As a young mother, I would sometimes read a little book to my children about a boy and a girl who planted a packet of seeds in some carefully prepared soil. They watered the ground and removed weeds and let the sun shine on the earth. The seeds sprouted and grew and bloomed into beautiful flowers. Eventually the plants produced seeds of their own that the children collected and saved to plant the next year. The book ended with the suggestion that if the reader wanted to know what happened the next year, just read the book again, substituting the seeds the children had collected for the packet they used the first year. The book said that the boy and the girl would have grown older and would eventually grow up. And, said the last sentence in the book, eventually so will you. Continue Reading →
One day when I was nine or ten years old I was walking to school on a frosty morning. The water in the gutter had frozen into bright silver glass, etched with swirls and crystals. It was so satisfying to step onto those fragile surfaces and feel them crack and hear the delicate chime and tinkle as the ice splintered into glittering shards. Children should be allowed, even encouraged, to walk in the gutter on the way to school. Every step can be an adventure!
This particular morning I was crunching through that delicate lacework when I noticed a white paper, folded into the shape of a note, that had frozen into the ice. I have always, I think, been a treasure hunter, so when I saw the paper I reached down and lifted up the long thin pane of ice it was trapped inside. I dashed the whole thing to the ground and the splinter shivered into a thousand tiny shards, freeing the note. I shook the remaining ice off, grateful that it was still cold enough for the paper to be intact, not turned to mush in cold water. I stuffed the paper into my coat pocket and walked on to school.
On the warmer afternoon walk home, I put my hand in my pocket and found the paper. I took it out and looked at it. It was a note, folded into the kind of origami envelope we all made to pass notes back and forth during class. Do kids still do that now? I hope so! Anyway, my steps slowed and I finally stopped in the middle of the sidewalk as I read the note inside. Continue Reading →
Happy Valentine’s Day! For some time now an idea or theory has been ripening in my mind. It has to do, of course, with children’s literature because as a children’s librarian I spend the greater part of my days surrounded by books and stories and children. One of the great joys of my life is connecting those children with the books I love and I know they will also learn to cherish. I was thinking about the books, new and old, that make an impression on children and add richness to their lives. These are the books that never grow old, the books that continue to be checked out and read and loved year after year after year. They are also the new books that somehow spring to the head of the line and become immediate classics, even if they aren’t about superheroes or demigods or vampires. Sometimes those highly popular books make it onto the “Instant Classics” list, and sometimes they don’t. But what common characteristic do all these books—well-loved and new friends—share? This is where my theory comes in. I think at the very foundation, these books are all about love.
March, March, March, March! The repetition of this word, this action, this month, makes me think of one of my favorite Marches: Jo March. In 1868, shortly after the Civil War was over, Louisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson, was talking with a man who was a publisher of children’s stories. This man told Bronson that they were looking for a story for girls. Bronson told his daughter and asked her to write such a story. Louisa, who had been writing and writing for many years, didn’t think she could do it. She liked best to write “blood and thunder” stories full of drama and disaster and deeds of derring-do. But Bronson encouraged her and Louisa decided to challenge herself and write what she could. She wrote in her diary that she didn’t know how it would turn out. She didn’t really like little girls, and she didn’t even know any, except her sisters, but she figured she would just write about her life and the things she knew best, even though that regular life seemed very boring. What flowed from her pen eventually became Little Women, one of the most beloved stories of all time. “What a good joke on me,” Louisa wrote later. Continue Reading →
The Fluent Imagination
A couple of years ago I decided to learn another language. At first I just dabbled in it and learned a few words and phrases. Then as I learned a little more, I started to become, in stages, hungry, frustrated, intrigued, enchanted, and increasingly confident. Now, two and a half years after beginning, I find myself fluctuating between being hungry to learn more and happily becoming more and more confident. But I know I still have a very long way to go before I actually become fluent. I was thinking about this process of learning a language in relation to the way children develop their imagination. In this case, it is a lot more than just acquiring a good grasp of language. It involves figuring out how to think and make connections between the life within and the life outside of oneself. I believe that just as learning a new language is a long and hard and often rewarding and sometimes frustrating process, so too is learning to cultivate one’s imagination or to stimulate the imagination of a child.
