Tag Archives | Red Reading Boots

The Very First & Last Page

Last week I zoom-vis­it­ed a kinder­garten class to read my own pic­ture book. The class was ter­rif­ic and at the end we had a time for Q & A. They are work­ing on the dif­fer­ence between ask­ing a ques­tion and “shar­ing.” It’s an impor­tant and dif­fi­cult skill.

One lit­tle girl, who might’ve been a stringer for the New York Times, or per­haps an after-school pros­e­cu­tor, so mature and earnest in her ques­tion­ing was she, asked to see “the very first page of the book.” I’ve nev­er been asked this before and felt a bit ner­vous, as if I were being cross-exam­ined, as I opened the book to the title page. I traced again the words of the title, my name as author, and the illustrator’s name, reit­er­at­ing that “illus­tra­tor” meant the artist who drew the pic­tures. (I always do this on the cov­er of the book before I begin read­ing.) We exam­ined the pic­ture includ­ed on the title page, and I read them the name of the book’s pub­lish­er at the bot­tom of the page.

The girl leaned in — pret­ty sure she was dou­ble check­ing things.

Two kids tried to share instead of ask a ques­tion and were re-direct­ed, to their obvi­ous frus­tra­tion. The teacher reit­er­at­ed the dif­fer­ence between ques­tions and shares. The lit­tle girl who’d so nice­ly mod­eled a ques­tion looked bored. A boy eager­ly wav­ing his hand was called upon. He unmut­ed him­self and then it became clear that what he’d real­ly been dying to say was also a “share” not a ques­tion, though he piv­ot­ed quick­ly and asked to see “the very last page of the book.” The girl who mod­eled appro­pri­ate ques­tion­ing looked a titch irri­tat­ed at this near-pla­gia­rism of her question.

But I thought this was an inter­est­ing ques­tion, as well.  The last page of many/most pic­ture books often fea­tures the ded­i­ca­tions and the copy­right infor­ma­tion. I don’t usu­al­ly read it when I read the sto­ry. But why not? I read my ded­i­ca­tion to my par­ents, and Jaime Kim’s (illus­tra­tor) ded­i­ca­tion to her fam­i­ly. We noticed the last page also includ­ed a pic­ture. Think­ing this was all that would be of inter­est, I got ready to close the book.

But the lit­tle girl who’d asked about the first page was lean­ing in, her face loom­ing larg­er than the rest. I saw her, mut­ed, ask the adult who was with her what the tiny words on the bot­tom half of the last page were. She raised her hand, earnest vibes pul­sat­ing from her zoom square. I pre­pared to answer, suc­cinct­ly and at a kinder­garten lev­el, about the copy­right infor­ma­tion, Library of Con­gress Cat­a­log Num­ber, print­ing infor­ma­tion, includ­ing the type­set and art sup­plies used in the book, and the address of the publisher.

I was saved, how­ev­er, by the egal­i­tar­i­an teacher who want­ed to give oth­er kids a chance to share — or rather, ask a ques­tion! — which they did. Did I live with my par­ents? How old are they? Did I draw the shapes of the pic­tures, at least, so that Jaime could fill them in with col­ors and paints? They were astound­ed to hear I had no con­tact with the illus­tra­tor of the book until the book was pub­lished. (Most peo­ple are astound­ed by this.) How did she get the pic­tures so nice — so there were no “white dots” (i.e. uncol­ored parts)?

Have I writ­ten books about dinosaurs? This was asked by a kinder­garten­er who mod­est­ly informed me he has writ­ten four books about dinosaurs. No doubt he has illus­trat­ed them, as well — young kids are all author-illus­tra­tors, I’ve noticed. Why do so many of us lose this skill?

I’m always inspired when I do a class vis­it. I’m in awe of the teach­ers. Espe­cial­ly now — Zoom Kinder­garten?! And I’m flab­ber­gast­ed anew by the brains of kids — how they think, their chutz­pah in ask­ing ques­tions, their need to under­stand, to get things right. I love their unas­sum­ing con­fi­dence. And their kind­ness — they always look at me with such sor­row on their faces when I tell them I just write the words, that some­one else cre­ates the pic­tures. They look as if they want to give me a pep talk so that I might be able to write a book in two (or three) lan­guages, as they can, and do.

If I thought about it too much, I’d nev­er be able to read to, let along write for, these chil­dren. They’re so mar­velous. What a gift it is to share books with them.


Shall I Knit You a Hat?

I’ve received a won­der­ful ear­ly Christ­mas gift this year — two new reg­u­lar sto­ry­times to con­duct. Both inter­est­ed in the season’s books — and do I have Christ­mas books to share!

The only down­side — and I can live with it — is that it’s via the tech­nolo­gies with which we see peo­ple these days. I’m so grate­ful for the Zooms, the Face­Times, the Face­book Lives…it’s the only way to safe­ly see folks and it makes things like sto­ry­time pos­si­ble. It’s noth­ing like gath­er­ing in per­son. Still—sto­ry­time! I love it how­ev­er it comes. And to go through our Christ­mas books again is sheer joy. My kids are old enough that we haven’t done marathon Christ­mas sto­ry­times around here in awhile. My heart is filled with glad­ness to pull them off the shelf again.

Secret upside: One of the tech­nolo­gies does not coöper­ate on my com­put­er and so requires that I film via phone, and for one rea­son or anoth­er (I’ve giv­en up try­ing to under­stand it), I can’t do it in a way that lets me see if I’m hold­ing the book straight and out of the glare of the light. I require assis­tance. For­tu­nate­ly, I have gen­er­ous and will­ing cam­era folk in my house. Last week, it was Dar­ling Daugh­ter, home from col­lege, who filmed. And since she was on the oth­er side of the cam­era, it was like read­ing her some of her old favorites. I saw her smile a cou­ple of times as we read. Anoth­er lay­er of sto­ry­time fun for me. (It’s all about me!)

This week I’m read­ing Shall I Knit You a Hat? A Christ­mas Yarn by Kate Klise, illus­trat­ed by her sis­ter, M. Sarah Klise. (If you have four min­utes, this lit­tle video about how they start­ed mak­ing books togeth­er is super sweet and sis­ter­ly and Christmasy. 

Shall I Knit You a Hat? is a sto­ry about knit­ting. Rab­bits knit­ting. And I know that sounds too odd to be good, but I promise you, it makes such a sweet sto­ry. A bliz­zard is com­ing in on Christ­mas Eve and the for­cast says it won’t stop until the snow reach­es the tallest tips of Lit­tle Rabbit’s ears. (Lit­tle Rab­bit has very long ears.) So Moth­er Rab­bit, as knit­ter every­where do, chan­nels all her wor­ry into a sweet lit­tle long-eared hat for her Lit­tle Rab­bit. In turn, Lit­tle Rabbit’s gen­er­ous heart leads them to make hats for all their friends. Sur­rep­ti­tious­ly, they mea­sure their friends and design hats with their par­tic­u­lar needs, per­son­al style, and spe­cial con­sid­er­a­tions tak­en into account. For instance, the deer’s hat must show off his love­ly antlers.

It is so stinkin’ cute! And I’ve nev­er read this book to a kid or group of kids who did not love it. Some­times we try our hand at design­ing hats for oth­er ani­mals — very cre­ative activity. 

I’ll be watch­ing this week’s sto­ry­time audi­ences because the last time I read it to a group of kids they point­ed out two things I had not noticed. 1) Lit­tle Rab­bit cre­at­ed the gift tags for the box­es con­tain­ing the extra­or­di­nary hats he designed. They are sim­ple paint­ings of the ani­mal receiv­ing the hat — kids notice this kind of detail. The tags look just like what they would paint. 2) When the ani­mal friends first receive the hats — hats that are pret­ty eclec­ti­cal­ly designed — they look less than thrilled. It’s not until the snow falls that they ful­ly appre­ci­ate the care and love that has gone into the designs of their indi­vid­ual hats.

This is the work of a mar­velous writer-illus­tra­tor part­ner­ship — the sto­ry is shared in words and pic­tures. Some­times the adult read­ers miss it, but kids notice.

So, fa-la-la-la-la! I’m off to read to screens full of kids. Hop­ing my daugh­ter will film again this week. She loved this book when she was little.



Poetry Teatime

On Hal­loween morn­ing, Pooh Bear came for a vis­it on our porch. There was cof­fee for her par­ents and hot choco­late with whipped cream and sprin­kles for her, as well as a round of pas­tries for all. A love­ly morn­ing, how­ev­er dis­tanced and masked we had to remain.

This adorable Pooh is loqua­cious — her par­ents talk and sing and read with her all the time and so at the age of two she could basi­cal­ly hold her own on a speech or debate team. She has at the ready count­less lit­tle vers­es and songs with which to enter­tain. (Her father is an ele­men­tary school music teacher.) Like Pooh, she enjoys the rhythm and song of words, as well as clever bits of repeat­ed syl­la­bles and non­sense expres­sions. She cracks her­self up, and any­one lis­ten­ing as well.

She’s new to Pooh, but she fell for him hard. And I sus­pect she will grow to love his lit­tle hums, his mur­murs and songs, his vers­es and lines, as she learns them in the sto­ries. She’s just that kind of kid. Hav­ing had that kind of kid myself, I had lit­tle bits of Pooh poet­ries run­ning through my head the rest of the day.

Cot­tle­ston, Cot­tle­ston, Cot­tle­ston Pie,

A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly….


                                                               The more it SNOWS-tiddely-pom,

                                                               The more it GOES-tiddely-pom

                                                               The more it GOES-tiddely-pom

                                                               On snowing….


Tra-la-la, tra-la-la

Tra-la-la, tra-la-la…  


Pooh’s “hums,” as he likes to call them, were my intro­duc­tion to poet­ry. It’s also sort of where my ear­ly poet­ry edu­ca­tion end­ed. My moth­er read us Win­nie-the-Pooh and I always liked the bits of vers­es Pooh’s “very lit­tle brain” came up with on walks in the hun­dred acre wood. I espe­cial­ly liked the tid­dly-poms and tut-tuts and tra-la-las.

I read the same Pooh sto­ries to my kids. And #1 Son lis­tened to a BBC pro­duced Pooh audio­book at bed­time until the cas­sette tape was worn thin as lace. He could tid­dly-pom with the best of them at one time.

Children’s poet­ry has increased sev­er­al fold in the last cou­ple of decades — so many more choic­es! We can now read fan­tas­tic poems that don’t always rhyme. We can enjoy rhythms and sounds from a vari­ety of cul­tures. There are new forms to delight in, and whole nov­els writ­ten in verse.

I con­tin­ue to add to my col­lec­tion, even though I have no young read­ers at home any­more. Beside Pooh’s hums on my shelves I have the work of poets I know: Joyce Sid­man and Lau­ra Pur­die Salas. I have Out of Won­der, and We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voic­es fac­ing out because the titles and the art speak to me — not to men­tion the poet­ry inside. I have two copies of I’m Still Here In the Bath­tub because we loved it so much when the kids were small. I’ve got William Car­los Williams poet­ry next to Shel Sil­ver­stein books, and sev­er­al vol­umes of drag­on and dinosaur poetry.

I was com­mit­ted to work­ing poet­ry into our reg­u­lar read­ing when I was still read­ing to the kids. Some­times we did this with suc­cess. Often it was the art that kept them lis­ten­ing to words along side — poet­ry books are often beau­ti­ful visu­al­ly in addi­tion to aural­ly. But I always felt like I wasn’t doing the poet­ry genre justice. 

But now — now there’s this thing called Poet­ry Tea Time! I so wish this had been a move­ment when my kids were lit­tle. I think it’s the food and drink that makes it work — it cer­tain­ly would’ve helped my poet­ry par­ent­ing efforts. I fol­low these poet­ry tea timers on the social medias and I’m here to tell you, #poet­ryteatime will fill your feed with joy and good­ness. Chil­dren gath­ered around the table or the pic­nic blan­ket, read­ing poet­ry, pass­ing around books, laugh­ing, munch­ing the­mat­ic (or non­the­mat­ic) treats, sip­ping tea (or lemon­ade or hot choco­late). There are no rules about this — some­thing easy, some­thing yum­my, some­thing beau­ti­ful, and a side of poet­ry. I sus­pect poets are nur­tured at such tables.

This poet­ry and tea thing has the pow­er to change your out­look on life. Hope and joy can be yours, my friends! I have start­ed read­ing poet­ry dur­ing my after­noon tea time (a new covid rit­u­al!) and it has made all the dif­fer­ence. Try it and see if you don’t Tid­dly-pom!

Should you be inspired to have a Pooh Poet­ry Tea Time, well sim­ple ideas are a click away.


Enola Holmes

I sent the email as a joke, real­ly. Net­flix sent me the announce­ment that the much antic­i­pat­ed Eno­la Holmes movie would pre­mier on the upcom­ing Wednes­day, and so I sent our (grown-up) kids an email with words I cer­tain­ly nev­er thought I’d utter and don’t real­ly under­stand: We should have a Net­flix Party!

(For those of you who also don’t under­stand this — though I rec­og­nize I’m like­ly part of a dimin­ish­ing group of peo­ple — a Net­flix Par­ty is a new fea­ture of Net­flix in which Net­flix syn­chro­nizes your video watch­ing on your sep­a­rate devices in your sep­a­rate places and adds a group chat to the screen. Frankly, this sounds ter­ri­ble to me. I’m one of those peo­ple who has to stop walk­ing to text, unlike my chil­dren. I do not want to text/chat my way through a movie. Or so I thought.)

Eno­la Holmes holds a spe­cial place in our col­lec­tive famil­ial heart as you can read about here. (Also includes a plot syn­op­sis.) So per­haps I should not have been sur­prised when #1 Son rather imme­di­ate­ly emailed back I could be down. Fol­lowed very close­ly by Dar­ling Daugh­ter say­ing OMG we total­ly should!  I laughed. They were seri­ous! And so…in three sep­a­rate places, we watched the pre­mier of Eno­la Holmes togeth­er.

We didn’t actu­al­ly use Net­flix Par­ty in the end. The kids knew more about it and they rec­om­mend­ed (pos­si­bly so their moth­er could han­dle the tech) that we just start it at the same time and open a group chat on our indi­vid­ual phones. They named the group chat “Eno­la Not Ebo­la” which makes me laugh every time I think about it.

