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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | children’s literature

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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