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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Red Reading Boots

Little Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Giant Jam Sandwich

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

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

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

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

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

For hours and hours they let it cook.

It swelled inside till the win­dows shook.

It was pip­ing hot when they took it out,

And the vil­lagers raised a mighty shout.

Isn’t it crusty! Aren’t we clever!”

But the wasps were just as bad as ever….

 

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

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

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

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

[The wasps] nev­er came back to Itch­ing Down,

Which is not a waspish sort of town,

But a very nice place to dance and play,

And that’s what the vil­lagers did that day. 

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

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Waiting

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

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

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

WAIT.” said the light.

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

WAIT.” it said.

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

WAIT.” the light respond­ed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Pablo and Birdy

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Hate You Give

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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A Porcupine Named Fluffy

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

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

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

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

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

Needlerooz­er?!” they say.

That’s a ter­ri­ble name!”

It’s hard to spell!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fluffy,” says Fluffy.

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

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

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

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

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The Human Alphabet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Pushcart War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fas­ci­nat­ing, don’t you think?

 

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A Wrinkle in Time

It was a dark and stormy night. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Grinch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So there.

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Thanksgiving Tea

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nope.

I sug­gest­ed we put our hands behind our backs.

Ha!

So I con­tin­ued. I’m semi-unflap­pable.

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT A FEAST! I cried. WHAT A TREAT! WHAT SHALL WE EAT FOR OUR TEA?! 

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

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

WE GIVE THANKS FOR THIS FOOD AND DRINK, THIS TABLE, AND OUR FRIENDS! I yelled above the may­hem. AND NOW WE CLEAN UP!

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

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

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Mouse Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She looks…pre­tend.

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

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

Me, too, sweet­heart. Me, too.

 

 

 

 

 

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E.B. White

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

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

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

Huh,” he said.

Can I just go through then?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

Wow,” he said.

I’m kid­ding,” I said.

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

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

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

Who’s it by?” he asked.

E.B. White.”

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

The very dude,” I said.

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

Tem­ple­ton,” I said.

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

So, may I repack my bag?”

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

Indeed.

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

 

 

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Pinkerton & Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Following The Ducklings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Reading Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Bluest Eye

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Some Writer!

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

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

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

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

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

Then why are you read­ing it?”

It’s a real­ly good book,” I said.

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

Yes, I do,” I said. “Lots.”

Why?”

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

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

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

Oh,” I said. “I’m sor­ry about that.”

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

But the ques­tions con­tin­ued.

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

Elwyn,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do hope so.

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This Is Just To Say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pop-up Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hidden Figures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Frog and Toad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The Awards

 

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

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

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

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

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

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The Velveteen Rabbit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Girl Who Drank the Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Santa’s Favorite Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Wish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her name is Char­lie.”

That’s a boy’s name,” she fired back.

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

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

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

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

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

Nope,” I said.

She hand­ed the book back to me.

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

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

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

And my heart was blessed.

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

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

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

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The Tapper Twins Run For President

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thomas the Tank Engine: The Complete Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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Bambi

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

gr_rrb_header

BambiWhen I was 16, my aunt gave birth to twin boys. We did not see them near­ly often enough as they were grow­ing up (we were sep­a­rat­ed by sev­er­al states), but the mem­o­ries I have of those boys when they were lit­tle are clear in a way they are not with regard to my oth­er cousins. (I’m the old­est of many cousins on that side—there were lit­tle kids every­where for a few years.)

I remem­ber spoon­ing baby food into their lit­tle mouths—two-handed, hard­ly able to keep up. I remem­ber catch­ing them as they jumped off the div­ing board, and how hard they held onto my neck as we swam to the side. I remem­ber their lit­tle boy ener­gy (x2!) as they ran the cir­cle between the liv­ing room, din­ing room, kitchen, and front hall in my grand­par­ents’ house.

And I remem­ber read­ing Bam­bi to them as if it was yes­ter­day. The boys were almost three, I believe. We’d had a big day and they were final­ly bathed, in their paja­mas, and it was time to set­tle-down for the night. I asked them to pick a book we could read togeth­er. They brought me Disney’s Bam­bi, a book that was almost as big as they were—they had to take turns lug­ging it across the room. Togeth­er they heaved it onto my lap, then climbed up on the couch and sank in beside me, one on each side.

I opened the over-sized book and start­ed read­ing. They were imme­di­ate­ly absorbed, each of them lean­ing into me…breathing deeply…settling down, as was the goal. I snug­gled down between the two sham­poo smelling dar­lings, bliss­ful­ly hap­py….

I don’t know how, but I total­ly for­got Bambi’s mom dies. I turned the page and there she was in the upper left-hand cor­ner, sprawled on her side, blood in the snow. I quick­ly adjust­ed my grip on the book, plac­ing my hand over her body. I felt a flash of anger. Seri­ous­ly? We had to cov­er mater­nal death before they were three?! I smooth­ly adjust­ed the words, leav­ing things a bit vague as to where Bambi’s moth­er went….

But the boys knew the sto­ry. They sat up. One moved my hand off of Bambi’s life­less moth­er, and the oth­er said, “Why did Bambi’s Mama die?”

I will nev­er for­get those sweet lit­tle faces look­ing up at me, anguished curios­i­ty pooled in their big eyes. My heart broke right there and I start­ed to cry. What could I say? Just the facts? A hunter shot her. It’s The Dis­ney Way? The moth­ers always die. The truth? Some­times hor­ri­ble things hap­pen….

I don’t know what I offered as expla­na­tion. I remem­ber that they stood on the couch and bounced, prob­a­bly try­ing to make me laugh instead of sob all over their book. Even­tu­al­ly, I pulled it togeth­er and we sank back into our cozy read­ing posi­tion to fin­ish the grand saga of Bam­bi. As I read, one of them kept his hand on my arm, his lit­tle fin­gers ris­ing and falling in a sooth­ing pat.

One of those boys—the patter—became a father last Decem­ber. The oth­er became a father ear­li­er this week. This is astound­ing to me. I look at the pic­tures of these grown men (they’re THIRTY now!) hold­ing their wee babies and all I see are the faces of those sweet lit­tle boys—their imp­ish grins, their big eyes full of love and ques­tions, their pride and won­der at all that life holds…. The razor stub­ble doesn’t fool me at all—time just moves in weird ways, I guess. The babies now have babies.

