Whatever would they do without us? (More than you might think!)

A friend recently told me that she went to a bookstore looking for something new to read to her daughter. The bookseller made some age-appropriate suggestions, like –(and I know I write this a lot—it’s an epidemic)—Rainbow Fairies. My friend was not so impressed and pushed back. How about The Boxcar Children?  She wondered out loud.

The bookseller shook her head no. “Those kids have no parents.”

Though I was the very person who made this recommendation to my friend, I tried not to take personal offense to this reaction. Why did I think this book was okay and this trustworthy bookseller did not? Was it my own nostalgia for The Boxcar Children? Definitely. But it was something else, too. Yes these kids have no parents and yes that is disturbing and complicated…to us, the parents. It isn’t all that disturbing to kids. And I think I know why.

The same way we’re okay with Sam Gribley running away from home and living in a tree, or Claudia and Jamie Kincaid running away to the Met and making a home for themselves in the musty velvet of an antique bed. Kids are not so concerned with the Amber Alert of it all. What they care about is how those kids survive, how they make it out there in the wild world all on their own. Not a grown-up in sight.

Just yesterday I tested my own child. We were in a shopping center parking lot and I said, “pretend I’m not here, how would you get to the car safely?” She got a wide, serious smile on her face, let go of my hand, looked both ways and hustled to the car –very carefully. More carefully than if I had been holding her hand tight, tugging her along while she daydreamed about the row of colorful jeans we had just left behind. She was more careful because she had to be. And I was relieved. I had not sheltered her into oblivion, she had gotten to the car.

I do this a lot. When my kids watched Home Alone, I asked them if they thought they could get to the supermarket for milk (or, let’s be honest, a big old box of Frosted Flakes) in my absence.  Both of them mapped out all of the logistics, and eventually thought that yes they could. And again, I was relieved. The beauty of a book like The Boxcar Children is the voyeurism of it. Kids get to look inside the lives of kids who—either by circumstance or daring-do—are alone and have to eat, and stay warm, and stay safe, and take care of siblings, and make money, and the list goes on and on.

These stories are spectacular for showing us how kids might go about surviving outside of the watchful eye and grasp of their parents. How they might secure a commuter rail train pass from their parents’ waste basket, how they might give up their weekly ice cream sundae bought and paid for out of their very own allowance so they might save enough to eat on the mean streets of New York City. These authors are showing us resourcefulness at play, and extraordinary resilience, and I thank them for this.

Because in an age when we are all a tight hand-hold away from our kids—or maybe a text, or a facetime call away, we kind of need someone to expose them to a world without parents so that they at least pause to wonder if they themselves would know to make an abandoned boxcar into a shelter should they come upon one.

I, for one, loved the escape of these books and wasn’t at all fearful of them. Thankfully, my daughter feels the same way, and thankfully, when she did get to the car on her own, she turned to me with pride and relief and said, “can you go back to being here now?”

Far too many to list, but here is a selected list:

For early to middle graders (K-4):

The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

Grades 3-6:

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

And for ages 8 to 80…(we all might as well get a skill set, just in case):

The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn Igguidan and Hal Igguidan

The Daring Book for Girls by Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt–Be Back in Five…

We were on the road, windows down, house locked up and alarmed behind us, as if we had hung a Gone Fishin’ sign on the door. We were giving ourselves a time-out. Time-out! For too much carpooling, too much rushing, too much yelling, too much organizing, too much working. But this was no sit-in-the-corner-time-out. Nope.

There was going to be rafting and late-night dance parties, and down-the-side-of-a-mountain hikes, and cliff-jumping and rapids-surfing, and window-shopping and steak-frites-eating. Not a corner in sight. Just wide open road and a new attitude.

It has been a few weeks since our end-of-summer Canadian road trip ended and there has been a near-immediate return to normal life, complete with the anxiety and tantrums (ours and theirs) that come along with all we’re trying to accomplish every day. And I find myself wishing for a time-out again and again. If I could just step out on the balcony of the hotel in Mont Tremblant and smell the mountain air! I could, of course, just as easily step outside into my own backyard, but I don’t. There are dishes to do, homework to push, bedtime routines, phone calls to take, and honestly, there are raccoons out there. Big ones.

But then I do escape, with my kids and their books, and there is that sigh I ‘ve been looking for all day long. Take Little Bear, serene Little Bear. Thank you Else Holmelund Minarik (and Maurice Sendak!) for this little peaceful gift you gave us.  For offering an ambience to our children and to us that we couldn’t possibly replicate. Even the cartoons of the books are comforting. (Yes, I wrote that.) Little Bear goes wandering through the woods and listens to the wind and meets a little green worm and life is quiet and good. My kids love these books and of course they do–and so many others like them.

