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Tag Archives | Phyllis Root

Celebrating the Square Pegs

This month the two of us are actu­al­ly in the same place at the same time, and we’re hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about square pegs.

We are all not just square pegs and round pegs. We are tri­an­gles, pen­tagons, hexa­gon, oval, rhom­boids, stars. There are shapes for every­one and places, too, where each of us fits best. But we all know what being a square peg means.

Sweety by Andrea ZuillSweety in the book Sweety by Andrea Zuill didn’t know, though, exact­ly what it meant when her grand­moth­er said, “Well, aren’t you Grandma’s lit­tle square peg?” Young read­ers might not know either, but we do learn that Sweety is awk­ward and doesn’t always fit in, can be intense, and has bizarre hob­bies like study­ing mush­rooms.

Jack­ie: Zuill tack­les the sub­ject with humor and com­pas­sion. She begins with humor in a par­en­thet­i­cal note. “(Please note that naked mole rats are born with­out fur but not with­out the love of clothes. The illus­tra­tor is grate­ful for this since she didn’t have to draw a bunch of high­ly embar­rass­ing pic­tures.)” I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw Sweety describe her doll: “Friend of the friend­less, destroy­er of evil, lover of choco­late beet cake with cream cheese frost­ing!”

Sweety

Sweety gives her book report with inter­pre­tive dance! from Sweety by Andrea Zuill, Schwartz & Wade, 2019. illus­tra­tion copy­right Andrea Zuil

Phyl­lis: And she does it in an extreme­ly loud voice, aston­ish­ing her class­mates. Com­pas­sion comes to Sweety in the form of her Aunt Ruth, who talks about how she was called a square peg when she was young. She tells Sweety “that being dif­fer­ent was one of the best things about her life, and that if you stayed true to your­self, you’d find your peo­ple.”

Jack­ie: And by the end of the book Sweety does. This is so much more than a “mes­sage” book. It’s so much fun, and we are as hap­py as Sweety when her “peo­ple” appear in the form of a mush­room-lov­ing, cater­pil­lar-lov­ing naked mole rat named Sandy.

Phyl­lis: There’s even a secret hand­shake.

Red: A Crayon's StoryJack­ie: Red A Crayon’s Sto­ry by Michael Hall is not just a crayon’s sto­ry. It is a sto­ry of wear­ing a label that doesn’t match who you are; Red’s wrap­per says he’s red, but every­thing he col­ors comes out blue, and read­ers can see that he’s real­ly a blue cray­on. The crayons around him can only see his wrap­per.

Phyl­lis: The oth­er crayons try to fix him. “He’s got to press hard­er.” “He’s got to apply him­self.” But every­thing he col­ors keeps com­ing out blue—blue straw­ber­ries, blue bugs, blue hearts, blue fox­es, blue street­lights. Even­tu­al­ly with the help of a new berry-col­ored cray­on friend, Red comes out, too. He dis­cov­ers that he’s not lazy, not real­ly “not bright” as the oth­er crayons spec­u­lat­ed. He is just real­ly blue.

Jack­ie: And once he finds his true col­or, the oth­er crayons are glad for him, and one even says, “I always said he was blue.” They want to do projects with him and cel­e­brate, as we do, when he reach­es for the sky. This is an under­stat­ed sto­ry, and the illus­tra­tions, which appear under­stat­ed, too, are so effec­tive.

Red A Crayon's Story

Red does his best to draw straw­ber­ries, from Red: A Cray­on’s Sto­ry by Michael Hall, Green­wil­low, 2015. Illus­tra­tion copy­right Michael Hall.

Phyl­lis: This book makes us both so hap­py and even makes us want to reach for a box of crayons.

Fantastic Jungles of Henry RousseauPhyl­lis: The Fan­tas­tic Jun­gles of Hen­ri Rousseau by Michelle Markel, illus­trat­ed by Aman­da Hall, begins with a man who doesn’t fit. He is a forty-year-old toll col­lec­tor who wants to be an artist. “Not a sin­gle per­son has ever told him he is tal­ent­ed,” but he paints any­way because he loves nature and teach­es him­self tech­nique by going to the Lou­vre and exam­in­ing “the satiny paint­ings of his favorite artists.”

Jack­ie: One day he puts his can­vas­es in a hand­cart and wheels them to an exhi­bi­tion. It does not go well. Experts say mean things. He keeps painting—pictures of plants and ani­mals from far away places. “Some­times Hen­ri is so star­tled by what he paints that he has to open the win­dow to let in some air.” And even though every year he takes his paint­ings to the exhib­it, the experts con­tin­ue to make fun of him. “They say it looks like he closed his eyes and paint­ed with his feet.”

Phyl­lis: He keeps paint­ing. “He spends all he earns on art sup­plies and pays for his bread and coal with land­scapes and por­traits.” No mat­ter what the experts say, “every morn­ing he wakes up and smiles at his pic­tures.” Final­ly, when he is six­ty-one, oth­er artists dis­agree with the experts, befriend­ing Hen­ri and com­ing to con­certs in his stu­dio. Picas­so throws a ban­quet for him. And when Hen­ri exhibits his paint­ing “The Dream,” few peo­ple make fun of him.

The Fantastic Jungles of Henry Rousseau

The Fan­tas­tic Jun­gles of Hen­ri Rousseau by Michelle Markel, illus­tra­tions by Aman­da Hall, Eerd­mans Books for Young Read­ers. Illus­tra­tion copy­right Aman­da Hall.

Jack­ie: The illus­tra­tor made a spe­cial trip to Paris before illus­trat­ing this book, and it shows. Her paint­ings cap­ture the wild spir­it of Rousseau’s work while still being unique­ly her own. In this book, Rousseau start­ed out as a square peg, and his tal­ent reshaped the world.

Julian is a Mermaid

Phyl­lis: Julián is a Mer­maid by Jes­si­ca Love is a book about a boy named Julián who loves mer­maids and about his abuela. Julián sees peo­ple dressed as mer­maids on a train, and he dreams (in gor­geous art) that he is a mer­maid, too, com­plete with tail. In his dream a benev­o­lent fish gives him beads. On the way home Julián tells his abuela he is a mer­maid, too. While she takes a bath he has an idea.

Jack­ie: With a fern and flow­ers for hair and a cur­tain for a tail, Julián trans­forms him­self. The book’s cri­sis occurs when his abuela comes out of the bath, sees him, frowns, and walks away. Uh-oh, says Julián. A wor­ried Julián looks again at his long beau­ti­ful tail. He looks in a mir­ror at his fer­ny and flow­ery hair. Has he done some­thing wrong? Then his grand­moth­er returns. “Come here, mijo,” she says right before a page turn—which we turn quick­ly. She gives him beads.

Julian is a Mermaid

from Julián is a Mer­maid by Jes­si­ca Love, Can­dlewick Press, 2018. Illus­tra­tion copy­right Jes­si­ca Love.

Phyl­lis: A smil­ing mer­maid Julián and his abuela head out for a walk. “Where are we going?” asks Julián. “You’ll see,” says Abuela. One more page turn shows us Julián and Abuela at the mer­maid parade on Coney Island. And like Sweety, Julián has found his peo­ple.

Jack­ie and Phyl­lis: Round pegs, square pegs, pegs of every shape—may we all, like Sweety and Hen­ri and Red and Julián, find our peo­ple.

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Friends, Friends

Jack­ie: We two friends have been doing this blog since 2015. Yet, we’ve nev­er done a col­umn on books about friends. We know there are many, and many clas­sics, such as the always-sat­is­fy­ing Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel, or William Steig’s Amos and Boris, or James Marshall’s George and Martha. But today we want to look at three, one by one of our favorite writ­ers Lucille Clifton. (We are still hoping—campaigning—for a re-issue of her out-of-print Everett Ander­son books.) And two new­er “friend” books.

My Friend JacobMy copy of Lucille Clifton’s My Friend Jacob is a library copy that became avail­able because a library “with­drew” it from its own col­lec­tion. I don’t know why any­one would not want this book in their col­lec­tion. A child nar­ra­tor tells us: “My best friend lives next door…We do things togeth­er, Jacob and me. We love to play bas­ket­ball togeth­er. Jacob always makes a bas­ket on the first try.” (We see that Jacob is taller, old­er, than the nar­ra­tor.) …” My moth­er used to say, ‘Be care­ful with Jacob and that ball, he might hurt you.’  But now she doesn’t. He knows that Jacob wouldn’t hurt any­body, espe­cial­ly his very very best friend.”  And Jacob’s moth­er once said, “’You don’t have to have Jacob tag­ging along with you [to the gro­cery store] like that, Sam­my.’ But now she doesn’t. She knows we like to go to the store togeth­er. Jacob helps me to car­ry, and I help Jacob to remem­ber.’”  These two friends accept each oth­er for just who they are. Sam­my learns the makes and names of cars from Jacob, who knows them all. Jacob needs help remem­ber­ing what the street lights mean. He needs help remem­ber­ing to knock before enter­ing Sammy’s house. And the tri­umphal moment comes when he does remem­ber. “Next day at din­ner­time, we were sit­ting in our din­ing room when me and my moth­er and my father heard this real loud knock­ing at the door. Then the door popped open and Jacob stuck he’s head in./’I’m knock­ing, Sam!’ he yelled.”

Clifton does here what she often does so well—makes a sat­is­fy­ing sto­ry out of hum­ble accom­plish­ments. Her moments involve the stuff of all our lives, count­ing cars, shoot­ing bas­ket­balls, remem­ber­ing to knock. And we cheer for her char­ac­ters’ achieve­ments. And admire her abil­i­ty to present, with­out apol­o­gy or awk­ward­ness, a kid for whom it is sev­er­al afternoon’s work to make a birth­day card, or prac­tice to remem­ber to knock. Clifton cares about Jacob. And she helps us to share Sammy’s affec­tion for him. I want to live in Lucille Clifton’s world.

Phyl­lis:  Could I live there, too, please? My copy of My Friend Jacob, too, had been removed from a library (I’ve since passed it on to oth­er read­ers). Clifton’s books hon­or the lives, strug­gles, and hearts of the peo­ple who were not often found in pic­ture books at the time she wrote. It’s easy to dis­tance our­selves from peo­ple who seem dif­fer­ent; it takes a friend to see how we are not so dif­fer­ent and how we help hold each oth­er up.  Sam­my is that friend to Jacob, and Jacob is that friend to him.

The Lion and the BirdJack­ie: The Lion and The Bird by Mar­i­anne Dubul (trans­lat­ed by Clau­dia Zoe Bedrick, pub­lished by Enchant­ed Lion Books, 2014) fea­tures a lion who has a mod­est cot­tage, a gar­den, and a con­tent­ed life. One fall day, while work­ing in his gar­den he spots an injured bird. He ban­dages the bird’s wing and they both watch as the oth­er birds fly away. Lion invites the bird to spend the win­ter. “There’s more than enough room for both of us.” The bird eats at Lion’s table, lis­tens by the fire while Lion reads, and sleeps cozi­ly in one of Lion’s slip­pers. “They spend the win­ter togeth­er, enjoy­ing each day.” And we see them sled­ding, ice-fish­ing, Bird tucked snug­ly in his own place in Lion’s hat. Come spring, Bird flies away with his peers. We see Lion feel­ing small­er and lone­li­er. “And so it goes./Life is some­times like that.” Word­less pic­tures show Lion resum­ing his soli­tary life—empty slip­pers, eat­ing alone. He grows his gar­den, fish­es, pass­es the sum­mer. And in the fall, Bird returns! ‘Togeth­er we’ll stay warm again this win­ter.”

This is a qui­et, love­ly sto­ry of kind­ness, friend­ship, shar­ing, and kind­ness returned. The illus­tra­tions so clear­ly reflect Lion’s emo­tions. I would love to read this with a child and talk about feel­ings.

Phyl­lis:  I love how Lion puts Bird ten­der­ly up on top of his mane to keep him warm, cov­er­ing him with his hat (with appro­pri­ate cut-out win­dow) in win­ter. “Win­ter doesn’t feel all that cold with a friend,” Dubul writes, and those of us in win­try cli­mates (as I write this there’s an April bliz­zard blow­ing out­side) espe­cial­ly rec­og­nize that warmth. Spring returns, and as the migrat­ing flock of birds fly over, Lion tells Bird he knows Bird must go. And even though “life is some­times like that,” some­times life also brings our friends back to us, just as Bird returns and choos­es to spend the win­ter again with Lion.  The soft spare art per­fect­ly match­es the spare text.  Spring’s return is a sin­gle flower open­ing on a dou­ble page spread, and a sin­gle note on a dou­ble page spread her­alds Bird’s return. Dubul does not gloss over the sense of loss Lion feels; like Lion, we yearn for Bird’s return, and that absence and yearn­ing makes the return even more sat­is­fy­ing.  I love that friend­ships can sur­vive dis­tance and time.

Jerome by HeartJack­ie: Jerome By Heart by Thomas Scot­to with illus­tra­tions by Olivi­er Tal­lec (trans­lat­ed from the French by Clau­dia Zoe Bedrick and Karin Snel­son; Enchant­ed Lion Books, 2018) gives us a sto­ry told with humor and poignan­cy, of two friends who know they are friends. “He always holds my hand./It’s true./Really tight.” And we see two boys, bicy­cling, hold­ing hands as traf­fic backs up behind them. And the one dri­ver whose face we can see looks rather grumpy. They are friends every­where, “On field trips to the art museum,/it’s me he choos­es as his bud­dy.” Rafael loves Jerome. Rafael’s mom likes Jerome, but doesn’t real­ize that Rafael feels pro­tect­ed by Jerome’s friend­ship. Rafael’s Dad wish­es Jerome would play soc­cer.

Jerome is kind—sees Rafael and speaks to him when he’s with oth­er friends, defends Rafael when oth­er kids make fun of him (we don’t know why), and tells “sto­ries that are so good/they seem real…”

When Rafael tells his par­ents, “I had the best dream last night!/It was good in a Jerome kind of way,” his Dad stares at his shoelaces. His Mom says, “’Eat your cere­al, Rafael.’” Rafael replies, “Maybe I’ll just eat my dream on toast! … That way all you’ll hear is crunching/and it won’t both­er your ears so much.”  And Dad responds, “Now that’s enough!”

Rafael goes to his room, look­ing for a present for Jerome. He imag­ines them on vaca­tion togeth­er, rid­ing in a race car. “I cir­cle around and around my bed./Around and around my table./Around and around my ques­tions.”  At the end he affirms his true friend­ship, in spite of his par­ents. “And I say—yes./Rafael loves Jerome./I can say it./It’s easy.” And we cheer for him.

Phyl­lis: I love this book so much—it’s one of those books that cap­ti­vat­ed me and insist­ed I buy it. The title page of Jerome By Heart quotes French poet Jacques Prévert, who wrote the enchant­i­ng How to Paint the Por­trait of a Bird (illus­trat­ed by Morde­cai Ger­stein, Roar­ing Brook Press, 2007). Prévert wrote, “And the passers-by point­ed fin­gers at them.  But the chil­dren who love each oth­er aren’t there for any­one else.”

Jerome and Rafael are “there” for each oth­er. Raphael’s mom says Jerome is polite and charm­ing. “But she nev­er says any­thing about how warm his smile is. She doesn’t seem to notice that I have a secret hide­out there, where I feel pro­tect­ed by Jerome’s two eyes.” Jerome always sees Raphael, even when Jerome is with his friends. What do we real­ly want but to be seen and loved for who we real­ly are? And to love that per­son back. Raphael says it for us: “’I for­get my mom and dad./ I think only about Jerome/ who I know by heart.”

In The Lit­tle Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry the prince says, “And now here is my secret, a very sim­ple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see right­ly; what is essen­tial is invis­i­ble to the eye.” Friends like Sam­my and Jacob, Lion and Bird, Jerome and Rafael see what is essen­tial but invis­i­ble to the eye. May we all have such friends. May we all be such friends, see­ing and know­ing each oth­er heart to heart.

P.S. Two of these three books are pub­lished by Enchant­ed Lion, a press that’s bring­ing out books that quick­ly become some of our favorite book friends.

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The Lost Forest

The Lost ForestHow many books can you name that are about sur­vey­ing … and a mys­tery? I know. Right? And yet we see sur­vey­ors every day in fields, on busy street cor­ners, and in our neigh­bor­hoods. What are they doing? Would it sur­prise you to know that near­ly every acre of your state has been sur­veyed? That knowl­edge about those acres is record­ed on plat books and maps that peo­ple in gov­ern­ment and com­merce con­sult all the time?

What if 40 acres of old-growth trees (actu­al­ly 114 acres) were some­how record­ed incor­rect­ly by sur­vey­ors in 1882? What if those trees were left to grow, undis­turbed, because they appeared on maps as a lake? Then you would have The Lost Forty, which inspired The Lost For­est, by Phyl­lis Root, illus­trat­ed by Bet­sy Bowen (Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press).

So inter­est­ing to learn how those sur­vey­ors worked, the instru­ments they used, the cloth­ing they wore to fend off the snow, sun, and insects. Then the author invites us to think about the chal­lenges of sur­vey­ing:

If you have ever walked through the woods
you know the land does­n’t care
about straight lines.

This book’s for­mat is tall, just like those old-growth pines, and it con­tains all kinds of infor­ma­tion that will fit beau­ti­ful­ly into your STEM cur­ricu­lum.

The writ­ing is engag­ing, telling a true sto­ry and invit­ing us to use all of our sens­es to explore the sto­ry. Bet­sy Bowen’s illus­tra­tions cause us to linger, exam­in­ing each page care­ful­ly.

from The Lost Forty, text copy­right Phyl­lis Root, illus­tra­tions copy­right Bet­sy Bowen,
used here with the per­mis­sion of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press

In the back mat­ter, there’s a list of 15 trees, flow­ers, and birds that may live in old-growth forests. You and your fam­i­ly can trav­el to The Lost Forty Sci­en­tif­ic and Nat­ur­al Area in the Chippe­wa Nation­al For­est to con­duct your own expe­di­tion, using the book to iden­ti­fy these species.

In addi­tion, the book offers notes about how land is mea­sured (fas­ci­nat­ing … and some­thing you could do as a field trip), How to Talk Like a Sur­vey­or (“mean­der line”?), and How to Dress Like a Sur­vey­or (prac­ti­cal). Do not miss Bet­sy Bowen’s illus­tra­tions of Phyl­lis and Bet­sy on the last page!

Two admirable pic­ture book cre­ators, Phyl­lis Root and Bet­sy Bowen, have teamed up once again to bring us a fas­ci­nat­ing and beau­ti­ful book about those incor­rect­ly sur­veyed acres of trees. Bookol­o­gy asked them how this book, shar­ing an unusu­al his­to­ry, came to be.

Phyllis RootPhyl­lis Root, author:

I was work­ing on a count­ing book, One North Star, for the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press about habi­tats in our state and the plants and ani­mals that live in those habi­tats. That led me to Minnesota’s Sci­en­tif­ic and Nat­ur­al Areas (SNAs), and on a trip north to vis­it the Big Bog I made a detour to see the Lost Forty SNA and was enchant­ed. The trees, some four hun­dred years old, tow­er so tall that it’s hard to see the tops, and the trunks of some are so big it takes three peo­ple to wrap their arms around. Since then I’ve gone back at least once each year, not only to see these amaz­ing trees but also to look for the wild­flow­ers that grow around them—bunchberry, moc­casin flow­ers, rose twist­ed-stalk, spot­ted coral­root, wild sar­sa­par­il­la, Hooker’s orchid, gold thread. Hik­ing in the Lost Forty real­ly is a trip back in time to before Min­neso­ta was logged over.

The Lost Forty

In the course of writ­ing One North Star, I also wrote a book about the bog (Big Belch­ing Bog) and one about the prairie (Plant a Pock­et of Prairie). I want­ed to write a com­pan­ion book about Minnesota’s forests but strug­gled to find a way in that would be both engag­ing and also spe­cif­ic. Because the Lost Forty is one of the few remain­ing stands of old growth pines in Min­neso­ta, and because the sto­ry of how it got lost was fas­ci­nat­ing, I began to write about it.

Most­ly I con­cen­trat­ed on the plants and ani­mals, with a nod to how the for­est got lost. I remem­bered a sign at the entrance to the Lost Forty that talked about a sur­vey­ing error. But my mem­o­ry mis-remem­bered, and I wrote sev­er­al drafts before real­iz­ing that the error was made not by tim­ber cruis­ers, the peo­ple employed by lum­ber com­pa­nies to esti­mate the amount of usable lum­ber in a cer­tain area, but by land sur­vey­ors. This led me to research the fas­ci­nat­ing world of the cas­das­tral sur­vey that mea­sured off most of the land in the Unit­ed States, step by step, acre by acre, sec­tion by sec­tion. The Bureau of Land Man­age­ment has dig­i­tal records that include the map and jour­nal of the crew who sur­veyed what is now the Lost Forty. For some rea­son (there are sev­er­al the­o­ries as to how it hap­pened) they mis-sur­veyed part of the for­est as a lake. Spec­u­la­tors and tim­ber com­pa­nies who stud­ied maps weren’t inter­est­ed in buy­ing lakes, just for­est, and so the site was over­looked for 76 years. I couldn’t track down the exact per­son who “found” the Lost Forty, but I did find a let­ter dat­ed 1958 that request­ed a re-sur­vey which dis­cov­ered those vir­gin white pines.

Per­haps one of the biggest real­iza­tions for me work­ing on this sto­ry was under­stand­ing that how we mea­sure land reflects how we treat the land: as a com­mod­i­ty to be bought and sold, often with no attempt to under­stand the organ­ic nature of the land itself. It made me so hap­py when one review not­ed that the book’s “implic­it mes­sage that the nat­ur­al world is some­thing more than a mea­sur­able com­mod­i­ty.”

I have always loved maps (although I am also fre­quent­ly lost). Just pour­ing over the names of places fas­ci­nates me, as does know­ing that maps are only an approx­i­ma­tion of real­i­ty, and that some­times maps delib­er­ate­ly lie. You can find the Lost Forty on maps now, no longer lost but pro­tect­ed for any­one to vis­it who wants to take a trip back in time. And it makes me think about what oth­er won­ders might not be on maps but still wait­ing to be found. v

Betsy BowenBet­sy Bowen, illus­tra­tor:

When this man­u­script came to me from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, I eager­ly took it on. I have lived on the edge of the north­ern Min­neso­ta for­est for over fifty years, and there are only a few places to see the real­ly big, old trees. I’d had the expe­ri­ence of canoe camp­ing in Cana­da and find­ing sec­tions of the for­est that felt like no one had ever seen it before, thick spongy moss, deep green light, and gigan­tic trees. There was a mag­i­cal sense to it. My grand­fa­ther P. S. Love­joy was a forester in the ear­ly 1900s and an ear­ly con­ser­va­tion­ist voice who made an effort to save some wild places for us all to expe­ri­ence. I loved vis­it­ing The Lost Forty and feel­ing like a lit­tle kid try­ing to put my arms around such a big tree!

I used acrylic paint on ges­soed paper, first paint­ing the whole page flat black, and then draw­ing with a chalky ter­ra-cot­ta-col­ored Con­té cray­on.  I had help from some present-day foresters to find the orig­i­nal old sur­vey notes that I could page through online, and pho­tos of the sur­vey crew in 1882. My father, a civ­il engi­neer, was also a sur­vey­or, still using the same equip­ment that Josi­ah used to sur­vey The Lost Forty. I remem­ber look­ing at the moon through his old brass tran­sit. My moth­er was a car­tog­ra­ph­er in the 1930s and ‘40s, and I gained my love of maps from her. 

I love the sense of dis­cov­ery in Phyllis’s writ­ing of this sto­ry. The book was great fun to work on. v

Our thanks to Phyl­lis Root and Bet­sy Bowen for shar­ing their cre­ative process with us, a process that result­ed in this impor­tant book. We hope you’ll trea­sure it as much as we do.

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Weathering Weather

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Making Something Out of Nothing

Jack­ie: We are in cold, cold win­ter. Too cold to read seed catalogs–spring just seems too far away to imag­ine frag­ile green. We are con­fined to cab­in. What to do but think of repur­pos­ing, mak­ing some­thing out of noth­ing, or next to noth­ing?

Stone Soup by Marcia BrownStone Soup by Mar­cia Brown has always been one of my favorite some­thing-out-of-noth­ing (or at least some­thing out of stones) sto­ries. The three hun­gry sol­diers promise to teach the towns­folk, who claim to have no food to share, how to make soup from stones. The towns­folk quick­ly find a pot, wood for a fire, and three good stones. “’Any soup needs salt and pep­per,’ said the sol­diers, as they began to stir.” No prob­lem. And then it begins, “Stones like these gen­er­al­ly make good soup. But oh, if there were car­rots, it would be much bet­ter.” Françoise brings car­rots. Soon oth­ers bring cab­bage, beef and pota­toes, bar­ley and milk. Tables are set. And the peas­ants decide this won­der­ful soup requires “bread—and a roast—and cider.” They feast and dance into the night and offer the sol­diers warm beds in their homes. I love the idea of mak­ing soup from stones, the notion that the vil­lagers are will­ing to share to make a bet­ter stone soup, per­haps because it’s coöper­a­tive. They are mak­ing soup togeth­er.

In recent days, I have want­ed to see the vil­lagers become aware of the stone soup trick, but that is not part of this French folk tale. And I can still imag­ine to myself a vil­lage child wak­ing up with a smile on her face as she under­stands the real charm of stone soup.

Once Upon a Mouse by Marcia BrownPhyl­lis: I can under­stand the vil­lagers’ hes­i­tan­cy to share—they’ve been in the midst of war, feed­ing many sol­diers whether they chose to or not, and now that the war has end­ed, shouldn’t they be left in peace? But peace means more than just the ces­sa­tion of fight­ing. It means, too, learn­ing how to open hearts as well as cup­boards, a les­son the vil­lagers don’t even real­ize they have been sly­ly giv­en and have tak­en to heart.

I have been mak­ing lots of soup as the tem­per­a­ture dips to minus 28 with a wind chill of minus 47 or there­abouts. Like the say­ing about wood warm­ing a per­son twice, (once when you split it, once when you burn it) soup warms us in many ways. The cook­ing warms our kitchens, the eat­ing warms our bod­ies, and the shar­ing warms our hearts. When the ground thaws, I’m going to hunt for a smooth, round stone and try adding it to my soup pot. Who knows? It might be as secret ingre­di­ent, as it was for the vil­lagers in Stone Soup. And I love the flow­ing line of Brown’s art—I knew I want­ed to be a part of pic­ture books when, in col­lege, I dis­cov­ered a tucked-away shelf of children’s books that includ­ed her won­der­ful wood­cuts for Once A Mouse.

