The Book that Made Me

Thirty-one authors with essays on the books that made them who they are sounded too enticing to pass up. The Book that Made Me with these essays collected by children’s literature expert Judith Ridge was published first in September in Australia and this month by Candlewick in America. While the writer names from New Zealand and Australia were largely unfamiliar to me, their ideas and passions rang a recognizable tune. 

The concept was for the authors to name the one book that was the greatest inspiration in their life or their work. James Roy summarizes the theme in his essay, “Everyone knows that often the best books are the ones that speak to us, the ones we truly relate to. The ones that make us go, ‘I know that feeling.’ ”

As you might guess with thirty-one writers, variety ensued. Some seemed not to understand the concept of one book and gave a list. Some leaned more to what formed them as writers and some to how the book(s) had changed them as people. One cited oral lore from the Palyku people of western Australia rather than a book. One leads into a long paragraph of general parenting advice.

Writers got these cherished childhood books from a variety of places – their library, their family bookshelves, or as gifts. One was pretty sure she stole hers. Expected titles of Chronicles of Narnia, a variety of Dr. Seuss titles, Nancy Drew, and The Book Thief were interspersed with Australian and New Zealand titles unknown to me.

Shaun Tan’s cartoons threading their way through the book along with photographs of the authors in their youth added fun and charm. I enjoyed comparing their choices and the ways they were influenced with my own relationships with books. (In case you are wondering, I would have chosen Little Women.)

I would agree with a line from Ambelin Kwaymullina’s essay, and I think those writers would, too. “Every story matters, and we all have the power to influence the future.”  


Berry Good

I thought I’d heard all the stories. My 88-year-old Aunt Ruth pulled me aside to look at the picture of the family home where she grew up and where all the family gatherings were held. “You remember Grandma Berry?”

Of course, I did. Until she died when I was fifteen, one stop of any part of a trip to my grandfather’s house was to pay homage to her. We would find this long-widowed grandmother in the home of one of her children or grandchildren as they passed her around. Dressed in modest high-necked dresses with sleeves at least three-quarter length, she lived an uncomfortable life in the Mississippi heat where some of her granddaughters ran around in short shorts. A small person, now stooped even further with osteoporosis, I remembered her mostly as old. Mama never failed to tell me I should have known her when she was younger.

Aunt Ruth pointed to the porch in the picture. “When I was engaged and brought your Uncle Leo Berry home to meet the family, Grandma Berry took me around to the back of the house.” Her finger traced their path heading for their private meeting.

I tried to figure what this unusual confidential meeting could have meant. Grandma Berry had graduated from eighth grade, as far as she could go at the time in their small community, and married Grandpa Berry at sixteen. Aunt Ruth had one year of college behind her and was marrying soon after her nineteenth birthday. Would Grandma Berry question her age? As young as it seems now, neither was unusual for their time.

Aunt Ruth continued the story she wanted me to know. “When we got to the back of the house by ourselves, Grandma Berry told me she hoped my Berry would be as good as her Berry.” She ended her story with a rather smug smile. I hadn’t known Grandpa Berry who died before I was born, but I have known Uncle Leo for the almost seventy years they have been married. Aunt Ruth, now the age that I remembered Grandma Berry, knew I would see that her Berry had met the standard.


Mysterious Patterns

To be honest, I had observed the phenomenon but didn’t know the word “fractal” until I read Sarah Campbell’s picture book, Mysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature (2014). Sarah explains that the term did not exist until 1975. In the author’s note at the end, she adds an intriguing story of Benoit Mandelbrot, the overlooked scientist who studied and named them.

A fractal shape has smaller parts that look like the whole. Trees form a good example in their shapes against the sky. Smaller versions of limbs with twigs join together to make the larger tree that repeats the same basic shape. Broccoli makes a hands-on version familiar to children that is easy for them to take apart one floret at a time to see how it repeats the pattern of the stalk.

Sarah and her photographer husband and writing partner Richard add several other natural fractals like Queen Anne’s lace, rivers, and even the airways in human lungs. My favorite fractals to observe, at least for the moment, are the trees bare against the blue sky all winter, transforming but holding the pattern as they push out green leaves at the tops of their shapes.

