In 2008, my friend on the Newbery Committee asked me to do her a big favor. She wanted me to read books and give her my opinion. Just look at the sacrifice she asked me to make: 1 – I had to read. 2 – I had to give my opinion. Out of the goodness of my heart, I agreed. I didn’t read nearly as many books as the committee members, and I didn’t have the burden of getting this right since that award makes a book an unending part of the children’s literature canon. However, I took it seriously and read about 50 books. One of those was The Underneath by Kathi Appelt.

Now, Kathi had to overcome a couple of things to get me involved in this book. First, I am not a cat person. Secondly, for pleasure I choose historical fiction – not books with shape-shifters. But she hooked me with her first line, “There is nothing lonelier than a cat who has been loved, at least for a while, and then abandoned on the side of the road.”

I followed that hook at once with my first reading. I read quickly from beginning to end, anxious for the animals in the “dark and holy” Underneath and for the shape-shifters in the Caddo woods bordering Little Sorrowful Creek. Compelled to finish in a sitting, I breathed a sigh of relief when the ends were tied together into a satisfying close.  So what did I do then?

I immediately turned the book back to the beginning and read slowly. I read the first time as a reader. This time I read as a writer, looking to see how Kathi Appelt worked her magic. I saw her move back and forth from the forest to the Underneath, from the animals to the shape-shifters. I was reminded of weavers on a loom, plying their threads over and under and around until a beautiful pattern emerges. I relished description made me settle into the darkness and safety of the Underneath, feel the warmth of the goldy sun, or shudder in the midst of the storm.

I loved her poetic rules and their refrain:
•    Do not cross his angry path. Do not.
•    Do not look into that mouth of cotton. Do not.
•    Do not get in front of the man and his rifle. Do not.
After I finished my second read, I suggested that our Oak Grove Library buy a copy and they did.

So why did I read The Underneath a third time? Missing is a theme in the book, and I felt it myself. It’s been four years, and I missed Ranger, Sabine, and Puck. I missed the Alligator King, Grandmother Moccasin, and Night Song. I even missed Gar Face a little bit. So I returned to the library this month and checked it out. I was pleased that the book was no longer in pristine condition – not from being treated roughly, just from having been read often.

Had the choice been mine, this would have been the winner of the Newbery. This is not the first time that I have preferred an honor book over the winner. Truth to tell, after the cream rises to the top in each year’s selections, good arguments can be made for any of those books. I am really glad the burden of that right choice is not on my shoulders.

Just the same, I will conclude this blog with an important admonition:

Do not miss this book. Do not.


Driving Richard Peck

As time nears for the annual Faye B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival at the University of Southern Mississippi, I manage my wait time by reminiscing about festivals past. For several years, I’ve been a driver for one of the guests. I can’t remember exactly how this started, but I have suspicions that it may be similar to the way I handled pesky kids who hung around my desk by giving them something to do.

One of my favorite memories from this assignment comes from the year I drove Richard Peck. USM had finished making the campus pedestrian friendly by closing off several streets that used to run through the campus. On our return from supper at the Alumni House, I took a street that had become a dead end. With cars parked on both sides of a narrow street and another car behind me, I proceeded to rock my car back and forth to get turned around.

About halfway through this process, I invoked the name of what may be Richard’s most beloved character from his books. “Richard, before this is over, you may wish that Grandma Dowdel was driving.”

“Oh, no,” he said. “She can’t drive either.”

The laughter from the two back seat passengers drowned out his assurance that he was kidding.

Besides having a quick wit and being a genuinely nice person, Richard also gave good advice to attendees at the festival:
•    You have to read 1,000 books before you write one.
•    The Great American Theme is coming-of-age.
•    You always learn the most from the experience you would have avoided if you could.
•    You can only write by the light of the bridges burning behind you.

This month’s Horn Book Magazine gives another quote from him, “We write in admiration of better writers than we are.” For me, one of those is Richard Peck.


