Letter to My Tenant

Dear Unknown Mama Bird,

Wherever you are now, if you are characterizing me as a cruel landlord for razing your fine home, I don’t think you have a leg to stand on. (I know, you have two. It’s a figure of speech.) We had no contract. Indeed, I did not know you had built your home in the front door wreath until I got ready to replace it. You may have noticed that door is frequented only by solicitors and dim-witted delivery people. The wreath, having seen better days, really has to go.

I admit it was clever of you to hide your nest behind the once bright red bow, blending into the natural burlap of the body of the wreath. I have to wonder how many babies you raised and why I never noticed your comings and goings.

Now, back to that nonexistent contract, residents like you have sometimes been labelled “squatters,” a term with derogatory overtones. Considering your contribution to my life, since I am a person with a generous nature, I’m giving you some credit. I’ve loved your birdsong, especially when its wakeup call supplanted the raucous alarm clock.  I’m also assuming you have rid my yard of numerous mosquitos, so I’m willing to call it an even deal for the present.

In the future, we can continue without a contract and work from a friendly mutual understanding. Help yourself to the materials you seem to love and which I have in abundance – pine straw, oak leaves, and dryer lint. I would suggest that you find a safer place to rebuild in one of the many trees surrounding the house or under the eaves of one of the buildings out back. Your wakeup song will do nicely for rent, and I hope you enjoy your feast on those mosquitos.

Best regards,

Virginia McGee Butler

Landlord, Corner of Greenwood Drive and Oak Grove Road


A Sky Full of Stars

I ended my review of Midnight Without a Moon, “With any luck, I may get the sequel ahead of time. If I do, I’ll be sure to share another review.” Well, there’s luck and there’s just plain old begging. Linda Williams Jackson responded to my review of Midnight, and I responded to her by saying the book made me want to sit and talk to the author. First thing you know we are Facebook friends and then real face-to-face friends, connecting when she came to Hattiesburg for a book event. I happened to mention that I was having a hard time waiting for the sequel. Maybe I mentioned it at length. I knew trouble had to come from Rose Lee Carter’s decision to stay in Mississippi after the Civil Rights Movement began to pick up steam. Linda brought me an advance copy of the new book (which will come out tomorrow on January 2) when she came to pick up her daughter at the University of Southern Mississippi for the holidays. We did talk and have coffee.

I saved the book for a car trip the next week, knowing I would not want to be interrupted after Chapter One; Monday, November 1. Rose Lee begins “My grandpa, Papa, used to say that gratitude was the key to happiness. If that was true, I would never be happy.” When Thanksgiving dinner comes, and Rose Lee goes blank and can’t recall a thankful scripture even though the younger children at the table are able to rattle one off, her grandpa’s prediction appears to be correct.

Listening to the news of violence, overheard coffee klatch conversations touting separate but equal schools, and arguments among friends who can’t agree whether violence or nonviolence is the answer to their problems leave Rosa, the name her mother gave her that she now prefers, in a quandary. A reason for gratitude will come eventually from an unusual corner. The titles, Midnight Without a Moon followed by A Sky Full of Stars, bring satisfaction but with a hankering to know where Rose will go from here. Now, I’m waiting for book number three!

In my review of Midnight, I compared Linda’s work with Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, a longtime favorite. As I read A Sky Full of Stars, I realized a difference in perspective that gives even greater authenticity to these two books. Mildred Taylor used her father’s detailed account of growing up in Mississippi to bring reality to her books while Linda’s experience is first hand.

My recommendation, even though each book stands alone, is to read both of them in order, and don’t let it bother you that they are labelled for middle grade. Those kids shouldn’t have all the fun

If You Don't Have a Dream . . .

A surprise worth sharing came in a piece of Christmas mail, but first I need to give a bit of background. Back in the day when I married the youngest of the four Butler boys (Allen), my sister-in-law who had married the oldest (James) commuted from Pontotoc, MS about thirty miles north to take a class or two at Blue Mountain College. Married her senior year in high school to the young high school assistant coach, Bettye’s college aspirations would continue by fits and starts, interrupted by three children and eventually by her hostess duties when James moved on to become the Alumni Secretary and then Alumni Director at Ole Miss. She continued to take classes now and then at Ole Miss.

Years of Butler dinners, common family stories, and shared joys and sorrows including one long night standing watch with her, keeping an eye on her infant daughter in the hospital, and just the kaleidoscope of life have brought the “Sister” of this relationship into prominence and forgetfulness to its “-in-law” ending.

