Tag Archives: Frances O’Roark Dowell

At least a poem or a paragraph.

I read on dictionary.com that this is National Read a Book Day. Do they want us to read an entire book? I might be able to do that if it’s one I picked up at the library yesterday, Phineas L. MacGuire Gets Cooking, by Frances O’Roark Dowell. I think I need to read at least a book per year by this author, to keep me grounded in the reality of middle schoolers. I’ve been slipping, though, probably because there is a gap right now in the ages of my seventeen grandchildren. The youngest of the older bunch is sixteen, and the oldest of the younger bunch is ten. The ten-year-old does love science and cooking, and would probably enjoy Phineas, and it’s always fun for me to read a title or two from the latest book loves of the children.

In the past I have read books in Erin Hunter’s Warriors cat series with Pat, and shared the fun of the Magic Treehouse books with his younger brother. Some of you might remember when I listened to Dowell’s book Anybody Shining with Maggie, not long after her grandpa’s passing. That was a first time for both of us for that story, and it was just right.

This perfect booksharing experience happened again a couple of years later when I introduced Pippin’s children to the Finn Family Moomintroll. According to the recommended age it was too advanced for them, but I went with my tendency to give the children material they might have to stretch a bit to appreciate, and to read books that I personally love. That time I don’t think they had to stretch at all to find a lot of “fruit” that was very tasty, and all the more so for being enjoyed together.

I am running on slow speed today, having stayed up way too late laughing with old friends and giving them a garden tour. We ate pizza and talked about many books, and watched videos of my late husband singing. Then we sang together ourselves, old songs from our common repertoire, drawing from the traditions of Jesus-people and the oldest American folksingers. They brought me this book of poems by Wendell Berry.

So I had already thought it might be a good day for reading. 🙂


Maggie and I share stories.

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Now that Pearl’s family has moved to California, I have nearly half of my grandchildren within an hour and a half’s drive. It was so easy to pick up Maggie on the way home from the mountains, and to bring her here to spend almost a week with me.P1010015P1010096

First, though, the evening I arrived, her mom took a few of us to the Arboretum on the University of California campus in their town of Davis, so I could check out some of the many plants with low water needs. A rustic and rusty arch of shovels signals the beginning of this part of the gardens, with wide plantings of grasses and native California plants leading on into the Australian section, which is what I was most interested in. I have noticed in books that a lot of striking and unthirsty species come from Down Under.

Maggie had her camera, tP1010093oo, and found families of ducks to take pictures of. We didn’t spend too long, but I managed to take many pictures with identifying signs next to the plants that I liked, so I didn’t have to take the time to write down names.

I’m only posting a few of those, of the nicest looking, which I wouldn’t mind having in my new garden if I can find them in nurseries.

The next morning Maggie and I drove off to my town. I had downloaded Anybody Shining by Frances O’Roark Dowell from Audible on to my tablet so we could listen on the way home, which we did for about an hour, Maggie in the back seat because she’s a lightweight. We shopped that afternoon and evening, to resupply my fridge, and we watched “Cheaper by the Dozen,” under blankets on the couch.


Shopping took a lot of our time during the next few days, because we were planning a tea party that we held last Saturday, and also were having company on Sunday. Giving the tea party was the focus of our time together; Maggie came up with several good ideas before we even got home.

We planned and shopped and cooked and in the end we served: deviled eggs and mint chocolate chip meringues made by Maggie; two kinds of P1010119 crpscones with jam and creme fraiche; chocolate pastilles; ham and Swiss quiche made on puff pastry; fresh blueberries and raspberries; chocolate orange sticks; some fancy chocolate and sprinkle-dipped Rice Krispy treats we discovered on one shopping trip; and of course the tea, black and rooibos, and hot cocoa for little girls who preferred that. They all did.

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Eight of us ladies whose ages spanned the decades down to four years old enjoyed our party very much.  My little goddaughter Mary, four months old, was also present but not enjoying the goodies. The conversation was edifying and stimulating. I sent scones home to the menfolk, and that evening Maggie and I ate leftovers. P1010142 crp

We listened to more of our book on the computer and came to the satisfying end. The next day Maggie mentioned it in her own blog post. It is about a girl about Maggie’s age, living in the mountains of North Carolina about a hundred years ago, and her desire to have a friend. The history and the culture of the mountain people are the background of the story, in the telling of which the protagonist Arie Mae expresses her good heart and charming wholesome self through letters she writes to her cousin in the city. The descriptor “shining” she applies to at least two other people in the book, but Arie Mae herself is the truly shining character.

I made Maggie pause the recording so that I could write down a wonderful word of advice from Arie Manybody shiningae – but could I find the paper I wrote on, just now? No! So I washed dishes and listened again to the last few chapters of the book till I could find the place again.

A sub-plot of the story is about the more educated people coming from the city to write down the songs and stories of the mountain folk, to start schools, to help them in various ways. One conflict concerns the dynamic of the outsiders coming in with their ideas and advice for the people who get the feeling they are not appreciated for who they really are.

