Picture Books · Reading

Picture Books that Inspire Creativity

One of my Teaching Assistants led a discussion in class today that ended with her students thinking about creativity and how it preserved their identity, even their humanity, in the face of mass marketing, corporate programming, and aggressive branding that tells us how to live.

One student shared that he felt most himself when he was playing his guitar—when he was alone with his thoughts and expressing his emotions without overt outside input. As they talked, the class agreed all art afforded that space, and then they realized that they used that creative or hobby time to make their most authentic connections to others—through their art.

It was a lovely moment, when students moved from reading a novel to applying some of the ideas to their lives. And it got me thinking, we need to start them young. There are, of course, picture books that can help. 😊 Here are some I love. If you have others, I’d love to hear about them.

Alison’s Super Awesome List of Picture books about Art and the Creative Process:

  1. “The Dot” by Peter H. Reynolds. One of my all-time favorites, this is a story about a kid who doesn’t think she’s artistic, and a teacher who brings out her best efforts. My favorite part is the end, where she pays it forward to the next kid who underestimates his potential. Every house should have a copy, she said firmly. It’s marvelous.
  2. “Little Mouse’s Painting” by Diane Wolkstein and Maryjane Begin. This one is also about visual art, and especially about what others see in your art (spoiler: themselves). But it’s true; we see ourselves in art—visual and other art—and the original artist can’t always predict what others will see or value. So we owe it to each other to keep creating.
  3. “Draw!” by Raúl Colón. This one is wordless, but speaks volumes about a boy’s power to explore the world in his art—to imagine and bring to life vast landscapes, exotic animals, the implication is anything, really—and to value art as escapist and aspirational. (Bonus: his later “Imagine!” takes the artist from his room to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, with equally magical and empowering results.)
  4. “Sun Bread” by Elisa Kleven. Not all art has to be painted. In “Sun Bread” a baker makes a vibrant, golden loaf of bread that looks like a sun, and it revives her community, stuck in the doldrums of winter. The book includes the recipe, egg wash and all, so that you can reproduce the sunny bread and understand for yourself “all the joy good bread can bring.”
  5. “The Quiltmaker’s Gift” by Jeff Brumbeau and Gail de Marcken. This one is about a greedy king who loves presents and has everything, but he can’t get his hands on a quilt made by the master quiltmaker, because she only gives them to people in need. He has to learn to give things up to get what he wants, but of course, he gets more than he expected.
  6. “The Night Gardener” by Terry Fan and Eric Fan. A mysterious gardener is transforming ordinary trees in to extraordinary animal topiaries in the darkness, and a community wakes up to new beauty every day. It’s a lovely fable about the transformative power of art.
Picture Books · Reading

Cornucopia: Picture Books for Autumn

It’s been a while since I’ve done a picture book blog, and since a-something like twenty of my former students had babies in the last year and b-I love fall, I’ve decided to collect some seasonal books that don’t have snowfolk or reindeer as protagonists.

  1. “Little Tree” by Loren Long. When all the trees are little, everything is great, but when fall comes, one won’t let his leaves fall because he’s afraid of the cold. The problem is that stunts his growth, and once he establishes the pattern of holding on to stuff too long, it’s hard to break. I feel personally called out by this picture book, so I love it and need to share.
  2. “Room on the Broom” by Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler. This is such a great book: it’s Halloweeny, but just because the character is a witch. It’s mostly about finding your tribe and protecting your homies. And when your homies are all adorable critters, that’s awesome.
  3.  “John Pig’s Halloween” by Jan L. Waldron and David McPhail is the first Halloween book my son had, and we all loved it. I’m a sucker for good verse, and John overcomes his fear by making friends with monsters, so I feel like that is a win all around. The verse is so catchy we practically memorized the whole thing, and 18 years later, we still find ourselves using a line or two in conversation when it’s appropriate, which is more often than you’d think.
  4. “Thanks for Thanksgiving” by Julie Markes and Doris Barrette is our requisite Turkey Day book, in part because of the wonderful fall-toned illustrations that include wonderful family moments but also school and play. It also includes a blank page at the end for families to write in what they’re thankful for, which makes my Bullet Journaling heart happy. Train ‘em young, I say. You want them to read? Then read. You want them to be grateful? Then be grateful. And write that stuff down, so you can remember what it was like to be grateful for Thomas trains and Fairy Fudge.
  5. “The Giant Cabbage” by Chérie B. Stihler and Jeremiah Trammell. This one is adorably illustrated by Trammell and a sweet fable about coming together for a common purpose, then sharing in the fruits (or vegetables) of that labor. Fall is all about abundance, after all.
  6. “Persephone” by Sally Pomme Clayton and Virginia Lee, speaking of abundance… and what comes after the harvest.  This is a solid version of the myth of Persephone and her mom, about seasons and sorrows and cycles and the bond between life and death.
  7. “Georgie and the Robbers” by Robert Bright is not overtly a fall book, but it must take place in the fall, if one uses the illustrations as a guide. And since it’s about a ghost and an owl and a cat, it has an autumnal feel to it. It remains, after thousands of books, my very favorite book to read aloud. Part of that may be nostalgia. I had it as a kid and remember reading it when I was little, and then I read it to my kids. But when I read it to my kids, I realized how delightful the music and drama and character building is when you read it aloud. It’s amazing. It’s hard to find now, but if you want to borrow mine, or even better—ask me to read it to you—I’m down.

