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Tag Archives | Lauren Stringer

Just Spring

Phyl­lis: e.e. cum­mings said it best when he described the world as mud-lus­cious and pud­dle-won­der­ful. Snow melts and runs bab­bling away, days length­en, green sprouts of skunk cab­bage and rhubarb poke out. This month we are look­ing at mud­dy, squishy, rainy, wet sto­ries in hon­or of spring.

MudMud by Mary Lyn Ray, illus­trat­ed by Lau­ren Stringer, begins, “One night it hap­pens.… earth comes unfrozen.” Dry leaves and small stones unfreeze, and the hills “remem­ber their col­ors.” With vivid lan­guage that evokes a child joy­ous­ly stomp­ing in mud­dy pud­dles, Ray wel­comes spring. “Win­ter will squish squash squck sop splat slurp melt in mud.” Lau­ren Stringer’s rich­ly col­ored, lush art with its cir­cu­lar, scal­lopy lines and close up views of a child joy­ous­ly stir­ring, stick­ing, dig­ging, and danc­ing in this new melt­ing world per­fect­ly cap­ture the delight of get­ting mud­di­er and mud­di­er – squooz­ing the mud between fin­gers, stomp­ing in it, feet and hands and face coat­ed with one of the surest signs of spring. “Hap­py mud. Gooey glop­py mucky mag­nif­i­cent mud.”

And we echo the last lines of this cheer­ful homage: “Come spring, come grass, come green.”

Jack­ie: This is a book to remind us of the impor­tance of verbs — “squish squash squck sop splat slurp melt in mud.” I want to read that out loud again and again. And I love Lau­ren Stringer’s mud­dy feet bot­toms on the last spread of this book. Per­haps we wel­come spring best with mud on our feet.

Harry the Dirty DogIn Har­ry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion, illus­trat­ed by Mar­garet Bloy Gra­ham, Har­ry, a white dog with black spots, likes every­thing — except a bath. So when he hears the water run­ning in the tub he buries the scrub brush in the back yard and runs away, dis­cov­er­ing all sorts of fas­ci­nat­ing places to play where he accu­mu­lates such a lay­er of grime that his fam­i­ly doesn’t rec­og­nize him when he does return home, a black dog with white spots. Har­ry tries to con­vince his fam­i­ly with his old tricks “he flip-flopped and he flop-flipped. He rolled over and played dead. He danced and he sang. But his fam­i­ly said, “’Oh no, it couldn’t be Har­ry.’” In des­per­a­tion, he digs up the scrub brush, runs up the stairs, and jumps into the tub, beg­ging for a bath. Restored to his for­mer self, Har­ry is rec­og­nized by his fam­i­ly as their very own white dog with black spots. Hap­py to be home with his fam­i­ly again, he falls asleep on his very own pil­low so sound­ly he doesn’t even feel the scrub­bing brush he has re-hid­den under the pil­low. I always won­dered if Harry’s fam­i­ly real­ly didn’t rec­og­nize him or were just pre­tend­ing, but read­ing this sto­ry again I’m con­vinced it’s an hon­est case of mis­tak­en iden­ti­ty. And did ever a dog look more glad to be him­self again back with the ones who love him?

Jack­ie: Lisa von Drasek put a link on her Face­book page to this won­der­ful video of Bet­ty White read­ing Har­ry the Dirty Dog. That was how I expe­ri­enced the book this morn­ing. What a treat!

I have thought that this is a message‑y kind of sto­ry — and maybe too much so for me. But this time when I lis­tened to Bet­ty White, I was just charmed by Har­ry the Dog. Maybe the mes­sage isn’t so much about the impor­tance of being clean (I guess I’m hav­ing to rethink that one, too, in these times when hand-wash­ing is what we need to do) but Harry’s sto­ry may be more about being part of a fam­i­ly. And if that involves occa­sion­al baths, then it seems Har­ry decides it’s worth it. And now the bath brush is only half hidden.

Duck in the TruckPhyl­lis:  Duck in the Truck, writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Jez Albor­ough, is a rol­lick­ing romp of a read-aloud with spare, joun­cy, rhyming text and exu­ber­ant illus­tra­tions. “This is the duck dri­ving home in the truck…. this is rock struck by the truck. And this is the muck where the truck gets stuck.” Duck’s truck, loaded with pro­duce, bounces off the road into a mud pud­dle where it is firm­ly stuck. A frog in a near­by bush offers a push, but the truck is still stuck. A sheep in a jeep offers to help, but the truck is still stuck. When a goat ties a rope to his motor­boat and pulls while the oth­ers push, the truck final­ly breaks free, and the duck dri­ves mer­ri­ly off, leav­ing the frog, the sheep, and the goat, stuck. In the muck.