They will be won­der­ful fathers, I’ve no doubt. I wish for them so many things, but espe­cial­ly the joy of read­ing to their kids as they grow. It’s been a favorite part of par­ent­ing for me. And it’s my favorite mem­o­ry of being their cousin, too.

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Mouse and Bear Books

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

RRB_SnifflesBearWhen I plan a sto­ry­time, I always plan for the kid­dos first and fore­most. But I do like to give a nod to the grownups who have brought them when I can—something they’ll “get” at a dif­fer­ent lev­el than the kids, a trea­sure they might remem­ber from their own child­hood, a book that will make them smile or laugh.

The Mouse and Bear Books by Bon­ny Beck­er, illus­trat­ed by Kady Mac­Don­ald Den­ton, are always an inspired fit. The chil­dren adore these books and the adults can have their entire day turned around when we read one of these. They might come in sweaty and grumpy from try­ing to get every­one out the door, but they’ll leave lighter and with a smile. I’m always con­fi­dent it will be a won­der­ful sto­ry time if I include one or more (it’s hard to stop with just one) in the series. They are reg­u­lars in my rotation—they re-read very well.

RRB_LibraryBearMy favorite might be The Snif­fles for Bear. Then again, it might be A Library Book for Bear. Or the first one, per­haps,  A Vis­i­tor for Bear. Who am I kidding—they are all ter­rif­ic. The read­er must be pre­pared with these books—a monot­o­ne read will not do. The per­son­al­i­ties of mouse and bear are much too won­der­ful for that. No, the read­er must be ready to act—overact, in fact, in the case of Bear, espe­cial­ly.

There is not a mis­placed word in any of these books—each one is pre­cise­ly placed, flows effort­less­ly when read aloud, and paints with words the exact pic­ture that Kady Mac­Don­ald Den­ton has gor­geous­ly paint­ed with paint.

The dia­logue is per­fect for these two friends so oppo­site, and yet so alike some­how. Bear, in par­tic­u­lar, speaks as if he walked out of a Jane Austen nov­el, which con­tributes to much of the humor: I am quite ill—I grow weak­er by the moment…. he says in The Snif­fles for Bear. (“What he has,” one of the delight­ed grand­moth­ers in a recent sto­ry­time said, “is a man-cold.”)

But mouse is not to be out­done: Per­haps we could have just a spot of tea, he says when he meets his friend in A Vis­i­tor for Bear.

I am undone….Bear says after being unable to show Mouse the door.

RRB_VisitorBearThese char­ac­ters are so delight­ful, so true, and so much fun. I’ve nev­er read one of these books with­out the room’s ener­gy chang­ing to a won­der­ful hum and laugh­ter rul­ing the day. I do not know if more Bear and Mouse books are planned, but I cer­tain­ly hope so. They’ve won a ton of awards, but that doesn’t always mean a book is right for sto­ry time; in my expe­ri­ence, though, the acclaimed Mouse and Bear books make that dou­ble play every sin­gle time.

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The Berenstain Bears

RRB_BearsLast night, I was remind­ed of our family’s love of The Beren­stain Bears books. (Hap­py Sigh.) Before I go any fur­ther in my homage, please understand—I’m not claim­ing these books are stel­lar lit­er­a­ture. I’m just say­ing that we read a lot of Beren­stain Bear books at our house once upon a time, and we loved, loved, loved them. And the we includes me. Absolute­ly. Yes, I know they are for­mu­la­ic, preachy, and moral­is­tic. Obvi­ous­ly, they flaunt fla­grant gen­der stereo­types. And nor­mal­ly, I steered clear of such books for my young impres­sion­able readers…but good­ness, we loved those Beren­stain Bears!

My daughter’s piano teacher remind­ed us of them—she, too, adored the books. We’ve been reor­ga­niz­ing clos­ets and rooms late­ly and she com­ment­ed how much The Beren­stain Bears and the Messy Room informed her own (now adult) need for orga­ni­za­tion and tidi­ness. Instant­ly, we all remem­bered how won­der­ful the peg­board Papa Bear made was, and how sat­is­fy­ing and inspir­ing the neat­ly labeled and stacked box­es full of Broth­er and Sis­ter Bear’s trea­sures were.

RRB_BearsRoomWe con­tin­ued our love fest, remem­ber­ing togeth­er oth­er impor­tant books in the series—the mile­stones and tran­si­tions books, the anx­i­ety-address­ing books, the healthy habits series, and the behav­ior mod­i­fi­ca­tion titles—we loved them all! The list of titles is long. (I was amazed how long.) We didn’t have near­ly as many as there are, but we had a lot—purchased for pit­tance at garage sales, inher­it­ed from old­er friends, res­cued from the trash bin at the library…. And I must’ve passed them on, because in the recent reshuf­fling of the book­shelves not a Beren­stain Bear book was to be found.

But the lessons remain: kind­ness and grat­i­tude are impor­tant, too much junk food or TV is just too much, tak­ing the time to do things right yields bet­ter results, and new sit­u­a­tions are less daunt­ing when we know some­thing of what to expect. We nev­er watched the TV shows or bought any of the mer­chan­dise etc., but I’d say Beren­stain Bears were a sig­nif­i­cant part of our kid­dos’ child­hood. And I am not ashamed.

Are there books you read with kids (or have read with them) that you’re just a little…shy about admit­ting to? Books you found in the check-out lane at the gro­cery store, in a bin of dreck at the library, or for week after week in your kid’s back­pack? You know the ones I’m talk­ing about.

Now, how many of those did you secret­ly love? How many did your kids adore? Did you have a ____________ stage in your household’s read­ing? ‘Fess up! I’ve led the way—WE LOVE (present tense!) THE BERENSTAIN BEARS!

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Brambly Hedge

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

bk_BramblyStripWhen they were lit­tle, both of our kids had a fas­ci­na­tion with anthro­po­mor­phic mice. One actu­al­ly had a set of imag­i­nary mice friends who pre­ced­ed us into anx­i­ety pro­duc­ing sit­u­a­tions, of which there are many when you are a small child. These benev­o­lent mice (who had names, spe­cif­ic jobs, and amaz­ing vehi­cles of trans­porta­tion) went ahead and checked out wed­dings, Mom­my-and-Me music class, doctor’s offices, camp­sites, kinder­garten, etc. They pro­vid­ed infor­ma­tion as to what to expect and sit­u­a­tions to watch out for. Amaz­ing­ly (and for­tu­nate­ly), they always gave favor­able courage-pro­vid­ing reports. They were an impor­tant part of our life for sev­er­al years.

