The House in the Night, Susan Swanson and Beth Krommes

Christmas Eve is my favorite day of the year. It’s not that it’s always the best night of the year. Sometimes the din of gift giving is too loud, or the candlelight service fails to move me with its unusual silence. Sometimes I’m just in a foul mood because, well, that can happen regardless of how much we wished it didn’t on days meant to be special. Nevertheless, come December, I find myself looking forward to this day.

911mhxjpizlMaybe it’s because one of my favorite books as a child was Christmas in Noisy Village. My grandmother’s copy was purchased from a library sale long before I was born, and it was in pretty bad shape when I first got my hands on it. The book hasn’t borne the intervening years well, and the pages now are yellow and torn, but when I pick it up, I’m overcome again by its magic.

Much of that story takes place on Christmas Eve, and I always found that to be wonderfully special. It held all the magic of Christmas without the focus on gifts, which, even as a child, often felt anticlimactic. The excitement of Christmas isn’t really in the accumulation, but in the anticipation, the breathless wonder of dark, starry nights.

It’s that same wonder I see every night when we read our son The House in the Night. The text of the story is sweet and simple, but the art is so special that all three of us feel a powerful connection to the story. There’s one page in particular that my son loves with such passion that he grabs the book (which usually falls on the floor, because six month old fingers don’t have the strength to lift such large board books) and proceeds to have a whole conversation with the moon. The rest of the book has pictures I love even more, but he goes back to that page again and again with such joy that I feel overwhelmed by such pure pleasure. 

It’s that kind of happiness I wish all of you today. Many of us have a moment, a favorite passage or illustration, that we go back to for comfort and joy. It’s one of the incredible gifts of reading, in my opinion, to discover those little treasures – those Christmas Eve moments that are familiar and yet delight us anew every time – and today, in the rush of celebrating (or not – this feeling isn’t limited to the holiday spirit!), I hope you have time to pause and remember the rush of joy such a passage brings. Maybe you can look it up and reread it, maybe you can’t, but either way, allow the knowledge of its existence to make today just a little bit brighter.

A sweet day to you all, and I will see you in the new year!

I Took the Moon for a Walk, Carolyn Curtis and Alison Jay

I promise this blog won’t become completely devoted to children’s books just because I spend seventy-five percent of my reading time looking at picture books now, but I Took the Moon for a Walk is absolutely worth talking about. My mother picked it up from the library when we visited back in September, and we loved it so much that she ended up mailing us our very own copy. Since then, we have read it every day, initially several times (by choice!), although now it has settled happily into the rotation of before-bed books.

Every night, I find myself thrilled to pick it up again. The story is pure poetry, and in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it was written as a poem initially and then stunningly illustrated as a bonus. The musicality is exceptional. Each line flows gracefully across the page, and because we’ve read it so often, both my husband and I can recite it by heart, giving us ample opportunity to study the pictures.

I know we wouldn’t read it nearly so much if our son didn’t love it as much as we do, but when we pull it out, he leans forward and studies each page intently. He’s only ready for the next page when he turns away, usually studying the illustrations for a minute or two (a long time for a five month old’s attention span). While I certainly try to read him books that I enjoy as much as he does, this one delighted both of us so much from the very first reading that I can’t imagine a day when we don’t want to look at it (although inevitably, time will sneak up on us and that will happen).

When my husband read it for the first time, he said to me, “Why can’t all children’s books be like this? Look at the vocabulary he’s learning! The meter! The rhyme!” Incidentally, he had just been lamenting the fact that too many of the board books we owned seemed, in his words, “too basic and boring.” While I agree that some books written for children are so dull I would rather eat paste than read them repeatedly, I pointed out that for infants, even something “basic” was still, well, novel.

Books are windows into the world for young and old alike, and even though many trivial concepts (See Jane. See Jane run! Run, Jane, run!) seem obvious, for babies, it’s all brand new! That being said, I knew exactly what he really meant. A book like this is an elegant dessert rather than a poorly prepared side dish. It’s a treat, and I fully believe that our love for it encourages, even at such a young age, a special reverence for excellent books. And that is something I dearly want my child to understand.

God and Goodnight Moon: Finding Spirituality in Storybooks for Children

After three weeks of heading deep down the rabbit hole into the life of babies, where they come from, and what to to do with them once they’ve arrived, I felt like I had reached my saturation point. Don’t get me wrong – this is all exciting and necessary information, but I’ve started to really look forward to my (slow) elliptical workouts at the gym, because for forty minutes a day, I get to read fiction, and it’s absolutely glorious. I find myself drawn to books with plenty of swashbuckling adventure, inappropriate language, and over the top romance to balance out all the studying I’ve been doing. 

It probably doesn’t help, of course, that aside from reading all these baby books, I’ve also been taking a class for the last eight weeks to hone my skills writing for children. I scheduled it back in January when I was absolutely lousy with energy, and by the time it started in March, I felt like a sponge that had been wrung out to dry. The first week, I absolutely despaired. How could I possibly get through my class reading, plus check out all the children’s books recommended as supplementals, while also getting my assignments in on time and staying on top – if not ahead – of all my actual work that has to be done before the baby arrives? 