Jack­ie: I read a while ago that the “k” sound is one of the fun­ni­est sounds in the Eng­lish lan­guage. Jez Albor­ough must be aware of that. This book begins with won­der­ful k‑sound words. The duck is “dri­ving home in a truck,” on a trek tak­ing him back. “This is the muck where the truck becomes stuck.” And the muck is “yucky.”

It was also fun to see for­mat of this book. Albor­ough tells the sto­ry with “This is.” Each sen­tence begins with “This is…” and describes what is going on. It’s so imme­di­ate. We are right there push­ing along with the frog and the sheep. I have to admit I want­ed one more page, where the duck comes back to help pull his helpers out of the mud. But I do love the lan­guage and the format.

Noah's ArkPhyl­lis: Noah’s Ark begins with a 17th cen­tu­ry poem trans­lat­ed from the Dutch of the bib­li­cal sto­ry of the flood and the ani­mals board­ing the ark: “crea­tures all, large and small, good and mean, fowl and clean, fierce and tame, in they came.” The rest of the book is word­less, the illus­tra­tions rich in details of the ark and the flood, pic­tures that kids love to pour over (at least ours did), includ­ing one of a worn-out Noah, most like­ly won­der­ing if they’ll ever make land­fall. I have always felt sor­ry for the ani­mals left out­side as the rain falls and the water ris­es, and Spier’s illus­tra­tion of the left-behinds as the water ris­es still tugs at my heart. On the storm-tossed and decid­ed­ly messy ark Noah at last spots a bit of land above the flood­wa­ters and sends out a bird who even­tu­al­ly returns with a green branch from the reap­pear­ing earth as the flood recedes. Every­one hap­pi­ly dis­em­barks to find a home in a new, green land with a rain­bow arc­ing in the sky.

Jack­ie: I love Peter Spi­er and only wish that I had writ­ten to him to tell him while he was still liv­ing. Those who also love Peter Spi­er might enjoy this short video. It’s such a treat to hear him singing “Fox went out on a chilly night.”

I agree, Phyl­lis, the most mov­ing sec­tion of Noah’s Ark is the spread of the left-behinds. And Spi­er has giv­en them puz­zled expres­sions, as if they are say­ing, “Only two ele­phants? Only two giraffes?” The poet writes: “But the rest/Worst and best/Stayed on shore./Were no more.” These left behind ani­mals remind me of the com­mon expe­ri­ence of not being part of the “cho­sen” crowd, not being cool, just scruff­ing along. But that’s where the real sto­ries are.

Noah's Ark spread

Back to the book, I love the lit­tle details on every page. They demand read­ers pore over the pages, check out every cor­ner. I had to read this book in e‑format today and found it frus­trat­ing that I could not get clos­er to the illus­tra­tions. When this social-dis­tanc­ing is over I’m going to have to real­ly read this book again.

RainPhyl­lis: Rain! by Lin­da Ash­man is pud­dle won­der­ful, a par­al­lel account of two peo­ple on a rainy day, one a cranky old­er man, the oth­er a young child. The man com­plains as he gets ready to go out in the rain: “Nasty galosh­es. Blast­ed over­coat. There goes my hair. ” The child, on the oth­er hand, eager­ly climbs into his green boots and puts on his frog hat and green rain coat.

The man and the boy (plus his moth­er) end up at the Rain or Shine Café, where the man sourly orders “Cof­fee, black, ” and the boy orders cocoa and cook­ies. When they both get up to leave, they bump into each oth­er. The man scowls and stomps away, the boy dis­cov­ers that the man’s hat has fall­en off and chas­es after him to return it. The sur­prised man also requests the boy’s frog hat to try on, which the boy hands him. His mood improved, the man walks home rel­ish­ing the rain, even rib­bet­ing at the door­man he had har­rumphed at ear­li­er. Chris­t­ian Robinson’s art cap­tures the fun of a child in the rain and the man’s crank­i­ness rem­i­nis­cent of James Stephenson’s Worst Per­son in the World.

Crankee DoodleJack­ie: There is some­thing fun about putting cranky peo­ple in pic­ture books. Per­haps it’s the sus­pense. Are they going to become un-cranky by the end? Remem­ber one of your favorites, Phyl­lis? Cran­kee Doo­dle? In Feb­ru­ary, 2016, we did an entire blog about cranky char­ac­ters.

In this sto­ry, the con­trast between the child’s delight in the rain and the man’s dis­gust is so much fun — “It’s rain­ing cats and dogs” says the man. “It’s rain­ing frogs and pol­li­wogs. Hip­pi­ty hop,” says the child.

