I have been irritable much of the day. I don’t enjoy the work I’m doing, and there is nothing to look forward to. It’s Good Friday, but there will be no family dinner on Easter Sunday, no dyed eggs or coconut cookies topped with jellybeans to resemble bird nests. Instead we’ll be trying our luck at our first-ever family video call. We are still in the early days of the pandemic, still groping our way through this miserable low-hanging fog that never burns off.
Around five o’clock, I sleep my computer and head out for a walk, listening to the Cowboy Junkies on my phone. Almost exactly a year ago, I sat 15 feet away from the Cowboy Junkies at a show at the Dakota in downtown Minneapolis. I look back at that night with a sense of disbelief: people crowded together, drinking and laughing and eating, nodding and tapping their toes to live music, with no reason to give any of it a second thought. On this bleak day, it’s like remembering a jewel: a flash of sapphire, the glow of ruby.
I haven’t lived in this area of St. Paul very long and am still getting to know the neighborhoods. To the south is Summit Avenue, lined with well-tended Victorian mansions. To the east is the Cathedral of Saint Paul, a behemoth of faith risen from the hills. Today I head north. Older two- and three-story homes give way to ramblers. Later I will learn that this is the old Rondo neighborhood—a thriving black community that was torn apart in the 1960s when government officials decided to route I-94 right through the middle of it.
The music in my ears does little to improve my mood. There are few walkers and even fewer cars. The absence of activity takes on a heavy presence of its own.
I come to Carty Park, which covers an entire square block. The last time I was here, maybe two weeks ago, a half dozen teenagers were hanging out in the usual way—voices loud, no masks, no six-foot spaces between them. But the hard truths of the pandemic have been sinking in. Today the park is entirely empty, except for one man who is walking his dog. He angles by me, stepping off the path to avoid getting too close. He won’t even make eye contact. I feel rebuked, unclean.
The path curves toward the swings, and it occurs to me that I could sit there for a bit. I’m not tired, but for some reason the idea of sitting on a swing is appealing. I will sit and sway and check my email.
As soon as my hips settle into the black rubber U, I feel it—the urge to swing. Swaying won’t do. Forget email. I will swing.
After a few pumps of my legs, Margo Timmins’s voice pours into my head:
Sing me a song about life in America
Sing me a song of love
I smile at the aptness of the lyrics even as tears come to my eyes. A love of country wells through me unlike any I’ve ever experienced. What will become of us?
Sing me a song about life in your neighborhood
Sing me a song of love
I pump harder, higher. Before me are unbudded trees and silent houses. But I am swinging. I am a 55-year-old woman swinging in the middle of an empty park during a pandemic.
Tell me a tale about those who are dear
Sing me a song of joy
I’m swinging as high as I can go now. My ears are cold and I feel dizzy, queasy. But never mind.
I know what will become of us.
We will swing.
One of the best parts of writing for children is getting the opportunity to share my books—and my love of reading—with kids in person during school visits. That is definitely its own reward. But when I unexpectedly receive a large packet of thank you notes in the mail, it’s icing on the cake! That happened twice this winter. I find these notes touching, motivating, and sometimes amusing. Well worth saving and sharing!
This first batch is from the second graders at Saint Mary’s Hall in San Antonio, Texas. (My visit was on January 15, 2020.) I did a writing workshop with this group. We talked a little about our amazing brains and then did several idea-generating activities. One of those activities was what I call "UN-meditating," in which kids simply put their heads down, close their eyes, and follow the trail of their thoughts. Instead of trying not to think, they consciously pay attention to whatever pops into their minds. And they might just come up with an idea they want to write about! It's simple and surprisingly effective, even with young kids.
"I loved the un-meditating! My brain had a Zap when I thought of my idea!"
"My favorite was un-meditating. That's because I really like peace and quiet."
This one is from a young writer who already knows a thing or two about voice!
"Thank you for teaching us the un-meditating lesson it was very helpful because if I'm angry I think of all the good things that I like in my life. And the good part about it is that I don't have to be angry any more!!! So Exiting! (while screaming in a high pitch voice)."
She ends her letter with, "I want to thank you from my classroom to wherever you are with an air hug."
Sofia, wherever you are right now, I'm sending an air hug right back to you!
"I liked the un-meditating to because I thought of things I never really thought of before."
That emphasis on "really" is intriguing to me. In the space of a few minutes, this student went beneath the surface and into the zone of discovery. I would love to know what those thoughts were!
We did a similar activity involving pictures. The idea was not to describe the pictures but to see what ideas the pictures might spark. I handed out a variety of pictures from my own files, mostly photos of my weird figurines or cool things I've seen on walks. But "weird" and "cool" are in the eyes of the beholder, I guess!