There might have been some crying and some gnashing of teeth, but eventually, I settled into a routine (a routine that absolutely required and justified an hour long nap every afternoon) that was doable, and I remembered exactly why I love taking writing classes when I have the chance. It feels amazing to stretch parts of the brain that have been atrophying, and even though I’ve had the best of intentions in regards to several projects for younger audiences in the last year, none of them had even made it into the solid outline stage. Taking this course was exactly the kick I needed, and I found that it actually energized other writing projects simply by forcing me into more of a time crunch. Truly, nothing motivates me to work on a new chapter or essay like the threat of missing a deadline (as an anti-procrastinator, it really is a marvelous scramble to stay ahead!).

As a nice addition to my classwork, a couple of months ago, my parents sent me a book that’s less of a sit down and read than it is a reference for families looking to explore the themes of some of their children’s favorite stories within the context of Christianity (in this instance, “Christianity” is defined as a value system that encourages tolerance, compassion, understanding, and equality while using stories from the Bible to supplement these themes). I read through it this week, and while I doubt it will be my go-to activity book (I liked a lot of the ideas, and I’m sure I’ll use some of them, but I also have years of preschool teaching materials that may well see more use), I did get a chance to learn about some wonderful children’s lit that I had either forgotten about or never heard of in the first place. 

The absolute best thing about the book was how diligently researched it was to find such wonderfully diverse books for children. Not only were children of many races represented, but also children with different abilities, children from all sorts of families, children from countries around the world – each suggestion had been carefully chosen to intersect between the deeply well known (Goodnight Moon, The Velveteen Rabbit) and the joyfully affirming (Crow Boy, Hope, The Story of Ruby Bridges). As I was reading, I found myself making a list to take to the library, and at this point, anything that gets me that excited to move off the couch gets a thumbs up in my book.

And Tango Makes Three, Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole

I’ll be back “in the office” in two weeks, but for now, please enjoy this lovely book based on a true story about chinstrap penguins in the Central Park Zoo. The illustrations are gorgeous, and the story is a perfect follow-up to questions from little tikes about what makes a family a family. Spoiler alert: it’s love and commitment.

For more about the authors, head here. For more about the illustrator, this way.

Journey, Aaron Becker

From Sept 30 to Oct 21, I’m on a road trip across the south and I haven’t brought my computer with me. (Vacation! Hallelujah!) I don’t want to abandon you for three weeks though, so while I’m gone, I’ll be posting videos of some of my new favorite children’s books.

This week, I present Journey, an absolutely stunning wordless picture book I fell in love with this summer. When my mother refused to give me her copy, I ordered it from my local children’s bookstore, and the woman working there shared with me that Becker has a sequel coming out soon. (Update: the new book is called Quest, and I am already in love with it having seen the cover.) I’m incredibly excited to hear that. This book is my happy place, and I highly recommend that you watch the video in full screen, and then go get a copy for yourself.

For more about Aaron Becker, go run here.

Loud Emily, Alexis O’Neill, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

I was browsing in a bookstore with my sister-in-law Emily a few weeks ago, and I decided I had to give this book a read. I grew up hearing countless songs about women with my name (although the only one that ever seemed to have been written about me was “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria”); it instilled in me a deep love of all things name-related – ugly key chains, charm necklaces, and yes, of course, picture books.

Really, I just grabbed it as a lark, and because I wanted to tease Emily with it a bit (she’s not in the least loud, but that was neither here nor there in the moment). I didn’t expect to get teary over it. I wasn’t planning to refuse to let Emily have my copy (although as the younger “sister,” it’s my prerogative to be stubborn about silly things like that). I certainly didn’t think I would lend it to so many of my friends with baby girls to remind them of how absolutely wonderful it is to meet a woman with an unapologetically loud voice.

But I did. I’ve cried every time I’ve read it, in fact. Just at the part when her family and teacher are admonishing young Emily to keep quiet because they fear she won’t have an easy life if she speaks so loudly, and then again when she finds her first advocate in the cook, who is delighted to find “a lass who speaks up!”

There’s something about the connotation of the word “loud” that led me to believe this would be a book about the importance of learning to be quiet. It’s a garish term, a reprimand in itself. The crowd or the class or the children are too loud, and they bring to mind headaches and frustration and a complete lack of control. One of the only times we encourage people to be loud specifically (rather than boisterous or enthusiastic) is at sporting events. In almost all other circumstances, we’re more likely to associate it with ostentatious, vehement, deafening.

When I was teaching preschool, I used to spend about five minutes before we sat down for circle time – the most focused part of our day when I would need the class’ attention for fifteen minutes – leading the children in the loudest songs I could come up with. We stomped and gnashed our teeth; we screamed and clapped and laughed and were as loud as we could possibly be. At the beginning of every school year though, it was a struggle to convince the class that I really meant for them to let loose and use the biggest expressions their bodies could come up with because they had been taught by word and example that loud was bad.