Thank You, Omu!Jack­ie: An inside-out- ver­sion of this soup sto­ry is Thank You, Omu! by Oge Mora, recent­ly named a Calde­cott Hon­or Win­ner by the ALA. Omu lives on the top floor of an apart­ment build­ing. One day she makes her­self a large pot of thick red stew. Its “scrump­tious scent waft­ed out the win­dow and out the door, down the hall towards the street and around the block” until Knock, Knock, Knock. A lit­tle boy stops in to ask for a bowl of the thick red stew. “It would not hurt to share,” decides Omu. After all she has a very large pot of stew. Then stops a police offi­cer, a hot dog ven­dor, the may­or, and others—all look­ing for stew. When it comes time for her deli­cious din­ner of stew, Omu’s pot is emp­ty. She hears Knock, Knock, Knock. But she has no more stew. “’We are not here to ask,” says the boy. ‘We are here to give.’” And all the neigh­bors who ate Omu’s stew have returned with meat and sweets, and plates of food. Omu’s small apart­ment is filled with peo­ple who “ate, danced, and cel­e­brat­ed.” Omu’s stew makes a com­mu­ni­ty cel­e­bra­tion out of an emp­ty pot. And who can resist sto­ries that end with eat­ing and danc­ing? (Here’s a link to an inter­view with Oge Mora.)

Phyl­lis: I love this book! Oge Mora also just won the 2019 Coret­ta Scott King Book Awards John Step­toe Award for New Tal­ent Illus­tra­tor for Thank You, Omu!, and it’s easy to see why—the col­or­ful col­lage art, her col­or palette, the way words and images leap off the page, the irre­sistible knocks on the door that pro­pel page turns, and, of course, the sto­ry of freely giv­ing and receiv­ing in return.

 In an inter­view Oge Mora talks about how the heart of the book cen­ters on giv­ing and grat­i­tude. She didn’t include a recipe for Omu’s scrump­tious stew in part, she says, because she wants read­ers to think about food that they have their own rela­tion­ships with—food that com­forts, food that calls up mem­o­ries of cooks who came before us. In an author’s note Mora tells how her grand­moth­er danced and swayed as she stirred a pot of soup, and her table was open to any­one who stopped by. “Every­one in the com­mu­ni­ty had a seat at my grandmother’s table,” she writes. And we are lucky enough to have a seat at Omu’s table as we share this book.

Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms TabackJack­ie: No soup involved in Simms Tabak’s Joseph Had a Lit­tle Over­coat, but there is much mak­ing some­thing out of some­thing less. We can enjoy time and again Joseph’s inge­nu­ity in mak­ing from his worn coat a jack­et, then a vest. When the vest is “old and worn,” he makes a scarf and “sang in a men’s cho­rus.” Then a neck­tie, a hand­ker­chief, and a but­ton. When the but­ton is lost, he makes a book about it. “Which shows you can always make some­thing out of noth­ing.”

Phyl­lis: Vivid art and clever cutouts show the overcoat/jacket/vest/scarf/necktie/handkerchief/button get­ting small­er and small­er. Joseph, who makes a sto­ry out of “noth­ing,” cheer­i­ly doesn’t seem to care at all that one sus­pender is miss­ing now a but­ton, and we have no doubt that he’ll find some oth­er noth­ing to make a new but­ton out of.

The Patchwork BikeThe Patch­work Bike by Max­ine Bene­ba Clarke, illus­trat­ed by Van Thanh Rudd, begins, “This is the vil­lage where we live inside our mud-for-wall home. These are my crazy broth­ers, and this is our fed-up mum.” The nar­ra­tor and her broth­ers build a sand hill to slide down, jump and climb in the big Fiori tree “out in the no-go desert, under the stretch­ing-out sky.” But the best thing in the vil­lage, she tells us, is the bike she and her broth­ers make out of scraps, with a “bent buck­et seat and han­dle­bar branch­es that shick­et­ty shake when we ride over sand hills.” Tin cans become han­dles, wheels cut from wood go win­ket­ty wonk, a flour sack becomes a flag, Mum’s milk pot becomes a bell (and is she fed-up about that, we won­der), lights are paint­ed on, and the license plate, made of bark, keeps falling off. “The best thing of all to play with under the stretch­ing-out sky at the edge of the no-go desert,” she tells us, “is me and my broth­ers’ bike.” As some­one who’s mend­ed cars with twisty ties and tem­porar­i­ly patched leaky gas tank leaks with bars of soap, I admire their inge­nu­ity. The art races across the page as a few exact­ly right words cre­ate set­ting and fam­i­ly and take us along with the nar­ra­tor and her broth­ers on their best-thing-of-all patch­work bike.

The Secret Kingdom by Barb Rosenstock and Claire A. NivolaJack­ie: And final­ly, back to stones. In The Secret King­dom by Barb Rosen­stock and illus­trat­ed by Claire A. Nivola, we learn of Nek Chand, forced out of his home vil­lage with the par­ti­tion­ing of India to a new­ly-con­struct­ed city. He longed for the sights and sounds of his home, now part of Pak­istan. He could not go back nor could he find the old sights and sounds in the gray city. He found a place on the edge of town, an unin­hab­it­ed jun­gle. He made him­self a home and over the next fif­teen years he scav­enged “bro­ken pieces of vil­lage life under the mod­ern city…chipped sinks, cracked water pots, and bro­ken glass ban­gles in red, blue, and green.” For sev­en years he “car­ried these trea­sures into the wilder­ness. He made cement and pressed porce­lain shards into it.” He “saved half-dead plants from the city dump,” watered them, and filled his king­dom with bougainvil­lea, ole­an­der, man­go and pipal trees. He con­struct­ed god­dess­es and queens, singing men, women, and laugh­ing chil­dren. “Nek built his king­dom over twelve acres and kept it secret for fif­teen years.” When gov­ern­ment offi­cers found his king­dom, they planned to destroy it.

Until the peo­ple of Chandi­garh came.” They loved this place! “By the hun­dreds, city peo­ple roamed sculp­tured walk­ways, ducked through arch­es, laughed and told vil­lage sto­ries, begin­ning to end and back again.” The peo­ple con­vinced the gov­ern­ment offi­cials to pre­serve the vil­lage.

With his col­lec­tion of scraps and shards, with his yearn­ing and his art, Nek Chand made a place that called forth sto­ries, laugh­ter, mem­o­ry.

Nek Chand's Outsider ArtPhyl­lis: This book is breath­tak­ing, both in the sto­ry it tells and also in the world of remem­bered home that Nek Chand cre­at­ed. The author came across this sto­ry by acci­dent while research­ing anoth­er book and was so gripped by Chand’s art and sto­ry that she put aside that project while she wrote The Secret King­dom. A short video offers a glimpse of Chand’s king­dom, and a book for grown-ups, Nek Chand’s Out­sider Art: the Rock Gar­den of Chandi­garh, is filled with pho­tos of his cre­ations made from the cast-off trash of the city. In the end, Chand’s art, built in secret soli­tude, cre­at­ed com­mu­ni­ty as peo­ple fought to save his king­dom.

Jack­ie: When we make some­thing out of noth­ing, we end up with more than the thing we have made, we end up with com­mu­ni­ty, love, healed hearts, home.

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Knit One, Purl Two

Phyl­lis: Two sticks and some string. That’s the most basic def­i­n­i­tion of knit­ting. The sticks might be met­al or wood. The string might be yarn or flax. But in the hands of a knit­ter, even an unskilled one such as I, they become mag­ic.

In the chilly months, we bun­dle up in cozy sweaters, snug mit­tens, hats that hug our heads. And what’s bet­ter than a book on a cold day or night to help keep us warm, snug­gled up with a lit­tle lis­ten­er or read­er or even a cozy cat? This month we’re look­ing at a few of the pic­ture books that cel­e­brate knit­ting and yarn.

Extra YarnIn Extra Yarn by Mac Bar­nett, illus­trat­ed by Jon Klassen (Balz­er and Bray, 2012), a lit­tle girl in a cold, drab town finds a box filled with yarn of every col­or. She knits her­self a col­or­ful sweater and still has extra yarn, so she knits her dog a sweater. But she still has extra yarn. She knits a sweater for a boy Nate (who laughs at her sweater but is real­ly just jeal­ous) and one for his dog, and so it goes. She knits sweaters for her whole class, includ­ing her teacher, for her par­ents, her neigh­bors (except for Mr. Crab­tree who nev­er wears sweaters, who get a knit­ted hat), sweaters for dogs, cats, birds and “things that didn’t even wear sweaters”—houses, mail­box­es, bird­hous­es. And still she has extra yarn. When an arch­duke hears of the mag­i­cal box of yarn and demands to buy it for ten mil­lion dol­lars, Annabelle, who is knit­ting a sweater for a pick­up truck, polite­ly declines. The arch­duke hires rob­bers who steal the box for him, but when he opens the box it is emp­ty. He flings it out the win­dow along with a curse, “Lit­tle girl…you will nev­er be hap­py again!” The box floats back across the ocean straight to Annabelle, who finds it full of extra yarn and who is indeed hap­py as she con­tin­ues to knit a more col­or­ful world. I love how her gen­eros­i­ty makes her world warmer in more ways than one.

Jack­ie: I love this book, too! I love that knit­ting stands for love, and, as you say, her knit objects bring col­or to the town, as love is the col­or in our lives. I also love the pair­ing of the mundane—knitting—with the mag­i­cal, the unend­ing sup­ply of yarn.

Feeding the SheepPhyl­lis: Feed­ing the Sheep by Leda Schu­bert, illus­trat­ed by Andrea U’Ren (Far­rar, Straus & Giroux, 2010) begins with a lit­tle girl ask­ing her moth­er “What are you doing?” “Feed­ing the sheep,” the moth­er replies. This struc­ture of ques­tion, answer, and rhyming cou­plets con­tin­ues through shear­ing the sheep, wash­ing the wool, card­ing the wool, until final­ly the moth­er has knit a gor­geous blue sweater for her daugh­ter. At the end of the book the moth­er asks, “What are you doing?” and this time the lit­tle girl replies, “Feed­ing the sheep.” Each stan­za ends with a rhyming line: “Snowy day, corn and hay,” “Soft and deep, sheepy heap.” Such fun to say.

Feed­ing the Sheep has the ele­gant sim­plic­i­ty of beau­ti­ful lan­guage, rep­e­ti­tion, rhyming cou­plets, and an end­ing that echoes the begin­ning and res­onates with love between a moth­er and her daugh­ter through the every­day activ­i­ties of their lives. I love this spare and ten­der sto­ry more every time I read it.

Jack­ie: This ten­der sto­ry makes me want to have a sheep, or even bet­ter, be a part of this lov­ing fam­i­ly. Andrea U’Ren’s illus­tra­tions extend the sto­ry. The girl is doing some­thing in each spread that res­onates with what the mom is doing. When Mom is shear­ing the sheep, the girl is play­ing with the fleece. When the Mom is wash­ing the wool, the girl is wash­ing the dog, Mom card­ing the wool, girl brush­ing the dog.

And at the end, we have the love­ly twist. The girl the one feed­ing the sheep. The love is passed on.

Too Many MittensPhyl­lis: Too Many Mit­tens by Flo­rence and Louis Slo­bod­kin (Ran­dom House Children’s Books, 1958) was writ­ten at a time when pic­ture books often had many more words than today (and when most ser­vice peo­ple were men). When Don­nie los­es a red mit­ten while Grand­ma is stay­ing with him and his twin Ned while their par­ents are trav­el­ling, word about the lost mit­ten goes around the neigh­bor­hood. Neigh­bor after neigh­bor help­ful­ly bring over red mit­tens they have found. “Is this yours?” they ask, and Grand­ma replies, “I guess so,” stash­ing the mit­tens in a draw­er. When Don­nie and Ned’s par­ents return from their trip with a present for the boys—red mittens—Grandma opens the mit­ten draw­er, which explodes with red mit­tens. Ned’s solu­tion: hang the red mit­tens on a clothes­line out­side and post a sign for peo­ple to claim them, which they do, all but one. The neigh­bor­hood likes the mit­ten solu­tion so much that each win­ter the fam­i­ly strings a mit­ten clothes­line for lost red mit­tens to be reclaimed. Any­one who finds a red mit­ten any­where brings the mit­ten over to the twins’ house to hang on the clothes­line. Who knows? You might find your lost red mit­ten there! The mit­tens them­selves are vivid spots in the art.

Jack­ie: The art in this book is so won­der­ful. I love the red mit­tens appear­ing on the pages. They remind me of the joy of car­di­nals in win­ter. And I enjoy the neigh­bor­hood feel­ing of this sto­ry. A sign of how much we have changed since 1958 is that I miss the women who might car­ry mail, or deliv­er pack­ages, or pick up garbage. But we can add them in as we read and talk about this sto­ry.

A Hat for Mrs. GoldmanPhyl­lis: In A Hat for Mrs. Gold­man: A Sto­ry about Knit­ting and Love by Michelle Edwards, illus­trat­ed by G. Bri­an Karas (Schwartz & Wade Books, 2016) a lit­tle girl finds her own solu­tion to pro­vid­ing her gen­er­ous and beloved neigh­bor a hat to keep her head warm. When Sophie was born Mrs. Gold­man knit her a tiny baby hat to keep her kep­pie (head) warm. When Sophie grows big­ger, Mrs. Gold­man teach­es Sophie to knit, but what Sophie likes best is mak­ing the pom-poms for all the hats Mrs. Gold­man knits to keep oth­er people’s kep­pies warm which, Mrs. Gold­man says, is a mitz­vah, a good deed. Sophie wor­ries because Mrs. Gold­man is so busy knit­ting for oth­ers that she has no hat to keep her own kep­pie warm when they take Fifi for a walk. Sophie sets out to knit a hat as a sur­prise for Mrs. Gold­man. Sophie knits and knits and knits, but the fin­ished hat is lumpy and bumpy with “holes where there shouldn’t be holes.” Sophie remem­bers Mrs. Gold­man say­ing that Sophie’s pom-poms add beau­ty “and that’s a mitz­vah,” so Sophie dec­o­rates Mrs. Goldman’s hat with 20 pom-poms cov­er­ing the lumps and bumps and holes. Mrs. Gold­man loves her sur­prise and wears Sophie’s hat to keep her kep­pie warm.

Jack­ie: This is such a rich sto­ry, rich in emo­tion, rich in cre­ative solu­tions, rich in vocab­u­lary. I am glad to learn “kep­pie,” and that a good deed is a “mitz­vah.” And I am so glad for the instruc­tions that Michelle Edwards includ­ed in the book, so we can all make hats to keep the kep­pies of our loved ones warm.

And so, skills, and love, are passed down to new knit­ters. Knit one, purl two. A hat a scarf a sweater, pom-poms—what two sticks and some yarn are real­ly knit­ting is love. And that’s a mitz­vah.

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Pie and Gratitude

Novem­ber is a month of gratitude—and, for us, a month to cel­e­brate Pie. We all have a favorite. Many of us have child­hood mem­o­ries of good times and pie. We all wait for the days when we can eat pie for break­fast. So we two thought this would be the per­fect month to look at pic­ture books about pie. We so con­sis­tent­ly think of pie in Novem­ber that we also reviewed pie books last year. But we have a cou­ple of new ones this year. And who can think of pie too often?

How to Make an Apple PieWe want to start with the clas­sic—How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World by Mar­jorie Price­man (Drag­on­fly, 1994). We both love this book, love the idea of teach­ing geog­ra­phy through pie. If you want to make an apple pie and the mar­ket is closed what can you do? Well, you can go to Italy for wheat for your pie crust, France for an egg, Sri Lan­ka for cin­na­mon. Pick up a cow in Eng­land and on and on until you have col­lect­ed the ingre­di­ents for the pie. The two-page spread show­ing the mak­ing of the pie is charm­ing. And the last spread of shar­ing pie with friends—and the cow, the chick­en, a dog and cat is enough to make you want to get out and make a pie. And of course the book includes a recipe for an apple pie.

How to Make a Cherry PiePrice­man did anoth­er book—How to Make Cher­ry Pie and See the U.S.A. (Knopf, 2008)—which focus­es not on ingre­di­ents, but tools involved in pie making—potholders, pie pan, rolling pin. It fea­tures the same spright­ly illus­tra­tion style and the same inde­fati­ga­ble char­ac­ter who will go to any lengths for pie.

Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie by Rob­bin Gour­ley (Clar­i­on, 2000) is a “pie-shaped” sto­ry fea­tur­ing one of the stars of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry food world—African Amer­i­can writer and chef, Edna Lewis. The book fol­lows the child Edna through­out the sea­sons as she enjoys and com­ments on the foods that come with each. Spring brings wild straw­ber­ries and for­aged greens. Each sea­son also fea­tures a rhyme from Edna:

But I have nev­er tast­ed meat,
nor cab­bage, corn, or beans,
nor milk or tea that’s half as sweet
as that first mess of greens.

Bring Me Some Apples and I'll Make You a PieSum­mer is hon­ey from the bees, cher­ries, berries and peach­es. “Six per­fect peach­es make a per­fect pie.” And then of course, toma­toes, corn, and beans. This is a book to get read­ers think­ing about foods and sea­sons. In a time when we can buy toma­toes and peach­es all year long, it’s good to remem­ber the best fruits and veg­eta­bles are the ones we find in their sea­sons.

When apple sea­son comes Edna’s poem reads:

Don’t ask me no ques­tions,
an’ I won’t tell you no lies.
But bring me some apples,
an’ I’ll make you some pies.

We learn in an Author’s Note that in her writ­ings Edna Lewis extolled the virtues of “pre­serv­ing tra­di­tion­al meth­ods of grow­ing and prepar­ing food and of bring­ing ingre­di­ents direct­ly from the field to the table … For Edna, the goal was to coax the best fla­vor from each ingre­di­ent, and the reward was the taste and sat­is­fac­tion of a deli­cious meal.”

Pie is for SharingPart of the sat­is­fac­tion of a deli­cious meal is in the shar­ing. And that is dou­bly true for pie. If we should ever for­get that and dream of eat­ing a whole pie all by our­selves Stephanie Pars­ley Led­yard and Jason Chin have writ­ten a book to jolt us back to com­mu­ni­ty—Pie is for Shar­ing (Roar­ing Brook, 2018). “Pie is for shar­ing,” this book begins. And we see kids and fam­i­lies gath­er­ing for a pic­nic. The best part is that the kids are all col­ors, all eth­nic­i­ties, and they are play­ing and eat­ing pie togeth­er. No one stands alone. No one is exclud­ed. They also share books, balls, even trees. They laugh and swim and build sand cas­tles. They are a flock of friends on a sum­mer day togeth­er.

This cel­e­bra­tion of pie and com­mu­ni­ty ends with, “Many can share one light. /And a blanket?/A breeze?/The sky?/These are for sharing./Just like pie.”

Gator PieShar­ing pie is the prob­lem and the solu­tion in Gator Pie by Louise Math­ews (illus­trat­ed by Jeni Bas­sett, pub­lished by Dodd, Mead 1979). We hope you can find this book. It is a charm­ing math les­son told with pie. Alvin and Alice are alli­ga­tor friends who hap­pen to find a pie “on a table near the edge of the swamp. /It was a whole pie that had not been cut. /’ I won­der what kind it is,’ said Alice. /’Let’s eat it and find out!’ cried Alvin.” But before they can cut it, an alli­ga­tor “with a nasty look in his eye” stomps up and demands some pie. They real­ize they will have to cut the pie into three pieces. Then comes anoth­er gator—four pieces. And four gators show up, “swag­ger­ing like gang­sters.” We see a pie cut into eight pieces. Then more gators—a hun­dred in all. Very tiny pieces of pie. Alice cuts the pie into one hun­dred pieces and you’d think that would be the end, but Alvin has an idea…

Per­haps we can tell this is an old­er book because it’s Alvin who’s in charge here. Alice could have had that brain­storm and if we were writ­ing this book now, she would. Still they are good friends, the math is fun, and so is end­ing up with a pie for two friends to share.

This month let’s be grate­ful for friends, for inclu­sive com­mu­ni­ty in a world rat­tled with oth­er­ing, and for the chance to make and eat pie.

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Lucille Clifton: All About Love

Lucille Clifton, poet and author

Lucille Clifton, poet and author

Poet Lucille Clifton in a 1998 inter­view “Doing What You Will Do,” pub­lished in Sleep­ing with One Eye Open: Women Writ­ers and the Art of Sur­vival, said, “I think the oral tra­di­tion is the one which is most inter­est­ing to me and the voice in which I like to speak.” Asked about the most impor­tant aspect of her craft, she answered, “For me, sound … sound, the music of a poem, the feel­ing are most impor­tant. I can feel what I can hear.”

Clifton was a poet, but as any writer or read­er or hear­er of pic­ture books knows, pic­ture books and poet­ry are kin. Both are meant to be read out loud, savored by the ear and by the tongue.  Both depend on sound, on image, on emo­tion. Every word mat­ters in a poem and in a pic­ture book. So is it any won­der that Lucille Clifton, amaz­ing poet, was also a con­sum­mate pic­ture book writer?

Some of the Days of Everett Anderson

illus­trat­ed by Eva­line Ness

Clifton’s sto­ries hon­or both the every­day lives and also the emo­tion­al lives of chil­dren. Eight of her pic­ture books are about Everett Ander­son, a fic­tion­al African-Amer­i­can boy with a sin­gle moth­er who lives in a city apart­ment, a boy so real to read­ers that chil­dren wrote him let­ters. Some of the Days of Everett Ander­son intro­duces us to Everett Ander­son and takes us through his week, with themes of miss­ing dad­dy, of mama need­ing to work, of a boy who real­izes being afraid of the dark would mean being afraid of the peo­ple he loves and even afraid of him­self.

Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming

illus­trat­ed by Eva­line Ness; a lat­er edi­tion was illus­trat­ed by Jan Spivey Gilchrist

Everett Anderson’s Christ­mas Com­ing joy­ful­ly cel­e­brates a city Christ­mas through the days of expec­ta­tion and excite­ment for a boy who lives “In 14A  … between the snow that falls on down­er lives.” He thinks about what he would want if his Dad­dy was here, and how he should try hard­er to be good, and how boys with lots of presents have to spend the whole Christ­mas day open­ing them and nev­er have fun. When a tree blooms with col­or in his apart­ment, and Everett, we see from the art, gets a drum for Christ­mas, Everett Ander­son sees how “our Christ­mas bounces off the sky and shines on all the down­er ones.”

Everett Anderson's Year

illus­trat­ed by Ann Gri­fal­coni

Everett’s Anderson’s Year takes Everett Ander­son from Jan­u­ary when his Mama tells him to walk tall in the world through the months and events of Everett’s Anderson’s year: wait­ing for Mama to come home from work, want­i­ng to make Amer­i­ca a birth­day cake except the sug­ar is almost gone and he will have to wait until pay­day to buy more, miss­ing his Dad­dy wher­ev­er he is, not under­stand­ing why he has to go back to school again, and real­iz­ing, at the end of the year

It’s just about love,”
his Mama smiles.
“It’s all about Love and
you know about that.”

Everett Anderson's Friend

illus­trat­ed by Ann Gri­fal­coni

With Everett Anderson’s Friend his world expands. A new neigh­bor in 13A turns out to be a girl who can out­run and out­play Everett at ball, and he isn’t inter­est­ed in being friends. Then one day he locks him­self out of his apart­ment, and Maria invites him in to 13A where her moth­er “makes lit­tle pies called Tacos, calls lit­tle boys Mucha­chos, and likes to thank the Dios.” Everett real­izes he and Maria can be friends even if she wins at ball. “And the friends we find are full of sur­pris­es Everett Ander­son real­izes.” A sub­tle thread through­out the sto­ry is Everett Ander­son miss­ing his father, who if he were there when Everett locks him­self out, would make peanut but­ter and jel­ly for him and not be mad at all. We don’t know where Everett’s dad­dy is, but we feel his yearn­ing for his father even as Everett dis­cov­ers a new friend. 

Everett Anderson's 1-2-3

illus­trat­ed by Ann Gri­fal­coni

His world expands again in Everett Anderson’s 1−2−3 when Everett Anderson’s mama and a new neigh­bor, Mr. Per­ry, hit it off. One can be fun, Everett thinks, but one can be lone­ly if Mama is busy talk­ing with the new neigh­bor. Everett likes just the two of them, he and Mama. Mama tells Everett that while she miss­es his dad­dy two can be lonely–and things do go on. Everett thinks he can get used to being three, but the sto­ry refus­es a pat solu­tion. 

One can be lone­ly and One can be fun, and
Two can be awful or per­fect for some, and
Three can be crowd­ed or can be just right or
Even too many, you have to decide.
Mr. Per­ry and Everett Ander­son too
Know the num­ber you need
Is the num­ber for you. 

Everett Anderson's Goodbye

illus­trat­ed by Ann Gri­fal­coni

In Everett Anderson’s Good­bye we learn that Everett’s father has died. The spare and ten­der sto­ry takes Everett through the five stages of grief list­ed at the begin­ning of the book:  denial, anger, bar­gain­ing, depres­sion and, after a while, accep­tance. In the begin­ning Everett Ander­son holds his mama’s hand and dreams of “just Dad­dy, Dad­dy for­ev­er and ever.” An angry Everett declares he doesn’t love any­body, or any­thing, and a bar­gain­ing Everett promis­es to learn his nine times nine and nev­er sleep late or gob­ble his bread if Dad­dy can be alive again. Everett can’t even sleep because “the hurt is too deep.” After some time pass­es Everett comes to accep­tance of his daddy’s death and says, “I knew my dad­dy loved me through and through, and what­ev­er hap­pens when peo­ple die, love doesn’t stop, and nei­ther will I.”

Everett Anderson's Nine Month Long

illus­trat­ed by Ann Gri­fal­coni

The library’s copy of Everett Anderson’s Nine Month Long has a splen­did sur­prise on the title page: Lucille Clifton’s sig­na­ture and the inscrip­tion, For Ian—Joy! 281. The sto­ry tells about Everett deal­ing with a com­ing new baby in the fam­i­ly and ten­der­ly shows his feel­ings, from antic­i­pa­tion to feel­ing left out. Mr. Per­ry, who is now Everett’s step­fa­ther, helps Everett know that his mama

… is still the same
Mama who loves you what­ev­er her name
and what­ev­er oth­er sis­ter or broth­er
you know you are her
spe­cial one,
her first­born Everett Ander­son.

One of the Problems of Ann Grifalconi

illus­trat­ed by Ann Gri­fal­coni

Over the course of these sto­ries Everett Ander­son grows in empa­thy and under­stand­ing. In the last book One of the Prob­lems of Everett Ander­son he wor­ries  about what to do when a friend shows up every day “with a scar or a bruise or a mark on his leg” and has the “sad­dest sad­dest face like he was lost in the loneli­est place.”  When Everett tells Mama he doesn’t know how to help his friend Greg, she lis­tens and hugs him hard and holds his hand. 

and Everett tries to under­stand
that one of the things he can do right now
is lis­ten to Greg and hug and hold
his friend, and now that Mama is told,
some­thing will hap­pen for Greg that is new.

Some­times the lit­tle things that you do
make a dif­fer­ence.
Everett Ander­son hopes that’s true.

Clifton’s sto­ries rec­og­nize that not all prob­lems are eas­i­ly solved, but in the del­i­cate strength of this telling, Everett learns that doing lit­tle things might make a dif­fer­ence for his friend. We hope so, too.