We popped our pop­corn in our sep­a­rate places and at 7:59 CST/8:59 EST (where Dar­ling Daugh­ter is) I texted: Ready?

And #1 Son texted: Set…

And Dar­ling Daugh­ter texted: Go! LOL!

And we all hit PLAY and LOL-ed.

And it was So Much Fun! I can’t even tell you — a sol­id fan­tas­tic cou­ple of hours. The movie is great, and I say that as a per­son who adores every­thing about the books. We chat­ted back and forth about what was dif­fer­ent from the books and what was the same. We tried to remem­ber par­tic­u­lar plot points. The younger set chat­ted about the cast­ing — lots of big names. (My hus­band and I only knew Hele­na Bon­ham Carter, who plays Enola’s moth­er and was per­fect­ly cast, as were they all.) We loved how the fourth wall was bro­ken by Eno­la. She turns and looks straight into the cam­era in a way that feels like she’s right in the room with you. (I usu­al­ly hate this, but it’s well done in this case.)

The clothing/costuming was a source of much enter­tain­ment as we weighed the mer­its of corsets, aprons, white wool suits, and the like. We won­dered if it would be fun to send each oth­er cod­ed mes­sages requir­ing vin­tage Banana­grams to solve. We quot­ed all the best lines back and forth and attached hearts and laugh­ing-while-cry­ing emojis.

We agreed that fin­ish­ing school looks ter­ri­ble and #1 Son vowed nev­er to send Dar­ling Daugh­ter to one if she ever became his ward. We glo­ried in the fight scenes (Have I ever glo­ried in a fight scene before? I think not!) and col­lec­tive­ly gasped at the twist toward the end. #1 Son offered that I am a “pret­ty cool Mom,” but real­ly have noth­ing on Hele­na Bon­ham Carter. (I’ll take it.) 

#1 Son’s Girl­friend had not read the books. And I think she loved it as much as the rest of us (and will like­ly read the books as a result.) And so that is my rec­om­men­da­tion — even if you haven’t read the books, watch the movie! You won’t be able to help read­ing the books. It’s a win-win in all directions.

We’re on the look­out for our next movie. The kids say they liked “gc-ing” (that’s Group Chat­ting for those of you not up on the lin­go) through an “excel­lent film.” And so we’re look­ing for our next one. Do let me know if you have a recommendation.…


Thanks for the Memories, Miss Rumphius!

Today, the day I am writ­ing this col­umn, has been a long one. It start­ed with a 4 a.m. alarm. It is the day Dar­ling Daugh­ter moves to col­lege. In Boston. Which is far from Min­neso­ta and so neces­si­tates a plane ride. Dur­ing a pan­dem­ic. Alone, as her uni­ver­si­ty is not allow­ing par­ents on cam­pus dur­ing this chal­leng­ing time.

Tell me you think I’m very brave. (She is, too, of course. She is also quite excit­ed, which helps all of us.)

Because there were no lines — indeed, hard­ly any­one at the air­port at all (which is down­right eerie, let me tell you!) — her two duf­fel bags with all her world­ly pos­ses­sions were checked and she was head­ed through secu­ri­ty almost before I start­ed to cry. I was home, my hus­band at work, by 6 a.m. Long day ahead of me.

So I cleaned the kitchen, which is always ther­a­peu­tic. And then I wan­dered in my office for a bit, look­ing at all the books I’ve read with her over the years…. And then I sat on her bed and looked at the books on her shelves…. She texted from the plane to tell me she was watch­ing Lit­tle Women, which pret­ty much con­firmed that my work with her is near­ly done.

Back in my office, I pulled Bar­bara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius off the shelf. I’ve writ­ten about this spe­cial book before. But I’ve not writ­ten about read­ing it to Dar­ling Daugh­ter, so I hope you’ll indulge me on this day our last lit­tle bird flew the nest….

She’s always been a read­er, that kid. She also had a lot of ener­gy when she was lit­tle. She didn’t nap much. We read a lot. It was the only time she sat still, and I need­ed her to sit still some­times. She was very attuned to the ener­gy of a book, bounc­ing on the couch beside me dur­ing the busy books, snug­gling in for the calmer ones. Miss Rumphius is a snug­gly book, so we read it a lot — my choice, at least at first.

It’s a curi­ous­ly nar­rat­ed book for chil­dren — a grown woman tells the sto­ry, look­ing back at her great-aunt Alice’s life, and then final­ly her own. As a lit­tle girl, great-aunt Alice sits on her grandfather’s knee and lis­tens to his sto­ries of far­away places. She declares that when she grows up, she will go to far­away places, as well. And when she grows old, she will live by the sea, as he does. Her grand­fa­ther tells her she must do one more thing.

You must do some­thing to make the world more beau­ti­ful,” he says.

And so, over sev­er­al spreads, great-aunt Alice Rumphius grows up, trav­els to far­away places, and final­ly comes to make a home in a house by the sea. Her love of lupines inspires her to order five bushels of lupine seed, then fill her pock­ets and wan­der “over field and head­lands, sow­ing lupines,” mak­ing the world more beautiful.

Then the nar­ra­tor becomes “lit­tle Alice” and we learn she received the same instruc­tions from her now old great-aunt Alice. The books ends with her won­der­ing how to make a beau­ti­ful world more beau­ti­ful.

Dar­ling Daugh­ter came to love this book as much as I did. She admired that great-aunt Alice worked in a library. She delight­ed in the gor­geous pic­tures of the places Alice vis­it­ed all over the world. She saw that Alice’s last name, Rumphius, was on the mail­box at her house by the sea…. We often read it two or three times in a row, snug­gled togeth­er and rest­ing, if not sleeping.

And now our girl has gone to a far­away place. By the sea! And she is still young, not yet old! She has so much good ener­gy, and an eye, a han­ker­ing, and a knack for beau­ty. She’s always made our world more beau­ti­ful, and so now we share her. It’s bit­ter­sweet. I miss her so much already. But I can’t wait to see what she will do…what far­away lands she will visit…what she’ll read and learn…whether she lives by the sea or comes back to the Midwest…and what seeds of beau­ty she plants in her wake.

I’m so grate­ful for the read­ing mem­o­ries — I had this same feel­ing when #1 Son left for col­lege six years ago. It’s the one par­ent­ing piece I feel like I can claim to have done exact­ly right. Read­ing to our kids was a Great Joy for me. And they are who they are — in some part, at least — because of the books we read, I think.

And so she goes with books like Miss Rumphius and Lit­tle Women (and so many oth­ers!) to guide her beau­ti­ful future.

A piece of my heart now lives by the sea….


Almost Time

I’ve been wait­ing for Eliz­a­beth Stick­ney and Gary D. Schmidt’s Almost Time for quite awhile. Seems appro­pri­ate — it’s a book about wait­ing, after all. I read very ear­ly drafts of it years ago, so long ago that I can hard­ly recall details — only that it’s about the mak­ing of maple syrup. What I dis­cov­ered upon read­ing it in pub­lished form is that in addi­tion to being about the mak­ing of maple syrup, this book is also about the solace found in wait­ing and work­ing together.

The book opens with Ethan sit­ting at the kitchen table look­ing some­what dis­ap­point­ed in a stack of pan­cakes that his father has placed before him. There is apple­sauce on top. Not maple syrup. Which means, Ethan knows, that the syrup has run out and it is almost time for sug­ar­ing again.

Almost Time is a neb­u­lous time — espe­cial­ly for a child. It seems like it is right around the cor­ner, yet it’s some­how always out of reach. The wait­ing is extra hard when you don’t know how long it will last. And when you’re wait­ing for some­thing sweet like maple syrup, you can prac­ti­cal­ly taste it…and yet you also won­der if you’ve for­got­ten what it tastes like.

I recent­ly read this book to some kids new to maple syrup. They’re new to our coun­try and our pan­cake and waf­fle ways. They’ve now had maple syrup, but they had no idea it came from trees.

Which trees?!” they asked, incred­u­lous. “Maple trees,” I said. “Like the big one in my backyard.”

That huge one by your gar­den?” they asked. 

We tap that tree some springs. Con­di­tions have to be right — the tem­per­a­ture fluc­tu­a­tions need to go below freez­ing at night and above freez­ing dur­ing the day before the sap starts run­ning and we can har­vest it. But the years in which the con­di­tions are right are near­ly over­whelm­ing in terms of the amount of sug­ary sap there is to process. We are well stocked with maple syrup at our house.

Not so at Ethan’s house at the end of the win­ter, which is when this book opens.  As the pages turn, we watch the days grow longer and the tem­per­a­tures grow warmer…but things change slow­ly. So slow­ly. Ethan eats his corn­bread the next Sun­day with no syrup, and his oat­meal with raisins and wal­nuts (but no syrup) the next, and eggs and toast the next — no syrup in sight.

The wal­nuts in the oat­meal give Ethan some­thing else to wait for. He bites down on a wal­nut and dis­cov­ers his tooth is loose. His father inspects the tooth and declares it will fall out before long.

How long?” asked Ethan.

About as long as it takes the sap to start run­ning,” Dad said.

The kids I read this book to know all about loose teeth. We had to take a slight inter­mis­sion in our read­ing so I could hear the sto­ries about their lost teeth. And how long they had to wait for those wig­gly teeth to come out. These are kids who know vis­cer­al­ly what it is to wait. They are inti­mate­ly famil­iar with Almost Time, which some­times stretch­es inter­minably long, so long that you won­der if the wait­ed for thing will actu­al­ly occur.

Kids every­where are doing the hard kind of wait­ing these days — the kind where there’s not a defin­i­tive end in sight. We’d like to say its Almost Time to see grand­par­ents, friends, and teach­ers again. We’d love to tell them it’s Almost Time to stop and play at the park again, to go to school again, to leave the house again. But not yet for most of us.

Not Yet Time and Almost Time stand side-by-side. We are still in Not Yet Time on so many of the things we are yearn­ing to return to.

Ethan even­tu­al­ly los­es his tooth, and the sap final­ly runs. Ethan and his father are busy boil­ing the sticky stuff down to maple syrup for Ethan’s break­fast plea­sure. The boil­ing process takes a long time — they’re back to wait­ing — but they do it togeth­er, which makes it sweeter.

This is what I hope and wish and pray for fam­i­lies with lit­tle ones in this extra­or­di­nary time in which we are liv­ing. That the wait­ing to get back to all the very impor­tant things like extend­ed fam­i­ly, school, friends, activ­i­ties, etc., is some­how made sweet­er because we’re doing it togeth­er. It’s hard work, all this wait­ing and social dis­tanc­ing and stay­ing home and stay­ing safe. Impor­tant work, too. The mes­sage of Almost Time is that it’s good to work and wait togeth­er — a time­ly theme for our life just now.


Storytime in the Time of Coronavirus

I’ve had the great joy these last few weeks of pulling togeth­er “dis­tanced” sto­ry­times for a few fam­i­lies who could use a half hour of sit­ting on the couch and let­ting some­one else enter­tain and inter­act with the kids. This has been a stretch for me. Though I’m grate­ful for all of the apps and plat­forms that allow us to see and talk vir­tu­al­ly — dur­ing this time, espe­cial­ly — I would not choose to do sto­ry­time this way. But, as the Brits say, needs must.

Most­ly, I don’t like see­ing myself on the screen. (Do I real­ly make those faces? Wave my hands around so much? Does my neck look like that irl, as the kids say?) But with sto­ry­time, this objec­tion is quick­ly over­come. It’s not about me — it’s about the sto­ries. The book is what needs to fill the visu­al frame for the child/children on the oth­er end. Inci­den­tal­ly, this is sur­pris­ing­ly dif­fi­cult — keep­ing the book straight, focused, turn­ing the pages with­out mak­ing every­one on the oth­er end sea­sick etc. My skills are ever improv­ing. And I’ve been pleas­ant­ly sur­prised, all things con­sid­ered, with how much I enjoy this way of doing storytime.

Some of my favorite sto­ries to read with kids have very detailed illus­tra­tions I now real­ize. This doesn’t work super great over the air­waves as its hard to view detail over a screen that some­times freezes, goes out of focus, gets dropped on the oth­er end etc. So I’ve been going through my pic­ture­book library look­ing for books with larg­er, sim­pler pic­tures. Wide Mouth Frog works bet­ter than the Bram­bly Hedge books, for instance. When I peak around the books with larg­er illus­tra­tions, I see lit­tle faces up close, eyes wide and unblink­ing, scan­ning the frame — tru­ly, it looks a lit­tle odd unless you know what they’re look­ing at.

By no stretch of the imag­i­na­tion am I a pro at this. I’m not cre­at­ing videos (with a won­der­ful assis­tant who is tech­no­log­i­cal­ly adept) and post­ing them. Librar­i­ans and teach­ers are doing a won­der­ful job of this. I’m work­ing live—because what I like about sto­ry­time is the inter­ac­tion with the kids. And so it’s worth it to me to have this ama­teur pre­sen­ta­tion and still be able to talk with them, see their sur­prise when I turn the page, ask ques­tions and chat a bit, redi­rect, applaud the morning’s project, view the snack being served on their end, call them back after they go pot­ty etc.

I’ve real­ized in a new way these last few weeks that read­ing with kids is about con­nec­tion. That’s why I enjoy it — and I think it’s why they enjoy it, too. Chil­dren crave undi­vid­ed atten­tion, and let’s face it, our atten­tion is all over the place these days. I feel for par­ents who are man­ag­ing dis­tance learn­ing and work and pan­ic and anx­i­ety and details they nev­er would’ve cho­sen.… Right now we have to con­nect in dif­fer­ent ways. Rather than lament it, I choose to embrace it.

So I com­mend the prac­tice to you — prop your phone/tablet up or adjust your com­put­er screen, and then open one of these fan­tas­tic video apps/programs. Next, grab some books with bold illus­tra­tions and give it a try with a lit­tle one in your life.

Do NOT wor­ry about it being some ver­sion of per­fect — it won’t be, and the kids won’t expect it to be. They’ll just be glad to see you! And you’ll share some­thing with the beloved chil­dren in your life, give their par­ents twen­ty min­utes to breathe, and you will fin­ish and find your­self smil­ing, feel­ing just a bit bet­ter about the dis­tance we need to keep dur­ing this time.

