Category Archives: children’s books

Your place in the family of things: picture books and poetry

artist Brian Rea for NYT

artist Brian Rea for NYT, February 26, 2015







This morning, I read last week’s the Modern Love column in the New York Times and it was one of the most beautiful essays I’ve read in a long time. It is about a mother with an aching teenage daughter, and how she starts putting poems in her shoes from authors (including Mary Oliver, my favorite) who have “been in pain before and struggled to find hope” and put it into words.

This season-semester has been one that feels long and difficult mostly because I signed up for too many graduate school classes at a time where my daily work feels its most challenging.  And because, winter. But I was reminded this week of the difference a good story can make when I read Fox, basically the most poignant picture book ever made, by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks to my 8th graders. They were anxiously, nervously, crazily awaiting the arrival of their high school admittance letters (which are shamefully delivered to school and not home), but we took a period to read this story aloud, talk about developing themes, and in turn talk about life, of course. It was incredible how silent and absorbed and responsive they were to this story about a dog with a missing eye and a bird with a burnt wing.

Last night a dear friend and I were discussing the paralyzing feeling of working with teenagers whose lives feel harder than anything we can imagine (she helps run a mentoring program), and knowing that there’s not a formula or behavior pattern we can teach them that can fix all that’s on their plate. We started thinking of what we can really offer, and I found myself basically reciting Fox to her as we talked over tacos. As my students and I discussed this week, it’s a story of friendship and loyalty, of betrayal and shame, of hope and the courage to face what lies ahead. And as we escaped into the story, our class discussions landed on some beautiful truths about processing hardship, facing mistakes, and building friendships that are rooted for storms. And my friend and I, avid readers with bleeding hearts, were reminded again of the power of story and words.

I’ll end with one of the poems referenced in the Modern Love essay, Wild Geese, one that I happened to listen to Mary Oliver read and discuss in a podcast last week. In what feels like a dreadfully long winter, today I am grateful for writers who remind us we are not alone.

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are,

no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.



Charlotte’s Web: a tiny, humble hero

I have a lot of fictional female heroes and truth be told, many of them are from television: Tami Taylor, Leslie Knope, Liz Lemon, Brenda Leigh Johnson.  Of course others are from books like August Boatwright in The Secret Life of Bees, Hermione Granger in Harry Potter Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables.  This week I started taking a class called Literature for Older Children and we were assigned to read Charlotte’s Web.  For a few years, the 8th grade curriculum included a unit on rereading childhood favorites, and Charlotte’s Web was one of the texts, so I’ve become closely reacquainted with it–and what I believe is E.B. White’s perfect writing style.  

Most of all, though, I truly love Charlotte and found a kindred spirit role model in the tiny protagonist.

She is quiet, fierce, unapologetic about who she is, and yet so kind.  She is a fellow introvert, not afraid to tell Wilbur when she is tired and needs to be alone.  I love White’s description of her on page 41, after she has shocked Wilbur with the description of her eating habits: “Underneath her rather bold and cruel exterior, she had a kind heart, and she was to prove loyal and true to the very end.” Sigh.  

What the teacher in me loved the most were the words that Charlotte spoke into Wilbur’s existence that came true.  No one else saw Wilbur as radiant or humble or even as some pig–and yet those things become truth by story’s end.  It reminded me of the power of words and the opportunity that adults have to speak good truth into a child’s sense of self.  I will never forget a time early in my teaching career when a struggling student had an amazing piece of insight during our poetry unit and I just shouted without thinking: “Brilliant! Did everyone hear that? Brilliant!” In that moment I saw the student change: his posture, the look on his face–and as a 23 year old teacher I saw the power of words and encouragement at work.

Of course, in this story I mostly think about sacrificial love—Charlotte possessed the wisdom to know that she was not going to live as long as Wilbur, but she gave so much of herself and her time to prevent him from becoming Christmas dinner, and in turn, for him to see some of the true value in living.  When the reader leaves Wilbur at the end, he is far from the spring pig we met at the beginning:  “But you have saved me, Charlotte, and I would gladly give my life for you—I really would,” (164).  The way that he protects Charlotte’s egg sac and loves her children is when we see that Charlotte’s love has come full circle.

I hear White’s wisdom in the closing statements of “Last Day” on page 171: “Nobody, of the hundred of people that had visited the fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all.”  Sigh.  And then it’s so heart wrenching that “No one was with her when she died”—and yet, I feel confident knowing that she was strong and secure.   It never ceases to amaze me how much meaning can be packed into a children’s book.  And as I look out on a snowy Brooklyn thinking about my upcoming move to not only a new apartment and new chapter of life, I believe I will finish my coffee and reflect a while on all that White had to say in the story about seasons.  Sigh.  

Childhood Favorites Post #3. On Distractions.

As a side note, I’m having a hard time deciding what to write about in response to everything I’ve been reading lately. Usually, I feel compelled to distill what I find to be the most meaningful aspect of a book and put it into the context of both the entire work as well as my current thought life.  But then there are the random sentences I underlined while reading that spark an idea.  I’m going to have to do a little bit of both throughout the Childhood Favorites series because inside these “juvenile” books there is just. so. much. Which, lucky for me, is the purpose of this unit in the fall.

