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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | storytime

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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Calvin Can’t Fly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Magic Valentine's Potato

Big Bob and The Magic Valentine’s Day Potato

Several years ago, a mysterious package arrived at our house on Valentine’s Day: a plain brown box addressed to our entire family with a return address “TMVDP.” The package weighed almost nothing. It weighed almost nothing because the box contained four lunchbox serving-size bags of potato chips. Nothing else. Or at least I thought there […]

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Hannukah Bear

Hanukkah Bear

We celebrate Christmas at our house, but we live in a community in which many celebrate Hanukkah. As we light our Advent candles and string our Christmas lights, our Jewish friends and neighbors light the candles on their Hanukkah menorah and fry delicious potato latkes. Dear friends invite us to join them for one of […]

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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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Too Many Pumpkins

Too Many Pumpkins

I have a thing for pumpkins—their orangeness, their roundness…. I’m not sure what it is, exactly. They’re sort of a harbinger of autumn, my favorite season, so maybe that’s it. Really, I just find them satisfying somehow. Given my love of the orange autumnal globes, it’s a little odd, perhaps, that my favorite pumpkin book is […]

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Read to Them

Three Things This Past Week

The beginning of the school year caught up with everyone last week, I think. My kids are exhausted, a little overwhelmed, a little crispy around the edges. The other kids in and around my life seem about the same. Fall transitions can be hard even when they go relatively smoothly. My youngest (age twelve) came […]

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bk_Clever-Ali-256px.jpg

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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