This is a made-for-grand­par­ents activ­i­ty! Keep the con­nec­tion in this time when you can’t see each oth­er in per­son. I know grand­par­ents who are doing a night­ly bed­time sto­ry for their wee ones — huz­zah! But if you do not have grand­kids (I don’t!) don’t under-esti­mate the gift of doing a live sto­ry­time with oth­er kids in your life in this way — nieces and nephews, neigh­bor­hood kids, kid­dos from your place of wor­ship…. It’s a win-win-win sort of activ­i­ty dur­ing these chal­leng­ing and wor­ry­ing days.


The Rabbit Listened

In my cur­rent reg­u­lar sto­ry­time group, I have a lit­tle one who insists he has what­ev­er book I’m read­ing at his house, too. I hold up a book and he jumps in excite­ment. “I have that book at my house!” he says, while his par­ents shake their head behind him. I tease him say­ing, “We must have exact­ly the same book­shelves.” And he nods, as if I’ve final­ly understood.

This phe­nom­e­non has spread a bit, and now oth­ers also jump in with excite­ment say­ing that they, too, have the book I’m about to read them. Some­times they do, usu­al­ly they don’t. It makes no dif­fer­ence — we’re there to read the book togeth­er. This last week­end, since Valentine’s Day approa­cheth, we read sto­ries of love. We talked a lit­tle about how we love oth­ers, how love is an action — some­thing we do.

When I held up The Rab­bit Lis­tened by Cori Doer­rfeld (writer and illus­tra­tor), a fam­i­ly of three lit­tle ones jumped up excit­ed­ly. “We have that book! We have that book!” They could hard­ly hold it togeth­er they were so excit­ed. I fig­ured they prob­a­bly did have the book since their response was so coördinated.

I love read­ing this book to a group. They fol­low Tay­lor, the lit­tle one in the book, as he decides to build some­thing with his big box of blocks—Some­thing new. Some­thing spe­cial. Their eyes are wide in won­der and expec­ta­tion. 

It’s usu­al­ly a qui­et begin­ning. I watch the kids’ eyes “read,” fol­low­ing the lit­tle build­ing block con­struc­tion vignettes as we go. But these three siblings…they were bounc­ing on the edge of their seats—glee­ful, out­ra­geous­ly delight­ed with what they knew was coming.

What comes first is some­thing every child knows. Out of nowhere…things came crash­ing down.

I had half a group of lis­ten­ers with empa­thet­ic slumped shoul­ders as they sur­veyed the destruc­tion. But still, three were bounc­ing in excite­ment. I kept reading.

The chick­en was the first to notice. The chick­en has a lot to say. Too much to say. She wants to talk, talk, talk about it. But Tay­lor doesn’t feel like talk­ing. The three who were famil­iar with the sto­ry were now fair­ly lev­i­tat­ing they were so excit­ed. I turned the page. And there it was: the bear page.


Clear­ly, this is what they were wait­ing for — they shrieked in mock hor­ror. The bear rarrs and grarrs. We made the most of this togeth­er. We rarred and grarred to the utter delight the three who knew the story…and just to the edge of ner­vous­ness for the rest in the group.

As soon as I turned the page after the bear, the three sib­lings set­tled in their chairs, their smiles wide, and lis­tened to the rest of the sto­ry in rel­a­tive calm. The ele­phant comes and tries to fix things up…the hye­na sug­gests they laugh about it all…the ostrich demon­strates a great way of hid­ing and pre­tend­ing noth­ing has happened…the kan­ga­roo wants to sweep it all away…and the snake sss­sugggestsss they knock down some­one else’s blocks.

The chil­dren were riv­et­ed — espe­cial­ly to the snake. They sat up. They watched me hissssss the lines. They knew this thing — this temp­ta­tion to strike back/out — vis­cer­al­ly. And it dawned on me that they knew the bear’s reac­tion well, too. This group is young. They fre­quent­ly respond with grarrs and lash-outs — they could feel the bear’s and the snake’s reac­tions in their bones.

The book is called The Rab­bit Lis­tened for a rea­son. After all the oth­er not-so-help­fuls leave the scene, the rab­bit comes and care­ful­ly, with the great­est respect,  sits next to Tay­lor. In silence.

The chil­dren stare, open-mouthed at Doerrfeld’s draw­ings. The rab­bit lis­tens as Tay­lor talks and shouts and remem­bers and laughs. The rab­bit lis­tens to ill-advised plans to hide, and throw things away, and ruin things for oth­ers. The rab­bit does not leave. Does not preach or argue. The rab­bit lis­tens.

And after Tay­lor runs through the gamut of emo­tions, he decides to build again.

My group broke into smiles all around. They total­ly got it.

As they left sto­ry­time I heard an old­er broth­er say to a younger broth­er, “The rab­bit loves best, doesn’t he?”

Indeed, the rab­bit loves best.…


Heidi Bread

I real­ized (again) over the win­ter hol­i­days this year that much of hol­i­day friv­o­li­ty cen­ters on food. I’d have it no oth­er way, myself, but I must say that after a couple/few weeks of eat­ing grand meals, too many sweets, and grab­bing tea/coffee more often than usu­al, I crave sim­plic­i­ty when I sit down for lunch in the mid­dle of a writ­ing day. Soup and sal­ad is good, of course — and just what the body needs after too much food and drink — but this last week, I find that I’m hun­gry for some­thing more…fundamental. Basic. Easy. Warm and fill­ing with­out being excessive.

And so I’ve been eat­ing Hei­di Bread.

If you don’t imme­di­ate­ly know what this is, let me jog your mem­o­ry with a scene from Hei­di by Johan­na Spyri.

 The ket­tle soon began to boil, and mean­while the old man held a large piece of cheese on a long iron fork over the fire turn­ing it round and round until it was toast­ed a nice gold­en yel­low on each side….. Then he brought her a large slice of bread and a piece of the gold­en cheese, and told her to eat…. 

Was the milk nice?” asked her grandfather.

I nev­er drank any so good before,” answered Heidi.

Then you must have some more,” and the old man filled her bowl again to the brim and set it before the child who was now hun­gri­ly begin­ning her bread, hav­ing first spread it with the cheese, which after being toast­ed was soft as butter…..

I have such a vis­cer­al mem­o­ry of read­ing this scene as a child. Per­haps I was hun­gry, but I could taste that cheese and bread washed down with milk. I’d cer­tain­ly nev­er been any­where like the Swiss Alps, but I knew some­how that this sim­plest of sim­ple dish­es would be unlike any­thing I had ever eat­en. (Side note: when I did make it to the Swiss Alps as an adult I was ever so slight­ly dis­ap­point­ed that nobody served me Hei­di Bread. But I learned about museli and full-fat yogurt, so the trip was worth it.)

I remem­ber ask­ing my moth­er if we could make Hei­di Bread. She was not up for the long iron fork over the fire but sug­gest­ed we use the toast­er oven to approx­i­mate the dish. She under­stood that this was not a toast­ed cheese sand­wich I was after. My Mom made home­made whole-wheat bread and she cut a thick­er than usu­al slice of it, put some cheese on top—not Velvee­ta, but col­by cheese also thick­ly sliced — and popped it into the toast­er oven. It was absolute­ly an accept­able vari­a­tion. One has to work with what is avail­able, after all.

When I read Hei­di to my own kids, they too — and I swear I did not lead them into it — were fas­ci­nat­ed with the cheese melt­ed over the fire and spread on the bread. I explained it was called Hei­di Bread. They imme­di­ate­ly want­ed it for lunch. With a bowl — not a cup — of milk. We were read­ing out­side and #1 Son pro­cured a stick he thought might work for the cheese toast­ing. (Nev­er mind we did not have a fire in the back­yard.) I gen­tly sug­gest­ed the toast­er oven vari­a­tion. And because I also make whole-wheat bread reg­u­lar­ly, I was able to cut thick rus­tic slices and top them with thick­ly sliced cheese. (Some­how thick­ness makes it feel more authen­tic.) We poured milk in cere­al bowls and feast­ed, agree­ing that it was entire­ly deli­cious and a most­ly accept­able alter­na­tive to the iron fork over the fire. We also agreed maybe we would try that camp­ing sometime…and I can’t think if we’ve done that or not (yet!)

To this day we call this sim­ple meal Hei­di Bread. It makes an excel­lent lunch. I’m not so much for the milk in bowls part, but a few pages of this clas­sic nov­el is an excel­lent accom­pa­ny­ing side. I com­mend it to you.


The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Hey! Unto you a child is born!”

I think of this line each and every Christ­mas Eve when the Christ­mas sto­ry accord­ing to Luke’s Gospel is read. If I’m the one doing the read­ing, and you were to pay close atten­tion, you’d prob­a­bly notice that I have to take a nano-sec­ond pause so as to drop the “Hey!” and read it “straight.”

The line is from The Best Christ­mas Pageant Ever by Bar­bara Robin­son. Gladys, the youngest of the six Herd­man chil­dren, who were “absolute­ly the worst chil­dren in the his­to­ry of the world,” is the Angel of the Lord announc­ing the good news of Jesus’ birth to the shep­herds. She takes her role very seri­ous­ly. I remem­ber read­ing the book for the first time when I was ten and hav­ing the clear­est pic­ture of this angel­ic announce­ment set right in our church. (I still imag­ine the whole thing in the church of my child­hood.) The clar­i­ty of that scene has stayed with me for forty years.

My best friend, Alli­son, gave me The Best Christ­mas Pageant Ever for Christ­mas when we were in fifth grade. It wasn’t a new book then — it was writ­ten when we were tod­dlers. I don’t believe it has ever gone out of print. (Thank good­ness!) It is from that Avon $1.50 copy I received in 1979 that I have shared the sto­ry with my kids. And now this year, I’m read­ing it to my ten-year-old niece. She is a qui­et and sen­si­tive child and she’s in a “chal­leng­ing” class at school. I don’t know that the class is Herd­man-lev­el chal­leng­ing, but my sweet niece did look like she knew exact­ly who I was talk­ing about when I read the open­ing paragraph.

The Herd­mans were absolute­ly the worst kids in the his­to­ry of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cig­ars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit lit­tle kids and cussed their teach­ers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old bro­ken-down toolhouse.

The book is nar­rat­ed by the daugh­ter of the Christ­mas pageant’s sub­sti­tute direc­tor. I think it’s the first per­son voice that makes the book. She fills us in on the his­to­ry of the Herd­mans: how they pass every grade not because they’ve mas­tered the skills of the year but because the teach­ers do not want to risk hav­ing two Herd­mans if one is held back…how they shoplift…how they trav­el togeth­er like a street gang, extort­ing their peers, and beat­ing up each oth­er and any­one who cross­es them. The Herd­mans are fierce­ly loy­al to each oth­er, ter­ri­bly (won­der­ful­ly?) irrev­er­ent, and hun­gry.

They wind up in the pageant when they come to Sun­day School on a tip that there are snacks. They’ve nev­er heard the Christ­mas sto­ry and they have many ques­tions. They are vis­cer­al­ly intrigued by the Holy Fam­i­ly, and they apply both com­mon sense and some pret­ty fab­u­lous the­ol­o­gy in their dra­mat­ic pre­sen­ta­tion of the events of that holy night.  For you see, the Herd­mans wind up play­ing all the key parts (hav­ing bul­lied their peers into remain­ing silent dur­ing the call for vol­un­teers.)  Mary is played by Imo­gene, Joseph by Ralph, the wise men by Claude, Ollie, and Leroy, and The Angel of the Lord by Gladys, the “mean­est Herd­man of them all.”

Antics ensue, shall we say. And along the way lit­tle bits are slipped to us about the Herd­mans’ home life. They don’t have enough to eat, one par­ent works dou­ble shifts, one is rumored to be in jail. The Herd­man kids look after each oth­er because nobody else does — “the big ones taught the lit­tle ones every­thing they knew” — which explains how Gladys, the youngest, got to be the meanest.

We’re in the sea­son of Christ­mas pageants right now and most of them get it all wrong. They’re adorable and spark­ly and sweet…and these days there are too few pater­nal bathrobes pressed into ser­vice for the wise ones’ robes and too many dig­i­tized back­grounds and real live sheep used in the tableau (what in the world?!). We’ve sung Silent Night and Joy to the World and Have a Hol­ly Jol­ly Christ­mas so many times we’ve for­got­ten that against the won­der and mys­tery of Christ­mas there is grit and pol­i­tics and wor­ry and fear and a less than ide­al birth situation.

Most of our con­tem­po­rary Christ­mas pageants could use the Herd­mans, real­ly. “Hey! Unto you a child is born!” 

[Mary and Joseph] looked like the peo­ple you see on the six o’clock news — refugees, sent to wait in some strange ugly place, with all their box­es and sacks around them. It sud­den­ly occurred to me that this was just the way it must have been for the real Holy Fam­i­ly stuck away in a barn by peo­ple who didn’t much care what hap­pened to them. They couldn’t have been very neat and tidy, but more like this Mary and Joseph (Imogene’s veil was cock­eyed as usu­al, and Ralph’s hair stuck out all around his ears). Imo­gene had the baby doll but she wasn’t car­ry­ing it the way she was sup­posed to, cra­dled in her arms. She had it slung up over her shoul­der, and before she put it back in the manger she thumped it twice on the back.

Any­way, this is my youngest niece I’m read­ing to. We start­ed it last week and I offered to let her take my pre­cious copy home to fin­ish, but she declined in favor of us read­ing it togeth­er. I near­ly wept Christ­mas joy. She’s gonna love the line “Hey! Unto you a child is born!”


Bee-bim Bop

I’ve been on the sto­ry­time cir­cuit this last month as I have a new pic­ture book of my very own. Read­ers of this col­umn know how much I adore sto­ry­time, so wher­ev­er I’ve gone to read my book, I’ve asked if I can do a whole sto­ry­time, the bet­ter to read oth­er pic­ture books, as well. Usu­al­ly the reg­u­lar belea­guered sto­ry­time read­ers are hap­py to have this happen.

