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Tag Archives | Red Reading Boots

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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Fevered Reading

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