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Tag: tasha tudor

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? 

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.”

my not-so-secret garden

i’ve been under the spell, i do believe, since that long-ago sunday when i should have been in church. but instead, i rubbed the thermometer on my bedsheets, allowed the friction there to be my accomplice in the charade of sunday-morning fever.

now that the statute of limitation’s surely well expired, i can confess my sin at last: i’d feigned the fever so i could stay in bed with the book that stole forever my heart, (and, apparently, my soul) and, yes, my whole imagination.
twas then and now, frances hodgson burnett’s “the secret garden,” with pen and ink and watercolors by my enchantress, tasha tudor.

twas the book that took me down the sinner’s path, and opened up a lifetime’s looking for, believing in, the dappled path to paradise.

oh, who could go to church, sit stiff in wooden pews, when instead i might tiptoe along behind orphaned mary lennox as, at last, the robin redbreast showed her the long-lost key to the long-locked little door that opened into the long-still garden, where once upon a time heartbreak happened and the old once-beautiful garden was left to die of sorrow.

indeed, instead of whispering my morning prayers, my heart leapt up and out of me, traveled off to english countryside. was there inside the garden walls, where ivy hung, “a loose and swinging curtain.” peeking through the “fairy-like gray arches” of the climbing roses, tangled over trees in slumber, swinging down in “long tendrils which made light swaying curtains.”

so it says on pages 92 to 96, where i barely breathed the first time through, nor just now as i read again the words that birthed in me a life’s-long enchantment with secret nooks and crannies where fairies dart from leaf to leaf, and robins lay their sticks, their curls of birchbark, where sky-blue eggs are laid, are hatched, where wee small beaks just barely make a chirp when mama comes with worm.

oh, i am enchanted, yes, by the secret garden.

and just beyond my kitchen door, where a summer ago and long before, was gnarly bush and weeds that grabbed you by the knee, there seems to have sprouted a patch as enchanted as any i have ever known.

i cannot keep myself from there, where fronds of fern tickle me on the shin, and hydrangea drapes before my nose. i’ve a curly-barked maple that is home, already, to the robin and the red bird.

just this christmas past, i discovered tucked between a weeping hemlock and that maple a bird-house bench, one built for me by my beloved friend, jim the builder, and left one afternoon before a giant snow blew in. i had no clue it was there, till two days later, when, out shoveling before the dawn, i caught a glint of early-morning sunlight shining off the copper-topped birdhouse peak. and there, with snow cascading down, i wept. overtaken by the tiptoeing-in of the humble builder who had faith i’d find his gift and hadn’t thought to pester me, inquire, had i found it, had i found it?

ever since, it’s my preferred spot for taking mugs of steamy morning coffee. or mid-day lemon waters. or sips of wine, as sun’s long last rays bid the garden, “good day.”

or, if i can’t bear the few-steps walk to the bench, i might plop my bottom on the blue-stone stoop, just beyond the kitchen door, just down from where the basil and the thyme and the flat-leaf parsley grow in the wooden box along the windowsill. sitting there, i am eyeball-to-eyeball with the butterflies that land in the unnamed bush, or atop the country mailbox that holds my garden gloves and clippers.

and, best of all, my meandering walk, with blooms of creamy white and fronds and leaves of grayish-green and silver-green and almost lime (who knew how many shades of green there are?), at last has the proper entrance i have dreamed about, well, forever and ever.

there is now, at the south end of my not-so-secret garden, a perfect arch, with arbors on the side, and bentwood top, where you might look up and watch the clouds, the sun, the stars, play peek-a-boo.

not yet do the roses ramble up.

but they will.

old roses, dusty pink, tissue-paper vintage roses. the ones from storybooks and block island, that faraway place a ferry’s ride from rhode island’s coast where winding lanes are lined with old stone walls and miles of rather ancient roses have been forever rinsed by sea-salt breezes, so the color’s nearly drained, and just a whisper’s left of palest oyster pink.

it is the place i’m drawn to morning, noon and dark at night. i’ve been known to stand there watching moonbeams on the mopheads of hydrangea. i tiptoe out before the dawn, just to be alone, to absorb the misty earth in morning prayer. i dart in and out all day, watch the light play shadow games.