Happy Fall y’all.

Living · Picture Books · Reading

Idylls of the Introverts–a summer tradition

A Tree Grows in Solvang

When my son was ten, he and my partner played a tabletop fantasy game called Warhammer 40K. This involved lots of painting of tiny soldiers and model tanks and buildings, and it sort of peaked when they found out there was a convention in Chicago. At first, my eight year old daughter and I thought we’d go too, but we also thought it sounded like watching movies in a foreign language about subjects that don’t interest you. So we passed and decided to think of our own thing.

I had always wanted to go to Solvang, a little tourist town in the Santa Barbara wine country with Danish roots (and therefore bakeries). There was even a Hans Christian Andersen museum.

As a Girly Getaway, it had loads of potential.

I made a reservation at a Bed and Breakfast with a fairy tale theme, and we got a room filled with Danish lace and paintings of swans and princesses. It was perfect. We bought Dala horses and ate abelskivers, the little spherical pancakes drizzled in raspberry sauce, and we decided this was our thing.

And that was before we discovered the bookshop.

The bookshop is what kept us going. The Book Loft is a lovely, independent bookstore with used and new books and the best Fairy Tales and Folklore collection I’ve ever seen.  We each bought an armload of books, and we headed across the street to the park to examine our haul. We read under a tree all afternoon.

Since then we have done largely the same thing every summer. We love the little town, but if we’re honest, we go for the books. It’s a perfect destination for us, although neither of the boys understand.

We chat all the way there and back, and if it were a trip with girlfriends, we probably would buy wine and keep chatting. It’s not.

It’s with my favorite bookworm, and we spend a considerable chunk of our time sitting next to each other companionably and reading. We stop to read each other funny passages or show a picture or summarize a great story. We are geeks. When she was eight, I was already buying more picture books than she was. She was reading children’s fantasy novels, and I was collecting picture books and new versions of fairy tales.

Now she’s a teenager, and she reads YA fantasy novels. I’m still collecting fairy tales. This year I got a couple collections with an eye to adopting one for my folklore syllabus in the fall. But the first thing I did was read one of her books—a verse novel about Joan of Arc. And she read a collection of graphic novel-style fairy tales I’d picked out to stay current. That’s right. We both sat there and read a whole book under that tree before one of us had to go to the bathroom.

Book Haul 2019

Several things stand out about this to me (or they did, when our hotel smoke alarm went off and the front desk guy came in to turn it off and saw our giant stack of books strewn across the bed and looked at us like that was one thing he’d never seen when he entered someone’s hotel room at night.) Maybe this is weird. Maybe the fact that we essentially make a two-day bookstore run every year is weird. Maybe that we take a vacation together but don’t talk half the time is weird. Maybe the fact that we’re happy doing essentially the same thing, eating at the same restaurants, and that we go to the fudge shop the first night for us and on the way home for the boys, since we can’t be trusted not to eat theirs is weird. (That seems least weird to me of this list, frankly.)

But the fact is some day she’s going to be 21, and even though people have been recommending wine to her there since she was 13, she will someday take them up on it, and the dynamic will change.