The same way I liked My Side of the Mountain so, so much. While I was listening to Pat Benatar and the Bangles, Sam Gribley was collecting flint and a knife and heading for the Catskills,  walking away from his kid-in-the-city-life, making a home inside a tree and conquering fear and hunger with confidence and know-how and gusto.

It is so enticing, the tangibility of the natural world in books for kids, the somber wind that soothes Sophie when she gets angry, the splishing and sploshing they do in We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. It’s just exhilarating, you know? The mud up to your knees, the singular mission of it all. There is no multi-tasking. We’re just going on a bear hunt, that’s all.

In some of these books, the characters wonder, and in some of them they simply wander. Wander the outside world, live and breathe in it for a little while as a little break from the inside pressures. All those toys! The homework! The television! The little brother! The bright lights of a home buzzing with bottled-up, organically-fueled energy. Sometimes, we all give out, exploding into the outside for solace and a respite.

Dusk falling, oceans waving, trees swaying—these things rock us back into consciousness when we’ve knocked ourselves out trying too hard. Here are some books to help you and your kids wander, or wonder, or maybe just hang with a little green worm for a bit…

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury—You will be breathless at the end and it will put you all in a better mood, Promise.

When Sophie Gets Angry by Molly Bang—a book that speaks it’s own language about anger and its aftermath. Everyone should own it.

Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik, illustrated by Maurice Sendak

A Snowy Day—Just a miracle of a day when the city is blanketed in snow. A gem of a book.

A Goodnight Walk by Elisha Cooper—He has special way with squirrels on electrical wires and wheelbarrows and sunsets and the stuff of a street saying goodnight.

Henry Hikes to Fitchburg by D.B. Johnson—Because it introduces Thoreau and the spirit of exploration and resourcefulness and kids think it’s just a good story.

My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George–give this to your 9-12-year-old and watch as they step away from the i-Pad.

…and if today is heading toward a time-out for my kids (or for me), I’m thinking maybe we’ll all just go climb a tree instead. No corners. Just trees.

Reading Out Loud (and in character!)

header_lyleSometimes, the book itself becomes the tin-can stilts. There is no great message, no big barn-raising moment. Not even one. These books are funny. They are spirited. They are weird. And all of these things make them the books that are easiest to read, night after night, year after year OUT LOUD to my kids.

You know you’ve got one of these when your seven-year-old peeks around the corner while you are reading, say, Mercy Watson to your five-year-old at bedtime. Maybe she glides over to the bed and does not plop down, but sits down quietly on the floor without fanfare, and holds your five-year-old’s hand. Maybe she looks at you lovingly, never making a peep when you raise your eyebrow over the book at her. Maybe she strokes her brother’s hair.

This is not the pre-pre-(pretty please pre!)-teenager you might have met at dinner. This is not the cartwheeling, Call Me Maybe singing person you have been wishing back into babyhood all day long. This is an old-fashioned seven year old child who knows she is supposed to be in bed reading on her own, who also knows her brother cannot get riled up all over again, and who knows, really knows, a good story when she hears one. She wants in and she’s willing to tip-toe and hand-hold for access to the exclusive reading engagement taking place next door.

Ah! These are the moments we live for, when we’re tired of reading EVERYTHING out loud and want to just get into bed with our own complicated fiction, with a 500 page Franzen. But not now, now we’re all in and at the end of a long day of being a mother and a writer and a housekeeper and a referee and a chauffeur and a mother…it is somehow energizing.

Here is a list of my favorite bedtime romps. I stepped away from the computer at #4. Look for more lists as school gets going

  1. Mercy Watson to the Rescue by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen—all of the Mercy Watson books are funny and all of them have complete and authentic characters like the old ladies Eugenia and Baby Lincoln who live next door and who pepper the pages with their sibling banter and rebellion.
  2. Lyle, Lyle Crocodile by Bernard Waber—The Upper-East-living, Turkish-caviar-eating, former-traveling-and-entertaining-companion of Hector P. Valenti, star of stage and screen? It does NOT get any better than this, my friends.
  3. Skippyjon Jones by Judy Schachner—I dare you to read any Skippyjon Jones book out loud without any accent at all.  This imaginative Siamese cat and his chronic identity crisis is funny and wholly original and wholly weird and kids will listen with their brows furrowed and their mouths hanging wide open. ‘Nuff said.
  4. Charlie and Lola: Whoops! But it Wasn’t Me by Lauren Child—Putting aside that Lauren Child is a genius who writes from the inside of a child’s imagination, what I like about this particular book is the forgiveness. These are good, true siblings who test each other and who care for each other and who get each other. And it’s funny. And again, I dare you not to read it with an accent.