Often, Bettye has paid more attention to encouraging others to finish degrees than to working on her own. As I commuted to Ole Miss to finish my last two years, we had a standing arrangement for a once-a-week lunch. I picked up their oldest daughter at elementary school, and we hurried to the good meal we knew Bettye had prepared – often including my favorite asparagus casserole. She also provided a haven when I got stranded one night by my carpool.

One morning this fall, after a 38-year hiatus from classes, Bettye decided to pick up the phone and see just how much she lacked having her own degree, thinking she was about six hours short. “I’m not a quitter,” she told the development officer. Within a few days, she received word that analysis of her records with current requirements for graduation made her eligible for graduation with no further classes, even with a few hours to spare – hence my Christmas surprise, a clipping from The Oxford Eagle with the headline, “Oxonian Bettye Butler Receives UM Diploma at 87” with pictures of her receiving the degree she earned supported by her three proud children, also Ole Miss graduates.

My first thought was the line from the old song, “If you don’t have a dream, how’re you gonna have a dream come true?” To say that I am proud of her is grossly understating the case.

The Flawed Manger Scene

Joseph has lost his staff. The moss on the manger roof is splotchy. The donkey has no ears and the cow only one of her horns. Since the nativity scene came from Sears and was inexpensive in the first place, why don’t we just replace it?

The answer is, “Too many memories.” Our children were small when we got it. They stood and gazed at the Baby Jesus, often rearranging the animals or the Magi. As they grew older, they found a prominent place to display it each Christmas. They loved setting it up and remembering in Texas, Germany, Louisiana – wherever the Army designated as home.

One memorable Christmas we lived in Germany atop a hill overlooking a snow-covered village centered by the church steeple. Right after Thanksgiving, we decorated our Christmas tree. The children chose the wide ledge in front of the picture window for the nativity. Since our German neighbors waited to trim their trees until Christmas Eve, we invited the community kindergarten children to come up to see our tree and have cookies and punch.

Their faces lit as they “Oohed” and “Aahed,” in wonder at the Christmas tree. They examined each ornament, but soon they moved to the window and our Sears manger scene – a poor match in my mind for the beautifully hand-carved nativity scenes found in their Christkindlmarkts. They drew us into their awe as they sat quietly on the floor around the crèche watching as though they waited for the baby to cry.

We have new nativities, nicer and in better shape including one from Bethlehem. Still, this defective one always takes the place of honor. Maybe it is appropriate after all. For didn’t the Christ Child come into humble surroundings for that which was imperfect – to heal the brokenhearted, to bind the wounds of the injured, to bring sight to the blind, and to set at liberty those who are captive?    

A Christmas Carol Fascination

My obsession with A Christmas Carol began when I was six years old in Hardy Station, Mississippi as I watched the play rehearsals with my father Bah-Humbugging in the role of Scrooge.

In the years when our children were growing up, the book became an annual read-aloud. Often that was on the long trip from Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio to North Mississippi to visit grandparents. I can say, with little expectation of disagreement, that I enjoyed this more than they did.

About the time the children grew up and could no longer serve as my victims listeners, I began to teach junior high where it became my December read-aloud. I loved watching my students’ recognition as the Ghost of Christmas Present threw Scrooge’s words in his face when he inquired whether Tiny Tim would live, responding that he “might as well die and decrease the surplus population.” 

No longer do I have a captive audience of children or students, but my librarian daughter continues to feed my passion by sending me yet another and another copy of the book to go with the cheap Scholastic version I read to my students. There have been a couple of beautifully illustrated copies. I thought she had finished the possibilities last year when she sent one with Dickens’s editing drafts on the opposing pages with handwriting that had to be indecipherable even to its owner. (It was comforting to know that even Charles Dickens scribbled upgrades on his rough copies!) However, after the Marshall Library book sale this year, she sent a well-worn volume with all his Christmas books and American Notes. I’ll enjoy my annual read from it this Christmas.

I also watch the movies, three this year, none altogether satisfactory. Those that follow the book the most accurately tend to have wooden characters playing the parts. One even had the audacity to forget that Scrooge’s young love was named Belle. Inevitably, they will leave out a favorite line or two since you can’t put everything in a movie that was in the book or add a superfluous scene as though they were better than old Charles. Nevertheless, they feed my passion begun in childhood and fulfill the wish that Dickens himself put at the beginning of the volume for his readers, “May it haunt their homes pleasantly.”