I tried to shake things up a few years with different locations or (gasp!) restaurants, but she has always been somewhere between reluctant and outraged. I have pushed her to all the local museums and the ostrich farm, with the tacit understanding that we should probably know more of the area than the park and the bookstore, but really, what makes us happy is the quiet time leaning against each other under our tree, comparing this year’s books to last year’s, and chatting with the shop workers and servers who only see us once a year, but remember us anyway. Some comment on how much she’s grown, like the server who remembers her back when she wore Crocs with gibbitz in them and clapped at the Red Viking because they served her milk in a pilsner glass.

The secret to happiness is indulging your inner geek. Especially with someone who high fives you for it.

Living · Picture Books · Reading

Three for National Poetry Month

Today my daughter accused me of being a large 5-year old. She was talking about how excited I get around holidays, so I let it slide. She’s not wrong. I also love children’s books and poetry written for children. In honor of National Poetry Month, here are three poems by Edward Lear, the 19th century British writer and illustrator who often gets credited with inventing the Limerick. In all his anapestic glory, I give you “The Owl and the Pussycat,” “The Pobble Who Has No Toes,” and “The Duck and the Kangaroo,” which inspired a certain tiny boy’s Hallowe’en costume about 15 years ago. Timballo!

“The Owl and the Pussycat”

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea 

   In a beautiful pea-green boat, 

They took some honey, and plenty of money, 

   Wrapped up in a five-pound note. 

The Owl looked up to the stars above, 

   And sang to a small guitar, 

“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love, 

    What a beautiful Pussy you are, 

         You are, 

         You are! 

What a beautiful Pussy you are!” 


Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl! 

   How charmingly sweet you sing! 

O let us be married! too long we have tarried: 

   But what shall we do for a ring?” 

They sailed away, for a year and a day, 

   To the land where the Bong-Tree grows 

And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood 

   With a ring at the end of his nose, 

             His nose, 

             His nose, 

   With a ring at the end of his nose. 


“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling 

   Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.” 

So they took it away, and were married next day 

   By the Turkey who lives on the hill. 

They dined on mince, and slices of quince, 

   Which they ate with a runcible spoon; 

And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, 

   They danced by the light of the moon, 

             The moon, 

             The moon, 

They danced by the light of the moon.

“The Pobble Who Has No Toes”

The Pobble who has no toes
Had once as many as we;
When they said “Some day you may lose them all;”
He replied “Fish, fiddle-de-dee!”
And his Aunt Jobiska made him drink
Lavender water tinged with pink,
For she said “The World in general knows
There’s nothing so good for a Pobble’s toes!”

The Pobble who has no toes
Swam across the Bristol Channel;
But before he set out he wrapped his nose
In a piece of scarlet flannel.
For his Aunt Jobiska said “No harm
Can come to his toes if his nose is warm;
And it’s perfectly known that a Pobble’s toes
Are safe, — provided he minds his nose!”

The Pobble swam fast and well,
And when boats or ships came near him,
He tinkledy-blinkledy-winkled a bell,
So that all the world could hear him.
And all the Sailors and Admirals cried,
When they saw him nearing the further side –
“He has gone to fish for his Aunt Jobiska’s
Runcible Cat with crimson whiskers!”

But before he touched the shore,
The shore of the Bristol Channel,
A sea-green porpoise carried away
His wrapper of scarlet flannel.
And when he came to observe his feet,
Formerly garnished with toes so neat,
His face at once became forlorn,
On perceiving that all his toes were gone!

And nobody ever knew,
From that dark day to the present,
Whoso had taken the Pobble’s toes,
In a manner so far from pleasant.
Whether the shrimps, or crawfish grey,
Or crafty Mermaids stole them away –
Nobody knew: and nobody knows
How the Pobble was robbed of his twice five toes!

The Pobble who has no toes
Was placed in a friendly Bark,
And they rowed him back, and carried him up
To his Aunt Jobiska’s Park.
And she made him a feast at his earnest wish
Of eggs and buttercups fried with fish, –
And she said “It’s a fact the whole world knows,
That Pobbles are happier without their toes!”

Please note the tiny duck riding at the end of the kangaroo’s tale. This child is a walking poem.

“The Duck and the Kangaroo”


Said the Duck to the Kangaroo,

    ‘Good gracious! how you hop!

Over the fields and the water too,

    As if you never would stop!

My life is a bore in this nasty pond,

And I long to go out in the world beyond!

    I wish I could hop like you!’