As I look back, it feels like a chick­en-or-egg sit­u­a­tion. Did the love of mice come first, or did the Bram­bly Hedge books spark that love?

Do you know the Bram­bly Hedge books? They’ve been around for quite a while. I actu­al­ly found the first ones at Tar­get, which seems all wrong as they would more right­ly be found in a tiny book­shop that serves tea and is full of nooks and cran­nies, wild­flow­ers and gor­geous books, some­where in the British coun­try­side. But I’m glad Tar­get car­ried them when my kids were small—chancing upon one enlivened an oth­er­wise unin­spir­ing trip for dia­pers and toi­let paper etc. We have an almost com­plete set of the books. (I found out about the miss­ing ones just now when I searched on-line—that will be rec­ti­fied short­ly.). And I see that you can buy all the sto­ries in one vol­ume today. Which I might. For my (very) future grand­chil­dren, you know.

As orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished, the books are small. They are easy to find on the book­shelf because no oth­er books are their par­tic­u­lar size and shape. Jill Barklem’s art is so astound­ing­ly detailed that it would seem they could have made them over­sized, but they are not. If any­thing, they are under­sized, and that seems just right. Lends to the cozi­ness of the books.

And these books are COZY, let me tell you. Even the names of the rodent heros and hero­ines there­in are cozy: Mrs. Crusty­bread, Dusty Dog­wood, Old Mrs. Eye­bright, Pop­py Eye­bright, Basil Bright­ber­ry, Mr. and Mrs. Toad­flax, Prim­rose Wood­mouse…. They are the sweet­est char­ac­ters you can imag­ine and their adven­tures in Bram­bly Hedge are excit­ing (in a calm and pur­pose­ful way) as they scur­ry around the com­mu­ni­ty through secret pas­sage­ways, tun­nels, and amaz­ing rooms.

I love the quo­tid­i­an details and so did the kids—the pic­nics packed, the sur­prise cel­e­bra­tions, the sea­son­al food prepa­ra­tions! The research Barklem did is obvious—she didn’t just dream up the flour mill that grinds the flour for the mice’s bread; the mill is a part of Britain’s agri­cul­tur­al his­to­ry. The Bram­bly Hedge mice are a resource­ful bunch. They use wind and water­pow­er, know how to “make-do” with what is avail­able, pre­serve and fix things, and they cel­e­brate the many turn­ing points of life with delight­ful par­ties. These mice are self-suf­fi­cient, kind, and cre­ative. Their sto­ries are heart-warm­ing and the details of their dai­ly lives are inter­est­ing in ways that you don’t often find in books for small chil­dren. Through­out the sto­ries there’s an empha­sis on self-suf­fi­cien­cy, courage, and the tend­ing and nur­tur­ing one’s com­mu­ni­ty. These are beau­ti­ful things to put before a child, I think.

When I pulled these well-loved books off the book­shelf this morn­ing, I lost myself in them for a bit. I then had the over­whelm­ing urge to make a pie, tidy the gar­den, and sweep the porch so as to have a neigh­bor over for a cel­e­bra­tion of some kind that we would just…create! Per­haps I should read a Bram­bly Hedge book once a day. Alas, they are unde­ni­ably bet­ter with a small per­son on your lap, and those are in short sup­ply around our house these days. So I com­mend them to you: find a wee one, find the friends of Bram­bly Hedge, brew a prop­er cup of tea, and enjoy! You will not be dis­ap­point­ed.

 

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Enola Holmes Mysteries

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

bk_EnolaStripThe summer’s road­trip is behind us—a won­der­ful vaca­tion had by all. We were in two cars this year due to dif­fer­ent des­ti­na­tions at the start, but we met up for the sec­ond half of the week.

The car my daugh­ter and I drove was equipped with sev­er­al audio­books. The boys neglect­ed this detail, prob­a­bly because they were pack­ing for sur­vival in the wilder­ness. I have no idea what they lis­tened to while in the car—each oth­er, pod­casts, music etc., I guess. We asked the ques­tion, but hard­ly lis­tened, I’m afraid, so eager were we to fill them in on what we had lis­tened to….

…which was a trio of glo­ri­ous Eno­la Holmes mys­ter­ies! We’d all lis­tened to the first, The Case of the Miss­ing Mar­quess, a sum­mer or two ago. The kids are huge Sher­lock fans, and so these mys­ter­ies fea­tur­ing a much younger sis­ter of that famous detec­tive were a no brain­er for a long trip that took us into the moun­tains. We agreed after that first book that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s got nuthin’ on Nan­cy Springer. And now that some of us have lis­tened to a cou­ple more books of Springer’s series—well, let’s say this: Stand Down, Sher­lock. Eno­la Can Do It All—And In a Corset!

Eno­la Holmes (please notice what her first name spells back­wards) is but four­teen years old and liv­ing on her own, hav­ing run away from her broth­ers, Sher­lock and Mycroft, after her moth­er ran off on Enola’s four­teenth birth­day. And she’s get­ting along quite well, thank you, with­out her bril­liant (yet ter­ri­bly chauvinistic/misogynistic) broth­ers. In each book, Eno­la is solv­ing a mystery—even over­lap­ping with Sher­lock in some cases—and elud­ing vil­lains, scal­ly­wags, and her broth­ers as the needs arise.

The his­toric detail is fascinating—especially the detail on the sub­ject of corsets and oth­er “unmen­tion­ables.” The corset becomes a sym­bol of all that Eno­la (and her moth­er, for that mat­ter) rejects—namely, the myr­i­ad of con­fines that Vic­to­ri­an soci­ety placed on women. But she wears one! Not just any corset, of course. Her scrawny four­teen year old body doesn’t need the “sup­port,” and she flat-out rejects the not-unlike-foot-bind­ing pur­pos­es of ear­ly corset wear­ing (these details are har­row­ing). But as a vehicle—yes, you read right—for her many dis­guis­es and tools, her very indi­vid­u­al­ly designed corset is an impor­tant part of how she makes her way in Lon­don as a detec­tive instead of a run­away four­teen year old girl. Enola’s corset offers phys­i­cal pro­tec­tion and storage—in it she car­ries a dag­ger, var­i­ous dis­guis­es, mon­ey, clues, ban­dages, food and supplies—while allow­ing her to change her shape as need­ed. Her dis­guis­es are as var­ied as the fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ters she meets.