From 1970 until her death in 2010 Lucille Clifton made poet­ry of every­day lives and hearts. Read some of the books of Lucille Clifton. Read them all.

They’re all about love, and we know about that.

P.S. Anoth­er month we want to share some of the oth­er won­der­ful children’s books by Lucille Clifton.

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Taking Time for a Close Look

Jack­ie: Searching for Minnesota's Native WildflowersPhyl­lis is on the road with her beau­ti­ful and infor­ma­tive new book Search­ing for Minnesota’s Native Wild­flow­ers. [While Phyl­lis is out of the room, I will say that I love this book. It makes me want to get out and find flow­ers. Iowa has many plants in com­mon with Min­neso­ta and I look for­ward to tromp­ing with Phyl­lis and Kel­ly.)

Search­ing for Minnesota’s Native Wild­flow­ers puts me in mind of April Pul­ley Sayre’s won­der­ful nature books. She’s writ­ten many, but today I want to focus on a few of her bird books, plus one.

My first encounter with Sayre’s writ­ing was Vul­ture View (illus­trat­ed by Steve Jenk­ins, 2007). Sayre cap­tures the lives of vul­tures in few words.

Vulture ViewWings stretch wide
To catch a ride
On warm­ing air.
Going where?
Up, up!
Turkey vul­tures tilt, soar, scan
To find the food that vul­tures can…
…eat.

Vul­tures like a mess.
They land and dine.
Rot­ten is fine.   

We see them eat­ing, clean­ing, preen­ing, and sleep­ing. Then the sto­ry cir­cles back to the begin­ning as the sun comes up and “Wings stretch wide/to catch a ride.”

We learn all we need to know to appre­ci­ate vul­tures in these terse rhymes. And if we want to know more, the book has two dense pages of back mat­ter. Turkey vul­tures are easy to spot, range—in the summer—all over the east­ern U.S. They would be a great bird for begin­ning bird­ers to study.

Woodpecker Wham!In 2015 Sayre took a look at wood­peck­ers—Wood­peck­er Wham! (illus­trat­ed by Steve Jenk­ins). Once again, the birds’ sto­ry is told with quick, live­ly rhymes:

Swoop and land.
Hitch and hop.
Shred a tree stump.
CHOP, CHIP, CHOP!

In the case of this book, dessert comes first. Steve Jenkins’s gor­geous cut and torn paper col­lages com­bine with April Pul­ley Sayre’s rhyth­mic telling of wood­peck­ers’ lives to keep us turn­ing pages until we get to the back matter—six pages packed with addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion about wood­peck­ers. “How do wood­peck­ers know where to dig? First the wood­peck­er taps the tree. This caus­es insects inside to move. The wood­peck­er hears the move­ment or feels the vibra­tions through its bill.” Sayre also tells read­ers how they can help wood­peck­ers. “Plant bush­es, trees, and cac­ti that sup­ply fruits and nuts.

And she pro­vides tips on how to find wood­peck­ers. 

This books is a sim­ple and thor­ough intro­duc­tion to wood­peck­ers. Per­fect pre­lude to a walk in the woods.

Warbler WaveAnd just this year Beach Lane books has pub­lished War­bler Wave, an amaz­ing book about war­blers with pho­tographs tak­en by Sayre and her hus­band. I have trou­ble iden­ti­fy­ing war­blers with binoc­u­lars. I am amazed that April and Jeff Sayre were not only able to spot these busy birds but spot them long enough to pho­to­graph them.

I want to quote the entire book but will leave you to find that plea­sure. We learn that they fly at night, cross oceans, “Then bedrag­gled, they drop. /A refu­el­ing stop. /They must find food/ or die.” Then fol­lows a few pages of stun­ning pho­tographs. “They flit, like fly­ing flow­ers.”  They snag insects and are on their way north again.

For those who want to learn more about war­blers, there are again six fact-packed pages con­cern­ing war­bler life his­to­ry, how to help war­blers, and the impor­tance of war­blers. “War­blers and oth­er migrat­ing birds cross moun­tains, oceans, and human polit­i­cal bound­aries. …Their beau­ti­ful songs, col­or­ful pat­terns, and sea­son­al arrival bring joy to peo­ple from Alas­ka to Peru. Whether you live in North Amer­i­ca, South Amer­i­ca, or the Caribbean, you can help wel­come the war­blers and share in this nat­ur­al con­nec­tion between diverse habi­tats, wild birds, and peo­ple.”

The book was a labor of love. April Sayre writes in the Acknowl­edg­ments sec­tion “For twen­ty-eight years, my hus­band, Jeff, and I have set aside the first cou­ple weeks of May to cel­e­brate war­bler migra­tion. So, it’s extra spe­cial to me that he’s joined me by tak­ing some of the pho­tos and review­ing text for this book about our shared love: war­blers.”

Raindrops RollFinal­ly, anoth­er book with April Sayre’s stun­ning pho­tographs Rain­drops Roll (2015). The book opens with a tree frog look­ing quite philo­soph­i­cal about rain. (A pho­to­graph Sayre notes that was tak­en by her hus­band). We see a drenched blue jay, rain drops on leaves, petals, pump­kins, even a moth.

These books make me want to get out­side, to look, to see again what I have been miss­ing.

I hope—and I know Phyl­lis joins me in this—that you have that kind of sum­mer, that you are stunned by the beau­ty in your neigh­bor­hood, see again and see anew.

We’ll be back with more books in the fall.

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Summoning Spring

Jack­ie: Spring is a lit­tle late com­ing to the Mid­west this year. But we can remem­ber sun­ny days with vio­lets and tril­li­um bloom­ing and rainy days that turn the grass green (instead of the snow we con­tin­ue to get in mid-April). Rainy days make us think of ducks and we are going to beck­on reluc­tant spring with sto­ries of ducks.

In the Rain with Baby Duck I want to start with an old favorite In the Rain with Baby Duck by Amy Hest, with illus­tra­tions by Jill Bar­ton. This is one of those books I wish I had writ­ten. The sto­ry sets up the prob­lem imme­di­ate­ly. Baby Duck has to go out in the rain. She hates the rain. But at the end of the walk are pancakes—and Grand­pa. Baby Duck loves both pan­cakes and Grand­pa as much as she hates the rain.

And the lan­guage is so much fun! First there’s the sound of rain, “Pit pat. Pit-a-pat. Pit-a-pit-a-pat.” And then there are the verbs: Mama Duck and Papa Duck love the rain. They wad­dled, and shim­mied, and hopped. Baby Duck hates the rain that brings wet feet, wet face, mud. She daw­dled and dal­lied and pout­ed.

Leave it to Grand­pa to solve the prob­lem with a trip to the attic. Once she’s equipped Baby Duck and Grand­pa go out in the rain. And Baby Duck and Grand­pa wad­dled and shim­mied, and hopped in all the pud­dles.

I need new boots.

Phyl­lis: Jack­ie, if Amy hadn’t writ­ten this book, and if you hadn’t writ­ten it either, I would have want­ed to have writ­ten it. I, too, love this book for its lan­guage, its won­der­ful rhythms and verbs, and its under­stand­ing Grand­pa who remem­bers what Mama Duck has for­got­ten, that she, too, once didn’t like rain.  And of course, I love pan­cake Sun­day. My red rub­ber boots are still going strong, and once the rain comes down (rain, not snow), I plan to go splash in some pud­dles.

The Tale of Jemima Puddle-duckJack­ie: Beat­rix Pot­ter can help us sum­mon spring. Jemi­ma Pud­dle-duck wants to hatch her own eggs, instead of let­ting one of the farm hens sit on them. “I will sit on them all by myself,” she says. And she leaves the farm to make a nest in the wood. “Jemi­ma Pud­dle-duck was not much in the habit of fly­ing,” but she man­ages to get up over the tree­tops and flies to an open place in the woods. She encoun­ters an “ele­gant, well-dressed gen­tle­man” with two black ears and a long full tail. We are told “Jemi­ma Pud­dle-duck was a sim­ple­ton.” And we see that in action as she agrees that the gen­tle­man has a won­der­ful spot for a nest in a wood­shed full of feath­ers. Nor does Jemi­ma sus­pect any­thing after the eggs are laid, when the “gen­tle­man” sug­gests they share a meal. He asks Jemi­ma to pro­vide from the farm two onions and var­i­ous herbs. While gath­er­ing these sup­plies she runs into the farm dog Kep, who is not a sim­ple­ton. And Jemi­ma is saved from her impend­ing doom by Kep and two fox­hound pup­pies. Unfor­tu­nate­ly the pup­pies eat the eggs before Kep can stop them. Jemi­ma goes back to the farm and even­tu­al­ly hatch­es four duck­lings. I love this sto­ry. There’s such fun in know­ing more than the char­ac­ters in the sto­ry.  And we can sym­pa­thize with Jemima’s wish to do it her­self, even if she’s not quite up to it on her own. Per­haps the best part of the sto­ry for me is Kep, whose nature seems to be to watch over the sim­ple­tons.  We need more of Keps in our world.

Phyl­lis: Along with the accu­rate and beau­ti­ful water­col­ors, Beat­rix Potter’s won­der­ful lan­guage evokes the coun­try­side of her time so vivid­ly:  the two bro­ken buck­ets on top of each oth­er for the “gentleman’s” chim­ney, the “tum­ble­down shed make of old soap box­es.” I sym­pa­thize with Jemi­ma, who wants to hatch her eggs her­self and who, although we are told she is a sim­ple­ton, seems guilty main­ly of igno­rance and inno­cent trust. Our fam­i­ly once fos­tered a duck­ling for a month that had hatched lat­er than its fel­low egglings, and it was indeed a sweet and trust­ing duck­ling who fol­lowed us every­where, peep­ing wild­ly if left alone.  Pot­ter is also unsen­ti­men­tal in her assess­ment of farm life:  when Jemi­ma final­ly does get to sit her own eggs, we learn that she is not real­ly much of a sit­ter after all, but she looks con­tent with her own four duck­lings, hatched by her­self in the safe­ty of the farm­yard, under the pro­tec­tion of Kep.

Duck! Rabbit!Jack­ie: Last April we cel­e­brat­ed the work of Amy Krouse Rosen­thal, who had recent­ly died. We want to hon­or her again with a look at Duck, Rab­bit. This book is such a fun exer­cise in per­spec­tive, thanks to illus­tra­tor Tom Licht­en­held. “Hey, look! A duck!” And we see long bill, slight­ly open, oval head and eye.

That’s not a duck./ That’s a rab­bit.” And what had been the duck bill becomes the rabbit’s ears, the rab­bit is look­ing in the oppo­site direc­tion. Turn the page and the illus­tra­tion is the same, but the con­ver­sa­tion con­tin­ues. “Are you kid­ding me?/It’s total­ly a duck.”

It’s for sure a rab­bit.”

The two con­tin­ue. Is the ani­mal cool­ing its long ears or get­ting a drink in the pond? Is it fly­ing or hop­ping? Then the argu­ment caus­es the crea­ture to leave. And the two reverse (what could be more fun?) “You know, maybe you were right./Maybe it was a rab­bit.”

Thing is, now I’m actually/thinking it was a duck.”

This sto­ry is so much fun. I can imag­ine that it would spark many dis­cus­sions and exper­i­ments about objects or crea­tures that could be eas­i­ly tak­en for oth­er objects or crea­tures.

Phyl­lis:  The book itself is its own exer­cise in tricks of per­cep­tion and point of view:  it’s all in how you inter­pret what you see and where you see it from.  And the book ends with a won­der­ful twist:  each voice hav­ing con­ced­ed that per­haps the oth­er is right after all, one says,

Well, anyway…now what do you want to do?”

I don’t know.  What do you want to do?”

Hey, look! An anteater!”

Thant’s not an anteater. That’s a bra­chiosaurus!”

This bold and clever book makes me smile. All win­ter I’ve been watch­ing the city bun­nies in my back yard (who have eat­en my rasp­ber­ry canes down to the top of the snow).  Now maybe I’ll look out and find they have turned into ducks.

Jack­ie: There are so many duck sto­ries. Of course, Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Duck­lings is the clas­sic.

The Ugly DucklingAnd if it’s not a clas­sic already, Jer­ry Pinkney’s The Ugly Duck­ling soon will be. His inter­pre­ta­tion of the Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­son fairy tale takes us so close to the Mama duck’s nest and the new duck­lings, it’s as if we are stand­ing in the barn­yard. We know the story—the biggest duck­ling is so ugly that even­tu­al­ly even his broth­ers and sis­ters chase him and taunt him. He leaves, only to encounter hunters, and dogs with huge mouths. Even­tu­al­ly he finds tem­po­rary shel­ter in the bro­ken-down cab­in of an old woman who has a cat and a hen. The ani­mals can’t under­stand anoth­er who nei­ther lays eggs or purrs but they don’t chase after him. After three weeks the duck­ling leaves to find water to swim in. When icy win­ter freezes him into the ice he is res­cued by a kind man who takes him home to his warm cab­in and chil­dren. The chil­dren want to play, but the duck­ling, hav­ing seen most­ly taunts and cru­el­ty, does not rec­og­nize play and runs away. Pinkney does not dwell on the rest of the win­ter, except to say it was mis­er­able. Relief comes in the spring when the “duck­ling” finds a home with his own kind, the swans. There are many ver­sions of this sto­ry but this is my favorite. Pinkney takes the sto­ry so seri­ous­ly. His ducks are real ducks and he wants us to notice them and the cat and the hen.  He grabs our atten­tion with his own atten­tion to the details of these crea­tures’ lives. He makes them real while also imbu­ing them with the human char­ac­ter­is­tics of judg­ment, cru­el­ty, curios­i­ty, and even kind­ness.

Phyl­lis: And who doesn’t want to find fel­low crea­tures and be rec­og­nized just for being their own self?

The ugly duckling’s moth­er loves him so much she gives up her bath to sit on his egg after her oth­er eggs have hatched, and she fierce­ly tries to pro­tect him from the oth­er barn­yard ani­mals. But even a mother’s love can’t always con­quer prej­u­dice and nei­ther is the world kind. Our hearts hurt for the “duckling’s” suf­fer­ings and are immense­ly sat­is­fied when he finds his own place in the world.

DuckA few oth­er duck books among a flock of them, Duck by author and illus­tra­tor Randy Cecil, about a carousel duck who longs to fly and who  ends up fos­ter­ing a lit­tle lost duck­ling. Duck real­izes it’s up to him to teach the lit­tle duck­ling how to fly, but his lessons are only part­ly suc­cess­ful, so she straps Duck­ling to her back with her scarf and walks off to find the ones “who could teach Duck­ling what she could not.” When they do find a flock of ducks, the ducks take off, and the lit­tle duck­ling flies up to join them. But Duck, still strapped to Duck­ling, weighs Duck­ling down and real­izes she must lit­er­al­ly let duck­ling go.  She frees her­self from the scarf, duck­ling goes up, duck does down down down. The ducks fly away, a scarf­less duck limps home, and the long win­ter com­mences, with so much snow duck that almost dis­ap­pears in the drifts. Come spring, a grown-up duck wear­ing a scarf returns with his flock and takes duck on his back. 

The book ends with the immense­ly sat­is­fy­ing last line: “And final­ly Duck knew what it was to fly.”

Cold Little Duck, Duck, DuckCold Lit­tle Duck Duck Duck by Lisa West­berg Peters, with illus­tra­tions by Sam Williams, tells a rhyth­mic and rhyming sto­ry of a duck who comes a lit­tle too ear­ly in a mis­er­able and frozen spring,  and her feet freeze to the ice. She warms her­self with thoughts of spring:  bub­bly streams, glassy pud­dles, wig­gly worms, shiny bee­tles, cro­cus­es and apples buds and blades of grass and squishy mud.  By the time a vee of ducks fly in to join her, the ice is melt­ing, and the lit­tle duck dives into spring. With many won­der­ful rep­e­ti­tions of con­so­nant sounds—quick quick quick, blink blink blink, creak creak creak—the book is a delight to read aloud.

And, like the cold lit­tle duck duck duck, we might be find­ing spring right now as well. The snow out­side my win­dow has almost melt­ed, the first wild­flow­ers are bloom­ing, and our hearts are hap­py in the sun­shine. Good work, ducks. Thanks, thanks, thanks!

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Dearie Darling Cuddle Hug: A Tribute to Wendy Watson

Father Fox's PennyrhymesWhen our chil­dren were young we both spent many hours with them pour­ing over Wendy Wat­son’s illus­tra­tions for her sis­ter Clyde’s rhymes in Father Fox’s Pen­nyrhymes and delight­ing in the sounds and the silli­ness of the rhymes them­selves. We felt as though we had lost a per­son­al friend when Wendy Wat­son died, even though we had nev­er met her.

Here’s just one pen­nyrhyme:

Mis­ter Lis­ter sassed his sis­ter
Mar­ried his wife ‘cause he couldn’t resist her,
Three plus four times two he kissed her:
How many times is that, dear sis­ter?

The illus­tra­tions wel­comed us into Father Fox’s fam­i­ly, a large rol­lick­ing cre­ative crew in a house filled with writ­ing, art, music, and chil­dren, much like the Wat­son fam­i­ly. Clyde has said that their father was the orig­i­nal Father Fox, and Wendy wrote of the art, “Many fox­es wear favorite gar­ments that still hang in clos­ets in Put­ney; and spe­cial fam­i­ly occu­pa­tions and times of the year and occa­sions are in almost every poem and pic­ture.” In the pic­tures (and per­haps in the clos­ets) the clothes are patched show­ing both wear and care.

Small sto­ries unfold in the illus­tra­tions.

You might read,

Som­er­sault & Pep­per-upper
Sim­mer down and eat your sup­per,
Arti­chokes & Mus­tard Pick­le
Two for a dime or six for a nick­el.

Mean­while in four pan­els on a dou­ble-page spread, a horse gal­lops by draw­ing a coach piled high with bun­dles, a fid­dle case, and a young fox rid­ing on top. The coach hits a bump, the salt shak­er falls out the win­dow, a bowl of sup­per falls on the coach dri­ver, and, leav­ing bits and pieces behind, the coach dri­ves on.

Wendy WatsonWhen Wendy had chil­dren of her own she often hid famil­iar things in her art that only they would know, “like dish­es that we owned or fur­ni­ture.”

Our friend Liza Ketchum, who knew Wendy very well, said that the time she spent on each draw­ing was incred­i­ble. In a draw­ing of a coun­try store you can find boots, slip­pers, pots, pans, paint­brush­es, pen­ny can­dy, even bolts of fab­ric and a horse col­lar.

 “Wendy had a throaty laugh that was just won­der­ful,” Liza told us, “and she cared so much about every­thing. When she could not take her cat on an air­plane, she drove cross-coun­try with her cat instead.”

Bedtime BunniesWendy wrote and illus­trat­ed twen­ty-one books for chil­dren and illus­trat­ed over six­ty books by oth­er authors. We could say so much more about so many of her books that we love, (you can read a list and descrip­tions of her pub­lished books), but we have to share one more of our favorites, Bed­time Bun­nies. The bun­ny par­ents call to five lit­tle bun­nies, “Bed­time, bun­nies.” The heart of this spar­e­ly writ­ten book is verbs, four to a spread—skip, scam­per, scur­ry, hop—while the art shows the bun­nies com­ing in for the night, hav­ing sup­per, brush­ing their teeth—Squirt Scrub Splut­ter Spit—taking a bath, get­ting into their paja­mas, hear­ing a sto­ry, get­ting into bed—climb bounce jump thump, and get­ting tucked in—Dearie Dar­ling Cud­dle Hug. The book ends with “Good­night, Bun­nies.”

The illus­tra­tions are spare but full of expres­sion and love, and the col­or palette is soft and warm, with yel­lows, ros­es, green, blues. In each of the live­ly pic­tures the lit­tlest bun­ny does things in their unique style. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this bun­ny fam­i­ly, or Father Fox’s fam­i­ly? It’s as if Wendy Wat­son is call­ing to us—Dearie Dar­ling Cud­dle Hug. Each time we open one of her books, we are invit­ed in to her warm cir­cle of fam­i­ly. And that will nev­er change.

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Spend the Day with Arnold Lobel

Arnold Lobel

Arnold Lobel

Phyl­lis: Feb­ru­ary is the month of valen­tines and lovers, and we spent a day (through his books) with some­one we love: Arnold Lobel.

He wrote easy read­er sto­ries that help chil­dren crack the code of read­ing, give them fun sto­ries with char­ac­ters who remind us of peo­ple we know and that give read­ers of all ages plen­ty to think about. In his fifty-four years, he illus­trat­ed almost a hun­dred children’s sto­ries and wrote many of them.

An edi­tor once, when asked if Arnold Lobel was more like Frog or Toad, respond­ed, after think­ing about it, that he is more like Owl.

Owl at HomeJack­ie: Some­times I read Owl at Home just to myself. What do we love about owl? Owl is always on the edge of sad­ness. He has a young child’s par­tial under­stand­ing of the world. Kids can see them­selves in Owl—and some­times they can see that they even know more than owl. Part of the joy of the sto­ry “Strange Bumps” is that kids know what the bumps are. When the two strange bumps at the foot of Owl’s bed obsess him, Owl looks under cov­ers. No bumps. He pulls the cov­ers back up and there are the bumps. He jumps up and down yelling, “Bumps. Bumps. Bumps, I will nev­er sleep tonight.” And when the bed col­laps­es, he leaves it to the bumps and goes down­stairs to sleep in a chair. He nev­er iden­ti­fies the bumps. But read­ers do.

Phyl­lis: “Tear­wa­ter Tea” is anoth­er sto­ry that always sat­is­fies. One after­noon Owl decides to brew a pot of tear­wa­ter tea. He thinks of things that are sad– chairs with bro­ken legs, songs that can­not be sung because the words are for­got­ten, books that can­not be read because some of the pages have been torn out. After a while he has accu­mu­lat­ed suf­fi­cient tears. He puts his tea ket­tle on and makes the tea. That cheers him up because, even though it tastes salty, “Tear­wa­ter tea is always very good.”

In the last sto­ry, the moon seems to fol­low Owl home despite his protes­ta­tions that he has noth­ing to give the moon for sup­per and has a very small house. When the moon dis­ap­pears behind a cloud, he says, “It is always a lit­tle sad to say good-bye to a friend.” But the moon reap­pears at his win­dow and Owl says, “Moon you have fol­lowed me home, what a good round friend you are.” Owl doesn’t feel sad at all In these brief chap­ters. So, Owl goes through sad­ness to the oth­er side. A pro­gres­sion.

Frog and Toad Are FriendsJack­ie: When we read the Frog and Toad sto­ries to our chil­dren we read them with joy and the plea­sure of shar­ing with our kids and didn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly look deep­er into them. The Frog and Toad books are a primer on the ups and downs of friendship—including the foibles and quib­bles of being a good friend. In “Spring” (Frog and Toad are Friends) Frog tricks Toad into wak­ing up ear­ly from his win­ter nap because Frog is lone­ly with­out Toad. Frog is not above laugh­ing at his friend. In “A Swim” (Frog and Toad are Friends) Toad refus­es to come out of the water because, he says, “I do not want [any­one] to see me in my bathing suit.” He is wor­ried they will laugh. Even­tu­al­ly the tur­tle, lizard, snake, drag­on­flies, and a field mouse sit on the river­bank wait­ing to see if toad looks fun­ny. Even­tu­al­ly Toad has to come out of the water. He is catch­ing cold. As Toad pre­dict­ed, every­one laughs, includ­ing Frog, who says “You do look fun­ny in your bathing suit.” “’Of course I do,’ said Toad, and he picked up his clothes and went home.”

They don’t always see eye to amphib­ian eye. In “Cook­ies” (Frog and Toad Are Friends) Frog, in pur­suit of willpow­er so as not to eat all the cook­ies Toad has baked, ends up giv­ing them to the birds. “Toad goes into the house to bake a cake.”

Phyl­lis: And who doesn’t rec­og­nize them­selves in “The List,” where, when the list blows away, Toad claims he can’t run after it because “Run­ning after my list is not one of the things I wrote on my list of things to do?”

In “The Sto­ry” (Frog and Toad Are Friends) Frog is sick (“look­ing quite green”) and he asks Toad for a sto­ry. Writ­ers will rec­og­nize what Toad does when he can­not think of a sto­ry. He walks up and down, he stands on his head, he pours a glass of water over his head, but he still can­not think of a sto­ry. He bangs his head against the wall. By then Frog feels bet­ter, Toad feels worse and asks Frog for a sto­ry. Frog tells Toad the sto­ry of the Toad who could not think of a sto­ry. We can’t help but think this delight­ful tale is per­haps based on a day when Lobel could not think of a sto­ry.

Frog and Toad TogetherIn “The Dream (Frog and Toad Togeth­er),” Toad has a dream where he can­not fail. He plays the piano, he dances, he walks on the high wire while a voice pro­claims that he is “The Great­est Toad in the World.” Each time he asks Frog if he, too, could do these won­der­ful things. Each time Frog says no and shrinks a bit until Toad says, ”Frog, can you be as won­der­ful as this?” There is no answer. Frog has shrunk so small that he can­not be seen or heard. Toad shouts at the voice pro­claim­ing his great­ness to shut up and says, “Come back Frog. I will be lone­ly.” He is des­per­ate. Then Toad wakes from his dream to see Frog, who says, “I am right here, Toad.” “I am so glad you came over,” says Toad. “I always do,” said Frog.

Forty years lat­er their friend­ship is still com­fort­ing to read­ers of all ages.

Uncle ElephantJack­ie: We can’t leave this appre­ci­a­tion with­out a men­tion of Uncle Ele­phant, in which a wise Uncle Ele­phant com­forts his lone­ly ele­phant nephew when his father and moth­er do not come back from sea. On the train to Uncle Elephant’s, they eat peanuts, count hous­es and tele­phone poles, and final­ly peanut shells, which are much eas­i­er to count. Uncle Ele­phant intro­duces his nephew to the flow­ers in his gar­den, his favorite place in the world. They make crowns of flow­ers and trum­pet the dawn togeth­er. Uncle Ele­phant tells him a sto­ry about a king with many wrin­kles and a prince who was young and smart. When they meet a lion, they trum­pet so loud­ly every one of the lion’s teeth pop out. When lit­tle ele­phant gets sad, Uncle Ele­phant puts on all his clothes at once to make the lit­tle ele­phant smile. They end up laugh­ing so hard at the “pile of clothes with two ears” that they for­get to feel sad. They sing a song togeth­er, and they dance for joy when lit­tle elephant’s moth­er and father are found and return home. On the train Uncle Ele­phant counts the won­der­ful days that they had spent togeth­er, and they promise to see each oth­er often. Uncle Ele­phant is the calmest, best-lis­ten­ing uncle ever there was. He hears what the lit­tle ele­phant can’t even say about fear and sad­ness.

