ma­tion about Aimée Bis­sonette on her web­site. The illustrator’s web­site will show you more of Eileen Ryan Ewen’s port­fo­lio.

BOOKSTORM TOPICS

About Light­hous­es. For back­ground infor­ma­tion as you pre­pare to excite stu­dents, library patrons, or your fam­i­ly mem­bers about Amer­i­can light­hous­es, these books will help you locate these bea­cons of safe­ty, learn more about their oper­a­tion, and under­stand the sci­ence and math that are an inher­ent part of the work­ings of light­hous­es around the coun­try.

Brave and Extra­or­di­nary Women. From pic­ture book biogra­phies to short-arti­cle antholo­gies, you’ll find a vari­ety of inspir­ing sto­ries from oceanog­ra­ph­er Sylvia Ear­le to edu­ca­tion­al activist Malala Yousafzai.

How Light­hous­es Work. From the Fres­nel lens to the Chance Broth­ers engi­neer­ing to the improve­ments in fuel, increas­es in the range of light, and Edison’s inven­tion of the light­bulb, you’ll find books to inform your pre­sen­ta­tions and dis­cus­sions about Miss Colfax’s Light.

Light­house Books. There are a num­ber of good books to pair with our fea­tured Book­storm. Com­pare the true sto­ry of Miss Col­fax with that of Abbie Burgess, who took her light­house keep­er father’s place dur­ing an ice storm, or the Maine Fly­ing San­ta pro­gram, or the Lit­tle Red Light­house near the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge in New York City, among many oth­ers.

Pro­tect­ing Our Water­ways. In addi­tion to our light­house keep­ers, the U.S. Coast Guard is on duty pro­tect­ing water trav­el­ers and ship­ping ves­sels dur­ing all types of weath­er and in haz­ardous sit­u­a­tions. These books will extend read­ers’ under­stand­ing of the work done by high­ly skilled patrols.

Water. Before and after read­ing Miss Colfax’s Light, it’s a good time to have a dis­cus­sion about the impor­tance of water in our lives. From our Great Lakes, to our coastal waters, to the rivers and lakes through­out our coun­try, to the water that falls from the sky, to the water that is pumped up from under­ground aquifers, water and water con­ser­va­tion are essen­tial to our every­day lives. 

Whether you choose to focus on every day heroes, water, sci­ence, Great Lakes com­merce, or inspi­ra­tion women, there are many direc­tions you can go and many sub­jects you can sup­port with Miss Colfax’s Light.

Let us know how you are mak­ing use of this Book­storm™. Share your ideas and any oth­er books you’d add to this Book­storm™.

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Gardening and Farming Delights

 

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Jaster's Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farmer Duck

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

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

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

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

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

Lola Plants a Garden

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

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Bookstorm™: Turn Left at the Cow

 

Turn Left at the Cow

Turn Left at the CowWho doesn’t love a mys­tery? Whether your find them intrigu­ing puz­zles or can’t-wait-to-know-the-solution page-turn­ers, a good mys­tery is engross­ing and a lit­tle tense. Throw in a lit­tle humor, a detailed set­ting, and well-drawn char­ac­ters and you have a book you can con­fi­dent­ly hand to young read­ers who are already hooked on the genre and those who have yet to become fans.

We are pleased to fea­ture Turn Left at the Cow as our May book selec­tion, writ­ten by the expert plot­ter Lisa Bullard, replete with her char­ac­ter­is­tic humor.

In each Book­storm™, we offer a bib­li­og­ra­phy of books that have close ties to the the fea­tured book. You’ll find books, arti­cles, and videos for a vari­ety of tastes and inter­ests. This month, we’re focus­ing on books for mid­dle grade read­ers with mys­ter­ies, humor, and bank heists. 

Downloadables

 

 

Don’t miss the excep­tion­al resources on the author’s web­site. Try your hand at but­ter carv­ing with “But­ter Head Beau­ties,” engag­ing sci­ence, art, and lan­guage arts skills. Re-cre­ate the book’s chick­en poop bin­go with “Chances Are,” call­ing on math and lan­guage arts. Lisa Bullard’s Pin­ter­est page has more great ideas that you’ll find use­ful as you incor­po­rate this book into your plan­ning.