Eno­la is feisty and out­spo­ken, wicked smart and wise beyond her years. The mys­ter­ies she solves are full of intrigue, puz­zles, and curi­ous clues. And the audio­books are per­formed by none oth­er than Kather­ine Kell­gren, one of our very favorite read­ers. These sto­ries are won­der­ful in black and white on the page, but Kell­gren brings them to life! As she does in read­ing the Bloody Jack series, each char­ac­ter receives their own voice. If you read about Kellgren’s prepa­ra­tion you’ll see that she works with dialect coach—I dare say that Pro­fes­sor Hen­ry Hig­gins would be able to place each char­ac­ter on the very street on which they were born.

Although the mys­ter­ies do not have to be read in order, it’s good to read The Case of the Miss­ing Mar­quess first because it sets up the ungird­ing mys­tery of Enola’s moth­er. Each mys­tery ref­er­ences pre­vi­ous ones and as we end come clos­er to the end of the series (I hope more are being writ­ten!) that seems to be impor­tant, as well.

Read them, lis­ten to them—they’re delight­ful either way. These receive a hardy rec­om­men­da­tion from our house to yours as beau­ti­ful­ly span­ning a sig­nif­i­cant sib­ling age-range in the car. You can’t help but fall into the sto­ry. We only made it half-way through the third mys­tery before we were home, but we’ll start again with our boys on our upcom­ing road trip. What were we think­ing lis­ten­ing to such great books with­out them?

 

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Anne of Green Gables

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

I received Anne of Green Gables for my tenth birth­day. I fell in love imme­di­ate­ly. Absolute­ly In Love—that’s the only way I can describe it.

bk_Anne120For the next sev­er­al years, I received the next book in the Anne series each birth­day and Christ­mas. I could spot the book in my pile of wrapped gifts—I have the Ban­tam Stare­fire Col­lec­tion, small mass mar­ket paper­backs not quite sev­en inch­es tall—the very size and shape of those books made my heart beat faster. The print is tiny, the mar­gins almost non-exis­tent, which wasn’t in any way a prob­lem when I received them. Now that I’ve added a few decades, I need my new bifo­cals to read them. My hus­band sug­gest­ed I get anoth­er set of the books—one with larg­er print. As if.

For years, through high school and col­lege and young-adult­hood, I re-read the books on the sly. Usu­al­ly in times of stress. I’d rip through the entire series—Anne age ten in #1 all the way through to her youngest daugh­ter, Ril­la, a teenag­er in #8. A cou­ple of years might go by between the readings—but not more than that. Some­times I just read Anne of Green Gables, which remains my absolute favorite, but usu­al­ly if I read it, I read them all.

A bosom friend–an inti­mate friend, you know–a real­ly kin­dred spir­it to whom I can con­fide my inmost soul.”(Anne Shirley, in Anne of Greene Gables)

Sev­er­al years ago now I met my bosom friend. I sat in the back of a small group as she and her hus­band talked about writ­ing and read­ing, fam­i­ly and life. I was so entranced I could not even take notes. I loved her at once, some­how. I sat lis­ten­ing to her and I thought: This woman is a kin­dred spir­it.

A heart­beat lat­er, as a part of a long list of excel­lent books worth re-read­ing, my kin­dred spir­it said “And Anne of Green Gables. I per­pet­u­al­ly read Anne of Green Gables, of course.” Her hus­band nod­ded.

A zing went through me head to toe—why had I nev­er thought to do that?! It was the word per­pet­u­al­ly that got me. And the non-cha­lant of course. I was a thou­sand miles from home, but if I’d had my trusty Ban­tam Starfire Col­lec­tion with me, I would’ve start­ed per­pet­u­al­ly read­ing the Anne books right then and there. As it was, I had to wait until I got home. But I’ve been per­pet­u­al­ly read­ing them—a chap­ter or two most nights before bed—ever since. (Imag­ine my hus­band nod­ding.)

My own daugh­ter is not as infat­u­at­ed with Anne. She’s a lit­tle over­whelmed with Anne’s bois­ter­ous spir­it, inces­sant chat­ter, over-active imag­i­na­tion, and gen­er­al endear­ing exu­ber­ance. (Which is fun­ny, because she’s real­ly quite like Anne Shirley.) She has a cou­ple of copies of Anne of Green Gables—hard­back col­lec­tor edi­tions she received as gifts. I gave her a box set of the whole series for her birth­day last year. (This is what has changed in a generation—I received the books one at a time, but I gave her the entire series at once. But I digress.) They are sim­i­lar­ly sized to mine, and I thought maybe the size would some­how make the dif­fer­ence.

Alas no. They just aren’t real­ly her thing. I thought I might be crushed by her indifference—I wor­ried about it for years. My bosom friend (whose daugh­ters are old­er than mine) warned me this could, in fact, hap­pen. But now that it has, it’s okay. Real­ly. My girl has read the hard­back a cou­ple of times, watched the excel­lent movies with me, and I’ve con­vinced her to read Anne of Avon­lea with me over vaca­tion this sum­mer. It’s all good.

My dear bosom friend died quite unex­pect­ed­ly and hor­ri­bly a year and a half ago. The hole left in my life remains large—we cor­re­spond­ed dai­ly and often ref­er­enced Anne Shirley and her adages and escapades along­side our own. Nei­ther of us fit the role of Anne Shirley or Diana Bar­ry, but our friend­ship was deep, even though it start­ed lat­er in life.

bk_AnneRainbow120My per­pet­u­al read­ing of the Anne series has been a gift dur­ing this time. I am so very grate­ful for my friend’s unas­sum­ing words: per­pet­u­al, of course. With­out the zing that went through me that evening, I might not have been bold enough to con­tact her, and our result­ing bosom friend­ship, so rich and so much a part of my life, might not have been.

So I think of her each night as I open what­ev­er book in the series I’m on (just start­ed #7, Rain­bow Val­ley). It’s bit­ter­sweet, to be sure, but it’s been help­ful some­how. My heart is grate­ful.