"I really loved the workshop. The only thing I did not like was the pictures because mine was creepy."
Some students wrote about the assembly instead of the workshop. I had shared a story about discovering some of my books from childhood decades later and still remembering them. I showed them the actual books and we all marveled at how tiny they were.
"Thank you for teaching me that books can bring back memorys like when you showed us the tiny books. I thought that was cool."
Look at that neat handwriting, the compact layout. Of course this student would be drawn to my tiny books. :)
I suspect this student was also thinking about the assembly. I told them how my son used to stand in his crib and shake the rails, crying plaintively, "READ! READ!" And then I asked them to tell me to READ, READ, because I missed those days.
These cards are from students at Oak Grove Elementary in Bloomington, Minnesota.
(I visited them on February 7, 2020.)
What I love about this one is the picture of the Cyclops—with a tie! I did read my Cyclops story (Cyclops Tells All: The Way EYE See It) to the older kids, but I don't think this student would have been in that group. So I'll bet this student was remembering what I said about the writing process. I showed the students a messy, handwritten page that was the first draft of the Cyclops story, and possibly I waved around the finished book for a bit to emphasize that those scribbles had turned into an actual book. So maybe that's what this child was thinking of! You just never know what will stick.
And then there are the letters that keep a person humble.
"Thank you for visiting our school. It was a great pleasure coming to our school even though your an author. I really enjoyed you telling us most of your books."
Even though [you're] an author...most of your books...this young writer is adept with qualifiers!
I am still puzzling over this one. It's the only card that wasn't handwritten. It's not signed. It doesn't say anything about my visit. It just...IS.
I'm keeping it on my fridge. Someone, somewhere, has wished me well, and I'm not about to take that for granted. :)
Here's one way to celebrate spring: Bring out the bunnies!
Thanks to my friend Sandra for offering her yard (and for
taking the photos when I forgot to bring my phone).
I recently finished two years of service with Reading Corps, working with preschoolers at family child care sites. A key part of the curriculum was the Repeated Read Aloud, in which the tutors (or providers, depending on the day) read the same book every day for a week, focusing on different aspects at each reading. Over the two years I served, I estimate I read 39 books roughly 18 times, to five different groups of kids. Those are some high-mileage books! Here are my favorites:
Lunch is simple but brilliant. A hungry mouse slips out of his hole and devours a crisp white turnip, tasty orange carrots, sour purple grapes, and so on. Then he takes a nap…until dinner! Denise Fleming’s mouse has enough manic energy to keep readers entertained to the end. And since there’s a page turn between the color and the fruit or vegetable, kids get to test their knowledge and predictive powers. At the end, there’s a slight but oh-so-satisfying variation in the text: the mouse eats juicy pink watermelon, “crunchy black seeds and all.” Weeks after we read the book, one of my students noticed a picture of a watermelon on a rug and piped up, ”Look, a watermelon! With crunchy black seeds and all.” (THEME: food)
This energetic book crackles like bacon in a frying pan. A family is making a Korean rice dish called bee-bim bop (“mixed-up rice”). From getting groceries to gathering at the table, every step is shared in fast-paced, spot-on rhyme. In the few minutes it takes to read the book out loud, you’ll work up an appetite! There’s a recipe in the back, and a couple of my child care providers had a fun time preparing it with their kids. That’s something I’d like to do, too. Hungry, very hungry for some bee-bim bop! (THEME: food)
Kids need thoughtful, reflective books, too, and Grandfather and I is a wonderful choice. It tells the story of a child taking a slow walk in the woods with his grandfather. Scenes from the child’s busier, louder life are interspersed with scenes of nature. The refrain is calming: Grandfather and I never hurry. We walk along, and walk along, and stop…and look…just as long as we like. A recurring squirrel adds a welcome bit of playfulness. One of my students had intellectual disabilities and was very attached to this book. For kids and adults alike, Grandfather and I reminds us of how good it feels to step away from our overstimulating lives and just...be. (THEME: family)
Building a House
written and illustrated by Byron Barton
We read three books by Byron Barton: Building a House, My Car, and Airport. The kids loved the name “Byron Barton” because it gave us the chance to sing our Alliteration Song. (Often when we were reading other books, I asked kids if they remembered the name of the author, and inevitably someone would say, “Byron Barton!”) This guy is a master at turning complicated subjects into simple, relatable sequences. The illustrations have little detail but are bold and bright. Some of the content is out of date by now and will require explanation, but don't let that be a deal breaker. These basic books are so effective because they give kids a powerful message: Yes, the world makes a certain kind of sense; and yes, they are capable of understanding it.