we each, every one of us, need a secret sacred place to hope and dream and cast our prayers on passing breeze.

those of us who scatter seeds of holiness, who tuck them in the loamy mounds of garden, we are blessed with bursting forth of bulb and branch. we endure the heartache of the dying stalk, the one we cannot resurrect, not with all the love and faith we know how to muster.

there are lessons to be taught from every garden and the paths that meander through.

and, oh, to be among the ones who understand the volumes of truth nestled there among the trailing vines, the fairy-like arches and the light swaying curtains that come in many shades of green.

oh, to be grown up and, after all these years, still hold dear the secrets of the garden. even when it’s not so secret, after all.

bless you, holy garden.

where is your secret sacred place? the plane of pillows by your window? the armchair that wraps around you? the middle step on your front stairs? or perhaps you too have a slice of enchantment that grows just beyond your kitchen door, or way out back where no one knows you hide?

we are deep in festivity here at this old house, with birthday on top of birthday, a whole pile-up of cakes and candles, and digits clicking ever forward. today’s the one that belongs to the father of my boys; two days from now, my little one turns nine. just day before last, my most beloved brother david blew out candles right alongside the nation’s president. and two days before that my papa would have been 82. thirty years ago he died. be still, my ever-broken heart…..now healed enough to love and laugh beyond my wildest dreams…

from tasha’s bees to me

a box arrived over the weekend from vermont. anything from vermont makes me happy. but this particular box said it was from tasha tudor, who is pretty much my hero. she might be the loveliest illustrator of children’s books that ever there was. think “secret garden.” she’s the one who painted the garden that pulled you in, and all these years later has never let you go.

tasha is my hero as much for how she lives as for how she puts color to paper. she lives at the end of a perilously-steep, much-potholed road, in a timeworn cedar-planked farmhouse–just like one built in 1740 in concord, new hampshire, one that caught her considerable fancy.

but her house, on the crest of a hill, the inside a labyrinth of rooms with low-slung doorways and uneven floorboards, is one that her son seth built for her, using only hand tools.

seth and his mama are both, they like to say, “a bit reluctant to live in the twentieth century.”

tasha, who is 91, lives purely. you might say she lives simply, but that would be to discount the bone-thinning work it takes to live the way she lives. she is old yankee through and through.

she cooks on an old black cookstove, roasts a turkey in a “tin kitchen,” a contraption she describes as a reflector oven, set in front of the fire. (“barricade the bird from corgies and cats with a firescreen,” she warns, right in the midst of her roasted turkey recipe, a recipe for which she insists a fireplace is required, not optional.)

she eats what she grows in her tumbly riotous garden. raises goats for milk and butter and cheese. wraps herself in shawls to keep away the cold.

when dusk rolls in through the windows, she lights her rooms with beeswax candles, candles she has dipped in autumn, after she cleans the hives so the bees can begin again.

which brings us back to the box that came from vermont over the weekend. it was sent by my sister who is married to my brother in maine (don’t be frightened by that construction; i just constructed it, but it seems right, more right than saying, sister-in-law, a term too clinical for me). it was sent by becca. but it came from tasha.

yes, tasha dipped the candles that now are at my house, now lying on my window seat. maybe it was her children who did the dipping, or maybe one of her grandchildren, some of whom live in cottages nearby. whoever dipped, it’s close enough for me.

and so, as i opened the box, unrolled the sturdy brown paper, i watched six nubby, knobby hand-dipped sticks of beeswax roll toward me. they are in pairs, their wicks still joined, their wicks all tumbled together.

i was dumbstruck by the candlesticks. by the bees’ hard work. by their purity. by the fact that they were dipped and came from tasha’s bees, bees that sucked the nectar from tasha’s enviable and magnificent garden, the garden that has long been the muse for all her painting. the garden that is a muse for me.

the candles got me to thinking about bees. i happen to love bees. i did some reading. soaked up all kinds of wonderful things about bees, about beeswax. i will tell you all about it tomorrow, because this seems to have turned into a tale about tasha. which is a good thing.

which is a pure thing.

