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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Melanie Heuiser Hill

The Penderwicks

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

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

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

It was an adorable cov­er. So we read it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Stuff of Stars

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

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

In the dark,

in the dark,

in the deep, deep dark…. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the dark refrain returned…

…one day…

in the dark,

in the dark,

in the deep, deep dark… 

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

It was pow­er­ful.

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

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

You

   and me

      lov­ing you.

          All of us

              The stuff of stars.

 

For fur­ther read­ing, I high­ly rec­om­mend the fol­low­ing:

Mar­i­on Dane Bauer inter­views her illus­tra­tor, Ekua Holmes.

The writ­ing process for The Stuff of Stars.

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Story Time for All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sto­ry­time! STO­RY-time!”

 

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Little Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Giant Jam Sandwich

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

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

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

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

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

For hours and hours they let it cook.

It swelled inside till the win­dows shook.

It was pip­ing hot when they took it out,

And the vil­lagers raised a mighty shout.

Isn’t it crusty! Aren’t we clever!”

But the wasps were just as bad as ever….

 

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

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

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

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

[The wasps] nev­er came back to Itch­ing Down,

Which is not a waspish sort of town,

But a very nice place to dance and play,

And that’s what the vil­lagers did that day. 

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

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Waiting

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

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

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

WAIT.” said the light.

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

WAIT.” it said.

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

WAIT.” the light respond­ed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Planting Giant Pumpkin Seeds

How to Grow World Class Giant Pumpkins the All-Organic WayAs I write this, Min­neso­ta is in line to get hit with anoth­er Major Win­ter Storm.

I know many of you in the north­ern lat­i­tudes can sym­pa­thize as we’ve all been hit, but it’s mid-April, and even by Min­neso­ta stan­dards, this is demor­al­iz­ing. Proms are being can­celled this week­end, the gro­cery stores are crazy, everyone’s watch­ing the radar while they make soup, and I … I have avert­ed my eyes from the win­dow so as to bet­ter ignore the wet slop com­ing down and bet­ter focus on my gar­den plan­ning!

We hope to have straw­ber­ries this year for the first time, and I have a bazil­lion flower seeds to start this week­end, but I’m also plan­ning ahead just a cou­ple weeks so we’re ready for Giant Pump­kin Seed Start­ing Day on May 1st.

In Giant Pump­kin Suite, Rose and Thomas find the mys­te­ri­ous seed their neigh­bor, Mr. Pick­er­ing, has start­ed on May 1st. May Day is the day I start my giant pump­kin seeds—this is, I believe, our 5th year grow­ing giant pump­kins. We are not the least bit com­pet­i­tive, but it is always an amaz­ing expe­ri­ence, and the start­ing of the seeds is my favorite part.

I get my seeds from the St. Croix Grower’s Asso­ci­a­tion. These are sol­id seeds from prize-win­ning pump­kins and the mon­ey sup­ports a great local orga­ni­za­tion. Look online for your own local sup­ply.

First, I file the edges with a fin­ger­nail file. This helps water pen­e­trate the hard cas­ing of the seed. Once filed, the seeds soak for a few hours. Water is very impor­tant for germination—water is impor­tant in the whole growth process for giant pump­kins, in fact!

Soaking giant pumpkin seeds

Final­ly, when the soil tem­per­a­ture in the pots is above 85 degrees (this requires a bit of a set up, as you can see below—and, yes, I use a ther­mome­ter to check the tem­per­a­ture) and the soil is just past damp, but not sog­gy, I plant the seeds, pointy end down. These seeds are noto­ri­ous­ly fussy and dif­fi­cult to ger­mi­nate; hence, I always start more than I will need.

Growing Giant Pumpkins

They will spend a cou­ple of weeks indoors in the laun­dry room’s make-shift giant pump­kin nurs­ery, then I’ll take the pre­cious fussy lit­tle plants out­side for a few hours each day for a good week so they can accli­mate before they go in the ground.

Usu­al­ly, the pump­kin patch is full of tulips in May … but maybe not this year.

Giant Pumpkin SuiteMay in Min­neso­ta is noto­ri­ous­ly unpre­dictable. We’ll wait for moth­er nature to even out a bit before sub­ject­ing the plants to the ele­ments. In Giant Pump­kin Suite, Rose and Thomas have to build a tent over the pump­kin plant and use a space heater—I’m always hop­ing to avoid that.

Last year was kind of a bust for us on the giant pump­kin scene. A hail­storm in ear­ly June shred­ded the leaves and the plants nev­er quite recov­ered. Hop­ing this year will have a bet­ter show­ing. I want to be clear—we do this for fun at our house, not for com­pe­ti­tion. Once the plants are in the ground, they most­ly fend for them­selves. Grow­ing real giants takes a lot more work.

My favorite part, as I said, is the start­ing of the seeds—it’s astound­ing how fast they grow. The details in Giant Pump­kin Suite are not exag­ger­at­ed at all. If you’d like to see some pic­tures from last year, you can find them here.

If you’d like to fol­low our household’s grow­ing adven­tures this year, check out my Insta­gram.

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If you are a Fresh Bookol­o­gy sub­scriber, don’t hes­i­tate to enter our give­away for an auto­graphed copy of this book, but you must do so by mid­night CT on April 20, 2018. Instruc­tions for enter­ing are in your most recent e-newslet­ter. If you aren’t yet a sub­scriber (it’s free), sign up today.

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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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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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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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Pumpkin Muffins

Pump­kin Muffins
Yields 18
Melanie Heuis­er Hill, the author of Giant Pump­kin Suite, would like to think that Gram would be bak­ing Pump­kin Muffins this month. Enjoy!
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Prep Time
15 min
Cook Time
15 min
Total Time
30 min
Prep Time
15 min
Cook Time
15 min
Total Time
30 min
Ingre­di­ents
  1. 2−1÷4 cups all-pur­pose flouor (about 10 ox)
  2. 2 tsp pump­kin pie spice
  3. 1−1÷2 tsp bak­ing soda
  4. 1 tsp ground gin­ger
  5. 14 tsp salt
  6. 1 cup gold­en raisins
  7. 1 cup packed brown sug­ar
  8. 1 cup canned pump­kin
  9. 13 cup but­ter­milk
  10. 13 cup veg­etable oil
  11. 14 cup molasses
  12. 1 tsp vanil­la extract
  13. 2 large eggs
  14. Cook­ing spray
  15. 2 Tbsp gran­u­lat­ed sug­ar
Instruc­tions
  1. Pre­heat oven to 400 deg F.
  2. Light­ly spoon flour into dry mea­sur­ing cups; lev­el with a knife. Com­bine flour, pump­kin pie spice, bak­ing soda, gin­ger, and salt in a medi­um bowl, stir­ring well with a whisk. Stir in raisins; make a well in cen­ter of mix­ture. Com­bine brown sug­ar, canned pump­kin, but­ter­milk, canola oil, molasses, vanil­la extract, and eggs, stir­ring well with a whisk. Add sug­ar mix­ture to flour mix­ture; stir just until moist.
  3. Spoon bat­ter into 18 muf­fin cups coat­ed with cook­ing spray. Sprin­kle with gran­u­lat­ed sug­ar. Bake at 400° for 15 min­utes or until a wood­en pick insert­ed in cen­ter comes out clean. Remove muffins from pans imme­di­ate­ly; cool on a wire rack.
Notes
  1. Pre­pare these muffins up to two days ahead of serv­ing them.
Adapt­ed from Cook­ing Light
Adapt­ed from Cook­ing Light
Bookol­o­gy Mag­a­zine https://www.bookologymagazine.com/
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Bookstorm™: Giant Pumpkin Suite

Giant Pumpkin SuiteCom­pe­ti­tion is a part of young people’s lives: art, sports, music, dance, sci­ence, cup-stack­ing … many chil­dren spend a good part of their day prac­tic­ing, learn­ing, and striv­ing to do their best. Giant Pump­kin Suite is about two types of com­pe­ti­tions, a Bach Cel­lo Suites Com­pe­ti­tion and a giant pump­kin grow­ing com­pe­ti­tion. Rose and Thomas Bruti­gan are twelve-year-old twins … but their per­son­al­i­ties and inter­ests are quite dif­fer­ent. It’s a book set with­in a neigh­bor­hood that pulls togeth­er when a seri­ous acci­dent changes the tra­jec­to­ry of their sum­mer. We meet so many inter­est­ing peo­ple, chil­dren and adults, in this book. It’s full of hold-your-breath plot turns. 

The book is writ­ten at a lev­el for 5th to 8th grade read­ers (and adults) and it has many ties to pop­u­lar cul­ture, math­e­mat­ics, gar­den­ing, and the nature of com­pe­ti­tion. It’s an excel­lent choice for a book club dis­cus­sion.

In each Book­storm™, we offer a bib­li­og­ra­phy of books that have close ties to the the fea­tured book. You’ll find books, arti­cles, web­sites, and videos for a vari­ety of tastes and inter­ests.  

Downloadables

 

 

You’ll find more infor­ma­tion about Melanie Heuis­er Hill on her web­site.

BOOKSTORM TOPICS

Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach. Rose Bruti­gan focus­es on an upcom­ing Bach Suites Com­pe­ti­tion by prac­tic­ing … a lot. Who was Bach and why is his music still with us 260 years after his death? Resources include books and videos of our best cel­lists play­ing the Bach Cel­lo Suites.

The Cel­lo. More about the instru­ment Rose plays, with a num­ber of videos you can share with your class or book club.

Charlotte’s Web. This book is a favorite of Rose and her neigh­bor Jane. Charlotte’s Web pro­vides a major turn­ing point in Giant Pump­kin Suite. Learn more about the book and its author, E.B. White.

Giant Pump­kins. Thomas and his neigh­bors work togeth­er to grow a giant pump­kin. Today, these pump­kins (not grown for eat­ing) can way over 2,000 pounds—more than one ton. Books, videos, and arti­cles share sto­ries and how-tos for grow­ing giant pump­kins com­pet­i­tive­ly.

Japan­ese Tea Cer­e­mo­ny. Mrs. Kiyo shares this beau­ti­ful cer­e­mo­ny with Rose. The Book­storm sug­gests a video for your stu­dents to watch.

Math­e­mat­ics and Bach. Are you aware that Bach used math and physics when cre­at­ing his com­po­si­tions? Your stu­dents can delve into this fas­ci­nat­ing aspect of the com­pos­er!

Movie Musi­cals. The music from musi­cals of the 1940s and 1950s is very impor­tant to Jane and Mrs. Lukashenko—they sing and tap dance at the least sug­ges­tion. We pro­vide three sug­ges­tions for watch­ing these movies.

Music Com­pe­ti­tion (Fic­tion). There are a num­ber of excel­lent books about young peo­ple prepar­ing for, and play­ing in, music com­pe­ti­tions! 

Music in Mid­dle Grade Books. And more nov­els in which music is an impor­tant part of the plot. 

Neigh­bor­hood Books. We sug­gest books in which the peo­ple and places of a neigh­bor­hood are inte­gral to the plot of a book. Per­haps you’ll find your favorites.

Tap Danc­ing. Who can resist a good tap dance? Anoth­er strong plot point, we sug­gest books and videos to share with your stu­dents.

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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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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Following The Ducklings

We have just returned from a trip to the Boston/Concord area and Maine. It was a bit of a lit­er­ary trip. Three days in Con­cord, Mass­a­chu­setts set the stage as we toured Louisa May Alcott’s house and Ralph Wal­do Emerson’s, too. We fol­lowed The Amble, which became more of A Ram­ble, between Emerson’s home and Thoreau’s cot­tage at Walden Pond. We vis­it­ed muse­ums and archives, book­shops and the library. It all made this Eng­lish major very happy—I’ve want­ed to vis­it Con­cord since my Walden obses­sion in high school.

We made sure to see The Duck­lings in Boston Pub­lic Gar­den, of course. #1 Son had refused to pose with them, as oth­er small chil­dren do, when he was four. He loved Make Way for Duck­lings, how­ev­er, and insist­ed we buy it in Boston since “we only have the library book.” So, of course, we did. (Side Note: If you don’t know the sto­ry about Robert McCloskey’s atten­tion to his art with regard to this book, check out Ani­ta Silvey’s telling of it on Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac.) Dar­ling Daugh­ter was game to pose with The Duck­lings on this trip, but she didn’t want to get in the way of the lit­tle ones who climbed all over them, so we have no pic­tures of either child with this mon­u­ment. But the mere thought of those bronze ducks makes me smile.

What I didn’t real­ize as we stood watch­ing the kids on the ducks, is that we were mere­ly start­ing our Robert McCloskey tour. Our next stop after Boston was Deer Isle, Maine, an island in Penob­scot Bay reached by a stun­ning sus­pen­sion bridge from the main­land. Deer Isle was home to Robert McCloskey, who moved to the idyl­lic island in search of peace after World War II. I had no idea, though I knew he was a Main­er, of course. (So many of my favorite writ­ers are.) Turns out, The McCloskeys raised a fam­i­ly on Deer Isle and we rec­og­nized the place from Blue­ber­ries for Sal, Time of Won­der, and One Morn­ing in Maine.