Charlie & MousePhyl­lis: He offers small com­forts in the face of great of loss. We hope you all get to spend a day with Arnold Lobel and Frog and Toad and Grasshop­per and Owl and Mouse and Uncle Elephant—soon—for silli­ness and com­fort and friend­ship.

Side­bar: We just want to men­tion sto­ries writ­ten in the same spir­it as Arnold Lobel’s sto­ries, Char­lie and Mouse, easy read­ers by Lau­rel Sny­der, which was just named win­ner of the Geisel Medal, the ALA prize for Best Easy Read­er of 2017.

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Let It Snow!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack­ie: This is grat­i­tude sea­son and that is a good reminder. Many of us have plen­ty to be grate­ful for and we often for­get that while wait­ing for the next good things. It’s also Pie Sea­son. It is the one time of the year at my house when we have no holds barred on pie. Every­one gets to have a favorite at Thanks­giv­ing. Pie for din­ner, pie for break­fast (the best!). So Phyl­lis and I decid­ed to find some pie books.

How to Make a Pie and See the WorldOne book that I wish I had writ­ten is Mar­jorie Priceman’s How To Make Apple Pie and See the World (Pen­guin, Ran­dom House, 1994; paper­back, 2008). This is a delight­ful sto­ry of gath­er­ing the ingre­di­ents for apple pie and then mak­ing the pie and shar­ing with friends. This book can be used to teach math (frac­tions in the recipe), geog­ra­phy (of course), and pie-mak­ing. And, more impor­tant­ly, it’s fun. The lan­guage is live­ly and orig­i­nal. After prepar­ing for the trip by find­ing a “shop­ping list and walk­ing shoes,” get on a boat. Go to Italy for semoli­na wheat, then to France. In France, “locate a chick­en. French chick­ens lay ele­gant eggs.” “Make the acquain­tance of a cow” in Eng­land. The cow and the chick­en accom­pa­ny our intre­pid pie-mak­er for the rest of the book as she gets bark for cin­na­mon from Sri Lan­ka, sug­ar cane from Jamaica, salt from the ocean, and “eight rosy apples” from Ver­mont.

Phyl­lis: There’s so much to love in this book (which I, too, wish I had writ­ten): the sources of our food which we often take for grant­ed, the friends the lit­tle girl makes as she trav­els the world, the resilience of find­ing what you need (and, in a twist at the end, mak­ing do with­out the ice cream), the treat­ment of ani­mals who give us milk and eggs, the humor of the art, which shows the pilot drop­ping the lit­tle girl off in Ver­mont by means of a para­chute, the inter­con­nect­ed­ness of what we eat. It makes me want to bake a pie her way, and it also makes me grate­ful for the gro­cery store and farmer’s mar­ket.

Gator PieJack­ie: Anoth­er long-time favorite of mine is Gator Pie by Louise Math­ews with illus­tra­tions by Jeni Bas­sett (Dodd, Mead, 1979). Alvin and Alice are gator friends who live in a swamp. One day they find a love­ly pie. They decide to share, but before Alice can cut two halves anoth­er alli­ga­tor comes up and demands a share. Now Alice must cut the pie in thirds. And Alvin is not too hap­py about shar­ing. It gets worse—Alvin thinks he’ll get a quar­ter of the pie, then an eighth and final­ly one one-hun­dredth. Then he gets a bril­liant idea. And he and Alice get to share the pie them­selves. The illus­tra­tions make this book delight­ful. The sub­ject mat­ter makes it per­fect for talk­ing about how frac­tions work.

Phyl­lis: Because we are often look­ing at old­er books (I remem­ber read­ing this one to my now-grown kids when they were lit­tle), we some­times have prob­lems putting our hands on those books. Some reside on our book­shelves, some are avail­able through inter­li­brary loan, some we find online, and on occa­sion, if one of us has a copy but the oth­er can’t find it, we read the sto­ry to each oth­er on Skype. This time, because Gator Pie hadn’t yet arrived at my local library from anoth­er library, I watched a YouTube video of a young boy read­ing with his father, who helped his son when he wasn’t sure of a word. At one point, the boy grins at his father and says, “Excuse me, I drooled.” I love think­ing that a book about a pie was so deli­cious that it made the boy’s mouth water, but I love more see­ing the ten­der inter­ac­tion between child and par­ent and book. This is why we write, for those con­nec­tions.

Bring Me Some Apples and I'll Make You a PieJack­ie: Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie by Rob­bin Gour­ley (Clar­i­on, 2009) fea­tures Edna Lewis, African Amer­i­can chef who wrote sev­er­al cook­books “teach­ing peo­ple how to pre­pare food in the south­ern region­al style.” This book focus­es on Edna’s child­hood and imag­ines Edna and her fam­i­ly gath­er­ing the foods of the sea­son: wild straw­ber­ries and fresh greens in the spring­time; hon­ey, cher­ries, and black­ber­ries in the sum­mer. The round fruits—peaches and tomatoes—fill sum­mer bas­kets and box­es. Corn for corn­bread, water­mel­ons, but­ter beans (“’We’re rich as kings as long as we have beans,’ says Mama.”) and mus­ca­dine grapes fin­ish out the sum­mer. Back to school sea­son means apples for pie and apple crisp. This is a book to remind us to savor the foods of our area. Read­ing it will make you hungry—and make you want to get out bowl and spoon, flour and fruit, and cook some­thing.

Phyl­lis: Which you can do with this book, because it ends with an author’s note and some mouth-water­ing recipes. It’s a book, too, rich in fam­i­ly and lan­guage. Mama says, ‘Bet­ter hur­ry! You’ll need to out­run the rab­bits to get the berries.” Dad­dy says to fill as many bas­kets as they can because the larder’s emp­ty. When Aun­tie helps Edna and her lit­tle sis­ter gath­er wild greens, she says, “A fresh crisp sal­ad to nour­ish the heart and soul as well as the body.” Broth­er helps gath­er cher­ries and black­ber­ries. When the fam­i­ly gath­ers round to find the per­fect mel­on, Granny says, “Mel­ons are just like friends. Got­ta try ten before you get a good one.” Sas­safras roots tossed up by the plow will fla­vor root beer. Water­mel­on rind will become pick­les. As Edna sur­veys the cel­lar packed with good things, she says, “You can nev­er have too much sum­mer.” When I look at the wealth of squash and onions and gar­lic and pota­toes piled high on my counter from my CSA farm share, I agree with Edna. And you can nev­er have too many books as deli­cious as this one.

Enemy PieJack­ie: Final­ly, we want to look at a charm­ing book that uses pie to solve a prob­lem–Ene­my Pie by Derek Mun­son and illus­trat­ed by Tara Cala­han King (Chron­i­cle, 2000). When Jere­my Ross moves into the narrator’s neigh­bor­hood, things start to go bad. Jere­my laughs at the nar­ra­tor when Jere­my strikes him out in a base­ball game, Jere­my didn’t invite him to a par­ty at his house. Jere­my Ross became the top—and only name—on the new “ene­my list.” But Dad has the answer, Ene­my Pie. What goes into Ene­my Pie? Dad won’t tell. The boy brings his dad weeds, no need. He brings earth­worms and rocks, used gum. Not in the recipe. Dad says the oth­er impor­tant part of Ene­my Pie is that the boy has to spend a day with the ene­my. Dad says, “Even worse you have to be nice to him. It’s not easy. But that’s the only way Ene­my Pie can work. Are you sure you want to go through with this?”

So the boy spends one day with Jere­my Ross to get him “out of my hair for the rest of my life.” By the end of the day, when it’s time for Ene­my Pie, the boy tries to pre­vent Jere­my from eat­ing it. By then he doesn’t want him to eat the awful pie. But Dad was eat­ing. Then Jere­my took a bite. Would their hair fall out? It turned out that Ene­my Pie was deli­cious!

This is such a sweet book, with a won­der­ful pie-mak­ing Dad, and a boy who learns that ene­mies don’t always stay ene­mies.

Hap­py pie-bak­ing to all. I’m eager for fruit pie. What’s your favorite Phyl­lis?

Phyl­lis: Pump­kin is lus­cious, but one of the best pies I ever tast­ed was on a road trip in Canada—bumbleberry pie, which I think might be made of all the fruit pie fruits in one.

How­ev­er you slice it, we love pie and pie books. We hope your hous­es are rich as kings in books and pies this sea­son.

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The Funny and the Heart

Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Amy Krouse Rosen­thal

Jack­ie: Recent­ly Phyl­lis and I read a heart-break­ing col­umn in The New York Times, writ­ten by author Amy Krouse Rosen­thal, who wrote many children’s books, and a cou­ple of books for adults.

The col­umn, writ­ten as a love-note to her hus­band from a dying wife, was heart­felt, sad, and fun­ny all at the same time. We both wished we had known Amy Krouse Rosen­thal. But it was too late. We looked at a few of her books and found the fun­ny and the heart that char­ac­ter­ized that col­umn.

As a way of pay­ing trib­ute, we want to share just a few of her books with you. And I should add that we both want to do this but Phyl­lis is out tramp­ing around after Min­neso­ta wild­flow­ers for a book project so I am on my own this month. I will miss my big-heart­ed friend in writ­ing a col­umn about anoth­er writer with heart, but will do my best.

Yes Day!Humor and heart char­ac­ter­ize all the Amy Krouse Rosen­thal books I have read. A favorite of my grand­chil­dren is Yes Day! Once a year the exu­ber­ant child in this book wakes up to a day in which his par­ents answer all his ques­tions with, “Yes.”

Can I please have piz­za for break­fast?” Turn the page and he is about to enjoy what we know to be, because it’s steam­ing with fla­vor, deli­cious sausage piz­za.

Can I use your hair gel?” Turn the page and the fam­i­ly is pos­ing for a por­trait with our hero stand­ing in front with superbly spiked hair.

Can I clean my room tomor­row?” Yes. Or pick all the cere­als?  And we see in the gro­cery cart Puffed Sug­ar Cere­al, Marsh­mal­low Fluff cere­al (“with bits of actu­al cere­al”), Hot Fudge Sun­dae Flakes (“1 whole oat per serv­ing”).  There are no bad wish­es. Mario can come for din­ner. Our hero can stay up real­ly late. And on the last two pages we see the Yes Day cel­e­brant lying on the ground,  under the stars with his Dad. “Does this day have to end? We know the answer. But his last words are “See you again next year!”

This pic­ture book is so sat­is­fy­ing. Our grand­daugh­ter Ella is sev­en and enjoys the Har­ry Pot­ter books, Bev­er­ly Cleary books, as well as many graph­ic nov­els. But she loved this book, too. And sat through repeat­ed read­ings, laugh­ing at all the jokes.

ChopsticksElla also loved Chop­sticks. This sto­ry of the friend­ship of two chop­sticks is loaded with visu­al and ver­bal puns. “They go every­where togeth­er. They do every­thing togeth­er.” Until one of them snapped. “Chop­stick was quick­ly whisked away,” car­ried by a kitchen whisk. “The oth­ers all wait­ed qui­et­ly. /No one stirred,/ not even Spoon.”

When Chop­stick returns from his surgery, he tells his friend to go off, have adven­tures on his own. One of his hilar­i­ous adven­tures is con­duct­ing an orches­tra of kitchen imple­ments. The turkey baster plays French horn, a fork plays an oven ther­mome­ter that looks like a bas­soon. Who could not love this page?

Who could not love this book which ends with the chop­sticks play­ing “Chop­sticks” on the piano?

Exclamation PointAmy Krouse Rosen­thal had a light touch with seri­ous sub­jects, too. Excla­ma­tion Mark is the sto­ry of a punc­tu­a­tion mark that does not fit in. Hilar­i­ous already, right?  The text and illus­tra­tions appear on what looks like the wide-lined school paper of the ear­ly grades. The book begins “He stood out from the very beginning—on the next page we see a row of cir­cle-drawn peri­ods with lit­tle faces and one peri­od with a long line above it—the Excla­ma­tion Mark. “He tried every­thing to be more like them./But he just wasn’t like every­one else. [Line of peri­ods.] Peri­od.”  After a while he meets a ques­tion mark. Of course it only speaks in ques­tions. “Who are you? What grade are you in? What’s your favorite col­or? Do you like frogs?” And on and on—until Excla­ma­tion Mark says, STOP!” The Ques­tion Mark loves it and asks him to do it again. “Hi!” And again, “Howdy!”  And more. “It was like he broke free from a life sen­tence.” With all its puns and sil­ly phras­es, this is at its core a sto­ry of find­ing one’s place in the world. And that is always sat­is­fy­ing

SpI was famil­iar with only two of Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s books, Spoon, the sto­ry of a spoon who is unhap­py with its role in life, envies the oth­er imple­ments. He says of Chop­sticks, “Every­one thinks they’re real­ly cool and exot­ic! No one thinks I’m cool or exot­ic.” Even­tu­al­ly Spoon real­izes a spoon’s work can be cool—and fun. Such a great idea to tell this tale from the point of view of a spoon. We all need to be remind­ed and remind­ed that we all have a place in the world. And how light-heart­ed to let a spoon char­ac­ter do the remind­ing. And there’s the advan­tage of giv­ing kids per­mis­sion to talk to their spoons.  How many kids now have con­ver­sa­tions with their spoons when they eat their morn­ing cere­al and have Amy Krouse Rosen­thal to thank?

from Spoon by Amy Krouse Rosen­thal, illus­tra­tion copy­right Scott Magoon

Duck! Rabbit!The sec­ond book in my AKR men­tal library was Duck! Rab­bit!, It’s a sto­ry told total­ly in dia­logue about two friends who see a crea­ture that could be a rab­bit with long ears or a duck with a beak. ”Are you kid­ding me?/It’s total­ly a duck./It’s for sure a rabbit./See there’s his bill./What are you talk­ing about?/Those are ears, sil­ly.” It’s a clever turn on two char­ac­ters who can look at the same picture/event/person and come to com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions.  Final­ly one says, “You know, maybe you were right./Maybe it was a rab­bit.” And the oth­er says, “Thing is, now I’m actu­al­ly think­ing it was a duck.” After this com­ing togeth­er, the sto­ry ends with them see­ing an anteater/brachiosaurus. And we take off again.

If I were a teacher I’d keep a stash of Amy Krouse Rosen­thal books in my bag for those times when kids are antsy, or stand­ing in line to get into the audi­to­ri­um, or just need a good laugh or a good pun. I’m def­i­nite­ly going to keep a stash for my grand­kids. I wish I had said, “Thanks,” when she was still liv­ing. The best I can do is pass these books along to read­ers of all ages who need a smile or actu­al­ly would like to start the day talk­ing to their spoons—or their chop­sticks.

Phyl­lis:  Thank you, Jack­ie, for this month’s col­umn.  Like these books and their author, you, too, have an amaz­ing heart and a sense of joy and delight.  Now, back to my book dead­line….

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March Shorts

Oooo! Here in Min­neso­ta, shorts in March mean chills. These books will give you chills–in a good way!

Cat Goes Fiddle-I-FeeCat Goes Fid­dle-I-Fee
Adapt­ed and illus­trat­ed by Paul Gal­done
Houghton Mif­flin Har­court, 1985
(reis­sued in April 2017)

I rec­og­nized the title imme­di­ate­ly as I song I know well, sung as “I Had a Roost­er” by Pete Seeger on Birds, Beasts, Bugs & Lit­tle Fish­es in 1968. Turns out, I remem­ber the rhyme more than the words. Gal­done wrote a dif­fer­ent adap­ta­tion of this folk tale, one that is irre­sistible for read­ing out loud. In fact, even if you’re sit­ting alone in a room by your­self, you’re going to want to read this out loud. The words and the rhyme scheme are fun. Kids at sto­ry­time and kids in a class­room and kids sit­ting on your lap will want to sing along … and quite pos­si­bly dance. In this new edi­tion, Gal­done’s illus­tra­tions are friend­ly. Find the snail. Who shares the page with the dog? There are many ani­mals to exam­ine and they don’t always make the expect­ed sounds: “Hen goes chim­my-chuck, chim­my-chuck.” As the tale builds cumu­la­tive­ly, it’s a good exer­cise in mem­o­ry and rep­e­ti­tion, and just plain fun. Turns out it’s a dif­fer­ent sto­ry than Seeger’s so both of them could be used. 

Hoot & Honk Just Can't SleepHoot & Honk Just Can’t Sleep
writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Leslie Helakos­ki
Ster­ling Chil­dren’s Books, 2017

Two eggs, one from an owl’s nest and one from a goose’s nest, tum­ble to the ground dur­ing a wind storm. When the mamas take home the wrong eggs, the hatch­lings are con­fused. The owlet does­n’t like the food the oth­er goslings like and the gosling does­n’t want what the owlets are hun­gry for. And their sleep pat­terns are quite dif­fer­ent. A won­der­ful way to open up the dis­cus­sion about dif­fer­ent birds with young lis­ten­ers, this is a gor­geous book with a hap­py-go-lucky spir­it. Illus­trat­ed by Helakos­ki with pas­tels on sand­ed paper, the col­or is sump­tu­ous, the views have depth, and every­one’s going to want to touch the bird’s feath­ers. And who can resist the main char­ac­ters’ names? Hoot. Honk. Hoot and Honk. 

Charlotte the Scientist is SquishedChar­lotte the Sci­en­tist is Squished
writ­ten by Camille Andros
illus­trat­ed by Bri­anne Far­ley
Clar­i­on Books, 2017

I squealed after I read this book. This is exact­ly the book I would have read and re-read when I was a kid. The fly papers are dia­grams of the inside of a rock­et, labeled care­ful­ly so there’s much to pon­der. Char­lotte is a bun­ny rab­bit with a prob­lem. She is a seri­ous sci­en­tist with no room to con­duct her work. She has a large fam­i­ly, as some bun­nies do, and they’re always under­foot. So Char­lotte employs the Sci­en­tif­ic Method to solve her prob­lem. She cre­ates a hypoth­e­sis and tried her exper­i­ment and draws a con­clu­sion. And all of this is done with a great amount of humor sup­plied by the author and the illus­tra­tor, a seam­less sto­ry. That car­rot-shaped rock­et is delight­ful and so is the bun­ny in the fish­bowl. At the end of the book, there’s a fea­ture “In the lab with Char­lotte,” that uses Char­lot­te’s exper­i­ments for a dis­cus­sion of the sci­en­tif­ic method. High­ly rec­om­mend­ed.

Anywhere FarmAny­where Farm
writ­ten by Phyl­lis Root
illus­trat­ed by G. Bri­an Karas
Can­dlewick Press, 2017

Where can you farm? Any­where! Togeth­er, Root and Karas present con­vinc­ing argu­ments for grow­ing your own food wher­ev­er and how­ev­er you can. “For an any­where farm, here’s all that you need: soil and sun­shine, some water, a seed.“With soft vignettes that look close­ly at ways and means to plant seeds, “Kale in a pail, corn in a horn,” to cir­cu­lar depic­tions of neigh­bors tend­ing their small-scale farms, to two-page spreads that show an urban com­mu­ni­ty involved in gar­den­ing, the blend of poet­ry and illus­tra­tions make this book an appeal­ing invi­ta­tion to try your hand at farm­ing … any­where. Read­ers will have fun detect­ing all the places grow­ing plants can be sup­port­ed. As kids and adults of all ages and abil­i­ties work togeth­er, the lush end to this book is a sat­is­fy­ing one. Excuse me, won’t you? I’m off to ger­mi­nate my seeds!

Peg­gy
writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Anna Walk­er
Houghton Mif­flin Har­court, 2017 paper­back

I pro­nounce this a Pic­ture-Book-of-the-Absurd, delight­ful­ly so. “Peg­gy lived in a small house on a qui­et street.” Her chick­en coop in the back­yard of a sub­ur­ban house has a tram­po­line out­side. “Every day, rain or shine, Peg­gy ate break­fast, played in her yard, and watched the pigeons.” In a series of nine “slides” (do you remem­ber slides?) on each page, we observe Peg­gy doing just these things … with joy and When Peg­gy is blown off her tram­po­line by a strong wind into the unfa­mil­iar envi­ron­ment of down­town, does she pan­ic? No. She takes the oppor­tu­ni­ty to explore. In vignettes, Peg­gy eats spaghet­ti, she rides an esca­la­tor, and she shops for bar­gains. The soft, mut­ed water­col­or palette of the book is punc­tu­at­ed by Peg­gy’s black feath­ers, mak­ing her easy to fol­low as she ulti­mate­ly decides she’d rather be at home. But how will she get there? Clues plant­ed ear­li­er in the sto­ry give her ideas and ulti­mate­ly she finds her way back to her chick­en coop with new-found friends. This is an ide­al book for shar­ing one-on-one, exam­in­ing the humor on every page as the intre­pid Peg­gy shares her sto­ry.

RoundRound
writ­ten by Joyce Sid­man
illus­trat­ed by Taee­un Yoo
Houghton Mif­flin Har­court, 2017

Do any of us spend enough time notic­ing the nat­ur­al world around us? Do we look at the shape of things? Do we won­der enough about why they are in the shapes they are? What about all of the round things in the world? The moon. water, lily pads, rocks … so many spe­cif­ic things to notice, observe, and appre­ci­ate. Joyce Sid­man’s poem leads the lis­ten­er into this explo­ration: “I love to watch round things move. They are so good at it!” Yoo’s illus­tra­tions find things to show us that are not in the text … words and illus­tra­tions blend­ing togeth­er into a book that is more than its parts. Col­or­ful and charm­ing, the book’s design gets every­thing right. Even the author’s bios on the back jack­et flap are pre­sent­ed in round shapes! Two pages in back ask “Why are so many things in nature round?” Short para­graphs from the author will broad­en your vision, lead­ing to dis­cus­sions and notic­ing more each time you walk out­side.

If You Were the MoonIf You Were the Moon
writ­ten by Lau­ra Pur­die Salas
illus­trat­ed by Jaime Kim
Mill­brook Press, 2017

From the glossy cov­er to the moon’s expres­sive face to the brack­et­ed, you-did­n’t-know-that facts, every­thing about this book is appeal­ing. Salas has a way of look­ing at some­thing as famil­iar as the moon while encour­ag­ing us to think about it in fresh ways, poet­i­cal­ly obser­vant, wak­ing-you-up ways. The moon as a bal­le­ri­na? Of course, and for very good rea­son. In brack­ets, the facts: “The moon spins on its invis­i­ble axis, mak­ing a full turn every twen­ty-sev­en days.” Kim illus­trates this spread with a con­tent­ed, bal­let-danc­ing moon that can’t help but make the read­er smile. “Weave a spell over won­der­ers.”? The brack­et inspires us with “Claire de Lune” and “The Moon is Dis­tant from the Sea.” The illus­tra­tion shows the Baule peo­ple of the Ivory Coast in fes­ti­val masks. All of this is set in the vibrant col­ors of a moon­lit night. It’s an inspir­ing book pre­sent­ed with the right bal­ance for kids who love a poet­ic pre­sen­ta­tion as well as fac­tu­al infor­ma­tion.

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Our Hearts Will Hold Us Up

Jack­ie: It seems per­fect­ly appro­pri­ate that the Man­ag­er of Hol­i­day Place­ment  has placed Valentine’s Day, a day to cel­e­brate love and affec­tion, right in the mid­dle of cold, dark Feb­ru­ary. I want that cel­e­bra­tion to spread out for the whole month (why not the whole year?) the way the smell of bak­ing bread fills an entire house, not just the kitchen. Why can’t all of Feb­ru­ary be Heart Month? We are choos­ing books this month with that goal in mind. We want to cel­e­brate heart, love, ties of affec­tion. And we have cho­sen a new book, a cou­ple of medi­um new books and an old book to help us.

More, More, More Said the BabyA while back we did an entire col­umn on Vera B. Williams. But I am still miss­ing her. I need her polit­i­cal activism and her huge heart in my neigh­bor­hood. I turned to More, More, More Said the Baby. (Green­wil­low, 1990). 

This book is a huge cel­e­bra­tion of the love between dad­dies and kids:

Just look at you
With your per­fect bel­ly but­ton
Right in the mid­dle
Right in the mid­dle
Right in the mid­dle
Of your fat lit­tle bel­ly.
Then Lit­tle Guy’s dad­dy
Brings that baby
Right up close
And gives that lit­tle guy’s bel­ly
A kiss right I the mid­dle
Of the bel­ly but­ton.

Between grand­mas and kids:

Then Lit­tle Pumpkin’s grand­ma
Brings that baby right up close
And tastes each
Of Lit­tle Pumpkin’s toes.

And mamas and kids:

Just look at you
With your two closed eyes
Then Lit­tle Bird’s Mama…
Gives that lit­tle bird a kiss
Right on each of her lit­tle eyes.

I nev­er tire of read­ing about these chil­dren, diverse chil­dren, who are so loved and so val­ued. This book will be fresh as long as we laugh and kiss babies with bel­ly but­tons and ten lit­tle toes.

Phyl­lis:; I miss Vera B. Williams, too, and I love see­ing her spir­it still alive in her books and also in the hearts of peo­ple every­where who care about peo­ple every­where. Her lan­guage in More More More is so delicious–along with the rep­e­ti­tion we have live­ly verbs of inter­ac­tion between grown-ups and beloved chil­dren (swing, scoot, catch that baby up).  Lit­tle Guy, Lit­tle Pump­kin, and Lit­tle Bird have names that could be any child’s. I love, too, the exu­ber­ant art and hand let­tered mul­ti-col­ored text. Every­thing about this book cel­e­brates tak­ing joy in our chil­dren.

My Heart Will Not Sit DownJack­ie: In My Heart Will Not Sit Down, (Alfred Knopf, 2012) empa­thy and car­ing for oth­ers trav­el around the world. Rock­liff cre­ates a school child Kedi, who hears from her teacher about the hun­gry chil­dren in New York City and can­not stop think­ing about them. She asks her moth­er for a coin to send them. Her moth­er says they have no coins to spare. “Kedi knew Mama was right. Still, her heart would not sit down.” She asks an uncle, a sweep­ing moth­er with a baby on her back, a grand­moth­er pound­ing cas­sa­va, laugh­ing girls who car­ried pots of riv­er water, old men play­ing a game of stones, even the head­man. No one has coins… Until the next morn­ing when her mama gives her one coin. She takes the coin to school, think­ing that one coin can do lit­tle good for the hun­gry chil­dren. Then the vil­lagers show up—each bear­ing a coin. “We have heard about the hunger in our teacher’s vil­lage,” said the head­man. “Our hearts would not sit down until we helped.” 

Phyl­lis:  This is one of those books that called to me from the shelf in a book­store and cap­ti­vat­ed my heart once I opened it. Kedi’s heart stands up for the hun­gry chil­dren in New York, Amer­i­ca, as she calls it. When the vil­lagers bring their coins, which the author notes would be a small for­tune to the vil­lage even though $3.77 would not go far in Amer­i­ca even in the Depres­sion, her mama asks, “Now will your heart sit down in peace?” Kedi answers, “Yes, Mama, Yes!”  The author notes, too, that in Cameroon, where the event occurred on which the sto­ry is based, peo­ple shared with any­one in need, even strangers, because, as they said, “You may meet him [a stranger] again, and in his own place.” This sto­ry reminds me that the actions of one small per­son can touch many hearts and feed hun­gry chil­dren.