In this book, the message is loud is useful. Loud is necessary. Loud is endearing to the right community, and loud is not something to change, but to count as a strength. There are too few books encouraging people, especially children, to speak up. This one manages it without stigmatizing loud’s opposite. Instead, loud is a part of something greater, a single color in a kaleidoscope of traits that are neither good nor bad. Emily is loud. It does make it a challenge for her to find the place where she fits best, but that’s true for all people, especially when they choose not to change to fit in. Finding a story that celebrates that journey is as wonderful as learning to love a little girl who is loud.

For more about Alexis O’Neill, head over here. To learn about Nancy Carpenter, go here.

The Keeping Quilt, Patricia Polacco

This is the third week in a row I’m posting about a book related to my family, but if you’d like to hear the other excuses for why I’m posting about a children’s book instead of the stunning memoir I’ll be talking about next week…? Of course you would.

Reason 1. Books are my first love. Quilting is my second. The quilt below is maybe the fourteenth quilt I’ve finished. Most of them have been baby quilts; a few have been for friends. This is a picture of the one I was working on when I read The Keeping Quilt for the first time in January. It’s for our friends’ baby, due next month.

Photographing quilts is not one of my hobbies. I’m not good at it, and I apologize.

When I first started hand quilting, I learned mostly from my mother and my best friend’s mother, and we did a lot of the work in community. I don’t even remember the names of some of the women who helped me tie my first quilt, but I do remember the experience of sitting together in someone’s kitchen working and talking together. Years later, I do about half of my sewing on my own while watching television and about half at project nights (organized by the couple who will receive the quilt pictured above). I love having a quilt to work on anytime (especially in the winter…or when I want to watch a season of some show without feeling profoundly guilty about it), but when I get to bring one over to their house and sit around with friends, it recaptures the experience I had when I first took up the hobby. This beautiful little book captures that feeling for me perfectly.

Reason 2. The Olympics. I know – everyone hates the winter Olympics. Everyone who doesn’t hate the winter Olympics is boycotting them. I realize that most people consider the summer Olympics to be a big deal and the winter Olympics to be a nuisance that bumps their favorite shows for a month, but I like them. I’m actually an Olympics fanatic, and although a part of me really wanted to boycott Sochi as well, I just couldn’t do it (I decided to donate some money to Lambda Legal instead). Conscience somewhat appeased, I hunkered down and watched a brain numbing amount of sport. It didn’t leave a lot of time for reading…or my own workouts come to think of it. Oh well. Two more years until I can justify eating this much popcorn while watching super-fit people compete again.

It did allow for plenty of quilting though, and I even invented my own sport – speed binding! Turns out, I won first place, but instead of a medal, I got incredibly sore thumbs and wrists, and a pain in my back that has not yet receded. The most exciting speed binding related injury was accidentally jabbing a straight pin all the way into my shin. It hurt a lot more coming out than going in, let me tell you. (Surprisingly, this book doesn’t mention anything about bleeding onto the fabric or having to purchase wrists braces; this is how I know it’s at least partially fiction!)

Reason 3. The book I’m reading right now is excellent, but it’s also exceptionally sad. I can’t speed through it, I can’t read it late at night, I can’t even read it when I’m alone in the house. It requires a particular mindset that just isn’t conducive to my usual style of reading. It’s worth it, but yeah. It means this week, you’re forced to accept a smaller offering in its place.

The Keeping Quilt makes me tear up too, but in a less “I’m devastated forever” sort of way. It’s a simple story about several generations of women in one family and how this quilt ties them all together (if you appreciated that inadvertent quilting joke, A+ for you this week). The illustrations are just glorious as well, and reading the book makes me excited about quilting every time I pick it up. I think it would be impossible for me not to love a book that manages to do that…


For more about Patricia Polacco, go here.

Fortunately, The Milk, Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s having a pretty big year (who am I kidding – he’s having a pretty big life). In June, his newest adult novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, hit the stands, and he made another splash in September with a new brief chapter book for children called Fortunately, the Milk. Since I buy every novel Gaiman writes in hardcover months before it’s actually published, I usually forget all about his books until they show up on my doorstep. (Well, that’s not entirely true. I follow him on twitter, so “forgetting” is not exactly possible, but I zone out after I reach a certain saturation point on promotional material.) As it happened, I was traveling when Fortunately, the Milk arrived, so although the internet seemed insistent about spoiling it for me, I didn’t get around to reading it until about a week ago.

If I seem a little annoyed with the internet, I am. This is the second book in a row by Gaiman that has been so mercilessly hyped through the few channels I pay attention to that I felt a little underwhelmed when I actually got around to reading it. Don’t get me wrong – it’s adorable, and, as advertised, it is definitely Gaiman’s most ridiculous book to date; if you have young children (or, like me, enjoy the occasional foray into picture books, or picture short stories, as this turned out to be), this book is a lovely choice.

