Tag Archives: children’s books

Attention to gnats and devils.

pig IMG_5528One of the books that Richard Wilbur wrote for children is Pig in the Spigot, which any lover of words should enjoy, whether you are a child or not. I can see reading it with a child who is well on the way to reading, but when I was homeschooling I often would introduce material “too early,” and that can work, too. If used with a notepad and pencil, I bet I could make this book serve as reading/phonics lessons for at least a week.

One of my favorite elementary school assignments was when the teacher would write a word on the blackboard, and tell us students to make as many more words as we could, using those letters. I always won this contest! Wilbur’s exercise is more stringent, but that only gives him the chance to shows his poet’s skill in imagining the logical ramifications should the words within words become literal.

The illustrator must have had fun coming up with the sometimes-wacky pictures to go with the stories that one can create with this kind of activity. Here are a few of the examples of fun verses that often carry some even deeper implications.

The Devil is at home, as you can see,
In Mandeville, Louisiana, but he
Is often on the road, and in the line
Of work he visits both your town and mine.

Some tiny insects make a seething sound,
And swarm and jitter furiously around,
Which seems to me sufficient explanation
Of why there is a gnat in indignation.

pig IMG_5523

Moms weep when children don’t do as they say.
That’s why there is a sob in disobey.

I just noticed that the mother in this last picture is wearing a cross. There are many other interesting details to be explored in the images, but it’s the language of words that I get excited about. Anything that helps children slow down and pay attention to the details of letters and sounds will help them to be good readers and writers — and spellers!

But I don’t want to sound too pragmatic, even if the level of literacy in the country is dismal. John Holt said that it is not good methods but good books that make good readers, and here is an example of what he was talking about. What makes me happy is the knowledge that good readers will read more because they enjoy it, and if they keep reading good books their inner worlds will grow ever larger. They are more likely to become good writers and thinkers, and maybe they will write some more good books for children that are fun for me to read.

Two books of summer.

Tove Jansson is an author I only recently became acquainted with on Anna’s Peacocks and Sunflowers blog. The way Anna wrote about Jansson’s books makes you want to go to a Finnish island with a few volumes of this writer’s work in your suitcase. In the summer, naturally. It’s going to take me a long time to tell all I want about two little books, so if you are jealous of your last hours and days of summer, don’t waste them here. Come back later, in the winter perhaps, and go play outdoors now!

As soon as I learned about Tove Jansson I visited my local library and came home with a couple of books, to look at briefly to see if I wanted to order them. When I try to read borrowed books I feel the time pressure so heavily it too often squelches my interest and I end up returning the books unread. moominmamma

But in the first pages of Finn Family Moomintroll (c. 1954, 55) I met a character to whom in my ideal self I could instantly relate: Moominmamma, “The center of the family, highly moral but broad-minded.” This is her picture at left, with the distinctive Moomin physique.

She soon demonstrates what is meant by her character description, in the preface when the whole lot of these creatures are bedding down for winter, at the first snowfall. “All Moomintrolls go to sleep about November. This is a good idea, too, if you don’t like the cold and the long winter darkness.”

Moominmamma makes the bed assignments, to her own children and to all the friends their family has hospitably collected. Son Moomintroll objects, “But Sniff snores so horribly; couldn’t I sleep with Snufkin [his best friend] instead?”

“As you like, dear,” said Moominmamma. She changes Sniff’s assignment. Now isn’t that gracious of her? In my early years of parenting, I remember people telling us, Don’t be quick to say “No” to your children. In other words, be liberal. Is that the same as “broad-minded”?

I suppose it’s not surprising that Moominmamma was my favorite character in this children’s book. Many other creatures, after they wake up in Spring, in Chapter 1, populate the pages and have adventures together all over the forest and in the water, the kids sleeping in a cave and everyone sailing to an island for a camping trip that is made more exciting by wild weather.

A magic hat causes things to randomly change identity or grow to horror-movie proportions, as when the mamma wakes to find that tendrils and shoots of a “poisonous pink perennial” have invaded her house and “In the damp air flowers came out and fruit began to ripen, and huge leafy shoots blotted out the stairs, pushed their way between the legs of the furniture, and hung in festoons from the chandelier.”

