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Category: children’s books

boxing up the bookshelf

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this is an early draft of a meandering i wrote in the fall of 2016, one that became an essay, Boyhood on a Shelf, that ran, blessedly, in the new york times book review on april 9, 2017. it’s escaped in draft form a couple times already (only for a flash of a moment before i nabbed it and lassoed it back here, where it’s been dawdling), and this time, i’m letting it go because the idea of curating a collection of timeless children’s books is one i believe in, and because i’d love to hear what titles you’d include in such a library. 

one by one, i ran my index finger along the spines of the books. one by one, i remembered. one by one, i slipped the books off the shelf and into the hollow moving box, the books of a boyhood slipping away.

the titles — the hobbit, tom sawyer, the cricket in times square, my father’s dragon, the tales of narnia, a boxed set, harry potter and the sorcerer’s stone, the phantom tollbooth — one by one, each sent a volt of varied wattage.

the american boy’s handy book, for instance, daniel beard’s 1882 instructional for boyhood, “a state of natural savagery,” with its directions on how to build a pine-branch house or a birch-bark canoe, with its instructions on fishing for fresh-water clams, constructing a miniature boomerang or a wooden water telescope, or simply extolling the novelties in soap bubbles, it began to wobble my knees. i remembered the day i’d first spied the centennial edition at a beloved bookshop and carried it home, intent on giving my boy the most old-fashioned life of adventure, and a sure guide to survival as well.

my father’s dragon, the mid-20th-century trilogy of dragon stories from ruth stiles gannett, it had me in tears. as soon as the pillowy pad of my fingertip rubbed against its worn-smooth spine, i was flung back in time, wedged bum-to-bum on the bedsheets, snug against my then-beginning-to-read firstborn in his four-poster bed. turning pages, taking turns turning the pages, his eager fingers pinching the page’s corner, my lazy hand patiently waiting. the bedtimes when words began to take form, when pen-and-ink illustrations were seared into memory, collective memory, his and mine, at once distinct and enmeshed. the bedtimes that colored so many dreams, storybook dreams.

i couldn’t bear to let them all go, so deeply ingrained they were with a life i had loved, a life passage now being tucked in a box, transported miles away, and slid onto a grown man’s bookshelf, alongside tomes on law and philosophy and literature, subjects he now trades in, now is schooled in, subjects that now plot his trajectory.

and as much as i ached to ease them off the shelf, i was heartened to know — deeply — that they mattered to him. that he wouldn’t be home, wouldn’t feel home, till his books — his whole lifetime of books — were tucked on the new shelves in the new place he calls home.

that’s what the books of a childhood, of a boyhood, do: they forever bind us. and, ever after, they take us back, separate and together. they return us to long-ago, to once upon a time.

of all the playthings of my children’s childhood, it’s the books where we shared the most time. trains, my firstborn played with often alone, me off in a corner, occasionally lending a guttural chug or a choo or a whistle, or, later, when he was old enough to imagine all by himself, i’d be down the stairs and around a few bends, rattling around in the kitchen.

but the books, the books were where we nestled, where we sank in deep together. the books are where our hearts did so very much of their stitching together.

and so, the pages of the books — the pictures, the covers, the crinkled dog-eared edges — those are the relics, sacred relics of the years when i was keeping my promise to open his heart, to infuse the beautiful, the gentle, the wise. and the books were my guideposts, my road marks.

the books of my little boys’ beginnings, they were the holy scripture that whispered the lessons i prayed they would learn: ferdinand, the gentle bull? be kind. be not afraid to march to your own music. harry potter? believe in magic. the tales of narnia? defend what is good. tom sawyer? roam and roam widely. and never mind if you tumble into a slight bit of mischief.

no wonder, of all the stacks of clothes, the contents of a desk drawer, and all the other shelves of books, the only one that made me wince, the only one i thought i wouldn’t be able to pack away, to let go, to watch glide out the door and into the glimmering downtown tower that now is home to my firstborn, the only one that stopped me in my tracks was the shelf of my firstborn’s boyhood.

not one to sulk for too too long — only after brushing away the tears i kept to myself — i hatched a plan: as one taketh away, so one receives. as i slapped the long serpentine wrap of packing tape across the top of the book box, i promised myself i’d build a new library, one built on the blueprints of children’s librarians who’ve culled lists of the best of the best. the new york public library’s 100 great children’s books. my little town’s own librarians’ roster of classic picture books, and classic novels, grades 2 through 5, and 5 through 8.

i’d make it my mission, my task of enchantment, to map the quaintest of used book shops. i’d scour the shelves for a particular roster of titles. and, one by one, i’d re-build a collection, a curated collection of children’s books that stand the test of time and, most of all, heart.

in the hours of my heart’s tugging, when the boy i love was moving away for good and likely forever, the one balm i knew to apply was the balm of the bookshelf, the balm of construction, of building, amid the act of dismantling, of packing up and moving away.

it’s not an assignment that comes with a deadline. it took years — and the accumulated wisdom of countless bibliophiles who, over those years, slipped titles into my hands with a knowing nod, or the question, “have you seen this one?” — to build that shelf in the first place.

and it will take years, and the deep joy of engagement, to build the one i’ll bequeath to both my boys, and whoever might be the next little readers to come toddling along.

what titles would you be sure to include if you were building the essential children’s bookshelf?img_8290

that one brave thing (an update)…

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illustration by Antony Huchette, for the New York Times Book Review

just a quick middle-of-the-week update from the courage department…

not so very long ago, i wrote here about trying very, very hard to be brave.

these are some of the words that tumbled straight from my truth-telling heart:

i forget sometimes that i can be brave.

i sometimes think the countervailing forces of the world — the ones that whisper to me that i’m not good enough, don’t belong, won’t pass muster — they’ll knock me down. buckle me at the knees.