It’s written as superbly as ever, and the illustrations in the American version (a different artist worked on the UK release, although I can’t remember what this means for copies going to other countries) were wonderful, if not my personal favorite style. As far as I can tell, every other person using a computer and writing in English adored it, and I don’t think they’re wrong. I’ve already recommended it to my friend (both for herself and to enjoy with her sons), and I will happily buy copies of it for the upcoming birthdays of several children I know. I often found myself smiling as I read it, and although I don’t want to share the plot, I will say it’s a sweet book for the slightly absent-minded but wonderful fathers in our lives (an interesting juxtaposition, in fact, to the father figure portrayed in Ocean).

I think, though, that the reason I’m not over the moon about this book (and why I liked but didn’t love The Ocean at the End of the Lane) was not because Gaiman’s writing has suffered any changes in recent years, but because his books no longer feel like the secretive, magical experience I used to have. I’m now so inundated with information about him as an author and human being, with dates of tours, with promotional material months before his books are released – I just don’t have the opportunity to discover his work in the way I once could. I desperately want to love them because he’s been my favorite author for nearly as long as I’ve had such a thing, but this year, it just hasn’t felt the same.

Maybe I need to pull back, disconnect myself from the special opportunities and information he provides on sites like Twitter so that I can return to a place where I am once again delighted by the incredible stories he has the power to tell. I certainly never get tired of rereading my old favorites, but I don’t want to miss out on having another experience like the one I had when reading, say, The Graveyard Book for the first time. That novel was published almost exactly five years ago, and I still remember how powerfully it moved me. I had been reading Gaiman for nearly two decades, and yet I was overwhelmed anew by his gift for storytelling. I want that feeling again.

I want to wander into a bookstore and be surprised by the sight of a new book by him. I’d like to take it home and curl up with it without ever having heard a word about it. I need selfish me time to be alone with his stories before the whole world shares their very special feelings, and those perceptions start to bleed over into my own.

Maybe that’s too much to ask for. Or maybe it’s too much to receive, but I can still ask, and hope, and work to find that lovely old feeling again.


For more about Neil Gaiman, go here.

Mandy, Julie Edwards

Three things you should know about this book before continuing: 

1. Julie Edwards, author of Mandy, is actually Julie Andrews, the beautiful snowflake I have adored ever since I first watched The Sound of Music; I was probably three of four years old. My love for her has never waned. Interestingly enough, I didn’t realize they were one and the same until today, when I glanced at the back cover of the book. 

2. In the first few weeks of my freshman year of college, I met a new friend who remains, to this day, the only other person I’ve ever known to have read this book. Incidentally, she also loved it and we were inseparable for a long time after that discovery.

and 3. If you have ever read this book and felt anything but blissful adoration for it, I don’t want to hear about it. I would like to live out the rest of my life believing that the only people who have ever read it loved it as much as I do. 

I will admit that reading it as an adult was a different experience. I remembered the story quite well (an orphan girl discovers an abandoned cottage in the forest and restores the little house and gardens herself), but I had forgotten how slight a book it is. It’s certainly not the subtlest story, even when taking into account the audience it was written for (elementary aged-children) – not that I expected it to be – but in my mind, it had taken on a legendary quality. Before I reread it, I could recall no flaws. It was iconic and beloved, and I would throw down with anyone claiming otherwise.

Now that I’ve read it more recently, I will probably leave the gauntlet untossed. I can say with certainty that this is not an “everybody ” book. It’s a lovely story for a young reader, and it’s a book that let me live out a lot of important ideas around loneliness and self-reliance when I was a child; I will always cherish it for that reason.

We all have stories like this – the ones that found us when we needed them most. I have different books for different stages of my life, and as I’ve gotten older, I would like to think the quality of my choices has improved, but when it comes right down to it, it doesn’t really matter. Special books are not always brilliant. Brilliant books are not always special. The book that made a difference to me might be, like this, one  you’ve never heard of. You may sleep with a copy of a book I hate by your bed every night. That’s fine. It just serves to illustrate the beauty of having, essentially, an infinite number of books in existence.

We’re all allowed to have our favorites, our guilty pleasures, our cathartic cries. We’re allowed to love badly written books alongside classics. We’re even allowed to love books that no one else cares about, and to get a little choked up when we open the cover and see our names, badly written (and possibly…uh…misspelled) carefully printed in blue ballpoint pen…

The Borrowers, Mary Norton

Whenever I head “home” to visit my family, I always find myself sucked into their bookshelves. It’s not that I don’t bring my own books to read (during one memorable visit, I read eight Sookie Stackhouse novels on the sly); it’s that every room in my parents’ house is filled with books refusing to be ignored.

