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June 2007
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August 2007

Redneck Mother's Tribute to Lady Bird

When I read the following piece at the blog Redneck Mother recently, I liked it so much that I immediately asked if I could re-run it here. I am so happy the author said yes. (By the way, there's a wonderful children's book on Lady Bird, Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America, written by Kathi Appelt and illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein.)

Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson
by Casey Kelly Barton

One of my favorite Texas women has died. Lady Bird Johnson was 94 years old. She was a steadfast political wife and a savvy media investor, but her greatest impact was as a champion of America's native flowers and natural beauty. She encouraged us to love our landscapes.

Winecup (Callirhoe involucrata), Inks Lake State Park

I didn't know the names of wildflowers when I was little. My mother is from Missouri, and my Texan father isn't into plants. There was one flower in particular that I loved, a small intensely purple blossom that popped up among the bluebonnets and yellow flowers each spring. On walks at the nature preserve, I would stare into the petals until my mother insisted it was time to move. I'd sometimes pick one only to watch it wilt before we got home. I never saw them in nurseries or yards. As I got older I paid less attention to wildflowers and more to school and friends and deciding what I wanted to "be."

Continue reading "Redneck Mother's Tribute to Lady Bird" »


Mind Your Grammar, Missy

There are reviews of children's books in today's New York Times Book Review. My favorite passage in the section comes from Ann Hodgman's swell piece on the grammar books The Girl's Like Spaghetti, by Lynne Truss, and Woe Is I Jr., by Patricia T. O'Conner.

Here’s a problem neither Truss nor O’Conner addresses: People who care about punctuation and good grammar don’t misuse them. People who don’t care won’t care. Children who like to read will pick up good grammar automatically. Children who don’t like to read are not going to pick up books about grammar unless someone forces them. And if you want to force a child to read a grammar book ... well, I don’t know what to tell you.

Like the Maira Kalman-illustrated version of the classic Elements of Style, both of these books have pictures.


Poetry by the Sea on Sunday

Oops. When I was rounding up the Poetry Friday entries, I forgot to put in one of my own. However, I spotted what sound like grand summer poems elsewhere, at Wild Rose Reader. Elaine M. writes about several books about oceans and sea life: Hotel Deep: Light Verse from Dark Water, a collection of "twenty-one poems about creatures that dwell in the ocean--from moon snails, barnacles, and crayfish to marlins, manatees, and spiny lobsters."

Another Wild Rose Reader post looks at nonfiction titles about tidepools.


Lucky Poetry Friday the 13th: The Roundup

It's a lucky Friday because there's poetry in the air. Greetings, everyone. Leave your links in the comments below, and I will round up at various points during the day! (Because of spam problems, I have to approve the comments before they're published. So, don't worry if you don't see yours crop up right away. It's comin'.)

First up is Little Willow, with "King of Griefs" from Sara Lewis Holmes' novel, The Rapunzel Letters. (It's high time I read that one!)

By the way, Sara L.H. joined the blogosphere recently. Stop by and say howdy. Chiming in on Poetry Friday, she shares a poem by Beverly McLoughland, a friend who "doesn't have a blog, a web site or a wikipedia entry. She prefers to focus on her writing, the very act of writing, and not at all on the publicity surrounding it." Welcome, Sara!

Summer weather inspired Kelly Fineman's original haiku. Check it out, and hum Martha Reeves & the Vandellas' "Heat Wave" as you head over.

A Wrung Sponge considers Rilke's Book of Hours, after hearing about it in a sermon.

Elaine M. goes poetic at two blogs. She reports, "At Wild Rose Reader I have two poems entitled "Bed in Summer." One was written by Robert Louis Stevenson--the other by me...many years ago. At Blue Rose Girls I'm going with nostalgia and a poem by Geraldine Connolly entitled "The Summer I Was Sixteen."

You'll find a bouquet of flower poems at The Miss Rumphius Effect: daisies, sunflowers, bluebells.

Scholar's Blog celebrates the birthday of John Clare and tells us a bit about his life. "Clare ...may be the poorest person to ever become a major writer in English literature."