    Said the Duck to the Kangaroo.


‘Please give me a ride on your back!’

    Said the Duck to the Kangaroo.

‘I would sit quite still, and say nothing but “Quack,”

    The whole of the long day through!

And we’d go to the Dee, and the Jelly Bo Lee,

Over the land, and over the sea;—

    Please take me a ride! O do!’

    Said the Duck to the Kangaroo.


Said the Kangaroo to the Duck,

    ‘This requires some little reflection;

Perhaps on the whole it might bring me luck,

    And there seems but one objection,

Which is, if you’ll let me speak so bold,

Your feet are unpleasantly wet and cold,

And would probably give me the roo-

    Matiz!’ said the Kangaroo.


Said the Duck, ‘As I sate on the rocks,

    I have thought over that completely,

And I bought four pairs of worsted socks

    Which fit my web-feet neatly.

And to keep out the cold I’ve bought a cloak,

And every day a cigar I’ll smoke,

    All to follow my own dear true

    Love of a Kangaroo!’


Said the Kangaroo, ‘I’m ready!

    All in the moonlight pale;

But to balance me well, dear Duck, sit steady!

    And quite at the end of my tail!’

So away they went with a hop and a bound,

And they hopped the whole world three times round;

    And who so happy,—O who,

    As the Duck and the Kangaroo?

These poems were written by Edward Lear (1812-88) and found on the Poetry Foundation site (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems) except for the Pobble, which I found here: https://web.cs.dal.ca/~johnston/poetry/pobble.html

Picture Books

Holiday Picture Book Extravaganza

Ok, maybe it’s not an extravaganza, but it’s one more than the last two years. Yay!
I haul out all our holiday picture books from the rec room for the month of December every year. When the kids were little, it meant we read holiday picture books almost exclusively for story time. Now that they’re big, it means we all sort of steal one and snuggle down surreptitiously for ten minutes of delight and nostalgia before going back to whatever homework/grading/finals sort of demand we’re facing.
This year I have a mix of old favorites and new treasures—from the traditional 12 Days of Christmas to the Sugar Plum Fairy who happens to have two dads. And then there’s the happy pagan winter tale, slightly updated, of Lucia, the little girl who faces down trolls to bring back the light.
Whether you have someone young to share these with or not, I promise they’re all worth your time.
1. Laurel Long’s “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is far and away the most visually stunning version I have ever seen. I have loved her work for years, especially her fairy tales “The Lady and the Lion” and “The Magic Nesting Doll,” but this one tops everything she’s ever done in my opinion. She includes each of the previous list of element in every page, so you can search for the partridge in every spread and the two turtle doves after the second, and all of them—ALL OF THEM—in the last spread. In the tradition of Graeme Base, this is amazing work.
2. “Lucia and the Light” is a rework of the trickster tale where the hero goes to fetch the sun from thieves. In Phyllis Root’s version, illustrated with big-eyed wonder by Mary Grandpré, the hero is a little girl whose name means ‘light,’ and the thieves are giant rock trolls. Lucia is loving and clever and brave, and she has a milk-white cat who is part sidekick, part familiar, and all delightful. My daughter was four when we got this, and she still reads it when I pull it out.
3. Do you know I love bunnies? And Nordic things? Especially gnomes, or as the Swedes call them, tomten? Ulf Stark and Eva Eriksson have a couple books out about “The Yule Tomte and the Little Rabbits” and one for Midsummer as well. The stories are sweet, and the illustrations are precious. They’re aimed at little ones, maybe 3-7 years, but I enjoy them both.
4. This year’s new discovery was “Plum: How the Sugar Plum Fairy Got Her Wings” by Sean Hayes and Scott Icenogle of Will and Grace fame, illustrated by Robin Thompson. This is the little-known backstory of the plucky orphan who becomes the princess of the Land of Sweets, and, when she’s learned to be generous of spirit, she earns her fairy wings. Pretty sweet.
5. Finally, there is “Auntie Claus” by Elise Primavera, another of my favorites from reading with the kids. Auntie Claus is Santa’s sister, and little Sophie sneaks out and stows away to learn the family secrets. This is imaginative and funny, and there’s a rule-spouting elf named Mr. Pudding.  I’m thinking that should be enough. If it’s not, the illustrations are delightful, and once or twice you have to turn the book sideways because the text and illustration demand it, so that’s always a plus.
There you have it: this year’s five picture books for the holidays. I hope you find time to check them out. I’ll happily read them, I mean loan them, to you if you like.
Merry merry, everyone.
Picture Books

More Board Books for Babies and Wee Folk

About a year ago, I wrote a blog about what books are my go-to gifts for baby showers. Today I became a great aunt. It’s time to talk baby books again.