please come back tomorrow for another pure thing, a bit about bees, a bit about beeswax, the less considered thing about bees and their labors. honey, of course, being the bee thing that tends to get more of our time and attention. because it’s a sweet thing. of course.

turn the page slowly

come in close. crack open the cover. take in the book. finger the paper, the color, the type. hear the page crackle. as you lift it, you turn it. you turn the page slowly.

drink in the story. take note how the words are unfurled on the page. feel the thump of the poem as it beats with your heart.

at its best it is poetry, tucked in those pages. tucked between covers. awaiting your fingers. awaiting your heart.

some of the books that i love best, have always loved best, are books for children, children’s books. books meant to be read curled up in a lap. curled up in a corner. curled up in a chair with a lap like a mama.

i have loved children’s books, collected children’s books, since long before i had children. and will keep doing so, i am certain, long after those children no longer fit in my lap.

i don’t even have to close my eyes to see the thumbelina page in tasha tudor’s book of fairy tales, the one i have loved since i was so very little, curled in a corner, the page in my lap. on the page that i love, the little spit of a girl floats on a red tulip petal, two wisps of perhaps a cat’s whisker for her oars. she has been floating on that page, trying to get to the edge of the bowl that is wrapped in a bank of bleeding heart, and lily-of-the-valley and sweet yellow pansies for 46 years, since 1961, when tasha published the book, and probably near the time that my mama gave it to me.

it might have been thumbelina who made me love books. or maybe my mama.

because today is a day at school in which all children are reading, or being read to, in hopes that illiteracy can be wiped out in schools not far away, i pulled two of my favorites off of the shelf.

they would be, for now, the beginning and end of my favorites, for one, “what you know first,” by patricia maclachlan, engravings by barry moser, has been my favorite since i stumbled upon it years and years ago in the stacks of a dusty old book store, a used-book store with the marvelous name aspidistra, squeezed in next to a hamburger joint at the not-so-quaint corner of clark and wrightwood in chicago.

the other book, “ox-cart man,” by donald hall, illustrations by barbara cooney, i call the caboose of my favorites only because it’s the last one in the door. it should have been a favorite for a long, long time. but i only just came upon it, waiting for me on a table at just about the coziest, most thoughtfully considered place to find children’s books in all chicago these days–the sweden shop, on foster near kimball, where my dear friend sandra has resettled after closing her own much-loved and missed shop, sweetpea, where some of the best books on my shelves were ever-so-reverently slipped in my most hungry hands.

“what you know first,” is pure heart-breaking poetry. a child is leaving the prairie; the family farm, sold, or, probably, lost. you hear the child’s voice, ache for the child, as he or she, i can never tell which, leaves behind an ocean of grass, endless sky, a cottonwood tree, even uncle bly who sings cowboy songs, eats pie for breakfast. i’ve always heard echoes of “the grapes of wrath” in these few pages, a grownup novel of loss and leaving behind boiled down to its rich, pure essence, in words a young heart can’t help but feel. the black-and-white engravings, i could study forever. could frame and hang on my wall.

“ox-cart man,” a poem that originally appeared in the new yorker, of all places, on oct. 3, 1977, quietly unspools a powerful tale of a man, his wife, his son and his daughter who work all year to gather, to grow and to make goods that he then sells at the market, drawn there by the ox and the cart. it is a book that pounds home the lesson of true economy, you use what you have, you sell what you’ve got, you buy what you need, you start over again. in a disposable world, these pages can’t be fingered often enough.

the u.s. poet laureate billy collins wrote of hall: “[he] has long been placed in the frostian tradition of the plainspoken rural poet.” barbara cooney, one of my truest heroes (she wrote and illustrated “miss rumphius,” which teaches us, “you must do something to make the world more beautiful”), won the caldecott medal for her ox-cart illustrations that remind us of early american paintings, new england quaint.

the power of both books is that they are quiet, so quiet. plainspoken poetry. they are books you can’t close when you get to the last page. you just sit there, holding. holding your breath. holding your heart.

holding on to the power of a poem, poured out on the page, a page best turned oh so slowly.

please forgive me if i rambled. bless you if you got to this bottom. please take a turn. tell us your best children’s book. go ahead, gush.