Here's a book we all need: Sylvia Vardell's Poetry People: A Practical Guide to Children's Poets. Sylvia says, "This new book provides a comprehensive introduction to more than 60 contemporary poets writing for young people, from Arnold Adoff to Douglas Florian to J. Patrick Lewis to Naomi Shihab Nye to Gary Soto to Janet Wong, and many more."

Over at Becky's Book Reviews, you'll find a tribute to a mentor in the form of a poem by Judith Viorst.

Saints and Spinners has something cool: Carl Sandburg's "Arithmetic" and a link to a film of the same.

7 Imp's Eisha offers a haiku by Basho as she gets ready to leave Cambridge. (Eisha, don't forget Cavafy: "As you set out for Ithaka / hope your road is a long one, / full of adventure, full of discovery...")

Author Sam Riddleburger joins the fray with "kid poetry that won [the] Instant Poetry Contest at yesterday's school appearance." Sam says it's revolting (and he's right), but it's really funny.

Charlotte's Library looks at the anthology Talking Like Rain (great baby shower gift, by the way), which includes Joan Aiken's "John's Song."

Light verse and a very sad sonnet pop up in the fields at Farm School.

Karen Edmisten posts some advice on learning to read, by way of Jane Yolen's poem "Read to Me."

You're going to love the summer poem at The Simple and the Ordinary. Three children wrote it!

The Book Mine Set puts a tanka challenge on the table. Head that away to see the details.

Is this list intriguing or what? Journey Woman says, "I'm in with Maxine Kumin, lost horses, woodchuck murders, and a little bit about Cowboy Poetry."

Knights, dragons, and A.A. Milne turn up at Pixiepalace today. Oh, and Legos, too.

Sarah (Miss Spitfire) Miller offers a poem from the Persian Middle Ages: Hafiz's "Startled by God."

W.H. Davies' "The Boy" is the poem of the day at Colleen Ryckert Cook's place.

"The Test Scores Are In," written by A Year of Reading's own Mary Lee, is a cause for celebration.

"Tell me not in mournful numbers, / Life is but an empty dream! / For the soul is dead that slumbers, / And things are not what they seem." That's from Longfellow's "A Psalm of Life," and you can read the whole poem at Hiraeth.

Another Milne fan happens along the Poetry Friday path. For Adventures in Daily Living, it's the perfect day for "Pinkle Purr."

Reminding us that July 16th is Tell an Author You Care Day, MotherReader reviews Alison McGhee's Someday.

Direct from Oz,  Schelle sends some Aboriginal poetry. Awesome.

As someone who has tried to read Pablo Neruda in Spanish, I'm especially interested in World of Words' entry. She mentions a picture-book biography of the Chilean poet.

The Excelsior File remembers his radio days and broadcasts Big Poppa E's  "The Wussy Boy Manifesto."  "bar fight? pshaw! / you think you can take me, huh? / just because i like poetry / better than sports illustrated?"

A history of Britain, rendered in iambic tetrameter, is well worth reading, says The Old Coot.

A big welcome goes to Ipsa Dixit, "a tasteful stream of consciousness about opera, home education, knitting, environmental paranoia, parenting, and vegetarian cookery... not necessarily in that order," who offers some Mary Oliver.

A most helpful guide to first graders' favorite books of poetry can be found at Creative Literacy. (Yay! I'm saving this one to use at the school where I volunteer.)

Finding Wonderland has a poem by W.S. Merwin about absence.


Tadpole Update

Junior lost the tadpoles that were living in the garage. A raccoon ate them. Left the bucket behind, though. Because it had gotten so hot, I thought that the tadpoles needed a refreshing breath of air and moved them onto the driveway for a while. My bad.

Some neighbors very kindly let Junior catch tadpoles at their pond when he's with his dad or me, so we trooped off this morning to replenish the stock. The pond sparkled with life—or maybe it was tadpoles taking their last breaths. Thousands of little fish have hatched in the week or so since we've been there—and fish are frogs' mortal enemies as we read in Frog Heaven (reviewed here).