We had a love­ly stay and enjoyed perus­ing Maine authors in every library, book­store, antique store, and even one gas sta­tion. The McCloskey sec­tions were espe­cial­ly large. It was in an antique store in Ston­ing­ton that I had the delight­ful sur­prise of com­ing across the Hen­ry Reed books in the McCloskey sec­tion. I reached for Hen­ry Reed’s Babysit­ting Ser­vice as if in a dream—it was like time slowed…the sounds around me became distorted…and the movie of my life rewound itself to Parson’s Ele­men­tary school. There was the Hen­ry Reed sec­tion, right in the cor­ner where the shelves came togeth­er in our school’s library….. Hen­ry Reed, Inc., Hen­ry Reed’s Jour­ney, Hen­ry Reed’s Babysit­ting Ser­vice, Hen­ry Reed’s Big Show, Hen­ry Reed’s Think Tank—we had them all! I read them all—many times!

I’d wager I haven’t thought about Hen­ry Reed in near­ly 40 years, how­ev­er. I know I didn’t read these delight­ful books by Kei­th Robert­son with our kids—how could I not have read these with them?! Oh, how I loved Hen­ry and his friend Midge! I can’t remem­ber much about the plots of the books—I paged through Hen­ry Reed’s Babysit­ting Ser­vice stand­ing there in the store and remem­bered it vis­cer­al­ly but with almost no detail. Robert McCloskey illus­trat­ed them—and you can rec­og­nize his style imme­di­ate­ly. I have the Hen­ry Reed books all mixed in with the Ramona Quim­by books—same look and feel (dif­fer­ent illus­tra­tors, as well as authors) and sim­i­lar sto­ries about won­der­ful­ly ordi­nary kids. These books were my child­hood.

Our kids are twen­ty and almost fif­teen now. I won­der if I could con­vince them the Hen­ry Reed series would make for great porch read­ing this sum­mer…? We used to drink lemon­ade and eat pop­corn while we read books on the porch in the hot after­noons of sum­mer wait­ing for Dad to come home from work. I miss this. Maybe they do, too? I feel like I’ve left a ter­ri­ble hole in their read­ing lives by inad­ver­tant­ly skip­ping Hen­ry Reed! I shall pro­cure the books and then sug­gest it. Maybe some­one will join me out on the swing…..

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The Reading Summer

A stressed moth­er of a first grad­er sought my coun­sel this week. The issue was read­ing. Her son wasn’t. And at the close of first grade he was expect­ed to. There was talk of test­ing, reme­di­al help over the sum­mer, read­ing logs, etc. She and her spouse were dread­ing it, wor­ried, and a lit­tle irked—not at the not-yet-read­er, but at the expec­ta­tions and the pres­sure. I lis­tened for a long time and when she final­ly took a breath, I asked what she was most wor­ried about—for instance, was she wor­ried there was a learn­ing issue that need­ed to be addressed? “No!” she said. “I’m wor­ried he’s going to hate read­ing if we spend the sum­mer doing these things!”

And that response com­plet­ed the time-warp I was expe­ri­enc­ing while lis­ten­ing to her story—twelve years I vault­ed back in the space-time con­tin­uüm. Twelve years ago this week we received the phone call that was the cul­mi­na­tion of an entire school year of frus­tra­tion and con­cern. #1 Son was not reading—he’d staunch­ly refused to even try to read the test­ing selec­tions his sec­ond-grade teacher asked him to in the last weeks of school. He just sat there—a con­sci­en­tious objec­tor of sorts.

Our kids went to a won­der­ful Span­ish-immer­sion school and there was a lit­tle extra time built in before they start­ed sug­gest­ing inter­ven­tions sim­ply because the stu­dents learn to read first in a lan­guage that is not their first lan­guage. But it was clear that he was “behind” by the time sec­ond grade was draw­ing to a close—The Oth­er Chil­dren were read­ing well in Span­ish, and some of them quite well in Eng­lish, too. The school rec­om­mend­ed sum­mer school, a read­ing pro­gram, and a Span­ish tutor for the sum­mer.

I calm­ly asked if any­one was con­cerned that there was a learn­ing difference/disability that need­ed to be addressed. They didn’t think so. I called a read­ing spe­cial­ist and wise moth­er and told her of the school’s rec­om­men­da­tions. And then I told her that our col­lec­tive par­ent­ing gut was telling us to decline any pro­gram­ming what­so­ev­er in favor of sim­ply read­ing good books togeth­er all sum­mer.

She was silent on the phone for sev­er­al sec­onds. And then she whis­pered (whis­pered!) that she thought this was a won­der­ful idea. I’d been a sto­ry­time read­er in her class­room before and she said she won­dered if #1 Son wasn’t read­ing sim­ply because he couldn’t read like I read quite yet—with all the inflec­tion, voic­es, and fun. She said it was obvi­ous to her that sto­ries were very much alive for him, and when you’re being asked to read those very ear­ly books in which each word is not longer than four let­ters and most of them rhyme [Mat sat on the cat.]…well, it’s hard­er to make them come alive.

Take the sum­mer and read!” she whis­pered, as if she was telling me a secret that read­ing spe­cial­ists don’t impart to the mass­es. “Read the very best books you can find and read your very best. See where he is in the fall.”

And so we did—we read all sum­mer long. We read The Sword in the Stone and The Mouse and The Motor­cy­cle. We read Peter and the Star Catch­ers and Stu­art Lit­tle. We lis­tened to Har­ry Pot­ter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the car on vaca­tion and read Swal­lows and Ama­zons in the tent while camp­ing. We went to the library every Fri­day and then on a pic­nic where we read stacks of pic­ture books (his sis­ter was two!) while we ate our PB&J. We vis­it­ed our local kids’ book­store with reg­u­lar­i­ty and took our new books down to the lake and I read while they fed the ducks. I did not ask him to read “the next para­graph” or to sound out a word here and there. I just read—until I was hoarse, some­times, I read.

At the end of the sum­mer, we went to meet #1 Son’s third grade teacher. She was a no-non­sense grand­moth­er and she got his num­ber imme­di­ate­ly. I loved her just as imme­di­ate­ly. She took away the Clif­ford El Gran Per­ro Col­orado pic­ture books and hand­ed him Har­ry Pot­ter y la piedra filoso­fal. And he opened that thick nov­el and start­ed reading—just like that. 

It was a won­der­ful sum­mer. She was a won­der­ful teacher. #1 Son is A Won­der­ful Read­er (in two lan­guages!), and he always was. He just didn’t “per­form” until he was good and ready. (He still resists per­form­ing.)

I told the wor­ried moth­er our sto­ry. She nod­ded smart­ly. “That’s what we’re going to do,” she said. “If there’s actu­al­ly a read­ing prob­lem that needs to be addressed, we’ll address it, but I just don’t think we know that when he’s just six.” I wished them well and shared a book­list. 

I envy the sum­mer ahead of them. The Read­ing Sum­mer was one of the best par­ent­ing deci­sions we ever made, I think. I hope it turns out as well for them.

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The Bluest Eye

 

It’s been years since I could keep up with my kids read­ing. When they first began read­ing inde­pen­dent­ly, I’d often read (or at least skim) the books they were work­ing on so I could ask ques­tions and talk about it with them. Then for sev­er­al more years, they would sim­ply tell me about what­ev­er they were reading—often in great detail. Some­times I’d read it, some­times not, but we could con­verse about it giv­en the amount of detail they shared. But even­tu­al­ly they read at a pace much faster than me, and they read more wide­ly, too. Both read way more fan­ta­sy than I do. #1 Son reads a lot of his­to­ry, and Dar­ling Daugh­ter a lot more YA than I man­age. These days, it’s often me ask­ing them for books to read.

As they each entered high school I decid­ed to try and read with them on the books they were read­ing in Eng­lish class. This is large­ly a re-read­ing of the clas­sics for me—I was an Eng­lish major, after all. And a few more con­tem­po­rary books, too. I haven’t man­aged to read every one, but many I have, and been glad I did. None more so than this spring’s Hon­ors Eng­lish 9 selec­tion: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

Min­neapo­lis’ Guthrie The­ater is putting on The Bluest Eye this spring, and we had tick­ets in our sea­son pack­age. Last fall when they came I thought, “Oh, we should read that before we go…..” But I’d lost it in the dai­ly shuf­fle. I was thrilled when Dar­ling Daugh­ter told me The Bluest Eye was next on the syl­labus.

Toni Mor­ri­son!” I said. “I haven’t read The Bluest Eye in ages! I’ll dust my copy off and have a read with you.”

Mr. W. says it’s pretty…intense,” Dar­ling Daugh­ter said.

Indeed,” I said, as I scanned the book­shelves. “And beau­ti­ful. That’s how Mor­ri­son writes.” But The Bluest Eye was not in the M sec­tion on my shelf. Nor was it “mis­filed” some­where else—I looked every­where for it the next few days and final­ly gave up and bought a copy.

Twen­ty pages in I real­ized that I’d prob­a­bly nev­er read it. I had it all con­fused with Beloved, I think. It is quite a read. Intense seems like too sim­ple a word to describe it. So heart­break­ing. Appalling in too many ways. But such gor­geous writ­ing! And…important. It feels impor­tant to read this book. I’m grate­ful my kid has an Eng­lish teacher will­ing to take it on.

Our Guthrie tick­et night came and we went and watched the intense, heart­break­ing sto­ry on stage. I could hard­ly breathe through much of it. The hard scenes of rape and racism and hor­ror were beau­ti­ful­ly han­dled and I was so grate­ful to be sit­ting next to my four­teen year old as we watched. I was plumb full of grat­i­tude, in fact. Grate­ful for Morrison’s work; grate­ful for the work of the play­wright, Lydia R. Dia­mond; grate­ful for the actors who pre­sent­ed it to us with such exquis­ite artistry.

None of us will for­get this book and its play. I’m very glad to have final­ly read The Bluest Eye, and I’m thrilled to have read and seen it with my kid­do.

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Some Writer!

I had the won­der­ful good for­tune of hear­ing Melis­sa Sweet talk about her work last week. It was a fas­ci­nat­ing pre­sen­ta­tion about her process, her research, her art. I left inspired, and with a han­ker­ing to find scis­sors and a glue stick and do some col­lage myself. (Let’s be clear, things would not turn out at all like Sweet’s gor­geous works of art….)

I’ve been car­ry­ing around her book, Some Writer! The Sto­ry of E. B. White, in my purse ever since. It’s signed now, which gives me an extra “zing” of joy every time I pull it out. I’ve read it sev­er­al times. I’m to the point now, as I’ve been with Charlotte’s Web since I was a child, that I just open it wher­ev­er and start read­ing.

Which is what I did in one of the drea­ri­est wait­ing rooms known to human­i­ty a few days ago. Before I’d fin­ished read­ing the quote that begins chap­ter five, the whin­ing child across from me stopped pes­ter­ing his moth­er for two sec­onds and called out to me.

Hey! Is that a kid book or an adult book?” His tone was chal­leng­ing. 

Well, tech­ni­cal­ly, it’s a biog­ra­phy writ­ten for kids—” I said, and before I could add that any­one could read and enjoy it he inter­rupt­ed.

Then why are you read­ing it?”

It’s a real­ly good book,” I said.

Do you read oth­er kids’ books?” he demand­ed. His moth­er tried to hush him.

Yes, I do,” I said. “Lots.”

Why?”

They often tell the best sto­ries,” I said as his moth­er tried to shush him again.

And then I took a chance.… “Would you like to look at it with me?” I asked.

Naw, I don’t like books,” he said, and he sat back in his chair in a huff.

Oh,” I said. “I’m sor­ry about that.”

I didn’t know what else to say. I wasn’t going to bur­den this grumpy wait­ing child with any didac­ti­cisms about how impor­tant and joy­ful read­ing is, and how per­haps he might not have found the right book yet etc. So I went back to read­ing.

But the ques­tions con­tin­ued.

Is that a man or a teenag­er pet­ting that pig?” he asked squint­ing at the cov­er from where his Mom held him to his chair. So I told him it was E.B. White—pointing to White’s name—as a young man, and before I could tell him who E.B. White was he said, “That’s not a name—E.B.! Those are just…letters. What’s his real name?”

Elwyn,” I said.

He laughed uproar­i­ous­ly. I went back to read­ing. But it wasn’t long before he man­aged to cross the wait­ing room aisle and sit beside me, all non­cha­lant-like. I opened the book wider, rest­ed it on my right leg, clos­er to him, and start­ed a game of I-Spy.

I spy a ruler,” I said. He found it imme­di­ate­ly. He also found the birch­bark canoe and the small box of paper­clips. Sweet’s col­laged illus­tra­tions are packed with var­i­ous and sundry things.

He spied a mouse. I told him about Stu­art Lit­tle. We turned the page. I read him the let­ter White wrote to his edi­tor Ursu­la Nord­strom. He com­ment­ed that “E.B.’s” writ­ing wasn’t very neat and con­fessed his wasn’t either. We laughed about eat­ing 100,000 stalks of cel­ery and 100,000 olives, which is what White sug­gest­ed as a cel­e­bra­tion for the 100,000 copies of Stu­art Lit­tle that had sold—and which my young friend declared “nasty.” So we thought of bet­ter things to eat in cel­e­bra­tion and agreed that 100,000 of most any­thing was too much.