I love the way Sarah and Richard combine science, photographic art, and child friendly activities. Previous books Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator (2008) and Growing Patterns: Fibonacci Patterns in Nature (2010) follow their own similar pattern and have won many awards in the children’s book world.  Adults who reads the Campbells’ books aloud to children get a bonus in their own enjoyment of the photographs and maybe learn a thing or two themselves. Rumor has it that another book is in the works. I’ll be waiting. 


In Memory

Except for my annual Christmas post, I don’t do many reruns on my blog, but I’ve lost a faithful blog follower and feel a need to remember. We’ll celebrate the 94 years of Moran Pope’s life at University Baptist Church tomorrow where preparations are already in place for the expected overflow crowd. Here’s the blog I wrote for Valentine’s Day in 2014.

WWII Love Story

Valentine’s Day would be a waste without a good love story, and one of my favorites comes from World War II. Six decades after it happened, Yvonne Pope’s eyes shone every time I heard her tell it. Her husband Moran could entertain with his own version – and with a matching twinkle in his eye.

Small town Newton, Mississippi girls’ wedding expectations included a white dress extending into a long train before a bank of flowers and candelabra with lifelong friends standing up for the couple as bridesmaids and ushers. World War II brought on adjustments. Moran learned he would be shipped out to the South Pacific upon completion of his officer training at Colombia University in New York City. Yvonne left her original wedding plans behind and boarded a train. They were married in Manhattan’s Riverside Church – #38 of 54 Navy couples on the same afternoon. They would be separated for most of the next two years.

After the war, she and Moran settled in Hattiesburg, MS where they raised their son and daughter. He served as mayor and practiced law. She served as gracious hostess. Both were active in community and church activities.

Yvonne’s story was fed by the abundant love songs of the era, and she passed along her love for the music to her daughter. Yvonne played the piano while Melinda sang along. The passion was contagious.

In recent years, as Yvonne’s health failed, Melinda DeRocker made what she describes as a homemade recording for her mother, picking their favorites to share. After Yvonne’s death, with encouragement and support from her husband Rob, the other member of her own love story, Melinda produced a professional album of those songs dedicated to her parents. I listen as I write, “Gibraltar may crumble – Our love is here to stay,” and picture Yvonne and Moran, both storytellers, recounting their versions of the story. While their young love makes for an exciting story, the better part is that the end of it was nowhere in sight with Yvonne’s death sixty-eight years later.

Still forever young at 94, Moran read my blogs on Facebook and often offered a comment. I was in an OLLI class with him a couple of weeks before his death where he still relished learning something new. He savored life until, like the grandfather’s clock in the song, his heart stopped short on March 2 never to go again. My own heart is grateful for the smiles he brought with his stories and for the example he set of how to live and how to die.


Piper Perish - Challenge # 1

The new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Gene Luen Yang, has issued three challenges for readers. He calls the gauntlet he has thrown down "Reading Without Walls." I had just begun the debut novel Piper Perish by Kayla Cagan and was considering leaving it and moving on to another book when I read about his list in The Horn Book Magazine.

His first challenge was to read a book about a character unlike yourself. I realized this first challenge was the reason I was thinking about putting the book down. I had little in common with Piper. (1) In this coming-of-age story, Piper looks to finish high school and pursue an art education. You could put all my art ability in a thimble and still have room for my finger. (2) She lives in the city of Houston, with the ambition of moving on to New York City to pursue her art. I’m stretching my urban comfort zone to live just outside the city limits of Hattiesburg, MS (population – less than 50,000). (3) Her teen years are filled with risky behaviors and coarse language. My teenage environment as the daughter of a rural pastor was sheltered.

Piper’s intensity as she and her two friends work toward making it to New York together hits pitfalls as each of them encounters obstacles. Piper’s close-knit family deals with her sister’s pregnancy that intensifies the rivalry between them and with the reality that the art school she wants to attend is beyond their budget.

I soon found myself pulling for Piper, turning pages to see how she and her friends would handle their difficulties, and enjoying the quotes that kept her inspired. (“As soon as you stop wanting something, you get it.” – Andy Warhol)

I’m glad I accepted this first challenge from Gene. I’ll be doing the others as well, and reporting here before his year is up. If you’d like to join the fun, you can find his challenge at: Piper Perish makes a good place to start.