Imagination is much more than just learning to use and apply language, and it is also not limited to fictional, “imaginary” things. The way I see it, developing an imagination depends on being exposed to many opportunities to think creatively. For example, in Beverly Cleary’s book Ramona the Brave, Ramona had to throw one of her shoes at a dog in order to get past him on the way to school. Of course her teacher was concerned when Ramona arrived with only one shoe, so she gave Ramona an old brown boot to wear to protect her foot. But, “Ramona did not want to wear an old brown boot, and she made up her mind she was not going to wear an old brown boot!” Now was the time for Ramona to think creatively and use her imagination. I think I know how she felt because I know the feeling of trying to solve a problem with the resources and raw materials at hand. I can almost feel Ramona’s brain cogs turning as she ponders the situation. “If only she had some heavy paper and a stapler, she could make a slipper, one that might even be strong enough to last until she reached home. She paid attention to number combinations in one part of her mind, while in that private place in the back of her mind she thought about a paper slipper and how she could make one if she only had a stapler.”
A Golden Thread of Hope
We are living in difficult times. I’m not going to rehash all the dangers and terrors and controversies that abound right now because these things are all too visible in the news and on the internet. Everywhere there are troubles. But life has always been this way. There may be an abundance of hard and terrible things around right now, but there have always been difficulties. The other day I was driving home after taking my cousin’s son up to his university dormitory in another town. It was a rather long drive and I really enjoy listening to an audio book during a drive. It helps the miles fly by. So I inserted a cd into the slot and heard the familiar opening words of A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, . . . in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” Dickens was writing in 1859 about the events of 1776 and afterwards. Now here we are in 2016, and even though Dickens’ words about the French Revolution and the time preceding it are more than 150 years old, still it is true that the period he described was no more filled with difficulties and hardships than our own times, 240 years later. We just can’t get away from the hard things of life. Continue Reading →
One of my sons has unbounded optimism. He is a joy to be around, and he has a kind of sensitivity to others that alerts him when someone around him is struggling, even silently, with something. A month or so ago he made me a little display to hang in my bedroom that has a strip of tear-off tags with a smile on each tag. On the larger part of the paper, the part unruffled by the little strips, he wrote “Take a Smile. :)” Continue Reading →
While I was growing up, Christmas in our house meant, in part, listening to the next installment of A Christmas Carol every Sunday night. I tried to carry on that tradition in my own family of boys, but there are so many, many Christmas books that it has been hard for me to stay only with Dickens. Here are some of the Christmas books we’ve enjoyed over the years, as well as some new ones that I hope to read to grandchildren when they come along in a decade or two. Continue Reading →
Once I wandered into a stone courtyard where a beautiful and abstract marble sculpture turned on a pedestal. Two white benches formed a right angle facing the piece, and a columned loggia on the far side showed a lawn bordered by tall cypress trees in the distance. I stood and watched the sculpture for a few minutes, feeling somewhat disturbed by the speed of the turning base. It wasn’t going fast enough to make me dizzy, but it was moving too rapidly for me to really grasp the shape of the work in my mind. One rounded knob on top seemed to evolve from the graceful loop at the top of a treble clef into a whorled groove like the soft curve of a conch shell. Then, before I could put the whole shape together in my mind a jutting, angular facet spun into view and the previous smoothness I thought I saw was lost. It was very disconcerting. Continue Reading →
I have no idea how many books I have in my house. There must be thousands, and they’re crammed everywhere: in the bookshelves of course, sometimes two deep, stacked in the bedrooms by beds and tables, on the top of the tank in the bathroom, and of course down the basement. I’ve read most of them, and many of them several times. Books are, of course, necessary to my happiness. Stories can entertain, explain life, take a person away from harsh reality for awhile, reinforce truths, and do so many other things. For me, life without books is hard to imagine, and such a life would be the stuff of nightmares. I remember once going on a trip and staying a couple of days with a friend of the family. Emma was a very sweet lady, but when she went to work and I was left at her house to entertain myself, I was shocked and worried and bored because there were absolutely no books in the house, not one! Those were very difficult days for me. Television just doesn’t satisfy like a book. Continue Reading →