Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Art is the Thing

Reading, or perhaps more the point a book, is a lot like art...everyone knows what they like and what they don't. There's also something for everyone, even those who claim they don't like to read...or at least say they aren't readers. Both are a reflection of who we are, what our personalities are. When you stop to look at a painting or a sculpture and after a few seconds (or minutes) consideration announce "I don't like it," can you put your finger on why? Usually, the answer is "No, but I know what I like." And, yet when almost the identical question is posed regarding a book, answers range from things like, "The characters were whiny," or "The plot dragged," or "The language was too complicated." Very specific measures of like or dislike are employed. So, why is it that a painting seems more complicated to "understand" than a story?

Part of the answer lies in what we bring to the experience, just like reading. Our frames of reference dictate what see, how we see it, and what we take from it. For instance, those who are parents can identify with the toddler pitching a boneless flop-fit mentioned in an earlier post. Those without kids of their own, or close relationships to, say, a niece, may look disdainfully at the mom who struggles to keep said flop-fitter under some measure of control. "How hard can it be?" is the question that scrolls across the observer's forehead like an electronic message board. In a word, very. So, when the flop-fitter's parent reads a tale about a child who does something similar, he or she can identify...but the bystander in the store can't.  Both responses are fine in equal measure...and each will take something different from the story.

Another component is taste. If whiny people drive us nuts in real life, then we're probably not inclined to like whiny characters in a work of fiction. If you don't like bright colors, then bold modern art probably isn't for you. Pastels might be, however. There is this myth out there in the cosmos that wrongly states you are only considered a "reader" if you read literary works. This is sooooo not the case. Like Nora Roberts romance stories? Excellent. Comic books or graphic novels more your thing? Far out! Big fan of Better Homes & Gardens iPad version? Cool! The point is, there's something out there for everyone...all tastes...and each one counts you as a reader.

The same is true for art. From the outside, children's book illustrators are some of the most overlooked and under-appreciated folks out there. Many understandably view books for children as cute little stories with nice pictures. And yet, the same amount of time (probably more), effort, and technique is used as those hanging their work on the wall of a gallery or their living room.  The same principles apply. Illustrators must use color, line, shape, texture, and composition to produce their work...and they must do it over and over because unlike a single painting, that white mouse with the purple plastic purse is going to appear throughout the book on multiple pages and must therefore be consistent. Here's the kicker: each one of those "appearances" is its own piece of artwork. Every illustration in a book is a separate drawing, or photograph, or collage.

But, what is it about illustrations that causes them to frequently be given just a passing glance? Perhaps it's the format...in some circles art isn't considered art unless it's hanging on a wall or sitting on pedestal, so the fact that it's in a book, especially one for kids, causes issues. Perhaps it's the fact that as schools dispense with said classes there's less knowledge or awareness of the benefits of creativity and imagination (which is a whole 'nother discussion for another day) . Or maybe, maybe some just aren't given the opportunity to just investigate what they like and don't...thus later falling into the trap that they must either like ALL art or not...or so they believe. It's the myths that are so damaging. Where is it written that a person must do this? And how does one figure out a taste for something if things aren't tried, opportunities aren't provided? Reading is no different. How would someone find out they like to read vampire novels unless they actually read one? They can't.

What's ironic is many of the world's illustrators went to art school. But, do you have to go to art school to be considered an artist? No. Do your works have to sell for thousands of dollars for you to be an artist? No. Do you have to sell your work at all to be an artist? No. What if you just like to doodle, or simply draw fish, or fashion a bowl out of clay because you simply enjoy doing it? Then, you're an artist...and there's an artist in EVERYONE. It's just waiting to find its niche, to find where it fits in, to be given the opportunity.

Another myth ties to the type of medium used. Too often many think you must be partial to all forms. Not so. If you prefer watercolor over oil, fine. Black and photos are where it's at? Nice! Have no interest in painting, or drawing, but love to work with clay? Perfect. Nothing says you have to be versed in all media. But without giving each at least an initial try, how do you know what you like? How else would you figure out you love chocolate ice cream but not bubble gum flavor? By tasting them.

It's our tastes, our explorations, our adventures, the people we're friends with...everything that makes us who we are that help us determine what we like and what we don't. That determination is different for everyone, just as if you sat ten people down in a room, handed them paper and crayon, and said, "Draw a mouse." You would get ten different mice...each neither better nor worse than the other, just different and therefore perfect in their own way. Which briefly--for this discussion--brings up another myth: perfection. There really is no such thing. At best it's subjective. What I find "perfect" is based on the aforementioned tastes etc. What someone else finds perfect will be based on theirs. In no way are these going to be the same for either of us, nor should they be.