The way Dowell ties this aspect of the story in with Arie Mae’s growing friendships is delightful. She writes to her cousin, “It takes time to get to know people. You got to listen to their stories, and you got to tell your stories back. It all goes back and forth, back and forth, until one day you turn into friends. Until that time, I expect it’s best to keep your opinions to yourself.”

My Maggie and I enjoyed more stories together during her visit, in the form of two more movies: First “Hook,” which we watched here at home. I find that story delightful, but I think Maggie at her age couldn’t enjoy the Robin Williams character as well as I. And maybe the lost boys were too familiar in their exaggerated annoying boyishness to a girl with three older brothers. Then we saw “Inside Out” at the theater. How wonderful to go out to a movie, just us girls. We even shared a bag of popcorn. I am liking this new phase of grandmotherhood!

Soon after the opening credits we were amazed to find out how perfect “Inside Out” was for us right now. The main character Riley has a few big things in common with my granddaughter: They are both twelve, and each has just moved with her family across the country to California. So many good ideas, so much wisdom is in this movie, I think I need to see it a few more times to be able to think about it more. Movies always go too fast for me, and there is a lot of fast action in this one, too, so that I found myself several times musing over the possible symbolic significance of an event – musing for a few seconds – and then another metaphor would interrupt me to suggest itself in the next scene.inside-out-

Riley seems to be at the mercy of her emotions in this story; you might even say that the emotions are the real main characters, as they try to manage her life to make it good. What seems obvious to the ringleader Joy is that Riley needs to be happy, so Joy is always working very hard to program the right thoughts and memories into Riley’s mind to make her happy. The other emotions eventually find out that they have a role to play as well.

Both Maggie and I were uncomfortable with the implication that Riley’s decisions were based solely on her emotions, but there is a lot of truth to the way the thousands of memories in her bank could be used to cultivate various emotions. I loved the image at the end of the movie, after Riley has connected painfully well with her anger and sadness, and the islands of Family and Honesty have seemingly sunk into the sea — she ends up in the arms of her parents, being comforted. She has grown up a lot in the recent weeks and months and is stroncross Maggie July 2015ger than before, and I’m sure her parents are wiser, too.

My granddaughter who was sitting next to me in the theater had decided a few months ago that she wanted to be baptized in her church before moving away. Back then I couldn’t get it together to celebrate such a happy event with her across the miles, so this week we went shopping for the present I wanted to give her, and found this lovely cross that we both liked. It is a symbol of Something  deeper than a memory or an emotion, the great Story of God’s love and our salvation. I’m so thankful He is with us and for us as we go through all the trials that accompany every stage of life. He is the only one who really knows us inside-out.

Cats, Chickens, and Tree Houses

It all started when one of my grandsons was beginning to read “chapter books,” a category of literature I hadn’t known by that name before then. He didn’t start with The Boxcar Children as my children did; what got him excited was a series about talking cats. I wanted to be able to chat with him about his reading so I got my hands on a copy of Warriors, a series by Erin Hunter. I did get pulled in to the politics and magic of wild cat clans made up of individuals with names like Ravenpaw and Bluestar, clans that fight territorial wars and look down on “kittypets,” their derogatory name for tame kitties. Hunter has written 19 books in this series so far, but perhaps Grandson B. grew out of them; he hasn’t gotten around to reading the last story.

Another grandson, in 2nd grade, recommended the Magic Tree House Mysteries by Mary Pope Osborne. 28 have been published at this writing, and he’s keeping up. I let him read several chapters out loud to me a year ago, and then I came home and read one of the series myself. Through time and earth travel that happens when they are in their tree house, the two children enter into historical events great and small all over the globe, in many different eras and cultures. The format is a vehicle for learning lots of social studies and even science trivia.

My most recent exploration of children’s literature came as a result of blogger contacts, where I heard about the books by Frances O’Roark Dowell. The two I’ve seen so far use a conversational first-person style that reminds me of The Sugar Creek Gang books of yore. In Chicken Boy the main character is a 7th-grader from a decidedly dysfunctional family; he spends the latter part of the book in a foster home, even though the reader has become sympathetic to the good hearts and potential of the family members who are neglecting Chicken Boy.

I liked the grandmother, and Boy’s school friend who gets him involved in a science project to prove that chickens have souls. A bit of philosophy hooks me in, especially when added to the fact that Boy gets several chickens to raise at Grandma’s. Grandma and Friend have a discussion on this question of souls, and Grandma concludes, “I’d believe a tree had a soul before I believed a chicken had one.”

Overall Chicken Boy is full of hope. Our 7th-grader gets over some of the major obstacles of entering junior high without a supporting family, by having kind friends and teachers and extended family. Even before Social Services enters the picture, you get the feeling he might make use of limited resources and succeed in life. Instead, the foster family provides a refreshing and not unrealistic option in his case, and it is hopeful as well. At the end of the book we don’t know if and when the original family will come together again.

Why do some children read Warriors and some books about foster children? It is heartening to think that borderline neglected children are finding Chicken Boy in the school library and taking it home to read. It could give them ideas for making the most of adversity, and ease some anxiety about the future. If just one child is uplifted by this book, the author will have accomplished a great blessing.