Last time I was talking about the ones I couldn’t imagine a wee one growing in to toddlerhood without. little less color/number introduction and lullaby.
So in the interest of expanding libraries and celebrating baby Jackson, here goes:

 I am a Bunny by Ole Rissom and Richard Scarry. This is a slow-paced, low-action sort of introduction to a cute little rabbit and, by extension, the natural world. He’s wearing overalls and is completely adorable. A quiet-time, sweet moment, snuggling book.

Snuggle Puppy by Sandra Boynton. Speaking of snuggling. But it’s Boynton, so it’s bouncier, and you probably have to sing. My kids are teenagers, but they still remember the Snuggle Puppy song.

Sheep in a Shop by Margot Apple. She’s done a number of “Sheep” books, and they’re pretty uniformly delightful. This one is about a birthday party, so a good first glimpse of these sheepies. Lots of rhyming, bouncy, alliterative verse and silly humor.

 Big Red Barnby Margaret Wise Brown. A classic Tour of the Farm book, it introduces lots of animals and the noises they make. You need other books by her (Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny, but this one is charming too.

 Peek-a-booby Janet and Allan Ahlberg. A window book featuring a sweet, British family with a delightfully messy house. And when your house is a wreck because you can’t do laundry fast enough to keep up with a new baby, it’s somehow cathartic to see someone else’s messy house.

George Shrinks by William Joyce. Joyce is brilliant, not least in his adapting stories from one medium to another, but this little fantasy about George and his baby brother’s day being complicated by George’s sudden diminutive size is hilarious as well as witty.

Strega Nona by Tomie de Paola. This is a well-known folktale about a magic pot that works with a controlling spell, and doesn’t work if you don’t know the magic words. It’s a common enough trope, and this is a good first version for little ones.

Time for Bed by Mem Fox. We need one lullaby book, and we definitely need one from Mem Fox. She’s a champion for literacy and for reading aloud, and the books she writes are great for hunkering down on the couch and sinking in to a story. This one is an animal book and a lullaby and a lovesong to language.

Happy reading, my friends, and happy snuggling, and if you are fortunate enough to have a baby on your lap and a book in your hand, may you make the most of that magical encounter.
Picture Books · Reading

The Glorious, Oft-Sung Art of Word-Collecting

I can remember always loving words. The first big word I learned to spell was ‘elephant,’ and because I ran around for maybe half an hour singing the letters, I still have an audio memory of their order. I grouped them in to e-l-e, p-h, a-n-t mostly because of the sound of those letters together, but 4th grade me thought younger me was clever keeping the p-h together, since it spelled a single sound.