What we like reflects who we are. Chocolate ice cream vs. bubble gum. Vampires vs. romance. Pottery vs. oil painting. Photography vs. sketching. For me, if it makes me laugh...Sold!

Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes
Published by Greenwillow, 1996

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Poetry Pizza

What is it about poetry that strikes such fear in people that they visibly cringe, look at the ant crawling around on the sidewalk or the nonexistent plane flying overhead, and practically hyperventilate? Seriously! Poems are just another form of storytelling. Admittedly, the way they're laid out on a page looks a little strange. But, if you retyped a poem to resemble something more familiar, like sentences, suddenly it doesn't look so weird. And just like stories, how we interpret and understand them all depends on our previous experiences. I don't mean our previous experiences with poetry. I'm referring to things we've experienced in life, our frames of reference.

Everyone at some point early in life enjoyed poetry.  Stop shaking your head. You did.  It's called "Mother Goose."  "Hickory Dickory Dock," "Jack and Jill," "Humpty Dumpty," they all are poems kids get a kick out of. Why? Because they're silly...and kids are silly. They can identify with the silliness. Do they have to understand the "message" in the rhyme? No, and neither do you. Admit it. How many of you out there know the true "meaning" behind "Humpty Dumpty?" Uh-huh. Thought so. Why are "we" so bent on deriving "deep and meaningful messages" from EVERYTHING we read, especially poetry?

The answer lies somewhat in something former poet laureate Billy Collins once said: "Poetry goes to high school to die." He's right. For the most part, we enjoy poetry up to and including junior high...although depending on the teacher the death of poetry may actually take place then. Well-meaning teachers, as Collins points out, introduce certain poems long before a child can actually make sense of what he or she is reading. This idea can also be applied to anything a child reads.  Content and age appropriateness are elements that must be considered. For example, you wouldn't necessarily want to read A Nightmare in My Closet by Mercer Mayer to a three year old...especially if said child was convinced one lived in HIS closet (or under the bed, in the basement...wherever). However, a six year old who understands there's no such thing as monsters in closests (or anywhere else in the house) would find the humor in the story. So, why are poems that are beyond a child's developmental stage introduced at all? This is what Collins meant by poetry proverbially choking on a chicken bone in high school.

Think back to grade school. Does the name Shel Silverstein ring any bells? Uh-huh. I thought so. How about Jack Prelutsky? Well, both write poems kids (and adults!) can identify with. And that's the key, connecting to a story. What causes a connection? The "Yes. That's how I felt" moment and all of its cousins. For example, an eight year old can easily identify with this from Prelutsky:

My father's listed everything
he's planning to repair.
I hope he won't attempt it,
for the talent isn't there,
he tinkered with the toaster
when the toaster wouldn't pop,
now we keep it disconnected
but cannot make it stop.
(from "I Wish My Father Wouldn't Try to Fix Things Anymore" in Something Big Has Been Here)

Read this to a group of kids and sprinkled amongst the giggles will be bobbing heads of understanding and a few shout outs along the lines of "Yep. That's my dad." Or, how about this one:

grasshopper gumbo
iguana tail tarts
toad a la mode
pickled pelican parts
elephant gelatin
frog fricassee
puree of platypus
boiled bumblebee
porcupine pudding
steamed centipede skins
squid sucker sundaes
fried flying fish fins
meadow mouse morsels
cracked crocodile crunch
the school cafeteria
serves them for lunch.
 ("Grasshopper Gumbo" in There's No Place Like School)

If these are the types of poems that kids enjoy and can relate to, why then do "we" suddenly make them jump to things like Blake or Dickinson in high school? There isn't, at least initially, a big difference between a 13-year old graduating from middle school to a 14-year old beginning high school. There's plenty of time for Blake and Dickinson...like, college. But until then, a solid foundation must be built just like a house. Or, to use another analogy, you can't make a pizza without the crust.