This is the kind of plot element that gets my attention, mixing up horticulture and housekeeping. When Moominmamma first sees the room “full of small, white flowers, hanging down from the ceiling in leafy garlands…’Oh, how beautiful,’ she said.”

The story is full of goodwill and good sports, and the characters show great patience and kindness in problem-solving and relational issues. I would be happy to read this to my grandchildren, and I wouldn’t mind exploring some of the other Moomintroll books.

So far, though, I’ve only read one other book by Jansson, and that was The Summer Book, which is a short one for adults, as I assume, as one of the two main characters is the grandmother who is not your typical storybook grandma, nor one that my grandchildren could appreciate. She serves very well as the needed grandmother in this story, however.

We get introduced to Grandmother and Sophia quickly; on the first page Grandmother has lost her false teeth in the grass and when Sophia finds them she won’t give them back until Grandmother promises to let her watch her put them in her mouth. Then Grandmother refuses to continue a discussion about when she is going to die, and starts walking toward the ravine.

“We’re not allowed out there!” Sophia screamed.summer book image

“I know,” the old woman answered disdainfully. “Your father won’t let either one of us go out to the ravine, but we’re going anyway, because your father is asleep and he won’t know.”

When they walk out on a promontory Sophia is surprised when her grandmother doesn’t oppose the idea of swimming, and she gets in up to her waist. “‘Swim,’ her grandmother said. ‘You can swim.'” When Sophia notices how deep the water is, she thinks, “She forgets I’ve never swum in deep water unless somebody was with me.”

Sophia, the book cover says, is six years old, but I didn’t read that until after I’d completed the book. All through the book I was trying to figure out how old the granddaughter is; much of the time she seems younger than six, and sometimes not younger than ten. We learn that Sophia’s mother has recently died, and she and Grandmother and her father — mostly absent in the story — are on an island off the coast of Finland in their summer house.

So her anger and confusion are understandable. Spending a summer with a no-nonsense grandmother who’s trying to deal with her own issues at the other end of a lifespan seems not to be a bad thing. Grandmother is usually willing to answer the girl’s questions about God or anything else, to put up with Sophia’s screaming and disrespect, and to be her companion all over the island.

It’s hard to say just what is bothering Grandmother. Probably lots of things. She will not get old without a fight. Once Sophia says, Don’t go to sleep; you have to tell me about being a Scout. “A very long time ago, Grandmother had wanted to tell about all the things they did, but no one had bothered to ask. And now she had lost the urge. ‘We had campfires,” she answered briefly, and suddenly she felt sad.'”

finland wikipedia

Grandmother does tend to take naps if she and Sophia are waiting on the beach for Sophia’s father to come back from setting fishing nets or something like that. When they visit another island Sophia asks, “When are we going to walk around the island? Do we get to eat and go swimming, or don’t you ever do anything but sleep?”

Soon both adults are asleep outdoors in the warm and heavy air, and Sophia has to walk by herself around the shoreline. When she returns, “‘Dear God, let something happen,’ Sophia prayed. “God, if you love me. I’m bored to death. Amen.’

“Perhaps the change began when the swallows went silent. The shimmering sky was suddenly empty, and there were no more birds. Sophia waited. The answer to her prayers was in the air. She looked out to sea and saw the horizon turn black. The blackness spread, and the water shivered in dread and expectation. It came closer. The wind reached the island in a high, sighing whisper and swept on by. It was quiet again. Sophia stood waiting on the shore, where the grass lay stretched on the ground like a light-colored pelt. And now a new darkness came sweeping over the water — the great storm itself! She ran toward it and was embraced by the wind. She was cold and fiery at the same time, and she shouted loudly, ‘It’s the wind! It’s the wind!’ God had sent her a storm of her own. In His immense benevolence, He thrust huge masses of water in toward land, and they rose above the rocky shore and the grass and the moss and roared in among the junipers, and Sophia’s hard summer feet thumped across the ground as she ran back and forth praising God! The world was quick and sharp again. Finally, something was happening.”

There is a lot of weather and botany and wildlife in this book, with which the characters interact and which forms the backdrop of their quiet drama. After that storm, Sophia said, “I always feel like such a nice girl whenever there’s a storm.” Which makes her grandmother muse to herself, “I’m certainly not nice. The best you could say of me is that I’m interested.”

