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Can we read? No. 23
Hello, and good morning!
Today is the first of 14 straight days off for me, my children’s last day at daycare for that same amount of time, and I am a little punch drunk with the freedom — thus far I have spent it listening to Abby Wambach read her book, WOLFPACK: How to Come Together, Unleash Our Power, and Change the Game (I freaking love her) and installing a software update on my computer and wondering where I will go to buy books today (it’ll be my favorite Goodwill). I write most (recently all) issues of this newsletter well in advance so I often arrive here not having read my own words for weeks, and it’s one of my best moments, showing up here — not so I can see me but so I can see you. (Well, sort of — you know what I mean.) This is only getting more fun over time, so as ever, thank you for being here.
And: welcome to my new subscribers. If you’re wondering what the heck this even is (and/or who the heck I am), check out “the who, what, why, and how of this.” You can also browse the archives. I love hearing from people — talking to people about children’s books and the “how-to” part of bringing more reading magic into your home is the reason I started this newsletter — so please feel free, always, to hit reply with any questions, comments, or feedback. (You can also leave a comment by clicking the little speech bubble button at the bottom of this message.)
Okay! Let’s do this.
Grandfather Twilight by Barbara Helen Berger (1984)
If you’ve been reading this newsletter for any length of time you already know how deeply we love Barbara Helen Berger’s weird, dreamy, otherworldly books (I’ve written about them in issues No. 13 and No. 18, as well as mentioned her holiday title in Part 2 of my special edition for Christmas), and really, I see no reason to stop now. While I believe Thunder Bunny was actually our Berger gateway drug, Grandfather Twilight wasn’t far behind — upon picking it up for the first time I remember thinking my children couldn’t possibly like this strange-ass story of an old man who lives among the trees, and when the day is done, “closes his book, combs his beard, and puts on his jacket” before opening a wooden chest filled with an endless strand of pearls, one of which he removes from the strand, and, holding it in his hand, goes for a walk. But, as ever, they surprised me by understanding this story more deeply than I did (or do, I think) — it seems to make perfect sense to them that the pearl grows larger with every one of the old man’s steps, as the world quiets, the man himself becomes somewhat misty, and “he gives the pearl to the silence above the sea” before going home again, getting ready for bed, and going to sleep. If there is a book that contains a more poetic idea than the one here, I haven’t found it yet, and maybe it doesn’t matter all that much that I can’t fully explain it: this is a soothing meditation understood best by minds less cluttered than mine, which makes it just about perfect.
Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o, illustrated by Vashti Harrison (2019)
It’s true that sometimes (often?) celebrity books leave much to be desired (and leave your girl wondering how on earth did this actually get published?), but don’t judge this Academy Award-winning actress’ offering before reading it: this is a beautiful, much-needed book. This is the story of Sulwe, a little girl who was “born the color of midnight,” looking nothing like her lighter-skinned family, “not even a little, not even at all.” Her sister is given lovely nicknames like “Sunshine,” “Ray,” and “Beauty,” while Sulwe is dubbed “Blackie,” “Darkie,” and “Midnight” — understandably, Sulwe hides away and dreams of changing her skin color. She tries, too — using an eraser, borrowing her mama’s makeup, eating only “the lightest, brightest foods,” asking God for a miracle (her pain and her earnestness are so tender it’s absolutely heartbreaking). She finally confides her misery to her mother, who tells her that Sulwe means “star” — that her brightness is inside of her — and that night, a shooting star appears outside Sulwe’s bedroom window. “The night sent me,” says the star, inviting Sulwe on an adventure through the history of the universe that reveals to Sulwe the story of Night and Day — two sisters who were treated differently because of the way they looked, until one day Night got fed up and disappeared. Both Day and the people of Earth could not endure this — the light was too intense for too long — so Day went to find her sister, telling Night, “we need you just the way you are.” Harrison’s deep, lush illustrations illuminate every aspect of this narrative that examines in a gentle, moving way not only the dilemma of being different, but the joy of accepting oneself exactly as one is. Nyong’o has added an authentic and exceptional title to the canon of self-esteem books (I never tire of them), and it’s an important one.
Tiger, Tiger by Dee Lillegard, illustrated by Susan Guevara (2002)
Tyger Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
(from ‘The Tiger,’ by William Blake)
Inspired by Blake’s super famous, repetitively-questioning poem from 1794, this story stalks the reader in much the same way as the animal it depicts: a small boy named Pocu leaves his village on a hot afternoon while everyone is sleeping to venture alone into the forest, where he finds a feather and conjures his own world, including his own creature. He makes the air cool — swish — he makes “a great murmuring shadow” — swish — he gives the shadow two bright eyes — swish. When Pocu has summoned an entire tiger, which naturally wants to eat him, Pocu calls upon his own magic to manage the situation, taking back his creation piece by piece until he drops the feather and returns home just in time for supper. While the prose doesn’t mirror the poem it was based upon in any way except borrowing the content of the story (which is okay, because there’s actually not a whole lot of action in Blake’s original — rhythm, yes; forward momentum, no), Guevara’s vivid oil pastels bring all the activity to life (if you have a child who loves to scare themselves a little bit, this should do the trick), making this a story that really moves. Full of evocative language and rich sensory detail, if you are, here in mid-December, yearning for the heat of a jungle, I recommend taking this trip.