…i sometimes think of myself as a chicken. a wimp of the first order. i keep watch on folks who look to be brave, and wonder, “how, oh, how do they do that?” here’s a secret: sometimes when i talk to them, when we both unfold our hearts, i find out that they’re just as scared as i am, but they shush away those nasty whispers. or march headlong into them, never minding the awful bluster.

of course i have to remind myself — over and over and over — of that little truth. that the courage to face fears is sometimes simply plugging your ears to the noise, and deciding to hum your own little courage tune.

and just in case, i’ve come up with a back-up plan, or maybe it’s a fortifying plan. it’s modeled off the vitamins of my youth. it’s the one-a-day plan. one brave thing each day. that’s it.

i understand deeply that the trail up the mountainside comes one footstep at a time. no one’s taking giant leaps for womankind. they’re taking normal human strides, one foot in front of the other, and suddenly they’re at a point that’s halfway up. or nearly at the top.

it’s the one-brave-thing plan. i muster as much courage as it takes for one bold move — sending off the email that makes me quiver in my clogs. making the scary phone call before my voice gets caught in my throat. taking five deep breaths then plunging in.

here’s what happened the day i took a deep breath, and mustered all my courage:

Boyhood on a Shelf, April 9, 2017, New York Times Book Review, page 13.

thank you, and thank you, dear mother courage.

i’ll be back, as always, friday morning. it’ll be hushed because, for me, it’s Good Friday, that day of sacred silence from noon till three bells, the hours of the Crucifixion.

delighted to hear if your courage took you to any heights of which you’d only dreamed….

 

epiphany’s eve: the midnight whispers

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legends enchant me. stories passed from generation to generation. stories passed from village to village, hearth to hearth. legends are the stuff of story and wisdom. one part enticement and charm, along with a dollop of take-away.

img_8844and so i found myself enchanted when i tumbled upon a legend i’d not heard before. it popped from the pages of strega nona’s gift, a storybook my faraway forever best friend mailed me this week.

as i learned while turning the pages, the month of december is one filled with feasts, all of which insist on stirrings in the kitchen. it begins with st. nick (dec. 6), flows to santa lucia (dec. 13), then it’s Christmas eve’s feast of the seven fishes (dec. 24), followed swiftly by the midnight feast of Christmas (dec. 25), and new year’s eve’s feast of san silvestro (dec. 31) when red underwear, for unknown reasons, is required (note to self: go shopping).

it seems those italians do not stop: they roll the feasting straight into january, which is where this story picks up. according to strega nona, my new guide to january feasting, the eve of epifiana — that’s epiphany, from the greek, “to appear” — once again finds everyone cooking. but this time it’s for the beasts and birds, the wee scamperers and the lumbering furry fellows.

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“there was a legend that at midnight on the eve of epiphany all the animals could speak to each other. it was because the ox and the donkey kept the baby Jesus warm with their breath in the manger.

“so the villagers wanted to give their animals a feast…”

and that’s all the prompt i needed. (although if you read along, you find the motivation is merely to squelch the chance of midnight gossip among the animals, lest they peg you as a stingy old cheapskate who feeds them not. which i’d say squeezes some of the charm out of the equation.)

for years now, my annual feast for the birds is a ritual of the longest night, the winter solstice. i make suet cakes, string cranberries, heap a mound of seed into the feeders. as darkness blankets the hours, i make certain my flocks are fed, and fed amply.

so now i’ve another excuse. and in honor of the ox and the donkey who bowed down, who warmed the newborn babe with their breath (as exquisite a furnace as i’ve ever imagined), i baked more cakes, melted more suet, stirred in plump raisins and nuts and seeds. i tossed with abandon last night, the eve of today’s epiphany. i filled the old bird bath that now serves as my trough. scattered cakes and crumbs near the french doors, so i could peek at the merriment come morning.

and sure enough. not long after dawn, as i wandered out to refill the terra cotta saucer that serves as my birds’ winter bath, there before me was one big fat mama raccoon, holding a cake in both of her nimble long-fingered fists.

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breakfast, interrupted

she glanced up but didn’t flinch. she seemed not to mind that i was trespassing quite near to her breakfast. nor that i was offering a warm drink besides. (alas, she didn’t mutter a single word, nothing close to a thanks for the chow; so much for the midnight whispers. although she might insist i’d missed the chatter by a good six hours.)

and now i’ve a new excuse for spoiling my herds and my flocks (i like to think of them in masses, as it makes me feel like the shepherd i long to be). there is something deeply comforting in imagining that i’m the guardian of my critters, in hoping they can depend on me to keep their bellies full.

it’s a simple notion indeed. but it charms me to no end, and satisfies the tug to be God’s caretaker of all creatures, great and small and in between. in a world that sometimes leaves me gasping for breath, making a feast for my wild things is balm. especially on a morning when it’s 15 below. and the ‘coon at my door comes knocking.

what are the feasts that prompt you to stir in the kitchen? and is epiphany, the feast of the three kings, or wise fellows, among the ones that stir you?

sometimes it’s called little christmas, and for me it’s a quiet pause, the last inhale of merriment, before we return to so-called “ordinary time.” may your epiphany be filled with quiet and wonder, and a bright star in your night sky.