We con­tin­ued look­ing through the book. I didn’t read it to him so much as we enjoyed the illus­tra­tions togeth­er. He loved the rough sketch­es of Char­lotte done by Garth Williams. I told him a lit­tle about Melis­sa Sweet and her art stu­dio. He declared this infor­ma­tion “cool,” so I was glad I had it.

Even­tu­al­ly, the boy and his moth­er were called in, and then I was, too. When I came back out, the wait­ing room was emp­ty.

I think there’s a decent chance my young friend will check into Stu­art Lit­tle if he remem­bers the title. I’m sure he’ll remem­ber that the author’s first name was “E.B.”, and any librar­i­an or book­seller worth her or his salt should be able to help him out.

I do hope so.

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This Is Just To Say

April is Nation­al Poet­ry Month, which is as good an excuse as any to take some poet­ry books off the shelf and have a read. I’m quite method­i­cal in April—it’s the hint of spring in the air, I sup­pose. I clean my office and then I build a stack of won­der­ful poet­ry books—some Bil­ly Collins, a lit­tle Emi­ly Dick­in­son, a tome of Robert Frost, Shakespeare’s son­nets, Mary Oliv­er, nat­u­ral­ly…..

On top of this fine stack I put my col­lec­tion of Joyce Sid­man books. This means, to be hon­est, that I sel­dom make it down to the “grown-up” poets. Which is fine—I’m quite per­fect­ly hap­py wan­der­ing in Joyce’s books for the entire month. The oth­ers can be read…whenever. Joyce’s books have pic­tures. In the words and on the pages. I think all poets should be illus­trat­ed.

I say “Joyce,” all famil­iar like, because I know her. Which seems too fan­tas­tic to be true—I know none of those oth­er poets, except through their work. But Joyce I know—I saw her this past week­end, in fact. I hear her voice in her poems—even when it’s not her voice speak­ing. (I hear Bil­ly Collins in his poems, too, but Joyce’s voice is not so dead­pan.)

We’re sev­er­al days into April and I’ve yet to make it past the book that is pos­si­bly my favorite in my Joyce Sid­man col­lec­tion: This is Just To Say: Poems of Apol­o­gy and For­give­ness. It’s a slim volume—paperback. Some­times it gets shoved back on my book­case and I pan­ic when I look up and don’t see it right away. It’s illus­trat­ed by Pamela Zagaren­s­ki, an artist whose web­site I some­times vis­it just to browse and mut­ter her last name over and over again like its own poem. She has illus­trat­ed a few of Joyce’s books. They are an inspired pair, I think.

I bought this book as soon as I saw that the very first poem was, as I sus­pect­ed, William Car­los William’s “This Is Just To Say,” one of my most favorite poems. Anoth­er of his poems “The Red Wheel Bar­row” is one of the only poems I’ve man­aged to keep mem­o­rized since col­lege. I recite it when walk­ing some­times still.

Joyce uses William’s poem, “This is Just To Say,” as a mod­el when she teach­es, so says her web­site. And it is the mod­el for this bril­liant book of poet­ry: a story—or per­haps I should say sto­ries—told through poems of apol­o­gy and for­give­ness.

I’m embar­rassed to say that I did not real­ize this book told sto­ries until I read some of the poems aloud to a group of pre-school­ers. An astute 4-year-old point­ed out to me that one poem went with anoth­er, which is when I real­ized the poems were in pairs. (We’ll just focus on the bril­liance of the 4-year-old and not my slop­py read­ing.) Ever since, when I read this book, I read the apol­o­gy poem and then the “fol­low-up poem,” which is often a for­give­ness poem, but some­times just an explanation—and there­in lie the sto­ries. And these stories—my heart!—they run the gamut of the lives of chil­dren. From dodge ball games to mean things said…from things break­ing to break­ing hearts…from secrets kept to con­fes­sions made….from crush­es to hon­est-to-good­ness love…from fright­ened kids to despair­ing par­ents.

It’s the best of poet­ry, tru­ly. Acces­si­ble, mean­ing­ful, rich. I’ll just spend this April here, thank you very much.

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Pop-up Books

Our household’s fas­ci­na­tion with pop-up books came as a sur­prise to me. As a child I didn’t like them much. We had a few—one was Sleep­ing Beau­ty, I think. But they popped with bor­ing mod­esty and they always had these tabs that you pulled to make things move, only my broth­er pulled them too hard and so they didn’t do any­thing besides pull in and out. Dis­tinct­ly dis­ap­point­ing.

But #1 Son received Robert Sabuda’s The Christ­mas Alpha­bet for his first Christ­mas. He was ten months old. We were still at the stage where I was singing cheer­ful­ly, “Books are for read­ing, not for eat­ing!” every time we sat down to read. He loved books…with all his sens­es. But when I opened The Christ­mas Alpha­bet he sat back on the couch in amazement—his mouth opened in sur­prise, but not because he want­ed to eat the pop-ups. When he man­aged to tear his eyes away from the fan­tas­tic paper cre­ations that stood up on each page, he looked at me as if to say, “What have we been doing all this time with those tasty two-dimen­sion­al books?!”

I taught him how to use one gen­tle fin­ger to lift the flaps, open the doors, turn the pages….. I think this might’ve been instru­men­tal in him becom­ing such a gen­tle giant, actu­al­ly. (He’s 6’6”+ these days!) Our pop-ups remain in stel­lar con­di­tion.

Over the years we added to our col­lec­tion. More Robert Sabu­da, of course—Cook­ie Count, A Tasty Pop-up became our all-time favorite, I’d say—the gin­ger­bread house can be enjoyed from all sides! But we also pro­cured many of the clas­sics—Alice in Won­der­land, Wiz­ard of Oz, Peter Pan, Moth­er Goose Rhymes—and some gen­er­al learn­ing ones, too, like an atlas, some­thing about dinosaurs or drag­ons (I can’t remem­ber which, and I can’t find it—maybe #1 Son took it to col­lege?), and sev­er­al more hol­i­day books.

In short, we are fans. Dar­ling Daugh­ter once spent most of a spring break mak­ing pop-ups off of the plans on Sabuda’s web­site. Part engi­neer­ing, part origa­mi, part art, pop-ups are end­less­ly fas­ci­nat­ing. She’d prob­a­bly do it on her spring break next week if I left the tab open on the com­put­er.

It’s hard to have pop-ups at the library, of course. There’s always the child who pulls too hard, turns the page too fast and refolds the folds or breaks the spine. If they weren’t so expen­sive I’d say we should just let them get trashed and replace them…but I get bud­gets. How­ev­er, it’d make a great spe­cial event at the library—an after­noon of mak­ing pop-ups, read­ing them, then shar­ing them with friends…. I’d sign up and go myself! Now that I’ve pulled all of ours out though…I might still be busy here!

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Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?

Once there were two bears. Big Bear and Lit­tle Bear. Big Bear is the big bear, and Lit­tle Bear is the lit­tle bear. They played all day in the bright sun­light. When night came, and the sun went down, Big Bear took Lit­tle Bear home to the Bear Cave….

There was a time—and it doesn’t seem that long ago, I might add—that this gen­tle book was read in our own Bear Cave on a dai­ly basis. I know there are oth­er Big Bear and Lit­tle Bear books, but we nev­er had them. We had just this one—Can’t You Sleep Lit­tle Bear?­­ And we loved it—both the kids and the par­ents.

The kids delight­ed in the lit­tle jokes in the words and illus­tra­tions. Big Bear is the big bear and Lit­tle Bear is the lit­tle bear was hilar­i­ous to #1 Son. Dar­ling Daugh­ter loved Lit­tle Bear’s acro­bat­ics in bed when he was sup­posed to be set­tling down to sleep. (She was per­haps all too inspired by them, in fact.)

And I loved it because….well, Can’t You Sleep Lit­tle Bear is one of those books that fea­tures inspired par­ent­ing. As a par­ent who read a lot to the kids, I always appre­ci­at­ed hav­ing parental role mod­els in the books I read—wise and under­stand­ing moth­ers, kind and empa­thet­ic fathers. Par­ents who seem to be at their best in some­times dif­fi­cult or har­ried cir­cum­stances (like with the child who won’t go to sleep)—not per­fect, sel­dom per­fect, in fact—but rather, sim­ply wise peo­ple who know how to take a deep breath, ask a per­ti­nent ques­tion, and lead the child through to the res­o­lu­tion if there was one to be had.

Big Bear is an inspi­ra­tional Dad. He may be exhaust­ed, but he has remark­able patience at the end of a day spent play­ing in bright sun­light. Sure, he grum­bles a bit that he has to put down his Bear Book just when it’s get­ting to the inter­est­ing part—but he does put it down, and he gen­tly address­es the sit­u­a­tion, with nary a hint of impa­tience. Again and again he goes to his Lit­tle Bear who is turn­ing flip-flops on the bed and says “Can’t you sleep, Lit­tle Bear?” (He does not yell from the oth­er room:FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, WILL YOU GO TO SLEEP?!”)

And when Lit­tle Bear says he’s scared, Big Bear does not say “There’s noth­ing to be afraid of…” No, he asks what Lit­tle Bear is scared about. “I don’t like the dark,” [says] Lit­tle Bear. Big Bear asks a clar­i­fy­ing ques­tion. “What dark?” And Lit­tle Bear tells him,“The dark all around us.” (We used to divvy up these lines when we read the book togeth­er. I’d say “What dark?” and they’d say, “The Dark All Around!” with very dra­mat­ic inflec­tion.)

Big Bear looks, and he sees that the dark part of the cave is very dark, so he goes to the Lantern Cup­board and brings a small light to Lit­tle Bear. He does this sev­er­al times, in fact. A larg­er light each time.

It’s the Lantern Cup­board that gets me. Each time Lit­tle Bear protests the dark, Big Bear brings a larg­er light to van­quish the dark­ness that is all around. From the Lantern Cup­board. I’d read that and think: shouldn’t we all have a Lantern Cup­board? With dif­fer­ent sized lights as might be need­ed for dif­fer­ent and par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tions? I’m sure I’d be a bet­ter par­ent if I had access to a Lantern Cup­board.

In the end, the Big Bear and Lit­tle Bear leave the Bear Cave and go out where the dark­ness real­ly is all around. And Lit­tle Bear is scared, but Big Bear encour­ages him to look . “Look at the dark, Lit­tle Bear.” And lit­tle bear does. In the safe­ty of Big Bear’s arms, he looks at the dark­ness. And in the midst of the vast dark­ness, he sees the moon and the twinkly stars, too.

And this, I think, is what it is to parent—Lantern Cup­board or no. We light the lights against the darkness…we go with them when and where we can…we offer our love with our strong arms wrapped around them so they can be brave and look out at all that is out there…and, hope­ful­ly, be sur­prised by the moon and the twinkly stars, too.

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Hidden Figures

This week, my moth­er and I heard Mar­got Lee Shet­ter­ly, author of Hid­den Fig­ures, speak at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Dis­tin­guished Carl­son Lec­ture Series. Shetterly’s book tells the true sto­ry of Mary Jack­son, Kather­ine John­son and Dorothy Vaughan—three of dozens of African-Amer­i­can women who worked in the 1950s and ‘60s for NASA in math, sci­ence and com­put­ing. Mar­got Lee Shet­ter­ly is the daugh­ter of one of the ear­ly black male sci­en­tists at the NASA instal­la­tion near Hamp­ton, Vir­ginia. She grew up know­ing these amaz­ing women and she grew up think­ing that math, sci­ence and engi­neer­ing was sim­ply what black peo­ple did. This acknowl­edge­ment, which she makes in the open­ing pages of the book, is the back­drop for the mar­velous sto­ry she tells.

It was a large and com­plete­ly packed venue Tues­day night. Ms. Shet­ter­ly was elo­quent and eru­dite and it was an inspir­ing speech to have had the priv­i­lege to hear. When the audi­ence spilled out on the side­walks of the uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus after the event, there was a pal­pa­ble ener­gy and hope in the air. We had had our bet­ter angels called out and our belea­guered spir­its respond­ed. There was zip in our step, an urgency to our con­ver­sa­tions, a new direc­tion to our thoughts and dreams.

Michelle Nor­ris wel­comes author Mar­got Lee Shet­ter­ly to the
Hubert H. Humphrey Dis­tin­guished Carl­son Lec­ture Series, Feb 21, 2017.

After the pre­pared remarks, Michelle Nor­ris asked Ms. Shet­ter­ly a few ques­tions. One of the ques­tions was a vari­a­tion of Why did we not know about these women before now?!, a ques­tion Ms. Shet­ter­ly said she fields again and again. Her answer: Our imag­i­na­tions weren’t large enough for these amaz­ing black female math­e­mati­cians who worked in America’s space pro­gram in the 1940s-60’s. There were too many things in the way dur­ing that time—racism and sex­ism were two of those things, but there were oth­ers, as well. Many trou­ble us still—the same -isms, of course, but also our unex­am­ined assump­tions, our bias­es, our trib­al natures, and our gen­er­al ugli­ness (my words, not hers).