Should you ask how much of A Christmas Carol is too much, I would only reply, “There is no such thing, and may God bless us every one.”

Johnny Lightning

My niece, Sallie Pennebaker Wilkerson, figured out the reason for her obsession for checking packages for “Batteries not included” in a story I wrote to her and her sister Jennifer about their father after his death.

Back in the day when my three sisters and I were coping with early adulthood, I lived near our parents for a year with our four-year-old Murray, anticipating the baby to be born while Allen served a tour in South Korea. As Christmas neared, sister Gwyn Pennebaker, who had no children yet, asked for a present suggestion for Murray. I had already spent my wad when Murray began seeing advertisements for a Johnny Lightning track on TV and decided it was the “must-have” gift for him. I told Gwyn I didn’t even know how much it cost and not to worry about it if it was over their budget. (She was drawing a Mississippi school teacher salary, and John David was setting up a law practice with college debts taking a share of their income.) John David, with sympathy to this preschooler whose dad was in Korea, decided they needed to bite the bullet and get the race track.

We had our family celebration the Saturday night before Christmas. The picture tells it all as far as Murray was concerned. Whatever I got him paled in significance to this treasure. John David, as eager as Murray to get started, helped him open the package and began pulling out parts. NO BATTERIES!

It was Saturday night in the country before the days of 24/7 shopping places. There was nowhere to go – nowhere that would have batteries before Monday morning. Murray was consoled and reasonably willing to wait until Monday. John David - not so much - his Christmas surprise had been spoiled.

In the years to come, Murray’s younger cousins Jennifer and Sallie Pennebaker would never experience a gift-giving occasion with a need for batteries.

Sallie replied to my story, “So this is the origin of the reason I'm obsessed with checking every package for ‘batteries not included’ and the size of batteries needed for all Christmas toys.  For instance, this year I specifically bought (2) 9 volt batteries for walkie talkies so that they would work when they were opened on Christmas day. Growing up in the Pennebaker household, we might not have a lot of things, but there was never any doubt there were plenty of batteries of all different voltages. Now I know, it is thanks to Johnny Lighting and Murray.”

A Literary History of Mississippi

On December 10, 1817, Mississippi became the twentieth state, and it seems fitting to acknowledge one of its greatest contributions to the union, indeed to the world at large on this significant birthday. We Mississippians come last on many lists, but most scholars note the disproportional number of literary giants the state has produced and wonder why. A book that will help you if you want to get some proof and look at some reasoning for this achievement is A Literary History of Mississippi, published by University Press of Mississippi and edited by Lorie Watkins. 

Chapters are both interesting and scholarly, written by experts about that particular period of Mississippi literature or the authors who are the chapter’s focus.  The first few chapters cover the field chronologically beginning with indigenous writers and oral storytellers, moving through the designation at that time in history of Old Southwest frontier literature with rural and backwoods settings, on to the Civil War writings, and slave narratives. The next section focuses a chapter each on Mississippi literary giants – William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, and Margaret Walker. The final section moves back to a general take on the modern-day writers, who seem to rise like kudzu in the field of popular literature, poetry, song-writing, biography, and the briefer forms of essays and short stories. One of these new writers, Jesmyn Ward, won the National Book Award for Sing, Unburied, Sing after this volume was published.

The volume is a good overview of Mississippi literature with condensed life stories and listings of the works of several major authors. It is a helpful guide to anyone interested in reading Mississippi tales (the essence of being Southern in one view), in finding or reviewing the times that motivated the writer, or in seeing how place influenced the narrative. An answer is given at the end about how such a disproportional number of writers came to be from this place. After pondering whether it is in the air we breathe or the water we drink, their answer was expressed in a more erudite way, but it amounted to “Beats me!”

Snow Day Criteria

How many inches of promised snow constitutes a reason for a “Snow Day” in South Mississippi? The final weather report before bedtime on December 7 forecast somewhere between half an inch and an inch and a half with a bit of incredulity about any snow at all. Across the bottom of the TV screen scrolled the endless listing of school closings. It would have been easier to name any that were staying open.