one last legend, in short form: the italians also celebrate epiphany with the story of befana, a soot-splattered old woman, sometimes called “the christmas witch.” in the version i love best, a few days before baby Jesus was born, the wise men stopped to ask befana for directions to the manger where Mary and Joseph and the newborn babe would be found. she hadn’t a clue, but offered the travelers a room for the night. come morning, the trio invited her to come along, to meet the Christ child. she declined, saying she had too much housework (therein lies the learning that one oughtn’t be waylaid by mopping; you never know what you’ll miss). once the kings had gone on their way, the old lady had a change of heart. covered in soot, cloaked in a deep-black shawl, carrying her broomstick, she set out in search for baby Jesus. to this day, the story goes, she’s still searching. and as she travels from house to house, on epiphany, she leaves behind fruits and sweets for the good children, and coal, onions, and garlic for the ones who are naughty.

merry blessed epiphany.

finding miss rumphius

miss rumphius

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

so instructs miss rumphius, the protagonist of the children’s book that vies for most-blessed on my shelf. close as a children’s book comes to gospel, far as i’m concerned.

miss R title pagemiss rumphius, the great aunt of barbara cooney, the great children’s book writer and illustrator, is little and old when we meet her on the very first page of the very fine book. she lives in a little house overlooking the sea, on an island in maine. but she hadn’t always been old, we are told. she had been young, and she dreamed, and she longed to travel the world. when she was young, she spent her days by her grandpapa’s side in his wood-carving shop, where he chiseled away at great chunks of trees, making them into curly-cues and cherubs and figureheads for the prows of great sailing ships, ships that would criss-cross the seas. and, sometimes, when her grandpapa got too busy to finish his paintings of sailing ships and faraway places, he would let little alice (for that was her name before she was called miss rumphius) pick up his paint brush and “put in the skies” of his paintings. and in the evenings, when she sat on her grandpapa’s lap, curled up for the great and nearly lost art of unspooling stories, she told him she too wanted to sail the world like those ships, and, someday, live beside the sea. her grandpapa said that was all well and good, but there was a third thing she must do: “you must do something to make the world more beautiful.”IMG_7814

i’ll let you read for yourself just what miss rumphius stumbles upon. but i’ll give you a clue: it’s tall and it’s blue (or purple or lilac or pink, the color of sunsets) and it blows in the wind. and it carpets the hillsides. indeed, and no doubt, miss rumphius did just what she was told, she found a way to make the world more beautiful.

and she passed along her instruction to anyone who would listen, and anyone who happens to turn the pages of miss rumphius, the book: “you must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

it’s an instruction that’s ancient and timeless, and new every day.

miss rumphius sprung to mind this week — again and again and again — because i seem to keep stumbling upon her disciples here and there and everywhere. first, my own beloved uncle died, an uncle who, like miss rumphius, circumnavigated the globe, searching always for the beautiful and the rare and the breathtaking. he stitched his life with beauty — and stories — that left us oohing and ahhing, his flock of nieces and nephews. he instructed in short sweet pronouncements: “good things last,” or “when the cookies are passed, take one.” he instructed, most lastingly, in the way he lived: gently, devotedly, with rarest refinement.

miss rumphius sprung to mind again when my summer porch was filled one very fine morning with pewter-haired souls — a poet, a painter, a sculptor, a potter, a writer or two — and we all read words from the page, and it was beautiful, all of it. the poet, in fact, wrote later to say that the “gathering remains fixed in memory like a latter-morning Breughel.” (can you hear me sighing so deeply?)

and miss rumphius sprung to mind when a treasured soul i am blessed to know told me how she has a particular habit of filling her satchel with books, and scattering them to whomever she meets in the criss-crossing trails of her day. she calls them her rose petals, and she strews with abandon: to her seat mates on city buses; to the someones who happen to ride in her very same elevator; to whomever sits by her side in the children’s hospital cafeteria, where she works as a nurse. i told her she’s my miss rumphius, sprung from the pages. she didn’t know who i meant. so i wrote this just now so she — and you — might discover, and might, too, be enchanted.

and you, too, might set out to follow miss rumphius’ most lasting prescription: “do something to make the world more beautiful.”

what will be your beautiful?

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the pages turned…

eric carle page turned

sometimes it’s in the immeasurable glimmer flashing by that we catch notice of the years slipping by.

so it was when i got word that eric carle, he who cut and glued the tissue-paper colors of the first childhood i inhaled by heart, he who wrote the rhymes, and pounded out the rhythms of measured bars of caterpillars and brown bears and grouchy ladybugs who ate the page, he would be among the short list of honorees at my firstborn’s college graduation.

suddenly, i was back in an overstuffed armchair. a navy plaid. one we’d bought when my belly was full and round, one we’d bought — on what for us amounted to a whim — because suddenly i was overtaken with the urge to have a sitting place, a nesting place, for me and my soon-to-be-born. that boy was not a week old before i cradled him in my arms, plopped him on my lap, perched a book before his eyes, and began to turn the page. one ear pressed against his mama’s heartbeat, and through the other ear, his mama’s voice rising and falling in sing-song brown-bear rhythm.

and so it went, through bedtimes and lull times and any time we happened to be curled together on the floor of his room, where a nook carved along the wall cradled all the books of childhood i had gathered for this and any other child.

suddenly, in my mind’s eye, in that tumble of remembering, i was perched atop my firstborn’s hand-me-down four-poster bed. he was nestled beside me, my long-legged boy in his little boy pajamas. i could see his little hand, dimpled hand, his hand that loved to turn the pages — no pages more so than the ones of eric carle.

every child has their natural-born predilection for a certain page. there must be something about the words, the rhyme, the color, or maybe just the humor deep inside. it’s indecipherable, and unpredictable, just what that book, that page, might be. but in the case of our house, our bookshelf, there was no more-loved page-turner than eric carle’s brown bear.