Look­ing beyond” is a theme in this remark­able book—and it could’ve eas­i­ly been the title of the book, as Michelle Nor­ris point­ed out. The movie uses it bril­liant­ly when Al Har­ri­son and Kather­ine John­son stand before a chalk­board filled with math. He tells her he needs her to look beyond the num­bers at math they don’t even have—and she seems to be the only one among all those NASA sci­en­tists and math­e­mati­cians who can do that. Ms. Shet­ter­ly, in turn, invit­ed us to look beyond easy stereo­types and char­ac­ter­i­za­tions, past the usu­al sto­ries and unex­am­ined his­to­ry, so that we can uncov­er oth­er nar­ra­tives as amaz­ing as the ones she’s giv­en us in Hid­den Fig­ures. Her con­fi­dence that these impor­tant sto­ries are every­where and remain untold sim­ply because no one tells them was pos­i­tive­ly rous­ing.

In clos­ing, Michelle Nor­ris said that there was a program/effort in place to get this book in the hands of high schoolers—news which made Mar­got Lee Shet­ter­ly beam. There’s a young reader’s ver­sion of this book, I know—and I’ve heard it’s wonderful—but the orig­i­nal ver­sion is beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten and eas­i­ly cap­tures the inter­est of teens. I hope it’s the ver­sion they receive if they receive one. A tremen­dous amount of his­to­ry is cov­ered in such a beau­ti­ful and acces­si­ble way—through sto­ry. Such pow­er! Our kids need these kinds of stories—we all need these sto­ries. We need our imag­i­na­tion stretched and enlarged for the work that is ahead of us.

Three gen­er­a­tions of our fam­i­ly are read­ing this book right now. I can’t think of anoth­er book that has called us to do that all at once. I com­mend it to you and yours—it will not dis­ap­point.

(P.S. The movie is most excel­lent. The book is superb.)

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Frog and Toad

This spring, Min­neapo­lis’ Children’s The­ater Com­pa­ny will put on A Year With Frog & Toad, which has stood as one of my top three the­ater expe­ri­ences for the last dozen years or so.

We had three tick­ets the first time we saw it. Dar­ling Daugh­ter was still young enough for a “lap pass” at the time. Our house­hold had been hit with The Plague and for days/weeks/month/going on years (it seemed, any­way) and we’d been sick­ly and unfit to leave our home. But I was loathe to miss the per­for­mance. We decid­ed if we napped, med­icat­ed, and then bathed and dressed up, we could enter soci­ety. All but Dad—he was still down for the count. So I took the kids. We piled our coats on the third seat and Dar­ling Daugh­ter sat atop them, so thrilled to have her own seat, so thrilled to be out of the house, that she bounced through most of the per­for­mance, clap­ping wild­ly at each of Frog and Toad’s antics.

Ten min­utes in I was weepy and so sor­ry we hadn’t drugged Dad up enough to bring him. It was fan­tas­tic! Of course the Children’s The­ater Com­pa­ny does most excel­lent work—one expects to love the expe­ri­ence. But this was, I think, par­tic­u­lar­ly well done, and I’m will­ing to think that it might be the source mate­r­i­al that real­ly gave it that extra some­thing. Well, that and it’s a musical—could there be any­thing bet­ter?

I love Frog and Toad with a pas­sion sim­i­lar to my love for Pooh and his friends in the Hun­dred Acre Wood. I love their friend­ship, their quo­tid­i­an adven­tures, their goofi­ness, and their oh-so-dis­tinct per­son­al­i­ties. We have the whole col­lec­tion at our house—in both Eng­lish and Span­ish (Sapo y Sepo insep­a­ra­bles, etc.)—and they bear the marks of hav­ing been repeat­ed­ly read and loved.

These are “I CAN READ Books,” but what I remem­ber is read­ing them with my kids. I’d do one page, they the next. Except for Shiv­ers, which is in Days With Frog and Toad. I was the only read­er on that one—it was too shiv­ery for any­one to work on sound­ing out the words. Both kids learned to read with inflec­tion using these books. Many books—especially “I CAN READ Books,” and espe­cial­ly Arnold Lobel books—lend them­selves to dra­mat­ic read­ing, but for some rea­son, Frog and Toad’s con­ver­sa­tions and adven­tures taught them to look for the excla­ma­tion point, the ques­tion mark, and the mean­ing of the words as they worked so hard to get through the sen­tence.

Truth be told, the three of us prob­a­bly could’ve recit­ed many of the Frog and Toad sto­ries fea­tured in the musi­cal that night. Cer­tain­ly, even the too-young-to-be-able-to-hold-a-the­ater-seat-down child could’ve told you about their sled­ding and swim­ming adven­tures, their trip to the ice cream store, and about when Toad tried to fly a kite. We bought the CD, nat­u­ral­ly, so it was only a few more days before we could sing the sto­ries.

My kid­dos are much old­er now…but I think I might try for four tick­ets this spring. Every­one can hold their seat down now, and if we stay well we can final­ly take Dad. I’ve no doubt we’ll enjoy it just as much as the last time.

 

 

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The Awards

 

In the children’s lit­er­a­ture world, awards hap­pened this week. They don’t receive quite the press or air­time (which is unfor­tu­nate) as The Tonys and Oscars, but they’re impor­tant and excit­ing all the same. Dar­ling Daugh­ter and I have just dis­cussed them at some length over sup­per.

I love the awards. I love feel­ing like I pre­dict­ed a few of them. I love that there are always a cou­ple of sur­pris­es to put on my read­ing list. I even love that I can dis­agree with the selec­tions, at times—I mean, real­ly, that’s kind of fun. Most of all, I love that some of those that win feel extra spe­cial, whether it’s because I know the author, or because the award rec­og­nizes a deep spe­cial­ness that real­ly needs to be rec­og­nized in a book or an artist’s work over time.

I once heard a well-known New­bery author say that you can only receive some­thing like the New­bery award as a gift. You can’t pre­tend for a sec­ond, this author said, that you earned it some­how. The rea­son? It sits on the shelf with so many oth­er tru­ly awe­some books. The author/illustrator has cer­tain­ly done some­thing astounding—written/illustrated a spec­tac­u­lar book—and to have that rec­og­nized, well…that’s about as won­der­ful as it gets. But it’s grace. It’s gravy. It’s gift. I like that—it strikes me as being True.

One of the oth­er things I love about the awards is the amaz­ing work teach­ers and librar­i­ans do with kids to get them ready and drum up some excitement—the Mock-New­berys, Sib­ert Smack-downs, The Bearde­cotts etc. These lucky stu­dents learn how to appre­ci­ate illus­tra­tions crit­i­cal­ly, learn­ing about and some­times try­ing var­i­ous art tech­niques. They read mul­ti­ple nov­els and study mul­ti­ple sub­jects in the weeks and months lead­ing up to the awards. They learn about the process of book­mak­ing. They make nom­i­na­tions, they argue, they vote, they declare their undy­ing love for cer­tain authors and illus­tra­tors….. I learned none of this as a child—I’m so grate­ful kids do now. What an edu­ca­tion! And what fun!

So, con­grat­u­la­tions to all the award win­ners. Huz­zah! to teach­ers and librar­i­ans every­where. Hur­ray for the read­ers! And thank you to all of the authors and illus­tra­tors, edi­tors and design­ers, agents and pub­lish­ers, some of whom are nev­er rec­og­nized with a spe­cial award. But we are grate­ful—so very grate­ful!—for your work. Our book­shelves groan in appre­ci­a­tion. Our minds are opened, our hearts touched. Thank you for all you do.

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The Velveteen Rabbit

Meryl Streep is in the news this week for her speech at the Gold­en Globes. It’s a pow­er­ful piece—though, truth be told, I think she could read out a phone direc­to­ry and it would be pow­er­ful. She began by apol­o­giz­ing because she’d lost her voice. It was loud enough to hear, but cer­tain­ly rough. I was over­come by an urge to make tea with hon­ey while watch­ing.

Lis­ten­ing to her made me think of the cas­sette tape we had of her read­ing of The Vel­veteen Rab­bit when our kids were small. I think we received it as a gift the Christ­mas I was preg­nant with #1 Son. I might’ve even lis­tened to it dur­ing labor, now that I think about it. In the ear­ly stages any­way.

It is sooth­ing in the extreme. A beau­ti­ful story…accompanied by George Winston’s Decem­ber album…stellar nar­ra­tion; it is an astound­ing pack­age. And our sweet baby lis­tened to it every night at bed­time for the first sev­er­al years of his life. I’m tempt­ed to cred­it this cas­sette tape and Win­nie-the-Pooh, which he lis­tened to at nap­time, with the rea­son he’s such a gen­tle giant of a young man.

We trav­elled with The Vel­veteen Rab­bit and a small boom­box with that kid—he need­ed it to go to sleep at night. We used it like a drug on car trips. It sel­dom failed us. We lis­tened to it so often that the record­ing became hard to hear, which had the effect of mak­ing you lis­ten all the hard­er. Tru­ly, by the time the boy could talk, we prob­a­bly could have recit­ed the sto­ry, though not with the love­ly inflec­tion Meryl Streep con­veys, of course.

We tried using it with Child #2, as well, but the record­ing had been loved much, and had not become real, as the Vel­veteen Rab­bit and Skin Horse had, so much as unin­tel­li­gi­ble. You could still hear Winston’s piano, but the sto­ry didn’t quite come through. By age three, Dar­ling Daugh­ter often said it made her feel too sleepy and asked that it be turned off. (She has nev­er slept as sound­ly or as long as her broth­er.…)

I have sev­er­al copies of this sweet sto­ry in book form—various artists have illus­trat­ed it and I have large for­mat books and small­er, too. I don’t recall read­ing it to either child, how­ev­er. I love to read aloud, and this is a favorite sto­ry of mine…but who can com­pare to Meryl Streep? Plus, sel­dom do I have some­one in my liv­ing room at the piano to accom­pa­ny my nar­ra­tion.…

But I’m so glad our kids had this sto­ry in their life in the way they had it. Meryl Streep and George Win­ston spin­ning Margery Williams’ mag­i­cal tale of love and childhood…well, I can’t think it gets much bet­ter than that.

 

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The Girl Who Drank the Moon

I con­fess, I’m a bit of a tough sell when it comes to fan­ta­sy books (unless they are for real­ly young kids). I don’t do vam­pires, I’m not thrilled with dystopic set­tings, and although I love drag­ons and fairies, oth­er fan­tas­tic beasts tend to make my eyes roll, and I…well, I lose inter­est. I believe in mag­ic, but it has to be real­ly well writ­ten to keep my inter­est, and frankly, I’ve not fin­ished a lot of real­ly well done fan­ta­sy nov­els.

I do try. Reg­u­lar­ly, in fact. Dar­ling Daugh­ter is always try­ing to get me to make it through one of the huge fan­ta­sy tomes she’s car­ry­ing around. (Side Note: Why are they all so large? I feel like I would fin­ish more if they were under three hun­dred pages.) And I always give it a go—particularly when Kel­ly Barn­hill has a book come out, because her writ­ing is so love­ly.

I held on to Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon for quite some time. I didn’t let Dar­ling Daugh­ter read it first, as is often our pattern—I hid it for myself, sav­ing it for a time when I could enjoy it all on my own. It was worth the wait.

From the first Shirley Jack­son-esque (The Lot­tery) chap­ter I was hooked. It’s a ter­ri­ble premise—every year the peo­ple of the Pro­tec­torate leave a baby as an offer­ing to the witch who lives in the for­est. But very quick­ly, thanks to Antain (who is at the begin­ning and the end of the sto­ry, but is only deft­ly sprin­kled through the mid­dle so you don’t for­get how dear and impor­tant he is), the read­er real­izes that some­thing is wonky and ten­u­ous with regard to this care­ful­ly pre­served “tra­di­tion.”

In any event, the baby in question—the one this book is about—is res­cued by a kind witch named Xan, who, as it turns out, has no idea why babies are left in the for­est. She has sim­ply res­cued the chil­dren and deliv­ered them to fam­i­lies on the oth­er side of the for­est for ages. She’s been doing it for who-knows-how-long when she finds Luna, the baby who changes every­thing.

You see, Xan feeds the babies with starlight as she takes them to their new fam­i­lies. Starlight! This is exact­ly the sort of fan­ta­sy detail that makes my heart go pit­ter-pat. Such whim­sy, such metaphor! Love it! Luna gets moon­light, not starlight, however—quite acci­den­tal­ly, you understand—and the moon­light fills her with extra­or­di­nary mag­ic. Which is why Xan decides to raise her instead of giv­ing her to a fam­i­ly as she usu­al­ly does. There­fore, Luna grows up with a wise Swamp Mon­ster, a Per­fect­ly Tiny Drag­on, and a kind witch as her fam­i­ly. These endear­ing char­ac­ters pro­vide a large share of the delight of the book. They did not once make me roll my eyes.

When Luna’s thir­teenth birth­day is on the hori­zon, her magic—carefully restrained by Xan for most of her childhood—begins to leak about…and the plot thick­ens! As she grows and changes and learns, she becomes all the more mag­nif­i­cent. So does the sto­ry. There are creep­tas­tic birds, a woman with a Tiger’s heart prowl­ing around, and hero­ic efforts made on the very world’s behalf.

But Luna! Oh, Luna is so incred­i­ble! She is strong and deter­mined, lov­ing and wild, smart and mag­i­cal. The kind of mag­ic that is real. The kind of mag­ic all girls have—and we must help them tap it, because it’s pre­cise­ly the kind of mag­ic that the world tries to beat out of them, and now more than ever they need to tap their mag­ic, peo­ple!