The good news is, it's never too late to discover a new food. There is something out there for everyone. Some people like anchovies on their pizza. Others prefer plain cheese. Reading is no different. Some love vampire fantasy such as the Twilight series, but don't enjoy Harry Potter. And yet both are considered fantasy. There's no rule that says it's an all or nothing thing. You can like bits and pieces and still legitimately say you like it. Same is true for poetry. You like Silverstein and no one else. Or, you enjoy Prelutsky, Eugene Field, and Ogden Nash and other more silly-type poets over the likes of Coleridge. Fine.

Two other ideas that influence the interest, or lack thereof, in poetry are 1). generalizations, and 2). knowing how to read a poem. Generalizations can be lethal, especially in the arts. Many people say they dislike art and yet are avid collectors of black and white photographs. Um, guess what? Photography is an art. So is literature. In my travels I cross paths with many who say they don't like to read. Yet I'll note they have the latest issue of Car & Driver in their hand and point that out to them. The response is something along the lines of, "Yeah. But, this doesn't count." Why not? There's no rule that says you must read literary fiction to be considered a reader. Again, this goes to the generalization idea.

Knowing how to read a poem, poetry in general, can go along way to appreciating it. Collins has a simple solution: Read it as if you would a story, stopping at appropriate punctuation--not the end of a line--and all the usual reading rules. If it helps, retype it. It's meant to be read out loud, and nothing says you have to get it right the first time. The idea of perfection in reading is overrated and really serves no purpose anyway. Some poems sort of lend themselves to being sung, such as Prelutsky's "Grasshopper Gumbo." Play with it. Try different speeds. See what fits you. Find out what you like on your poetry pizza. For me, hold the anchovies. I'm more of a Hawaiian or Supreme kind of girl.

Something Big Has Been Here by Jack Prelutsky
Published by Greenwillow, 2010 (reprint)

There's No Place Like School by Jack Prelutsky
Published by Greenwillow, 2010 (reprint)

Jack Prelutsky's web site: www.jackprelutsky.com

Sunday, September 25, 2011


We've all been there...done something that others just don't (or frequently won't) understand. Perhaps you're new to the area and don't speak the local language. Do we care? Sometimes. Not always. But, sometimes it just gets to us. We can't help it...we're human...emotion driven. And, EVERYONE wants and needs a friend, to be accepted, to be understood...even by just one person. It doesn't feel like we're asking much. "What's wrong with me?" we ask ourselves when things aren't going right. The answer: Not a thing. It's the other guy who has the problem. Not you. She, or he, hasn't bothered to get to know you. Really know you. If she did, she'd find out that you are really no different from herself. A barrier would be broken and true friendship would be born. As for the rest of the crowd? Well, they'd be left to stand around the pasture fence wishing for what you've discovered.

For example,"There was once a cow that went OINK.  The cows that went MOO laughed at the cow that went OINK. MOO-HA." As poor cow's luck would have it in The Cow That Went Oink, everyone else in the barnyard Cluck-ha'd and Meow-ha'd and Baa-ha'd at her in her attempt to make a friend. Nothing like being in a new neigh-borhood at not able to speak the language. Sheesh. As if moving weren't tough enough, making new friends is even tougher. Cliques and circles are already formed and frequently hesitant to admit new members...so to speak. Why that is has yet to be formally answered. But, I have a pretty good idea as to the reason: Change.

Yep, it's that simple. Change. No one likes it. Anything new pushes us out of our comfort zone. Unfamiliarity scares us. We clutch. We run from the door because the kids on the other side of it are rumored to want to turn us into stew. We're convinced from the moment we lay eyes on someone (or something) that there's absolutely no way whatever it is that's new is going to be any benefit to us. We know what works. Why fix it if it's not broken? Nevermind that it might actually make us better or that the other person involved may be just as terrified...if not more.

Stretching is good for the soul. Millions of people engage in simple stretches at the end of the day, yoga, tai chi, and other similar relaxation techniques for any number of personal reasons. But, they all have one thing in common...they help us tune in to the body and relieve tension. Well, the mind needs similar attention. Otherwise it experiences to one similar to that of a muscle accruing an abnormal supply of lactic acid, "Doink!" In other words, it seizes up instead of seizing the day.

Trying something new, reading in area or genre we're not familiar with, taking a few extra minutes to get to know that "new kid on the block" all stretch us mentally and leave us feeling better about life and ourselves after we've done it. The brain cramps begin to disappear, the neuro-lactic acid melts like a popsicle on 100 degree day. It isn't long before we find ourselves wondering how we managed without this new thing in our lives. It just seems so normal and natural.