The rooms my brother and I used to call our own? Now, an office and a guest room, both lined with shelves fairly trembling under the weight of what I like to call “hobby” books, but are in actuality my parents’ professional tools (in my mother’s case, theology and grassroots politics, in my father’s, theatre, music, and biographies). In the upstairs hallway, the shelves are mostly  poetry, plays, and extremely well-loved children’s books. In the living room, it’s the classics and beautifully crafted research books, while the sun porch is overflow for a hodgepodge of left-overs. Even the dining room has become home to my old childhood bookcase, filled, at Christmas time, with our most beloved holiday books, and the rest of the year, with my dad’s massive Shakespeare collection.

It’s impossible not to get distracted in a house like that. I also find that while I don’t have a lot of free time while I’m here, I do have many pockets of fifteen-minute windows when I’m just…waiting. Inevitably, over the course of my stay, I pull out a book or three in every room of the house, and when I find myself stranded with too little time to do anything useful and too much to just stare blankly out the window, I’ll pick one of them up.

This week, I’ve been mostly pawing through old books from my childhood. There is just something so dear about the worn covers and the places where I folded pages down or spilled (yes, I am terrible to books). The first one I pulled out after I arrived was The Borrowers. I must have read this fifteen times when I was a kid (although somehow, I never realized it had sequels – go figure), and last summer, I went to see the Miyazaki film based on it (The Secret World of Arrietty) which tickled my desire to reread it when next I had the chance.

Having done so, I can say with greater confidence that, although I adore Miyazaki’s work, the movie is not as enjoyable as the book. One thing I did notice coming back to the text was that the pacing for both was surprisingly similar; when I was at the theatre, I felt like it was dragging a bit, but when I pulled out the novel, I realized it’s just one of those stories from another era of children’s fiction. The pace is slower, and the setting is lavished upon. It actually makes for a beautiful adaptation to a visual art form, but the story didn’t translate quite as well (or perhaps that had something to do with it going from British book to Japanese script to American script – something may have been lost in this game of Telephone).

The story embraced me immediately. It brought me back to this warm, happy ball of childhood when a house had so much potential for mystery and exploration. The Borrowers were as real as could be to me again, at least for a few minutes (at which point, the reality of setting the table and checking on dinner returned).

It was a charming fireplace, made by Arrietty’s grandfather, with a cogwheel from the stables, part of an old ciderpress. The spokes of the cogwheel stood out in starry rays, and the fire itself nestled in the center. Above there was a chimney-piece made from a small brass funnel, inverted. This, at one time, belonged to an oil lamp which matched it, and which stood, in the old days, on the hall table upstairs. An arrangement of pipes, from the spout of the funnel, carried fumes into the kitchen flues above. The fire was laid with matchsticks and fed with assorted slack and, as it burned up, the iron would become hot, and Homily would simmer soup on the spokes in a silver thimble, and Arrietty would broil nuts. How cozy those winter evenings could be. Arrietty, her great book on her knees, sometimes read aloud; Pod at his last (he was a shoemaker, and made button-boots out of kid gloves – now, alas, only for his family); and Homily, quiet at last, with her knitting. (pg 20)

There is a quality to books like this that inspire so much ingenuity. As a child, I would read the descriptions of the Borrowers’ home with rapt fascination. When I finished, I would try to build houses like theirs myself (ostensibly for my dolls, but since I didn’t care much for the dolls themselves, they were almost permanently boxed while I constructed). This was less about the plot to me than about the world that could be created. I was fascinated by the repurposing of materials to create something special – a skill that came in handy when I taught preschool and had a limited budget.

As much as I love books that are being written for young people now, I can’t help but be a little nostalgic for the novels of my youth (which were, incidentally, of my parents’ youth as well). They might not have been the most riveting adventures, but they straddled the line between reality and make-believe in a way I find utterly charming and nearly impossible to reproduce.

Advice to Little Girls, Mark Twain with illustrations by Vladimir Radunsky

As an adult, I seem to have developed a gift for wasting time when I have it, only to run headfirst into a pile of deadlines and travel I have known about for two months. I don’t know when this happened. When I was a child, I was meticulous about assignments. I won awards for punctuality and perfect attendance every year. I was the person my friends called at ten pm the night before something was due in a panic; to this day, I have no idea what they thought I could do for them, but as I slide further behind (and it’s only Monday!), I suspect it had less to do with seeking guidance than it did warding off the problem for another half an hour.

I myself have become excellent at warding off the problem for another half an hour. I do find myself wishing I spent less of this procrastinatory time trolling the internet for recorded productions of Much Ado About Nothing and more of it picking up the house or going for a run, because at the end of the day, it’s one thing to have unfinished piles of work, and quite another to have unfinished piles of work and also no clean underwear or spoons.