Lin­da Ash­man loves lan­guage, too. The cranky man should have been cheered by the word “galosh­es,” as in “nasty galosh­es, blast­ed over­coat.” But he is not cheered until he tries on the frog hat. I wish we all had frog hats in these anx­ious days. But a good book is as effective.

Phyl­lis: As we drip and driz­zle our way out of win­ter, these books make us hap­py for rain and mud and the awak­en­ing, pud­dle-won­der­ful, just-spring world.

Note: Because most of these books were not read­i­ly avail­able at my local library, (and which, as of this date, is cur­rent­ly closed) I read them online. As more and more of us shel­ter in place in the midst of the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic, we can find many of our favorite pic­ture books read aloud in videos online. We wish for us all a healthy spring. Stay well and take care of each other.

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Sense of Wonder

The Sense of WonderIn her book A Sense of Won­der, Rachel Car­son wrote:

If I had influ­ence with the good fairy who is sup­posed to pre­side over the chris­ten­ing of all chil­dren, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of won­der so inde­struc­tible that it would last through­out life, as an unfail­ing anti­dote against the bore­dom and dis­en­chant­ments of lat­er years, the ster­ile pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with things that are arti­fi­cial, the alien­ation from the sources of our strength.

To a young child or a lis­ten­ing heart every­thing is a won­der. How do bees find the right flow­ers for nec­tar and pollen? How do birds find their hid­den migra­tion high­ways in the sky? How does a seed turn into a tree?

This month we want to write about children’s books that nour­ish that sense of won­der and get kids outside.

Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the MeadowBut­ter­fly Eyes and Oth­er Secrets of the Mead­ow by Joyce Sid­man, illus­trat­ed by Beth Krommes, is itself a won­der of poet­ry and art. Two poems per dou­ble page spread, each of which ends with the ques­tion “What am I?” alter­nate with a dou­ble page spread that answers the ques­tions (although the art gives plen­ty of clues) and gives more infor­ma­tion about the rela­tion­ship between the two sub­jects of the pre­vi­ous poems. So spread with a poem about sleep­ing rab­bits and one about a hunt­ing fox is fol­lowed by a spread explain­ing how fox­es use their incred­i­ble hear­ing to hunt rab­bits and how baby rab­bits hide until they are ready to go out into the mead­ow on their own. (Their moth­er vis­its them only occa­sion­al­ly so as not to reveal their nest to preda­tors.) This book is a won­der­ful reminder to all of us to look close­ly, to pay attention.

We both love the poem in which the owl is apol­o­giz­ing for his sharp talons, keen eyes, silent wings, and hooked beak, not as one first thinks, because he is sor­ry to be a predator.

I’m so sor­ry. For you, that is.
All this works out quite well for me.

The com­bi­na­tion of ques­tion poems, expla­na­tion of the inter­con­nec­tions of species, and vivid, bril­liant art reveal the com­plex­i­ty of the mead­ow and make us want to ven­ture more often into the mead­ow, where a web of life as intri­cate as a spider’s wed exists.

The Salamander RoomThe Sala­man­der Room by Anne Maz­er, illus­trat­ed by Steve John­son, tells how a lit­tle boy Bri­an finds a sala­man­der in the woods and takes him home, where his moth­er asks him, “Where will he [the sala­man­der] sleep?”

Bri­an answers,

 “I will make him a sala­man­der bed to sleep in. I will cov­er him with leaves that are fresh and green, and bring moss that looks like lit­tle stars to be a pil­low for his head. I will bring crick­ets to sing him to sleep and bull­frogs to tell him good-night stories.”

To each of his mother’s ques­tions — Where will he play? What will he eat? — Bri­an tells how he will trans­form his room to make it a home for a sala­man­der and friends. Brian’s expla­na­tions and the lumi­nous art turn his room into a place for birds and bull­frogs with trees and ponds until he has lift­ed off the ceil­ing of his room. To the last ques­tion, “And you — where will you sleep?” Bri­an answers,

I will sleep on a bed under the stars, with the moon shin­ing through the green leaves of the trees; owls will hoot and crick­ets will sing; and next to me, on the boul­der with its head rest­ing on soft moss, the sala­man­der will sleep.”

He answers.

Who wouldn’t want to sleep in a sala­man­der room? Magical.