The Heart and the BottleJack­ie: Hearts can spur us to action. Hearts can break. And the last two books are gen­tle sto­ries of the heartache of loss. Oliv­er Jef­fers writes of a “lit­tle girl…whose head was filled with all the curiosi­ties of the world.” Jef­fers shows us this lit­tle girl talk­ing with her grand­pa who sits in a chair, lying under the stars with her grand­pa. He accom­pa­nies her on all her explores. And then one day the chair is emp­ty. She decides to put her heart in a bot­tle to keep it safe. After that she wasn’t curi­ous. She grows up and the bot­tled heart is heavy around her neck.  When she wish­es to retrieve her heart she can’t—until she meets anoth­er lit­tle girl.

This is a sto­ry about deal­ing with sadness—we want to pro­tect our hearts but we lose so much when we wall them up.

Phyl­lis:  Oliv­er Jef­fers both wrote and illus­trat­ed The Heart and the Bot­tle, and the illus­tra­tions help car­ry the events and the emo­tions of the sto­ry.  When the girl who has bot­tled her heart decides as a grown-up to take her heart out again, the art shows her try­ing to shake the heart out, grip it with pli­ers, break the bot­tle with a ham­mer, and final­ly, aban­don­ing her work bench cov­ered with a drill, a cross cut saw, a wood­en mal­let, screw­driv­er, and oth­er assort­ed tools includ­ing a vac­u­um clean­er lean­ing again the bench, she climbs a lad­der to the top of an enor­mous­ly tall brick wall and drops the bot­tle which still doesn’t break but just “bounced and rolled…right down to the sea” where a lit­tle girl eas­i­ly frees the heart from the bot­tle and returns it.  The book ends, “The heart was put back where it came from.  And the chair wasn’t emp­ty any­more. But the bot­tle was.” Here, too, the art reflects that the woman’s  world is once again filled with won­der.  We need our hearts with­in us.

Cry, Heart, But Never BreakJack­ie: Cry, Heart, But Nev­er Break comes to us from Den­mark. It was writ­ten by Glenn Ringtved, illus­trat­ed by Char­lotte Par­di and trans­lat­ed by Robert Moulthrop (Enchant­ed Lion Books, 2016).  This book also deals with loss. Four chil­dren live with their grandmother—“A kind­ly woman, she had cared for them for many years.” Then Death knocks at the door. The chil­dren decide to fore­stall Death’s mis­sion with cof­fee. They will keep him drink­ing cof­fee all night so he can­not take their grand­moth­er, thus giv­ing her anoth­er day of life. Even­tu­al­ly he has had enough. And one of the chil­dren asks why grand­moth­er has to die. And then comes: “Some peo­ple say Death’s heart is as dead and black as a piece of coal, but that is not true. Beneath his inky cloak, Death’s heart is as red as the most beau­ti­ful sun­set and beats with a great love of life.” He tells them a sto­ry of Sor­row and Grief meet­ing and falling in love with Delight and Joy. “What would life be worth if there were no death? Who would enjoy the sun if it nev­er rained? Who would yearn for day if there were no night?”

When Death goes to the Grandmother’s room, he says to the chil­dren, “Cry, Heart, but nev­er break. Let your tears of grief and sad­ness begin a new life.” Char­lotte Pardi’s illus­tra­tions are per­fect for this book, sim­ple and ten­der. We see what appears to be quick­ly-sketched fur­ni­ture in the night kitchen—we know this is a sto­ry. And yet we con­nect with the emo­tions on the children’s faces.

Cry, Heart, But Never Break

Cry, Heart, But Nev­er Break. Illus­tra­tion © Char­lotte Par­di.

Phyl­lis: I love that the chil­dren ply Death with cof­fee, which Death loves, strong and black, and that it’s the youngest child who looks right at Death and even­tu­al­ly puts her hand over his. But even cof­fee can’t stop Death; when he goes  upstairs the chil­dren hear the win­dow open and Death say, “Fly, soul, fly away.” Their hearts grieve and cry but do not break. Some (but not all) of the best books about Death come, inter­est­ing­ly, from oth­er coun­tries. But this book is not only about Death it is about the neces­si­ty of a life with both sor­row and grief and also joy and delight. This is a book that makes me cry and hope for all our hearts that they nev­er com­plete­ly break.

Jack­ie: We start­ed with connection—the con­nec­tions of babies and fam­i­lies, and we have come round to loss of con­nec­tion, when what remains is love. Our hearts will hold us up.

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The Books in the Night

Phyl­lis: Night means many things: the ter­ri­fy­ing dark­ness behind the garage where I had to car­ry the garbage after sup­per as a child, the dark night of the soul that depres­sion brings, the hours between sun­set and sun­rise that grow longer and longer as our earth turns into win­ter. But night holds com­fort as well as fear, and this month we want to look at books about the gifts that night and dark­ness can bring.

In the Night KitchenWho hasn’t heard of Mick­ey who “heard a rack­et in the night and shout­ed ‘Qui­et down there!’ and fell through the dark out of his clothes past the moon and his mama and papa sleep­ing tight and into the light of the night kitchen?” (Mau­rice Sendak moves through more action in his mar­velous first sen­tences than almost any oth­er author we can think of.)  The Night Kitchen is Sendak’s imag­ined answer to what might have hap­pened after he had to go to bed as a child, and his com­ic-book art pays trib­ute to the comics that influ­enced his work. This book has encoun­tered both pub­lic and pri­vate cen­sor­ship, includ­ing librar­i­ans paint­ing dia­pers or clothes on Mick­ey to cov­er his nudi­ty, but chil­dren love the adven­ture he dis­cov­ers in the night kitchen.

Jack­ie: Sendak’s edi­tor, the leg­endary Ursu­la Nord­strom, was elo­quent in defend­ing her books from such cen­sor­ship. She once wrote to a teacher who had burned a copy of In the Night Kitchen, “I think young chil­dren will always react with delight to such a book as In the Night Kitchen, and that they will react cre­ative­ly and whole­some­ly. It is only adults who ever feel threat­ened by Sendak’s work.” (Dear Genius, p.302)

Where Does the Brown Bear Go?Phyl­lis: Sendak imag­ines a rol­lick­ing adven­ture mak­ing cake for break­fast, while Nik­ki Weiss, right from the title, asks, Where Does the Brown Bear Go? Love­ly in its sim­plic­i­ty and strong at its heart, this series of rhyming ques­tions, one to a spread, won­ders where ani­mals go when night falls:

When the lights go down on the city street
Where does the white cat go, hon­ey?
Where does the white cat go?
When evening set­tles
On the jun­gle heat,
Where does the mon­key go, hon­ey?
Where does the mon­key go?

After every two ques­tions, the same answer comes: 

They are on their way.
They are on their way home.

This would be a sweet cat­a­log of ani­mals head­ed home at night, but the book res­onates more deeply when it asks: 

When the junk­yard is lit
By the light of the moon
Where does the junk­yard dog go, hon­ey?
 Where does the junk­yard dog go? 

Know­ing that even the junk­yard dog is on his way home moves me almost to tears. 

Jack­ie: Same here. And it urges me to imag­ine what is home for the junk­yard dog and to put myself in that home for just a bit.

Phyl­lis: The last page shows a boy snug­gled in bed sur­round­ed by his stuffed ani­mals (who resem­ble the ani­mals of the pre­ced­ing pages), and the book’s last line reas­sures us that every­one is home. It’s what we wish for every one of us, that a home awaits us at night where we are safe and cher­ished.

Night on Neighborhood StreetEloise Greenfield’s Night on Neigh­bor­hood Street uses a vari­ety of poet­ic forms to tell the sto­ries of the chil­dren and grown-ups who live on Neigh­bor­hood Street as night falls and bed­time arrives. Juma stretch­es out his bed­time with a will­ing dad­dy, a new baby cries and is rocked lov­ing­ly to sleep, a fam­i­ly gath­ers for “fam­bly time” on the floor, Tonya’s moth­er plays her horn for Tonya’s friends at an overnight, the church con­gre­ga­tion sings songs of praise, and Karen lets her sis­ter be the mama when their mama has to work at night.  But the dark­er side of life appears as well:  a lone­some boy wait­ing for his friend to come home looks at the moon “with a sad, sad eye/poking out his mouth/getting ready to cry.” A drug deal­er comes around, but the chil­dren “see behind his easy smile” and head inside. A “broth­er who tries to pick a fight” is shut down when every­one else nods and smiles and lets him know they’re not inter­est­ed in fight­ing. The book ends with Tonya’s mama blow­ing lul­la­by sounds on her horn into the silence of the street. And the chil­dren “hear and smile…and they are at peace with the night.” 

Jack­ie: I love how the fam­i­lies watch out for each oth­er in this book. There is such a strong sense that chil­dren are cared for. Tonya’s Mama is a good exam­ple of this:

When Tonya’s friends come to spend the night
Her mama’s more than just polite
She says she’s glad they came to call
Tells them that she loves them all
Lis­tens to what they can do
Tells them what she’s good at, too.
Plays her horn and lets them sing
(Do they make that music swing!)…

We aren’t sure why Tonya’s friends are there. Per­haps there was trou­ble, per­haps it’s just a vis­it. But we are sure that Tonya’s moth­er is strong and will love and take care of  these chil­dren. Neigh­bor­hood Street is a neigh­bor­hood indeed, where all are made stronger by watch­ing out for each oth­er.

The House in the NightPhyl­lis: Susan Marie Swanson’s The House in the Night, inspired by a nurs­ery rhyme from The Oxford Nurs­ery Rhyme Book, is also decep­tive­ly sim­ple in its text. The sto­ry is told in short declar­a­tive sen­tences, one sen­tence each to a dou­ble page spread of Beth Krommes’ Calde­cott-win­ning scratch­board illus­tra­tions illu­mi­nat­ed with bright yel­low stars, lamp­light, moon, and oth­er objects. “Here is the key to the house,” the book begins.  In the house a light burns, a book rests on a bed, a bird flies with a song about star­ry dark, moon, sun, all of which cir­cles back (in short­er phras­es, a beau­ti­ful use of syn­tax) to the house in the night where art shows a par­ent lov­ing­ly tuck­ing in the child who has read the book in “the house full of light.” Utter­ly beau­ti­ful and sat­is­fy­ing.

Jack­ie: There is so much to notice in this book. First the trav­el and the won­der­ful verbs:  In the house burns a light/In the light rests a bed./On that bed waits a book./In that book flies a bird./In that bird breathes a song….” We go all the way to the moon and the sun—and return. And for the jour­ney back Susan Marie Swan­son uses no verbs. We zoom from one place to the next. It real­ly feels like space trav­el.

Sun in the moon,
moon in the dark,
dark in the song,
song in the bird,
bird in the book,
book on the bed,
bed in the light,
light in the house,…

You are right, Phyl­lis. This is such a sat­is­fy­ing trip back to the cozy bed­room of the house in the night.

Sweetest KuluPhyl­lis:  Not all nights are dark. The sum­mer sun nev­er real­ly sets in the arc­tic, although some­one who lives there told me how the qual­i­ty of light changes under the mid­night sun. (Some­day I hope to see for myself.) In the Arc­tic Sum­mer of Sweet­est Kulu by Celi­na Kalluk nature comes to give its gifts to lit­tle Kulu on the day he is born. The sun gives him “blan­kets and rib­bons of warm light,” wind tells how weath­er forms, snow buntings bring seeds of flow­ers and Arc­tic cot­ton, “remind­ing you to always believe in your­self.” Arc­tic Char, Fox, Nar­wahl and Bel­u­ga, Muskrat, Polar Bear, and the Land itself all offer gifts  both tan­gi­ble and intan­gi­ble. This is a child wel­comed and cher­ished by all.  A final piece of art shows Kulu nes­tled with a polar bear cub in a cir­cle of grass and flow­ers.  Exquis­ite­ly beau­ti­ful and lov­ing, this is a book as full of light and joy as the end­less Arc­tic sum­mer days. 

Jack­ie: I am so impressed with the lan­guage of this book. Many phras­es caught my ear. Here are a cou­ple of exam­ples: “Melodies of wind arrived,” “Fox, so thought­ful and swift,/came to tell you to get out of bed as soon as you wake,/and to help any­one who may need your help along your way…”

This bed­time lul­la­by res­onates with old­er read­ers, too.  We are dai­ly remind­ed in our own lives of Muskox’s gift. “Muskox shared her­itage and empow­er­ment with you,/magnificent Kulu,/showing you how to pro­tect what you believe in.”

These night­time books, whether in the kitchen, on Neigh­bor­hood Street, in the cozy house in the night, or in the Arc­tic urge us to qui­et, to being in a qui­et world, where we have space and time to appre­ci­ate what is around us in the phys­i­cal world as well as what is in our hearts and how they are strength­ened by affec­tion and care.

Phyl­lis: This is the sea­son for qui­et, after the bloom­ing and buzzing of sum­mer. As days short­en and the nights stretch out toward sol­stice, choose a book or sev­er­al to read aloud, an act as com­fort­ing as a cup of warm cocoa and a fire in the fire­place.

Here are a few more night sto­ries:

Can’t Sleep by Chris Rasch­ka

Good Night Sleep Tight by Mem Fox

Good Night, Goril­la by Peg­gy Rath­man

Night Flight by Joanne Ryder

Night Nois­es by Mem Fox

Ten Nine Eight by Mol­ly Bang

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William Steig and Transmogrification

bk_sylvester_200pxJack­ie: After Phyl­lis and I read Amos and Boris for our last month’s arti­cle on boats we both won­dered why we hadn’t looked at the work of William Steig. He so often exe­cutes that very sat­is­fy­ing com­bi­na­tion of humor and heart. Steig’s lan­guage is fun­ny but his sto­ries reg­u­lar­ly involve wor­ri­some sep­a­ra­tion and then return to a lov­ing fam­i­ly.

William Steig was born to immi­grant Jew­ish par­ents from East­ern Europe in 1907. His father was a painter and dec­o­ra­tor and his moth­er was a seam­stress. When the Depres­sion came, Steig sup­port­ed the fam­i­ly by sell­ing car­toons to The New York­er mag­a­zine. At age six­ty he began to write children’s books and wrote more than two dozen before his death in 2003 at age 95.

Roger Angell, writ­ing in The New York­er, quot­ed a New York school teacher [his wife] speak­ing about Steig’s children’s books: “They’re touch­ing but not sen­ti­men­tal, and they bring young chil­dren ideas they’ve not expe­ri­enced before.”

Solomon the Rusty NailThey’re touch­ing and they are funny—sometimes they are down­right sil­ly. In Solomon The Rusty Nail (1985), Solomon the rab­bit fig­ures out that if he scratch­es his nose and wig­gles his toes at exact­ly the same time he becomes a rusty nail. Not to wor­ry, this is not Sylvester and the Mag­ic Peb­ble, not yet at least. Solomon also fig­ures out that if he says to him­self, “I’m no nail, I’m a rab­bit,” he will quick­ly become a rab­bit again.

Phyl­lis: I thought I knew most of Steig’s work but I didn’t know this book, and I love it, not least for Steig’s won­der­ful­ly play­ful lan­guage. When Solomon dis­cov­ers his abil­i­ty to trans­form, his first thought is to show his fam­i­ly what a “prize pazoo­zle of a rab­bit” he is but decides instead to keep his “secret secret.” When Solomon trans­forms into a rusty nail behind a tree to fool a cat who has cap­tured him, the cat is “dis­com­bob­u­lat­ed “and search­es for Solomon “clock­wise, counter clock­wise, and oth­er­wise.”

But for all their deli­cious lan­guage, Steig’s sto­ries have high stakes: when Solomon refus­es to turn back into a rab­bit so the cat and his wife can eat him, the irate cat pounds him into the wall of their cab­in where Solomon, unable to trans­form back into his true self, won­ders, “Do nails die?”

Doctor De SotoJack­ie: Steig’s Doc­tor DeS­o­to, (1982) the mouse den­tist has always been a favorite of mine. It is the per­fect com­bi­na­tion of humor and sen­si­tiv­i­ty, even com­pas­sion. Even though he has sworn not to treat fox­es and wolves, Doc­tor Des­o­to agrees to treat the suf­fer­ing fox. And the fox repays this kind­ness by won­der­ing if it would be “shab­by” to eat Dr. and Mrs. DeS­o­to. [Is “shab­by” not the per­fect, hilar­i­ous word here?] We root for Doc­tor DeS­o­to who says he always fin­ish­es what he starts and we love his remark­able prepa­ra­tion that allows him to fix the fox’s tooth and save the lives of him and his wife.

Per­haps every­one knows Sylvester and the Mag­ic Peb­ble (1969), Steig’s Calde­cott win­ner. Sylvester’s unfor­tu­nate wish turns him into a rock. His par­ents grieve. He sits and drows­es as a rock until a remark­able series of cir­cum­stances results in his return to his old don­key form. So sat­is­fy­ing.

Steig loved this theme of trans­for­ma­tion and clear­ly wasn’t done with it after Sylvester. He gave us the above-men­tioned Solomon the Rusty Nail, The Toy Broth­er (1996), Gorky Ris­es (1980), all of which involve some sort of mag­i­cal prepa­ra­tion or incan­ta­tion and some sort of “stuck­ness.”

Amazing BonePhyl­lis: Steig is a mas­ter at mak­ing us believe these seem­ing­ly inex­plic­a­ble vicis­si­tudes. In The Amaz­ing Bone Pearl the pig finds a bone that can talk in any lan­guage and imi­tate any sound—a trumpet’s call to arms, the wind blow­ing, the rain pat­ter­ing down, snor­ing, sneez­ing. When Pearl asks the bone how it can sneeze, it replies, “I don’t know. I didn’t make the world.” When a hun­gry fox cap­tures Pearl and the bone pleads for him to let her go, the fox replies, “I can’t help being the way I am. I didn’t make the world.”

Toy BrotherJack­ie: The Toy Broth­er (1996) is a won­der­ful turn­around book about two sib­lings who live with their parents—Magnus Bede, a famous alchemist, and his “hap­py-go-lucky wife” Euti­l­da. The old­er son, Yorick, “con­sid­ers lit­tle Charles a first-rate pain in the pants.” Yorick is his father’s appren­tice and hopes to turn don­key dung into gold. When the par­ents go off for a wed­ding Yorick sneaks into his father’s lab. Things don’t work out as he hoped and Yorick next appears the size of a mole. Charles enjoys his role as big broth­er and is actu­al­ly kind to Yorick, builds him a house, feeds him crumbs of cheese, tries to amuse him by cos­tum­ing him­self and the fam­i­ly ani­mals. But the two can­not get Yorick back to his orig­i­nal size, and nei­ther can Mag­nus. Until Yorick remem­bers one very impor­tant detail.

Once again, Steig’s lan­guage is such a joy. When they real­ize what is need­ed, Mag­nus says, “Gin­ger! That’s a fish from anoth­er pond. Is it any won­der there was no trans­mo­gri­fi­ca­tion?” What child is not going to love that? I almost feel trans­mo­gri­fied read­ing it.

Gorky RisesGorky the frog makes a potion, too, in a kitchen lab, with “a lit­tle of this and a lit­tle of that: a spoon each of chick­en soup, tea, and vine­gar, a sprin­kle of cof­fee grounds, one shake of tal­cum pow­der, two shakes of papri­ka, a dash of cin­na­mon, a splash of witch hazel, and final­ly a bit of his father’s clear cognac and a lot of attar of ros­es (!!).”… “This obvi­ous­ly was the mag­ic for­mu­la he had long been seek­ing.”

He doesn’t know what it will do but soon real­izes that it enables him to rise in the sky and float. He star­tles the groundlings, includ­ing a fox who looks like he just dropped by before his gig in Doc­tor DeS­o­to. Gorky endures a storm and longs for home…and even­tu­al­ly fig­ures out how to get there.

Amos & BorisPhyl­lis: In Amos and Boris, I was star­tled by the for­tu­itous appear­ance of two ele­phants who help Amos the mouse roll Boris the whale back into the sea when he is beached by a storm. I didn’t real­ize that more ele­phants wan­der through Steig’s stories—Elephant Rock where Gorky even­tu­al­ly lands real­ly is a trans­formed ele­phant, restored to his real self by the last drops of Gorky’s for­mu­la.

Brave IreneStorms are also recur­ring char­ac­ters in Steig’s books. Irene encoun­ters a storm in Brave Irene, an inim­itable one that yodels a warn­ing: “Go home….GO HO-WO-WOME,” as she attempts to deliv­er a dress her moth­er has made for the duchess. When the wind car­ries off the dress, Irene press­es on in the wors­en­ing storm to tell the duchess what hap­pened to her beau­ti­ful gown. Irene twists her ankle, she gets lost, night falls, she shiv­ers from the cold, and just when she final­ly spots the cas­tle below she is swal­lowed by a snow­drift up to her hat. In despair, she won­ders if she should give up and freeze to death, since she is already buried. But the mem­o­ry of her moth­er “who always smelled like fresh-baked bread” gives her the ener­gy to fight free of the snow­drift, find a way to the cas­tle (where the wind has plas­tered the gown to a tree) and even­tu­al­ly arrive home, dri­ven by the doc­tor who tells her moth­er “what a brave and lov­ing per­son Irene was. Which, of course, Mrs. Bob­bin knew. Bet­ter than the duchess.”

Back cover of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, illustration copyright William Steig

Back cov­er of Sylvester and the Mag­ic Peb­ble, illus­tra­tion copy­right William Steig

Jack­ie: These char­ac­ters are all sur­prised by cir­cum­stance. Storms fly in. The potions do not work exact­ly as planned. Deal­ing with these cir­cum­stances is not always easy. And so it is with the lives of chil­dren. Things do not go along as planned. They hear: “We are mov­ing. You’ll be going to a new school.” “Your father and I are sep­a­rat­ing.” “We’re hav­ing a new baby. You’ll need to share your room.” It’s hard to get back to the old life. That is true in Steig’s sto­ries. Sylvester’s par­ents grieve when they lose him. Gorky’s par­ents search for him all night and are tremen­dous­ly relieved to see him.

All of his char­ac­ters are returned to the lov­ing arms of fam­i­ly, changed per­haps by their adven­tures, but not alone. I would love to do a ses­sion with stu­dents in which we read these books and then wrote our own sto­ry of trans­mo­gri­fi­ca­tion. What a free­ing expe­ri­ence to change into something/someone else, to float, to talk to a bone—that talked back.

Phyl­lis: What a ter­rif­ic idea. I want to read all of his books aloud, savor­ing his deliri­ous­ly delec­table lan­guage in book after book after book. Steig is a prize pazoo­zle of a writer as well as an artist.

Jack­ie: Though he was not writ­ing tracts for chil­dren Steig was well aware of the pow­er of sto­ry. He said in his Calde­cott Accep­tance Speech:

Art, includ­ing juve­nile lit­er­a­ture, has the pow­er to make any spot on earth the liv­ing cen­ter of the uni­verse, and unlike sci­ence, which often gives us the illu­sion of under­stand­ing things we real­ly do not under­stand, it helps us to know life in a way that still keeps before us the mys­tery of things. It enhances the sense of won­der. And won­der is respect for life. Art also stim­u­lates the adven­tur­ous­ness and the play­ful­ness that keep us mov­ing in a live­ly way and that lead us to use­ful dis­cov­ery.

Books for chil­dren are some­thing I take seri­ous­ly. I am hope­ful that more and more the work I do for chil­dren, as well as the work I do for adults, will approach the con­di­tion of art. I believe that what this award and this cer­e­mo­ny rep­re­sent is our mutu­al striv­ing in the same direc­tion, and I feel encour­aged by the faith you have expressed in me in hon­or­ing my book with the Calde­cott Medal. (Calde­cott Accep­tance Speech, June, 1970).

His sto­ries remind us that the “mys­tery of things … stimulate[s] adven­tur­ous­ness and play­ful­ness” in both theme and lan­guage. In Steig’s books we can share the fun of sound, the joy of adven­ture, and the sweet­ness of return.

Phyl­lis: And they remind us, too, that in the inex­plic­a­ble events of the uni­verse, our fam­i­lies love us, search for us when we are lost, and wel­come us home again with immea­sur­able delight.

See also: The Col­lec­tion of William Steig at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia.

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Coming Home to Safe Harbor

Lake Superior

Phyl­lis: This sum­mer I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to sail for a week in Lake Supe­ri­or, so we are turn­ing our thoughts to books about the sea (includ­ing the great inland sea that bor­ders Min­neso­ta, so vast it makes its own weath­er).  If we can’t go sail­ing right now, we can at least read about it in a fleet of good pic­ture books.

Jack­ie:  And I am a self-con­fessed water gaz­er. I’m not a boater of any kind but I can’t get enough of being next to water, watch­ing and lis­ten­ing.

The Mousehole Cat

Phyl­lis: I can­not tell you how much I love The Mouse­hole Cat by Anto­nia Bar­ber with lumi­nous art by Nico­la Bay­ley.  As many times as I’ve read it, the sto­ry still gives me shiv­ers and makes me want to cry. Mouse­hole (pro­nounced Mowzel by the Cor­nish peo­ple who live there) is a small town where the peo­ple go out every day through the nar­row break­wa­ter open­ing into the ocean to fish for their liv­ing. Old Tom and his cat Mowz­er fish as well, for Mowz­er in par­tic­u­lar is par­tial to a plate of fresh fish. 

One day a ter­ri­ble win­ter storm blows in. “’The Great Storm-Cat is stir­ring,’ thinks Mowz­er,” and although the Great Storm–Cat flings the sea against the break­wa­ter and claws at the har­bor gap, the boats are safe “as mice in their own mouse­hole,” but the peo­ple are hun­gry because no one can go out into the ocean to fish.

Final­ly, on Christ­mas Eve, Old Tom decides he should go out to try to fish, for he can­not stand to see the chil­dren starv­ing at Christ­mas. Mowz­er goes with him, “for he was only a man, she thought, and men were like mice in the paws of the Great Storm-Cat.”

The Mousehole Cat

illus­tra­tion copy­right Nico­la Bay­ley

And it is Mowzer’s singing that dis­tracts the Great Storm-Cat long enough for the boat to escape the har­bor and play out the nets in the ocean. All day Mowz­er sings to the Great Storm-Cat, but she knows he will strike when they run for the har­bor and safe­ty.  As she thinks of the food they might make with the catch they have hauled in, Mowz­er begins to purr, a sound the Great Storm-Cat has not heard since he was a Storm-Kit­ten. They purr togeth­er, the seas calm, and Old Tom and Mowz­er come into the har­bor on the “small­est, tamest Storm-Kit­ten of a wind” where the whole town is wait­ing with lit can­dles to guide them home.  (Even writ­ing this gives me shiv­ers of delight.) 

Every year since then the vil­lage of Mouse­hole is lit with a thou­sand lights at Christ­mas time, “a mes­sage of hope and a safe haven to all those who pass in per­il of the sea.”