As soon as I fin­ished it, I hand­ed it to Dar­ling Daugh­ter. “It’s ter­rif­ic,” I said. I did not say “It’s impor­tant!” but it is. So impor­tant. This is, as the book­jack­et says, “a com­ing-of-age fairy tale.” It’s a gor­geous book. And I’m giv­ing it today to one of my nieces on the occa­sion of her twelfth birth­day. I can’t wait for her mag­ic to be fully-realized—she’s amaz­ing already.

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Santa’s Favorite Story

Ver­i­ly, as if on cue, I have field­ed the year’s first parental ques­tion about San­ta Claus. It is the whis­pered earnest­ness of the askers that keeps me from rolling my eyes. What role, if any, should San­ta have in a Chris­t­ian fam­i­ly….? they whis­per lean­ing away from the baby on their hip, lest that babe be tipped off. It’s always their first child. They want to do things right. They’re absolute­ly so dear, and I feel priv­i­leged that they come to me, even as I think this is large­ly a stu­pid ques­tion. I’m with John­ny Cash: Joy to the world, and here comes San­ta Claus!

I can tell which way they’re lean­ing as soon as I tell them how much I love San­ta. They either blink polite­ly, or look tremen­dous­ly relieved. (Dis­claimer: I respect either, but I’m more inter­est­ed in talk­ing to the lat­ter.) Either way, I tell them some­thing about the his­to­ry of St. Nicholas, which we cel­e­brate each Decem­ber 6th in our house­hold. This gives the man in red some reli­gious cre­den­tials if that seems impor­tant to the fam­i­ly. Then I tell them about San­ta and Coca-Cola, which I find utter­ly fas­ci­nat­ing. (I also find it fas­ci­nat­ing that snopes.com cov­ers the sto­ry.) I usu­al­ly end my impas­sioned speech for San­ta with a poor­ly para­phrased ver­sion of G. K. Chesterton’s views on San­ta, which can be found in the sec­ond half of this med­i­ta­tion. (The first half is excel­lent, as well, but I should mem­o­rize the sec­ond half.)

If they’re still with me—by which I mean they’re true believ­ers in San­ta and they were only tem­porar­i­ly delud­ed into think­ing they need­ed to give that up to be respon­si­ble and faith­ful parents—I tell them about Hisako Aoki’s and Ivan Gantschev’s book, Santa’s Favorite Sto­ry.

This book is so sim­ple, so good, so right. The ani­mals in the for­est dis­cov­er San­ta asleep against a tree and they are alarmed. San­ta! ASLEEP?! They wake him and San­ta explains that he’d gone for a hike to get in shape for Christ­mas Eve. When he got tired, he decid­ed to take a nap. San­ta nap­ping?! He mus­es that maybe all the presents will be too much for him this year.

Does that mean there won’t be a Christ­mas any­more?” the fox asks, giv­ing voice to the wor­ries of the entire forest’s pop­u­la­tion.

That’s when San­ta tells them the sto­ry of The First Christ­mas. Four spreads lay out the sto­ry told in the Gospel of Luke, com­plete with shep­herds and sheep, a bright star, and the babe lying in the manger. San­ta tells his fur­ry audi­ence that God gave love that first Christ­mas and love is the best present there is.

It’s an enor­mous­ly sat­is­fy­ing book, and it’s still in print, I believe—somewhat remark­able giv­en that the orig­i­nal copy­right is 1982. I love how it holds the two most famous peo­ple of Christ­mas togeth­er and deliv­ers a gen­tle cri­tique of ram­pant con­sumerism at the same time. Amen, I say! Get your­self a copy and have a read this Christ­mas. Amen.

 

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Wish

wish200I did not grow up in the south, but my par­ents did, so I like to claim a lit­tle south­ern her­itage. When my kids were younger, I loved read­ing them books set in the south—willing into their souls the humid­i­ty, bar­be­cue, iced tea with lemon, and accents that have the rhythm of rock­ing chairs found on great big porch­es. They enjoyed hear­ing how my grand­par­ents called me “Sug­ar,” and I felt it vital­ly impor­tant they under­stand that Mis­souri peach­es just might be bet­ter than the famed Geor­gia peach­es. (It’s true–no offense to Geor­gia.)

I’m a big fan of Bar­bara O’Connor’s novels—whether they’re explic­it­ly set in the south or not they feel south­ern, and when I pick them up I know I will enjoy them. So as soon as I heard her lat­est book, Wish, was com­ing out, I put a reserve on it at the library, where it was already ordered for when it came out months down the road. This is my sys­tem so I don’t for­get about great books com­ing out. (Which sel­dom happens—for the real­ly great books, anyway—but maybe that’s because I use this sys­tem, who knows?)

By the time the library noti­fied me my copy was in, I’d already bought the book and read and loved it. So I pulled my reserved copy off the hold shelves and went to the check-out desk to let them know I didn’t need it any­more. I took my place in line behind a lit­tle girl stand­ing with her moth­er. She was wear­ing a win­ter coat even though it was about six­ty degrees that day. Min­neso­ta had a love­ly extend­ed fall this year, which Min­nesotans were in awe of as we ran around in our short sleeves almost to Thanks­giv­ing, but new­com­ers still thought it was cold.

I heard the girl’s moth­er talk­ing to the librar­i­an. Her voice was a gen­tle rock­ing chair voice. They were sign­ing up for library cards. The girl stared at me, eye­ing me up and down. Some­what sus­pi­cious­ly, per­haps. Maybe it was my short sleeves.

She looked at Wish, which I was hold­ing down by my side. “Is that book about a dawg?” she asked, tilt­ing her head the same way as the book.

There’s a dog in it, yes. His name is Wish­bone,” I said, point­ing to the beagly look­ing dog on the cov­er.

What’s that girl’s name?” she asked point­ing to the girl on the cov­er with the dog.

Her name is Char­lie.”

That’s a boy’s name,” she fired back.

I hand­ed her the book because I could tell she want­ed to look at it straight on.

Her mama named her Charle­magne. She liked Char­lie bet­ter,” I said. “It’s a real­ly good book.”

What’sitabout?” she asked all in one word.

It’s about wishes…and friends…and home…and fam­i­ly. It’s about a girl liv­ing in a new place and she’s not sure if she likes it or not.”

Does any­thing bad hap­pen to that dawg?” she asked war­i­ly.

Nope,” I said.

She hand­ed the book back to me.

Maybe you’d like to read it?” I said. “I’m not check­ing it out, I’m return­ing it.” It was my turn at the library desk.

I explained to the library work­er that I didn’t need the book and asked if the lit­tle girl walk­ing toward the door with her moth­er could check it out instead. Alas, some­one was wait­ing for it, and things hap­pen in cer­tain order­ly ways at the library, so they couldn’t check it out to her. I decid­ed not to be irri­tat­ed by this and checked it out any­way since it was still tech­ni­cal­ly my turn.

I fol­lowed the girl and her moth­er out the door to the park­ing lot and gave them the book. I told them I bor­rowed it for them and I told the moth­er I thought she’d do a great job read­ing it out loud. I told the girl I thought she would enjoy it a lot. They both thanked me. The moth­er said, “Bless your heart!” about five times.

And my heart was blessed.

What if they don’t return it?” the library work­er said when I walked back in the library. “It’s checked out on your card.”

If they need to keep it, I’ll pay for it,” I said.

We’ll find out in a few weeks, I guess. But I’m not wor­ried.

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The Tapper Twins Run For President

tapper-twins-200-pixMy own flesh and blood accused me of steal­ing the oth­er day. When it was I, not she, who pro­cured the book, and I, not she, who was part way through it…and then she stole it from me! Hid it, real­ly, inten­tion­al­ly or un- beneath her bed. I prac­ti­cal­ly had to clean her room to find it. It’s gone back and forth this whole week. (I’ve been try­ing to extend my read­ing of it and not just gulp it down all at once—I sus­pect she’s doing the same.) Last night I fin­ished, and I put it in my To-Do pile (casu­al­ly, under a few things) so that I could write about it today.

And it was gone this morn­ing. I imme­di­ate­ly went across the hall to my daughter’s room. Found it after a brief search. I con­sid­er myself lucky, because the book­mark indi­cates she’s almost done—I’m sur­prised she didn’t squir­rel it away in her back­pack.

Speak­ing of squir­rel, there’s a squir­rel in The Tap­per Twins Run For Pres­i­dent. But she’s not to that part yet, I see from the book­mark. The squir­rel is pret­ty much the cher­ry on top of some pret­ty elab­o­rate icing and sprin­kles on a very fun cup­cake. (Clau­dia Tap­per, one of the Tap­per twins, uses many slight­ly over-the-top metaphors—I think it’s catch­ing.)

I’ve writ­ten about The Tap­per Twins before; but I must again, because this book has the pow­er to rekin­dle your sense of humor about pol­i­tics in the midst of this hor­ren­dous cam­paign sea­son we are cur­rent­ly sub­ject­ed to. The premise is this: Stu­dent Gov­ern­ment elec­tions are tak­ing place at Cul­vert Prep and both Clau­dia and Reese Tap­per wind up run­ning for sixth grade pres­i­dent.

As it says on the author Geoff Rodkey’s web­site: A pres­i­den­tial elec­tion between a thought­ful, pol­i­cy-mind­ed female and a guy with­out a shred of expe­ri­ence who’s con­stant­ly spout­ing off the first thing that comes to his mind. The real­ly great thing? You can laugh at this one with­out expe­ri­enc­ing a gnaw­ing sense of exis­ten­tial dread for the future of Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy. (Watch the 42 sec­ond trail­er!)

It is prac­ti­cal­ly an alle­go­ry, friends. And it’s hilar­i­ous. And your kids can read it with­out you fear­ing “mature themes.” Clau­dia and Reese are so well drawn—as are their friends. The very best of the mid­dle school mind and tem­pera­ment, I assure you. There is zani­ness (not just the squir­rel) through­out and you can’t help but keep read­ing.

As I said the last time I wrote about the Tap­per Twins, this is not the usu­al kind of book I’m drawn to. It’s part screen-play, part mixed media, part…scrapbook, maybe. When I stray off of the tra­di­tion­al nov­el form, which I don’t do that often, it’s gen­er­al­ly some­thing in the epis­to­lary genre. The Tap­per Twins offers some­thing else all together—these books have expand­ed my hori­zons con­sid­er­ably.

Do your­self a favor—find a copy and then find a mid­dle-school (or old­er) kid and fight over who gets to read it first. It’s a quick read and a fun one. This is the third Tap­per Twins book I’ve more or less inhaled—ditto for Dar­ling Daugh­ter. It makes me smile to even say Tap­per Twins. I’m thrilled to see anoth­er is com­ing.

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Thomas the Tank Engine: The Complete Collection

thomas-200pixOnce upon a time, we had a lit­tle boy who was com­plete­ly enthralled with all things hav­ing to do with trains. When he fell for Thomas the Tank Engine, he fell hard, and he was not yet two. We have an exten­sive col­lec­tion of Thomas and friends (thanks to the grand­par­ents) com­plete with a liv­ing room’s miles worth of track, cor­re­spond­ing sta­tions, bridges, and assort­ed oth­er props. That boy is now in engi­neer­ing school, and I can’t help but think that Thomas and friends (as well as Legos® and blocks etc.) had a hand to play in his education/career choice.

It had been awhile since the trains roamed the liv­ing room for days on end, when my daugh­ter brought her babysit­ting charges over last spring. They could not believe their eyes when they saw our train paraphernalia—I’d not met such Thomas fans in near­ly fif­teen years. The 8×10 oval rug was soon trans­formed into a set for Thomas adven­tures and stories—both those famil­iar from books and shows and those made up on the spot.

I now have sev­er­al young friends in sto­ry­time who love Thomas. Slow­ly I’m remem­ber­ing the names and per­son­al­i­ties of the train cars. It gives me an “in” with these preschool­ers, I think—I speak their lan­guage. I know about cheeky Per­cy and wise Edward. I know that Thomas has the num­ber one on his engine, where­as Edward has a two—although both are blue, it’s a beginner’s mis­take to mix them up. I know that James, the Red Engine, can be a real pain at times—he’s a bit of a snob and a lit­tle too proud of his red paint. I know Annie and Clara­belle are Thomas’ friends (his coach cars, actu­al­ly).

I took the giant Thomas the Tank Engine: The Com­plete Col­lec­tion off my shelves the oth­er day. It instant­ly made me sleepy. We read Thomas sto­ries after lunch, before nap, with a great reg­u­lar­i­ty. They are not ter­ri­bly sophis­ti­cat­ed sto­ries. They tend to be more than a bit preachy. And there’s an aston­ish­ing lev­el of detail about train bits and their work­ings. I was always half asleep by the time we were fin­ished read­ing.

I think of the Thomas sto­ries with the same sort of fond­ness with which I think of Mr. Rogers—gentle, rhyth­mic, sleep-induc­ing, post-lunch won­der­ful­ness. And, my good­ness, do I love the very seri­ous con­ver­sa­tions to be had when dim­pled lit­tle hands hold up the cars and tell me all about the parts and per­son­al­i­ties of each of the trains and trucks and dig­gers. These con­ver­sa­tions don’t make me sleepy at all, though they do make me nos­tal­gic for the days when it took a whole morning’s worth of nego­ti­a­tion to get my boy to move Thomas and his friends so I could vac­u­um. Vac­u­um­ing days were hard and sad days, gen­er­al­ly reclaimed only with an extra sto­ry from The Com­plete Col­lec­tion. And then a nap…for all con­cerned.