Wild BerriesWild Berries, writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Julie Flett, one of our favorite authors and illus­tra­tors, tell how Grand­ma used to car­ry Clarence to pick wild berries and sing to him, but now he is big enough to car­ry his own buck­et, sing with Grand­ma, and pick berries with her tup tup.  [Flett so skill­ful­ly cap­tures the sound of berries drop­ping into a buck­et.] While they pick he and grand­ma eat berries until their lips turn pur­ple and Clarence observes the world around him.  An ant crawls up his leg, a spi­der spins a web, a fox sneaks past. He leaves berries on a leaf for the birds and oth­er ani­mals who say nanasko­mowak, Cree for thank you.

Each spread of this love­ly book includes Cree words print­ed in red in the same size font below the Eng­lish words in black. An end­note explains that this is Swampy Cree, one of sev­er­al dialects, and includes a pro­nun­ci­a­tion guide. A recipe for wild blue­ber­ry jam makes us wish it were ear­li­er in the sum­mer so we could go find some tart wild berries, pick them, and make jam.

Flett’s palette of greens, browns, blues, and soft yel­lows is punc­tu­at­ed by red on each page:  grandma’s red skirt, a red sun, red fox, red but­ter­flies, flow­ers, and red breast­ed birds that sing (nikamo) in the clearing.

Here again, we find the won­der of the nat­ur­al world. And the joy of look­ing closely.

Yellow TimeLau­ren Stringer’s Yel­low Time, illus­trat­ed by the author, is anoth­er lumi­nous book about fall and the turn­ing of leaves. The text describes yel­low time when the leaves all turn. It begins,

The squir­rels are too busy to notice.
And the geese have already gone.
Oth­er birds have left too,
But not the crows.
Crows love yel­low time.

So do the chil­dren, whom the art shows in increas­ing num­bers com­ing out to play, smelling the yel­low time air “like wet mud and dry grass with a sprin­kle of sug­ar,” run­ning in the swirling leaves, danc­ing in a whirl­wind of yellow.

Every­where fills
with yellow.
A symphony
of yellow.

 As the leaves all fall and the book winds down, the chil­dren return home, one by one with

bou­quets of yellow
to press in thick books
to remember…
what a love­ly yel­low time it was.

With lines and col­ors that swirl and with spare, poet­ic text, Stringer’s book is a sym­pho­ny to fall and the joy chil­dren take in leaves falling. And who is ever too old not to enjoy the swish of walk­ing through leaves?

Rab­bits, owls, sala­man­ders, berries, fox­es, leaves, crows, earth, trees, wind, sky: we are all related.

And isn’t that a wonder?

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Weathering Weather

Phyl­lis: Min­neso­ta has had a win­ter full of weath­er this year. We’ve just fin­ished the snowiest Feb­ru­ary on record, and now March is blow­ing down on us with the promised of wind and rain and (most like­ly) still more snow. An anony­mous British poet wrote of the weath­er, “We’ll weath­er the weath­er what­ev­er the weath­er.” We decid­ed to not only weath­er the weath­er but to cel­e­brate it with a few weath­ery pic­ture books.

Come On, Rain!In Karen Hesse’s Come On, Rain, illus­trat­ed by Jon J. Muth, an urban African Amer­i­can child yearns for rain. Her mamma’s plants are parched, She is “siz­zling like a hot pota­to,” and the city droops with heat. Hope comes in gray clouds rolling in, and the nar­ra­tor runs to find her friend Jack­ie-Joyce and tell her to put on her swim­suit. They run out into the alley, where their friends join them, and rain­drops plop down, “mak­ing dust dance all around us.” The friends dance in cir­cles, open their mouths to catch the rain, chase each oth­er down the street. They make such a rack­et shout­ing, “Come on, rain!” that the grown-ups toss off their shoes and socks and join them in a joy­ous cel­e­bra­tion. When the clouds and rain at last move off and every­thing is “spring­ing back to life,” they head home soaked and soothed by the wel­come rain. I remem­ber the delight of run­ning out into my back yard into a rain­storm, pud­dle-jump­ing, rain­drop catch­ing, and rain­bow spot­ting. Hesse’s book makes me wish for a rain­storm right now so I could run out into one again.

Jack­ie: I love this book, too, for that feel­ing of a grow­ing cel­e­bra­tion that’s going to bring the whole neigh­bor­hood togeth­er. And it reminds me of the fun of being drenched by a warm rain. It always gives me a feel­ing of being one with the world to be out in the rain, just get­ting wet. I laugh at how even the dust dances in cel­e­bra­tion in this story.

AlbertPhyl­lis: Albert by Don­na Jo Napoli, illus­trat­ed by Jim LaMarche, is less about a par­tic­u­lar kind of weath­er and more about a man who only expe­ri­ences the weath­er by stick­ing his hand out the grill­work over his win­dow, decid­ing it’s too cold, too damp, too hot, or too breezy to go outside.