In the shallows under a little bridge Junior spotted a prehistoric thing that looked like a cross between a snake and a catfish. I'm pretty sure it was an American Eel. Junior tried to catch it three times, but it escaped. I don't know what I would have done if he had caught it. Let it spend the night in the bucket  then banish it forever back to the pond? If catfish skank you out, try looking at an eel. Worse, I promise.

Junior is reading a lot on his own these days, mostly Calvin & Hobbes, but he's also fond of these picture-book read-alouds: Douglas Florian's Comets, Stars, the Moon, and Mars: Space Poems and Paintings; Jeremy Tankard's Grumpy Bird, reviewed at Seven Impossible Things, and Susan Meddaugh's Hog-Eye, recommended by one of our librarian buddies. Hog-Eye is about a little pig who puts a big spell on a wolf. Goldilocks meets the Three Pigs.

So, there's nature, eel wrestling, and books here, with day camp in the afternoons. That's the news from Lake Pond Woebegon today.


Mr. Putter & Tabby Spin the Yarn

I'm a little torn about the movie version of Mr. Putter & Tabby Spin the Yarn (Harcourt, 2006). I'm tempted to cast Tim Conway and Carol Burnett for the central roles of elderly Mr. Putter and his good (and also elderly) neighbor, Mrs. Teaberry, but I worry that they wouldn't be able to play it straight. They might, you know, start laughing, because this is a funny book. But it's a funny book that doesn't let on that it's funny; ..Spin the Yarn leaves it up to the reader, who will just know. So, for that reason, I'm calling on Bob Hoskins and Dame Judi Dench, who are more than capable of reserve. Zeke, Mrs. Teaberry's sweet mess of a dog, will be played by the skateboarding bulldog on YouTube. I'm not sure yet about Tabby, Mr. Putter's lovable cat. The Morris the Cat types have too much self-confidence.  In Arthur Howard's illustrations, Tabby often looks rattled.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, you need to get a hold of the latest in Cynthia Rylant's series of easy readers. To me, the book is right up there with Mr. Putter & Tabby Feed the Fish, in which Tabby cannot contain herself over some new goldfish. She must bat at them. She must. She gets carried away batting. By my count, there are 15 books in the series so far, and a new one,  Mr. Putter & Tabby See the Stars, hits the stores in August, according to Powell's. (How come nobody throws a party for that, huh? I'd line up at midnight.)

In Mr. Putter & Tabby Spin the Yarn, Mrs. Teaberry starts a knitting club. Because he is worried that he is not a good neighbor (and always eating treats that Mrs. Teaberry makes without reciprocating), Mr. Putter announces that he will serve the knitting club tea. This is typical of Mr. Putter, whose good ideas often lead to adventure, if not chaos. There's an unexpected quality to the dialogue that I admire. (James Marshall's Fox series shares this.) Upon entering Mrs. Teaberry's house to start the tea-making, Mr. Putter encounters the following:

Everyone said a cheery hello to Mr. Putter and Tabby. "Where's Zeke?" asked Mr. Putter. "I closed him in the kitchen," said Mrs. Teaberry. "He was bothering Gertrude's hat."

On the next page, we see Arthur Howard's picture of Gertrude's monstrosity of a hat, which is ringed by plastic vegetables. Of course the sweet lunatic Zeke would want a piece of that. Tabby, meanwhile, spots numerous balls of yarn/prey, and her teeth begin to chatter with desire. (Our cat does that when he sees a squirrel.) Needless to say, "excitement" follows. My son laughed his way through the book, and so did I.

I put the Mr. Putter & Tabby series between Frog and Toad and Magic Tree House books in terms of difficulty. The challenging easy readers feature 18 point type, plenty of white space between the lines, short lines, no more than eight words a line, four short chapters, and, always, cheerful homage to friendship and love. From experience I can tell you that they make good read-alouds for younger children and that more experienced readers still enjoy returning to the books. Arthur Howard's illustrations work hand in hand with the text, letting a young reader see what Rylant means by the words "tea cozy," for example.