So I’ve set up a lit­tle sto­ry­time that cen­ters loose­ly around the themes of food, fam­i­ly, food, com­mu­ni­ty, food, fun, food…. What can I say? I love read­ing and writ­ing about food, so this is an easy sto­ry­time for me to put together!

I’ve had great fun, in par­tic­u­lar, read­ing Lin­da Sue Park’s Bee-bim Bop! It’s a made-for-sto­ry­time-read because it has that mag­i­cal refrain “Bee-bim Bop” on near­ly every page. So fun to say! Even the youngest among us can join in for Bee-bim Bop! I hard­ly have to cue them….

Almost time for supper

Rush­ing to the store

Mama buys the groceries—

More, Mama, more! 


Hur­ry, Mama, hurry

Got­ta shop shop shop!

Hun­gry hun­gry hungry 

For some BEE-BIM BOP! 

The plot is sim­ple: a lit­tle girl and her Mama are mak­ing din­ner. They’re mak­ing the tra­di­tion­al Kore­an dish bibim­bap (var­i­ous­ly Eng­lish-ised as bee-bim-bap, bi-bim-bop, etc.) There are eggs to stir fry and flip high…rice to boil…garlic and green onion and skin­ny meat strips to chop…spinach, sprouts and car­rots to slice. There’s a detailed recipe in the back of the book — all sim­ple steps, many quite kid-friendly.

Bowls go on the table

Big ones striped in blue

I help set the glass­es out

Spoons and chop­sticks too.  

The illus­tra­tions by Ho Baek Lee match the ener­getic rhythm of get­ting sup­per on the table — three gen­er­a­tions and a dog dance around each oth­er get­ting every­thing togeth­er. Then they gath­er around the table, paus­ing for a qui­et moment of thanks. And then they make the bee-bim bop!

Bee-bim means “mixed up” and bop is the Kore­an word for rice. Each one makes their own bowl with rice in the mid­dle, and all the top­pings that have been pre­pared — a lit­tle meat, lots of veg­gies, an egg, and spicy kim­chi, too — on top. Every­thing is stirred togeth­er and a deli­cious col­or­ful meal results.

When I read this book I always ask, “Who here has eat­en bee-bim bop?” If it’s a younger group (under three) they all eager­ly raise their hands.  Such won­der­ful­ly open palettes — espe­cial­ly since many of their par­ents haven’t tried it! Tod­dlers seek­ing out new foods and fla­vors! Ter­rif­ic! This is what hap­pens when you take your kids to sto­ry­time, my friends!

At the last sto­ry­time I did, a lit­tle boy turned the ques­tion on me: “Do you like bee-bim bop?” he asked, giv­ing the bop extra empha­sis, and bop­ping my knee as he said it. I had to admit I’d not tried it, though I was sure I’d like it because I like all the things in it…. He all but rolled his eyes. It was obvi­ous I lost a lit­tle cred­i­bil­i­ty with him.

I thought about mak­ing it from the recipe in the book, but my hus­band and I decid­ed we would go to a good Kore­an place known for its authen­tic­i­ty for our first go around. It was deli­cious, just as I knew it would be. I hope to recre­ate it in my own kitchen this week.

Hur­ry, fam­i­ly, hurry

Got­ta hop hop hop

Dinner’s on the table

And it’s BEE-BIM BOP!



Moving Books

Many momen­tous things have gone down in our house this sum­mer. #1 Son grad­u­at­ed from col­lege in May, is gain­ful­ly employed (local­ly!) as a soft­ware engi­neer, and has recent­ly moved to an apart­ment. Dar­ling Daugh­ter start­ed her senior year of high school last week and is busy work­ing on col­lege appli­ca­tionsIt makes me a lit­tle light head­ed to think of it.

It’s all good and right and as it should be, and we are proud and excit­ed for all these new life stages, etc. It is also hard some days. This relent­less grow­ing up thing that chil­dren will do…at times it makes this Mama’s heart catch.

But I’ve had my eye on #1 Son’s bed­room for a while now. It’s the largest bed­room in our house. He was five when we moved in and he lob­bied hard to have our room because he liked the idea of hav­ing his own attached bath­room. (This was hilar­i­ous then and now.) Our counter argu­ment was that his actu­al room would have the biggest clos­et — more room for Legos® — and we would paint two of the walls the bright­est bold­est red we could find. It worked. He gave up the per­son­al bathroom.

My office all these years has been in the small­est bed­room. The stacks of books and the paper that seems to go with writ­ing books has been crash­ing and slid­ing down around me in this wee room for quite some time. So we took this past week­end and cov­ered the red walls in the big­ger room with a sun­flower yel­low (sev­er­al coats!) and start­ed mov­ing things in.

You don’t real­ize just how many books you have until you’re forced to touch them all as you move them. As mov­ing books goes, this was an easy gig — I just car­ried arm­loads of books from one room to the oth­er — a mere six feet of hall­way. I logged over four miles doing this one day. So it did not escape my notice that I have A LOT of books. Also, I inher­it­ed a large, over­packed, floor-to-ceil­ing book­case in #1 Son’s room. (He took some books, of course — as well as a small­er book­case — but felt com­fort­able leav­ing the major­i­ty of them because he knows it is unlike­ly I’ll get rid of many.)

It was a trip down mem­o­ry lane, all that book mov­ing. In gen­er­al we don’t buy books we don’t love, and once you love a book it is hard to get rid of it. So we have…well, two children’s child­hoods of books. It was bit­ter­sweet to revis­it the mem­o­ries as I traced my steps up and down the hallway.

I could prac­ti­cal­ly feel the kids nes­tled up against me when I moved the Pooh books…. Could remem­ber the tea I drank as #1 Son and I poured over David Macaulay’s Cathe­dral book every day for an entire snowy win­ter….  I remem­bered many of the spe­cif­ic books read dur­ing child­hood ill­ness­es, a fevered list­less body on my lap…. I teared up remem­ber­ing read­ing aloud The Sword in the Stone to the new­ly mint­ed big broth­er in those weary days/weeks after his sister’s birth. (NOTE: It’s a dif­fi­cult book to read aloud when utter­ly exhaust­ed!) When I moved the Bet­sy books by Maud Hart Lovelace, it was as if Dar­ling Daughter’s entire tween years flashed through my mem­o­ry at top speed. We read many of those books snug­gled up under the cov­ers in one of our beds, her long skin­ny legs draped over mine.

So many of our favorites trans­port­ed me back to nights camping…long road trips and vacations…medical appointments…new mile­stones. There are sev­er­al book series I have con­nect­ed to these ear­ly weeks of fall when the kids head­ed back to school. Sep­tem­ber is always an excit­ing but stress­ful time. We chose books care­ful­ly for those weeks to pro­vide com­fort and rou­tine — Nar­nia, Har­ry Pot­ter, The Mof­fats, Swal­lows and Ama­zons….

It was exhaust­ing — both phys­i­cal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly. I’m glad I write for kids — I have an excuse to keep all these books! And I’m absurd­ly grate­ful for these read­ing mem­o­ries. The kids have them, too. There was a lot of “Oh! I remem­ber this one!” And they enjoyed hear­ing things like this: We read that in Dr. Ott’s office the day you were test­ed for allergies.

How do you remem­ber that?” they ask me. I don’t know — it’s vis­cer­al for me, I guess. What we read was a huge part of their child­hoods, and in these days when they’re grow­ing up and mov­ing on, these books that stay behind pro­vide me great com­fort and sweet memories.


Strictly No Elephants


It had been one of those news days…. Actu­al­ly, there had been a string of such news days — hate-filled head­lines, bom­bas­tic egos, dan­ger­ous threats. The world seemed extra prick­ly and dan­ger­ous. It’s at these times that I espe­cial­ly like read­ing with kids. For­tu­nate­ly, I had a read­ing gig all lined up at an ele­men­tary school — it was the week lead­ing up to Read Across Amer­i­ca. Bless the schools — the teach­ers, par­ents and kids — who make this such a fun tra­di­tion each year. What a great celebration!

I was vis­it­ing Pre‑K and kinder­garten class­rooms, so I put togeth­er a lit­tle sto­ry­time cen­tered on the themes of peace, gen­tle­ness, inclu­sion, and love—The Big Umbrel­la, One Dog Canoe, Worm Loves Worm, Xander’s Pan­da Par­ty, and Strict­ly No Ele­phants—and went to read.

The kids at this school are obvi­ous­ly read to — they are polite, engaged audi­ences. They enjoyed what­ev­er com­bi­na­tion of books I read, but it was Strict­ly No Ele­phants by Lisa Mantchev, illus­trat­ed by Taee­un Yoo, that was the biggest hit in each class. They were hooked from the first line.

The trou­ble with hav­ing a tiny ele­phant for a pet is that you nev­er quite fit in.

Near as I can tell, it was the two word phrase “tiny ele­phant” that made them sit up and lean in. When I turned the page, they leaned in further. 

No one else has an elephant.

The text is spare, but it’s the illus­tra­tions that made them lean in, I think — an apart­ment house, every oth­er win­dow show­ing the usu­al sorts of pets that peo­ple have. Pup­pies, gold­fish, cats, a bird in a cage etc. And then the boy with the tiny ele­phant who lives next door. Sep­a­rate. Apart.

We’re then treat­ed to spreads of quo­tid­i­an activ­i­ties with the tiny ele­phant — going for walks, strug­gling over cracks in the side­walk (the tiny ele­phant is afraid of them) and the like.

And then! Joy! It’s Pet Club Day — every­one is meet­ing at Num­ber 17. All the cats and dogs and their peo­ple head out to the club meet­ing. As does the tiny ele­phant and boy.

But when they arrive at Num­ber 17, there is a sign that says: Strict­ly No Elephants. 

The tiny ele­phant leads the boy back home, obliv­i­ous to the side­walk cracks now, because: That’s what friends do: brave the scary things for you.

You could’ve heard the prover­bial pin drop. I looked out on lit­tle faces reg­is­ter­ing the pain of exclu­sion. We all know what that feels like. When I turned the page and the art showed rain and a blue and grey col­or palette that mir­rored our emo­tions, their lit­tle faces grew even sad­der. But I held the page open just a bit longer than usu­al. The spread is word­less, leav­ing the pic­tures to car­ry the mag­ic. The boy and his tiny ele­phant have red and yel­low on their cloth­ing (the ele­phant wears a scarf, of course)…and so does a girl sit­ting on the bench, her own pet in her lap. 

I watched their eyes trav­el from the boy and his ele­phant to the girl. They sat up just a tiny bit straighter, the light of hope return­ing to their eyes. I turned the page.

Turns out, the girl has a skunk for a pet. The trou­ble with hav­ing a skunk, of course, is that you nev­er quite fit in.… 

He doesn’t stink.,” the girl says. And the boy agrees.

They start their own club! My read­ers were ecsta­t­ic — what a great idea! There’s a glo­ri­ous spread of unusu­al pets. The kids went wild. We iden­ti­fied each of the unusu­al pets — a por­cu­pine, nar­whal, giraffe, and pen­guin among them. We were gid­dy with relief that every­one had found each other.

The kids and their pets find a park with a tree­house and they paint their own sign. This part was my favorite. At first they fol­low the mod­el they’d seen—Strict­ly no strangers. No Spoil­sports. But then they change it. It’s a sign that says who is wel­come instead of who is not.

All are wel­come. 

A most sat­is­fy­ing pic­ture book!


Kids & Books…Books & Kids

Last week I was a teacher-pre­sen­ter at a young authors and artists con­fer­ence for a cou­ple of days. Tremen­dous fun — the kids who come to these things want to be there and want to learn. They’re read­ers, writ­ers, artists! They are an engaged, engaging, and exu­ber­ant lot, which I enjoy immensely.

I taught six ses­sions on bring­ing con­flict to your sto­ries — “Mak­ing It Even Worse” was the title of my ses­sion. Con­flict is dif­fi­cult for me to write, so I’ve had to fig­ure out ways to approach is from the side…. But oh, the imag­i­na­tions of kid­dos! They are mas­ter­ful at cre­at­ing what a writ­ing teacher of mine calls “incre­men­tal perturbations.”

At the begin­ning of each ses­sion I asked them to intro­duce them­selves with name and grade, and then tell me a favorite book of theirs and some­thing about why it’s a favorite. I love ask­ing kids those last two ques­tions — I feel like I learn some­thing about them very quick­ly. I also build my read­ing list. If they men­tion a book I’ve read, I try to say some­thing about why I like that book, too. If they men­tion a book I’ve not read, I write it down.

They think this is fas­ci­nat­ing — that I read the same books they do, and keep a list of books that they rec­om­mend. One boy said, “This is a book for kids, just so you know….” And I said, “I know — those are the best books!”

What I learned from two days with third and fourth graders is this: They real­ly like series books. They enjoy read­ing all the books in the series, or at least attempt­ing to. They enjoy what I con­sid­er pell-mell action books — cliff hang­ers at the end of every chap­ter, so many incre­men­tal per­tur­ba­tions your head spins, con­stant per­il etc. They also enjoy less rau­cous books, espe­cial­ly if ani­mals are involved — books like Charlotte’s Web, Mrs. Fris­by and the Rats of NIMH, Pablo and Birdy, Black Beau­ty. They think these are best read out loud — a teacher of par­ent read­ing to them. They can be sharply divid­ed as to whether they like a magical/fantasy ele­ment to their books, though Har­ry Pot­ter and the Per­cy Jack­son series seems to rise above any objec­tions to fan­ta­sy — they feel real, I’m told.

I love these kinds of book dis­cus­sions with kids — the exchange of titles, the pas­sion­ate opin­ions, the “…and if you like that, then you’d real­ly like ______!” It’s not only a great way to begin class, but also an easy way to put out there that books are things to be talked about.

As they left, many kids were feed­ing me more titles. “I bet you haven’t read this one…” they’d say. And they were so tick­led if I had, or if I ran to put it on my list.

Such an easy fun thing to do: Ask the kid­dos in your life what they’re reading….


The Season Of Styx Malone

Our Books & Bagels book group met a cou­ple of weeks ago to dis­cuss The Sea­son of Styx Mal­one by Kekla Magoon. When I pick the books for this par­ent-child book­club, I’ve usu­al­ly read them in advance and know they will be good for dis­cus­sion. This one I picked before I’d read it. I’d read reviews and what­not, of course, but I think it was actu­al­ly the cov­er that made me sure this would be a great book for our group. The cov­er of this book is prac­ti­cal­ly per­fect in every way, I think.

