About Those Wild Things

I’ll get my two part confession out of the way first. (1) I never read Where the Wild Things Are to my students. My reason is the second part of the confession. (2) I didn’t like it. Early in my teaching career, I heard a sound piece of advice in a workshop. The presenter said, “If you don’t like a book, choose something else to read aloud to your students. They will pick up on your negative feelings.” So I chose to read aloud other Maurice Sendak books that I liked. There were plenty to choose from.

My students shared my love for Pierre: A Cautionary Tale, giggling at its absurdities and feeling very superior to the brat who answers everything with “I don’t care,” including the lion’s suggestion that he could eat Pierre.

We started every new month with a poem from his Chicken Soup with Rice: A Book of Months. A sample to get you ready for June:
            In June
            I saw a charming group
            Of roses all begin
            To droop.
            I pepped them up
            With chicken soup!
            Sprinkle once
            Sprinkle twice
            Sprinkle chicken soup
            With rice.

Now I had no personal quarrel with the wild things and was shocked to find among Ezra Jack Keats papers an exchange in the March 1969 Ladies Home Journal. In the previous issue, an expert pediatrician had a conversation with three irate mothers in which they denounce the book as being too damaging to children’s psyches. Keats had written a scathing letter to the editor defending the book and berating the physician who had admitted that he had not read the book. The magazine published Keats’ letter along with a lukewarm semi-apology from the pediatrician who claimed to have come to his original conclusion after he read the book before the article actually went to publication. Shame on him and hooray for Ezra!

I joined the multitudes in the book world in feelings of loss when the news came of Sendak’s death last week – not just for his own books but for the gazillion or so that he illustrated.

My own feelings about Where the Wild Things Are remain unchanged. (Sorry about my taste. While I’m confessing, I also hate Moby Dick.) But I’m very glad I didn’t pass that feeling on to my students. I have good memories of looking back after a trip to the school library with my class and seeing a reluctant second grade reader sitting at his desk absolutely lost with Max and the Wild Things. So glad I didn’t spoil it for him!


Mama's Cooking Lessons

Daddy’s eyebrows jumped all the way up to the double deep inverted V of his hairline when I said, “Mama did a good job of teaching me to cook.” To understand his surprise, you have to know a bit about Mama’s relationship with the kitchen. Things she cooked well were:
•    Cobbler – with any kind of fresh fruit
•    Chicken and dumplings
•    Chocolate covered cherries (only at Christmas)
•    Cookies
•    Biscuits

That’s about it, and I’ve used only one hand to count. Now she was adamant that meals were balanced and healthy to the point that when I needed to remember one more of the seven basic food groups for a home economics test, I only had to go through our menu for the previous day to find it. The food just wasn’t what my brother-in-law would call “tasty.”

When I was nine, I suggested that I might learn to cook. Even then, I favored “tasty.” Mama jumped on the idea like a duck on a June bug and handed me a cookbook. I knew where everything was in the kitchen from years of dishwashing duty. She told me where she would be working if I needed her and left me with the run of the kitchen.

I didn’t need an advanced degree to know I was better off with the cookbook than her advice so she was rarely disturbed. The plan worked to perfection since I was happy in the kitchen and she was happy out of it. Waiting for pots to boil and sauce to thicken, I even found a new source of reading material – cookbooks!

As I’ve thought about Mama on this Mother’s Day weekend, it has occurred to me that Mama taught me many other things in the same way she taught me to cook. She gave basic information, pointed out resources to use, offered her availability if needed, and then trusted me to figure out the process and add my own stamp to it. It’s not a bad parenting model.


Waiting for the Train

What kid doesn’t love a train? My early four-year-old love for trains got my fifteen-year-old aunt in a peck of trouble. Her assignment was to sit with me in church while Daddy preached and Mama sang in the choir. Daddy tolerated a lot of things, but had no patience with Aunt Ruth’s intermittent fits of giggles that ran throughout his sermon. He took her to task as soon as we got home. “Berton, I couldn’t help it,” she said. “Virginia Ann knew the first two hymns and sang along. She didn’t know the last one, so she sang ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’ instead.”

Phase Two of my love for trains came in our next home in Hardy Station perched atop a hill that was slashed in two for the train track. [Note the train reference even in the name of the village.]  Train whistles day and night and the ground shudders accompanying them were lullaby and rocking chair for a good night’s sleep. We watched daily for the train that swung a heavy bag of incoming mail onto the hook while it lifted the outgoing bag. One engineer, a longtime friend of my parents, blew his whistle as he passed if he saw one of us out on the rope-and-board swing hanging from the oak tree.

Fast forward many years to my husband’s Army assignment in West Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Our family traveled on the train through the night for a visit in Berlin. We woke up as the glide of the tracks became a rumble traveling the miles over rough track through East Germany. Having become accustomed to West Germany’s trains that went everywhere and ran on time, I had to rethink my reaction when I traveled home for my father’s funeral and found myself stranded in the Atlanta airport. A January ice and snow storm covering the South grounded planes flying west of Atlanta and left me with little hope of getting to Mississippi. My first thought was, “It’s okay. I’ll go downstairs and take the train.” Then I remembered I wasn’t in Germany any more.