Now before my faraway friends (who live in places where they walk uphill both ways in twelve inches of the white stuff to get an education) begin to laugh, let me say there are reasons for half-inch closings. Just think of some questions Mississippians might ask:

  • Snow plow? What’s a snow plow?
  • I have milk and bread. Was I supposed to do something else?
  • What do you mean the highway people didn’t salt the road because the rain we got earlier would have washed it away?
  • You’re telling me I shouldn’t hit the brake when the car starts to skid? What would you have me to do?

I think you get my drift, but we do actually know how to behave when it snows in south Mississippi:

  • Call off school and any nonessential jobs.
  • Light the fire.
  • Build a snowman and make a few snow angels.
  • Turn the pool toys into sleds and go downhill.
  • Have a snowball fight.
  • Stir up some cocoa and throw a few marshmallows on top.
  • Take a bunch of pictures and videos and post every single one of them on Facebook!

The time for the snow to end changed with each weather forecast the next day – 9 AM, 10 AM, noon, mid-afternoon – and down it came until late afternoon. As it happened, the accumulation was reported between four and six inches with Al measuring 6 ½ inches in our front yard. The newspaper said “more than 5 ½ inches” and a new record over the 5-inch one from 1895. Another peculiarity of snow in Mississippi, the exact length of time for snowfall and depth of pileup is difficult, maybe impossible, to predict. The first picture is early morning, the last picture is after a day of snowfall leaves Scrooge with cold feet in more ways than one.  

So if our friends from farther north are laughing at our expense for closing school in anticipation of half an inch of snow, we Mississippians are always glad to bring a smile. We’re wearing one ourselves while we drink our cocoa in front of the fire and watch the flakes sifting softly from the sky.

No Time to Spare

Hearing the name Ursula Le Guin may conjure other worlds of fantasy or, if you are like me, her wonderful writing book Steering the Craft. Her new book, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters doesn’t fit either category. In her introduction, she mentions her aversion to the word “blog,” then turns around and writes pieces that fit the form perfectly.

In true Le Guin form, she covers a multitude of topics, inviting the reader to agree, disagree, or simply to consider the point she is making, frequently in a humorous fashion. I knew I was in for some fun in the first one when she pokes fun of those trying to think themselves younger than they are, “If I’m ninety and believe I’m forty-five, I’m headed for a very bad time getting out of the bathtub.”

In one fascinating comparison, the idea of belief gets mingled with artichokes and in an entirely different kind of piece, she paints a touching portrait of her longtime friend and aide named Dolores. If you need to know how to eat a soft-boiled egg properly, you can find out here. There are more cats than I need, but I have several cat-loving friends who could really get into several blogs starring her pets. I won’t even spoil the story of the rattlesnake, thinking you need to experience it all on your own.

Note the date of each entry as you read since the time sometimes is important to the essay (or “blog” if you want to call it that behind her back). I would recommend keeping the book handy in a place where you stir the soup or anticipate some waiting time, reading and considering one topic at a time just for the pleasure of it. She is by turns argumentative, funny, thoughtful, and compassionate but never dull.  


Main Street Books

A whole lot of celebration is happening at Hattiesburg’s Main Street Book Store. First came the fifteenth anniversary, accompanied by a sale, of course. In that fifteen years, Jerry and Diane Shepherd have added a special spot in Hattiesburg, MS as part of the successful effort to make downtown a happening place.

I’ve had my own observations and experiences in this fifteen years.

  • Though I’m not a big-name author, Diane included me in a group signing and held a luncheon to promote my contributions to Cup of Comfort anthologies.
  • When I began my search for the Ezra Jack Keats books that I did not own, I took the list to Jerry and told him I didn’t want to pay collector’s prices but wanted good copies of each, some out of print. He called when he had located all of them – at reasonable prices. We both got a surprise when I opened them to inspect and found one of them autographed!
  • They know my name when I show up and allow me to meander through their books, pottery, and Mississippiana to my heart’s content, and commiserate with me on the months when the biggest charge on my credit card is to Main Street Books.
  • They know what is on their shelves and how quickly they can get anything that is not.
  • They once even gave me an ARC (advance reading copy) of a book I asked to order so I didn’t have to make a purchase.

Try any of the above in a big box store and see how far you get.

This year Main Street Books celebrates Mississippi’s bicentennial by special emphasis on the state’s authors, giving a Mississippi bicentennial Coke with each purchase of a book by a Mississippi writer.