“brown bear, brown bear,” i can begin to recite. and i can take it — still — clear through to red bird, and yellow duck, and blue horse, and green frog, and purple cat. i stumble on white dog, but pick right up with black sheep, and goldfish, and then, skipping right by teacher and children, crescendo comes: in which, in rat-a-tat retelling, we tick through the whole menagerie of curiously-colored critters.

if i read that book once, i read it three million times. it was in these pages, i’m fairly certain, that my sweet boy learned his yellow from his blue. and for some reason, one that might forever escape me, it’s where i heard him laugh on cue, each time we came to that horse of blue. did he know that horses were not blue? is that what struck him silly?

and here we are, the pages barely touched in years. but when i got the news, the news that mr. carle would be presiding, i tumbled up the stairs to the nook in his little brother’s room where the books now stand, forgotten soldiers, stiff-backed, listing, and i pulled out the trinity of carles — hungry caterpillar, grouchy ladybug, and brown bear — and there, i turned the pages, and there i saw the years-old crinkles on a page that once upon a time must have so excited a little page-turner that he up and scrunched that charming goldfish that swims across two pages.

that the author of the cornerstones of my firstborn’s childhood would, all these years later, be there, in the flesh, at his college graduation, the ceremonial whirl that is the close of college, well, it just put a zap to my heart, and melted me. and washed me over in a sudden measure of just how many years have passed. how many pages have been turned. and made me ask, again and again, how did we get here? how did we get to this brink of college graduation, a moment that shimmered in the far-off distance, an indecipherable mirage that felt miles beyond my reach?

and as is my wont to do, i tick back across time, i hold the celluloid frames up to the light. i study one after another. measured bars all unspooling toward this moment of glory-be, he-made-it. i think of the shadowed hours, the ones when darkness descended, the ones when that blessed child bared his deepest fears and worries. i think of the broken hours, when a dream slipped just beyond his fingers’ reach. i think of the occasional glory, when that beautiful boy felt invincible and whole and understood just why it was he was planted on this holy earth.

and so there is symmetry, full circle, weaving together the beginning and the end of this particular chapter, the chapter called school life (even his little brother announced the other afternoon, as if he’d just put two and two together: “gosh, willie is about to be a real adult!”). the beginning and end here seem to have serendipitously been marked by eric carle, a fellow who found his joy, his purpose, in making shapes of brightly-colored tissue paper, and who wrote the score for a childhood measured out in the joy of turning pages, the delight of stumbling on a page that makes you laugh out loud.

i wonder if i might wiggle my way through the crush of all those college kids, and yank the wise man’s sleeve, and whisper my almighty thanks for the animation he stitched into our long ago just-beginning picture-book days?

red bird carle

who wrote the score of your childhood, or a childhood you’ve been blessed to watch up close? which picture books can you close your eyes and still recite, page by page, word by word?

on this particular morning i am particularly tied to my firstborn, who is about to step into the defense of his thesis, his 180-page page-turner. with all my heart and soul i offer up this morning for his prayers and dreams to come tumbling true….

the blessing of an eeyore day

eeyore day

count me in the company of arthur wellesley, 1st duke of wellington, and eeyore, the donkey with the pinned-on tail. mistake us not for misanthropes of the first order, but rather aficionados of the rainy day. the gloomy day. the day when it seems the heavens have dropped down an afghan the color of soot, and punctuated it with the drippings of a long and leaky pipe.

wellesley, you might recognize, was the fellow who thought to rubberize his war boots, back in the early days of the 19th century — voila, “the wellie.” eeyore, well, hopefully, you know him from the early pages of a.a. milne’s “the house at pooh corner,” the titular house being the one constructed of sticks and twigs to give poor gloomy eeyore a place to cower from whatever poured from high above.

it’s been months and months since anyone around here woke up to the ping-ping-ping of precipitation pouncing against the downspouts. or rat-a-tat, hard upon the windowpanes. and when’s the last time the squawking voice in the radio box spewed the onomatopoeic forecast “drizzle,” all morning long? pureed with fog and mist.

to borrow a line from john hersey’s “hiroshima,” maybe it’s merely an “irresistible atavistic urge to hide under leaves.” or maybe it’s the irish in me, most at home when the thinning between heaven and earth is all a blur, and we face the day cloaked in skein upon skein of sheep sacrifice.

i fear i might have been the little child who, when faced with a crayola super pack of 64 waxen sticks, grabbed straight for the shadowed hues, charcoal gray and periwinkle (colors added in 1949), ignoring altogether the sunnier, carnation pink and aquamarine (both ’49ers, as well).

it’s the depth of texture i find in gray days, in sodden days. there’s something to sink into, to rub up against — even if it waterlogs your socks.

perhaps it’s my fondness for worms, which come out to play when sidewalks slick and water gurgles up from the thawing terrestrial ooze.

but i’ve a hunch it all circles back to page 11, of pooh’s corner, the page on which the world of children’s literature, and generations curled on mama’s and papa’s laps, first met the sad-eyed donkey, in this little exchange that might be the battle cry of the glass-half-full brigade:

“hallo, eeyore,” said christopher robin, as he opened the door and came out. “how are you?