Also, I’m still hold­ing out hope my girl will become an Anne-girl this sum­mer. We’ll see.…

 

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How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

RRB_TomI have writ­ten before about the need for longer pic­ture books in addi­tion to the short­er ones mak­ing up the cur­rent trend in pic­ture book pub­lish­ing. I want to stay on the record as say­ing there’s plen­ty of rea­son to keep pub­lish­ing pic­ture books that are longer than 300–500 words. I’m an advo­cate for 3000–5000 words—a sto­ry with details! And to those who think kids won’t sit for them—HA! Try it. If the sto­ry is good, they’ll lis­ten.

One of my favorite longer pic­ture books is How Tom Beat Cap­tain Najork And His Hired Sports­men, writ­ten by Rus­sell Hoban and illus­trat­ed by Quentin Blake. I did not count the words, but this is a sto­ry filled with long sen­tences, won­der­ful descrip­tion, and very fun­ny char­ac­ters. There’s not an extra word in there, in my opin­ion, and the sto­ry could not be told in 300–500 words.

The book opens intro­duc­ing Tom’s maid­en aunt, Aunt Fid­get Wonkham-Strong, who wears an iron hat and take “no non­sense from any­one.” Where she walks, the flow­ers droop. When she sings (which is hard to imag­ine), the trees shiv­er.

This open­ing descrip­tion and the accom­pa­ny­ing pic­ture can hook a room­ful of kids. When you turn the page and read about Tom, Aunt Fid­get Wonkham-Strong’s nephew, who likes to “fool around” the kid lis­ten­ers are sold—they will sit for the sev­er­al hun­dreds of words (many of them sophis­ti­cat­ed words) it takes to tell the sto­ry.

Tom fools around with sticks and stones and crum­pled paper and most any­thing else he can get his hands on. He’s gift­ed in the mud depart­ment and can make things from bent nails, cig­ar bands, and a cou­ple of paper clips. He’s a boy Mac­Gyver. And when his foe comes along, he is more than ready.

Who is his foe, you ask? Cap­tain Najork. And it’s Aunt Fid­get Wonkham-Strong who sets up the match. She sends for Cap­tain Najork and his hired sports­men to teach Tom a les­son about fool­ing around.

Cap­tain Najork,” said Aunt Fid­get Wonkham-Strong, “is sev­en feet tall, with eyes like fire, a voice like thun­der, and a han­dle­bar mous­tache. His trousers are always fresh­ly pressed, his blaz­er is immac­u­late, his shoes are pol­ished mir­ror-bright, and he is every inch a ter­ror.”

Well, when Cap­tain Najork arrives on his ped­al boat to reform Tom, Tom sees right away that he’s only six feet tall and his eyes are not like fire, nor is his voice like thun­der. They size each oth­er up, and the games begin. Cap­tain Najork announces that they shall com­pete at womble, muck, and sneed­ball.

   “How do you play womble?” said Tom.

   “You’ll find out,” said Capt­ian Najork.

   “Who’s on my side?” said Tom.

   “Nobody,” said Cap­tain Najork. “Let’s get start­ed.”

Tom_Spread
And so they do. The pic­tures are hys­ter­i­cal and the descrip­tions of the games— which aren’t real­ly descrip­tions at all, but make you think you already know the fin­er points of womble, muck, and sneedball—are delight­ful.

Spoil­er Alert: All of Tom’s fool­ing around turns out to have been most excel­lent train­ing for trounc­ing Cap­tain Najork and his ridicu­lous hired sports­men. But I won’t tell you the wager Tom makes with the Cap­tain or how that turns out for all involved. For that, you will have to find the book, which is not easy to find and which is expen­sive (though absolute­ly worth it) to make one’s own. Do look for it! It is out there, as is an under­ground crowd of extreme fans.

I had a writ­ing teacher who read this book to me, and so I hear it in her voice, a respectable lilt­ing British accent full of excel­lent dra­ma and good fun. (She can do a for­mi­da­ble Aunt Fid­get Wonkham-Strong!) I can’t quite pull off the accent, but I’ve nev­er found a kid who mind­ed. I once read this sto­ry in a Back-to-School Sto­ry­time along with a Skip­pyjon Jones book. It was an evening of hilar­i­ty and fun. And at the end, I had a request from two kids not old enough to start school yet to read it again. Which I did. To a room­ful of peo­ple who quick­ly gath­ered. THAT’S a good book. A most excel­lent longer pic­ture book.

P.S. Rus­sell Hoban and Quentin Blake are an inspired match—they’ve col­lab­o­rat­ed on sev­er­al books. For a treat, lis­ten to Blake talk about his fond­ness for this sto­ry and its char­ac­ters.

 

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The Betsy Books

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

book coverMy daugh­ter and I are fin­ish­ing what we call “The Bet­sy Books”—the won­der­ful series of books by Maud Hart Lovelace that fol­lows Bet­sy Ray and her friends as they grow up in Deep Val­ley, Min­neso­ta.

When I first read the Bet­sy Series, I start­ed with Bet­sy and the Great World and Betsy’s Wed­ding and did not dis­cov­er the ear­li­er books until we moved to Min­neso­ta, where they were all gath­ered togeth­er on a shelf in the library. My daugh­ter was intro­duced to the books in order, however—we’ve read them togeth­er, and she lis­tened to the first two books over and over again because my moth­er record­ed them for her.

[A Small Aside: Record­ing books is a won­der­ful thing for grand­par­ents to do! Most computers/phones are equipped to make a pret­ty decent record­ing of a sin­gle voice. Doesn’t have to be fancy—my Mom just read the books aloud as if she were in the room read­ing to her grand­kids. Some­times she makes com­ments and asks ques­tions etc. When she’s fin­ished, she sends the book and the CD along in the mail—half of her grand­girls live far away, but all of them get the books and record­ings. What a gift!]

This week, daugh­ter and I are fin­ish­ing Emi­ly of Deep Val­ley—then on to Bet­sy and the Great World and Betsy’s Wed­ding. I can’t wait! I have such fond mem­o­ries of read­ing these books over and over again—I can remem­ber where I was sit­ting when read­ing many of them. We’ve had a won­der­ful time this last year or so read­ing the high school antics and angsts of Bet­sy and “The Crowd”. The details of shirt­waists and pom­padours, par­ties and danc­ing, train trips and con­tests are a hoot. We’ve had to look up vocab­u­lary, ref­er­ences, and songs (there’s a Bet­sy-Tacy Song­book!) here and there, and we’ve learned a lot.

bk_Betsy-Tacy-Songbook-coverThis is a great series  to read over sev­er­al years—fun to read about the five year old Bet­sy, Tacy, and Tib when your read­ing part­ner is five. (The books are writ­ten at age appro­pri­ate lev­els, as well—the ear­ly books are great “ear­ly chap­ter book” reads.) Now that my read­ing part­ner is about to enter her teens, we’ve been read­ing about The Crowd in their high school years. As the Deep Val­ley friends head off to col­lege, we mar­vel at how dif­fer­ent and how sim­i­lar her brother’s expe­ri­ence of head­ing out will be. He won’t be tak­ing a trunk on a train, that’s for sure.

