Jessica Wakefield, Paula Danziger, and me

If you were lucky, someone likely came along at some point in your life and set you straight–leaving in their wake a person who might have otherwise traveled a different path. A less interesting path. Or maybe just a less inspired one. And if you were especially lucky, this person came along when you were young. Or perhaps it wcatasn’t a person but a moment, or an event, or a book.

I was spectacularly lucky in this way. I got both a person and a book. In tenth grade it was a teacher who I’m certain has no idea he caused the ripple whose effects are felt all these years and miles later. This was a man who would be so into talking about Great Expectations that he’d get lost somewhere along the way and take a big drag off the chalk he had just used to write DICKENS in giant, reverent letters on the blackboard.

He is the same teacher who taught us about Alan Ginsburg and the Beat generation, the same one who encouraged rap in the classroom, and who had us write about modern-day saints. My group chose Madonna. We thought we were being defiant and brave and ironic.  And then one day he asked us to write something inspired by The Grapes of Wrath and something got all fired up inside of me. Out came an essay about the Dust Bowl, complete with a sweltering coffee shop and a migrant love affair. I can still remember the ambience I was trying so hard to replicate—it wasn’t in the manner of Steinbeck at all really. It was in the manner of made-for-tv movies and Nanci Griffith songs. And it probably wasn’t very good, but it was good enough for that teacher to make a point of telling me I was a writer.

Until that moment, I did not know this. I knew I was something–an observer of people, of the aesthetics of the insides of things, high school hallways and stairwells and lockers–something, yes, but not a writer. Those were the days when I begrudged Fitzgerald for Danielle Steel and Sidney Sheldon. And 15 was for me an age that inflicted a daily amnesia on my teenage brain for things in my very recent past.  Things like swing sets and roller skates. And also books, special ones like Sweet Valley High: Power Play and also, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, which as is turns out is The Book.


I know now that my tenth grade prep-school self had long since forgotten reading about Marcy Lewis and the excuses she used to get out of gym class. Gone were the incensed feelings I felt when they fired Ms. Finney because she wouldn’t say the Pledge of Allegiance. Same for the disturbed chills I had gotten when Marcy’s father called her fat, told her she was a nuisance, told her to play by the rules.  And lost—buried somewhere with my friendship pins and Tretorns–was the memory of Marcy falling in love with herself through writing, learning from this teacher who wouldn’t salute the flag, to salute herself. To pay attention, to write it down, to tell her story. Because she mattered. But I remember now.

I write because of Ms. Finney and my tenth grade English teacher and because of Paula Danziger and because both pre-fifteen and now well post-fifteen, I have been changed by things people write about in books—early on it was The Trumpet of the Swan and the 2nd grade teacher who read it chapter by chapter, day after day, until the end came and I wanted to rest my head inside my folded arms on my desk and cry. I think in college it might have been Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and recently it was Edward P. Jones’s The Known World. These books are filled with stories and characters and ambience and history and pain and joy and they are filled with the kind of reckoning that comes with resilience and moving forward through life.

So, I picked up The Cat Ate My Gymsuit recently again because I often tell people that the reason I write books for kids is because no books have ever spoken to me quite like the books of my childhood and my adolescence. And it’s true. I carry The Cat Ate My Gymsuit around with me the way others carry around Catcher in the Rye. Mine might not be as high-brow, but it’s mine. And I salute it.

The same way I salute my teacher for taking the five minutes it takes to change a child’s life, and I salute Paula Danziger for holding up a mirror for me, so I could see that I was more of a Marcy Lewis than a Jessica Wakefield anyway. And I salute all the books that hold up, that stay with us, and those that will stay with our children, lighting their way with the sparks that ignite change, and sending them—on fire!—into the world.

The Books I Remember Best…My pure nostalgia reading list (having nothing to do with the wonderful world of present-day books like this year’s Newbery winner, Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan, which will surely stay with and change lives again and again.):

Lyle, Lyle Crocodile by Bernard Waber

The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White

Millicent Maybe by Ellen Weiss (I was just so happy that someone else had trouble making decisions!)