Happy Reading!

Here Is Charlotte’s Web

Dear Readers,
I could write about every one of E.B. White’s books and never run out of ways to read them again and again. But let’s face it. Charlotte’s Web is the ultimate tin-can-stilts book. Wilbur lifts up Fern, Charlotte lifts up Wilbur, and ultimately each and every one of us is lifted up by a community hell-bent on saving a pig’s life. Well, okay, they don’t all want to save his life just for so. After all, more than one of the farmers has come at the poor pig with an ax, so it isn’t like vegetarianism has suddenly taken them over or anything like that.

What happens is that they all start to get wrapped up in something rather uncommon—something of a miracle. Charlotte—the wonderful, industrious Charlotte is uncommon from the get-go. She takes on in friendship a suffering pig—suffering because he is desperately lonely for a friend, having no idea that he is also on the short-list for the chopping block. When he alienates all of the other farm animals with his whining and distress, it is Charlotte who comes out from the dark corner of the barn to show Wilbur the light.

It is Charlotte who finds Wilbur terrific! radiant! humble! and sets about telling the world. What happens next is something akin to a barn-raising, with each and every person and animal becoming invested in this pig the way a farming community invests in pulling hard on the lying-down side of that barn and yanking it up into a wall.

It is the same gusto Fern displays from page one. In an angsty rage typical of her age group, she saves baby Wilbur from her father’s hand, and right away, her commitment to taking care of that runt, complete with a bottle and pram, gives her purpose and gives her a friend and mostly gives her something to hold onto and pull.

Even Templeton—the most self-involved children’s book character of all time—takes hold of one of those ropes and pulls. And soon, he has a role second to only Charlotte in the saving of Wilbur’s life.

“We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.” Charlotte, to Wilbur in one of many moments I cannot read aloud without choking back sobs in front of my children.

We know—of course we know—that what E.B. White has done here is special. He writes with a respect to his subjects and to his setting that is unparalleled. And with his exquisite touch, he creates an atmosphere—not just of stinky manure piles and clucking, haughty geese, but an atmosphere of friendship and honesty and the cruelties we must face together.

So as I read those lines to my daughter, my heart heavy with both Charlotte’s burdens and with her demise—I realized that what I was teaching my daughter with this story was that as we lift up others, as we pull hard on the ropes, we are lifted up ourselves.

Some pig, indeed.

What is it about tin-can stilts?

ramona father


I recently read my very own childhood copy of Ramona and Her Father with my 7 year old daughter only to find out why–of all the books I could have kept, all those Sweet Valley Highs, the Judy Blumes, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit–why oh why I had let those paperbacks go and held on to this one?  Held on tight, through a tween bedroom renovation, a dismissive move to college, the sale of my childhood home, an event equal in my mind to a house fire burning to a crisp my most prized possessions, stealing from me my cheerleading jacket, my Michael Jackson Human Nature poster, the unsavory letters from some unsavory guy I met at the mall movie theater. So, maybe not all of those things were worth saving. But why did I take Ramona and Her Father when I can hardly remember reading it in the first place?

Was it that the writing is pitch-perfect? No. I mean it is pitch-perfect and the tone is special and the voice-ah! I can hear this child better than I can hear my own, I swear. But that is not why I kept it. It took me a while to find out why because my 7 year old will often interrupt a week of perfectly good and bonding bedtime reading with a few Rainbow Fairies books and the occasional Archie comic. So it took. a. while. But then just when I started to wonder how I ever had the attention span for Cleary’s unique narrative voice, for the time she takes to set a scene when I race through these in adulthood, even when I’m the one writing them. Well, just at that moment, there was the reason why.

Ramona is fed up, her mother is swamped and exhausted, her father is being terribly short with her, and she is a little lost and hurt, until she learns from a surprising source how to make her own tin-can stilts. Well, that is just what she does. And as dusk settles in around her, and her neighborhood tucks itself in, and rain begins to fall, Ramona and Howie just clink-clank their way through it–singing 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall at the top of their lungs, all the way down to the last can. She comes home much too late and not even her father’s reaction or her sister’s bad mood can change hers now. She’s been lifted up by those tin-can stilts in more ways than one. It is such a moody moment and it captured me, sitting there reading it aloud with my own moody child. I was a moody child, with moody parents. I still am. And I love that Beverly Cleary acknowledged that, validated it, and likely healed me with those tin-can stilts the same way she healed Ramona that evening.

This is why I write books for kids and why I want to write about books for kids here. The best ones stay with us, lifting us up even after all these years.