Old Mother West Wind by Thornton Burgess (1910)
A couple weeks ago I emailed one of you with recommendations for your 6yo that included stories by Thornton Burgess and realized that I haven’t yet written here about this older American conservationist, newspaper columnist, and author, who specialized in stories about nature and animals to such a degree that by the time he published his last book in 1960 (a mere five years before his death at the age of 91), he’d written more than 15,000 newspaper stories and 170 books. (Take in those numbers for a minute before you proceed, because my point is going to be: this man was a virtuoso. Full stop.)
Old Mother West Wind was Burgess’ first book, published in 1910, and perhaps one would assume that his first book couldn’t possibly be as good as, oh, the 169 that came after, but I would challenge this assumption. It is a bit simpler than his other stories — which, especially in the volumes that focus on one animal at a time (e.g., The Adventures of Sammy Jay; The Adventures of Chatterer the Red Squirrel; Lightfoot the Deer, Longlegs the Heron — Burgess has the most amazing talent for naming characters, which may simply be a talent for adjectives, that I’ve ever come across in all my years of reading, and that’s really saying something) — but that is precisely why I recommend it to begin with. Old Mother West Wind is an excellent and highly entertaining introduction to the “people” and places that populate Burgess’ work, from Peter Rabbit (sometimes known as Peter Cottontail) to Jimmy Skunk, Billy Mink, Jerry Muskrat, Sammy Jay, and Little Joe Otter to the Lone Little Path, the Smiling Pool, the Green Meadows, the Purple Hills, and Mother West Wind’s children, the Merry Little Breezes. The stories therein (and across Burgess’ oeuvre) are full-bodied: resonant, funny, scientifically accurate, full of pranks and action (and often intense rivalry). If you have spent even five minutes in the Charlotte Mason homeschool world you will have heard of The Burgess Bird Book for Children, revered as essential reading for the youngest students whether you’re following Miss Mason’s Forms or a curriculum like Ambleside Online’s Years 0 or 1 — in more accessibly parlance, Burgess is recommended for ages 5-6, or grades K-1, and I have found this to be absolutely true with my own COVID-homeschooled 6yo in 1st grade. Which isn’t to say Burgess is only for that age group — every time I’ve read aloud from any of his books, and we have many, I’ve found my 4yo right there at my elbow, usually literally, hanging on every word.
If I have not convinced you to try Burgess’s titles — Old Mother West Wind or otherwise, though I do recommend starting there — consider this: 45 of Burgess’ titles are in the public domain and available for free to download to your Kindle (or whatever digital reader you use) through Project Gutenberg. 48 of them are available for free listening on Librivox (I do not prefer them this way, but they are there). They are widely available on the used market (though since they are wildly popular amongst homeschoolers, sometimes you have to wait a bit for the title you want). Lastly, for years Dover Publications has been releasing Burgess titles for $2-4 — new. (See: Old Mother West Wind.) For less than the cost of a cup of coffee you and your children can enter into and explore this lively and abundant world.
Do. It’s a fun place to visit.
Audrey of the Outback by Christine Harris, illustrated by Ann James (2008)
I came across Harris’ Audrey series* (Audrey of the Outback is the first of three, followed by Audrey Goes to Town and Audrey’s Big Secret) when I was looking for a read-aloud for our homeschool studies in November — I needed a living book about Australia, preferably one that was about people and not animals, and it was surprisingly difficult to find. Bonus points because the one I came across was not only a chapter book, but the main protagonist was a girl, and not just any girl, but Audrey. Plucky, curious, and full of imagination, Audrey is a young girl living in the 1930s Australian outback with her mother and two brothers, holding down the homestead while their father is away for work. Audrey’s adventures are always small and close to home — she hangs out with a “swaggie” (a sort of hobo) and decides she will take up life on the road, she and her brother accidentally blow up their outhouse, she releases her best friend to the world (I will not reveal details about this, as it’s a spoiler) — but her questioning nature and deep thoughts about her life and its possibilities make for both an entertaining and unexpectedly thoughtful read. The chapters here are quite short — usually three, sometimes five pages at the most — which was helpful, as sometimes the action was slow (though Harris always ends the chapter on a cliff-hanger, making this a good pick for a reluctant reader as they will want to continue to find out what happens next). On a scale of zero to Ramona in terms of how much I liked this book and how much I enjoyed reading it aloud, I’d give it a bit more than mediocre rating, but my children would rate it higher. They would neither let me drop it nor skip days reading it at breakfast (which is essentially what I’ve been working towards since they were born — raising readers with their own agency; I am just a vehicle for the words now), but I think we all appreciated the glimpse into another world, another time, another life so entirely different from our own. And isn’t that what literature — great or otherwise — offers? Isn’t that its magnificent gift? Audrey’s brave heart and search for the meaning of things in her life make her a character worth a peek.
*Note: even my abundant library system of 3+ million titles doesn’t carry any Audrey titles, and they are variously available new (Bookshop has the first two titles in paperback; Amazon has the first one in paperback and a bundle of the whole series on Kindle) so this may be one to seek out used.
That’s it for today, peeps. I’m going to do laundry and write more and then go out into the white world and breathe the fresh air and be glad that I am here, putting one foot in front of the other, literally and figuratively, as best I can.
Thanks for your support and have a good one 😘
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