Jack­ie: The lit can­dles that guide them home after the adven­ture is such a won­der­ful touch. Don’t we all want to be guid­ed home after a great strug­gle? The plot is so sat­is­fy­ing as well. It’s the small cat that saves them because she begins to purr.  As I was think­ing about Mowzer’s purr I real­ized how calm­ing a cat’s purr is.  I think we all become more relaxed if we have a purring cat on our lap. Same for the Great Storm Cat.

This is a love­ly illus­trat­ed short sto­ry that I think would charm mid­dle graders, as well as pri­ma­ry graders.

Amos and BorisPhyl­lis:  Anoth­er favorite is William Steig’s Amos and Boris, the sto­ry of a mouse who builds a boat, chris­tens it the Rodent, pro­vi­sions it with a delight­ful list of items, and sets sail on the ocean. Amos is less lucky than Old Tom and Mowz­er; one night, gaz­ing at the vast and star­ry sky while lying on his boat, he rolls over­board, and the Rodent in full sail bowls along with­out him. Amos man­ages to stay afloat through the night, lead­ing to one of my favorite com­fort­ing lines in all of pic­ture books: “Morn­ing came, as it always does.” And with morn­ing comes Boris the whale, just as Amos’s strength is fail­ing. Boris gives Amos a ride home by whale­back, and on the week­long jour­ney they become “the clos­est pos­si­ble friends.”

Jack­ie: I just love that!

Phyl­lis:  When they near shore, Amos thanks Boris and offers his help if Boris ever needs it, which amus­es Boris. He can’t imag­ine how a lit­tle mouse could ever help him.

Amos and Boris by William Steig

illus­tra­tion copy­right William Steig

Years pass. Hur­ri­cane Yet­ta flings Boris ashore right by Amos’s house. Boris will die unless he gets back in the water, and Amos runs off to get help: two ele­phants who roll the whale back into the ocean while Amos stands on one of their heads, yelling instruc­tions that no one can hear. Soon Boris is afloat again, whale tears rolling down his cheeks. Know­ing they might nev­er meet again, the friends say a tear­ful good-bye, know­ing, too, that they will always remem­ber each oth­er.

In anoth­er writer’s hands, I might make some com­ment about the con­ve­nient “ele­phants ex machi­na” that Amos finds, but I accept it com­plete­ly here, because Steig makes me believe. And cry, again.

Jack­ie: There is so much to love in this sto­ry. First, the list of items: cheese, bis­cuits, acorns, hon­ey, wheat germ [Steig must have includ­ed wheat germ because he liked the sound. Wheat germ?] fresh water, a com­pass, a sex­tant, a tele­scope, a saw, a ham­mer and nails and some wood, … a nee­dle and thread for the mend­ing of torn sails and var­i­ous oth­er neces­si­ties such as ban­dages and iodine, a yo-yo and play­ing cards.” I just love the notion of a mouse on a boat prac­tic­ing his yo-yo tricks. And I think read­ers will be called to ask them­selves what they might find essen­tial for a sea jour­ney.

And I’m admir­ing of the nuanced way Steig moves the plot along. Amos doesn’t roll off the boat because he falls asleep, or because a high wind blows him off. He falls off because he is “over­whelmed by the beau­ty and mys­tery of every­thing.” His own capac­i­ty for awe is what caus­es the prob­lem.

You have talked about the won­der­ful back and forth of help­ing between Amos and Boris. I want to men­tion, too, Boris’s won­der­ful voice. When the mouse meets the whale, he says. “’I’m a mouse, which is a mam­mal, the high­est form of life. I live on land.’

Holy clam and cut­tle­fish!’ said the whale. I’m a mam­mal myself, though I live in the sea. Call me Boris,’ he added.” [A lit­tle nod to “Call me Ish­mael?”]

Some­times good luck hap­pens. When the worst looks inevitable, fate inter­venes. And some­times fate gives us life-sav­ing ele­phants. They are such a relief. And so out­landish. It’s as if Steig is say­ing, “I’m the author. I can do this.”

Little Tim and the Brave Sea CaptainPhyl­lis:  Edward Ardiz­zone wrote and illus­trat­ed a series of eleven books about Lit­tle Tim, who goes to sea, begin­ning with Lit­tle Tim and The Brave Sea Cap­tain and end­ing with Tim’s Last Voy­age. We loved these books when my chil­dren were grow­ing up, and we still do. Vis­it this site so you can hear a sam­ple of Lit­tle Tim and The Brave Sea Cap­tain read aloud and see Ardizzone’s won­der­ful art. 

Jack­ie:  I love the lan­guage of this book: “’Some­times Tim would aston­ish his par­ents by say­ing, ’That’s a Cunarder’ or ‘Look at that bar­quen­tine on the port bow.’” [I want to say that again and again.] When his par­ents say he is much too young to go to sea, Tim is “so sad that he resolved, at the first oppor­tu­ni­ty, to run away to sea.”

Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain

illus­tra­tion copy­right Edward Ardiz­zone

But best of all, I had the sense through­out this sto­ry that the sto­ry­teller was going to give me a won­der­ful yarn and that, with or with­out ele­phants, Lit­tle Tim was going to get through this adven­ture safe­ly.

Keep the Lights Burning, AbbiePhyl­lis:  Keep the Lights Burn­ing, Abbie by Peter and Con­nie Roop is a book for those who pass in per­il of the sea. Based on the true sto­ry of 16-year old Abbie Burgess, whose father was the light­house keep­er on Matini­cus Rock off the coast of Maine, the book tells how Abbie’s father heads out one morn­ing to get much need­ed sup­plies from Matini­cus Island and is storm-bound there for weeks before he can return. Abbie takes care of her three younger sis­ters and her ail­ing moth­er and “keeps the lights burn­ing” so that ships can pass safe­ly by. She lights the lamps, scrapes ice off the win­dows so the lights can be seen, trims wicks, cleans lamps, fills them with oil, and saves her chick­ens when waves threat­en to wash them away, all until her father can safe­ly sail back to the light­house. A won­der­ful strong char­ac­ter for girls and boys to know about.

Jack­ie:  There is some­thing so allur­ing about light­hous­es and islands. I won­der how many kids have fan­tasies of liv­ing in a light­house on an island. I sure did. I real­ly enjoyed the mat­ter-of-fact tone of this sto­ry. As Abbie is first light­ing the lamps a match blows out, but the next one doesn’t, nor the next and she goes on to light them all, night after night for a month. No dra­ma, just a telling of what she did. No dra­ma but touch­ing emo­tion at the end when we learn that her father was watch­ing for those lights every night as evi­dence that his fam­i­ly was still there. That detail almost made me tear up.

In a Village by the SeaPhyl­lis:  We could sail on through sea sto­ry after sea sto­ry. A more recent book, In a Vil­lage by the Sea by Muon Van is a ele­gant­ly sim­ple and love­ly sto­ry that begins, “In a fish­ing vil­lage by the sea there is a small house.” Each page moves clos­er in, from the house to the kitchen to the fire to a pot of soup to a woman watch­ing the soup to a sleepy child to a dusty hole in the floor where a crick­et is hum­ming and paint­ing a pic­ture of a fish­er­man in his storm-tossed boat hop­ing for the storm to end so that he can return to his vil­lage by the sea where in a small house, his fam­i­ly waits for him to come home. April Chu’s beau­ti­ful art con­cludes the book with the crick­et paint­ing a pic­ture of that fish­er­man and his boat sail­ing home into a calm har­bor.

Jack­ie:  This book is so art­ful and so sat­is­fy­ing in the way we cir­cle in on the sto­ry and then cir­cle back out. And I agree about April Chu’s illus­tra­tions. They are won­der­ful­ly expres­sive. I almost expect the dog to talk.

In a Village by the Sea

illus­tra­tion copy­right April Chu

Thanks for choos­ing these books, Phyl­lis. I’m sit­ting at my desk on a qui­et, cloudy day but feel as if I have been on adven­tures. My head is stretched, and I look at my house and yard with new appre­ci­a­tion. The sea, or sto­ries about the sea, take us out of our lives, our kitchens, toss us around a bit, and with hope and help—and occa­sion­al elephants—bring us back home, where, as Lit­tle Tim might say, we are ever so glad for warmth and choco­late.

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One North Star, Three Creative Artists

One North Star

Bet­sy Bowen’s book, Antler Bear Canoe: a North­woods Alpha­bet, has been a favorite alpha­bet book for the last 25 years, remind­ing every read­er about the things they love in their unique envi­ron­ment.

Now, a count­ing book will sit allur­ing­ly on the book­shelf next to that title. One North Star: a Count­ing Book (Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press) has been writ­ten by Phyl­lis Root, and illus­trat­ed with wood­cuts by Bet­sy Bowen and Beck­ie Prange. We’re so tak­en with the book that we asked to inter­view the inspir­ing team who cre­at­ed it.

Phyllis RootPHYLLIS ROOT, writer

Which came first, the idea for the illus­tra­tions or the idea for the text? They’re both filled with so much won­der and imag­i­na­tion.

The text came first.  The book began when an edi­tor at Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press was inter­est­ed in a count­ing book, and we decid­ed on one about the flo­ra and fau­na and habi­tats in Min­neso­ta.  Ever since I moved to Min­neso­ta years ago I’ve been fas­ci­nat­ed with the vari­ety of places, plants, and ani­mals in the state along with all the still-wild places, so the book was great fun (and, as it turned out, a great chal­lenge). When in my research I learned that the Min­neso­ta mot­to is l’Etoile du nord, the star of the north, the struc­ture of the book took shape.

This is a cumu­la­tive tale in that we count num­bers, begin­ning at one, “one north star,” and add oth­er north woods crea­tures or geol­o­gy or flo­ra until we’re count­ing back­wards from ten. Unlike many cumu­la­tive tales (think A Par­tridge in a Pear Tree), the words aren’t repeat­ed each time, except for “under one north star.” How were you able to include such a vari­ety?

Lots and lots and lots of research and lots and lots and lots of writ­ing and rewrit­ing. One of the chal­lenges was fig­ur­ing out what lived where at what time of year and what num­ber you might see. You prob­a­bly wouldn’t see ten moose togeth­er, for exam­ple, and even if you did, I couldn’t imag­ine them all squeez­ing them into a pic­ture along with nine of some­thing, eight of some­thing, etc.

Bog, One North Star

How did you go about orga­niz­ing this book? Choos­ing which flo­ra and fau­na you would include?

First was the research. I learned so much read­ing about all the habi­tats and what you might see there and vis­it­ing places to see for myself. (I’d nev­er been to the bog, for exam­ple, and fell in love with the Big Bog when I did visit—enough to write a book just about the bog.) Once I had an abun­dance of infor­ma­tion, I began fit­ting the plants and ani­mals into num­bers and also into sea­sons so that the book fol­lowed through the year. So it made sense that in win­ter you’d have few­er plants and ani­mals avail­able, while lat­er in sum­mer you’d have many dif­fer­ent ones to choose from. Also, I tried to include fish, amphib­ians, rep­tiles, birds, and mam­mals along with flow­ers, trees, and fun­gi. I want­ed the book to be as inclu­sive as pos­si­ble. The whole book became a puz­zle to fig­ure out. And when I had a draft I checked with a nat­u­ral­ist friend and found out just how much I had got­ten wrong (a lot) and had to reor­ga­nize again—and again.

How did you work on your active verbs and your adjec­tives to get them to be so evoca­tive of the sights, sounds, and smells of the North Woods?

I decid­ed that, just to make the book a lit­tle more chal­leng­ing (what was I think­ing?) that I would try to nev­er use a verb more than once, and I want­ed each verb to be as strong and evoca­tive as pos­si­ble, to work as hard as it could so that the book would be fun to read as well.

When you were doing your research, did you dis­cov­er that any of the ani­mals or plants would not be grouped in the num­bers you wrote?

Plen­ty of times. More times than I can count.

Were there any descrip­tions that the illus­tra­tors asked you to change because they would be too hard to depict?

There were descrip­tions I was asked to change because they were incor­rect, for which I’m very grate­ful. I learned a lot about phe­nol­o­gy from Beck­ie, what you might see at the same time in the same place, and I learned even more from my nat­u­ral­ist friends. I’m awestruck and delight­ed at how the artists solved the prob­lem of fit­ting so many images on the lat­er pages of the book. I count­ed up rough­ly 220 images depict­ing 55 dif­fer­ent species in the book itself. The art­work and the artists are beyond amaz­ing.

You have exten­sive back mat­ter, divid­ed by the type of ecosys­tem, such as Aspen Prairie Park­land and Bog, with descrip­tions of each liv­ing crea­ture or plant you’ve includ­ed in the text of One North Star. Did you have a set of cri­te­ria so you could be  suc­cinct with those short para­graphs?

Just try­ing to write spar­e­ly, some­thing pic­ture book writ­ers are always strug­gling to do. I also tried to focus on what was the essen­tial or most inter­est­ing fea­ture about a place or a species, such as north­ern prairie skinks being able to break off their tails to escape cap­ture.

What do you find most sat­is­fy­ing about adding One North Star to your deep list of books?

I love how beau­ti­ful the artists have made the book, and I’m very glad to have a book that cel­e­brates Minnesota’s rich nat­ur­al diver­si­ty. I hope the book will make folks want to go out and see these places for them­selves.

Beckie PrangeBECKIE PRANGE, illus­tra­tor and wood­cut artist

How were you asked to work on One North Star? Why did you agree?

I was approached by a for­mer UMN Press edi­tor and was excit­ed about Phyl­lis’ con­cept for One North Star, and its scope.

When you work on a book like this, how much plan­ning goes into the illus­tra­tions before you begin to make your wood­cuts?

The amount of plan­ning and research is mas­sive. The for­mer edi­tor want­ed the illus­tra­tions to be real­is­tic scenes, which meant find­ing a way to fit all of the species into an image of what you could pos­si­bly see from a par­tic­u­lar view­point in nature.

For this book, there were two of you con­tribut­ing wood­cut illus­tra­tions. I know that you have been teacher and stu­dent in the past. Did that help when you worked on this book togeth­er?

Due to the quirks and tim­ing of life events I was unable to fin­ish the illus­tra­tion work on One North Star. There was a gap in the progress on the book after I had com­plet­ed most of the work on the draft illus­tra­tions. By the time we could get start­ed again, I had a full time posi­tion in a field I’m excit­ed about and found that I was unable to con­tin­ue as illus­tra­tor. I’m very thank­ful that Bet­sy was able to pick up so skill­ful­ly where I left off.

How did you work togeth­er to make the illus­tra­tions a cohe­sive whole?

All I can say here is that Bet­sy is total­ly awe­some, and did a beau­ti­ful job with the final illus­tra­tions with­out any help from me.

Was it chal­leng­ing to com­pose the chock-full, two-page spreads that includ­ed many crit­ters? How did you make deci­sions about where to place every­thing in the illus­tra­tion?

Cre­at­ing sin­gle scenes from one view­point which includ­ed all of the organ­isms Phyl­lis wrote about, while being faith­ful to those organ­isms’ habits and habi­tats was incred­i­bly chal­leng­ing. It was espe­cial­ly tough with the high­er num­bers, but there were chal­lenges with low­er num­bers too. For exam­ple, how do you put a noc­tur­nal crea­ture and a diur­nal crea­ture in the same scene and have it look at least mar­gin­al­ly believ­able? Lit­tle brown bats and rough-legged hawks just don’t hang out in the same space and time. I just had to play with it, and let it go until some­thing came to me.

Have you worked on projects before with this many dif­fer­ent objects includ­ed?

No! Nowhere close.

Number Three, One North Star

Which two-page spread in the book gives you the most sat­is­fac­tion?

I love all of them, but the one that makes me hap­pi­est right now is num­ber three, with the black bears, grouse and lynx. When I was draw­ing that one, I strug­gled with it. I could not get it to feel right. The per­spec­tive was both­er­ing me. I nev­er did solve it to my sat­is­fac­tion. Bet­sy trans­lat­ed what is basi­cal­ly the same lay­out into an image that real­ly works. It looks per­fect.

A big thanks to all three of you for shar­ing the way you worked on this book that all who are fond of the north woods will cher­ish.

Betsy BowenBETSY BOWEN, illus­tra­tor and wood­cut artist

How were you asked to work on One North Star? Why did you agree?

This is my third book with Phyl­lis, and I real­ly enjoy her lyri­cal and infor­ma­tive lan­guage.  I also like work­ing with Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press.

When you work on a book like this, how much plan­ning goes into the illus­tra­tions before you begin to make your wood­cuts?

In this case, Beck­ie had made the lay­outs in pen­cil and water­col­or for the num­ber pages.  I joined the project lat­er on, and so I used her designs. I added ideas for the parts before and after the num­ber sec­tion. And then I made the final ver­sion of the art.  Plan­ning and sketch­ing is a big part of the work (and the fun!).

Was it chal­leng­ing to com­pose the chock-full, two-page spreads that includ­ed many crit­ters? How did you make deci­sions about where to place every­thing in the illus­tra­tion?

This was Beckie’s doing, I think it must have been tricky.

Illus­tra­tors often use pho­tographs to plan their com­po­si­tion or get the details right. Is it the same when you’re carv­ing wood?

I like to look at pho­tos to help inform the draw­ing, and study the way ani­mals and plants real­ly look.  That is if I can’t get the moose to stand still long enough …

Betsy Bowen woodcut for One North Star coverHow long does it take to cre­ate a wood­cut for one two-page spread?

The carv­ing took me a few days for each spread.

Do you make mis­takes? Do you have to start over with a fresh block of wood?

Most mis­takes I can fix with either Elmer’s Glue® or a Band-aid®. Rarely I do start over with a new carv­ing. I try to shake out the ques­tions in the drawing/design phase before start­ing the longer process of carv­ing and print­ing. It’s not very easy to just move some­thing over  ”just a lit­tle” once the whole pic­ture is made.

Have you worked on projects before with this many dif­fer­ent objects includ­ed?

These were detailed pages! I think all more intri­cate than I have done before.

Number Seven, One North Star

Which two-page spread in the book gives you the most sat­is­fac­tion?

The Sev­en page, view­ing from under­wa­ter, was tricky for me.  I would try to see how the light came through water while I was swim­ming at the local pool.  I real­ly liked the result more than I expect­ed.

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A Few Tall Tales from the Land of Rampaging Zucchini

zucchiniJack­ie:  Phyl­lis, the zuc­chi­ni seeds you gave me have grown into a plant that knocked on our back door this morn­ing. I gave it cof­fee and it retreat­ed to the yard, head­ing toward the alley.

When I was a kid one of my favorite sto­ries was the tall tale of Paul Bun­yan. I laughed at the exag­ger­a­tion, the total wack­i­ness of an ox so large his foot­prints made the Great Lakes. As an adult, I real­ized that Paul Bun­yan was actu­al­ly a clear-cut­ter and that took some of the lus­ter off the sto­ries. But I still love tall tales. What fun to come up with a rol­lick­ing tale of exag­ger­a­tion! We found some old favorites—and some new favorites.

Swamp AngelSwamp Angel by Anne Isaacs, (illus­trat­ed by Paul O. Zelin­sky, (Dut­ton, 1994) is a win­ning com­bi­na­tion of under­state­ment and exag­ger­a­tion: “…when Angel­i­ca Lon­grid­er took her first gulp of air on this earth, there was noth­ing about the baby to sug­gest that she would become the great­est woodswoman in Ten­nessee. The new­born was scarce­ly taller than her moth­er and couldn’t climb a tree with­out help…she was a full two years old before she built her first log cab­in.” Of course it’s the Swamp Angel’s bat­tle with the huge bear Thun­der­ing Tar­na­tion that is at the heart of the sto­ry. The bear dis­patch­es four woods­men before Swamp Angel sets out. But real­ly, who cares who wins? It’s the out­sized odd­i­ty that’s fun: Swamp Angel las­sos the bear with a tor­na­do; they cre­ate the Great Smoky Moun­tains from the dust of their fight­ing; their snor­ing cre­ates a rock­slide. The unfor­tu­nate Tarnation’s pelt became the Short­grass Prairie. 

This sto­ry calls us all to look around and imag­ine what won­der­ful larg­er-than-life char­ac­ter cre­at­ed our rivers and hills, caves and prairies.

Phyl­lis:  I love this book, with its out­size sto­ry and out­size art. And I love that this is a woman who can lift a whole wag­on train out of Dejec­tion Swamp (which is how she got her name Swamp Angel). When the men sign­ing up to hunt Thun­der­ing Tar­na­tion tell her to go home and quilt or bake a pie, Swamp Angel responds that quilt­ing is men’s work and that she aims to bake a pie—“A bear pie.”  When Thun­der­ing Tar­na­tion meets his end under a tree that Swamp Angel snores down while they are fight­ing in their sleep, she “plucked off her hat, bowed her head, and offered up these words of praise: ‘Con­found it, varmint, if you warn’t the most won­der­ous heap of trou­ble I ever come to grips with!’” Not only does she bake bear pie, she also makes “bear steaks and bear cakes, bear muffins and bear stuf­fin,’ bear roast and bear toast,” enough for a feast and to restock the all the root cel­lars in Ten­nessee just in time for win­ter.

Jack­ie: All sto­ries cre­ate a shared com­mu­ni­ty between writer, or teller, and read­ers, but it seems to me that tall tales have the added advan­tage that we are shar­ing a joke. We all know that a bear and a fight­in’ woman did not cre­ate the Great Smoky Moun­tains. We are all in on the joke. We get it. And that is fun in a world where there is so much we don’t get.

Burt Dow, Deep-Water ManI have always loved the title of Robert McCloskey’s Burt Dow Deep-Water Man. And the book has a musi­cal­i­ty to it that makes me want to read it aloud. Burt is a retired deep-water man with two boats—one he fills with gera­ni­ums and sweet peas (McCoskey calls them “Indi­an peas,” I can’t find ver­i­fi­ca­tion of the sweet peas, but they are climbers and the flow­ers look like sweet peas.) And the oth­er is Tide­ly-Idley with a “make-and-break engine.”  Burt says, “She’s got a few ten­der places in her plank­ing, but you can’t see day­light through her nowhere.” 

One day Burt takes out the Tide­ly-Ide­ly and has an unex­pect­ed adven­ture. He’s fish­ing for cod and hooks a whale. “’Ahoy there, whale!’ bel­lowed Burt. ‘Hold your hors­es! Keep our shirt on! Head into the wind and slack off the main sheet!’ But the whale couldn’t hear because his hear­ing gear was so far upwind from his steer­ing gear.”  This is just the begin­ning. Burt has to hitch a ride inside the whale, paint his way out, then escape a school of whales demand­ing band-aids on their tales. It might have been too much for a younger fish­er­man, but not Burt Dow. He pla­cates the whales and makes it home just as the cock begins to crow.

This book is so much fun. It’s a Mainer’s retelling of Jon­ah with a lit­tle “whale insid­er” art thrown in for fun. And I have to men­tion the lan­guage. McCloskey wrote a sto­ry that should be read out loud on someone’s porch. Burt’s roost­er crows  “Cock­ety-doo­d­ly;” his water pump goes “slish-cashlosh, slish-caslosh;”  Burt always keeps a “firm hand on the tiller;” and the make-and-break engine always goes “clack­ety-bangety.”

An entry on Wikipedia notes that there was a Bert Dow, deep-water man, on Deer Isle where McCloskey lived. He is buried in a Deer Isle ceme­tery. His tomb­stone says: “Bert Dow, Deep Water Man, 1882–1964.”  Robert McCloskey helped pay for the stone.

Phyl­lis:  Burt isn’t phys­i­cal­ly larg­er than life in the way that Swamp Angel or Paul Bun­yan are, but his prob­lems are whale sized, and as with oth­er tall tale fig­ures, no prob­lem is so big Burt can’t solve it.  Along with lan­guage that delights and tick­les, McCloskey makes good use of page turns. Once Burt acci­den­tal­ly hooks the whale’s tail and his gig­gling gull waits to see “what would hap­pen next,” so does the read­er, since start­ing on the next dou­ble-page spread and on many of the fol­low­ing spreads, McCloskey breaks off his sen­tences in the mid­dle. “But the very next moment it came to Burt’s atten­tion that he’d pulled up a”….

We turn the page to fin­ish the sen­tence and read WHALE OF A TAIL. Spread after spread, McCloskey builds sus­pense, and spread after spread, while the sit­u­a­tion seems to wors­en, Burt is nev­er dis­mayed, even when he real­izes that when he asked the whale to swal­low him to save him and his boat AND gull from “a gale of a wind,” he doesn’t know for sure that the whale heard the part where they were sup­posed to be “tem­po­rary guests, so to speak.” Once they are burped free and also sat­is­fy all the oth­er whales who want bandaids on their tales, pump out the Tide­ly-Idley, slish-caslosh, slish-caslosh, crank up the make and break, clack­ety-BANG! Clack­ety-BANG! Burt and his gull sail home in time, we assume, for break­fast. A rol­lick­ing sto­ry full of rol­lick­ing lan­guage and fun.

Lies and Other Tall TalesJack­ie: We are also con­sid­er­ing an inter­gen­er­a­tional effort. Christo­pher Myers illus­trat­ed some of the “Lies and Oth­er Tall Tales” col­lect­ed by Zora Neale Hurston (Harper­Collins, 2005). These are not long sto­ries but are won­der­ful­ly rich in play with lan­guage and exag­ger­a­tion, so won­der­ful that we want to include it even though it’s a fair­ly recent book. “I seen a man so short he had to get up on a box to look over a grain of sand.” That’s one-upped by “That man had a wife and she was so small that she got in a storm and nev­er got wet because she stepped between the drops.” 

This live­ly book might work best for old­er chil­dren. Younger chil­dren could be dis­turbed by some of the exag­ger­a­tions (a man so mean he swal­lows anoth­er man whole).  For those who are ready, this book will bring some smiles—and some under­stand­ing of the ver­bal games of the African Amer­i­can cul­ture. Christo­pher Myers notes that these tales, “were used in some ver­sion of play­ing the dozens…an African Amer­i­can cul­tur­al prac­tice, which if you haven’t heard about it, you bet­ter ask your mama! It includes mama jokes and humor­ous diss­ing, which if you don’t know what diss­ing is, you don’t have the sense God gave a flea.”

Phyl­lis:  As Christo­pher Myers writes, “Liars, back in the day, could tell a lie so good, you didn’t even want to know the truth.” And these lies are so delight­ful and fan­cy-tick­ling that I agree with him. One of my favorites is the folks who built a church on “the poor­est land I ever seed” and had to use ten sacks of fer­til­iz­er before they could “raise a hymn on it.” An author’s note tells how the illus­tra­tions are made from found bits of fab­ric  and paper that Myers has trans­formed into “’quilts’ as wit­ty and beau­ti­ful as the phras­es Zora Neal Hurston found.”

Paula BunyanJack­ie:  Phyl­lis, I can’t quit with­out men­tion­ing your tall tale—Paula Bun­yan (Far­rar, Straus & Giroux, 2009). Paula has way more sense than God gave a flea. She actu­al­ly replants trees where oth­er log­gers have cut them down. And she’s fast. “Paula could run so fast that once when she for­got to do her chores, she ran all the way back to yes­ter­day to fin­ish them.” It must have been fun to re-tell the Paul Bun­yan sto­ry as a green­ing of the earth.