The Sea­son of Styx Mal­one is about the sum­mer an über-cool, sweet-talkin’, full of Big Plans six­teen-year-old named Styx Mal­one walks into Caleb and Bob­by Gene Franklin’s per­fect­ly ordi­nary lives. Caleb longs for some­thing extra-ordi­nary to hap­pen. Enter Styx Mal­one, stage left. This is how the book opens:

Styx Mal­one didn’t believe in mir­a­cles, but he was one. Until he came along, there was noth­ing very spe­cial about life in Sut­ton, Indiana.

The cov­er cap­tures Styx’s cool ease, Bob­by Gene’s wor­ry and uncer­tain­ty (he’s the first born), and Caleb’s head-over-heals admi­ra­tion of their new friend.

The sum­mer with Styx Mal­one was extra­or­di­nary for Caleb and Bob­by Gene. Caleb got his wish — but the extra­or­di­nar­i­ness wasn’t exact­ly what he thought it would be. This book is fun­ny, heart-wrench­ing, poignant, and real,even as it tells the sto­ry of a fair­ly mad-cap adven­ture tak­en by a cou­ple of mid­dle-school boys under the spell of a talk-his-way-out-of-any­thing young man. All of us — kids and par­ents enjoyed it.

Over bagels and juice and cof­fee we talked about fam­i­ly and friends…choices and consequences…fear and risk…parent-child dif­fer­ences in how things are perceived…the role of worry…gut feelings…the respon­si­bil­i­ty of com­mu­ni­ty….  There was a lot to talk about. Our group is made up of some pret­ty empa­thet­ic, deep-think­ing kid­dos. I asked them, in our dis­cus­sion of wor­ry, who they were most con­cerned about at the end of the book — because we par­ents thought there was plen­ty to be con­cerned about, even as the book gave a hope­ful, hap­py ending.

I expect­ed the kids to say they were wor­ried about one of the boys on the cov­er. Maybe Styx, who we learn is a pret­ty vul­ner­a­ble kid in dan­ger of drop­ping through the cracks. Or maybe Caleb, who was so eas­i­ly swayed by the smooth talk­ing Styx — that child would fol­low any­one any­where! Or per­haps they’d wor­ry about Bob­by Gene, who felt the heavy weight of respon­si­bil­i­ty and walked around wor­ried and unsure so much of the time. But no — we par­ents were wor­ried about all three of these boys; the kids, how­ev­er, were wor­ried about a minor char­ac­ter named Pixie.

Pix­ie was an unex­pect­ed sur­prise in this book that is large­ly about boys. Styx intro­duces her as his sis­ter — they are liv­ing in the same fos­ter-home for much of the book. Pix­ie comes into the sto­ry wear­ing every col­or of the rain­bow, accent­ed by a feath­er boa, a tutu, and a zebra striped head­band with black-and-white pink mouse ears. She is Caleb and Bob­by Gene’s age, but she doesn’t seem like it to them — her vocab­u­lary is old­er, her behav­ior younger. They are com­plete­ly con­fused by her — she twirls and sparkles, she adores Styx (and he her), and she glints and glit­ters her way into their summer…in a pret­ty minor way con­sid­er­ing all that happens.

But the kids in the book­group wor­ried about her more than all the oth­er char­ac­ters. They strug­gled to voice exact­ly what they were wor­ried about, but it came down to some com­bi­na­tion of her “dif­fer­ent­ness” and the fact that she and Styx were sep­a­rat­ed into two fos­ter homes. Styx gave the impres­sion that he’d always land on his feet. It was hard to tell if Pix­ie would ever land. The kids thought she seemed unteth­ered with­out Styx as her anchor, and this was wor­ri­some for them.

When we par­ents list­ed our wor­ries about the kids — their var­i­ous vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, the his­to­ry of poor choic­es, the crazy risks tak­en by the three boys etc. — the kids nod­ded like “Yeah, yeah. Of Course.” It was like it was our job to wor­ry in this way. Their job was to wor­ry about the kid we’d hard­ly noticed.

This is why I love read­ing with kids. They notice dif­fer­ent things, they think about char­ac­ters in oth­er ways, they bring a fresh set of eyes and expe­ri­ences to sto­ries. I’m grate­ful to have them as read­ing companions.

If you are par­ent and not part of a par­ent-child book­group, con­sid­er start­ing one. It can be a one-time thing, or an occa­sion­al group, as Books & Bagels is. It’s a good excuse to read with kids and talk about impor­tant things (and unim­por­tant things) together.


The Quiltmaker’s Journey

Ear­li­er this week I pulled out our small stash of Thanks­giv­ing pic­ture books. The kids are old­er now, but they seem to like it when the old favorites come out. I got lost, as I always do, in The Quiltmaker’s Gift by Jeff Brum­beau, illus­trat­ed by Gail de Mar­ck­en. I’ve writ­ten about that book for Red Read­ing Boots — you can find that here.

I went in search of its com­pan­ion, The Quilt­mak­ers Jour­ney, which wasn’t with the Thanks­giv­ing books for some rea­son. Found it — and lost myself in it, as well. It’s a pre­quel, real­ly. Explains how the Quilt­mak­er came by her val­ues of gen­eros­i­ty, beau­ty, and love of peo­ple, not things.

When the Quilt­mak­er was a young girl, she lived a mate­ri­al­ly advan­taged and priv­i­leged life.  Because every­one in her town was rich, the girl assumed every­one in the world was. This was by design, we learn. A wall had been built — a stone wall, thick and high — around the town. The chil­dren in the town nev­er saw what was out­side, but they were warned by their elders that hor­ri­ble, ter­ri­ble things were on the oth­er side of the wall….

When I read this in sto­ry­time to kids, you can see them imag­in­ing what’s on the oth­er side of the wall. Their sweet faces morph into trou­bled ones — brows fur­row, eyes wor­ry, thumbs and fin­gers trav­el to their mouths…. Which is exact­ly what hap­pened to the chil­dren in the town. And so they under­stand­ably stay inside the wall where every­thing and more was pro­vid­ed and where an obscene abun­dance reigned; but not, we learn, the assumed hap­pi­ness that would come from such lux­u­ry.… Our young hero­ine grows restless!

The girl who becomes the quilt­mak­er goes out, of course — beyond the wall — that’s the main sto­ry. And she learns that the ter­rors on the oth­er side of the wall are noth­ing like what she’d imag­ined. No mon­sters or ghouls, witch­es or drag­ons. Rather, extreme pover­ty. And though she sees the rav­ages of hunger and unhap­pi­ness, she also wit­ness­es extra­or­di­nary gen­eros­i­ty and kind­ness. She learns that it’s not the peo­ple who are fright­ful, but the cir­cum­stances in which they live.

When she returns to her life inside the wall and makes a plea before the town elders for their town to help those who are out­side the wall…she faces resis­tance. Ignore the poor, she’s told. “If they want­ed to be rich, they shouldn’t have been born poor.”

This does not sit well with the girl who has now had her eyes, ears, and heart opened. She’s been out­side the wall — she knows things the elders do not. She leaves her life of com­fort and makes a new life out­side the wall as she strug­gles to fig­ure out what her gift to the world will be. Even­tu­al­ly, she sells the ring her moth­er gave her to buy bright cloth and thread…and she uses the skills bequeathed to her by the kind old seam­stress who sewed her gowns when she was a child…and she makes quilts. Thick and warm quilts. Beau­ti­ful quilts. Beau­ti­ful, warm quilts she gives, not sells, to those who need them most.

The Quiltmaker’s Jour­ney takes longer to read than many pic­ture books, but her jour­ney is an impor­tant one. Try read­ing the book dur­ing your Thanks­giv­ing fes­tiv­i­ties this week­end. It will not dis­ap­point. It’s an inspir­ing way to begin this sea­son of holidays.


The Princess and Her Panther

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

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

Signe was brave, and Riya tried to be.

I stopped typing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The BIG Umbrella

I am extra­or­di­nar­i­ly lucky in that I have a group of wee ones who join me for sto­ry­time most weeks. They’re lit­tle — age three and under, with sev­er­al babies in the mix — so we don’t tell long sto­ries or read great doorstop­per books. But with pic­ture books, some of the best ones are pret­ty spare in terms of words.

I have a new favorite — new to the world, even — that I want to share wide­ly. The BIG Umbrel­la writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Amy June Bates, co-writ­ten with Juniper Bates. (A moth­er-daugh­ter pair, the daugh­ter being quite young, which is its own love­li­ness.) This book is an anti­dote for our ugly, con­tentious times. It is a sto­ry of inclu­sion and glad­ness — an “All are wel­come, please come!” invi­ta­tion leaps off its pages.

By the front door…

            there is an umbrella.

It is BIG.

It is a big friend­ly umbrella.

There’s a page turn with each of those lines — the bet­ter to show off the won­der­ful art. The bright red umbrel­la catch­es even the youngest’s eyes.

The umbrel­la fea­tures a smil­ing face. The eyes are smil­ing, too. I think it’s the first anthro­po­mor­phic umbrel­la I’ve seen, now that I think about it. The umbrel­la is being tak­en out and about by a child in a yel­low rain slick­er. We are told — and see — that this big friend­ly umbrel­la likes to help, likes to spread its arms wide, “lives” to shel­ter those who need shelter.

In the next sev­er­al page turns, the big umbrel­la takes in one friend after anoth­er — a blue jack­et­ed child first…then a tutu-clad dancer…and a red sneak­ered sports star.

And that is only the begin­ning of who the big red umbrel­la shel­ters. We learn it can take in the tallest among us (giant bird feet appear and are cut-off at the top of the page before we’re to the knee) as well as the hairi­est (a benev­o­lent hairy beast.) It takes in those clad in plaid and those with four legs. The umbrel­la just keeps get­ting big­ger as they all crowd under it together.

Towards the end of the book there is a gen­tle reminder that although some wor­ry there won’t be enough room, there always is.

I almost cried when I read it. But I was saved by the smiles around the cir­cle — those wee ones got it! They can’t pro­nounce umbrel­la, many of them, but sit­ting in a crowd­ed space on their par­ents’ laps, with their young friends…they got it. There’s always room.


The Penderwicks

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

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

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

It was an adorable cov­er. So we read it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Stuff of Stars

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

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

In the dark,

in the dark,

in the deep, deep dark…. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the dark refrain returned…

…one day…

in the dark,

in the dark,

in the deep, deep dark… 

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

It was powerful.

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

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


   and me

      lov­ing you.

          All of us

              The stuff of stars.


For fur­ther read­ing, I high­ly rec­om­mend the following:

Mar­i­on Dane Bauer inter­views her illus­tra­tor, Ekua Holmes.

The writ­ing process for The Stuff of Stars.


Story Time for All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sto­ry­time! STORY-time!”



Little Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Giant Jam Sandwich

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

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

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

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

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

For hours and hours they let it cook.

It swelled inside till the win­dows shook.

It was pip­ing hot when they took it out,

And the vil­lagers raised a mighty shout.

Isn’t it crusty! Aren’t we clever!”

But the wasps were just as bad as ever….


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

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

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

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

[The wasps] nev­er came back to Itch­ing Down,

Which is not a waspish sort of town,

But a very nice place to dance and play,

And that’s what the vil­lagers did that day. 

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



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

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

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

WAIT.” said the light.

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

WAIT.” it said.

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

WAIT.” the light responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Pablo and Birdy


There are books I read with my eyes leak­ing begin­ning to end. Count­ing by Sevens…Swallows and Amazons…The View From Saturday…Because of Winn Dixie…Orbiting Jupiter…. I don’t mean to say these books make me cry — that’s anoth­er cat­e­go­ry, the ones that make you ugly cry so you can’t read it out­loud. Rather, these leaky-eye books are sto­ries read through a watery prism from the first page on. I nev­er sob or snif­fle, I just wipe at my eyes with my sleeve for the entire length of the book. If I read them aloud to my kids when they were lit­tle, they com­ment­ed. “Mom­my, are you cry­ing?” And I quite cheer­ful­ly could say, “Not exact­ly. This one just makes my eyes leak.”

It’s like the book fills my heart to such an extent — With what? Won­der? Beau­ty? Grat­i­tude? Bit­ter­sweet­ness? Truth? — that some­thing has to over­flow. And that some­thing is my eyes, I guess. I love many many books, but the eye leak­ers are in a spe­cial cat­e­go­ry unto themselves.

Ali­son McGhee’s Pablo and Birdy joined the list most recent­ly. I knew from the first line.

Ready Birdy?” Pablo said, and he held out his fin­ger for her. “Up you go.”

This is the sto­ry of a boy named Pablo who washed up on the beach in an inflat­able swim­ming pool as a baby. Birdy is the par­rot who was found cling­ing to the ropes that held Pablo safe. The book opens as Pablo is turn­ing ten. He is sur­round­ed by the love of an eccen­tric group of islanders who try to pro­tect him from the sto­ry of his past for which they have no answers. But that doesn’t mean Pablo doesn’t have questions.

Birdy is a flight­less and voice­less par­rot. She is laven­der-feath­ered and man­go-scent­ed and the bond she has with her Pablo is a fierce one. Their rela­tion­ship is large­ly respon­si­ble for my leak­ing eyes.

There are slap­sticky fun­ny moments as well as sad and wor­ri­some moments in Pablo and Birdy. There’s an eclec­tic cast, human and not, includ­ing the Com­mit­tee, a group of rag-tag island birds who com­ment on all of the goings-on. Also a pas­try-steal­ing dog thread that can break your heart. And through it all, there is the mys­te­ri­ous myth of the sea­far­ing par­rot who knows and can repro­duce all of the sounds of the world that have ever been made.

A strange wind blows in dur­ing the events of this nov­el. Island wis­dom holds that “the winds of change mean for­tune lost or for­tune gained.” As Pablo says at the end, it’s not always easy to tell what has been lost and/or gained. That’s fun­da­men­tal­ly what the sto­ry is about, I think — that elu­sive and/or — and as such, it is a beau­ti­ful one to press into the hands of kids you love.