Ex-Kid? Maybe

Jacob Ezra Katz began life on March 11, 1916 as a scrawny immature baby, starting his life in an incubator. The neighbors who came to see him when he was big enough to come home immediately asked, “Do you think he will make it?” The future didn’t look promising for a child of Jewish immigrant parents struggling to eke out a living in Brooklyn. If they could only have known…

Ezra didn’t stay scrawny and immature, but he did stay sickly all his life and enhanced his real health problems with a touch of hypochondria. He didn’t even stay Jacob Ezra Katz, changing his name as an adult to Ezra Jack Keats in response to an anti-Semitic environment.

His venture into the art world began when he was a toddler scribbling on the linoleum floor and eating his crayons. This venture continued as a preschooler who decorated the kitchen table all the way around with ink drawings, an award-winning art student as he passed through school, and an adult who struggled to make a living with his art. He came into his own in midlife when he began to illustrate for children’s magazines and books. His real breakthrough came with the publication of the first book he both wrote and illustrated – The Snowy Day – now celebrating the 50th year since its publication.

The book was significant for children as the first full color picture book to feature a Black child as the protagonist in a non-stereotypical way. But he went on to write many more, including in his books the children of the many ethnicities he had grown up with in his Brooklyn neighborhood. They had fun and solved problems common to all children everywhere, confirmed by the many languages into which they were translated, but he continued to use the city tenements of his childhood for his favorite setting.

Keats enjoyed many recognitions from libraries and cities that had Ezra Jack Keats Days and named reading rooms for him. He won the Caldedott Medal for The Snowy Day and received a medallion given by the University of Southern Mississippi for his body of work. He came a long way from his fragile beginning.

For all his awards, I think Keats would be most pleased that his book The Snowy Day is still being chosen for things like my friend’s literacy project in North Carolina where the book will be featured in a reading fair for children who don’t have access to many books of their own. My friend knows my interest in all Keats things and asked me for ideas. She will read from a large copy of The Snowy Day with the children using their own smaller copies. I would like to have a periscope that sees from Mississippi to North Carolina to watch them enjoy the book – and perhaps make their own collages afterwards. Maybe she’ll send pictures.

Someone said Keats’s continuing appeal to children came because he was an ex-kid. The “ex” is debatable. I think the kid was still alive and well inside him until the day he died. My plan for his birthday on Sunday is to find the kid inside me, read the anniversary edition of The Snowy Day, and sing happy birthday to Ezra on what would be his 96th.


The Joys of Reading Aloud

I do love a good celebration, and March 7 is World Read Aloud Day. Although I loved my years as a classroom teacher, I have not once missed writing lesson plans, grading papers, or filling out report cards. Truthfully, I have only missed my relationships with my students and reading aloud. No matter what age I taught, reading aloud was part of the day.

My kindergarteners and I sat in a circle where I held the book for them to see the pictures and read upside down. They chanted with me the Gingerbread Man’s refrain, “Run, run, as fast as you can…”, empathized with the friendship of Frog and Toad, and giggled over Petunia’s belief that merely owning a book made her wise. Reading aloud was the central part of the day.

I read to my second graders at the end of the day. No matter what the day had held – hard math problems, turnip greens for cafeteria lunch, or skinned knees on the playground – the read aloud assured a happy ending. They loved Tikki Tikki Tembo and worked hard to say his whole name (Tikki Tikki Tembo No Sa Rembo Chari Bari Ruchi Pip Peri Pembo) correctly to earn the reward of borrowing my book. And how they loved the story in each chapter of All-of-a- Kind Family, especially the surprise when their friends Charlie and the Library Lady find their lost loves – each other – at the family Succoth celebration! One parent helper even changed her volunteering time to be there for the read-aloud. Her favorite was Stuart Little.