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Kingfisher Treasuries

unknown-3There was a time—although it seems like it’s becom­ing a tiny dot in the rearview mirror—in which one birth­day child or the oth­er received the birth­day-appro­pri­ate book in the King­fish­er Trea­sury series of Sto­ries for Five/Six/Seven/Eight Year Olds. Those beloved paper­backs reside on my office shelves now, but it was not so long ago that they were opened on the appro­pri­ate birth­day to big smiles—there was some­thing sort of mile­stone-like about receiv­ing them. Near as I can tell from the inter­webs, we’re only miss­ing Sto­ries for Four Year Olds—I just might have to com­plete our col­lec­tion, because I’ve pret­ty well lost myself this morn­ing while look­ing at these books again.

They are hum­ble paperbacks—I don’t believe they were ever pub­lished as hard­backs, let alone with gild­ed pages and embossed cov­ers. But the sto­ries between the col­or­ful cov­ers are of that cal­iber, cer­tain­ly. Cho­sen by Edward and Nan­cy Blishen, these sto­ries are from the likes of Rud­yard Kipling, Bev­er­ly Cleary, Isaac Bashe­vis Singer, Arthur Ran­some, and Astrid Lind­gren. Oth­ers, too—in addi­tion to sev­er­al folk tales retold by the com­pil­ers.

What I loved about these sto­ries when we were read­ing them aloud was that they were from all over the world—many cul­tures and places rep­re­sent­ed. We often were look­ing at the globe after read­ing from these books. Some are tra­di­tion­al sto­ries, some contemporary—an excel­lent mix, real­ly. Short sto­ries for kids—loads bet­ter than the drea­ry ones in grade-spe­cif­ic read­ers.

What my kids loved, curi­ous­ly, was how the illus­tra­tions were tucked into the text. Every page has a clever black and white drawing—something drawn around the story’s title or run­ning along the bot­tom of the page, a char­ac­ter sketch set in the para­graph indent, a crowd scene span­ning the spread between the top and bot­tom para­graphs on both pages, a bor­der of leaves or animals—very detailed, even if small. You don’t see illus­tra­tion place­ment like these much. The books have a unique feel because of them.

unknown-4The illus­tra­tors for each book are dif­fer­ent, but all are won­der­ful, and because every­thing is print­ed sim­ply in black and white and cre­ative­ly spaced on the pages the books look like they go togeth­er. Some of the draw­ings are sweet, cute—some you can imag­ine as fine art. Which is what makes me wish these had been pro­duced in a larg­er hard-back ver­sion with col­or plates, etc.

But the fact is, the paper­back trim size made it easy to slip these in my purse, tuck in the glove com­part­ment, pack for the plane ride, etc. A lot of read­ing hap­pened on the fly dur­ing those ear­ly ele­men­tary years—these books were some of the eas­i­est to car­ry around and pull out at the doctor’s office, the sibling’s game, and the bus stop.

I thought about putting them out in our lit­tle free library in the front yard, but I’ve decid­ed to keep them on my shelf. Maybe tuck one in my purse for when I’m sit­ting out­side the high school wait­ing for my girl, or read­ing out­side the dress­ing room while she tries on clothes. The days are fly­ing by—I’m glad I have books to remem­ber the sweet ear­li­er days, too.

Per­haps I’ll buy anoth­er set to share in the library…..

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Raymie Nightingale

rn200pixDar­ling Daugh­ter and I host/participate in an occa­sion­al par­ent-child book­group for mid­dle-grade read­ers and their par­ents. We call it Books & Bagels and we meet at the bagel shop down the street from church and nosh on bagels while talk­ing about books. I think we can safe­ly say the bagel aspect of things increas­es participation—but all the kids who come are great read­ers and we love talk­ing with them and their par­ents about books. We’ve read many of our favorites again with this group and they’ve intro­duced us to some we’ve missed in the last few years of pub­li­ca­tion. (Dar­ling Daugh­ter is, alas, out­grow­ing the mid­dle-grade genre.)

We saved the read­ing of Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightin­gale for Books & Bagels. I sched­uled it not hav­ing read the book, in fact, which is not usu­al­ly how I do things. But DiCamillo’s books lend them­selves to good dis­cus­sion, I’ve found, so I was sure it would work well for us.

And it did. We talked about the heart­break and the hope, the crazy char­ac­ters and their friend­ships and flaws, and the unlike­ly events that could absolute­ly hap­pen. We talked about how it was sim­i­lar to some of DiCamillo’s oth­er books and how it was dif­fer­ent, too. Good dis­cus­sion all the way around.

I noticed as we talked, how­ev­er, that one of our regulars—I’ll call him Sam—seemed a bit dis­grun­tled about the book. Sam and I have been dis­cussing books for a long time—he reads both wise­ly and wide­ly and we have intro­duced each oth­er to many books over the years. He has just turned ten and he’s hon­est about what he thinks, though always kind. He’s been taught to speak his mind, but nev­er in a way that would hurt some­one else’s feelings—including, say, the author of the book who is not even present.

Sam,” I said, “it looks like you have some­thing you want to say.”

Yeah…well,” said Sam. “It was a great book and all…. Well-writ­ten, of course. And, I mean, the friend­ship of Raymie and those oth­er girls was great, I guess. And the lousy adults were inter­est­ing…. But—” He paused and looked at his Mom out of the cor­ner of his eye.

Go ahead, Sam,” she said. “Tell us what you real­ly think.”

It’s just that…I mean it’s fine…but it’s just…it’s such a girlie book.” He looked both relieved and ashamed at hav­ing con­fessed this. “Not that there’s any­thing wrong with that, of course.”

I asked gen­tle clar­i­fy­ing ques­tions. I’m sort of fas­ci­nat­ed and appalled by the idea of “girl books” and “boy books.” I want to vehe­ment­ly argue that those cat­e­gories don’t exist…or shouldn’t exist…or must not be allowed to exist…or some­thing like that. But before me was a read­er insist­ing that he under­stood this was a great book, but it just had way too much “girl stuff” in it to be inter­est­ing to guys like him.

Like what kind of girl stuff?” one of the girl read­ers asked.

Batons. Bar­rettes. Dress­es.” Sam said. He shrugged apolo­get­i­cal­ly.

Oth­er kids perked up. Right, they said. Lots of girl stuff. No boy stuff what­so­ev­er, in fact.

I was afraid to ask what “boy stuff” they thought was miss­ing. Instead, we talked about whether var­i­ous (tra­di­tion­al­ly under­stood) girl and boy trap­pings were lim­it­ed or lim­it­ing. These kids know how to have good and hon­est con­ver­sa­tions around per­cep­tions and assump­tions and stereo­types. We talked about whether the char­ac­ter of each of the girls was “girl-only.” No, every­one agreed—they knew boys who were painful­ly shy/anxious, or show-offy, or stub­born, just like each of the three ami­gos DiCamil­lo con­jured up. They knew both boys and girls who car­ried heavy loads of expec­ta­tion, or fam­i­ly dis­tress, or who had trou­ble mak­ing friends. They knew them­selves what it was to feel like every­thing, absolute­ly every­thing, depend­ed on them. They could iden­ti­fy with the book—on many lev­els that had noth­ing to do with gen­der. And yet…this was a girlie book—on this they all agreed, as well.

It was a won­der­ful dis­cus­sion, real­ly. Hon­est. Respect­ful. I thanked Sam for being brave enough to say what he thought. He won­dered if Kate DiCamil­lo made Raymie, Bev­er­ly, and Louisiana girls because she was a girl and that’s what she knew best. I said I didn’t know, but I knew that she’d also writ­ten books that fea­tured male char­ac­ters. I told him I’d share my copy of Tiger Ris­ing with him.

As we cleaned up the bagel and cream cheese detri­tus I asked if any­one could sug­gest a book or two for our fall Books & Bagels book­group. Sam eager­ly bounced up and down.

I have two to sug­gest!” he said. “Bridge to Ter­abithia and The BFG.”

Two ter­rif­ic books. Two ter­rif­ic books that hap­pen to have strong girl char­ac­ters. I point­ed this out and Sam said, “But not only girl char­ac­ters. The giant is a boy!”

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Calvin Can’t Fly

Calvin-250When I was doing sto­ry­time week­ly, a book about a book­worm star­ling was in my reg­u­lar rota­tion. Yes, you read that right—a Book­worm Star­ling. That’s exact­ly what Calvin (the star­ling) is—a book­worm. And that is his shame—his cousins call him “nerdie birdie,” “geeky beaky,” and “book­worm.” Unusu­al (gen­tly deroga­to­ry) labels for a star­ling. Not that it deters Calvin—he most­ly shrugs and turns the page.

Calvin is the only star­ling in his very large fam­i­ly who does not seem to care much about fly­ing. (Refresh your mem­o­ry on how star­lings move about with this astound­ing video of star­ling mur­mu­ra­tions.) He’s into books. In a big way. While his cousins learn to fly and chase bee­tles, bugs, and ants, Calvin sits and learns to read let­ters, words, and sen­tences. He dreams of adven­ture sto­ries, infor­ma­tion, and poet­ry. His cousins dream of insect eat­ing and garbage pick­ing. And although they call him by the above names, they most­ly ignore him, so enrap­tured with fly­ing are they.

And Calvin is just as enrap­tured with sto­ries and learn­ing. Pirates and vol­ca­noes, dinos and plan­ets, sci­ence and history—Calvin reads it all. He reads the entire sum­mer, learn­ing and absorb­ing every­thing his lit­tle star­ling brain can.

When the sea­sons begin to turn, the urgency for Calvin to learn to fly becomes appar­ent. And yet, he man­ages not to learn. This cre­ates quite an issue, because the wind has grown cold and it is time to head south….

The entire star­ling fam­i­ly takes off, minus Calvin. They don’t get far before they turn around and come back for Calvin. He is car­ried in the most hilar­i­ous way, which more than excus­es the unkind words pre­vi­ous­ly used about his read­ing habits.

And as it turns out, Calvin’s read­ing saves them—Calvin is the unex­pect­ed hero! “Make haste!” he says, lead­ing the entire star­ling fam­i­ly to safe­ty. Kids love this! They love that his book-knowl­edge of some­thing as obscure as hur­ri­cane safe­ty came in handy. They all but cheer—actually, once a set of twins did cheer when I read how Calvin saved them all. And kids are fur­ther delight­ed when Calvin flaps his wings in hap­pi­ness, jump­ing and hop­ping and dancing…and flies! At last!

When I looked up the author, Jen­nifer Berne, I found out there’s anoth­er Calvin book! I don’t know how I missed it. Ms. Berne and the illus­tra­tor, Kei­th Bendis, have told an empow­er­ing sto­ry, (with­out being preachy!) about the won­ders and neces­si­ty of read­ing. Can’t wait to read Calvin’s next adven­tures. I’m off to find a group of kids to read to….

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Cook-A-Doodle-Do!

Cook+A+Doodle+Do-260-pixI’ve got dessert on my mind—berry short­cake, to be pre­cise. I’ve already done the straw­ber­ry short­cake dur­ing straw­ber­ry sea­son. My rasp­ber­ry bush­es are pro­duc­ing at a rate that might call for short­cake in the near future, how­ev­er. And when­ev­er I make shortcake—or even think of it—I think of Cook-a-doo­dle-doo by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crum­mel (who are sis­ters, I believe).

This book was An Extreme Favorite at our house through two kids—one who was already on the old­er end of pic­ture books when it came out. Why the pop­u­lar­i­ty? Quite sim­ply: It’s hilar­i­ous. And sweet (no pun intend­ed). But most­ly hilar­i­ous.

Big Brown Roost­er is in need of a change—no more chick­en feed! No more peck­ing about! He remem­bers that his very famous great-grand­moth­er, The Lit­tle Red Hen, penned a cook­book: The Joy of Cook­ing Alone by L.R. Hen. Once he finds it, he real­izes his great granny cooked far more than loaves of bread. And he is hun­gry for the straw­ber­ry short­cake fea­tured in the mid­dle of the book.

Like his Great-Granny before him, Big Brown Roost­er is sur­round­ed by unhelp­ful friends. Dog, Cat, and Goose each take their pot­shots at Big Brown Roost­er, but he is unde­terred. He ties on his apron, ready to cook all alone, only to find three new friends: Tur­tle, Igua­na, and Pot-bel­lied Pig.

Do you three know any­thing about cook­ing?” Roost­er asked.

I can read recipes!” said Tur­tle.

I can get stuff!” said Igua­na.

I can taste!” said Pig. “I am expert at tast­ing.”

And so the team mem­bers don hats—an apron tied around Big Brown Rooster’s head, a tow­el around Pig’s head, an oven mitt for Igua­na, and a small pot worn base­ball cap-like for tur­tle. The illus­tra­tions are sweet and hys­ter­i­cal at the same time. The mix-ups and mis­un­der­stand­ings are on the lev­el of the Three Stooges crossed with Amelia Bedelia. But detailed side­bars guide a home/kid cook through the cor­rect steps. What the friends lack in expe­ri­ence and skill, they make up for in exu­ber­ance and excitement—so, very much like bak­ing with chil­dren, actu­al­ly.