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Ramona and her Father by Beverly Cleary

Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume

The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger

It’s Not the End of the World by Judy Blume

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

“I’m gonna send your vote to college” (or 2nd grade anyway)

When, during the Democratic National Convention, they paid tribute to the late Ted Kennedy, I sat down on the sofa to watch even as the chaos of the dinner and homework hour pressed on. I expected to have to ignore the crashes and whines that usually come in the wake of my getting sidelined by something that holds my attention a little longer than 2ndgrade word problems and cleaning up spaghetti from the floor.

But there was no whining, no pasta casualties. There was the peace that comes when children sit riveted in front of the glow of the tv. And yet it was neither Phineas nor Ferb who had gotten us here. It was footage of a bombastic and committed Ted Kennedy—the flawed, but effective Senator who captured my own bleeding heart at a young age. Beside me my 7-year-old daughter sat, glued as I was to the bluster of Ted Kennedy’s speeches, his handshakes, the fights he fought on behalf of all of us. Who IS that? She asked me. And I told her a little bit about him, a little bit more about the election, about who is running, and about how people tend to vote based on the things that are most important to them.

Even my 5-year-old sat still-ish, pretending to concentrate on words like “healthcare” and “education.” The evening ended with said 5-year-old’s attention span tumbling into a heap along with the stool he had been teetering on, but it did not end without my daughter declaring that she was a Democrat. I choked back my melodramatic, proud-to-be-political tears and patted myself on the back. I was raising a good (if slightly left-leaning) citizen. Okay, a Kennedy-loving, social medicine endorsing, card carrying liberal, but still. She cares about the election!

Then, as I tucked in my newly anointed politico, something strange happened. “Will something bad happen if Mitt Romney wins?” she asked me. And she had a lump in her throat—a frightened lump. What had I done? And how could I fix it?
I looked at her seriously. “Nothing,” I said. “Nothing bad will happen. There might be some changes, but we get a say in those too.”
     Because the truth is, we have a pretty good system.
     And with every election, we have the opportunity to expose our children to that system–the excitement! the energy! the mobilizing! the yelling! the laughing! But mostly we get to expose them to things like the way our kind of democracy works—the bell ringing and enthusiasm of the electoral college, the crazy costumes and buttons of convention attendees. And we all get to entertain the possibility of change.
     But here is the most important thing about all of this. We get to teach our children to vote. We get to tell them that every person of legal age in this country gets to participate—to cast their vote for the person who they think will be the best leader. And we get to teach them that the end of the day, the whole system is set up so we don’t have to be afraid. After all, for every president we don’t agree with, there is a congressperson who also doesn’t agree. This was by design and it is part of what makes our country special and great and it is also part of what makes it frustrating when you want change (and you want it fast.)
     I had the opportunity in my editorial life to spend an entire day with the late Senator Kennedy (we were doing a book about his beloved dog, Splash, and his dog’s eye view of the political process). It was a day I will never forget—I got to sit in his office and talk about process, all while trying not to gawk at the wall of Kennedy memorabilia—snapshots with his parents, his brothers, their letters, their little-kid handwriting. And I got to witness first-hand Kennedy’s dedication to the process itself, his hustle toward a vote, his trying to accomplish something at every turn. The thing I took away from that day besides an adrenaline rush that took years to die down, was how much Kennedy believed in the system and how he worked it, and how it paid off for our country.
     But never mind that now. Right now, with two weeks left, we can use this moment not to teach them to be afraid, but to teach them NOT to be afraid. Because we have a process. And it kind of works and we should all be really proud of that and we should all bring our kids inside that voting curtain and pull that lever like it is our job. And then let them stay up late and watch election results with Stripes and Blues Terra chips in front of them on the sofa!
     And if you’re just not that into all of this, the least you can do is school your kids 80’s style in the ways of bill making and the election process and by the end, you might just all be participating. And cheering, E-L-E-C-T-O-R-A-L! All thanks to

I look 12, but it’s me (with Ted Kennedy!)

some good old-fashioned Schoolhouse Rock.