Two of my nieces turn eleven this spring. They each bear a slight resem­blance to Pablo in dif­fer­ent ways — and they are loved just as fierce­ly by we, their “islanders.” There is still space in their heads, hearts, and lives for won­der and imag­i­na­tion, which is the only thing this book requires. I’ll even go as far as to say this book can restore won­der and imag­i­na­tion if it’s on the way out. They’re both get­ting a signed copy for their birth­days—shh­hh don’t tell! I don’t know if their eyes will leak or not. But I’ve dreamt of read­ing it with each of them — leaky eyes and all — and I think they’ll love it.




The Hate You Give


This past week­end, Dar­ling Daugh­ter and I par­tic­i­pat­ed in a par­ent-teen book dis­cus­sion about The Hate You Give by Ang­ie Thomas. This book has won many awards, received fan­tas­tic reviews, and is a hot top­ic of dis­cus­sion in both the book and teen world — espe­cial­ly where those worlds over­lap. It’s about the after­math of a police shoot­ing of an unarmed black teen. It cov­ers var­i­ous racial issues, grief, friend­ship, eco­nom­ic dis­par­i­ty, and polit­i­cal activism, just to name a few of the chal­leng­ing the­mat­ic elements.

The con­ver­sa­tion over piz­za and sal­ad was excel­lent. I came with a list of ques­tions, but we real­ly didn’t need it. We won­dered togeth­er about all we don’t know and can’t know about anoth­er person’s sit­u­a­tion. We won­dered if dif­fer­ences make it hard­er to under­stand one another…and/or if there’s a way to use those dif­fer­ences some­how to strength­en what we have in com­mon. We reflect­ed on how com­pli­cat­ed life can be — how so many traps can catch a kid, an adult, too. We talked about the dif­fer­ence one car­ing adult, or one good friend, can make in a kid’s life. And we talked about when that isn’t enough. We dis­cussed insti­tu­tion­al and sys­temic racism. And they pro­vid­ed real life illus­tra­tions from school that week.

It was pret­ty eye open­ing. These teens are white stu­dents at very diverse urban high schools (three dif­fer­ent ones.) We par­ents had gone to high schools, back in the day, with­out near­ly as much diver­si­ty in terms of cul­ture, lan­guage, skin col­or, reli­gion, and socio-eco­nom­ic sta­tus. It was clear they thought we’d missed out. Speak­ing for myself, I think we did, too.

Our kids are pret­ty flu­ent in things we nev­er thought about as high school stu­dents because of the rich make-up of their stu­dent bod­ies. Their lunch­rooms accom­mo­date an array of dietary restric­tions and eco­nom­ic neces­si­ties. The sched­ul­ing of tests has to take into account var­i­ous reli­gious obser­vances. There are some­times heat­ed dis­cus­sions and even fights hap­pen­ing in lan­guages the bystanders and staff don’t under­stand. There are cul­tur­al val­ues they find mys­te­ri­ous, but want to respect, even as they won­der about the source of their own val­ues. There are racial issues that play out in both ugly and inter­est­ing ways. It’s quite a mix of peo­ple and issues they nav­i­gate each day in their class­es, hall­ways, and lunchroom.

Our kids loved The Hate You Give—for the “real­ness” of it, the con­tem­po­rary feel, for what it helped explain, and for the ques­tions it made them ask of them­selves, their schools, and their com­mu­ni­ties. When we talked about “mir­rors and win­dows” — whether a book mir­rors a reader’s life sit­u­a­tion or pro­vides a win­dow to see into another’s life sit­u­a­tion — they all said they thought this was a win­dow book. It was writ­ten for white peo­ple, they said, to help them flesh out sto­ries in the news, help them build empa­thy. I asked if they had black friends read­ing the book. They did. They did not spec­u­late as to whether their black friends read The Hate You Give as a mir­ror or win­dow book, but they said every­one who reads it is talk­ing about it.

We par­ents loved The Hate You Give, too — for the peek inside our kids’ days and thoughts, for expla­na­tions of things we’re not famil­iar with (like rap lyrics), and for its com­plex­i­ty. The sit­u­a­tions and the char­ac­ters in this book are enor­mous­ly com­pli­cat­ed. Our days are filled with tweets and posts and head­lines that gross­ly sim­pli­fy things, there­by caus­ing fur­ther harm. This books blows open issues of race and fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty by show­ing their com­plex­i­ty. It makes for a rich, heart-break­ing sto­ry that some­how man­ages to give a glim­mer of hope at the end.

The Hate You Give is a heck of a cross-over book. Some of us read YA and kidlit books reg­u­lar­ly, but many adults do not. This one works for adults. And if you have a teen you can read it with — well, sit back and lis­ten to them. They also give you a sense of hope.






A Porcupine Named Fluffy

It’s Read Across Amer­i­ca Week this week and I had the priv­i­lege of haul­ing a bag of books to a local ele­men­tary school and read­ing to five dif­fer­ent class­es — K‑2nd grade — last Tues­day. A tru­ly won­der­ful way to spend the after­noon, I must say.

#1 Son’s 21st birth­day was Tues­day, which made me all nos­tal­gic for the days of pic­ture books, and so I’d packed a bag full of his long-ago favorites (and a cou­ple new­er ones, too). In each class we’d chat for a few min­utes and I’d kin­da suss out what they might like most. Small Walt was a hit with a kinder­garten class, The Odi­ous Ogre with the sec­ond graders. One Dog Canoe works for just about any age, of course. As does A Por­cu­pine Named Fluffy. I think I read A Por­cu­pine Named Fluffy by Helen Lester, illus­trat­ed by Lynn Mun­singer, in three of the five class­rooms. It nev­er fails.

When #1 Son was small, we used that book to get things done. “When you’re all done with bath and have brushed your teeth…we can read Fluffy.” “Just as soon as you fin­ish your lunch, we can read Fluffy out in the ham­mock….” He loved Fluffy.

The book opens with Mr. and Mrs. Por­cu­pine tak­ing a stroll with their first child in a stroller. They’re try­ing to find exact­ly the right name for him. They con­sid­er Spike. Too com­mon. Lance? Too fierce for their sweet lit­tle guy. Needleroozer?

It’s Needlerooz­er that gets the kids laugh­ing — it’s almost like a mag­ic word that unlocks something.

Needlerooz­er?!” they say.

That’s a ter­ri­ble name!”

It’s hard to spell!”

Prick­les? I say. They shake their heads. Pokey? More head shakes. How about Quillian?

What kind of name is that?” said one lit­tle boy.

Then togeth­er Mr. and Mrs. Por­cu­pine have an idea. “Let’s call him Fluffy. It’s such a pret­ty name. Fluffy!”

 Lots of gig­gles at this. Por­cu­pines aren’t fluffy! They all know this and so the name is hilar­i­ous! It’s a pret­ty won­der­ful intro­duc­tion to irony, if you ask me.

So Fluffy grows up, beloved and some­what pro­tect­ed, with his iron­ic name. At some point he begins to sus­pect he’s not fluffy — things hap­pen. The illus­tra­tions car­ry the humor in these instances and kids love love love it. And so he embarks on the chal­lenge of mak­ing his sharp quills fluffi­er — more hilar­i­ty ensues.

And then one day, Fluffy meets a very large rhi­noc­er­os. And the rhi­noc­er­os tells him right out that he’s going to give Fluffy a “rough time.”

What’s your name, small prick­ly thing?” the rhi­noc­er­os asks.

Fluffy,” says Fluffy.

And this just slays the rhi­no — he can hard­ly breathe he laughs so hard. By then, every­one is laugh­ing — a prop­er read­ing depends on the laugh­ter in fact.

And what is your name?” Fluffy asks, despite his embarrassment.

And then we find out the rhino’s name, which I shall not divulge here. Suf­fice to say, it gives the irony of Fluffy’s name a run for its money.

The books ends with the two as fast friends, of course. And the book ends with read­ers — young and old­er — smil­ing and laugh­ing. There’s just some­thing about this book! If you haven’t read it, or don’t remem­ber it (it was pub­lished before I grad­u­at­ed from high school!) look for it in your library. I saw it there just a few weeks ago — it is still very much in circulation.



The Human Alphabet

At my local library, a cou­ple of weeks ago, I flipped through the books that were for sale by the Friends of the Library. These are most­ly books that have been removed from the shelves for one rea­son or anoth­er. The kids’ books cost $.50—fifty cents, peo­ple! I’ve found some great ones in these bins.

The find this time: Pilobo­lus Dance Com­pa­ny’s The Human Alpha­bet. I snapped it up. As in I dropped the oth­er books I was hold­ing, I grabbed it so fast. It’s in pret­ty good con­di­tion. You can tell it’s been read hard, but frankly it might be the very copy that was read hard in our house, so I don’t mind the evi­dence of pre­vi­ous reads.

This book reg­u­lar­ly found its way into our library bag when #1 Son was young. He hat­ed alpha­bet books with an almost patho­log­i­cal hatred, being a child who could fer­ret out an adult’s agen­da (learn­ing let­ters, for instance) quick­er than you could open a book. He dis­dained any books that were designed to help a young per­son learn let­ters or num­bers. Except for Pilobolus’s alpha­bet book. For this rea­son, I con­sid­er this book magical.

It opens with this sim­ple invi­ta­tion: Here are 26 let­ters of the alpha­bet and 26 pic­tures — all made of peo­ple! Can you guess what each pic­ture shows? And what fol­lows are the most amaz­ing pic­tures. Each let­ter is made of peo­ple, and so is a pic­ture that goes with each let­ter — a line of ants for A, but­ter­fly for B etc. They are astound­ing, each and every one.

Some­thing about these let­ters made of peo­ple spoke to our boy who was “not so very fond of let­ters and num­bers.” (A direct quote, age four — we read a lot of Win­nie-the-Pooh, hence the British syn­tax.) Occa­sion­al­ly he would humor me and we would make let­ters with our bod­ies. But only occa­sion­al­ly. Most­ly he just flipped through the book, study­ing each let­ter, each pic­ture. Some­times I’d posi­tion myself so I could see his eyes as he looked at the book. He’d take in the whole page, lean in a bit…and then the recog­ni­tion! His eyes would widen almost imper­cep­ti­bly, and a lit­tle smile would come — he’d dis­cov­ered some­thing. The let­ter N! Or an ice cream cone! (MADE OF HUMANS!)

I tried so hard not to ruin it by hav­ing him trace the let­ters, or say them out loud, or won­der togeth­er what oth­er words might start with that let­ter. I bit my tongue, and we just enjoyed. Regularly.

The copy­right on this book says 2005. In my mem­o­ry, he was much younger when we were look­ing at this book. But he was a lat­er read­er (you can read more on that adven­ture here), so per­haps it fell in that time when he already “should’ve” known his let­ters, but gave no indi­ca­tion he did on any of the usu­al tests and performances.

When I showed him my find, #1 Son, who will be 21 years old in a cou­ple of weeks, smiled with recog­ni­tion. Maybe I’ll send it to him for his birthday….


The Pushcart War

I first heard of  Jean Merrill’s The Push­cart War in grad school. I read it because a fel­low stu­dent spoke with absolute glee about it. I’ve not heard a book rec­om­mend­ed with such laugh­ter and vig­or before or since. And I fell into the book just as she insist­ed I would. Fell, I tell you. Lost my head, really.

My kids did, too. I hand­ed it to them with a casu­al, “It’s real­ly good and I think you’ll like it…” sort of rec­om­men­da­tion. I want­ed to see if they would, as I did, google “push­cart war” to see when this had hap­pened and why we didn’t know more about it. They did. Well, the lit­tle one said, “Wait…did this real­ly happen?!”

Appar­ent­ly, we each read over the dates of the for­ward and the author’s intro­duc­tion. Both are dat­ed in the year 2036, which would’ve been a clue, of course…but so absorbed were we in the “report­ing” of the Push­cart War — in the strug­gle, the unfair tac­tics and pol­i­tics of the truck­ers, and the plight of the push­cart ven­dors — that we missed the clues, I guess.

When The Push­cart War was pub­lished in 1964, it was set in New York City in 1976. When it was repub­lished in 1974, it was set in 1986. The 1985 edi­tion is set in 1996 — always the not-so-dis­tant future, in oth­er words. When the New York Review Children’s Col­lec­tion pub­lished the 50th anniver­sary edi­tion a cou­ple of years ago, the date changed to 2026 (this is the edi­tion I have). This book has had polit­i­cal res­o­nance in each of the eras in which it has pub­lished and repub­lished, and the plight of the push­cart ven­dors cer­tain­ly still rings True, hilar­i­ous­ly and poignant­ly, today.

The sto­ry could be cat­e­go­rized as “nar­ra­tive jour­nal­ism,” pub­lished ten years after the events of the war. The for­ward, writ­ten by one Pro­fes­sor Lyman Cum­ber­ly of New York Uni­ver­si­ty says “…it is very impor­tant to the peace of the world that we under­stand how wars begin….” The Push­cart War shows us. Kids under­stand the issue at hand — the big truck­ing com­pa­nies want the roads cleared for trucks and only trucks. The truck­ing indus­try cites the impor­tance of deliv­er­ies being on time, the gen­er­al agree­ment that traf­fic is awful etc. The push­carts — the lit­tle guys — are the first target.

But they fight back! And the fight is glo­ri­ous and one that any­one who has ever been bul­lied or wit­nessed bul­ly­ing or has bul­lied will under­stand. There’s The Daf­fodil Mas­sacre, which starts it all off, and then we’re quick­ly intro­duced to Mor­ris the Florist, and Frank the Flower, and Max­ie Ham­mer­man, the Push­cart King. Movie star, Wan­da Gam­bling, sees the dan­ger signs — don’t we all? I mean, the taxi dri­vers grew cau­tious in their dri­ving! — and pret­ty soon there are famous speech­es and secret meet­ings, trig­ger­ing words and secret weapons. Then there’s an all out War. It’s basi­cal­ly David and Goliath all over again.

But there’s some­thing about the way it’s writ­ten — I guess it’s the “nar­ra­tive jour­nal­ism” tone — before you know it, you’re search­ing Wikipedia to get the details nailed down.