Phyl­lis:  It was fun. The sto­ry start­ed as some­thing my kids and I told one fall while rid­ing on a hay­wag­on to pick Har­al­son apples, our favorites.  And why not anoth­er tall tale woman? What’s against it?

None of us may be as large or fight as fierce­ly as Swamp Angel, we may not know a man so hun­gry he swal­lowed him­self, we may nev­er have to fig­ure out how to get on the out­side of a whale. But these tales remind us that even in our ordi­nary lives we can keep a firm hand on the tiller, come to grips with what­ev­er “won­drous heap of trou­ble” comes our way, and still make it home in time for break­fast.

And speak­ing of break­fast, I don’t mean to brag, but my zuc­chi­ni pound­ed on the door this morn­ing and demand­ed a lat­te and a cin­na­mon crois­sant.  With but­ter.

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Tomi Ungerer: Far Out Toward the Heart

Tomi UngererPhyl­lis: Tomi Unger­er has writ­ten and illus­trat­ed over 30 books for chil­dren, along with over 100 oth­er books. I didn’t know much about him until Jack­ie sug­gest­ed we do a blog on him, and I’m so glad she did. I came home from the library with a stack of his books, which range wide­ly from the ridicu­lous to the mys­te­ri­ous.

One of my favorites is I am Papa Snap and These Are My Favorite No Such Sto­ries, six­teen most­ly absurd sto­ries with illus­tra­tions. One sto­ry is only 14 words long, anoth­er is told in three sen­tences (although the first sen­tence runs for 14 lines and gives a whole brief his­to­ry of the pink gaso­line sta­tion). I par­tic­u­lar­ly love the sto­ry of the very hun­gry sofa and also the sto­ry about Mr. and Mrs. Limpid. Here is the Limpid sto­ry in its entire­ty:

Mr. Limpid is blind.
Mrs. Limpid is lame.
They are old.
They are hap­py.
They have each oth­er.

There’s a whole ten­der life of two peo­ple con­tained in these words, which remind me of my par­ents when they grew elder­ly, one able to dri­ve, the oth­er able to remem­ber where they were going and how to get back home.

Mr. and Mrs. Tuber Sprout

I also love Mr. Tuber Sprout, who every morn­ing for sev­en years runs for the train to work and miss­es it. “The sta­tion clock is always five min­utes ahead of mine,” he exclaims. “But at least it keeps me from going to work.”

These brief, ridicu­lous sto­ries make me want to try to write my own no such sto­ries in which no such things prob­a­bly ever hap­pened (that we know of). But, like Unger­er, we can still imag­ine a world of wacky pos­si­bil­i­ties.

I am Papa Snap and Other No Such StoriesJack­ie: I love these sto­ries, Phyl­lis! And I have nev­er seen them before. Read­ing them was like eat­ing pota­to chips. I kept turn­ing the pages for one more. And some of Ungerer’s phras­es are just hilar­i­ous: Mr. and Mrs. Kaboo­dle buy a new nest from a “local nidol­o­gist.”

Or here is the Doc­tor Stig­ma Lohengreen’s diag­no­sis of Mr. Lido Ran­cid:

There is a PICKLE jammed in your vena cava,
and the gan­gli­at­ed chords of your sym­pa­thet­ic
are all tan­gled up.”

Or,

Zink Slugg bought a new car.
It had lots of cylin­ders,
coör­di­nat­ed cram-notch gears,
cou­pled crush-brakes, two-speed grinders,
cobra uphol­stery,
an elec­tron­ic police detec­tor,
strobe head­lights, and a quan­ti­ty of what­nots.”

CrictorPhyl­lis: I also love Cric­tor, a Read­ing Rain­bow choice that chron­i­cles the adven­tures of an old lady named Madame Louise Bodot in a lit­tle French town and the boa con­stric­tor her son sends her for her birth­day. Upon open­ing the box she first screams but, being prac­ti­cal, then takes the snake to the zoo to make sure he’s not poi­so­nous. He isn’t, and she names him Cric­tor. Most of the book relates their lives togeth­er; I par­tic­u­lar­ly love her cradling Cric­tor in her arms and feed­ing him a bot­tle of milk. She gets palm trees so he will feel at home and knits him a sweater to keep him warm when he wrig­gles behind her in the snow on their walks. Cric­tor goes with her to school one day, where he shapes let­ters and num­bers for the chil­dren, but the real dra­ma begins late in the book, when a bur­glar breaks in and gags and ties Madame Bodot to a chair. Cric­tor attacks and traps the bur­glar in his coils until the police arrive. Crictor’s hero­ism is hon­ored with a medal, a stat­ue, and a park ded­i­cat­ed to him. “Loved and respect­ed by the entire vil­lage, Cric­tor lived a long and hap­py life.”

Jack­ie: I once read an inter­view with Unger­er in which he said:

I iden­ti­fy a lit­tle bit with all of [my heroes]. I’m always on the side of the under­dog. I iden­ti­fy with my snake, my octo­pus, all of my reject­ed ani­mals.“

Fog IslandPhyl­lis: As if absurd sto­ries and boa con­stric­tor heroes weren’t enough, among his oth­er books Unger­er has writ­ten and illus­trat­ed Fog Island about a mys­te­ri­ous island where things might (or might not) have hap­pened. Finn and Cara live on a farm with their moth­er and fish­er­man father, who makes them their own cur­ragh, a boat con­struct­ed of reeds and tar. He tells them to stay clear of Fog Island, which looms off­shore “like a jagged black tooth.” “It’s a doomed and evil place,” he says. “Those who have ven­tured there have nev­er returned.”

One day when Finn and Cara are explor­ing in their cur­ragh a fog rolls in, and strong cur­rents car­ry them out to Fog Island. They fol­low steps up to a door, which is answered by a wiz­ened, white-haired old man who calls him­self the Fog Man and shows them how he makes fog by let­ting water flow in to a deep well of mag­ma. He turns off the fog so they can return home safe­ly the next day, then Finn, Cara, and the Fog Man have a singsong. He makes them a meal and shows them a bed for the night where they sleep cov­ered by a quilt.

They wake the next morn­ing sur­round­ed by desert­ed ruins but with the quilt still tucked over them and two steam­ing bowls of stew beside them. When they leave the island a storm over­takes them, and they are saved by their father and the oth­er fish­er­men who have come look­ing for them. All the neigh­bors cel­e­brate Finn and Cara’s return, but no one believes them about the fog man, and no one wants to vis­it the island to see if their sto­ry is true. Weeks lat­er, Cara pulls a long hair from her soup, and she and Finn chuck­le, rec­og­niz­ing it as one of the Fog Man’s.

Fog Island

Jack­ie: This book seems typ­i­cal of Tomi Ungerer’s work, so inclu­sive. There’s an affec­tion­ate fam­i­ly, a named Evil—Fog Island, and a won­der­ful ambi­gu­i­ty in the end­ing. Who was the fog man? And I also find it inter­est­ing that the father, fol­low­ing received com­mu­ni­ty wis­dom, I think, tells the chil­dren that Fog Island is a “doomed and evil place.” But they find singing and hot soup.

There may be anoth­er con­sis­ten­cy here—a com­plex artist push­ing us to see that a “doomed and evil place” can offer hot soup and a good night’s sleep, a boa con­stric­tor can become a help­ful part of the com­mu­ni­ty.

Most of my chil­dren’s books have fear ele­ments,” Unger­er has said in an inter­view on Fresh Air. “But I must say, too, to bal­ance this fact, that the chil­dren in my books are nev­er scared. … I think fear is an ele­ment which is instilled by the adults a lot of time.”

We see this in Fog Island. When the chil­dren land on Fog Island Finn says, “This must be Fog Island./Let’s find out where those steps lead.” No fear, but curios­i­ty.

Far Out Isn't Far EnoughPhyl­lis: In Far Out Isn’t Far Enough, a doc­u­men­tary about Unger­er, Mau­rice Sendak said of Ungerer’s influ­ence on his own [Sendak’s] work: “I learned to be braver than I was. Unger­er did­n’t mind scar­ing kids, because he believed in their abil­i­ty to cope with and adapt to life’s dif­fi­cul­ties.”

Unger­er him­self learned about liv­ing in fear­ful sit­u­a­tions from an ear­ly age: from eight to thir­teen, he lived under Adolf Hitler’s occu­pa­tion of Alsace and was told in school that Hitler need­ed artists to draw for him. In a Fresh Air inter­view he recalls, “…I had to do a por­trait of the Führer, you know, giv­ing a speech, and I put a stein of beer on this thing. Well, the Führer did­n’t drink, but still, you know, nobody ever object­ed. The thing is, no mat­ter what tyran­ny, you can always get away, maybe not with mur­der, but with a few oth­er things. And your mind is always free. Nobody can take away your mind.” Years lat­er in the Unit­ed States Unger­er would draw anti-war posters dur­ing the Viet Nam war.

Zeralda's OgreJack­ie: He received the Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­son Award in 1998 and is tru­ly a giant. I haven’t read close to all of his sto­ries and espe­cial­ly want to read Zeralda’s Ogre, which Book World called “the most hor­ren­dous, ugliest—yet most beguiling—ogre imag­in­able.”

What I love about his work is that the dots do not have to con­nect. The sto­ries do not get tied up neat­ly at the end. We don’t know about the Fog Man. Zink Slugg’s won­der­ful car rams into a tree and Zink “feels very bad” and that is the end. I also admire the way Unger­er com­bines edgi­ness and heart—feeding a boa con­stric­tor with a bot­tle is such a great exam­ple and only one of many we could point to.

Phyl­lis: It’s so fit­ting that for a time his children’s books were con­sid­ered dan­ger­ous and evil, like Fog Island (because of erot­ic draw­ings he did for adults). But now when we do vis­it these books, we find strange and won­drous things, things not to answer but to ponder—dealing with fear, being sub­ver­sive, and aspir­ing to live a fear­less life.

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Gardening and Farming Delights

 

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Jaster's Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farmer Duck

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

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

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

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

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

Lola Plants a Garden

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

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Spring, Where Are You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First you have brown,
all around you have brown,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring is here at last!”

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

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

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Celebrating Ezra Jack Keats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trip, Jennie's Hat, Dreams

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

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

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

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Liza Ketchum: Serendipity

ph_Ketchum_2015

Liza Ketchum

Serendip­i­ty is one of my favorite words. I love its dance­like sound and the way it trips off the tongue. Accord­ing to my dic­tio­nary, serendip­i­ty means “the fac­ul­ty of mak­ing for­tu­nate dis­cov­er­ies by acci­dent.”

I find the ety­mol­o­gy of words fas­ci­nat­ing. Even as a child, I liked to study the maps that show the rela­tion­ship and ori­gins of Indo-Euro­pean lan­guages. (Here’s an ani­mat­ed ver­sion.) So where does the word serendip­i­ty come from?

My Amer­i­can Her­itage dic­tio­nary traces the word’s ori­gins to the Eng­lish writer Horace Wal­pole, who sup­pos­ed­ly coined the word in a 1754 let­ter to a friend. Wal­pole described a Per­sian fairy tale he had read, con­cern­ing three princes from Serendip. The brothers—highly accom­plished, smart, and artistic—were ban­ished from their king­dom by their father, the king. Wan­der­ing in a for­eign land, they encoun­tered a mer­chant who had lost his camel. The broth­ers used pow­ers of deduction—which we now asso­ciate with detec­tive fiction—to find the camel. Wal­pole said, “They were always mak­ing dis­cov­er­ies, by acci­dent and sagac­i­ty, of things they were not in quest of.” 

Things they were not in quest of. This phrase made me think of oth­er famous dis­cov­er­ies that hap­pen by accident—such as the peni­cillin mold that grew when Alexan­der Flem­ing left a Petri dish on his win­dowsill by mis­take, or the burrs that attached them­selves to George de Mestral’s clothes on a moun­tain hike, giv­ing him the idea for Vel­cro. Serendip­i­ty also makes me think about moments in our writ­ing lives when inci­dents, events, and ideas merge to trig­ger a Eure­ka! moment.

bk_When-Women-Were-BirdsThree years ago, at a Ham­line Uni­ver­si­ty sum­mer res­i­den­cy, I opened a new note­book late one night, and scrawled these words: “The Last Gar­den.” The title had come to me after I read the first two entries in Ter­ry Tem­pest Williams’ bril­liant book, When Women Were Birds, a gift from Phyl­lis Root. Williams wrote the mem­oir after her moth­er died and she uncov­ered a shock­ing truth about her life. I had recent­ly lost both par­ents, so Williams’s top­ic pulled me in. I was also drawn to the book by its for­mat: a series of short vignettes, fork­ing off a sin­gle idea like branch­es on a tree. Vignettes seemed like a man­age­able, less daunt­ing way to deal with per­son­al sub­ject mat­ter. But wait—since when was I plan­ning to write about gar­dens?

That same morn­ing, as we dis­cussed our work­shops, Phyl­lis told me that she planned to ask her stu­dents that great ques­tion: “What would you write if you knew you could not fail?” It made me think of Mary Oliv­er, who demands, in her poem “The Sum­mer Day”: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and pre­cious life?” 

For years I had tried to write a mem­oir about my rela­tion­ship with my grand­moth­er, and the Ver­mont house where I spent my child­hood sum­mers, but I couldn’t find a uni­fy­ing thread. When I wrote those words—“The Last Garden”—I real­ized that gardens—and gardeners—could pro­vide that uni­ty. My hus­band and I had just pur­chased a sweet house, down the road a mile from my grandmother’s old place. The prop­er­ty came with over­grown lilacs and tan­gled, over­grown gar­dens that con­cealed peonies, fox­gloves, and an aspara­gus bed. Though I have gar­dened all my life, I real­ized this would be the last gar­den I would cre­ate from scratch.

Since that moment at Ham­line, the focus of my writ­ing has changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly. In addi­tion to the mem­oir, I’ve been writ­ing essays and arti­cles about nature and the envi­ron­ment. I’m work­ing on two non-fic­tion projects, focused on envi­ron­men­tal sub­jects, with my dear friends Phyl­lis Root and Jack­ie Brig­gs Mar­tin. All thanks to serendip­i­ty.

Per­haps the best thing about serendip­i­ty is that we can’t explain how it hap­pens. Who could pre­dict that the loss of my par­ents, the gift of a wise book writ­ten in an appeal­ing form, and the right ques­tion at the right time—would coin­cide with ideas I was “not in quest of”?

ph_camelMean­while, as I wres­tle with the memoir’s final vignettes, I can’t help think­ing of that miss­ing camel that—as the Serendip broth­ers predicted—was lame, blind in one eye, and lum­bered under the weight of a leak­ing sack of hon­ey, a bag of but­ter, and a preg­nant woman.

Uh oh. Doesn’t that sound like a pic­ture book, wait­ing to hap­pen?

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Two for the Show: What Scares You?

Note to read­ers: we are try­ing a new for­mat this month. We want to make our blog more con­ver­sa­tion­al. Let us know what you think.

Phyl­lis Root:
bk_TwoRamona
What scares you? How do you deal with that fear? And why do so many of us like to scare our­selves sil­ly, as long as we know that every­thing will be all right in the end?

An arti­cle in The Atlantic, Why Do Some Brains Enjoy Fear,” explains how the hor­mone dopamine, released dur­ing scary activ­i­ties makes some of us feel good, espe­cial­ly if we feel safe. If we know those ghosts in the haunt­ed house aren’t real­ly ghosts, we can let our­selves be as scared as we want by their sud­den appear­ance.

In Ramona the Brave Ramona hides a book with a scary goril­la pic­ture under a couch cush­ion when the book becomes too ter­ri­fy­ing. She’s in charge of how scared she wants to be, and books offer us that oppor­tu­ni­ty: we can close them if they’re scary, or even look ahead to the end to be sure every­thing will be fine.

Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin:
We can give our­selves lit­tle dos­es of scare. Dos­es that feel like fun because we are watch­ing events hap­pen to some­one else.

Phyl­lis:
bk_TwoLittleOldLady
The Lit­tle Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Any­thing by Lin­da Williams, illus­trat­ed by Megan Lloyd, is a deli­cious­ly scary expe­ri­ence. On her way home through the for­est as it starts to get dark, the lit­tle old lady meets two big shoes that go CLOMP, CLOMP. Since she’s not afraid of any­thing, she con­tin­ues toward home—but the shoes clomp behind her, as do, even­tu­al­ly, a pair of pants that go WIGGLE, WIGGLE, a shirt that goes SHAKE, SHAKE, gloves that go CLAP, CLAP, and a hat that goes NOD, NOD. To all of them she says “Get out of my way!” because, of course, she’s not afraid of anything—although she does walk faster and faster. When she meets the scary pump­kin head that goes BOO, BOO! she runs for home and locks the door. Then comes the KNOCK, KNOCK on the door. Because she’s not afraid of any­thing she answers the door and sees the whole assem­blage of cloth­ing and pump­kin head. “You can’t scare me,” she says. “Then what’s to become of us?” the pump­kin asks. The lit­tle old lady’s idea for a solu­tion makes every­one hap­py. Part of the genius of this book is that it invites lis­ten­ers to join in on the sound effects, giv­ing them an active part in the sto­ry as well as an out­let for build­ing ten­sion.

bk_TwoSeussThe nar­ra­tor in What Was I Scared Of?, writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Dr. Seuss, only has to con­front a pair of emp­ty pants (a fun twist on hav­ing the pants scared off of one), and like the old lady, this nar­ra­tor claims he isn’t scared of any­thing. Still, when the pants move, he high­tails it out of there, and each time the pants show up again, whether rid­ing a bike or row­ing a boat, the nar­ra­tor runs from them. When he unex­pect­ed­ly encoun­ters the pants and hollers for help, the pants break down in tears; it turns out they are as scared of him as he is of them. The nar­ra­tor responds empa­thet­i­cal­ly by putting his arm around the pants’ waist and calm­ing the “poor emp­ty pants with nobody inside them.” Nei­ther is scared of the oth­er any longer.

Jack­ie:
This book has always been a favorite at our house. Who would not be scared of such pants? And this list of fright­ened respons­es is so inclusive—and so fun to read out loud:

I yelled for help. I screamed. I shrieked.

I howled. I yowled. I cried,

Oh save me from these pale green pants

With nobody inside!”

Dr. Seuss’s lan­guage in this sto­ry fre­quent­ly makes us laugh. One of my favorites:

And the next night, I was fish­ing

for Doubt-trout on Roover Riv­er

When those pants came row­ing toward me!

Well, I start­ed in to shiv­er.

I’m not a fish­ing per­son, but I might head out to Roover Riv­er for a cou­ple of Doubt-trout.

bk_TwoNightmareAnoth­er sto­ry in which the fear­some is also fear­ful is There’s a Night­mare in my Clos­et. I can’t believe this Mer­cer May­er book is forty-sev­en years old. It seems as cur­rent a child­hood wor­ry as step­ping on a crack in the side­walk. Mayer’s illus­tra­tions are perfect—we can almost hear the silence in the illus­tra­tion in which the kid tip­toes back to bed, after clos­ing the clos­et door.

Phyl­lis:
Fac­ing your fears and befriend­ing them runs through all of these sto­ries. Vir­ginia Hamilton’s Wee Win­nie Witch’s Skin­ny, an orig­i­nal tale based on research into black folk­lore and illus­trat­ed by Bar­ry Moser, involves actu­al­ly out-wit­ting a very scary being. With more text and a more sto­ry-telling tone, the tale relates how James Lee’s Uncle Big Antho­ny is attacked by a cat who is real­ly Wee Win­nie Witch in dis­guise and who rides him through the sky at night. As weeks pass, Uncle Big Antho­ny “got lean and bent-over tired. He looked like some about gone, Uncle Shrunk­en Antho­ny.” Mama Granny comes to the res­cue with her spice-hot pep­per witch-be-gone.

bk_TwoWeeWitchWhen Wee Win­nie Witch takes off her skin that night to ride Uncle Big Antho­ny, she snatch­es James Lee from his win­dow and takes him rid­ing with them through the sky where he is both ter­ri­fied and thrilled. When Wee Win­nie Witch returns to the ground and puts on her skin again, she finds that Mama Granny has treat­ed the skin’s inside with her spice-hot pep­per witch-be-gone. The skin squeezes Wee Win­nie Witch so hard that she shriv­els into pieces on the floor. Uncle Big Antho­ny grad­u­al­ly returns to his for­mer self, and although James Lee nev­er wants to see a “skin­ny” again, the thought of the night-air ride up in the twin­kling stars still makes him say “Whew-wheee!”

Jack­ie:
This tale is gripping—and for me, a bit dis­turb­ing, or maybe thought-pro­vok­ing. I was trou­bled by the thought and image of the Wee Win­nie Witch rid­ing Big Uncle Antho­ny with the bri­dle in his mouth. But, as I thought about it, I won­dered if Hamil­ton was pos­si­bly remind­ing us of the degra­da­tion that slav­ery brought to black peo­ple. So many were bri­dled and lashed and worked to death. Hard to say. In any case this sto­ry has plen­ty of scare and a strong hero in Mama Granny.

Phyl­lis:
Ter­ri­fied, thrilled, and brought back to a sense of safe­ty again: these sto­ries do all that but with dif­fer­ent lev­els of bk_TwoHamburgerter­ror. And because pic­ture books are usu­al­ly read aloud by a com­fort­ing adult and because we’re free to shut them and even put them under the couch cush­ion, we can choose how scared to be, know­ing that we can safe­ly close the book. But like James Lee, we might also say “Whew-wheee!”—then open the book to read it again.

And what kinds of sto­ries do ghosts tell to scare them­selves? Read The Haunt­ed Ham­burg­er by David LaRochelle and find out.

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Slideshow: Block Print Illustration

Eric Rohmann’s won­der­ful illus­tra­tions for Bulldozer’s Big Day were made using block prints, also called relief prints.  This tech­nique has long been used to illus­trate children’s books, espe­cial­ly ear­ly ABC books such as the The Lad­der to Learn­ing by Miss Lovechild, pub­lished in 1852 by the New York firm R.H. Pease.

Ladder

The Bookol­o­gist has put togeth­er a slide show of some of our more recent print-illus­trat­ed books. Many of these are Calde­cott medal or hon­or books. You can find an inter­est­ing dis­cus­sion of Calde­cott books illus­trat­ed with print­mak­ing tech­niques here.

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From the Editor

by Mar­sha Qua­ley

written by Candace Fleming  illustrated by Eric Rohmann  Atheneum, 2015

Atheneum, 2015

Wel­come! It’s the first Tues­day of the month and time to launch a new month of Bookol­o­gy. Our Octo­ber Book­storm™ has as its cen­ter­piece the won­der­ful pic­ture book Bulldozer’s Big Day, the first time we’ve focused on a pic­ture book for young read­ers.

Bulldozer’s Big Day was writ­ten by Sib­ert hon­or author Can­dace Flem­ing and illus­trat­ed by Calde­cott Medal­ist Eric Rohmann. We will fea­ture inter­views with both, begin­ning today with our con­ver­sa­tion with Eric Rohmann.

Rohmann’s block print art for Bull­doz­er trig­gered a dis­cus­sion between var­i­ous bookol­o­gists about oth­er print-illus­trat­ed children’s books, and put togeth­er a slide show of some of the stand-outs of the last cou­ple of decades. Have your own favorite? Let us know.

Our reg­u­lar colum­nists will be writ­ing through the month about their lat­est book or writ­ing dis­cov­er­ies; today: Read­ing Ahead author Vic­ki Palmquist on Isabelle Day Refus­es to Die of a Bro­ken Heart, a new mid­dle grade nov­el by Jane St. Antho­ny and many oth­er books that deal with “Laugh­ter and Grief.”

Don’t for­get to check out our two lat­est Authors Emer­i­tus posts about Vir­ginia Lee Bur­ton and Lynd Ward, who both used block print tech­niques in their illus­tra­tion work.  

bk_WillAllen

Eric Shabazz Larkin, illus.
Read­ers to Eaters, 2013

Octo­ber is a month of change in the north­ern hemi­sphere, so why not change a world record? Two orga­ni­za­tions are look­ing to claim the world record of most chil­dren-read-to-in-a-day.

On Octo­ber 19, 2015, Points of Light, a Hous­ton-based non­prof­it, will attempt to estab­lish a new world record by ral­ly­ing vol­un­teers to read to over 300,000 chil­dren in 24 hours. The cam­paign book for this attempt is Farmer Will Allen and the Grow­ing Table, writ­ten by Bookol­o­gy colum­nist Jack­ie Brig­gs Mar­tin!

The cur­rent world record is held by the non­prof­it Jump­start, which in asso­ci­a­tion with Can­dlewick Press, has for ten years run a glob­al cam­paign, Read for the Record® that gen­er­ates pub­lic sup­port for high-qual­i­ty ear­ly learn­ing by mobi­liz­ing mil­lions of chil­dren and adults to take part

Noah Z. Jones, illus. Candlewick, 2005

Noah Z. Jones, illus.

Can­dlewick, 2005

in the world’s largest shared read­ing expe­ri­ence. This year’s attempt is sched­uled for Octo­ber 22; the cam­paign book is Not Nor­man: A Gold­fish Sto­ry, by Kel­ly Ben­nett.

And, final­ly, it is a truth uni­ver­sal­ly acknowl­edged that any Octo­ber issue of a mag­a­zine must include some­thing relat­ed to Hal­loween.  We’ve got that cov­ered with this month’s Two for the Show col­umn: “What Scares You?,” in which Phyl­lis Root and Jack­ie Brig­gs Mar­tin dis­cuss the role of fear in books for young read­ers and spot­light a few books that deliv­er on a scary promise. Look for their con­ver­sa­tion Octo­ber 14.

As always, thank you for tak­ing the time to vis­it Bookol­o­gy.

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Two for the Show

by Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin and Phyl­lis Root

9_9TwoForMufaroWe want to start by say­ing that we are lov­ing the chance to look at for­got­ten books or won­der­ful clas­sics from the past that this blog has giv­en us. And this time, when we were think­ing of what we might look at, John Step­toe came to mind— maybe because we were con­sid­er­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties in August and he died in August of 1989. We all remem­ber Step­toe was one of the first African Amer­i­cans to write and illus­trate children’s books. He was bril­liant, wrote his first book, Ste­vie, when he was six­teen years old, and was only eigh­teen when it was pub­lished. He wrote and illus­trat­ed many oth­er books in his short life. (He died at age 39).

One of his best known is Mufaro’s Beau­ti­ful Daugh­ters (1987). We think this is a clas­sic. The daugh­ters are indeed beau­ti­ful, the set­ting is beau­ti­ful and so care­ful­ly ren­dered that we want­ed to touch the stones and caress the birds. For this re-telling of a Zim­bab­wean folk­tale Step­toe researched the flo­ra and fau­na of Zim­bab­we for two years. And though it reads like a folk tale, the illus­tra­tions are done with such care that when we read it we almost believe it had hap­pened. Of course a green snake could become a hand­some African king.