BOOKSTORM TOPICS

Mid­dle Grade Mys­ter­ies. There are amaz­ing books writ­ten for this age group. We’ve includ­ed a list that would help you select read-alikes or com­pan­ion books, draw­ing on titles first print­ed in 1929 (yes, real­ly) to 2015.

But­ter Heads and Oth­er State Fair Strange­ness. A but­ter head is one of the atten­tion-wor­thy objects in the book. Begin an online research assign­ment with a few arti­cles about but­ter heads around the coun­try.

Fish Out of Water. Travis lives in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia. When he runs away to his grandmother’s cab­in in north­ern Min­neso­ta, it walks and talks like a dif­fer­ent world, one that Travis has to learn to nav­i­gate if he’s going to solve the mys­tery.

Miss­ing Par­ent. Even though Travis left his moth­er behind with her new hus­band, Travis is most inter­est­ed in find­ing out about his dad, who died before he was born. Books for this age group often revolve around a par­ent or par­ents who are not present. We’ve rec­om­mend­ed a few of them. 

Rob­beries and Heists. Travis has trou­ble believ­ing his father could have robbed a bank but the towns­peo­ple seem to think so. We’ve includ­ed books that delin­eate bank or train rob­beries, some of them true.

Small Town Fes­ti­vals. One of the most excit­ing scenes in Turn Left at the Cow takes place in Green Lake, Minnesota’s annu­al sum­mer fes­ti­val where chick­en poop bin­go is a tra­di­tion. We’ve found arti­cles about oth­er small town fes­ti­vals that would make good writ­ing prompts, research projects, or Pow­er­Point projects.

Mys­ter­ies offer a spe­cial plea­sure to many read­ers, both chil­dren and adults. They pro­vide an excel­lent oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk about plot and how that plot is rein­forced by intrigu­ing char­ac­ters (and good writ­ing!).

Let us know how you are mak­ing use of this Book­storm™. Share your ideas and any oth­er books you’d add to this Book­storm™.

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Spring, Where Are You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First you have brown,
all around you have brown,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring is here at last!”

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

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

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Celebrating Ezra Jack Keats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trip, Jennie's Hat, Dreams

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

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

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

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Heather Vogel Frederick: Borrowed Fire

In Absolute­ly Tru­ly, my new mid­dle grade mys­tery set in a book­shop in the fic­tion­al town of Pump­kin Falls, New Hamp­shire, a first edi­tion of Charlotte’s Web goes miss­ing. There’s a rea­son this par­tic­u­lar book fea­tures so promi­nent­ly in the story—it’s a nod to my lit­er­ary hero, E. B. White.

E.B. White

E.B. White and friend

E.B. White and I go way back. He’s one of the rea­sons I became a writer, thanks to Charlotte’s Web, which was one of my all-time favorites as a young read­er (it still is). It tops a short list of what I con­sid­er per­fect novels—a list that includes Harp­er Lee’s To Kill a Mock­ing­bird and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prej­u­dice, among a hand­ful of oth­ers.

The year I turned 12 and declared my inten­tion of becom­ing an author, my dad slipped a copy of Ele­ments of Style into my Christ­mas stock­ing. It was an inspired present, as the book on writ­ing and gram­mar that Mr. White co-wrote with William Strunk, Jr., made me feel both val­i­dat­ed and grown-up. I dis­played it promi­nent­ly on my desk, and if I read it with more enthu­si­asm than com­pre­hen­sion, at least I felt very sophis­ti­cat­ed as I did so. Lat­er, in col­lege, I would dis­cov­er White’s col­lect­ed let­ters and essays, which helped inspire my ear­ly career as a jour­nal­ist.

Of all the gifts that E. B. White has giv­en me, though, the one I trea­sure most are his char­ac­ters. I can’t even imag­ine a world with­out Char­lotte and Wilbur, or with­out Fern Arable, and Lurvy, and Tem­ple­ton the rat. Mem­o­rable char­ac­ters such as these are what make for mem­o­rable sto­ries. Sure, set­ting is impor­tant, research is impor­tant, and a sto­ry with­out a plot is a hot mess (any­body sat through Wait­ing for Godot recent­ly?), but for me, mem­o­rable char­ac­ters are the main course, the engine that dri­ves the train, the beat­ing heart of a book.