If I were a teacher of fourth graders, I’d read a chap­ter of this time­less clas­sic every day. And I’d notice, and pon­der, as I did and do, that this book, a sto­ry for chil­dren, has only the briefest men­tion of any kids. The main char­ac­ters are entire­ly adults.

Fas­ci­nat­ing, don’t you think?



A Wrinkle in Time

It was a dark and stormy night. 

When I read this aloud one chilly fall evening on the porch to my kids, I laughed out loud. It was Banned Books week and we were “cel­e­brat­ing” by read­ing Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrin­kle in Time, one of the peren­ni­al repeaters on banned books lists. #1 Son was in fourth grade, which is when I’d been intro­duced to A Wrin­kle in Time. Dar­ling Daugh­ter was a lit­tle young, but she was accus­tomed to col­or­ing while we read books that were sup­pos­ed­ly “over her head” — books that she often quot­ed later.

I can’t imag­ine I laughed the first time I heard the open­ing line of this impor­tant book. But as an adult, it struck me as ter­ri­bly clever — tak­ing the most clichéd open­ing line ever and start­ing an astound­ing, break-all-the-rules book with it.

My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Hen­der­son read us A Wrin­kle in Time. I remem­ber the hair on my arms stand­ing up as she read a chap­ter each after­noon after lunch and recess. I could hard­ly breath I loved that book so much. Meg was a Smart Girl, a Strong Girl — a smart and strong girl in ways not always rec­og­nized, but fre­quent­ly squelched, in my expe­ri­ence. There were not near­ly enough Smart/Strong Girl pro­tag­o­nists when I was in fourth grade. I adored her. I want­ed to be her. Plus, I had a mad crush on Calvin.

The book was smart, too — filled with lan­guages Mrs. Hen­der­son could not pro­nounce, pep­pered with say­ings from peo­ple I did not know (like Seneca), and there was math and sci­ence and space adven­ture! Oh my! (I want­ed des­per­ate­ly to be a sci­en­tist when I was in fourth grade.) Read­ing time after lunch and recess was always my favorite part of the school day, but dur­ing those few weeks that we read A Wrin­kle in Time, I was in the high­est read­ing heaven.

When we reached the chap­ter called “The Tesser­act,” Mrs. Hen­der­son declared it “too dif­fi­cult con­cep­tu­al­ly” and she skipped it. I can’t decide whether to nev­er for­give her for this, or be ter­ri­bly grate­ful. Because I went to the library and found the book so I could read the skipped part. I was deter­mined to under­stand it, and I did. (The draw­ing of the ant on the line helped.) I under­stood it sit­ting on the floor in the library at age nine bet­ter than I did when I read it to my kids on the porch dur­ing Banned Books Week thir­ty years lat­er, I think. Dar­ling Daugh­ter copied the pic­ture of the ant in her art­work. #1 Son stud­ied it after we’d fin­ished reading.

I don’t remem­ber read­ing ahead once I’d found the book in the library — I prob­a­bly didn’t, since I enjoyed hear­ing the chap­ter install­ments each day. In fact, I don’t remem­ber read­ing A Wrin­kle in Time on my own at all — and there were plen­ty of books I read in a com­pul­sive man­ner again and again.

But it was like I’d nev­er left it when I read it to my kids. I remem­bered it all — the excitement…the ter­ror of IT…the fast-paced dia­log between all the smart smart people…the iden­ti­cal chil­dren bounc­ing balls in front of iden­ti­cal hous­es, which I think of every time I’m in a sub­ur­ban devel­op­ment with only beige/grey hous­es and town­hous­es… Most of all: Meg’s frus­tra­tion and fear, fierce strength and smarts.

The hair on my arms stood up again when I saw the pre­view to the movie of A Wrin­kle in Time that’s com­ing out this March. It’s going to be won­der­ful, I can just tell. This ground­break­ing, unusu­al nov­el that couldn’t be cat­e­go­rized when it was pub­lished and con­tin­ues to resist cat­e­go­riza­tion near­ly six­ty years lat­er … this book that has been banned again and again and again … this book is about to take the world by a storm again, I pre­dict, even as it’s nev­er lost favor (except with those who would ban it, I guess). I open its pages and the hair on my arms stands up still — it remains incred­i­bly rel­e­vant, I believe. Per­haps more so now than when it was pub­lished. I can’t wait to see it on the big screen.


The Grinch

I’m just going to say it. Go on the record.

I do not like The Grinch. I do not like the book. I do not like the char­ac­ter. I do not like the sto­ry of How The Grinch Stole Christ­mas. I do not like the bril­liant the­ater pro­duc­tions of the sto­ry (though I acknowl­edge the bril­liance.) I do not like the TV spe­cial, which I grew up watch­ing, and which I did not let my kids watch. I do not like the movie or the song. I do not like any of it, Sam-I-Am.

Lest you think I’m sim­ply grinchy about all things Grinch, I will tip my hand here at the begin­ning and say that I love the name “Grinch.” It’s per­fect. As per­fect as Ebe­neez­er Scrooge’s name, and let’s be hon­est, How The Grinch Stole Christ­mas is real­ly just a knock-off of Dicken’s A Christ­mas Car­ol. It’s just not as well done. It lacks…subtlety, among oth­er things.

Scrooge is afflict­ed with his own per­son­al bah hum­bug­ness, but you sus­pect even before all of the Christ­mas Ghosts vis­it that he could be a dif­fer­ent man with a lit­tle ther­a­py and some home­made Christ­mas cook­ies. But the Grinch is just mean. He’s not all “Bah hum­bug!” when Christ­mas friv­o­li­ties get on his nerves — he’s all “I MUST stop this Christ­mas from coming.”

Dude. Take your two-sizes-too-small heart and get back to your cave.

I’m tired of mak­ing excus­es for the grinch­es of the world. He takes the stock­ings and presents, the treats and the feast of the wee Whos! He takes the last can of Who-hash, for heaven’s sake! And then The Tree — he shoves the Whos’ Christ­mas tree up the chim­ney! Who does that?!

It’s Cindy­Lou Who and her sweet trust­ing nature that just undoes me. 

San­ty Claus, why…Why are you tak­ing our Christ­mas tree? WHY?”

The Grinch pos­es as San­ta Claus — can we agree this is an abomination?

He tells her there’s a light that won’t light, and so he’s tak­ing it back to his work­shop to fix. Sweet Cindy­Lou believes him — she trots back to bed with her cold cup of water. My heart! And the Grinch takes the very log for the fire; then goes up the chim­ney, him­self, the old liar.

We did not have this book grow­ing up. We watched the TV spe­cial but I’d nev­er read it until I babysat a fam­i­ly who had it. They had three boys, ages nine, six, and three. They were wild. Dif­fi­cult. Not kind to each oth­er. And they were exhaust­ing to put to bed. I think this is why their par­ents went out.

I sug­gest­ed a few books to wind down one sum­mer night, and the six-year-old demand­ed that I read How The Grinch Stole Christ­mas.

YEAH!” said the nine-year-old. “It makes babies cry!” And as if on cue, the three-year-old start­ed to whim­per. I said we weren’t going to read a book that made any­one cry. And besides, it wasn’t even Christmas.

But two hours lat­er, after the old­er two had passed out, the three-year-old brought How The Grinch Stole Christ­mas down to me and asked me to read it. His eyes were huge. His thumb was in his mouth. He said he had to go pot­ty first. Then he need­ed a cold cup of water — just like Cindy­Lou Who.

When we final­ly sat down to read the book, we did not get past the first page before huge tears welled in his eyes. I told him I could not in good con­science read him a book that made him so sad. He sug­gest­ed we just look at the pic­tures. And so we did. We talked through the pic­tures, and he trem­bled as we did. He obvi­ous­ly knew the story.

And it did not mat­ter one bit that The Grinch could not final­ly take away Christ­mas — that Christ­mas came in fine style even with­out all the trap­pings he’d stolen. It did not mat­ter that The Grinch’s heart grew three sizes in the end and that he him­self carved the roast beef. This, I sup­pose, is meant to be the “les­son,” the take-away that makes the rest of it all okay. Too lit­tle too late, I say.

I had a three-year-old on my lap try­ing so hard to brave, try­ing not to be The Baby his broth­ers told him he was. His lit­tle heart ham­mered as we turned those pages and by the time we were done, I was done with The Grinch.

So there.



Thanksgiving Tea

The week before Thanks­giv­ing I was part of a won­der­ful Thanks­giv­ing-themed Sto­ry­time. Excel­lent books were read: Otis Gives Thanks by Loren Long and Thank­ful by Eileen Spinel­li. We sang through There Was An Old Lady Who Swal­lowed A Turkey by Lucille Colan­dro, and Sim­ple Gifts by Chris Rasch­ka. All was going swim­ming­ly — beau­ti­ful chil­dren, rapt and smil­ing. They were very young, but you could tell they were read to reg­u­lar­ly. They knew how to sit on cush­ions, raise their hands, use their inside voic­es, etc.

And then I decid­ed to “tell” an orig­i­nal sto­ry about set­ting the table for a Thanks­giv­ing Tea. I pulled out #1 Son’s tea set from when he was three and very into tea par­ties. I gave it a good wash — quite dusty as he has used larg­er tea cups for years now — and packed it into a “sto­ry box” with a few oth­er props.

We will set a beau­ti­ful table togeth­er, I thought. I will invite them to pour the tea for one another…to imag­ine what they’d like to eat…we will give thanks for all the good­ness in life…. Warm cozy feel­ings flood­ed my sto­ry­telling heart.

I placed a small end table in front of them. They all stood up and gath­ered around. This was unex­pect­ed — the stand­ing — but it made sense, of course. They would be right there and able to see the sto­ry unfold. I smiled, opened my sto­ry box, and began.

This is our Thanks­giv­ing table for tea… They stood still stock still, star­ing at the table in front of them. I love the innate dra­ma of telling stories!

This is the table­cloth, ironed so smooth, that cov­ers our Thanks­giv­ing table for tea…. I spread a col­or­ful sun­flower nap­kin. Imme­di­ate­ly they all were touch­ing the nap­kin, rub­bing the table with the nap­kin, pulling the nap­kin to one side and then the oth­er, wip­ing their noses on the nap­kin. I sug­gest­ed we put our hands at our sides.


I sug­gest­ed we put our hands behind our backs.


So I con­tin­ued. I’m semi-unflappable.

This is the light, that shines in the mid­dle…. A quick glance at my fel­low sto­ry­time leader con­firmed that we might not want to light the can­dle as planned in my ridicu­lous­ly cozy vision of this sto­ry telling. This was an excel­lent choice as instant­ly there were hun­dreds, maybe thou­sands, of lit­tle hands all over the unlit can­dle. They passed it around, grabbed it from one anoth­er, blew on it. I insist­ed we put the light in the mid­dle as the sto­ry said.

When it was reluc­tant­ly placed there and we imag­ined the cozy flame, I con­tin­ued through the sto­ry. They con­tin­ued touch­ing the can­dle and adjust­ing the cloth.

But things didn’t real­ly fall apart until I brought out the small plates of “all dif­fer­ent col­ors” with their “match­ing cups for our Thanks­giv­ing tea.”

These were rearranged, stacked and unstacked, clat­tered togeth­er, passed around, dropped on the floor, sipped from, and licked. My fel­low sto­ry­teller flinched with every clat­ter, but I knew what those dish­es had been through and although they are pot­tery, they are the mag­i­cal sort that some­how does not break.

When I placed the teapot and cream and sug­ar “that match the cups and plates, all dif­fer­ent col­ors” on the table, fre­net­ic pour­ing and com­mon cup swig­ging ensued. Clear­ly they under­stood the con­cept of teatime. A small skir­mish broke out over the cream pitch­er and its imag­i­nary cream. Heaps more sug­ar than the wee sug­ar bowl could pos­si­bly hold was sprin­kled around all over the cloth and on each oth­er. A thou­sand or more chil­dren man­aged to gath­er around that tiny table and “manip­u­late” the props.


Cere­al!” was the first answer. Then ‘taters and pie and pop­corn and can­dy and turkey and more can­dy and toast and gold­fish and jel­ly and mac­a­roni-and-cheese and cup­cakes and milk and apples and but­tered noo­dles and bananas and hot­dogs and meat and corn-on-the-cob and hot choco­late and water­mel­on and more can­dy. Marsh­mal­lows, too. For the hot choco­late. But also just to eat.

All of these things we pre­tend­ed to place and plop and sprin­kle and slop on the wee lit­tle plates and in the wee lit­tle cups as they were mov­ing, no less. It was chaos — every­thing con­stant­ly being passed and clat­tered and exchanged and grabbed.


Half of the group imme­di­ate­ly went and sat on their cush­ions. The oth­er half did indeed “help” put every­thing back in the sto­ry­box. My sto­ry­teller part­ner and I heaved a sigh of relief as I put the lid on. Noth­ing broke. No one was cry­ing. There was no blood.

Now we have a craft!” we said. Which was, curi­ous­ly, a much calmer activ­i­ty. Except for the glue sticks — small bat­tles erupt­ed over those. More than one child used them as chap­stick. Per­haps this made for a qui­et ride home.


Mouse Books

We have mice. Hope­ful­ly just one, but it’s a brash one, scut­tling around the kitchen dur­ing break­fast this morning.

This hap­pens in the fall at our house. We’ve cer­tain­ly tried to find where they might be get­ting in, but they say a mouse only needs a dime-sized hole, and we obvi­ous­ly haven’t found it. Caught two a cou­ple of weeks ago.

They’re small. Cute, even. Which is good, because oth­er­wise I’d have the hee­bie-jee­bies. And I (most­ly) don’t. It’s just a To-Do on the list — and I’m not the one who To-Do’s it even.

But it has me think­ing…. We might not want them in our hous­es, but mice are beloved char­ac­ters in kids’ books. Cer­tain­ly at our house they have been. Ralph S. MouseThe Mouse and the Motor­cy­cle…all of Kevin Henke’s won­der­ful mice pic­ture books…The Bram­bly Hedge Col­lec­tionMrs. Fris­by and the Rats of NIMHA Mouse Called WolfStu­art Lit­tleThe Tale of Des­pereaux…Bri­an Jacques’ Red­wall Series…Avi’s Pop­py and Rag­weed books…Bless This Mouse…. And these are just some of the books in which mice play the star­ring role. Plen­ty more have mousy “minor char­ac­ters.” (Think Tem­ple­ton in Charlotte’s Web, or Mouse in the Bear books by Bon­nie Beck­er.)