Not to worry though – I went to Target for new clothes and ate my coconut milk ice cream with a fork, so I’m good on that front at least. As for the work, well, let’s just claim that it’s percolating and watch this video for the seventieth time. I justified re-watching it this morning because Catherine Tate inadvertently does such a wonderful job bringing to life the spirit of this little book by Mark Twain (and if you’re a fan of Dr Who and/or familiar with Shakespeare, the clip is especially a treat). When I saw it for the first time, I was immediately reminded of this page from the book:

Even though the book is only twenty or so pages, I love Mark Twain was tickled to stumble on this little gem. The book itself is lovely, and I’m glad I bought a hardbound copy of it so I can enjoy what has been done with the text. I’m a sucker for picture books, and it’s great to find one well-suited for an older audience (there’s nothing quite like reading a book to a child and snickering at jokes they don’t yet understand as retribution for having to read much stupider stories ad nauseam).

Most of the books I read, I read for content, story, characters, etc…this one is more of a collectible. It suits the part of me that doesn’t mind that I grew up going to visit the homes of famous writers on every family vacation (what did other families do – hike? ride water slides? I really have no idea, but I knew what a docent did by the age of four). Its arrival on my doorstep also perfectly coincided with a week from hell, and nothing makes a hard week brighter than a dose of what my husband calls “old-timey” humor. So excuse me while I go use my time as unwisely as possible – Twain’s told me it’s alright, and look how well he did for himself…

The full text of the story can be found here (because public domain = yay!).

James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl

During my last week in London, we were fortunate enough to score tickets to see the new musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. It was a wonderful show, although I think a few scenes from it went over the head of the little girl sitting next to me. She was probably seven or eight, and she was terribly excited to be at the show with her mother on a school night. She was also extremely wiggly and kicked me a solid dozen times over the course of two and a half hours, but I didn’t really mind (much). I found myself trying to watch the show through both my eyes and hers. Did she grasp the innuendo? What exactly scared her so much about the blaring lights and ear-piercing music? And what did she make of the idea of a headmistress – a person in charge of children’s fates – being a murderer?

It was a strange way to watch a show, I have to admit. I couldn’t fully enjoy it for myself because I was transported back to how I felt reading Dahl’s work when I was a child. Frankly, most of his books were a bit of mystery to me; I read them over and over again, but I was never sure when I finished if I had understood what was there. He told stories that embraced the uncomfortable shadowy world where children’s fears sit and wait, and about children who were, in most ways, powerless against adult-inflicted cruelty. As an adult, I can appreciate how brave and resourceful those same children were, but when I was young, that wasn’t what stuck with me. I was much more obsessed with the evil, with the rage, with the villains he created.

I think that’s why James and the Giant Peach was never one of my favorites. I read The Witches and Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ad nauseam, but James was never really my cup of tea. Nevertheless, last week I found myself desperate to reread it, so when I got home, I hunted through the books I still have from my childhood and spent an hour in Dahl’s world.

James, it turns out, was Dahl’s first foray into the world of children’s writing. He was already a relatively successful author, but he entered this new territory reluctantly. Publishers met his work with equal reluctance – his stories were dark and creepy, and yet they were aimed at a very young audience – I imagine what saved him was his gift of seeing the world so accurately through children’s eyes. As it turns out, children like creepy and dark. Much of the world seems awful to them, and books that explore the murky and unmentionable give them a kind of hope that they are not the only ones who are questioning the things they don’t understand. As Dahl gained confidence that he had a young audience desperate for the kind of stories he was good at telling, he allowed himself freer rein.

When he was writing James though, there was a definite sweetness that, as a child, failed to catch my attention. In the book, we hardly see the boy’s suffering at all before he’s swept up on an adventure with his charming insect companions. And once he’s on the adventure, the boy can do no wrong. As a child who did quite a lot wrong, I found this galling. As an adult (who still does quite a bit wrong), I find it unlikely. Don’t get me wrong – I love the peach. My favorite part of the whole book is when he crawls inside for the first time. I just want more…suffering.

And yes, I recognize that makes me sound like an awful person who doesn’t think children deserve to go on splendid adventures. It’s not that though. It’s that I think adventures come at a price – often a very high one – and that the person who arrives at the end should be different from the one who began. James…isn’t. He’s introduced to us as a lovely child, and throughout the book, he is unendingly helpful and self-sacrificing and precious. He’s never afraid or angry at all once he enters the peach, and that infuriates me. This book is like seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of Dahl’s talents – it’s not until we dive into his later work when we really see what he can do.

Maybe I read this book too late. I was probably eight or nine when I got around to it, and I think it’s much better suited for a younger reader. I could picture my next door neighbor enjoying it, and he just turned four last month. The frightening parts (which are really not too frightening) would be just intense enough to make him think. Chances are good that if he liked what he heard, the book would live forever in his memory as a special, powerful experience from childhood, which is how, I feel, Dahl’s books should be seen.

I still remember the birthday – was I eight? ten? – when my parents hired a Dahl impersonator to come to my party. I definitely thought he was the real deal, and I remember being spellbound as he read us poems and excerpts from “his” stories. I was also a little afraid of him, of the stranger in my home who could take my fears off the page and bring them to life…

But that’s Dahl in a nutshell, isn’t it? A little scary, and magical, and strange, and a person one’s never quite sure should be invited in.

For more about Roald Dahl, go here.

Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery

I am terrible with transitions. I like change well enough in theory, and I’m fine with it after it’s happened, but when I’m within a week of upheaval, I tend to fall to pieces. Tomorrow, I leave on a six-week trip covering three countries and providing an opportunity to see a number of dear friends, and while I’m thrilled to be going, the stress getting ready has given me several nights of insomnia, near constant heartburn, and my very first (!) doozy of a nosebleed. (Yes, I have become that person who gets nosebleeds under stress – I’m looking forward to adding that to my resume of delightful quirks.)

The only remedy for the anxiety I feel about this whole situation was to go to the bottom of my bookshelf and pull out one of my absolute favorite books from childhood. I’ve kept quite a few chapter books from back then, but Anne has always been particularly special. I still remember the first time my mother read it to me. I would get to hear a chapter every night before bed as a treat, and when I was reading it this week, I would hear every line in her soothing voice.

The “Avenue,” so called by the Newbridge people, was a stretch of road four or five hundred yards long, completely arched over with huge, wide-spreading apple-trees, planted years ago by an eccentric old farmer. Overhead was one long canopy of snowy fragrant bloom. Below the boughs the air was full of a purple twilight and far ahead a glimpse of painted sunset sky shone like a great rose window at the end of a cathedral aisle.

Its beauty seemed to strike the child dumb. She leaned back in the buggy, her thin hands clasped before her, her face lifted rapturously to the white splendor above. Even when they had passed out and were driving down the long slope to Newbridge she never moved or spoke. Still with rapt face she gazed afar into the sunset west, with eyes that saw visions trooping splendidly across that glowing background. Through Newbridge, a bustling little village where dogs barked at them and small boys hooted and curious faces peered from the windows, they drove, still in silence. When three more miles had dropped away behind them the child had not spoken. She could keep silence, it was evident, as energetically as she could talk. (loc 295)

If I had never read this book as a child, I might find its style to be overwritten for modern tastes, but since I have powerfully pleasant associations with it, reading a section like that transported me back to my own little bed. I found myself remembering details of my old bedroom so clearly – the chipped, pale pink paint and industrial grey carpeting, the little white bookshelf always overflowing, a rainbow-colored bedspread that clashed with my white and gold dresser. I can’t help but laugh at how little I decorative taste I was burdened with in my youth, and yet that room was filled to the brim with stories my parents told me, so I could never not love it.

We read so many books aloud when my brother and I were young, especially in that old house where even dinner time was likely to be given over to a family chosen novel, but Anne of Green Gables was always one of my favorites. Anne tried hard to be good, but she was always getting into gently amusing scrapes that seemed, both to her and to me, deeply unjust at the time. She also talked far too much and about the most ridiculous things, and although I didn’t fully realize it at the time, it was one of the key reasons Anne and I seemed like kindred spirits.  Although I often came across as reserved in unfamiliar settings, the secret very soon was spilled that once I got going on a tear, I could talk the ear off of anyone, and would.

“Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive— it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we know all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there? But am I talking too much? People are always telling me I do. Would you rather I didn’t talk? If you say so I’ll stop. I can STOP when I make up my mind to it, although it’s difficult.” (247)

I loved Anne, too, because as much as she chattered on, she also had a vivid imagination and was content to spend hours alone with it. I felt I must be terribly odd when I was a child and people would find me staring dazedly out the window or with my hands under still running water, completely lost in my own world. I felt a little happier knowing that other people still liked her even though she was strange in ways that I was too.

It was a deep comfort above all else, however, that one of Anne’s greatest flaws was one I shared, and it was one she only barely grew out of by the end of the book:

She flung herself into her studies heart and soul, determined not to be outdone in any class by Gilbert Blythe. The rivalry between them was soon apparent; it was entirely good-natured on Gilbert’s side; but it is much to be feared that the same thing cannot be said of Anne, who had certainly an unpraiseworthy tenacity for holding grudges. (2060)

If ever a line of text was written perfectly to describe me, it would be “[she] had certainly an unpraiseworthy tenacity for holding grudges.” I should be ashamed of the number of stories that pop to mind to illustrate that point, and I should be even more ashamed by the flash of pride I felt at how successfully I’ve held some of them…and I am, at least a little. It’s hard to be completely annoyed at a personal fault though, when one happens to be so good at it as to almost consider it a farmable skill…

Anne, of course, learns the virtue of forgiveness by the end of the book. It’s that kind of story, written in an era when wholesome novels about girls could encourage friendship, family, and adventure without necessarily dictating puritanical values. There’s no kissing or dating either, of course, although Montgomery writes a wisp of romance into this first volume, but I’ve always loved Anne’s declaration that “Young men are all very well in their place, but it doesn’t do to drag them into everything, does it?” She is fierce-minded and proud, dedicated to the people she loves, bright, generous of spirit, and, as she says after one of her more trying mishaps, “surely born under an unlucky star.”