I started my junior high classes daily with the read aloud. It gave us connections. They enjoyed the chapter in Cheaper by the Dozen when Mr. Gilbreth, the autocrat of dinner table conversation, declares that the cute new boy at school is “not of general interest” for discussion whereas any topic of world affairs is acceptable. Afterwards, when these junior high jewels began to chase rabbits to get me off language arts topics, all I had to say was “not of general interest.” They laughed and returned to the subject – no doubt classifying me as the autocrat of the classroom.     
    Perhaps my favorite was the character tracking we did on the overhead as we kept up with the multitude of characters in Tale of Two Cities. The day came when Jerry discovers the man who had been missing from the grave he robbed, alive and well in Paris – and up to no good. What fun I had watching as the light came on in the students’ faces one by one as they joined the important discovery by the almost forgotten minor character with the rusty nails.
    One Monday, a student came in to bemoan one of her friend’s bad decisions over the weekend. She laughed at herself. “I said to myself that she was thinking just like Jeff until I remembered Jeff wasn’t real.” He was the naive protagonist in A Solitary Blue by Cynthia Voight, a favorite read aloud for this teacher as well as her students.
    Then there was the day the assistant principal came in to do his unannounced observation of my teaching during the read aloud. He forgot that his status as a fly-on-the-wall and jumped right into the middle of the ensuing discussion. (I wound up with an extra unexpected older student that day!)

There are solid educational reasons for reading aloud, but for me, the most important reason is the sheer pleasure for the reader and listeners. After all, in the end, isn’t the purpose of teaching reading to turn students into lifelong book lovers?


Thank you, Dr. Seuss

My first kiddie lit course came secondhand the year I was thirteen. In those days because she had two years of college, Mama taught first grade on a “temporary certificate” and took six semester hours of college credit every summer at Ole Miss to renew her teaching certificate for the following fall. The summer she took the children’s literature course, she shared her enthusiasm for writers like Roger Duvoisin, Wanda Gag, Robert McCloskey, and Eleanor Estes. Her textbook, bought “used” to save money, became a family treasure of stories from great literature. My youngest sister, who had used its stories with her son, generously returned the battered book to me a couple of years ago.  

Although he had been writing for a while, it was this during this summer class that Mama discovered Dr. Seuss. She loved And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. It became one of the staples in her first grade classroom long before it became one of mine when I taught kindergarten and second grade. The front of my worn copy has my oldest son’s name and our address when he was in first grade. (Don’t tell him or he will want it back.) It also has a sticky note on the title page that says it got 29 rejections before a publisher bought it and that he used “Dr. Seuss” as his pseudonym for the children’s book intending to save his real name – Theodore Seuss Geisel – for serious adult stuff. Thankfully, he thought better of that idea and left a world of people with their own connections to his treasure trove of children’s books, including the people in my family.

Our first child loved The 500 Hats of Bartholemew Cubbins and soon “flupp, flupp, flupped” along as the hats flew off Bartholemew’s head while he climbed the stairs. The second two learned to read from Dr. Seuss’s ABC followed by Hop on Pop. By the time they mastered One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, they rightfully demanded personal library cards considering themselves ready to read any book in the children’s section.

The next generation has followed suit with grandchildren loving the sounds of Seuss until almost by magic, they turned into words to read. Sam thought Green Eggs and Ham was personalized – a notion perhaps reinforced by the Sam-I-Am mug I bought for him.

Buried in Seussian fun are lessons to learn about taking care of the environment from the Lorax or being faithful to promises from Horton. The Whos remind us and the Grinch that Christmas is “a little bit more” than what can be bought in a store. And how many high school and college graduates have received Oh, the Places You’ll Go to encourage them to follow their dreams?

No doubt you have your own connections to Dr. Seuss. Many people have tried to emulate his way with words and rhymes only to come off as jingle writers in a poor imitation. Perhaps it could be said of him as he said of the episode of Bartholemew Cubbins’s 500 hats that he “just happened to happen and was not likely to happen again.”

Happy birthday Dr. Seuss – born March 2, 1904!