One of the creatures set on preventing Milo, Tock and the Humbug in The Phantom Tollbooth from rescuing Rhyme and Reason is the Senses Taker, who collects an absurd list of information from each character before he can, literally, take their senses.  When Milo tells him that their destination is The Castle in the Air, he says he is sure they would rather see what he has to show them. Milo begins to see a circus on the horizon.  Tock the dog smells marvelous scents.  The vain (but loveable) Humbug hears a crowd applauding and cheering for him.   Their senses–literally and figuratively–have been taken from them.

Juster’s description of what happened to them was so creepy:  “They all stood as if in a trance, looking, smelling, and listening to the very special things that the Senses Taker had provided for them, forgetting completely about where they were going and who, with evil intent, was coming up behind him…Milo was too engrossed in the circus to notice, and Tock had closed his eyes, the better to smell, and the bug, bowing and waving, stood with a look of sheer bliss on his face, interested only in the wild ovation.

I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes, distractions are quite nice.  Piles of papers to grade? CSI, how I love you.  Stressed? Oh, Glee. Such joy. Of course, hikes and runs and laughing are more healthy distractions when life gets a bit overwhelming.

But other times, distractions take me on a path that veers so far away from where–and who–I want to be, that it does seem like there is an old, evil Senses Taker trying to prevent me from getting where I know I could be.  But he’s tricky, because it’s so easy to settle into the comfort of what is easier and more enjoyable, just like Miles, Tock and Humbug.

“And furthermore, I’ll steal your sense of purpose, take your sense of duty, destroy your sense of proportion…” This is when the destruction sets in. I wonder how many dreamers have forgotten their initial ambitions and hopes by losing sight of what they were originally chasing.

Childhood Favorites Post #2: The Phantom Tollbooth-An Overview and its General Brilliance.

I just read The Phantom Tollbooth for the first time and was floored by its utterly hilarious wit.  It made me wonder if it all would have gone over my head as a child. But then, children tend to get lost in the adventure of the story and it isn’t until much later that we realize all the wisdom we ever needed to gain was in books we read in elementary school.  But, as an adult, all I could do was nod my head in agreement with his criticism of society, all the while laughing out loud at how clever and pun filled it all is (yes, I laugh at puns. I can’t help it.).

The main frame of the story is that the main character Milo begins as an incredibly bored boy.  Then a tollbooth shows up in his bedroom and he goes on a crazy adventure in The Lands Beyond, where chaos seems to reign ever since King Azaz, ruler of the land of words and letters, and the Mathemagician, ruler of the land of numbers, have banished their sisters, the Princesses Rhyme and Reason (get it?). Every character he runs across builds Juster’s criticism (and wit) while being incredibly creative and entertaining for the average ten year old reader just looking for adventure.  Here an example of one of kinds of characters that Milo encounters through the land of Ignorance that I thought was most clever:

The Terrible Trivium, demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort and monster of habit.  In his own words, after he asked Milo and his friends to move a pile of sand using a tweezer, empty a well using a dropper and dig a hole through a cliff using a needle:

“Think of all the trouble it saves…if you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. you just won’t have the time.  For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing.”

I felt as though the Trivium had called me out personally on this one.

Once all the demons realize that Milo and his friends are trying to restore Rhyme and Reason, they all come out and it is said that they only had one thought in mind: “destroy the intruders and protect Ignorance.”  
This sentence almost sounds like it came out of a Cold War science fiction story (it was published in 1961, so that would be an interesting thing to research): the government trying to keep people in the dark about what was really going on.  I can also link it to advertising, which tells us stories of things we need, so that we don’t have to think for ourselves of what is truly valuable.  It is crazy to me just how many directions the reader can take this book in.

My favorite part, after finishing the book and looking over my notes actually came from the very beginning:

What had started as make-believe was now very real,” (page 16).  Let the adventure begin. And isn’t that we always hoped for? 

I think I need a secret garden.

As much as I anticipate the glory of spring after the hated season, as much as I revel in late summer evenings, there is nothing that compares to the fall in my mind. Perhaps this is so because the house I grew up in was neighbors with three enormous, ancient maple trees and our backyard was yearly carpeted with the best piles to jump in EVER (which I’m sure my dad was not thrilled about…after all this is before his discovery of leaf blowers, snow blowers and electric pumpkins…ha…the good, old days). Maybe it was because my birthday was in the fall and for years we went to Hidden Valley Farm for hayrides and pumpkin picking. Maybe it was because I spent a fair amount of my childhood romping through the woods and the colors added a whole new element for my imagination.

This year’s fall has been rainy nearly every weekend. My perfect fall moments have become few and far between and my midwestern heart is not quite sure what to do with the lack of romping through the leaves this year. Even though its been at Prospect, Central or Riverside Park the past seven falls, there is still plenty of space for proper frolicking.

I just finished rereading The Secret Garden and, not surprisingly, found myself longing for countryside. Mary and Colin start off the book as spoiled, selfish and neglected children who are ultimately healed emotionally and physically by spending time inside a garden untouched by adults and expectations, being changed by its magic.

As I read, everything inside of me wanted to run off to the woods and just be. Or be driving down the rural part of State Route 73 in southwest Ohio. Or laying in a pile of leaves in my backyard. Stuck in a long, frozen moment of crisp fall air and open spaces. I realized that I count on the fall to renew my spirit before the winter begins and in between the rain and the craziness of the first quarter at school, it just hasn’t happened this year. This is not ok. So. Since there isn’t a cloud in the sky today and since the high is 68, I am off.