She’s a character who is difficult to hate because although she tries desperately to be good, she is also clumsy and outspoken with a terribly quick temper, and she seems all the more vulnerable for her faults. It’s a winsome combination. I will always be grateful to have had a girl like Anne to grow up with, and even still to keep me company now that I am grown.


Want to go on an “Anne vacation?” I did when I was about thirteen – it was dorky and wonderful. Go. Also, I was obsessed with the movie and borrowed it from the library an embarrassing number of times (that number was more than ten and less than 100…). Turns out, I’m not the only one who loved it

The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman

Every January, I reread The Graveyard Book. A rainy day will come, or I’ll be in bed with a cold, and this overwhelming urge to pull it off the shelf again overcomes me. Even the year it was published, I read it again in January. I don’t know why it has such a strong influence on me during this time of year, but I suspect it’s something to do with the sense of mystery that permeates the novel and these early dark days of winter.

I wrote a letter to Gaiman the second or third time I read it, and I searched my computer desperately for a copy because honestly, few things are funnier than seeing me geek out over an author. Unfortunately, although I remember saving a copy before I sent it out, it’s gone now. I can’t even recreate what I wrote, although I know I spent an hour or so working on it while sitting on the couch, watching the rain beat against the window. I also remember the feeling I had – the feeling I always have – after I put this book down. It’s like staring up at the world from the bottom of deep crevasse; up there, the light dances with its shadow and the storms passing make the ground greener, rather than just damp. It’s possible to hear voices, and doors slamming, dogs barking at the music playing too loudly, but deep down, in this narrow reach of earth, everything is muted. Soft-edged. There’s magic, and it’s the kind that’s a little bit dark.

It’s no coincidence, I’m certain, that this is the same feeling I get whenever I enter a cemetery. Each has a quality, an air that’s nearly tangible. No matter how small, walking through those gates, I can feel a change. It’s tinged with the knowledge that even if I felt the urge to shout, it would be tamped down by whatever energy it is I’m experiencing.

That Gaiman wrote a book that so perfectly captured this – well, I suppose it’s to be expected; he’s been one of my favorite authors for twenty years now, after all. His are books that I don’t push on everyone, but instead save for kindred reading spirits. It isn’t fair, really, that I do that, but his writing is…well, it’s a whisper. To me, it embodies the phrase, “walk gently but carry a big stick.” In Gaiman’s books, the wisest characters never forget that.

I have to say that I also love the brutal elegance of this little book. This is a novel I would give to children who don’t like to read (those who do have hopefully already discovered it). It’s what I would call a spiderweb book – delicate, and delightfully intricate, while also being ferociously strong and predatory and frightening. Without a doubt, those are my favorites for young audiences. I don’t think children need mild-mannered books or sanitized reading experiences. I believe they crave an element of danger and darkness because those are the things that are most difficult to face in reality. Reading is a safe space to engage in the consideration of challenging circumstances, and having been a very anxious child myself, I was constantly drawn to books that forced me to face my worst fears. There was something almost magical about it.

Some books seem to spring forth and beg to empower young readers. For me, this will always be one that does just that. It’s hard to think less of one’s self when a book demands respect, when it trusts the intellect of the reader, and when it’s written with so much love for the people lucky enough to turn its pages.


For more about Neil Gaiman, go here.

Toot and Puddle, Holly Hobbie

I wasn’t sure I would have time for even a quick review today, given I’m at a five-day family reunion in snowy upstate New York, but I read my mother this picture book right before I left on Friday, and I wanted to share it with you. I hadn’t heard about Toot and Puddle before she asked for it for Christmas, but once I saw it in the store, I ended up with a copy on my own shelf as well.

It’s a simple story about a year in the life of two friends – one who loves to travel the world and the other who prefers to stay home. Each page goes back and forth between them, following both Puddle’s homey endeavors (birthday parties, ice skating, swimming in Pocket Pond), and Toot’s trip from country to country (pastries in Italy, bull fighting in Spain, sunsets in France). The illustrations are beautiful – I found myself pausing on every page to study the cozy paintings – but what really drew me in was the idea of these two friends, separated by many miles, each enjoying vastly different lifestyles while remaining emotionally tied.

This is something I always relate to strongly at the holidays. We travel across the country to see our families, and spend hours on the phone with friends living in countries all over the world. We start planning out our trips for the rest of the year, and while some of them will be adventures based on our own desires to explore the wider world, many more will be tied to visiting far-flung companions. Some days, these two possibilities seem eminently doable; others, it feels overwhelming to try to keep in touch with all the people I miss.

I couldn’t help but connect to how beautifully each of these lives is represented, as well, because I am both a homebody and a wanderer. I love to visit new places, but I also love to come home again. While each of these characters represents the extremes (and I certainly have friends and family members who do as well), I live somewhere in between. I want to wake up in my own bed, but I also want to see the sunrise half way around the world. This story reminds me, on every page, how valid and wonderful both choices are – an idea I have to remember as I embrace this whirlwind northeastern vacation while longing for my own, homey routine…