One day when he sticks his hand out, a car­di­nal drops a twig in it, then anoth­er car­di­nal joins in. While Albert watch­es, they build a nest in his hand and set­tle in. Albert doesn’t want to dis­turb the nest by twist­ing his hand back in through the grill­work, so he stands there, hold­ing the nest, which soon con­tains eggs. Kind-heart­ed Albert sleeps stand­ing up at night, breath­ing on the eggs to keep them warm when­ev­er the moth­er leaves the nest, and scar­ing away a curi­ous cat, all the while watch­ing life go by on the street below. One morn­ing “when Albert opened his mouth, he peeped.” The father car­di­nal brings him a bee­tle, then black­ber­ries to eat. On the twelfth morn­ing the eggs hatch, and with­in a few weeks the hatch­lings fledge, even­tu­al­ly leav­ing the nest, the last with encour­age­ment from Albert. He lets the now emp­ty nest fall, pulls his hand back in, and real­iz­ing that he is part of the big won­der­ful world, whether cold or damp or hot or breezy, he heads out of his apart­ment. The book ends: “Now Albert walks often. And some­times, just some­times, when no one’s look­ing, he flies.” The art shows Albert soar­ing on a swing, a car­di­nal perched on his head. This is a book that invites us not only to be gen­er­ous and kind to ani­mals but also to step out into the “big won­der­ful world” of which we are all a part.

Jack­ie: And if we are lucky, per­haps some­times we will fly. My used copy of this book is signed by the illus­tra­tor Jim LaMarche. The car­di­nals he drew for this book are so won­der­ful. They look as if they might fly right off the page. Read­ers of this sto­ry may nev­er have a nest on their hands, but they will nev­er see car­di­nals the same again.

When the Wind BlewPhyl­lis: Two books about wind seem fit­ting for March, which has come in like a snow lion this year. In When the Wind Blew by Mar­garet Wise Brown, illus­trat­ed by Geof­frey Hayes, an old, old lady lives all by her­self by the ocean with sev­en­teen cats and one lit­tle blue gray kit­ten. Each morn­ing the old lady milks her cow and fills sev­en­teen pur­ple saucers and one lit­tle blue saucer to feed her cats and kit­ten, then fills a mug for her­self. The old woman wash­es up the dish­es, the cats wash them­selves, and they all enjoy the sun­shine. One day the wind blows off the ocean, and the old lady brings her cats and kit­ten in out of the wind, where they curl up by the fire. Then a ter­ri­ble toothache strikes her, for which she has no med­i­cine or even a hot water bot­tle to put on her toothache for the pain. She takes her toothache to bed and lis­tens to the wind tear­ing through the cracks in her house, wish­ing for a hot water bot­tle for her aching tooth. Click purr, click purr. The lit­tle blue gray kit­ten jumps onto the bed and curls up next to her cheek, a fur-cov­ered hot water bot­tle that takes her toothache away. The wind blows on, but the old lady and her cats and blue grey kit­ten all sleep peace­ful­ly in her lit­tle house by the ocean. A sim­ple tale, and a com­fort­ing one, with Mar­garet Wise Brown’s lov­ing atten­tion to the sim­ple details of every­day life.

Jack­ie: One of her details is the detail of pain. “Her toothache was all there seemed to be in the world.” And I love the verbs that MWB uses. The cats, “mewed and purred and gur­gled for break­fast.” And the wind that “blew the sun­light cold and almost blew the lit­tle gray kit­ten off his feet.” We have had those winds that blow the sun­light cold. This book is a peek into a self-con­tained world that gets blown awry and then right­ed and it is so satisfying.

What Color is the Wind?What Col­or is the Wind? by Anne Herbauts is a lyri­cal med­i­ta­tion on the wind, but it is also a tex­tur­al book. By run­ning one’s fin­gers over the pages one can feel the ruf­fled hair of a dog, the coarse fur of a wolf, the raised bumps of rain, the smooth skin of an apple. Com­bine this with cut out win­dows, and you have a book to fas­ci­nate the sens­es. In the sto­ry, a lit­tle giant of a child sets out to dis­cov­er the col­or of the wind, only to receive dif­fer­ent answers from the ani­mals and objects that he meets. Stream, tree, bird all weigh in, but it is an enor­mous giant who answers, “It is every­thing at once. This whole book.” Ruf­fling the pages of the book the enor­mous giant makes a gen­tle wind for the lit­tle giant. The wind of the book. Magical.