The books!
Somehow, even the well-meaning books designed explicitly to help kids understand the process of electing our leaders evoke controversy. Dare to scroll down into the comments section (I know, I know) and there it is: vitriol.  (The author has it all wrong! We are no democracy! Down with the electoral college!) But here are some good ones:
For 5 and up
Duck for President by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin
My Teacher for President by Kay Winters and Denise Brunkus
My Senator and Me: A Dog’s Eye View of Washington, D.C. by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, illustrated by David Small
7 and up:
Babymouse for President by Jennifer Holm and Matt Holm
Vote! By Eileen Christelow
Grace for President by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrated by LeUyen Phem
So You Want to Be President by Judith St. George, illustrated by David Small
Madam President by Lane Smith

Have the day you have!

Sometimes, in the course of my day, I step on the tiny little pieces of whatever my five-year-old has collected from the universe of tiny little pieces and then methodically arranged across his floor–turning his bedroom into a rigged, land-mine experience for us and our bare feet.

I can’t freak out, though. I have to move on.

But throw enough tiny little things in front of my 7 year old, and you will watch a storm blow up inside her and explode all over the place—pushing those tiny little pieces out of the way with giant globs of misery. The fallout of this is mine to manage and manage I do.  These days are the terrible ones, the horrible ones, the no-good very bad ones.

Yes, I know, I stole that. From the pages of the timeless Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day, which brings Alexander’s bad day to life with its muddy reds and blues, its scritchy-scratchy pen and ink drawings, its ambience of misery. Ah, how we laugh and groan with sympathy when we read this book—the gum! no toy in the cereal box! sneakers without color! There is so much injustice in Alexander’s day that the book reads like one big foot stomp.

I just recently noticed, though, that absent from the narrative of this book is the voice of Alexander’s mother. There is no one trying to calm him down, bribe him back into good humor with the sneakers of his dreams. No one calling around to other shoe stores to see if maybe, possibly they could get the sneakers with the stripes—hoping the perfect new kicks might draw her third child back from the dark side.  I’m not even sure the mother knows just how bad Alexander’s day is because, honestly, she has three sons and a day to get through.

Which brings me to a lesson I recently learned from a movie trailer. I haven’t seen the movie The Odd Life of Timothy Green, but this one brilliant line really stays with me. When Timothy is walking into school his father shouts after to him to have a good day. Jennifer Garner’s character quickly tells him that he’s putting too much pressure on their home-grown child, so he quickly shouts a correction: “Have the day you have!”

What a wonderful way to take the pressure off! What relief! Somehow, I think we have given the message to our children that their days are all supposed to be winners, and therefore they stomp and they slam when their day turns into a real loser. And how did we get here anyway? To this place where our children get so easily frustrated by the small obstacles we all have to move through to get to the end of a lousy day?

I think I know. I think it is our fault. We are, after all, a parenting generation of pleasers—trying to manage our kids’ moods, trying to make them happy with the meals they want, the shows they want, the play dates they want. So much so, that they can’t make sense of it when things get in the way of their happiness.

And some days we just plain step on things, get gum in our hair, and things don’t work out just so at school, and they don’t have the right shoes at the shoe store, and yes, all of these tiny pieces get in the way of having that good day they were hoping for. Which brings me back to Alexander.

At the end of the book, we find out that his mom tells him everyone has bad days, even in Australia. What good work she did, telling him that this is just the day he was dealt. Because I think this is what we are supposed to do—let them have the day they have, instead of supporting and managing and trying—trying so hard that their well-outfitted feet hardly ever land on those prickly pieces in the first place, keeping them protected and fragile, even when they stomp.

So the next time I’m at a shoe store and they are out of the sneaker of my kids’ dreams, I’m going to try out some Judith Viorst, get them the pair of sneakers they NEED, and move on with the day. And when we get home, maybe they will retreat to their rooms and sulk a little, and then yes! they might just snap out of it and maybe they will make good of their bad day—and hopefully, if I have done right by them, they will make something big and meaningful out of all the tiny little pieces.

Reading list for a lousy day (for everyone):

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz

When Sophie Gets Angry, Really, Really Angry by Molly Bang

Mouse Was Mad by Linda Urban, illustrated by Henry Cole

Taking a Bath with My Dog and Other Things That Make Me Happy by Scott Menchin

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

A Good Day by Kevin Henkes

Mrs. Biddlebox by Linda Smith, illustrated by Marla Frazee

Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes

For middle-graders:

Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary (tin-can stilts alert!)

Judy Moody was in a Mood by Megan McDonald

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

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.