“it’s snowing still,” said eeyore gloomily.

“so it is.”

and freezing.”

“is it?”

“yes,” said eeyore. “however,” he said, brightening up a little, “we haven’t had an earthquake lately.”

who could not fall hard — and forever — for a four-legged prognosticator who works so hard to find a shard of light amid the endless shadow?

no earthquake lately, indeed. nothing but the silent falling snow. and cold that takes your breath away without a word. so what’s not to delight with the noisy brand of precipitation? the pit-a-pat that lulls you into dreamland, and syncopates your morning’s rhythm?

it’s but a whisper in the world beyond our windows, but it’s one that draws me in, and holds me close. and i consider it a blessing. the blessing of an eeyore day.

short, sweet, simple. more like weather dispatch with a bit of muse. or maybe just excuse to pull an old favorite from the bookshelf. i’m headed out for worm patrol any minute now, that long-held mission to save all squirmy things from dry-docked death. 

when you were little, what color did you grab primarily from the crayon box? and what might that say about your natural-born palette? and in the silly questions department, who was your favorite character from the 100-acre wood? pooh? piglet? christopher robin? or, mine, eeyore? (truth is, i love them each and all.)

of a pig and a spider and bearing the unbearable….

charlottes web

maybe it was all the hours curled up on my patchwork quilt, pretending i had a fever so i could stay home to read instead of going to church. maybe it was the time travel. or the slipping quietly into someone else’s heart, someone’s secret hideaway. but the hold that children’s books had on me, has never lifted.

i tiptoe my fingers across the bookshelves, and feel the quickening in my heart. there’s miss rumphius, and her lupine seeds. there’s the secret garden, and orphaned mary lennox slipping into the secret locked garden of her uncle’s great house on the yorkshire moors. there’s the little house in the big woods, where laura ingalls wilder made me feel the icy morning cold and hunger for the prairie porridge. there’s tasha tudor, she who launched a thousand dreams and made me see the magic in a single tulip’s petal.

and then there’s charlotte and her web. and wilbur who ever breaks my heart and fills it up again.

so no wonder when the call went out from my sweet boy’s reading teacher for grownups to come to class, to bring along a book that they read and re-read in days gone by, i turned rather swiftly to a spider and a pig and a girl named fern whose cry for justice never has died down.

“where’s papa going with that ax?” said fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

“out to the hoghouse,” replied mrs. arable. “some pigs were born last night.”

“i don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued fern, who was only eight.

“well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. it’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. so your father has decided to do away with it.”

“do away with it?” shrieked fern. “you mean kill it? just because it’s smaller than the others?”

and so, with those four questions, fern leaped to the top of my hero’s heap.

and as kate diCamillo writes in the foreward to the 60th edition of e.b. white’s classic, “charlotte’s web,” the crux of its miracle is this: “within the confines of its pages , something terrible, something unbearable, happens. and yet, we bear this unbearable thing. and in the end, we even rejoice.”

later, diCamillo goes on: “it is also e.b. white’s promise to his reader: things will continue; life will go on. it will be beautiful, astonishing, heartbreaking. and as long as you keep your eyes and heart open to the wonder of it, as long as you love, it will be okay.”

talk about religion.

no wonder it is among the holiest acts to slide a charlotte’s web, a miss rumphius, a secret garden, into the hands of a child, one whose circles are just beginning to expand beyond the being fed, and tucked in at night, beyond the reminders to brush teeth, and the taping of bandages across skinned knees.

it is through the pages of a beautifully wrought, deeply inscribed book that a child slaps on her or his first explorer suit, and sets sail across rocky seas, and steps into tangled shadowed woods.

while that child might get lost in the depths of those pages, forget that he’s curled under the covers in his very own bedroom, with his very own baseball trophies lined across the sill, and his very own mama banging pots and pans down in the kitchen, the holy resurrection of reading is that the terrors and the unbearability and the broken hearts belong inside the pages. and in time, that child can shake it off, and tuck the whole heart-stretching exercise back between the covers. yet go forward, having held on tight through the tug and pull and breath-catching, and be just a squidge more ready to encounter the real-life bumps and hurricanes. or simply to understand those encountered by fellow travelers.

and isn’t that, in the end, the children’s gospel, and the scripture that carries them to mountain tops and certain shores?

because i’ve been enchanted all week with a particular spider and a pig, and scribbling madly in the margins, i thought i’d leave you with a few fine links for more reading. one, from the american museum of natural history, that tells the backstage tale of the curator in the museum’s department of insects and spiders on whom e.b. white heavily relied for scientific detail on the Aranea cavatica, the species of barn spider to which charlotte belonged.

the closing paragraph of that article is worth typing out here (bold-faced emphasis per moi):

The publisher, Harper & Brothers, had misgivings about the death of the heroine in what was essentially a children’s book but “on this point [White] refused to budge,” writes Sims in The Story of Charlotte’s Web. “Natural history could not be dodged: Charlotte’s species of spider dies after spinning its egg sac.” White’s choice stands the test of time. Charlotte’s Web is as popular and enduringly poignant as when Eudora Welty first described it in her 1952 review. “What the book is about,” Welty wrote, “is friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time. As a piece of work it is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done.” 

here’s the link to that spidery web….