ShelterSome­times a book touch­es us so much that we have to own it. As soon as I took Shel­ter by Celine Claire, illus­trat­ed by Qin Leng off the shelf at Red Bal­loon Book­shop and read through it, I knew I could not leave the store with­out it. The book begins with ani­mals prepar­ing for a com­ing storm, gath­er­ing wood for the a fire, squir­rel­ing away nuts. As the storm hits and the ani­mals are snug­gly tucked in their dens, two strangers, a big bear and a lit­tle bear, appear in the fog seek­ing shel­ter. They offer tea in exchange for the warmth of a fire at the first den they come to, and though the art shows a bright­ly burn­ing fire, the ani­mals inside claim their fire is out. “Try next door,” they say. Next door the hun­gry bears offer to trade tea for a few cook­ies but are told, “We have no food. Try next door,” even though the den is heaped with acorns. The fox­es next door turn the bears down because their den is crowd­ed, although Lit­tle Fox runs after the bears and offers them a lantern. Next door is only a hill, but the bears feel wel­come there, and once snow begin to fall, they know they will be all right. Back in the fox­es’ den, the weight of the snow caus­es the roof to col­lapse, and although the fox fam­i­ly escapes, the world out­side is cold and dark and full of snow. A light beck­ons, which turns out to be the lantern Lit­tle Fox gave the bears, glow­ing through the snow den they have built. Lit­tle Fox offers cook­ies for tea and the bears reply that their lantern is weak­en­ing, their den is small and crowd­ed, and they have no food but the fox­es are wel­come to share the den and their tea — which they do. The last illus­tra­tion shows the win­ter storm blus­ter­ing while inside the small snow shel­ter, the fox­es and bears sip tea and eat cook­ies togeth­er by lantern light. This sto­ry moved my heart, not least because it is about the gen­eros­i­ty of strangers and about how we nev­er know when we might be the stranger in need of aid who hopes some­one will open their heart to us.

Jack­ie: I agree. This is a won­der­ful book and so per­fect for our time. If one read­er shares one cook­ie with anoth­er, who then shares a cookie…Well, let’s hope.

So many more good weath­er books, some of which we’ve looked at in pre­vi­ous posts—The Snowy Day, Hide and Seek Fog, Lau­ren Stringer’s Win­ter is the Warmest Sea­son, Red Rub­ber Boot Day, Yel­low Time—we could keep list­ing them until the snow melts. Whether or not we like the weath­er, we’ll weath­er it with a good weath­ery book, know­ing, too, that if we just wait a lit­tle while, new weath­er will be upon us.

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The Princess and Her Panther

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

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

Signe was brave, and Riya tried to be.

I stopped typing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let It Snow!

Phyl­lis: The first real snow has fall­en overnight, and the qual­i­ty of light when I wake up is lumi­nous out­side the win­dow. Sol­stice approach­es, and we’ve turned our thoughts to books about win­ter and snow. So many to choose from! Here are a few.

Katy and the Big SnowWhen my grown daugh­ter saw a copy of Katy and the Big Snow by Vir­ginia Lee Bur­ton on my book­shelf, she cried, “Oh! Katy!” Since it was first pub­lished in 1943, this book has been beloved by chil­dren and grown-ups alike. Katy, “a beau­ti­ful red crawler trac­tor,” works as a bull­doz­er in the sum­mer and even pulls a steam­roller out of the pond when it falls in. In win­ter, Katy’s bull­doz­er is changed out for her snow plow, but she is “so big and strong” that she must stay in the garage until enough snow falls for her to plow. When the Big Snow final­ly does pile up with drifts up to sec­ond sto­ry win­dows, the oth­er plows break down and Katy comes to the res­cue. She plows out the city’s roads so the mail can get through (remem­ber when mail was a main way to com­mu­ni­cate?), tele­phones poles can be repaired, bro­ken water mains fixed, patients can get to hos­pi­tals, fire trucks can reach fires, air­planes can land on cleared run­ways, and all the side streets are plowed out. “Then … and only then did Katy stop.” I’ve lived in Min­neso­ta through enough win­ters to see hous­es on the prairie buried by snow­drifts and trick-or-treaters strug­gling through the three-foot deep Hal­loween bliz­zard. Thanks to Katy and her kin, we get around even­tu­al­ly, and thanks to Vir­ginia Bur­ton we can share in Katy’s tri­umph. And what child doesn’t love big machines?

Jack­ie: Big machines are auto­mat­ic atten­tion-grab­bers. And I love the cer­tain­ty of this world. There are prob­lems to be solved in this big snow and Katy can solve them. So, the mail gets through, the sick peo­ple get treat­ed, the fire trucks put out fires. It feels safe. And that is such a good feel­ing for a child — and for all of us. We adults may know that things don’t always work out that neat­ly, but it’s nice, even for us, to vis­it a world where they do work out.