Fortunately for the oinking cow, it wasn't long before she met a pig who...wait for it...yep, you guessed it...a pig who could moo. They spent quite a bit of time teaching each other how to moo and oink with attempts ending in hilarious results. It's not like "OINOOMOO" and "MOINKOO" are quickly found in Webster's Dictionary. But, they persevered, never giving up on mastering that new yoga contortion until they finally could both OINK and MOO...much to the consternation and jealousy of the rest of the barnyard.

Anything worth having is worth working for. Moink.

The Cow That Went Oink by Bernard Most
Published by Harcourt Brace & Company, 1990

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Kid's Say the Darndest Things

Biten. Deedle. Hah-di-lah-di. I'll never forget the day my mother-in-law called me at work and asked what those words meant. She was watching my son for the afternoon while my husband went to a few client appointments and could not for the life of her understand what he was trying to say. "How is he saying 'biten'?" I asked. "Is he pointing and does it sound like a question? If so, he's wondering what it is he's pointing at. Otherwise it's a statement. Oh, and 'deedle' means toy." I understood perfectly what he was getting at. For the rest of the world it understandably would be clear as mud.

I don't think there's a parent out there that hasn't at some point not understood what their youngster was trying to say. Take Trixie's dad in Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems. He and his daughter, a toddler, are enjoying a day together, running errands and a trip to the laundromat. Things go horribly wrong on the way home, though. Something is missing, something VERY important, something that should NEVER EVER be left behind...the all-important stuffed animal. In Trixie's case, it's Knuffle Bunny...and when she tries to tell her dad he just doesn't get it.

We've all been there, trying to decipher our child's code that's complicated by distress-induced tears, hiccuping cough, and my personal favorite, the boneless flop fit. Trixie's no different than any other kid in communicating her problem and the usual looks of disgust are aimed at her dad from passersby. But really, is it her fault? Isn't a little patience required? Trixie's tale is something everyone can identify with, whether it's the child understanding the importance of Knuffle Bunny or the grown up reading the story commiserating with dad's lack of understanding. But, there's an subtler message buried in here, one of patience and taking one's time.

Part of helping a child learn to communicate is slowing down and listening to what they have to say...and how they're saying it. Trixie's dad is in such a hurry to get to the next thing on his to-do list that he fails to realize that she's trying to say something...something that is important to her. Perhaps the single most important thing in improving a child's communication--right after reading to them regularly and frequently--is listening to them.

Actually, this communication speed bump comes along at least twice. Twice? Yep. The teen years. How many misunderstandings could be avoided if everyone stopped and listened to each other? I'm not talking about the "following orders" type of listening. I mean respecting that how and what is being said--shared--is important to the person saying it. The teen equivalent of a boneless flop fit--the requisite eye rolling and shoulder slouching--and Knuffle Bunny being left behind might be happily avoided.

Fortunately for Trixie, mom-the-codebreaker is right there at the door when she and dad return and quickly deciphers the problem. Knuffle Bunny is rescued from the dryer and all is right with the world.

Kids aren't the only ones who can say the darndest things, however. 'Hah-di-lah-di'? For our son that meant 'socks', his translation of us always saying "Let's put on your socky-wocky-doo-da's" before putting them on and heading out the door with Mommy Bunny...who has never been left behind.

Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems
Published by  Hyperion, 2004 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Here's to You, Nancy Drew!