It’s astound­ing when you see what they go through, but they cre­ate a beau­ti­ful (if slight­ly lean­ing) tow­er of straw­ber­ry short­cake. It’s only when they try to move it to the table to enjoy togeth­er that things…slip away from them. Pot-bel­lied Pig takes his turn—he’s the expert taster, and pos­i­tive­ly unflum­moxed by short­cake being smeared across the floor. In split second—not even a page turn—the straw­ber­ry short­cake is gone.

It is then that the pre­vi­ous­ly ami­able friends start to lose it. Names are called and threats are inti­mat­ed (plump juicy roast pig, igua­na pie, tur­tle soup etc.)

But wise Roost­er takes com­mand. “It doesn’t mat­ter,” he says. “The first short­cake was just for prac­tice.”

And so they make anoth­er. The three friends—Iguana, Pig, and Turtle—volunteer to help again, and it’s quick work the sec­ond time around. The last spread fea­tures a par­ty of friends—includ­ing the nay-say­ing Dog, Cat and Goose!—enjoy­ing straw­ber­ry short­cake. The last page fea­tures Great-Granny’s recipe for Mag­nif­i­cent Straw­ber­ry Short­cake.

I think I’ll make some tonight!

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Bink and Gollie

Ear­ly this morn­ing I read Bink and Gol­lie books to my nieces. We were killing timeBink&Golliebook-180pix while their par­ents picked up the rental car for their Great Amer­i­can Sum­mer Road­trip. To say that the lev­el of excite­ment was pal­pa­ble is an understatement—it was a wave that near­ly knocked me down when they opened their door. They talked—both of them—nonstop for an hour while we sipped our break­fast smooth­ies.

Mom and Dad were not back when we sucked down the final drops of smooth­ie, which was con­cern­ing, so anx­ious were they to get on the road already. I said, “Well, what can we do…that we can put down if your Mom and Dad come back in two minutes…and pick back up after your trip?”

Books!” said one.

YEAHWE CAN READ BOOKS!” said the oth­er.

On the deck!”

In the sun­shine!”

Let’s do it!”

And so we took Bink and Gol­lie with us to the sun­ny deck. No mat­ter how excit­ed these sweet girls get—and let me tell you, they were excit­ed this morning!—they calm down instant­ly with a book. Their breath­ing changes by page two. And so we snug­gled up and read, breath­ing deeply in the ear­ly morn­ing sun­shine.

I’d for­got­ten how much of the sto­ry is told in the pic­tures in Bink and Gol­lie books—and how many words are in the pic­tures. Labels and instruc­tions, signs and notes, jokes and fun. Because both girls are learn­ing to read, this works real­ly well. I read the sto­ry itself and they read the pic­tures. The pic­tures are often filled with big words. (So is the sto­ry itself—it’s some­thing I appre­ci­ate about Kate DiCamillo’s and Ali­son McGhee’s writ­ing. They do not sim­pli­fy vocab­u­lary.) Some things we have to sound out togeth­er, but the real fun is get­ting the inflec­tion right. Read­ing it in our Gol­lie voice, or like a 1940’s radio adver­tise­ment, or like a car­ni­val bark­er.

Bink and Gol­lie are oppo­sites in many ways—Gollie is tall and skin­ny, prag­mat­icBink&Gollie-180-pix and for­mal in her speech. She says things like I long for speed. And Greet­ings. And I beg you not to do that…. My nieces find this amus­ing. They are also tall and skin­ny, prag­mat­ic (some­times, any­way), and hilar­i­ous­ly for­mal in their speech at times.

Bink is short and has hair stick­ing up all over her head. She loves bright socks and pan­cakes and peanut but­ter. No one would call my nieces short. (“We don’t have that prob­lem,” one of them said this morn­ing as we read about Bink order­ing a Stretch-o-mat­ic to make her­self taller.) But their hair is some­times Bink-like. And they delight in the sim­ple things of life—including, but not lim­it­ed to, socks, cel­e­bra­to­ry pan­cakes, and peanut but­ter. They also have Bink’s energy—they yam­mer, they jump, they zip, they climb and glide.

In short, they love both Bink and Gol­lie. They are Bink and Gollie—they can relate, as it were. Bink and Gol­lie have adven­tures, a sweet friend­ship, and they roller­skate everywhere—these details light up my sweet girls. They enjoy decod­ing the words in the pic­tures and get­ting the joke. They are envi­ous of the tree­house in which Bink and Gol­lie live. They’d like to vis­it Eccles’ Empire of Enchantment—and maybe hit a Bar­gain Bonan­za. (Maybe the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dako­ta will sat­is­fy them.)

Bink and Gol­lie got us almost to Mom and Dad’s return. We did have to take a lit­tle field trip to my house (just around the cor­ner) because their cousin was bak­ing scones, but then Mom and Dad were home, the rent­ed Jeep was loaded in record time, and off they went!

I won­der if they’re lev­i­tat­ing with excite­ment in their car seats, chat­ter­ing away like Bink or say­ing I long for the moun­tains…. like Gol­lie. They invit­ed me to sneak in their car and go with them. Maybe I should’ve tak­en them up on it.

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How To Make An Apple Pie and See The World

How To Make An Apple Pie and See The WorldA cou­ple of years ago, I decid­ed I want­ed to learn how to make a real­ly good pie. I asked around—bakers, cater­ers, cook­ing store own­ers etc. and the book The Pie and Pas­try Bible by Rose Levy Beran­baum came up con­sis­tent­ly. One per­son men­tioned How to Make An Apple Pie and See The World  by Mar­jorie Price­man. I pur­chased both—one for the how-to and one for inspi­ra­tion.

The Pie and Pas­try Bible is enor­mous and beyond detailed (like read­ing an organ­ic chem­istry book in some places). It has been extreme­ly help­ful. Under its tute­lage, I’m proud to say I can turn out a decent pie with a flaky, tooth­some crust, and fill­ing that holds togeth­er (most­ly) and delights the sens­es in its sweet­ness and tex­ture.

How to Make and Apple Pie and See The World is some­thing else entire­ly. Tech­ni­cal­ly, it is also a how-to, I sup­pose, but a per­son could get lost in the adven­ture of it.

Mak­ing an apple pie is real­ly very easy.
First, get all the ingre­di­ents at the mar­ket.
Mix them well, bake, and serve.

Let me tell you, Rose Levy Beran­baum would scream and pull her hair out by the roots read­ing these instruc­tions; but with a sim­ple page turn, Mar­jorie Price­man acknowl­edges the dif­fi­cul­ties that can arise.

Unless, of course, the mar­ket is closed.

What is to be done then? Well, you go home pack a suit­case. With walk­ing shoes and your shop­ping list, catch a steamship bound for Europe and use the six days on board to brush up on your Ital­ian. Why? Well, you’ll need it when you arrive in Italy dur­ing the har­vest (tim­ing is impor­tant, Price­man acknowl­edges) to gath­er your­self some superb semoli­na wheat.

Photodune: Happy Cow | by Aruba2000You’ll head to France for the chick­en (the eggs! You need eggs!) and then Sri Lan­ka for the kurun­du tree (cin­na­mon!). Upon hitch­ing a ride to Eng­land you’ll “make the acquain­tance of a cow”—one with good man­ners and a charm­ing accent. You’ll take her with you because only the fresh­est milk will do.

On the way to Jamaica (for sug­ar!) you’ll nab a jar of salty sea water (sim­ply evap­o­rate and you have the salt!) and then fly home. Ingre­di­ents should remain fresh, after all. Both Beran­baum and Price­man agree that fresh ingre­di­ents are of the utmost impor­tance. You’ll para­chute into Ver­mont for the apples—you can’t for­get the apples when you’re mak­ing apple pie.

Once home, there’s sim­ply milling and grind­ing and evap­o­rat­ing and per­suad­ing (the chick­en to lay an egg) and milk­ing and churn­ing and slic­ing and mix­ing to do!

While you wait for the pie to bake, you sim­ply ask a friend over to share!

I love this book and the kids I’ve read it to love it, too. We spin the globe and find all the coun­tries of ori­gin for the pantry sta­ples. We talk about where our food comes from, and if it is pos­si­ble to make some of our favorite foods with all local ingre­di­ents. We talk about how much work it is to grow and pre­pare food and how many peo­ple we depend on to do that. We enjoy the pictures—the delight­ful hero­ine who tire­less­ly globe-trots so she can make a pie to share with friends.

A quick inter­net search yields les­son plans and home­school­ing ideas for this book—few men­tion actu­al­ly bak­ing a pie, which makes me sad. Is there any­thing more homey than a made-from-scratch pie? I think not.

Apple Pie by robynmac | Photodune

Got some back­yard rasp­ber­ries? A u-pick straw­ber­ry farm? Con­sid­er a bake-n-read this sum­mer with some kids. It’ll be messy, but fun!

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The Sandwich Swap

The Sandwich SwapNor­mal­ly, I spurn pic­ture books writ­ten by celebri­ties, be they actors or roy­al­ty or what have you. If it’s a per­son in the head­lines, I quite assume they could not pos­si­bly write a wor­thy pic­ture book. The only excep­tion on my shelves, I believe (and I real­ize there are oth­er excep­tions! Feel free to leave titles in the com­ments.) is The Sand­wich Swap by Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdul­lah with Kel­ly Depuc­chio, illus­trat­ed by Tri­cia Tusa.

I adore this book and have read it to many groups of kids. It’s about two best friends, Salma and Lily, who do most every­thing together—they draw, they swing, they jump rope. And every day they eat lunch together—Lilly always has a peanut but­ter and jel­ly sand­wich on squishy white bread, and Salma always has a hum­mus sand­wich on pita bread. Secret­ly, they each find their friend’s choice of sand­wich mys­ti­fy­ing. Gooey peanut paste? Ew Gross! Icky chick­pea paste? Ew yuck! But they don’t say this to each oth­er.

Until one day they do. Lily blurts out her feel­ings about Salma’s sand­wich.

Salma frowned. She looked down at the thin, soft bread, and she thought of her beau­ti­ful, smil­ing moth­er as she care­ful­ly cut Salma’s sand­wich in two neat halves that morn­ing. 

The next line is the most bril­liant in the book, I think: Her hurt feel­ings turned to mad.

Isn’t that how it goes? Once, when I read this in sto­ry time a lit­tle boy smacked his fore­head with his hands and said, “Oh no!”

Oh no, is right—Salma snaps back with hurt­ful words about the gross­ness and offen­sive smell of Lily’s sand­wich.

Lily looked sur­prised. She sniffed the thick, squishy bread, and she thought of her dad in his sil­ly apron, whistling as he cut Lily’s sand­wich into two per­fect tri­an­gles that morn­ing.

Well, the dis­agree­ment is per­son­al and hurt­ful, and the friends part ways after a few more hurt­ful exchanges. No more pic­ture draw­ing, swing­ing, and jump rop­ing. They don’t eat togeth­er, they don’t talk…and the pic­tures are exquisite—two deflat­ed girls with­out their best friend.

Meanwhile…the sto­ry spread and every­one in the lunch­room began to choose sides around the peanut but­ter and hum­mus sand­wich­es.

Pret­ty soon the rude insults had noth­ing at all to do with peanut but­ter or hum­mus.

Sandwich SwapThat’s so dumb!” said one out­raged girl I was read­ing to.  I nod­ded vague­ly and turned the page to the two-page spread of a food fight right there in the lunch­room. “See!” said the girl. She held her head as if she had the worst headache.

This is how wars start, peo­ple! Inter­est­ing­ly, every time I look for this book on my shelf I’m look­ing for the title “The Sand­wich War” and am then remind­ed that the actu­al title is more…peaceful. As is the book in the end.

Salma and Lily come to their sens­es as pud­ding cups and car­rot sticks whip past their heads. They’re required to help clean up the mess and they’re sent to the principal’s office, as well. Again, the illus­tra­tions car­ry the feelings—two small girls, made small­er by all that has hap­pened.

The next day, brave Salma sits down across from Lily at lunch. In return, Lily works up the courage to ask Salma if she’d like to try her peanut but­ter and jel­ly sand­wich. A swap occurs, as well as glad excla­ma­tions of the yum­mi­ness of each oth­ers sand­wich­es.

The girls hatch a plan, which is depict­ed entire­ly in a gor­geous pull-out three page spread.

Sandwich Swap

When I read this to kids, we looks at all the flags and try to iden­ti­fy them. We won­der what food was brought to rep­re­sent each coun­try. I’ve always want­ed to have such a potluck after the book, but although I’ve been to such potlucks, I nev­er seem to have the book with me at the right time. Per­haps I just need to car­ry it around in my purse… Or cre­ate such an event!