And that song evoked an elephant for me—every elephant tiny me could imagine, which included Dumbo and Pooh’s heffalumps, as well as more real ones I’d seen in books. As I sang, heffalumps danced in my mind’s eye with African elephants to the rhythm of my song.
That was just the first word I fell in love with.
Since then there have been so many wonderful words that have enchanted me—and I mean enchanted. They sing and they chant and they cast a spell. Mellifluous. Defenestrate. Nefarious.
Then I learned more languages. Éclat, mariposa, Kunst, grembo, uppivözlumaðr. I am an addict.
But I am not alone. And this is actually a blog about picture books.
In the last several years, there have been two picture books entitled “The Word Collector.” The first one was published in Spain in 2011 (La coleccionista de palabras) by Sonja Wimmer and features a girl named Luna, who lives “high, high up in the sky,” above people, apart from them, either in a lighthouse or in the clouds (or in a lighthouse in the clouds—the illustrations are delightfully ambiguous.)
The second book is by Peter H. Reynolds and features an African-American boy named Jerome (although the title is gender-neutral in English, of course—for just a second I had imagined another girl), who lives among people and draws the words he collects from his environment. He writes down words he hears, words he sees in the world, and words he reads in books on strips of paper and puts them away carefully.
Both of these children collect words of all different types, for all different kinds of affinities. Sometimes they like what the word means; sometimes they like how it sounds. But they also like words that seem to fit their referent—‘molasses’ tends to be drawn out, like a slow pour. That’s really a response to the inherent order of the universe, to my eye—to form following function.  And sometimes they just like how the words make them feel.
Their crises differ, though. Luna notices the world has become too busy to use—let alone appreciate—words, so she contrives to redistribute the ones she has collected like a benevolent goddess, sowing, weaving, and scattering words like seeds. She gifts the world with the fertile imagination that a substantial vocabulary fosters so well.
Jerome’s journey is both smaller and bigger than Luna’s. He drops his scrapbooks and boxes, in which he’d stored his sorted words, and ends up putting them back together in new, unexpected combinations, discovering poetry and music and seeing that they are good. He thinks about words, learning that sometimes the simplest are the most powerful—“I’m sorry” and “You matter.”
Finally, he comes to realize that his big word collection has improved his ability to understand who he is and to share his ideas and dreams with the world, and he wants that for others too. He releases his words from the top of a hill, and children below scramble to gather them.
Jerome’s story is about self-empowerment and paying it forward. Luna’s, with its visual artistry of the text as well as images, is more about sharing the gifts of beauty and connection to others. But they both begin with a sense of wonder at words and end with sharing their beloved words with the world.
Why do they both feel like gods to me when they dispense their words? Is that what Little Me was responding to—the power that words confer on their wielders? Maybe. That is old magic, as we know from lots of traditions (the songs of Orpheus, the logos of the New Testament, the runes of Germanic paganism, or the tradition of true names that can be used to control people or entities).
But so much of the appeal for me is wonder and joy at the music of a word or the perfect capturing of an idea, or—as Jerome discovers—the serendipitous collision of a few words that make something new, unexpected, and utterly splendiferous.
The Anglo-Saxons referred to language as their “word hoards.” (First—obviously—that’s that’s why I fell in love at first sight with Anglo-Saxon.) Second—I am heartened to know this glorious tradition has not lost any ground in the intervening centuries. Words are still gemstones to be marveled at, collected, and shared.
E-l-e… p-h… a-n-t. I dare you not to see one dancing in your head.
Picture Books · Reading

A Poem for National Poetry Month: The Cremation of Sam McGee

I’m weighed down with work this week, so borrowing words from someone else. Robert W. Service was born in Lancashire, England but sort of ran away to be a cowboy in Western Canada. And a poet. And a banker. Not necessarily in that order.
He wrote a bunch of poetry that my dad discovered when he moved to Alaska to go to college, and I grew up listening to my dad’s favorites. The ones dad chose were always funny, rollicking ballads (with the exception of “The Spell of the Yukon,” which reminded us both of John Muir’s reverential nature writing).
Here I reproduce for your reading pleasure and in honor of National Poetry Month, “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” which I lift shamelessly from the Poetry Foundation’s excellent website. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/robert-w-service
Next week I hope to have some more words to share with you. In the meantime, I leave you in Service’s capable hands:
The Cremation of Sam McGee
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.
Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam ’round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”
On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.
And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he, “I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I’m asking that you won’t refuse my last request.”
Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
“It’s the cursèd cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet ’tain’t being dead—it’s my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last remains.”
A pal’s last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.
There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: “You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.”
Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows— O God! how I loathed the thing.
And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I’d often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.
Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the “Alice May.”
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry, “is my cre-ma-tor-eum.”
Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.
Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don’t know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.
I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: “I’ll just take a peep inside.
I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked”; … then the door I opened wide.
And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.

(The image is from Ted Harrison’s illustrated edition of the poem published in 1986.)

Living · Picture Books

Convertibles and Cocoa: A California Christmas Post (with Picture Books)