           Nancy Drew is my hero. I was nine when we were first introduced thanks to my mom.  Reading and I didn’t get along and my mom was trying desperately to get me hooked on books.  I loved stories, still do, and fondly remember sitting on my bed with a glass of milk listening to my dad read the Berenstain Bears’ B Book, or my mom terrifying me with the poem “The Skippery Boo.”  She’d pretend to be the Skippery Boo coming to get me and I would scream in terrified delight.
            My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Novik, would let me sit at my desk and write my own stories as much as I wanted…even during math so long as I kept up and did the work at home...which was easier said than done, especially when fractions were involved. I didn't like them. They were the math version of Brussels sprouts, sour. Anyway, interest in reading wasn’t the issue.  The actual act of reading was pure torture, and it would be a few years before the reason why would come to light.  In the meantime, my mom searched high and low for something I could manage to read and that would take me to another place, to help me forget about my troubles.
            The Secret of Old Clock and all its sequels was just what the detective ordered.  Nancy Drew was so cool and got to do the most awesome stuff.  She had her own car, for one thing.  She had a boyfriend and two best friends who always stuck by her. She was good looking, but not so much as to be intimidating.  In short, she was someone I wanted to be friends with.  And, she solved mysteries.  It sounded so exciting.  She experienced the most incredible adventures.  I wanted to do what she did and I figured she had much to teach me. I was right…she dared me to dream. 
            Like all good friends, Nancy eventually introduced me to others.  Trixie Belden, another ingenious sleuth, and I hit it off immediately.  Agatha Christie, cool under fire, proved a great instructor of deductive reasoning, a key ingredient to solving any question.  Anne Shirley, whose independence, spirit, fearlessness, loyalty, and ability to remain true to her self is still inspiring.  I loved her Green Gables as much as she did and hoped that one day I might live in a place as magical as she. 
And last but not least, Elizabeth Bennet, a fiery romantic and solver of the mysteries of the heart if ever there was one.  The six of us cried together, were frightened together when foundations and beliefs were threatened, and laughed and cheered at triumphs.  They were then, and continue to be, my best friends.
Somehow, though, Nancy, Agatha, Trixie, Anne, and Elizabeth managed to make me feel better.  They made mistakes but lived to tell about it.  Elizabeth Bennet was convinced Mr. Darcy was beneath her, yet was willing to admit her mistake when the truth was revealed.  Nancy, Agatha, and Trixie followed dead end after dead end before finding the answer to a puzzle.  Their perseverance was to be admired and emulated. And Anne, well, trouble always seemed to find her.  Yet she was able to win people over with her warm heart and good intentions.
              No matter how tough some things may have been growing up, if those five women could overcome their setbacks so could I.  No way was I going to let an obstacle get in the way of my dream.  I wanted to be a super sleuth, and my dream came true.  I’m a librarian, finding answers to stubborn questions and conquering dead ends in a single bound.  So, here’s to you Nancy Drew.  Thank you.

The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene
Published by Grosset & Dunlap, 1959

Monday, September 5, 2011

2 1/2 Lessons from a Penguin

"1--2--3, 4--2, 3--6--0, 2 1/ 2, 0." No, these are not the numbers for a combination lock. Nor are they the numbers to a  Swiss bank account, but they are equally important. They are numbers that teach us, and later remind us, to march to our rhythm.  Too often everyone, kids included, get caught up in keeping up with others, in trying to be like others instead of just doing and being whatever it is we do and be best at.

Tacky the Penguin has no such hesitations. He marches however he wants and doesn't care a frozen shrimp what his iceberg companions Goodly, Lovely, Angel, Neatly, and Perfect think. Tacky has much to teach. Splashy cannonballs have a way of breaking the monotony of day-to-day routine. Think about it. Have you ever been out walking the neighborhood on an egg-scorcher of a day and noticed a sprinkler in someone's front yard taunting you to run through it? Did you run through it? Uh-huh. That's what I thought. Tacky would have, and I can't blame him...neither would the neighbors. It's hot out, so why not. They might even join you.

Tacky reminds us of the importance of music. Not the secret stuff that plays privately in our head, but the stuff that everyone can hear. "How many toes does a fish have? And how many wings on a cow? I wonder, yup, I wonder." Now that is great music. Does it have to make sense? No. And so what if it's off-key. Crank up the volume. Sing with everything you've got...and not just in the car as you head home from work or an awesome date. Sing when the mood hits and who cares how you sound. Just sing. Doing so provides a rhythm that carries you through the day, makes cleaning the igloo speed by faster than a dolphin, and gets the endorphins flowing. It has this magical way of lifting a mood to heights not thought possible, and yet the view is spectacular.

Everyone runs into their share of "hunters" once in a while. They're not fun. They come with "maps and traps and rocks and locks" and definitely look rough and tough. The trick is to not run behind an iceberg and hide. The real Hawaiian shirt trick is to stand and face the growl. Most of us are right there (or wish we were) with Goodly, Lovely, Angel, Neatly, and Perfect, hiding. That is, after all, the usual natural reaction when a threat appears. But, Tacky takes a different approach. He's brilliant, actually. He lays his sardines out there, daring them to "bring it." As is often the case, the antagonist is confronted with something he didn't expect...confidence. It's hard to continue following the maps and traps and rocks and locks when the path is blocked by something as formidable as confidence. When you think about it, though, anyone who can wear a Hawaiian shirt, do splashy cannonballs, and joyfully sing "How many toes does a fish have?" deserves respect and admiration...and to be learned from.