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One Day at the Farmers Market

Farmers MarketSat­ur­day was gor­geous, and (Oh joy! Oh rap­ture!) the open­ing day of the Mill City Farm­ers Mar­ket, one of my favorite mar­kets here in the Twin Cities. I got up and out the door in such a hur­ry I for­got my mar­ket bas­ket, but no matter—there were just the ear­li­est of crops avail­able: aspara­gus, spinach, rhubarb…. I could car­ry the few things I needed—and truth be told, I was real­ly after the expe­ri­ence more than the food. The chilly air com­ing off the Mis­sis­sip­pi, the vio­lin play­er on the cor­ner, the chat­ter of ven­dors and cus­tomers, small kid­dos look­ing for future crops like berries and corn-on-the-cob and apples…this is the kind of thing that will clear the rest of win­ter from the recess­es of your soul! I got my cof­fee and bliss­ful­ly wan­dered the stalls. If I were to design the per­fect morn­ing, this real­ly is it.

And then—an unex­pect­ed gift!

Just as I was leav­ing for the busy Sat­ur­day ahead of me, I heard a rich bari­tone sing out. “STO-ries! STO-ries! It’s sto­ry­time! STO­RY­time!” The hair on he back of my neck stood up (in a good way). STORYTIME! Well, I wasn’t going to leave with­out sto­ries!

I moseyed back over to the stone steps of the Guthrie The­ater, the usu­al spot for pro­gram­ming dur­ing the farm­ers mar­ket. And sure enough, a com­pa­ny actor was there with a stack of kid books. Par­ents were get­ting their sticky-farm­ers-mar­ket- smudged-up kids set­tled at the man’s feet, mov­ing to sit up a step or two and enjoy their cof­fee in peace. I fit right in, I told myself, even with­out any kids with me. I just sat down with the par­ents and smiled down benev­o­lent­ly on the squirmy mosh-pit of would-be sto­ry lis­ten­ers, as if one of them was mine.

Reading at the Mill City Farmers Market

Read­ing and Sto­ry­telling at the Mill City Farm­ers Mar­ket

No soon­er had the read­er begun than all wig­gles stopped. The first book: One Day In The Euca­lyp­tus, Euca­lyp­tus Tree by Daniel Bern­strom, illus­trat­ed by Bren­dan Wen­zel. I couldn’t believe my luck! Bern­strom and I had gone to grad school together—and the book was but days old! I hadn’t even made it to the book­store to get my copy yet!

One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus TreeWell, it’s a hoot of a book—as I knew it would be—and what I wit­nessed on the steps to the Guthrie was none oth­er than Sto­ry­time MAGIC. A mar­velous sto­ry, ter­rif­ic illus­tra­tions, and a fan­tas­tic read­er! (I mean, the guy is a pro­fes­sion­al!) The kids were rapt as this man belt­ed out the lines of the lit­tle boy who out­smarts the yel­low snake who swal­lowed him up.

It’s a sto­ry with some sim­i­lar­i­ties to I Know An Old Lady Who Swal­lowed a Fly and also to Brer Rab­bit. The boy in this sto­ry is the Smart One, a more pos­i­tive moniker, I think, than “Trick­ster,” as Brer Rab­bit is often called. The yel­low snake is tak­en by this smart boy. Every­time he swal­lows some­one or some­thing up, the boy talks about how much more room there is inside…and so the snake takes anoth­er vic­tim. And then anoth­er. And anoth­er. It’s the very small­est thing that proves too much, of course, and the gross results were most pleas­ing to the young audi­ence. One lit­tle girl clapped hard as the snake “expec­to­rat­ed” every­one and every­thing in his stom­ach.

Oh the kids loved it! The swingy rhymes, the fun word-rhythms—their lit­tle bod­ies swayed in time. The sus­pense! The fun! Their faith in the boy! Their joy as the snake’s bel­ly grew larg­er and larg­er. “Look at that bel­ly!” our sto­ry­teller exclaimed every oth­er page turn.

It all worked to make me quite teary behind my sun­glass­es as I sat there among the young fam­i­lies. I was so hap­py for Daniel, so grate­ful this won­der­ful actor lent his voice and sto­ry­telling to the morn­ing, so glad to have heard my classmate’s sto­ry before I read it. He has a won­der­ful gift with words and fun and rhythm and rhyme.

In my esti­ma­tion, it was quite the per­fect morn­ing. Per­haps the only thing that could’ve made it bet­ter was hav­ing a lit­tle sticky per­son of my own on my lap to hear the sto­ry with me. But alas, those days are pret­ty well gone for me. (Some­times I’m still able to bor­row.) So it’s just the pure joy of being read to now, which, as it turns out, I’ve not out­grown. Don’t plan to either.

Thanks Daniel, thanks Mr. Wenzel—your book is ter­rif­ic. Thank you Mill City Farm­ers Mar­ket and Guthrie The­ater. Thank you to the won­der­ful sto­ry­time read­er whose name I did not catch—your sung “STO-ries!” made my day. You were won­der­ful! The whole thing was won­der­ful.

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The Odious Ogre

The Odious OgreI’m a big fan of Phan­tom Toll­booth by Nor­ton Juster, illus­trat­ed by Jules Feif­fer. I can remem­ber read­ing it as a kid and think­ing it both hilar­i­ous and clever. And I loved the words! So many words!

So when the Juster-Feif­fer team came out with The Odi­ous Ogre a few years back, I leapt at it. A pic­ture book! A long pic­ture book! My favorite kind! Full of long words and clever phrasings—it is a hoot. I’ve read it to pre-school­ers through middle-schoolers—they and their adults laugh.

The Odi­ous Ogre lives on his rep­u­ta­tion mostly—and it’s a ghast­ly rep­u­ta­tion. He was, it was wide­ly believed, extra­or­di­nar­i­ly large, exceed­ing­ly ugly, unusu­al­ly angry, con­stant­ly hun­gry, and absolute­ly mer­ci­less.

At least that was his reputation—it’s what every­one thought or sup­posed or had heard or read …. As Juster says: No ogre ever had it so good. He ter­ror­ized the sur­round­ing vil­lages and every­one just … well, let him. They thought it was hope­less, that there was noth­ing they could do.

No one can resist me, says the Ogre. I am invul­ner­a­ble, impreg­nable, insu­per­a­ble, inde­fati­ga­ble, insur­mount­able …. He had an impres­sive vocab­u­lary hav­ing acci­dent­ly swal­lowed a large dic­tio­nary while eat­ing the head librar­i­an in one of the neigh­bor­ing towns.

Now I know there are those who will read that sen­tence of won­der­ful i-words and and the detail of eat­ing librar­i­ans and they will think one of two things (if not both): There’s a vocab list! OR, why would she read that to pre-school­ers?!

My hus­band just looked over my shoul­der at the illus­tra­tions and said, “Wow. That looks vio­lent.” And there are vio­lent scenes, to be sure. (Although they’re pic­tures in sweet pen and inky water col­ors, so the impact is soft­ened.) The best scene is when the ogre throws a tem­per tantrum, leap­ing and hurl­ing him­self around the gar­den of a com­plete­ly unflap­pable young girl out­side of her beflow­ered cot­tage. She’d just offered him tea. And muffins. This floors the ogre. He wor­ries that his rep­u­ta­tion might be in jeop­ardy. So he bel­lows and stomps and blus­ters. He gri­maces and twitch­es and snorts, all while belch­ing, claw­ing and drool­ing in an attempt to fright­en the imper­turbable young woman. There’s a two-page spread of his reign of ter­ror. The chil­dren adore it. The younger they are, the more they delight in it.

gr_odious_ogre_tantrum

The girl is at first over­whelmed. Then she recov­ers her­self, sets down her plate of muffins and applauds with great enthu­si­asm for a full minute.

What fun, how mag­i­cal, how won­der­ful!” she exclaimed. “Would you con­sid­er doing that for the orphans’ pic­nic next week? I know the chil­dren would love it.”

It sim­ply doesn’t mat­ter that the three-year-olds can­not define all of the words. They know exact­ly what is going on—they’ve thrown such spec­ta­cles them­selves, after all! They think it hilar­i­ous that the young woman wants the ogre to do it again on pur­pose.

Tucked in my copy of The Odi­ous Ogre, I have sheets that I made that fold into a wee lit­tle book. It helps the kids to write their own sto­ry about  (Name) , The Most (adjec­tive) Ogre. It asks them to name their ogre, describe their ogre, draw the ogre-y face, describe the ogre’s voice and sounds ….

Kids love this activ­i­ty! At first I thought it was the size of the book (maybe 2 inch­es by 3 inch­es). But I actu­al­ly think it’s the words. They come up with such cre­ative words after hear­ing such the­sauras­tic strings of adjec­tives from Juster. They name their ogres things like Chris­til­li­blly and Amdropis­ti­ly. They describe their ogres with words like humun­go, tiz­zl­ly, and grub­bling. They use all the crayons in the box when they draw their ogre’s por­trait, and they change their own lit­tle voic­es in the most amaz­ing ways to let me hear how their ogre sounds.

Big words, long ram­bly sen­tences, large art spreads—this is a great book for kids of all ages. I stand by my call for the longer pic­ture book. I wish Juster and Feif­fer would do a series for my per­son­al sto­ry­time plea­sure.

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Books as Therapy

FrindleI con­fess to using books ther­a­peu­ti­cal­ly. When my kids were lit­tle and the day had gone wonky and none of us were at our best, a pile of pic­ture books was a sure-fire way to reset us all. It was part­ly the snug­gles, but most­ly the shared expe­ri­ence of read­ing the sto­ries we loved. As they’ve grown, I’ve been known to read them hap­py books when they are sad (and some­times sad books, just to help us lean into it) and sil­ly books when anger and tears have had their way with us. I’ve picked “top­i­cal” books when it seemed that approach­ing an issue at a “slant” might be the way to go.  And I’ve picked up books and insist­ed we read when I didn’t know what else to do.

Recent­ly, I heard Andrew Clements talk about his writ­ing life and his books at the Fes­ti­val of Faith & Writ­ing. I reread Frindle, my favorite of his books, on the plane on the way to the con­fer­ence. Pre­dictably, it made me cry, just as the flight atten­dant came by with pret­zels and juice. I was a lit­tle afraid Mr. Clements him­self would make me cry just by, you know, being up there on stage; but he talked about his child­hood and his ear­ly mar­ried years and find­ing his way as a writer…. And it was delight­ful! He was exact­ly as you expect­ed Andrew Clements to be while pre­sent­ing to a group of teach­ers, writ­ers, librar­i­ans, and read­ers (most­ly adults, some kids).

And then, at the end he rifled through some papers, say­ing he wasn’t sure if he’d talk about this next thing…. But he did. Or rather he read it. He’d been pre­sent­ing for an hour extem­po­ra­ne­ous­ly, but now his eyes were glued to the page and he read us pre­pared remarks. He wasn’t even a full sen­tence in before we under­stood why he was read­ing and not telling the sto­ry “off-the-cuff.”

Not long after the Decem­ber 2012 school shoot­ing at Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary in New­town, Con­necti­cut, Clements was con­tact­ed with a request he both could not refuse and could not imag­ine. While the world watched and prayed, the school and com­mu­ni­ty worked hard to piece togeth­er life for the kids, teach­ers and staff, and their fam­i­lies. Some­one float­ed the idea of an all-school read—something for all ages, some­thing they might enjoy  togeth­er, some­thing besides the tragedy to help re-define them.

They need­ed a book that took place in a school. A book that both chil­dren and adults who were rid­dled with shock and ter­ror and grief could focus on. A book that was maybe a lit­tle funny—in spots, at least. A book that did not con­tain the names of any of the vic­tims of the vio­lence that had torn apart their school com­mu­ni­ty. They need­ed a book that could bring hope and light to their lives again.

They chose Frindle. They asked Clements to come and so he and his wife went. He told us how he was led through the police check points in the park­ing lot and at the school doors…. How he was escort­ed into the school gath­er­ing by the library work­er who had shield­ed eigh­teen kids in a clos­et in the library dur­ing the shoot­ing…. How they explained the impor­tance of not mak­ing any loud nois­es or sud­den move­ments…. 

And then he read Frindle to those kids and teach­ers. He said he and his wife agreed it was one of the holi­est spaces and times they’d ever expe­ri­enced.

There wasn’t, of course, a dry eye in the audi­to­ri­um. Those of us in the audi­ence could hard­ly breathe while he read this account. I can’t imag­ine the strength it must have tak­en for this beloved author to read his work to those chil­dren and their teach­ers. Such an hon­or, such a priv­i­lege.

Books can be so therapeutic—and the read­ing of them togeth­er even more so. I think the idea of an all-school read at Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary was bril­liant, the choice of book and author inspired. Read your way into some holi­ness with a kid (or a whole group of them) today if you can. When­ev­er and wher­ev­er we can gath­er over books…holy time and space is found.

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Beverly Cleary

Beverly Cleary, 1971

Bev­er­ly Cleary, 1971

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

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

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

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

illustration by Louis Darling

illus­tra­tion by Louis Dar­ling

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

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

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

Hap­py Birth­day, Bev­er­ly Cleary!

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Rose Meets Mr. Wintergarten

Rose Meets Mr. Wintergarten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey!” he said. “You skipped a line.”

I did?” I said.

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

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

He EATS kids?” a lit­tle girl said.

For real?” said anoth­er.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Worm Loves Worm

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

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

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

That got their atten­tion.

Worms?” they said.

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

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

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

Worm loves Worm.

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

Yes!” answers Worm.

Let’s be mar­ried.” 

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

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

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

Now can we be mar­ried?” asks Worm.

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

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

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

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

Worm Loves Worm0797

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

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

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