The sto­ry is love­ly. Mufaro has two daugh­ters who look beau­ti­ful but only one who acts with beau­ty and grace. Man­yara is “almost always in a bad tem­per. She teased her sis­ter when­ev­er their father’s back was turned, and she had been heard to say, ‘Some­day, Nyasha, I will be a queen, and you will be a ser­vant in my house­hold.’” Nyasha grows veg­eta­bles, and is so kind that birds are not afraid to be close and a snake becomes her com­pan­ion. Because her beau­ty is inter­nal and exter­nal, she is the one cho­sen by the king and Man­yara becomes her ser­vant.

It’s a great expe­ri­ence to read his books now and think back on how rev­o­lu­tion­ary they must have seemed when they were pub­lished. He was rev­o­lu­tion­ary and vision­ary. He want­ed to write books in which African Amer­i­can chil­dren could see them­selves and be proud of their cul­ture. And that is so sim­i­lar to what we want today with the cam­paign We Need Diverse Books. We found our­selves pro­found­ly wish­ing that he had lived to give us more books, lived to com­ment on the read­ing lives of chil­dren.

Wendy Wat­son did a love­ly appre­ci­a­tion of John Steptoe’s art in her blog in August 2014.

9_10TwoForBeautyWe found a more recent re-telling of an old tale on the Kirkus “Best Books of 2014 Which Fea­ture Diverse Char­ac­ters” list–Beau­ty and the Beast by H. Chuku Lee and illus­trat­ed by his wife Pat Cum­mings. Once again we have beau­ti­ful daughters–three who present their father with a long list when he goes to the city and one who only asks for a rose. The sto­ry is set in West Africa and is told in the first per­son by “Beau­ty,” in direct and expres­sive lan­guage. And the illus­tra­tions are fas­ci­nat­ing, full of detail and pat­tern, done with care and respect. This is what H. Chuku Lee said about writ­ing this book in The Horn Book (June 2015):

Our ver­sion of “Beau­ty” is an act of hope, the belief that when giv­en a new and dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on an accept­ed sto­ry with uni­ver­sal themes of love, mag­ic, and promis­es made, we can tran­scend the notion that only some peo­ple are equipped for change. That uni­ver­sal feel­ings like love, fear, and hope are in fact found in all peo­ple. And that the sto­ry is just as pow­er­ful no mat­ter what the cul­tur­al set­ting. Most audi­ences appre­ci­ate and even cheer at the idea that some­one would sac­ri­fice her own safe­ty in the hope of pro­tect­ing some­one she loves. And that kind­ness and love can mag­i­cal­ly trans­form a beast into a prince.

And Pat Cummings’s com­ments:

His [H. Chuku Lee’s] ver­sion, told from Beauty’s point of view, seemed ele­gant and con­tem­po­rary. And I want­ed to update Beau­ty as well, to show her as a young woman of col­or whose world clear­ly evokes Africa. The Beast’s scar­i­fi­ca­tions even sug­gest a par­tic­u­lar tribe. But although clas­sics tran­scend time, trends, and cul­tures, some ele­ments of the sto­ry seemed etched in stone: it had to be a rose, and the Beast had to be part ani­mal. “Beau­ty and the Beast” has more than its share of clas­sic themes: love con­quers all, true beau­ty lies with­in, appear­ances can be mis­lead­ing, mag­ic can save the day…But Chuku hit upon one I hadn’t con­sid­ered before, one that res­onat­ed with me while illus­trat­ing the sto­ry. For me, it has become the new time­less theme at the heart of the sto­ry: the pow­er of a promise.

Our only com­plaint is that the Beau­ty on the cov­er is quite a bit lighter than the Beau­ty in the book. It will be a won­der­ful day when that is not so. But we have hope. And the pow­er of the promise to strive to do bet­ter, to val­ue all the peo­ples of the world and all the col­ors of the world.

 

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Picture Books and Dementia

by Jen­ny Bar­low

We could reach her through nurs­ery rhymes.

She reg­u­lar­ly sat in the liv­ing room, wrapped in a blan­ket in her wheel­chair. To peo­ple who don’t under­stand, she would seem with­ered, vacant, even loose in the joints, and maybe very shab­by. But we stroked her palsied hands and gen­tly called her name. On occa­sion, she’d open her eyes.

Hick­o­ry dick­o­ry,” we’d start.

Often fast, like an auc­tion­eer, she’d respond, “DOCK! The mouse ran up the clock, the sheep’s in the mead­ow the cow’s in the corn, hick­o­ry dick­o­ry dock!”

Ok, so she wasn’t perfect…but she deserved points for keep­ing with­in the nurs­ery rhyme genre. Demen­tia vis­its peo­ple dif­fer­ent­ly, but com­mon­ly the mem­o­ries it spares are ones from child­hood. Some­one, like­ly this woman’s moth­er, 90 some years ago, before WWI, before women’s suf­frage, before radio, took the time to sit with this now-wrin­kled woman as a then-chub­by-faced baby and sing her nurs­ery rhymes.

Near­ly a cen­tu­ry lat­er, we were blessed to enjoy the echoes of that love between par­ent and child.

Barlow_Rosie

Jen­ny in cos­tume for an activ­i­ty at work where she used the chil­dren’s book Rosie the Riv­et­er by Pen­ny Col­man, and had a dis­cus­sion about WWII,

We must not lim­it our­selves. Peo­ple of all ages and sit­u­a­tions love pic­ture books for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. Kunio Yanagida’s pic­ture book was cit­ed in The Jour­nal of Inter­gen­er­a­tional Rela­tion­ships to express why this is true:

There is a Japan­ese say­ing that one should read a pic­ture book at three dif­fer­ent times through one’s life: at first, in child­hood; sec­ond, dur­ing the peri­od of rear­ing chil­dren, and third, in lat­er life. Old­er peo­ple are thought to be par­tic­u­lar­ly impressed and feel sym­pa­thy when read­ing pic­ture books because of their rich life expe­ri­ences.1

Viral videos show how peo­ple momen­tar­i­ly awak­en hiber­nat­ing per­son­al­i­ties by hear­ing just the right song. They use the scaf­fold­ing of the music to sing words they can’t say on their own in a sen­tence, yet their expres­sions sug­gest they very much know the con­text. The same can be true with read­ing.

It is now uni­ver­sal­ly accept­ed that music should be used dai­ly to empow­er the lives of those with demen­tia. It is time for read­ing, inde­pen­dent­ly or in a group, to become revered in a par­al­lel light. Reflect­ing back on how the woman remem­bered nurs­ery rhymes, the leap in log­ic with children’s sto­ries becom­ing senior’s sto­ries isn’t so out­landish.

The mod­ern day world of children’s lit­er­a­ture is vast, with clas­sics like Peter Pan or The Vel­veteen Rab­bit to sophis­ti­cat­ed non-fic­tion about his­tor­i­cal moments this old­er gen­er­a­tion cre­at­ed. Well-writ­ten sto­ries stay with us, change us into bet­ter human beings, and make our own hearts wis­er. C.S. Lewis once said, “A chil­dren’s sto­ry that can only be enjoyed by chil­dren is not a good chil­dren’s sto­ry in the slight­est.”

The words on the page, the illus­tra­tions woven with the sto­ry­line, the length, the page turns, the weight of the book itself: all of these aspects sup­port an inter­gen­er­a­tional mar­ket. Pre­co­cious pic­ture books work espe­cial­ly well as seniors, even those with advanced demen­tia, usu­al­ly retain much of their vocab­u­lary.  

The form and for­mat of pic­ture books are also effec­tive for engag­ing these read­ers. Although we see old­er folks sit­ting with their cup of black cof­fee and morn­ing paper, the font size of newsprint can be hard to deci­pher, the busy­ness of the ads mixed with blocks of dif­fer­ent arti­cles can be con­fus­ing, and, due to atten­tion dif­fi­cul­ties caused by dis­ease and stress, the length of news sto­ries, let alone nov­els, can be over­whelm­ing. The design and length of pic­ture books, on the oth­er hand, wel­comes these same read­ers.

The Alzheimer’s Asso­ci­a­tion reports there are cur­rent­ly over five mil­lion peo­ple in the Unit­ed States with this type of demen­tia, and that num­ber may triple in the next 35 years.2 The per­cent­age of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion made of chil­dren ages 12 and younger will dip in that same time peri­od.3 The busi­ness of writ­ing pic­ture books and plac­ing them with the per­fect read­er can, and should, grow up.  

There is a blue ocean of under-served and under­es­ti­mat­ed peo­ple, bro­ken-in-body chil­dren-at-heart, who need us. Pic­ture books can help fam­i­lies express love to those they thought they had lost. We already have the pow­er, we just need the refram­ing mind­set. It’s sim­ple, real­ly; we can even reach them through nurs­ery rhymes.

Long live “children’s” lit­er­a­ture.

Note from the Bookol­o­gist: Jen­ny sug­gests these pic­ture books to begin with:

Grand­fa­ther’s Jour­ney by Allen Say

The Name Quilt by Phyl­lis Root, illus. by Mar­got Apple

The Road to Oz: Twists, Turns, Bumps, and Tri­umphs in the Life of L.Frank Baum by Kath­leen Krull, illus. Kevin Hawkes

A Nation’s Hope: the Sto­ry of Box­ing Leg­end Joe Lewis by Matt De La Pena, illus. Kadir Nel­son

Up North at the Cab­in by Mar­sha Wil­son Chall, illus. Steve John­son

Sources:

1. http://pages.stern.nyu.edu/~kbrabazo/Eval-repository/Repository-Articles/reprints%20japan%20program.pdf

2. http://www.alz.org/facts/overview.asp

3. http://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/53_appendix1.pdf

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Going Wild

By Phyl­lis Root and Jack­ie Brig­gs Mar­tin

Who doesn’t go a lit­tle wild when spring final­ly arrives? And even though we set out to choose pairs of books to write about, this month we couldn’t resist a hat trick of three books. At the heart of each is not only wild­ness but also how those around us react when our wild natures leak out.

cover image

by Mau­rice Sendak

At the cen­ter of the first two books is a yearn­ing to live in the world of one’s own choos­ing. In Where the Wild Things Are, the book against which we still mea­sure all oth­er pic­ture books, Max, sent sup­per­less to his room for wild behav­ior, con­jures up a for­est, a boat, and an ocean and sails away to where the wild things live. The wild things make him their king, and he declares a wild rumpus—until he becomes lone­ly and wants to be “where some­one loved him best of all.” When Max sails back into his own room, his sup­per awaits him, still hot and proof that his moth­er does indeed love him. With Sendak’s clear con­ci­sion of lan­guage and syn­tax, we’ve gone on a wild jour­ney, com­plete with rum­pus, and returned to know we are loved. Best of all.

cover image

by Peter Brown

Mr. Tiger Goes Wild’s epony­mous pro­tag­o­nist also yearns to live by his own rules. Even Brown’s art makes the case in the begin­ning that Mr. Tiger is a more col­or­ful char­ac­ter than the upright towns­peo­ple, shown in shades of brown and gray while Mr. Tiger him­self is orange down to his dia­logue bub­bles. Bored with being prop­er in a prop­er soci­ety, he walks on all fours, roars in pub­lic, and swims in a pub­lic foun­tain. When he emerge clothes-free, he has clear­ly gone too far, and the towns­peo­ple strong­ly sug­gest he take his wild self off to the wilder­ness, where he goes com­plete wild—until he, too, grows lone­ly. Return­ing to the town he dons a tee shirt and shorts that his friends pro­vide him and dis­cov­ers that the towns­peo­ple them­selves have changed. Some go on all fours, some walk upright, some still dress ele­gant­ly, some wear casu­al clothes. In this changed soci­ety (and changed, we infer, because of Mr. Tiger’s actions) “Mr. Tiger felt free to be him­self. And so did every­one else.”

by David Small

by David Small

Imo­gene in Imogene’s Antlers has wild­ness thrust upon her in the form of an enor­mous pair of antlers with which she awak­ens one Thurs­day. While the antlers com­pli­cate her morn­ing rou­tine (“Get­ting dressed was dif­fi­cult, and going through a door now took some think­ing”) Imo­gene seems cheer­i­ly accept­ing of the trans­for­ma­tion. Not so Imogene’s moth­er who faints when she sees her daughter’s new appendages. Imogene’s broth­er Nor­man takes the aca­d­e­m­ic approach and announces that Imo­gene has turned into a rare minia­ture elk. Their moth­er faints again. An attempt to hide the antlers under an enor­mous hat leads to still more faint­ing. Unlike Max’s moth­er, who loves her wild son best of all, or the towns­peo­ple who ulti­mate­ly accept Mr. Tiger for him­self, Imogene’s moth­er can­not cope. Luck­i­ly, the cook and kitchen maid admire Imogene’s antlers, deck her out with donuts for the birds, and look for­ward to dec­o­rat­ing her come Christ­mas. At the end of her event­ful day Imo­gene kiss­es her fam­i­ly and heads to bed. The next morn­ing her antlers have dis­ap­peared. As she peeks around the cor­ner into the kitchen, her moth­er is over­joyed that Imo­gene is back to normal—until a smil­ing Imo­gene enters the room, her pea­cock tail spread behind her. We assume that faint­ing fol­lows.

While Imo­gene doesn’t choose her changes and nev­er engages in any­thing wilder than slid­ing down the ban­is­ter, she copes admirably with the unpre­dictabil­i­ty that marks child­hood. At times we all might need to look for sup­port and love beyond the folks from whom we most expect it and remem­ber to love our own wild, clothes-free, or antlered selves.

Wild­ness, love, accep­tance. Who doesn’t want it all? And why not? What’s against it?

So go ahead.

Be a lit­tle wild.

Like char­ac­ters in these books, we promise we’ll still love you.

 

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Skinny Dip with Phyllis Root

cover imageWhat keeps you up at night?

My cat Catali­na keeps me up at night, meow­ing and wan­der­ing back and forth over me, look­ing for our oth­er cat Spike, who died last fall and with whom she’d been togeth­er since kit­ten­hood.

What is your proud­est career moment?

I have two, and they hap­pened close togeth­er. When Big Mom­ma Makes the World had its launch in Lon­don, the Lon­don plan­e­tar­i­um was filled with chil­dren, and some­one nar­rat­ed the text while Helen Oxenbury’s amaz­ing art was pro­ject­ed onto the plan­e­tar­i­um ceil­ing. The lights all went out when Big Mom­ma made the dark, and then the stars filled the sky. At the end of the book the Lon­don Gospel choir sang, and all the chil­dren waved the bal­loon sculp­tures and swords in time to the music.

cover imageNot long after, I vis­it­ed a school on the Nava­jo reser­va­tion where my daugh­ter was vol­un­teer­ing and read Rat­tle­trap Car to all the class­es at the school. Back in the trail­er where she stayed, I was help­ing my daugh­ter pack when one of the lit­tle boys from the school, maybe six years old, burst in, saw me, cried, “Bing Bang Pop!” and laughed and laughed. Sel­dom has a book of mine received such a joy­ous reac­tion.

What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done?

ph_ZambeziRiver

Zam­bezi Riv­er, Africa

Some days I think just get­ting out of bed and sit­ting down to write is the bravest thing I ever do. Oth­er times I think it was stand­ing on the edge of a live vol­cano or white­wa­ter raft­ing down the Zam­bezi riv­er. Almost every­thing scares me, and I like the quote (although I can’t remem­ber who said it and I’m prob­a­bly man­gling it), “Use all your courage today. We’ll get more tomor­row.”

What’s the first book you remem­ber read­ing?

A Babar book, writ­ten in long­hand rather than type­set, in the book­mo­bile that came at the foot of the hill where we lived.

In what Olympic sport would you like to win a gold medal?

Bas­ket­ball. Unless there’s a medal for read­ing.

What TV show can’t you turn off?

I no longer have a tele­vi­sion, so this one is hard to answer. I watch a few shows on my lap­top once in a while, and the one I watch most is the Rachel Mad­dow Show.

 

 

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Two for the Show

 

by Jack­ie Brig­gs Mar­tin and Phyl­lis Root

Martin and Root

Jack­ie Brig­gs Mar­tin (l) an Phyl­lis Root ®

We both love find­ing for­got­ten trea­sures in the “removed from cir­cu­la­tion” sec­tions of libraries or in sec­ond hand book­stores. Some of these books call to us because we remem­ber them from our child­hoods: the Babar books writ­ten out in long­hand, the Flic­ka, Ric­ka, Dic­ka sto­ries about Swedish triplets, Mar­cia Brown’s Stone Soup.

Some books enchant that we’ve nev­er read before: When the Wind Blew by Mar­garet Wise Brown, Run, Run, Run by Clement Hurd, The Trea­sure of Topolobam­po by Scott O’Dell (and illus­trat­ed by the won­der­ful Lynd Ward). These books seem like for­got­ten trea­sures that we wish would be remem­bered. They remind us, as well, that the sto­ries we tell now are very much akin to the sto­ries told before us. The length may dif­fer, the tone may have changed with time, but the hearts of these sto­ries still con­nect with read­ers today.

We want to look at sto­ries whose hearts have stayed strong, whether those sto­ries are fifty years old or fif­teen years old—or even more recent. We hope you, too, will find the old­er sto­ries enchant­i­ng enough to look them up, either in libraries on in online book sites such as Alib­ris or Abe­Books. Or per­haps, like we do, you might wan­der the aisles of book­stores and library shops, look­ing for that book that reach­es out, taps you on the shoul­der, and says, “Read me. You’ll be glad you did.”

Our first finds have to do with moth­ers, a good top­ic for ear­ly May. We are call­ing it “What’s a moth­er to do?”

Moms are the pole stars of child­hood, the ones who make us feel safe in the scari­est, wor­ry­ing-est of times. And in this, our first Two for the Show col­umn, we want to take a look at two clas­sic pic­ture books about Moms and see what the moms are doing.

Monster Mama coverMon­ster Mama, writ­ten by Liz Rosen­berg and illus­trat­ed by Stephen Gam­mell (Philomel, 1993) cel­e­brates lan­guage and Moms. It begins:

Patrick Edward was a won­der­ful boy, but his moth­er was a mon­ster. She lived in a big cave at the back of the house. [page turn]

Some­times she paint­ed, some­times she gar­dened, and some­times she tossed Patrick Edward light­ly up and down in the air, for fun.

She also teach­es Patrick Edward how to roar and how to cast a spell that could put almost any­one to sleep. One day he runs into bul­lies who tie him to a tree and say, “Your moth­er wears army boots.” Patrick Edward roars, breaks away, and chas­es the boys. “Who knows what might have hap­pened next—but Mon­ster Mama heard the echoes of his roar. She zoomed out of her cave…” and straight to Patrick Edward. Once things are set to right and they’ve all shared cake (which the bul­lies made) she says to Patrick Edward, “No mat­ter where you go, or what you do…I will be there. Because I am your moth­er, even if I am a monster—and I love you.”

What we love in this book is the shim­mer­ing ques­tion: Is she real­ly a mon­ster? She gar­dens, she toss­es light­ly, she likes sweets. But she is fierce and she can cast spells. There is humor in this ques­tion and humor in the language—“Villains, farewell!” Patrick Edward says to the bul­lies. And, “Strength is for the wise, not the reckless.—More cake please.”

Hazel coverIn Hazel’s Amaz­ing Moth­er by Rose­mary Wells (Dial, 1985) Hazel goes off on her own to “buy some­thing nice” for a pic­nic. She gets lost. And that’s when the bul­lies show up. They take Hazel’s doll and throw her until the stuff­ing falls out. Hazel cries, “Oh, Mother…Mother, I need you.” Just then a wind comes up, blows the pic­nic blanket—along with Hazel’s moth­er— right over the town into the very tree under which Hazel sat. Hazel’s moth­er takes charge.

A toma­to hit Doris smack between the eyes.

Don’t make a move with­out fix­ing Eleanor!” Hazel’s moth­er roared.

She also rum­bles, laughs thun­der­ous­ly, brings about repairs.

Oh, moth­er,” said Hazel, “‘how did you do it?”

It must have been the pow­er of love,” said Hazel’s moth­er.

These two sto­ries are fun­ny, not trea­cly. When Hazel’s moth­er tells the mean Doris to fix Hazel’s doll, she toss­es down a pock­et sewing kit—and three more toma­toes. The bul­lies don’t just work at fix­ing— “The boys scrubbed fever­ish­ly. Doris sewed like a machine.”

Nana coverAnd these sto­ries are reas­sur­ing. Kids know they can’t do it all—even though it seems we some­times expect them to in our books. How many times have we heard that kids should solve their own prob­lems in our sto­ries? Per­haps that’s chang­ing. Nana in the City by Lau­ren Castil­lo (Clar­i­on, 2014)—a 2015 Calde­cott Hon­or Book—features a grand­moth­er who knits a cape for her grand­son who’s wor­ried about being in the city. The cape does the trick, and the grand­son begins to enjoy the city. It’s not bad for kids to see exam­ples of grown-ups who can help. They are the bridge to get kids to their own stronger place.

A few oth­er books fea­tur­ing moth­ers:

  • Owl Babies by Mar­tin Wad­dell
  • Run­away Bun­ny by Mar­garet Wise Brown
  • Are you My Moth­er? by P.D. East­man
  • A Chair for My Moth­er by Vera B. Williams
  • Feed­ing the Sheep by Leda Schu­bert

 

 

 

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Partners in the Dance: From Fiction to Nonfiction and Back Again

by Liza Ketchum

Liza's nonfiction bookshelf (Click to enlarge)

Liza­’s non­fic­tion book­shelf (Click to enlarge.)

This week, while I pre­pared for a talk at AWP (Asso­ci­a­tion of Writ­ing Pro­grams) on writ­ing non-fic­tion biogra­phies for kids, I thought about how I enjoy research­ing both non­fic­tion and fic­tion titles. Yet a gulf often sep­a­rates the two gen­res. In my local library, you turn right at the top of the stairs for the non­fic­tion stacks and left to peruse the nov­els. The same divi­sion holds true in the children’s room down­stairs. In my own writ­ing stu­dio, non­fic­tion books fill one shelf, while nov­els threat­en to top­ple anoth­er. Yet ele­ments of one often bleed into the oth­er.

I have always been fas­ci­nat­ed by the role of women in Amer­i­can pio­neer his­to­ry. My first YA nov­el, West Against the Wind, drew heav­i­ly on 19th cen­tu­ry diaries, let­ters, and news­pa­pers. The facts of the time shaped and inspired the sto­ry. A few years lat­er, I was asked to write a non­fic­tion book on the Cal­i­for­nia Gold Rush. For that book, I drew both on pri­ma­ry sources I’d used in my nov­el, as well as on new mate­r­i­al I uncov­ered in such won­der­ful resources as The Hunt­ing­ton Library in San Meri­no, CA

An edi­tor at Lit­tle, Brown was inter­est­ed in the sto­ry of the child per­former Lot­ta Crab­tree, whom I pro­filed in The Gold Rush. Could I write about eight adven­tur­ous pio­neer women like Lot­ta, who “broke the rules” and made his­to­ry dur­ing that time? I agreed and end­ed up with my non­fic­tion book Into a New Coun­try.

note basket

Gold Rush notes (Click to enlarge.)

By now, I had a huge box of notes and images on the pio­neer peri­od. I thought I was fin­ished with that era, but the dance con­tin­ued. In the process of writ­ing The Gold Rush, I uncov­ered infor­ma­tion about chil­dren who also caught “gold fever.” They panned for gold along­side their par­ents, helped them run stores or restau­rants, and per­formed in saloons—where some girls ran hair­pins along cracks in the floor­boards to col­lect gold dust.

Two small items from my research went straight into my Idea File. One was that gangs of boys in San Fran­cis­co could make more money—selling six-month-old East Coast news­pa­pers on the street—than their par­ents, who strug­gled to sur­vive in that hurly-burly town. Anoth­er was a news­pa­per item about a boy who sur­vived an acci­den­tal bal­loon ascent. He became the first per­son to see the bay area from the air.

Those stories—and some nag­ging questions—stayed with me. What if a girl want­ed to be a news­boy? What if the boys wouldn’t let her in? And what if her fam­i­ly arrived in San Fran­cis­co pen­ni­less: could she help them sur­vive? And what if she tried to get a news scoop on a bal­loon ascent?        

bk_newsgirl_120.jpgI wrote News­girl to answer those ques­tions.

Whether I write non­fic­tion or fic­tion, each informs the oth­er. I use fic­tion­al tech­niques in non­fic­tion. I want to grab the young read­er, pull him or her into the sto­ry with action, dia­logue, strong char­ac­ter, and sig­nif­i­cant detail. I want to appeal to the son of a writer friend who asked his mom, “When are you going to write one of those books where, you know, some­thing hap­pens on every page?”

At the same time, I use tech­niques and infor­ma­tion from non­fic­tion to anchor my nov­els in time and place. My most recent YA nov­el, Out of Left Field, is not his­tor­i­cal fic­tion per se (though 2004 may feel like ancient times to some young read­ers). The Viet­nam War casts shad­ows over the nov­el. Though I lived through that era, I didn’t know enough about men who fled the coun­try for Cana­da, as my protagonist’s father did. I tracked down mem­oirs of draftees and enlist­ed men who fled the coun­try and read accounts of life on the run. My friend, the Cana­di­an writer Tim Wynne-Jones, sug­gest­ed books about Amer­i­can resisters who lived in Toron­to dur­ing those times. I watched a video of the draft lot­tery that took place in 1969, an event that deter­mined the lives—and deaths—of thou­sands of young men. And I read and reread Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Car­ried, itself a stun­ning fusion of fic­tion and mem­oir.

While Bran­don, my nar­ra­tor, is invent­ed, I had the actu­al Red Sox sched­ule at hand as I wrote. Bran­don fol­lows the 2004 sea­son with as much devo­tion as I did that year. When Bran­don sees David Ortiz slam his game-win­ing hit in the 14th inning of the Sox-Yan­kee game, the pan­de­mo­ni­um in the stands is real, as are the smells, the sounds, the ener­gy of a ball park when fans real­ize the team could win it all—for the first time in eighty-six years.

My friend and col­league, Phyl­lis Root, asks: “Is the line grow­ing more mal­leable between spec­u­la­tion and fact?” Cer­tain­ly young read­ers need to know the dif­fer­ence between what is real and what is invent­ed. But per­haps the sep­a­ra­tion between non-fic­tion and fic­tion is arbi­trary. Maybe I’ll mix the two gen­res on my own shelves. Who knows what sparks might fly if these books end up danc­ing togeth­er?

 

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Monday Morning Round-Up

From Wen­dell Minor comes this news (applause, please),  “It′s offi­cial: the orig­i­nal art from Look to the Stars will be includ­ed in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion of The New Britain Muse­um of Amer­i­can Art, and the orig­i­nal art from Abra­ham Lin­coln Comes Home will be includ­ed in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion of The Nor­man Rock­well Muse­um. Watch […]

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