We live in Min­neso­ta, home of the fic­tion­al­ized Deep Val­ley, which is real­ly Manka­to, Min­neso­ta. My Mom, daugh­ter, and I have vis­it­ed the sites in Mankato—tremendous fun can be had there. There are cel­e­bra­tions held every year—the Bet­sy-Tacy Soci­ety does a valu­able and tremen­dous job of keep­ing the sto­ries and the lit­er­ary land­marks from the books alive and well.

I did not read this series with our son. Maybe we read the ear­li­est books when he was very young; but I don’t think he would find the tales of Mag­ic Wavers and house par­ties all that inter­est­ing. Although I despise the notion of “girl books” and “boy books,” I don’t know many men enam­ored with this series. Prove me wrong, dear read­ers! Tell me you read Bet­sy Tacy and Tib each year. Tell me your broth­er per­pet­u­al­ly reads the high school books, or your hus­band slips a vol­ume in his suit­case when he trav­els. Per­haps you have a co-work­er who keeps his child­hood set on his office cre­den­za?

Should these men not be in your life, grab a girl­friend and take in this year’s Deep Val­ley Home­com­ing! Or, if you’re male and intrigued, take your wife/sister/daughter. Maybe I’ll see you there.

 

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How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

Our house­hold has been patient­ly (and not so patient­ly) stuck in a long sea­son of wait­ing for deci­sions around some impor­tant and excit­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties. Every­one has some­thing up in the air. Appli­ca­tions, inter­views, tests, hopes, and dreams are all out there, and now we watch for the mail, check mes­sages com­pul­sive­ly, and try to make friends with the sus­pense…. Not all the news is in yet, but slow­ly we’re hear­ing of deci­sions. There’s been cel­e­bra­tion and dis­ap­point­ment both. We busy our­selves mak­ing the cor­re­spond­ing choic­es and plans while we await oth­er news.

How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird

Jacques Prévert, Illus­tra­tions and Trans­la­tion by Mordi­cai Ger­stein

More than once I’ve pulled a favorite pic­ture book off my shelves to read to myself—a reminder to take a deep breath and remem­ber that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all man­ner of thing shall be well,” (Julian of Nor­wich). The book, How to Paint the Por­trait of a Bird, was a gift from wise women in my life. I’d nev­er seen it before and I shud­der to think I might nev­er have come across it had they not giv­en it to me—although maybe the uni­verse would have con­spired to get it to me anoth­er way. I am a fan of Mordi­cai Ger­stein’s work, after all, and I des­per­ate­ly need this book in my life.

This is a spare book—few words, beau­ti­ful illus­tra­tions. It speaks to sus­tained hope, fate and faith, hard work and luck, and events hap­pen­ing in their own time. Writ­ten in a gen­tle “how-to” for­mat, we are shown how to paint a bird.

First, paint a cage with an open door. Then, in the cage, paint some­thing for the bird, some­thing use­ful and beau­ti­ful, but sim­ple.

The young artist takes the paint­ing and puts it under a tree, hid­ing him­self behind the tree. Sea­sons pass with the boy and his paint­ing under the tree, the paint­ed bird cage emp­ty.

If the bird doesn’t come right away, don’t be dis­cour­aged. Wait.

We’re remind­ed that it doesn’t mean our picture/future/chance won’t be good—just that good things can­not be rushed. For many things, there is a sea­son.

If the bird comes and enters the cage, we are told to “gen­tly close the door with [our] brush.”

 And then—oh then, we have the deep, deep wis­dom of the book! The young artist demon­strates how to erase the cage, one bar at a time, tak­ing care not to harm the bird’s feath­ers. Once the bird is left in all of her sweet glo­ry on the blank can­vas, the boy paints the tree, “with the pret­ti­est branch for the bird.”  He paints the green leaves, the sum­mer breeze, the smells of a sum­mer day, the songs of the bees and but­ter­flies.

Then wait for the bird to sing. If it doesn’t sing, don’t be sad. You did your best.

 The grace in this pic­ture spread does my heart such good. Don’t we all need the occa­sion­al reminder that changes can be made if things do not work out as we hoped, that often they don’t, and that any num­ber of paths might be good? We tend to for­get these truths in the wait­ing and the wor­ry.

The book ends in cel­e­bra­tion with the bird singing a riot of a song, but I appre­ci­ate that it is acknowl­edged that this is not always so. And yet…all shall be well, all shall be well, all man­ner of thing shall be well! This I believe—this I want our kids to believe. What comes, comes; what doesn’t, doesn’t. As long as we’ve done our best, chances are we will find our way. Often our way, if not the des­ti­na­tion itself, turns out to be a joy­ful sur­prise.

It seemed too obvi­ous to gath­er every­one in our indi­vid­ual and famil­ial angst and read this book. So I’ve just left it lying about…. I’ve seen them pick it up, turn the pages and smile, then gen­tly put it back down for some­one else to find.

This is a pic­ture book you don’t out­grow. I’ve been very grate­ful for its gift dur­ing this sea­son of our family’s life.

 

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If You Plant a Seed

by Melanie Heuser Hill

My deal­er (in books, my drug of choice) and I have a spe­cial rela­tion­ship. I send her emails of books I’d like to have as I have a need, and she gets them for me. I know that doesn’t sounds all that spe­cial, but because she keeps a run­ning tab for me and because I’m usu­al­ly not in a hur­ry, I some­times for­get what I’ve ordered by the time we meet on the street cor­ner for the hand-off.

If You Plant a SeedSuch was the case with If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nel­son. Undoubt­ed­ly, I’d read a review sug­gest­ing I’d love this book—due to bud­get con­straints, I don’t usu­al­ly put in an order unless I’m sure I want it on my shelves. Per­haps I’d sim­ply seen the cover—Nelson’s art­work often makes my heart go pit­ter-pat, and this cov­er with its lop-eared bun­ny and mouse anx­ious­ly watch­ing a small seedling … well. It must be the gar­den­er in me.