(THEMES: Building a House: Construction; My Car and Airport: Transportation)
This one has a lot going in different areas, but it totally works. We watch as Jack builds with blocks and imagines elaborate scenes around what he is building: a robot, a hot dog stand, a ferry boat, a lookout tower, the tallest building in the world, and finally a rocket ship. With every new creation, we get to add a number of blocks to the ones already there, so kids can practice counting and addition. The pictures are detailed and silly, with lots of fun things to point out. Some favorites from my kids: tiny Jack holding a hot dog on the ferry; a giant octopus about to attack a fisherman in a boat; and a man flapping feathered wings by the lookout tower. (THEME: Construction)
My Friend is Sad
Let’s Go for a Drive
written and illustrated by Mo Willems
Oh, Mo Willems. You just can’t go wrong with Mo Willems. In My Friend is Sad, Gerald is sad because he misses Piggy. But Piggy doesn’t know why Gerald is sad and tries to cheer him up, first by dressing as a cowboy, then a clown, and finally a robot. Each time, Gerald cheers up momentarily, then goes back to being sad. Why? Because he saw all those cool things and Piggy wasn’t there! The kids love Gerald’s over-the-top drama and Piggy’s imagination and sprightly persistence.
In Let’s Go for a Drive, Elephant and Piggy methodically gather all the things they’ll need for a drive—among them a map, sunglasses, umbrella, and suitcase—and then realize they are missing the critical item: a car. Gerald has a meltdown, of course, but Piggy’s solution is to use all the things they gathered for a game of Pirate.
If you can get another adult (or older child) to read with you, these books make great readers’ theater. In fact, later in the week, when the kids were familiar with the story, I’d divide the kids into a Gerald group and a Piggy group and we’d read the story together that way. It’s all great fun—but there’s more to it than fun, I think. There is such a range of emotion in these books, with lots of opportunities to talk about how characters are feeling and why. And for me, it was eye-opening to see how even my youngest students reveled in the fairly sophisticated humor. Kids understand so much more than we realize!
(THEMES: My Friend is Sad: Friends; Let's Go for a Drive: Transportation)
Another vivid, energetic winner by Denise Fleming (author/illustrator of Lunch). This one is a romp through a farm, showing animals and the places they hang out and celebrating animal sounds in a big way. Throughout the book, Goose is chasing a butterfly. Even though Goose is usually easy to spot, the kids loved pointing him out and seeing how close he could get to that butterfly. A couple of my younger kids got so excited they’d run to the book and practically shout, “There’s Goose!”. There’s lots of fun rhyme, too, and the chance to introduce some less common vocabulary words (grain bin, rafters, etc.). Once the kids are familiar with the book, an easy confidence-building activity is to say an animal sound and let the kids guess which animal is making it, or name the animal and have the kids say the sound. This is a noisy one! (THEME: Animals)
In this silly book, a giant squid is very taken with himself and the fact that he’s bigger than all the other sea creatures he comes across. Then a whale sneaks up on him—and next thing he knows, he’s in the belly of the whale, along with all the creatures who’ve had to put up with his bragging. The squid thinks about it for a bit and then, undaunted, declares himself to be the biggest thing in the whale! The book offers good exposure to sea animal vocabulary (although I do wish there had been a fun fact section at the end, to give a little more content). One of my younger kids was scared of the shark, and a few kids didn’t like the picture of the whale swimming away with the squid’s tentacles streaming out of its mouth. But I think their responses just made the other kids like the book more. Even children appreciate a little dark humor at times. (THEME: Animals)
Flower Garden was published in 1994, and it makes me happy to think that over the years, so many children have experienced this book. It is pure loveliness. A girl and her father surprise the mom on her birthday by planting a garden box and hanging it in their apartment window. The text rhymes gently and the illustrations convey a variety of interesting perspectives. One of our favorite pictures showed only the girl’s feet and legs as she went up the stairs, a cat looking up at her and a fallen geranium blossom on a step. (Several kids insisted this was a strawberry.) Another favorite was a scene with the girl looking out the window and seeing her mother on the street below, just turning the corner. At the end, the family looks out the window; the newly planted flowers are framed against the city skyline; chocolate ice cream melts on a plate. I could just about taste that ice cream. This is a book that glows. (THEME: Spring)
is a children's book author, editor, tutor, mom of two young adults and one feisty cat, and collector of weird things.
My Reading Corps Service
Letters for Kids
A Blue Ribbon Day
A Kind Neighbor, a Beaded Tree