So march, 1--2--3, 4--2, 3--6--0, 2 1/2, 0, and run through the neighbors sprinkler. I did.

Tacky the Penguin by Helen Lester, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger
Published by Houghton Mifflin, 1988

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Paying Homage

Margaret Wise Brown was a genius. Pure and simple...and she kept her stories simple. She and her stories were the epitome of "less is more." How much more simple, yet stunningly beautiful can you get than "In the great green room/There was a telephone/And a red balloon/And a picture of--The cow jumping over the moon"? It's pure poetry. Word choice is everything in writing...which may be pointing out the obvious but it never hurts to review. Having said that, it is particularly important in writing for children. Those not in the know have a tendency to think "How hard can it be? Children's stories are short, cute things...not many words to them." I beg to differ.

In a novel for adults a writer can take hundreds of pages to develop a story. Yes, the words are important...without a doubt. After all, "the knife glinted in the moonlight" calls to mind a vastly different mental image than "the knife flashed in the moonlight." But, compared to a story for kids there's more room to play. The average picture book is 32-pages in length, with most of the space used for the illustrations. For the sake of this argument, I'm not including lengthier items such as folklore or fairy tale retellings. Now, getting back to the original discussion, 32-pages of mostly pictures doesn't leave a whole lot of time or space for the story to develop. As mentioned in a previous blog post, Pat Hutchins' Rosie's Walk is a mere thirty-one words. And yet a complete story is told in those thirty-one words (not to mention an extra tale of sorts told in the illustrations).

Goodnight Moon takes a little longer to come full circle, 130 words to be exact...most of which are repeated. "In the great green room...Goodnight room...." What beautiful words they are. Each is familiar to the young listener and thus adds an element of comfort...nothing is new or unfamiliar. The story pairs nicely with a favorite blanket and stuffed animal, which was, perhaps, part of Brown's idea behind it.

Clement Hurd's illustrations can't be overlooked, either. He spared no detail. The room is awash in bright colors as the young rabbit gets ready for bed, still wide awake, possibly "not quite ready to go to sleep" and trying to stall, stars twinkling out the window. As the goodnights progress, the room grows darker...lamp light eventually replaced by moonlight as it rises and can finally be seen through the window...and little rabbit getting sleepier...and sleepier...and sleepier. 

Why is this such a classic? Because it reflects a young child perfectly. Every child has a routine at bedtime. Blankets MUST cover a child a certain way. Stuffed animals MUST be lined up on the bed in a certain order. Heaven help the parent who gets it wrong. In a child's world, everything has its place and order and must be in it. Little rabbit saying goodnight to all the things in her room mirrors this. It is reassuring, and not just for the child. Goodnight Moon also reminds the grownup to slow down, to stop and appreciate all the wonderful people and things around them, making sure that everything is in its place, in its proper perspective.

Ah. Goodnight cow jumping over the moon. Goodnight, wonderful little book. Goodnight, Ms. Margaret Wise Brown. Hush.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

BFF's (Best Friends Forever)

I know what I'm going to name my next cat...Tacy, as in Tacy from the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace. How I missed this fabulous series as a kid I don't know. Well, maybe it had something to do with the fact that the only thing I'd read (at least initially) were Nancy Drew books. You may compare this to a one-year old refusing to eat anything but Gerber plums and apples, or in my case, raspberry cobbler. At any rate, I missed out on a wonderful series growing up. Fortunately, that gap in my reading journey has come to an end and it is easy to understand how and why it is included in 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up.

Friends do come and go. But, a special, precious few begin when we are in grade school and last for the rest of our lives. Most of us have at least one of these friendships. I do. Unfortunately, we've spent most of it living in different states. My BFF moved to Virginia right after our freshman year of high school. Similarly, Betsy and Tacy are best friends and live next door to each other...until right before they begin their freshman year of high school. Luckily for Tacy, Betsy is moving just across town. Still, the pain both girls go through as a result of the move is something everyone can identify with no matter their age (or gender, for that matter). Moving at any point in life is not easy.

There are numerous questions that run through the mind when a move is on the horizon, chiefly, "Will I make a new friend and will he or she be as good as...." The answer could be a mix of both yes and no...probably more yes, "you" will make a new friend and he or she is just as likely to be as special as the one you might be leaving behind. But, there is something about a friendship formed in grade school. They grow as quickly as you outgrow your shoes and winter coats.