and if you’re in the mood for a bit more reading about e.b. white and pigs, here is a marvelous piece by my dear friend betsy o’donovan, on why white’s essay “death of a pig” — inspiration for “charlotte’s web” — is such a magnificent piece of story craft. and as an added dose of russian-doll magic, the betsy link will link you straight to a re-reading of white’s class — and heart-wrenching — “death of a pig.”

be gentle to spiders and runt piglets this week. and cheer little girls — and boys — who speak out against axes and injustice.

with my first load of edits and revisions, and a truly tight calendar to complete the final manuscript and send it off to the copy editors’ desk, i am writing night and day over here, and thinking madly when fingers aren’t touching the keyboard. the next month will be a blur. but then the heaviest load will be behind me once again……

savor your reading, and do tell: what children’s classics were etched into the blank slate of your heart?

over the river, through the woods, and off to storybook land…

images

dispatch en route to 05091 (in which the little black mobile swoops by a snow-covered campus quad, picks up a firstborn child and dashes away to snowier vermont for a short sweet spell of make-believe and pinch-me…)

once upon a time, there must have been a curly-haired lass whose prized position was little legs dangling over the edge of the armchair, storybook sprawled wide across her lap.

i imagine her big gray-blue eyes dancing. i imagine the gleam as she pored over the page. i imagine, most of all, the faraway look that must have set in, as her heart soared away to never-never land.

this little girl, you see, was a storybook dreamer. always was, always will be.

charmed by the intricacies of early-on picture books (surely tasha tudor framed many a dream), lulled by tales set in english walled gardens, abandoned castles, thatched-roof cottages and little cabins in big woods, she stumbled hard — and from the beginning — into that indescribable realm called the world of the imagination.

she found out that, plonked on a fat armchair, or tucked under the bedcovers, or curled up under the swishing strands of the weeping willow beside her bubbling brook, she could set sail to faraway places, weave long and winding stories that continued, chapter after chapter, night after night — for years, sometimes.

once, on a winter’s day she still remembers, she spent hours behind her locked bedroom door, hunched on the hardwood floor between the patchwork-covered twin beds, just beneath the paned windows that looked out through the trees and into the thick of the woods.

for nearly the whole of that day, she worked. put colored pencils to paper, scrawled a table of contents, prettified the fat first letter of each and every chapter. and, when all was just as she wanted it to be, she proudly penned her name onto the cover, just below her chapter-book title. “the adventures of joHo, by barbara ann theresa mahany,” she wrote, aiming for that authorial stretch that comes from employing all available monikers.

and so it’s ever been.

that little girl grew up. her blah-brown locks are now silvery with streaks of snow (how’s that for storybook stretch?). but quick as you can say “rumplestiltskin,” she can switch on the magic loop, and sail away on a pea green pod to the place where stories grow, and imagination sprinkles every garden bed.

and so it is that as we pack for a weekend’s jaunt to the woodstock inn in snowy vermont, i am beside myself with what bambi long ago called “twitterpation.”

soon as i saw that snap up above, the storybook inn with the glowing windows spread all across its face, soon as i got a whiff of that white picket fence, and read about teatime at four in the library, i started dreaming of four-poster beds, and threadbare oriental rugs. i heard the crackle of the fireplace, and spent a few delicious minutes chewing on the choice of which fat books to lug along with my lanz flannel nightgown and my holey haflinger boiled-wool slippers.

i imagine we’ll take long walks in the snow, through the sleepy vermont woods. and, if the moment is right, is sublimely sacred, i’ll take the hand of one of my boys. all three — tall, taller, and not-yet-tall — are signed up for the adventure. it feels like something of a miracle within the miracle, to be motoring up the back roads, leaving behind this cobbled city, stopping to grab the college kid in emily dickinson’s amherst before wending our way to woodstock.

but so it is. in this year of living sumptuously, this might be the sumptuousest (to make up a word, for the moment deserves its own home-grown vocabulary). we’re not a little clan who gets to take vacations terribly often (the price of being newsrakers in a dying industry), so each and every one is a sweet bit of miracle.

and this one, more than most.

it’s spring break for three of us — the two now entrenched at veritas U, and the one up amherst way. the little one’s spring break is not till april, so, alas, we’ve been here driving him back and forth to school through ice and snow all week. but at the crack of dawn tomorrow, i’m calling that school and reporting the child absent. and then we’re packing up the road food, stuffing ourselves into the woodstock-mobile, and heading out on massachusetts state highway 2.

all my life i’ve wanted to set a foot in vermont, a state of mind that brings to mind dappled cows bedecked in daisy chains. and covered bridges coursing over gurgling rivers. and woods aglow with lefty politics. my kinda state, i’m telling you.

it might be the epicenter of storybook landscapes, so off we go to fill my head with picture frames to last a lifetime. and for two full days, i’ll be bookended by my deeply beloved boys.

i can’t imagine — hard as i tax my storybook brain — a dreamier way to spend a gilt-edged chapter tucked amid these  blessed holy days.

are you a storybook soul? and if you could pick one storybook place to tuck away for a sweet short spell, where might it be, and why? 

growing up in a word factory

word factory

dispatch from 02139 (in which every horizontal plane seems buried under sheafs and piles of papers upon papers…)

poor kids.

you wonder — or at least i do, most often when dillydallying before diving in to some writing project that demands utter and undiluted attention — just how it is to grow up in a house where the smoke spewing from chimneys is that of words on fire. where the factory floor is littered not with scraps of leather, shards of porcelain, or snippets of fine cloth (respectable trades, all, the cobbler, the potter, the tailor). but rather everywhere you try to amble, there’s an adjective tossed to the ground. there’s a verb deemed too wimpy cowering in a corner. and there are reams and reams of blah ideas heaved over someone’s hunched-over shoulders.