I’ve writ­ten many Red Read­ing Boots columns about our favorite mice books. (I just looked back—many!) I look at the shelves in my office, which have been stocked with all of the fam­i­ly favorites I’m allowed to take from the #1 Son’s and Dar­ling Daughter’s shelves, and good­ness! It would appear we’ve raised them on mice! #1 Son had imag­i­nary mice friends who accom­pa­nied through the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of ear­ly child­hood — and no won­der! Did we read any­thing else?!

What is it about mice that are so appeal­ing for sto­ry­telling? Is it that they’re the pre­sumed under­dog because of their size? Yet in sto­ry after sto­ry, they prove them­selves to be intel­li­gent, resource­ful, and coura­geous — their size even advan­ta­geous. Cer­tain­ly this is a theme wor­thy of putting before children.

Is it because they are so wee and dear (fic­tion­al­ly!) and lend them­selves to illus­tra­tions? Some of my most favorite illus­tra­tions have mice in them (see the above list for starters!) Their lit­tle clothes! 

Or is it because we like to imag­ine par­al­lel uni­vers­es in which the small­est ani­mals cre­ate homes and vil­lages and worlds from our bits and bobs? Hid­den away in the hedgerows, the rafters, beneath the floorboards…all these sto­ries run­ning along beside use.

It might be this last thing for me. When I’m on walks I often see tiny hol­lows, small pock­ets, and invit­ing dime sized (and larg­er) holes in the walls and hedges and trees. When I see these, I’m imme­di­ate­ly fur­nish­ing a home for tiny ones inside — scraps art­ful­ly repur­posed, cozy built-ins, wind­ing passages….

I’m ful­ly aware that oth­er rodents could star in such scenes, but it’s always a bit­ty mouse with large ears and eyes and flick­er­ing whiskers that comes to mind. Per­haps it’s because of what I’ve read over the years? Cer­tain­ly could be. There’s some­thing about mice that fire our imag­i­na­tions, I think.

I’m on the hunt for new mouse books. What do you have to recommend?







Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

I have had the plea­sure of enter­tain­ing a few young writ­ers in my office in the last cou­ple of months. They come with a Mom, usu­al­ly. (My office doesn’t real­ly hold more than three peo­ple at a time.) These Moms are so thank­ful that I would do this “gen­er­ous thing” of hav­ing them over that I feel almost guilty. Because I do it for me. These writ­ers, most of whom have not hit the dou­ble dig­its in age yet, are such an inspi­ra­tion for me.

We often share our WIPs (works-in-progress). Theirs is beau­ti­ful, because they are almost always illus­tra­tors as well as writ­ers. Some write pic­ture books only, but some cross over into illus­trat­ed chap­ter books, fill­ing note­book upon note­book. I usu­al­ly show them some mess I’m work­ing on, and although they’re polite, I can tell they’re star­tled (or amused) that I don’t have my act more together.

We dis­cuss process. I ask them if they write most every day and they say things like, “Of course.” And “I use my free time in class effi­cient­ly.” These kids leave and I have the urge to clean my office, start a new note­book and cal­en­dar, and get my act togeth­er. They are good for my soul.

They usu­al­ly try my Wesk (Walk­ing Desk) and they spend a lot of time look­ing at my book­shelves. This is how I know they’re seri­ous writ­ers — they’re seri­ous read­ers. I tell them this. And they nod smart­ly or look at me with the “Duh!” look on their face. Most­ly we talk about new­er books — those pub­lished with­in their life­time — that we love. But I had one young writer recent­ly who kept remark­ing on the books of my childhood.

Ramona the Brave! I love Ramona…. The Bor­row­ers! Remem­ber when we read that when we were vis­it­ing your friend, Mom? Wind in the Wil­lows! I like Mr. Toad….”

And then she spied Mrs. Fris­by and the Rats of NIMH. She pulled it off the shelf and scru­ti­nized the cov­er. “Is this the same Mrs. Fris­by we have?” she asked her moth­er, doubt and sus­pi­cion in her young voice. Her moth­er answered that it was, this one just had a dif­fer­ent cov­er. “Was this yours when you were a girl like me?” she asked, her eyes dart­ing my way but then imme­di­ate­ly back to Mrs. Fris­by in her mod­est red cloak on the cover.

No,” I said. “This was my son’s copy.” The cov­er says: Cel­e­brat­ing the 35th anniver­sary of NIMH. It’s not near­ly as well done as the art on the orig­i­nal, which I had — the book is near­ly as old as me.

This does not look like Mrs. Fris­by,” she said, her nose scrunched up in disapproval.

I don’t think so either,” I said. For the life of me, I do not know why they redid the cov­er. Zena Bernstein’s gor­geous (pen and ink?) draw­ings are still inside the book. Why did they change the cov­er to some­thing that looks so…blah for the 35th anniversary?

She looks…pre­tend.

Right. I remem­ber so clear­ly being this young writer’s age, and my sec­ond grade teacher, Mrs. Perkins, read­ing us the sto­ry after recess each day. This was my favorite part of the day. I just fell into the world of Mrs. Fris­by and her wee fam­i­ly in such dan­ger in their cozy cin­derblock home. There was noth­ing pre­tend about it. Young Tim­o­thy had pneu­mo­nia — I’d had pneu­mo­nia and I knew exact­ly what that felt like. I wheezed along with Tim­o­thy in sol­i­dar­i­ty. I remem­ber vis­it­ing the Rats of NIMH with Mrs. Fris­by, and my heart pound­ing with hers as she deliv­ered the sleep­ing pow­der into the cat’s dish.

I mean, I know it is pre­tend,” said my young vis­it­ing writer. “Tech­ni­cal­ly. But it doesn’t feel pre­tend when you’re read­ing it.” She pushed the book back into my over­crammed book­shelf. “That’s the kind of book I want to write.”

Me, too, sweet­heart. Me, too.








E.B. White

A cou­ple of weeks ago I was in the base­ment of the Sci­ence and Engi­neer­ing Library at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta get­ting a lit­tle writ­ing in before work. It’s a good spot — there’s a nice cof­fee shop, noth­ing in the stacks is intel­li­gi­ble to me on that floor so I’m not dis­tract­ed, and it’s qui­et and out of the hordes of uni­ver­si­ty traf­fic. Only those look­ing for seri­ous qui­et go all the way down in the basement.

When I was done with my jolt of cre­ativ­i­ty caf­feine, I packed up to head out. As I walked through the library’s secu­ri­ty gate, I set off the alarm. I turned around and looked at the sleepy scruffly young man at the check-out desk. He looked as sur­prised as I did.

I didn’t even go into the stacks this morn­ing….” I said.

Huh,” he said.

Can I just go through then?” I asked.

Well…I’m sup­posed to look in your bag.” He grimaced.

Okay,” I said, heav­ing my giant bag up on the counter in front of him. He peeked in. Didn’t even touch it. Clear­ly, this was not some­thing he did often.

Would you like me to pull stuff out?” I asked.

Yeah, sure.” So I pulled out the detri­tus that is my com­mut­ing bag — a cou­ple of fold­ers and note­books, my knit­ting, sun­glass­es, The Horn Book mag­a­zine and two small books, a peanut but­ter and jel­ly sand­wich, a bag of mark­ers and col­ored pen­cils, the pouch of meds/lipstick/emergency sup­plies, some hand lotion, my wal­let and phone, a pair of socks, the gra­nola bar I couldn’t find the day before, my water bot­tle, lots of Kleenex and tick­et stubs, and the pro­gram from my daughter’s band con­cert the night before. I threw out a cou­ple of receipts while I was at it, and tidied the col­lec­tion of post-it notes and recipe cards etc. while he stared at the pile. He looked to be com­plete­ly overwhelmed.

I can live on the streets for three weeks out of this bag,” I said.

Wow,” he said.

I’m kid­ding,” I said.

He looked at me ner­vous­ly and then ran his hand half-heart­ed­ly over the paper items and picked up one of the books. The Wild Flag by E.B. White. (I wrote about it in Red Read­ing Boots a few weeks ago.) It’s the per­fect size to slip into a purse and I’ve been car­ry­ing it around since I pur­chased it this sum­mer. It’s also a plea­sure to hold — worn, but sol­id linen-esque cov­er, com­fort­able size and shape etc.

What’s this?” he asked, turn­ing it over in his hands. He even sound­ed suspicious.

It’s called The Wild Flag,” I said. “I pur­chased it in an antique store in Ston­ing­ton, Maine this sum­mer. The receipt is serv­ing as a book­mark, I believe.” He pulled out the receipt, glanced at it, and then stuck it in some­where else. Not that it mat­ters. You can open this book up to most any page and start read­ing. It’s a col­lec­tion of editorials.

Who’s it by?” he asked.

E.B. White.”

Is that the dude that wrote Charlotte’s Web?” he asked, look­ing sud­den­ly awake.

The very dude,” I said.

My Mom read that to me a bunch of times when I was lit­tle.” He smiled. “I loved the rat.”

Tem­ple­ton,” I said.

Yeah, Tem­ple­ton!” He hand­ed me the book back.

So, may I repack my bag?”

Sure!” he said. “You have a lot of stuff. But I know you didn’t find that book down here.”


Wher­ev­er this man-child’s moth­er is — she should be proud. He woke up ear­ly one morn­ing and remem­bered Tem­ple­ton all these years lat­er. That’s the pow­er of read­ing to a child.





Pinkerton & Friends

I had a “Why in the world….?” moment the oth­er day. It was unex­pect­ed and a lit­tle strange and it was this: When I imag­ine pic­ture books that I am writ­ing and/or think­ing about writ­ing, I imag­ine very spe­cif­ic illus­tra­tions. From a very spe­cif­ic illus­tra­tor. Even though I admire the work of many illus­tra­tors. (I admire this one, too, of course.) But always, always, in my first imag­in­ing, I “pic­ture” the illus­tra­tions by Steven Kel­logg.

I love Mr. Kellogg’s work. But I love the work of a lot of illus­tra­tors and would aspire and hope for many (very dif­fer­ent) illus­tra­tors to make art to help tell my sto­ries. I can switch my imag­i­na­tion to oth­er illus­tra­tors if I think about it, but with­out think­ing about it…it’s Steven Kellogg’s art. When this real­iza­tion came to me I pulled some of his books off the shelves in my office with the ques­tion: Why is Kel­logg my default, the first one whose work I imagine?

All I can think is that the years 1999 – 2002 were what I think of as The Pinker­ton Years. You might think it strange that I can pin­point the years, but I know we were less involved with Pinker­ton (and by that I mean not read­ing Pinker­ton sto­ries on a dai­ly basis) by the time Dar­ling Daugh­ter came along late in 2002. Pri­or to that, we could hard­ly leave the house with­out a Pinker­ton sto­ry with us.

These were also the first of the allergy/asthma years — #1 Son was crit­i­cal­ly ill too much of the time, and with his doc­tors we were strug­gling to fig­ure out what was caus­ing such severe reac­tions. The only clear aller­gens were pets, and he came to under­stand first that he could not be around pup­pies or kit­ties, or any­thing else fur­ry and cud­dly and fun. A ter­ri­ble sen­tence, of course, when you are three and wheezy.

So we read a lot of books about pets, and before we read Rib­sy and Because of Winn-Dix­ie we read Pinker­ton sto­ries. A lot of Pinker­ton sto­ries. #1 Son adored Pinker­ton. Pinker­ton, a Great Dane, is pos­si­bly the most hilar­i­ous dog to ever be fea­tured in a book — he is huge and ungain­ly and always get­ting him­self in a fix. His expres­sions, his “knees and elbows,” his giant flop­pi­ness, and his curios­i­ty and giant heart make him quite a character.

Very quick­ly we learned to spot Kel­logg illus­tra­tions from across the library/bookstore, and pret­ty much wher­ev­er there are Kel­logg pic­tures, there are ani­mals. Not just great danes, but boa con­stric­tors, mice, cats, pigs, ducks in a row, hors­es, spaniels….. And wher­ev­er there are ani­mals, there’s a fair amount of chaos — at least in a Kel­logg book. (Arti­cles and inter­views sug­gest he has lived the fun and chaos in a home we could not have entered and lived to breathe — lots of pets!)

The detail in Kellogg’s illus­tra­tions is tremen­dous, the hilar­i­ty apt­ly con­veyed, and the sweet­ness and roller­coast­er high emo­tions of kids and Great Danes alike comes alive on the page. I could read stacks of the books in one sit­ting to my wheez­ing boy. We used them to get through neb­u­liz­er treat­ments, and to “push flu­ids,” and to encour­age rest for a kid all amped up on steroids. They were mag­i­cal and we poured over the illus­tra­tions long after the read­ing of the sto­ry was done. The med­i­cine could go down with­out much fuss as long as Pinker­ton was along.

Those were exhaust­ing, wor­ried years, and all I can think is that I some­how absorbed Steven Kellogg’s art in my sleep-deprived anx­ious state…and it’s now in my bones. Thank you, Mr. Kel­logg, for your sto­ries, your art, and your pres­ence in our family’s life. You are the default in my imag­i­na­tion and I’m grateful.



Following The Ducklings

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

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

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

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

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

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





The Reading Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Bluest Eye


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Some Writer!

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

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

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

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

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

Then why are you read­ing it?”

It’s a real­ly good book,” I said.

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

Yes, I do,” I said. “Lots.”


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

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

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

Oh,” I said. “I’m sor­ry about that.”

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

But the ques­tions continued.

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

Elwyn,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do hope so.


This Is Just To Say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Pop-up Books

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

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

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

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

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

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


Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hidden Figures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Frog and Toad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




The Awards


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

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

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

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

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


The Velveteen Rabbit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Girl Who Drank the Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Santa’s Favorite Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her name is Charlie.”

That’s a boy’s name,” she fired back.

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

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

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

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

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

Nope,” I said.

She hand­ed the book back to me.

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

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

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

And my heart was blessed.

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

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

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