But I’d for­got­ten I’d ordered it, and so when it came, it came as a delight­ful sur­prise.  I sat down this morn­ing to read it and two things hap­pened. First, I found myself quite verklempt. Then, I went and stood on my front porch and looked up and down the street hop­ing I’d see some kids. I sat down in the rock­ing chair to wait. That’s how deter­mined I was to read it to a child—immediately, if not soon­er. Sit with book and they will come, I told myself.

Alas, even­tu­al­ly I had to track down my niece who lives around the cor­ner. But she was more than will­ing to have a read with me as soon as I showed her the cover—they cur­rent­ly have a bit of a bun­ny and mouse obses­sion going at their house this spring.

Eighty words. That’s all the book has. Eighty words! But of course Nel­son is a fine artist and much of the sto­ry is told in the art. Three seeds are plant­ed. A toma­to plant, car­rot, and cab­bage grow after time and a lit­tle love and care. The bun­ny and mouse dance their joy in the gar­den and set­tle in for a feast.

Five birds arrive—a crow, a pigeon, a blue jay, a car­di­nal, and a nuthatch/sparrow. (Please note: I am not an ornithologist—I can­not pos­i­tive­ly iden­ti­fy the nuthatch/sparrow, but I think I have the oth­er ones right.) They look at the bun­ny and mouse with a sort of “Whatcha-doin’?” kin­da look. You turn the page and they are look­ing at you with “Well-are-ya-gonna-share?” kind of look.

The book goes on to explore (in less than eighty words and in beau­ti­ful art—a true pic­ture book!) what hap­pens if you plant a seed of selfishness…and what hap­pens if you plant a seed of kind­ness. The read­er is allowed to see the “har­vest” of both.

This is a “qui­et book.” Each spread is made to be savored, time must be allowed for look­ing at all the details and absorb­ing the sto­ry and the emo­tions. The title might make you think it will have the rol­lick­ing fun of the Lau­ra Numeroff’s If You Give a Mouse/Pig/Moose a Cookie/Pancake/Muffin books. But it’s noth­ing like that. If You Plant A Seed is about the ban­quet of joy that feeds and delights all when a small seed of kind­ness is plant­ed. There’s no moral—nobody screech­es out the les­son at the end in a Lit­tle Red Hen voice—but the last spread illus­trates the point well.

Find this book, if you haven’t already. Find a kid, or a whole group of them. Read it. Then go out and plant some seeds—tomatoes, car­rots, cab­bage… and/or love, joy and gen­eros­i­ty of spir­it.

 

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In God’s Hands

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

In God's HandsThis week, I am read­ing (for the umpteenth time) what I think of as The Very Most Favorite Book of the chil­dren in my church. They call it That Book About Bread. The book is In God’s Hands by Lawrence Kush­n­er and Gary Schmidt and it res­onates deeply with these kids.

I know how it will go. I’ll pull it out of my bag and a gen­er­al clam­or and harangue will go up.

YAY!” 

I LOVE THAT BOOK!

Me, too!”

You haven’t read that book in a long time!” (Deliv­ered with a pouty face.)

You should read That Book About Bread EVERY week.”

Now, this is a very well-read group of kids—they are a ter­rif­ic sto­ry­time audi­ence. But they do not say these things about every book. Some books I pull out (espe­cial­ly if they are books “about God”) illic­it these respons­es:

You already read that one.” (Pouty face.)

Aahhh…not that one!”

Are you just read­ing that one first and then a bet­ter one next?”

Can you read That Book About Bread?”

Yeah! Read That Book About Bread!”

In God’s Hands begins like this:

When the sun sets and stars fill the sky, the square in the lit­tle town grows qui­et and still. The cool air of dis­tant hills min­gles with the sweet scent of bak­ing bread. The moon ris­es and glows soft­ly. It’s the sort of place where mir­a­cles could hap­pen.

The chil­dren grow qui­et and still as I read. You can prac­ti­cal­ly see them inhale the sweet scent of bak­ing bread. They are ready to hear (again) about the mir­a­cle that hap­pens in this book. They love that it’s called a mir­a­cle, because what hap­pens in this book is a quo­tid­i­an mix-up–and the kids fig­ure it out before the char­ac­ters do. 

Jacob is a rich man, David is a poor man. Jacob, half asleep in syn­a­gogue ser­vice, hears God call him to bake twelve loaves of chal­lah and set them before The Lord in two rows, six in each row. (What he actu­al­ly hears is the day’s Torah read­ing from Leviti­cus.) Obe­di­ent­ly, Jacob does this—he bakes twelve beau­ti­ful braid­ed loaves and places them in the synagogue’s ark, where the holy Torah is kept, since that seems to be the clos­est place to God.

Soon after, David, the care­tak­er of the syn­a­gogue, comes before the ark and prays a prayer of qui­et des­per­a­tion. His fam­i­ly is hun­gry and they are out of food.

When I turn the page and David opens the ark to find twelve loaves of braid­ed chal­lah, the chil­dren all but cheer. They lis­ten in delight as the mir­a­cle con­tin­ues. Jacob, astound­ed that God has received his twelve loaves, con­tin­ues to bake; and David, his chil­dren ever hun­gry, con­tin­ues to receive with deep grat­i­tude the mirac­u­lous loaves that appear in the ark. Nei­ther man real­izes what is happening—they quite appro­pri­ate­ly call it a mir­a­cle. But the kids know what is going on, and they love it!

I love the mes­sage of this beau­ti­ful book—the wise rab­bi explains that God’s mir­a­cles often work like this. “Your hands are God’s hands,” he says. And now that David and Jacob know this, they will have to keep act­ing as they have—doing God’s work with their hands.

Read it again!” the kids say.

My copy is well-worn. I intend to read it until it falls apart. Then I’ll get a new one.

 

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Mother-Daughter Book Club

by Melanie Heuis­er Hill

Mother-Daughter coverIn a meta-move (we’re not usu­al­ly so cool), our moth­er-daugh­ter book club has start­ed the Moth­er-Daugh­ter Book Club series by Heather Vogel Fred­er­ick.  We read the first book last month and the sec­ond is sched­uled for our next meet­ing. I’m not sure we’ll be able to stop there. It was good we held them until the girls were the age of the girls in Frederick’s first books—the tim­ing is per­fect now.