Winter in Southern California is a bit of a joke. (And right now, huge swaths are burning as wildfires rage, which is no joke at all.) I saw two convertibles with their tops down today, December 18. It was 70 degrees and gorgeous.
As a person who grew up in the mountains and then lived in the Midwest for eight years, I’ve seen enough snow, frankly, but my kids haven’t. So we put inflatable snowmen in our yard, hang plastic icicles from the eaves, and read picture books about winter.
There’s something kind of wonderful about a season of stillness. In my imagination, if not my zip code, winter involves immobility enforced by nature, as if the whole world is telling us to stop for a bit—rest, chat, drink something warm and comforting, and regroup.
(I get a similar feeling whenever the power goes out. What can I say? I’m an opportunist.)
But winter is lovely. It’s the icing on the cake of the year, and an invitation to reflect on what has happened in the last year, and what we want to happen in the coming year. The Roman god Janus, from whose name we get January, has two faces—one looking back and one looking forward. So I try to pause and honor that transition, even where the flowers bloom year round and people wear flip-flops in December.
And here are a few of my favorite snowy books, that we read to remember.
      Winter’s Child, by Angela McAllister, breathtakingly illustrated by Grahame Baker-Smith.   A story of a boy whose grandmother is weakened by the long winter, but who is having so much fun playing in the snow, he wishes it would stay forever—so it does, until he learns about the importance of cycles (Apollo’s creed leaps to mind: Nothing in excess).

 Jack Frost by William Joyce. Joyce’s genius, to my mind, lies in his ability to adapt his work for many media. His Guardians of Childhood series includes novels, picture books, and films, and this one tells the back story of Jack Frost, in all his celestial and icy splendor. Light abounds, and in the winter, it sparkles like magic.
         Santa Claus by Mauri Kunnas, the Finnish author who weaves so much culture and history in to his children’s books.  This is a picture of the title page, not the cover, because I wanted the Aurora, but his books are full of detail and visual jokes. This is Santa’s back story and sort of a Behind-the-Scenes look at the whole Yule season. And yes, this is the same Mauri Kunnas who gave us the spectacular Canine Kalevala, which I regard as one of the greatest literary  achievements of the 20th century. 😊
     Merry Christmas, Matty Mouse, by Nancy Walker-Guye, illustrated by Nora Hilb. This might be the sweetest Christmas story you read this year. It’s about a mouse who bakes cookies at school to give to his mommy, but he gives most of them to hungry friends on the way home. A sweet lesson about generosity and bounty, we read it every year.  And I cry every year. In a good way.
That’s it for this year. Unless I’m compelled by an unpredicted force to write on Christmas Day, I’m taking next week off, and I’ll see you in 2018. May the turning of the year bring light and luck and love to you all.
Picture Books

The Baby Shower Blog, or Alison’s Favorite Board Books

Hi, my name is Alison, and I disregard baby registries.
I hope someone picks up my slack and gets you the bottles and onesies and Diaper Genie I know you need, but I’m bringing books to your shower.
There is almost nothing that makes me happier than giving books to kids. I feel like that’s one of my callings. I do it as often as opportunity presents itself, and sometimes I create the opportunity.

And after years of experience, I do it pretty well. I’ve read a lot of kids’ books—with my kids, with my students, and in my comfy chair all by myself, and I promise I’ll bring the kind of books you won’t get sick of reading after three times, because it’s important that you have the stamina to read it ten times if your kid wants to hear it ten times.

The market for little kids’ books is glutted with poorly written drivel, with saccharine rhymes and trite morals, because lots of people still write down to kids. I promise to find charming books that make you want to read them. Some that make you happy to make silly noises or silly faces, and some that make you both laugh. Some you can sing, and some that make you sigh. And if you’re interested, as your kiddo grows, I’ll make more suggestions.
Alison’s Starter List of Board Books for Babies:
1. Kiss Goodnight (A cuddly “Sam” book by Amy Hest, illustrated by Anita Jeram)
2. Mouse Paint (A color book with a last sentence that rings: “But they left some white because of the cat.” By Ellen Stoll Walsh)
3. Jamberry (An aural and visual feast by Bruce Degen)
4. Is Your Mama a Llama? (An animal book with more than just puppies and kittens—not that there’s anything wrong with puppies and kittens, but let’s face it: it’s a big world—by Deborah Guarino, illustrated by Steven Kellogg)
5. Doggies (A counting and barking book by Sandra Boynton, who could grace this list many times, but I’ll stick with this one because we need to know all the different ways American doggies bark at least as much as we need to know how to count to ten)
6. The Runaway Bunny (Because someone else already bought you Goodnight Moon, but you need this one too, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd)
7. Freight Train (A book full of color and action and noise and because, as Paul Simon reminds us, “everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance” by Donald Crews) 
8. Grandfather Twilight (A beautiful, calming, winding down sort of book for the end of a busy day, by Barbara Berger)
There are more, but I’ll stop there tonight.  Happy reading.