Small WaltPhyl­lis: Small Walt by Eliz­a­beth Verdick with pic­tures by Marc Rosen­thal has just been pub­lished, and Katy’s descen­dant Walt waits, too, for a chance to plow snow. Unlike Katy who must wait for a big snow, Walt, the small­est plow in the fleet, must wait and wait for some­one will­ing to take out “the lit­tle guy” when a snow­storm buries the streets and all the big plows and their dri­vers go out to clear the roads.. Enter Gus, who checks out Walt and dri­ves him on his route. Walt chugs along, his engine thrum­ming his song:

My name is Walt.
I plow and salt,
They say I’m small,
But I’ll show them all.

And Walt does, until they con­front a high hill with drifts big­ger than Walt has ever seen. Gus sug­gests they can let Big Buck behind them plow the hill, but Walt is deter­mined. He “skids, slips down, down…He shud­ders, sput­ters.” When they final­ly make it to the top of the hill and down, dawn has arrived and they head back to the city lot where Big Buck says, “The lit­tle guy did a bet­ter job than I thought.” Replete with ono­matopo­et­ic sounds, rhythm, and syn­tax, this is a won­der­ful read-aloud. The art is rem­i­nis­cent in col­or and line of Burton’s art, and Walt, like Katy, is a jaun­ty red. A great pair­ing of books when the snow piles high.

Jack­ie: This is such a sat­is­fy­ing sto­ry. And as you said, Phyl­lis, the lan­guage is won­der­ful. My favorite, and I may adopt it this win­ter, is, “Plow and salter. Nev­er fal­ter.” There are days when it’s good to remem­ber not to fal­ter, whether or not salt is in the picture.

Over and Under the SnowPhyl­lis: Over and Under the Snow by Kate Mess­ner with art by Christo­pher Silas Neal chron­i­cles a win­ter day ski­ing where a “whole secret king­dom” exists out of sight under the snow that a child and par­ent glide, climb, and swoosh over. Fat bull­frogs snooze, snow­shoe hares watch from under snow-cov­ered pines, squir­rels, shrews, voles, chip­munks, queen bum­ble­bees hide under the snow where deer mice “hud­dle up, cud­dle up. And a bushy-tailed red fox leaps to catch the mouse that his sharp ears detect scritch­ing beneath the snow. Exten­sive back mat­ter offers sci­en­tif­ic infor­ma­tion about how the ani­mals sur­vive win­ter. Read­ing this book makes me want to strap on skis and go glid­ing through a snowy world over a secret kingdom.

Jack­ie: I had that same thought — “where are my skis? Where is the snow?” It’s so much fun in this book to see into places we don’t usu­al­ly see, the vole’s tun­nel, the beavers’ den, the place in the mud where the bull­frog lives. It’s like being giv­en a mag­ic pill that makes us small enough to get into these places, usu­al­ly locked to us. And I love the back infor­ma­tion. The more we know the more we see when we look. And the more con­nec­tion we have to what is under the snow.

Has Winter Come?Phyl­lis: Anoth­er old favorite in our fam­i­ly is Wendy Watson’s Has Win­ter Come? I love Wendy Watson’s work, and this book, text and art, enchant­ed me when we first read it and still does.

On the day that it start­ed to snow,
Moth­er said,
“Win­ter is com­ing now.
I can smell it in the air.”

The wood­chuck chil­dren sniff but can’t smell win­ter. As the fam­i­ly gath­ers “acorns and wal­nuts, hick­o­ry nuts and hazel­nuts, sun­flower seed and pump­kin seeds … apples and corn, and pears and parsnips” and piles up wood to keep them warm the chil­dren keep try­ing to smell win­ter. When the snow stops falling their moth­er gath­ers a star for each of them from the star­ry sky. As they get ready for bed the lit­tle wood­chucks smell “warm beds, and pine cones burn­ing, and apple cores siz­zling on the hearth.” As their par­ents tuck them under warm down quilts, the chil­dren say, “We smell sleep com­ing, and a long night … Is this winter?”

Yes, their par­ents whis­per. “This is win­ter.” The soft­ly col­ored illus­tra­tions cap­ture falling snow, the trunks and roots of the wood­chucks’ wood­land home, and the small lumi­nosi­ties of the stars that the lit­tle wood­chuck clutch in their paws as they fall asleep. Who wouldn’t want such a win­ter nap, cozy, and well-fed, lit by starlight and watched over by lov­ing parents?