it’s a veritable word trap here where we dwell.

at this very moment, for instance, the dining room table is awash in a banquet of fist-high papers, with nary an inch for a spoon or a fork. the back office is barred with “do not disturb” tape. only the claw-footed tub might be spared the detritus of the writing biz, the one that seems to be the family obsession, er, occupation.

alas, tis tough having been born a double-byline (we have two), the progeny of two souls who could find nothing more admirable to do with their lives than string words onto clotheslines and call it a day’s toil.

the boys we spawned, that other writer fellow and i, they’ve lived and breathed keyboards since the days they were popped from the womb.

they’ve guzzled mama’s milk to the tip-tap-tap of keys. they’ve drifted off to nap time, lulled by the somnolent shooshing of fingers upon alphabet squares. heck, early on, one of the duo played make-believe with a toy telephone, put receiver to his ear, and promptly proceeded to push aside his mama with a curt, “i can’t talk to you now, i’m talking to my editor.”

he was two.

gulp.

talk about staring your sins in the face.

and so, as i’ve surveyed the landscape around this little aerie this week, i’ve the niggling sense that we might be drowning in words. one of us has hijacked the couch, the afghan, the dining table and all six of the chairs (the better to fan out those vertical files). the other has staked his polar-explorer flag in the icy back office, and, for warmer-upper reprieve, the cozy cove in the kitchen.

which, by my calculations, leaves the poor sixth-grade lad little choice but to hole up on his out-of-reach top bunk when he too decides to partake of the family biz, though in his case he much prefers inhaling to exhaling words. so that’s where we find him these days, when the smoke from the word chimney gets a tad too thick, when he retreats behind his curtainwall of great reads.

is it any wonder the boy is deep-breathing literary wonders at a clip never before clocked in his lifetime? in six short weeks, the once reluctant reader tore through the harry potters (all), then page-turned his way through “the hobbit,” and just this monday and tuesday zoomed through a brilliant tale aptly called “wonder.” (it’s by r.j. palacio, and it’s about a wise-beyond-his-years boy born with a severe facial deformity and his parents’ decision that it’s time to stop homeschooling and, in fifth grade, send him bravely and with much trepidation to ‘mainstream school.’ it’s a book that no less than the wall street journal described as “a beautiful, funny and sometimes sob-making story of quiet transformation”).

which is why one of my best to-do’s of the week was to be the reader lad’s fetcher, to mosey down the lane to the cambridge public library, sidle up to one of the world’s yummiest children’s librarians (and aren’t they all among the yummiest?), pick her brain, and waddle home loaded down with a menu of new word-fattened morsels. (see above.)

in theory, these weeks through here are the january thaw for the brain; in college parlance it’s the stretch known as january term, J term, or inter-term.

only mr. wordsmith and i have decided there’s no time for time-off in our one swift year, so we’re digging in deeper. he is toiling on a book, and writing yet another one in preparation for a class he’ll be teaching for the next two weeks. i am doing what looks like shuffling papers, but really it’s a wee bit more ambitious than that — and a thousand times harder.

so everywhere you go, there are alphabet keys and — shhhhh! — expletives flying. there are pages jamming the printer. and paragraphs clogging the brain.

it’s dense enough around here that i sat down this morning to ask the young lad, the one shoveling oatmeal into his mouth, just how it was to grow up in a house where the family business is words.

said he, “it’s kinda weird.” but then, deeply-versed in the editing process, he asked me to strike that first sentence so he could begin again.

“it’s kind of like everybody’s always picking up the phone cuz they’re on deadline. or running out the door to an interview. or they’re in their office writing like a madman.” [editor’s note: please do note the use of the masculine, madman, not madwoman, proving once and for all that i am not the only off-kilter member of this writing tag team.]

since the lad was on a roll, and had been asked to unfurl a few deep-held words on the matter, he went on with one more complaint before the clock chimed, “STOP, time to chase the school bus.”

that complaint was this: “there’s way too much attention to words. i’m always getting my grammar corrected.”

and so it is, young lad, when you grow up in a house of words, when you’d best not flub your me & him’s, nor your “i choosed the chocolates.” it’s a family sin, and one you’ll not escape unedited.

so sorry you were not born to cobblers. just think, you’d have holey shoes to show for it. instead you’ve nouns and verbs and subjective infinitives pouring from your ears.

poor child.

poor, poor double-byline.

love, your wordy mama

what were the occupational hazards of growing up in the house where you grew up?? 

the nesty girl’s guide to real estate

when you grow up curled into armchairs, with your nose pressed to the pages of fairy-tale storybooks, absorbed by the drawings of magic cottages tucked in the woods…

when you grow up meandering about the pond across the lane from your growing-up house, poking around in the woods you call your own, making logs into beds, and the seed pods of wildflowers into your make-believe kitchen…

when you grow up with a grandma who lives in an old fine house, with secret stairs and itty-bitty passageways, and an upstairs porch with creaking wicker chairs and fireflies dotting the summer night’s air…

when your idea of a heavenly summer as a 10-year-old girl is to spend it with cardboard boxes and your very best friend, cutting out fabric bits, and gluing and dabbing on paint, building a dollhouse that stretches from june straight into august’s last hours…

when all of those synapses have been connected somewhere along the way, when all of that cozy-cottage DNA courses through your chromosomes, well, you don’t look for a place to lay your head quite like the rest of the world. you don’t get wowed by granite countertops or showers that look as if they might lift off and whirl to outer space.