In Heaven to Betsy, Betsy is keenly concerned about what will happen to her friendship with Tacy when she moves and they begin high school.Will they remain friends and be as close as they were before the move? What will happen if they make new friends? Will they drift apart? After all, they've been best friends and have lived across the street from each other since they were five. They'd played countless hours of house, school, and dress up together. Now they're young ladies, high school students...a time when lots of things can and do change.

 Friends are important. They see you at your worst and still love you for who you are. Friends forgive (ignore?) a lapse in communication without a second thought...allowing you to pick up right where you left off as if no time had elapsed.  Friends back you up when you feel like your back's against the wall. Friends, simply, are there for you...every successful, failed, awkward, sticky, and muck-filled step of whatever journey you're sharing together. Betsy and Tacy are all of these and more to each other. They're the kind of friends we'd like to be friends with. They remind us of our own friends, of all that is good and wonderful and why we are friends with those we are. In short, Betsy and Tacy and their friendship, adventures, and experiences remind us of ourselves.

Book: Betsy-Tacy series
Author: Maud Hart Lovelace
Year: 1940-1955

Note: For contemporary counterparts, "pair" this series with Snail Mail No More by Paula Danziger and Ann Martin and Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass.


Sunday, January 2, 2011


Book 3: Rosie's Walk by Pat Hutchins (1968)

Thirty-one words. That's it. Just thirty-one words to tell this hilarious story.  And, you would think it would take no time at all to read it as a result. Not so. When I read this to groups of young kids (or simply one-on-one) it takes well over at least ten minutes. Why? Because of the illustrations. That is both how and where this story is is really told. The words are almost unnecessary.

At first glance, the pictures seem simplistic, but upon closer examination are quite sophisticated. This sophistication is not lost on or beyond the reach of the toddler (and older) set. Hutchins keeps the color palette simple, sticking with soft yellows, reds, browns, greens, and black outlines for definition...along with plenty of white space on the page.  Rosie may be on a walk around the barnyard before dinner, but what she doesn't know (and the reader does) is that she is being followed by a fox.

What reads as a such an uncomplicated thing, "Rosie the hen went for a walk across the yard," is so much more. As Rosie leaves the hen house, she is completely unaware of Fox hiding beneath it and then following her across the yard. As he leaps to pounce on her, he lands on a yard rake and is whacked in the face. The humor isn't missed by kids and is the reason Rosie's Walk is not a story to be read quickly. They pour over the pictures, noting such minute items as a snail in the grass, or a string wrapped around Rosie's ankle that--unbeknown to her of course--causes a sack of flour to tear and spill on Fox as she walks past his latest hiding place.

Rosie's adventure is reminiscent of the antics between Wiley E. Coyote and Road Runner. No matter how hard Fox tries to catch Rosie, some unfortunate mishap occurs to him. What makes this story such a classic and amazing work is that none of Fox's mishaps are even remotely hinted at in the text. Hutchins' illustrations tell Fox's tale and it is that which captures a young child's attention.

Hutchins' technique of using the illustrations to tell a story parallel (or separate) to that of the text is not new. Randolph Caldecott, considered the "founder" of children's book illustration, employed this idea in his works. For example, in his Diverting History of John Gilpin, there is much more going on in the pictures than the text would have a reader believe. Hidden humor, an extra story going on "behind the scenes" etc. are just a few mechanisms that make an appearance the story. So, this begs the question, how is it Rosie's Walk did not win the Caldecott Award?


Historical Note:  Randolph Caldecott, born in Chester, England in 1846, taught himself to sketch and paint. His illustration break came when a publisher lost his principal illustrator, Walter Crane. The first two books Caldecott worked on were immediate successes and he would go on to not only illustrate other writer's works, but also write and illustrate his own. Sadly, he passed away at the age of 39 in St. Augustine, Florida. There is a headstone marking his grave in St. Augustine. In 1938, the American Library Association awarded the first medal bearing his name to Animals of the Bible, illustrated by Dorothy Lathrop. The award is given each year to the book with the best illustrations published in the preceding year. For example, the 2011 award will be given to the book with the best illustrations published in 2010. Also, the artist must be a United States resident and the pictures must embody the illustration ideas of Caldecott himself. For more information on Caldecott, visit http://www.randolphcaldecott.org.uk/. Visit the American Library Association's web site at www.ala.org for award criteria and a complete list of Caldecott Award winners and honorees.