Easy readers don't get enough attention in the press. Sure, series like this sell themselves; many school libraries and reading resource rooms at elementary schools contain lots of Mr. Putter & Tabby books. But unless you're a teacher or librarian or read one of the trade magazines, you don't necessarily hear much about the genre other than the Dr. Seuss books and a few others. From time to time I will try to highlight some good ones. Meanwhile, I must get back to casting the movie. Good books can inspire that in a person.


Chibi: A True Story from Japan

This spring, second graders in our town studied Japan for several months, and this picture book would have been a wonderful addition to the curriculum. Fortunately the rest of us can read it on our own! Barbara Brenner and Julie Takaya tell the story of a mother duck who nested and raised her babies in an office-park pond in Tokyo. More than just an Asian version of Make Way for Ducklings, their book also shows how captivated the local office workers and then even more people were by the duck, nicknamed Oka-san, and her eleven little ones. When Oka-san decides to move her family across the Uchibori Dori, an eight-laned road, to the Emperor's Gardens, it seems like the whole town gets involved. Everyone worries especially about Chibi, the youngest and smallest of the bunch. Typhoons later imperil the ducks, but I hate to spoil endings, so I'll just stop there.

June Otani's illustrations, watercolor and pen, remind me of James Stevenson's style of drawing, mostly because they're just so darn appealing. The reader sees the little Spotbill Duck and her group, the crowds of observers, the photographers (the move to the Gardens was front-page news), and most importantly, the delight that the animals brought to the humans.  The book is generous with its space; many of the colorful pictures take up an entire page, and there's much more text than usual for a picture book. Brenner and Takaya incorporate Japanese vocabulary into the story, providing enough context to figure it out easily. Plus, they provide a glossary and pronunciation guide.

Chibi: A True Story from Japan, published by Clarion Books in 1996, is still available in paperback—or at the library, where I stumbled on it in the nonfiction 598.41's. We give it two loud quacks of approval.


What I'm Reading, July 9th

Since summer began, I've been reading more books and staying up late. Junior is showing some night-owl propensities as well. He's been listening to music and reading to his new goldfish, Spot and Golden Shark, until way past his old bedtime. 'Tis the season.

Right now I'm into a collection of short stories by Katherine Mansfield. I was inspired to pick it up by Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer. Prose's book previously led me to Turgenev's First Love, about a teenage boy's infatuation with the older (but still young) woman next door. She holds court with five or so suitors at a time, reminding me of a couple of friends from college. I devoured that one and have now moved on to Mansfield. I did not know she was funny. Dry funny, and with details so precise they're almost painful. [Update, 7/8: at least a few are quite chilling, too.] I probably read a Mansfield story or two in high school, but I doubt it would heave meant much to me back then. I just didn't have the context. But, boy, do I dislike the Vintage Classics introduction in which Jeffrey Meyers correlates each story to events in Mansfield's life. Francine Prose would not approve. I feel sure. The text is it, man. So, I'm linking to a different edition than the one I found at the library.

Another recent book was Stefan Fatsis's Word Freak, about the world of competitive Scrabble. It's a fine piece of reporting. The author himself gets caught up in Scrabble tournaments, trying to better his rankings. Inspired by the book, I keep playing NT, my husband, but can't beat him. I know what it's going to take, though: memorizing all those weird two and three letter words and such. But, in truth, NT's math sense is so much better than mine that my quest may be, well, moot. Stay tuned.

Somewhere I heard of the guide The Best Old Movies for Families, by Ty Burr, a film critic at the Boston Globe, and bought it last week. Very entertaining reading. As Farm School's Becky said of another author, he writes in a "breezy, almost blowzy" style. Armed with Burr's recommendations, I went to the library, and many of the titles I wanted were checked out. What! I'm not the only one who wants "Duck Soup," "Some Like It Hot," and "Bringing Up Baby"? Dang. I settled for "The Nutty Professor" (Jerry Lewis version) and "Gold Rush" (with Charlie Chaplin), but so far Junior won't pause long enough during  the Popular Mechanics for Kids "Super Sea Creatures" DVD for me to slip in the "new" selections.