Father Fox's PennyrhymesJack­ie: Wendy Wat­son has always been one of my favorites. Her books tell a tale of fam­i­ly love and, like Geopo­lis, always present read­ers a won­der­ful world to vis­it. At our house we spent many con­tent­ed hours enjoy­ing the pic­tures and por­ing over the rhymes in Father Fox’s Pen­nyrhymes, writ­ten by Clyde Wat­son and illus­trat­ed by her sis­ter, Wendy.

As a result of work­ing on this col­umn I have vis­it­ed Wendy Watson’s web page and espe­cial­ly love her blog, with its fam­i­ly tales and recipes.

Winter is the Warmest SeasonPhyl­lis: Lau­ren Stringer’s Win­ter is the Warmest Sea­son offers proof in spare text and exu­ber­ant illus­tra­tions that, con­trary to what we might think, win­ter is indeed our warmest time. Puffy jack­ets, hats that “grow earflaps,” hands wear­ing wooly sweaters, a good cup of some­thing warm to drink, cats that curl in laps, cozy blan­kets and star­ry quilts to snug­gle under, fires and can­dles, hot baths, and a book to read cud­dled close by peo­ple who love us will all warm our hearts as the snow piles up outside.

Jack­ie: This is an ode to the joys of win­ter. It reminds me of the appre­ci­a­tion we all have for hot choco­late (which of course tastes best, when one is a lit­tle chilled), fire­places, and the sweet­ness of being warmed after being cold. This book begs read­ers to cre­ate a com­pan­ion — Sum­mer is the Coolest Sea­son. This would be a fun class­room writ­ing assignment.

Snow CrystalsWe start­ed this col­umn with mounds of snow that had to be cleared away for vil­lage life to con­tin­ue. We looked under the snow, found win­ter, and found it to be warm. I’d like to add a look at indi­vid­ual snow crys­tals. Because Snowflake Bent­ley is on our list of addi­tion­al books [Thanks Phyl­lis!] I want to men­tion that his book of snow crys­tal pho­tographs is still in print—Snow Crys­tals—and is pub­lished by Dover Pub­li­ca­tions. Also, Voyageur, in 2006 pub­lished Ken­neth Libbrecht’s A Field Guide to Snowflakes, pho­tographs of snow crys­tals tak­en with a more mod­ern cam­era than Bentley’s.

Phyl­lis: Whether you are tucked under a warm blan­ket or glid­ing through snowy woods over crea­tures tucked in beneath your feet, we wish you the warmth of loved ones, the won­der of snow crys­tals, a pile of books to read, and a peace­ful time as the earth tilts into win­ter and toward the sol­stice light.

Snowflake BentleyA few more of the bliz­zard of books about snow and winter:

  • Brave Irene by William Steig
  • Snowflake Bent­ley by Jack­ie Brig­gs Mar­tin (Jack­ie might not men­tion this book, but Phyl­lis will) and Mary Azarian
  • Snowflakes Fall by Patri­cia MacLach­lan and Steven Kellogg
  • Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
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When author and illustrator meet, serendipity happens

On Sat­ur­day, July 10th, author Wendy Orr, from Aus­tralia, and illus­tra­tor Lau­ren Stringer, from the Unit­ed States, cel­e­brat­ed the release of their new book, The Princess and Her Pan­ther, togeth­er. Not only does this not often hap­pen, but it hap­pens even less across con­ti­nents. Wendy joined Lau­ren at the Red Bal­loon Book­shop in Saint Paul, Min­neso­ta, on Sat­ur­day morn­ing and then the two of them gave a pre­sen­ta­tion to the Ker­lan Friends and the pub­lic at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta’s Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture Research Collection.… more
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Bank Street’s 2010 Choices

We eager­ly await the annu­al list of books cho­sen by the Bank Street Col­lege of Edu­ca­tion as books that work well with chil­dren from birth to age 14. Each year, the Chil­dren’s Book Com­mit­tee reviews over 6000 titles each year for accu­ra­cy and lit­er­ary qual­i­ty and con­sid­ers their emo­tion­al impact on chil­dren. It choos­es the best 600 books, both fic­tion and non­fic­tion, which it lists accord­ing to age and category.… more
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Best Read-Aloud Picture Books

Read­ing out loud is a low-cost, high-pay­back activ­i­ty. It ben­e­fits both the read­er and the lis­ten­er. Life­long bonds are often formed between peo­ple who engage in this activ­i­ty. Make read­ing out loud a can’t-miss half hour in your home, class­room, day­care, place of wor­ship, library, or work­place. The results may sur­prise you. “Best Read Aloud Pic­ture Books, is a new online bib­li­og­ra­phy avail­able from the Cur­ricu­lum Mate­ri­als Cen­ter at Liv­ingston Lord Library, Min­neso­ta State Uni­ver­si­ty Moorhead. … more
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