The grandmother in me, the camper, and the horticulturalist in me found plenty of interest in this book. I share just one more favorite passage:

“A small island…takes care of itself. It drinks melting snow and spring rain and, finally, dew, and if there is a drought, the island waits for the next summer and grows its flowers then instead. The flowers are used to it, and wait quietly in their roots. There’s no need to feel sorry for the flowers, Grandmother said.”

Nor for the humans. Patience. Bravery. Family. These will help us to persevere through our own storms and to remain fully alive.

Trains and Stations

Lying in bed at night as a child, I used to hear trains pass less than a mile away, as the whistle blew at the intersection where I also would catch the school bus in the mornings. We were out in the middle of citrus orchards, on a dead-end road, so there was little else to hear at night. The coyote howling was a different tone from the locomotive’s warning. Now that my daughter lives where trains toot-toot as they go by many times throughout the day and night, I find that the sound still strikes a chord of comfort and regularity.

While we are busy about our work and play and sleep, thousands of people are being diligent to do their jobs driving the trains, loading them, keeping the schedules updated, whatever all is necessary. I know so little about it, it’s like magic.

Books I enjoyed with my children fed this romantic feeling I have: The Little Red Caboose, The Boxcar Children, The Railway Children, even The Narnia Chronicles with its train trips here and there during holiday. Children and trains.

When I was still a young child I was allowed to ride the Santa Fe with just my two sisters, four hours to my grandmother’s house, which no doubt also makes me love trains, and the train stations just as much. Excitement and heightened emotion pervade these meeting places of people who might be returning from exotic and faraway lands, or perhaps are just now being reconciled face-to-face with kinfolk after years of estrangement….One never knows all the stories, one hardly knows all that churns in one’s own heart at meeting one’s own people.

When I rode the train, it was to visit my most dearly beloved maternal grandparents. I can see in my mind’s eye, just as I saw them from the train window before they could see me, Grandma and Grandpa, standing in the crowd waiting for us. We climbed down the steps and went to them, and got a kiss, and Grandma’s warm hands in ours (those were the days before hugging was expected), and her remarking how cold my own hands were.

There is mention of British trains and stations, even Victoria Station, on this blog recently. I’ve been on some British trains, and the last time I was on that island, my hotel was quite near Victoria Station, which was awfully modernized from the first time, and certainly a different world from what lives in my memory and heart’s imagination. When you can’t even throw your own trash away, but must hand it to someone walking around in a sort of spacesuit, it feels like a new age, and not of flower children.

One recent sight jived with the old world, though. Driving through the mountains of forests last week, I looked down the wooded slope at a railroad track snaking along a river, and thought I caught a glimpse of the little red caboose.

Psalter and Soup

This Advent season I’m participating with other women, organized by Sylvia, in reading the Psalter every day for the 40 days. Our Psalter is divided into 20 groupings each of which is called a kathisma, and every woman will read one per day.

There are more than 40 of us participating so that the whole book of Psalms will be read twice a day. Everyone who perseveres will end up having read the Psalter through twice before Christmas, as well! What a joy it has already been.

I’m also trying to read The Winter Pascha by Fr Thomas Hopko, which has 40 readings about this period in the church year that has similarities to Lent and Pascha. I read two days’ entries and now can’t find the book, so we’ll see how that goes….

We just got a good rain and everything is washed clean, the sky is blue, and the snowball bush is showing its glory.

It’s the season for soup! It’s easy to make a lenten meal in the soup kettle, and today I am putting in three kinds of beans and some winter vegetables.

I don’t often buy parsnips or turnips. When I used to read Down, Down the Mountain by Ellis Credle to my children, the vegetables the characters are so fond of must have seemed as exotic as boys and girls riding barefoot for lack of shoes to wear.

In the story, the mountain children carry a bagful of turnips down to the town, turnips they themselves planted and tended lovingly, in hopes of selling them for enough money to buy shoes. But everyone they meet along the way is hungering and thirsting for just such a delicacy, and when they arrive in town they discover that only one turnip is left in the bag.
 I’m afraid that after my first 15 years of family cooking, with its centerpieces of lentil soup and bread, I might have inadvertently started cultivating a taste in my family for fancier food. Fast periods are a good opportunity to repent and reform.
 But this plain food tastes pretty fancy after all.