Partial redemption for this American shortage has come in our move to Hattiesburg, although my husband insisted that we not buy a house anywhere near a railroad track. The noises do not say “comforts of home” to him. Hattiesburg’s newly refurbished depot beautifully hosts exhibits and community events. And they still sell tickets to exotic places like Birmingham where I can visit my sister Beth. The train trip takes about the same time and money as the drive with seating that is spacious and comfortable. I take some reading, some writing, some cross stitch (no ‘rithmetic), and enjoy my journey.

Tomorrow, May 12 is the fifth National Train Day. If you are also a train lover, find local events at I’m celebrating by imagining an American rail system where passenger trains go everywhere and run on time and travelers waiting for the train sing “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”


Writing a Garden or Gardening a Story?

Flowers sprout all through the stories of Mississippi writers Eudora Welty and William Faulkner. Eudora Welty didn’t stop with sowing flower seeds into her settings. She often used their names for her characters. My sister and her fellow garden club members in New Albany, MS tend a garden devoted to flowers mentioned in Faulkner’s works at the Union County Heritage Museum. Both the museum and garden are worth a visit if you happen to be up that way.

Having observed the writing-gardening connection, it seemed to me that I could lose my “black thumb” reputation with my children when we moved back to Mississippi almost eleven years ago. The previous owners of our house left me with a good start but a different gardening philosophy. They were laid-out-formal-garden people and shaped-up-shrub-trimmers. My plan includes minimal pruning while maintaining natural shapes and allowing any plant that pops up to stay if I like it. The shaped up shrubs are long gone. My hodge-podge cottage garden suits me fine. I invite you for a short tour.

Whoever named these plants “purple” coneflowers had to be colorblind. A more accurate description would be hot pink. Also know as Echinacea they are touted as a remedy for colds. I can’t vouch for that, but I like them because they reseed and bloom beautifully with no effort on my part.


This rose came from a cutting I rooted from my mother-in-law’s bush. This heavy cluster, one of many covering the bush, took a strong stem almost to the ground, forcing me to take the picture with the camera underneath the blooms. It’s heady fragrance fills the yard.


Queen Anne’s Lace, often considered a weed, brings back memories and blooms wherever it wants with my permission. My mother and sister-in-law gathered it from pastures and road ditches for filler for Mama’s flower arrangements in tall white wicker baskets for my wedding.


Black-eyed Susans – I know these are wildflowers, but who could pull up anything this cheerful?





Occasionally, I actually buy a really truly bulb such as this in a garden store. It blooms quite happily alongside the passalongs and wildflowers.



This common milk-and-wine lily or crinum was always known to my sisters and me and then to my children as “Papaw’s Lilies” because they lined the side of his house. In true Mississippi writer fashion, these lilies became a crucial part of my story “Rags and Riches” in the September 2011 issue of Cricket Magazine.

My gardening plan has worked to the extent that my children now look for other items to ridicule besides my gardening skills. Something beautiful is always about to happen in the yard even through the winter with its abundance of red-berried hollies and nandinas.

As for the writing, I find that words that were blocked in my head come unstuck along with the weeds I pull.   


Librarians on the Loose

When someone says “librarian,” do you picture a bespectacled, bun-in-hair, unmarried woman running around saying “SHHH”? Maybe you know all the words to “Marian, the Librarian” and picture Shirley Jones in The Music Man.

Check out the pictures in this blog to see what librarians really do when nobody is looking. These were taken at the gathering of better than 350 people, predominantly librarians, at the Faye be Kaigler Children’s Book Festival. I’ve added a short list of other things they do that come readily to mind.

  • Match new books to patrons who will “just love this one”
  • Locate books for interlibrary loans
  • Work hand in hand with classroom teachers to enhance education and children's love of books
  • Teach technology challenged adults to download books loaned to their electronic reading devices
  • Lead book clubs
  • Provide computer access for those who do not have it at home
  • Plan engaging summer programs for kids through adults
  • Read banned books: To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter, Bridge to Terebithia, Gone With the Wind, the Bible, etc.
  • Defend banned books – for firsthand accounts read True Stories of Censorship Battles in America's Libraries edited by Kathy Barco and Valerie Nye, a collection of essays, some by children's librarians

I could go on but I must get back to the librarian stereotype. At the festival, I did see several who were bespectacled – they read extensively after all. They were single, married, or divorced. Some had children or grandchildren, and some were childless. I did not see one bun in the crowd of librarians, and nobody said, “SHHH”.

I close by asking you to do two things for me as a personal favor:
1. If you see a librarian this week, just say thanks.
2. Please don’t tell my librarian friends that I ratted them out with my pictures. I’d hate to lose my status with the Children’s Book Festival.