nope, you tend to poke around in peculiar uncharted ways. you know when you’re home when you hear the ping go off somewhere deep inside your noggin. you wait to feel the pounding there in your chest. matter of fact, you must have a light meter tucked back behind your eyeballs, because you always, always pay attention to the way the sunbeams filter in through the windowpanes.

you become over the years a decidedly undeniably nesty girl.

you turn into a someone who draws oxygen from dappled light dancing on old floor boards, who finds herself charmed by the newel post at the bend in the staircase, who spies clawed feet peeking out from under the victorian bathtub and you can’t wait to climb in.

you, very much so, find places to live by heart.

and you are over the moon when along with all of those lumber and glass particulars, you discover the person who owns the place is clearly a kindred spirit, a brand-new lifelong friend, the soulmate you’ve been searching for, without ever asking.

and so it was that we stumbled upon a charmed treetop aerie the other afternoon, one that will be our home for a year, the holy sacred place we’ll come back to night after night, as soon as we launch our big back-to-college adventure in cambridge, massachusetts, 02139.

as much as, just a few weeks ago, i could barely imagine leaving this old house that owns a piece of my soul, i discovered this week what i’ve always known: four walls and a roof are only the beginning.

what makes a place home are the whispers you hear when you tiptoe in through the doorway. what makes a place home is the way some invisible hand reaches out and cradles the tenderest parts of you.

and as we motored about the twisty winding streets of old cambridge, i knew, soon as we turned around the corner of putnam and franklin, that suddenly something felt familiar, not foreign, even though i’d never been there before. maybe it was the pie bakery & cafe we passed just before taking a left turn at the white picket fence. maybe it was the cobblestone sidewalks. or the victorian laciness of the woodwork out front.

as soon as the front door opened, and a gentle man ushered us in, as soon as we passed the statue of st. jude tucked in one of the bends in the three-story staircase, i found myself sighing deep down inside.

once we walked in, once i saw the way the sunlight fluttered on the old floor boards, dancing through the leaves of the trees that harbored most of the many, many windows, once i noticed the old brick column, a chimney from the downstairs fireplace, once i saw the cherry dining table with room for all of us and a few of our friends, i was starting to cross all my fingers and toes.

then, i tiptoed into the book-lined office of the very kind man who had opened the door, who had shaken our hands and left us alone to look about in quiet.

i spied there on his desk the covers of books with titles that gave me goosebumps, each one some combination of poetry and divinity, the two subjects i’ve long said i was heading east to study. i felt tears welling up in my eyes.

i hadn’t expected any of this. i’d more or less abandoned the hope that my long string of real-estate magic could take yet another miraculous turn. real estate, they tell you, is all about hard cold numbers: dollar signs and square feet. it’s about making the deal, signing the contracts.

except when it’s not. except when you’re a soulful spirit and you don’t work in worldly ways. you wait for the tears to spring in your eyes. you wait to feel that thumping thing there in your chest.

you don’t need dotted lines, on which to scribble your name. you don’t need security deposits to promise you will keep from banging holes in the walls.

you, an A-number-1 nesty girl, you know when you’ve stepped into a hallowed chamber.

you know, right away, when the fellow offering you two kayaks and a canoe, along with passes to all of boston’s museums, and 11 months in this treetop two-bedroom, two-study apartment, complete with bird feeders at two of the windows, you know he’s the saint and the spiritual guide you’ve been secretly waiting for for so many years. (especially when he starts to list for you the monastery in walking distance, should you be inclined toward “smells and bells,” as he joked, meaning the incense and vespers, and then goes on to tell you about the abbey not so far away, along the south boston shore, where you can rent a hermitage for the night, should you care to be holed up with your pen and your prayers in utter silence.)

you didn’t need all the running around to the bank and the notary public. all you needed was to stand there and shake hands, a deal is a deal — when it’s of the heart, that is.

you didn’t need some 10-page typed contract. you simply accepted the invitation of the lovely fellow and his lovely wife to come back that evening for a glass of wine at the candlelit table on the back deck where the mockingbird kept up his night song, and all of you began the unspooling of your life’s story, and the very first threads that would stitch you together for years to come.

and so it is that we now know where we’ll hang our hearts this coming school year, when all of us go back to school in cambridge.

and so it is that once again i am witness to the truth that if you never extinguish the pilot light of faith in undying old-fashioned goodness, it will up and surprise you, surround you, and illuminate your path in pure unfiltered luminescence.

and that’s how nesty girls do real estate.

if i were to write up the real estate ad for the lovely place we’ll call our home, it would go something like this:

2 bdrm, 1 w/ skylight where you can absorb the lullaby of gentle summer’s rain. kitchen w/ bird feeders at 2 windows. windowseat tucked into corner. back deck tucked into the tops of trees, looking out on a flock of gabled roofs where mockingbirds and robins perch for evening song. bookshelves stocked with every cookbook you could dream of. complete, chronologically-catalogued case of sacred music. old quilts on beds. hardwood floors that glow in sunlight. birdsong from 4 a.m. till sunset. church bells, 2 blks. away, chime on the hour. herb garden. climbing roses. lifelong friendship included. floorboards and ceiling beams appear to have absorbed years of poetry.

how would you write the real estate ad for the place you call home?

illustration above is the frontispiece from “the tasha tudor cookbook: recipes and reminiscences from corgi cottage.”