Charlotte's Web coverChar­ac­ters like Char­lotte and Wilbur don’t just spring full-blown onto the page like Athena from the head of Zeus, how­ev­er. Writ­ing is a delib­er­ate act. It is arti­fice; it is craft; it is inten­tion­al. While the con­cept for a char­ac­ter may come to a writer in a flash, the con­struc­tion of that char­ac­ter is the result of much effort and care.

So how does a writer go about cre­at­ing char­ac­ters that walk off the page and straight into a reader’s heart?

It comes down to some­thing I call “bor­rowed fire.”

There are oth­er tools writ­ers employ in cre­at­ing char­ac­ters, of course—tools such as descrip­tion, dia­logue, and voice. But all of these ingre­di­ents would be noth­ing with­out bor­rowed fire. With­out this ele­men­tal flame, char­ac­ters remain as life­less and cold as the paper on which they’re print­ed.

I live in the Pacif­ic North­west, just a few miles from the end of the Ore­gon Trail. While read­ing about the ear­ly set­tlers at one point, I learned just how cru­cial fire was to sur­vival. The pio­neers depend­ed on it for warmth, for cook­ing, for light, and for cheer. If a camp­fire or cook stove went out in a log cab­in or along the wag­on train, some­one would be rapid­ly dis­patched to a neighbor’s with a lid­ded pan to “bor­row fire”—a few embers or coals with which to rekin­dle their own.

In writ­ing, we, too, need fire. We need the blaze of emo­tion to light up our sto­ries and stir our read­ers, ignit­ing in them a sym­pa­thet­ic response. 

But from whom do we bor­row this fire? 

Fiery HeartFrom our­selves. From our own lives, our own expe­ri­ences. Robert Frost once said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the read­er.” Writ­ers have to be will­ing to dig deep. I’m not talk­ing about spilling dark secrets onto the page. I’m talk­ing about tap­ping into your own unique well of emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence and shar­ing it with your read­er. We all know what it’s like to be anx­ious about some­thing, to be envi­ous or fear­ful or alight with hap­pi­ness or crazy in love. Invest­ing our char­ac­ters with these emo­tion­al truths cre­ates the point of con­nec­tion. That’s the moment at which a char­ac­ter walks off the page and into a reader’s heart.

E.B. White was nev­er an eight-year-old girl named Fern. He was nev­er a wor­ried piglet or a lit­er­ate spi­der or a schem­ing rat with a soft under­bel­ly of kind­ness. But he knew about friend­ship, and love, and loss, and he bor­rowed those embers from his own life to kin­dle his char­ac­ters, and the light and warmth they radi­ate have touched the hearts of read­ers down the years.

Bor­rowed fire is where the mag­ic hap­pens in a sto­ry. It’s by the light of this fire that mem­o­rable char­ac­ters are made.

 

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Of Knitting and Books and Tattoos

I met her while knit­ting. She worked at the children’s book­store next to the yarn store I fre­quent. I was knit­ting with the usu­al group gath­ered around the table at the yarn store when she came in. “Cat!” my table­mates called out that day. (I’m embar­rassed to admit I don’t know if she spells it […]

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Gifted: The Matchbox Diary

When a young girl vis­its her great-grand­­fa­ther for the first time, her imag­i­na­tion swirls with every­thing she sees in his antique shop. He asks her to pick out her favorite item and he will tell her a sto­ry about it. She choos­es a cig­ar box filled with match box­es. As it turns out, this is […]

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Discussing the Books We’ve Loved: Déjà Vu

As I ready this arti­cle for pub­li­ca­tion, I am sit­ting in the cof­fee shop where I first met Heather Vogel Fred­er­ick, now a much-admired author of some of my favorite books. I still enjoy get­ting caught up in a series, accept­ing the like­able and not-so-like­able char­ac­ters as my new-found cir­cle of friends, antic­i­pat­ing the treat […]

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Doing it Yourself

In the ten years that CLN has exist­ed, one of our great­est chal­lenges has been self-pub­­lished books. Do we include them or don’t we? The rules of pub­lish­ing are chang­ing in seis­mic ways. We’re watch­ing the shift­ing trends. CLN believes in pre­sent­ing books that can fit the cre­do “the right book at the right time […]

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