The form­ing of the fic­tion­al moth­er-daugh­ter book club was dif­fer­ent than ours. The moth­ers in Frederick’s books pret­ty much coerced their girls into com­ing togeth­er in sixth grade to read Lit­tle Women. The series fol­lows the daugh­ters through their pre-teen and teen years as they read var­i­ous lit­er­ary clas­sics togeth­er with their mothers—not always hap­pi­ly, but always enter­tain­ing­ly. 

Our moth­er-daugh­ter book club start­ed when our girls were in sec­ond grade.  We start­ed with George Selden’s The Crick­et in Times Square. I sent the orig­i­nal inquiry/invitation. I sim­ply looked around my girl’s class­room and play­ground and sent an email to a few of the moth­ers I knew. Some of the girls were friends, some were not…yet. I don’t believe any were coerced into par­tic­i­pat­ing. If they were, at least they’ve stayed. And I’ve over­heard them claim they start­ed the book club, and we moth­ers were sim­ply allowed to come along for the ride. This revi­sion­ist his­to­ry is fine by me.

Cricket in Times Square coverToday, we are five moth­er-daugh­ter pairs and the girls are in sev­enth grade. I would guess we’ve read close to fifty books togeth­er. Frederick’s moth­er-daugh­ter book club focus­es on one clas­sic for months—sometimes a year. Ours reads one book every 4–6 weeks or so.  We take turns pick­ing books, moms gen­tly encour­ag­ing books the girls might not oth­er­wise find and devour on their own (no Har­ry Pot­ter books, Hunger Games, Diver­gent etc.), and girls insist­ing on books moms might not oth­er­wise have giv­en a chance. We’ve read sev­er­al that were pop­u­lar when the moth­ers were the daugh­ters’ age, which they find interesting/hysterical. We’ve had a cou­ple of author vis­its. We’ve even done some events that have noth­ing to do with books—we won a prize for our Brown-Paper-Pack­ages-Tied-Up-With-String cos­tumes at the Sound of Music Sing-a-long! 

Our daugh­ters are friends in that sus­tain­ing sort of way that makes it through (we hope) the some­times tumul­tuous mid­dle school years; which is to say there are no cliquey BFF’s in the group, but rather known-each-oth­er-for-quite-awhile friend­ships. The moth­ers are friends in that sus­tain­ing sort of way that comes when you raise your daugh­ters togeth­er. We are lis­ten­ing ears for one anoth­er, glad cel­e­bra­tors, co-com­mis­er­ates (clothes shop­ping with pre-teens—OY!), and con­fi­dants. The girls talk of con­tin­u­ing our book group through their high school years, and we moth­ers cross our fin­gers and say a lit­tle prayer this will be the case. It’s get­ting more and more dif­fi­cult to sched­ule our meetings—busy girls, busy moms, busy fam­i­lies. But we work hard to make it work when we can with­out stress­ing any­one out.

In short, it has been a tremen­dous thing in our lives, this moth­er-daugh­ter book club.  Read­ing about a moth­er-daugh­ter book club that is so dif­fer­ent from ours is a hoot. And in the hands of Heather Vogel Fred­er­ick, ado­les­cence is not only well drawn, but help­ful­ly drawn. The moth­ers and daugh­ters in her series go through many of the very same things we do, for there is noth­ing new under the sun with regard to ado­les­cence and the moth­er-daugh­ter relationship—just vari­a­tions on sim­i­lar themes. It’s good to read about oth­er lives that have touch points with yours—sparks great con­ver­sa­tion.

 

 

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Quiltmaker's Gift

The Quest for the Perfect Thanksgiving Book

Each Novem­ber I begin the search anew. I know what I’m look­ing for, and I real­ly don’t think it’s too much to ask of a pic­ture book: It must delve into the themes of gen­eros­i­ty, abun­dance, grat­i­tude. It should be beau­ti­ful. Com­pelling in its beau­ty, in fact. Ide­al­ly, I’d like it to cel­e­brate our bet­ter […]

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Winnie-the-Pooh

There are a lot of “chal­lenges” hap­pen­ing in the social media sphere these days—books, ice buck­ets, kind­ness, grat­i­tude, etc. All great things—perhaps one of the bet­ter uses for social media even, though it doesn’t quite beat out birth­day greet­ings and first-day-of-school pic­tures, in my book. Last week, a good friend and fel­low read­er “chal­lenged” me […]

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Just Like A Baby

I’m miss­ing a dear friend who died very sud­den­ly this past spring. Liz was old enough to be my moth­er and my kids’ grand­moth­er. She loved to give gifts and had an almost mag­i­cal way of doing so. Her taste in books for kids was exquis­ite and she always found the most per­fect, most unique […]

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On Flower Girls

A year ago this week­end, I had the hon­or of offi­ci­at­ing at the wed­ding of dear friends. They’d planned a grand celebration—organ and trum­pet, dra­mat­ic read­ings, fantab­u­lous atten­dants, fam­i­ly and friends, and not one but two flower girls. In my expe­ri­ence, flower girls and ring bear­ers increase the “chance ele­ment” in a wed­ding cer­e­mo­ny. I’m […]

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Kuplink, Kaplank, Kuplunk!

We missed straw­ber­ry pick­ing, and there­fore jam mak­ing, this year. We were in the moun­tains, a dandy excuse to be sure, but now we’re in a bit of a pick­le (no can­ning pun intend­ed). We have a strong home­made jam habit at our house, and last year’s boun­ty is dwin­dling. We’re try­ing to fig­ure out […]

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We Need Longer Picture Books, Too!

I’ve just read yet anoth­er arti­cle about the new length of pic­ture books. Some say pub­lish­ers won’t even con­sid­er pub­lish­ing a pic­ture book over five hun­dred words any­more. Oth­ers say they should be under three hun­dred words. Why? Inevitably, the short­er atten­tion spans of chil­dren are cit­ed some­where in the rea­son­ing. Rub­bish, I say! As […]

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Harry Potter

Har­ry Pot­ter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first book in the Har­ry Pot­ter series, came out a few months after Child #1 was born. In my sleep-deprived stu­por, I didn’t notice for awhile; but it quick­ly became dif­fi­cult to be a cit­i­zen of the world and not know about Har­ry Pot­ter. Suf­fice to say, the […]

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