On this very day December 4, they have their 14th annual celebration of an author extravaganza with more than twenty authors present to sign books from 4 to 7 PM. Like the good Hattiesburg neighbors they are, they recommend in their event advertising that you step across the street afterwards to enjoy dinner at Grateful Soul from 4 until 8 PM.

Lest you think Main Street is alone, other local book stores in towns far away from me have gotten autographs on books from my author friends and shipped them out to me with pleasure. I “borrowed” the sign in this last photo from an independent book store Facebook friend that gives additional reasons for shopping locally. I hope recent statistics that say these independents are making a comeback are correct. I also hope that Main Street Books will stay in business until I make that big-name author status – which means for a very long time!

Always the McGee Girls

The McGee Girls was the first group of which I became a member, complete with official status as the oldest. Our group as daughters of a country preacher always gave me an affinity to the Bronte sisters as the vicar’s daughters. The first photo in this blog shows us in the only professional photograph made while we were growing up for which Ruth gave her bangs a haircut.

In order, we were:

·         Virginia Ann who didn’t lose her middle name until late in high school – a nerd with her nose perpetually in a book

·         Beth, the daredevil tomboy, out climbing trees or talking herself into the boys’ ball games

·         Gwyn the Elegant, whose name was spelled “Gwen” until she decided to do the upgrade, designing fine houses and sophisticated clothes for her paper dolls

·         Ruth, nine years younger than I was, my apt pupil and listener who knew the “right” way to wash dishes and line up a crocheted bedspread with precision at an early age and was always eager for me to tell her another story

Likenesses and differences have followed us into adulthood with all of us winding up in some branch of the teaching profession. I taught kindergarten, second grade, and junior high language arts. Beth became a librarian and Gwyn a high school math teacher. Ruth worked first with children who had speech problems and went on to become an advocate for students with learning challenges, looking for the most efficient and effective ways for the students, parents, and teachers to enhance learning. All four of us added another last name, moving the one we share to the middle. Our differences reflect our personalities as our likenesses reflect our core.

Occasions to get together in adulthood come all too seldom with two of us on either end of Mississippi, one in Virginia, and one in Georgia. This Thanksgiving gave us much to be thankful for as we gathered in Gwyn’s well-designed home with beautiful table settings that she dreamed of as a girl. Seventeen additions were present with the original four – husbands, children, and grandchildren – quite a bit of thanksgiving even without the twelve children and grandchildren who couldn’t come. The second photograph shows us today still having a bit of fun for the camera though nobody cut their own hair for the picture.

Rising to the top in my gratitude list this year was the continued status of being one of the McGee Girls and even my permanent standing as the oldest. While we are different in many ways like the “come on in and sit a spell” feel at my house rather than the elegance of Gwyn’s, we share values that make life good – faith, family, fun, and food. 

Murder in the Manuscript Room

What could be better to wile away the hours of a trip spanning almost the length of Mississippi than a good murder mystery? I’d saved Murder in the Manuscript Room by Con Lehane for just such an occasion.

In good crime novel tradition, amateur sleuth Raymond Ambler, who is NYC’s 42nd Street Library’s curator of crime fiction, sets out to solve the murder of a young woman who may or may not have been the person she claimed to be. Multiple suspects turn up, all with questionable motives for the crime. Could it be the young Islamic scholar doing research in the library, an ex-husband, or a member of a corrupt police department? Is the crime related to another in the upstate prison or maybe to a long-ago murder of a union reformer? Winding through this plot is Ambler’s growing relationship with Adele Morgan, a custody battle for his grandson, and redemption help for the grandson’s babysitter caught with drugs. Adele’s friendship with the murder victim makes her an avid partner in the search for her killer. Her fondness for the grandson makes her a willing ally in the custody fight and enhances her relationship to Raymond.

This book is second in a series and although I had not read the first, enough pertinent items from it were included that I did not feel lost, but I think not so many that readers of the first would feel bored. It also brought closure while hinting at another mystery to come. 

The book accomplished its purpose as I lost myself in the streets of New York City while the highway miles flew by to North Mississippi. It brought no new insights on life nor did it teach any grand lessons, but it took away my question of “Are we there yet?”

Behind the Cliche

Clichés in their origins were clever or universal truths, sometimes both. “The apple does not fall far from the tree.” “It ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.” Often, they reflect the region of the country where they originate. “Don’t buy a pig in a poke.” You may add your own favorites.

Some clichés are pertinent to the profession they represent. One of the most common ones for writers is “Write what you know.” Disputes arise with this, especially in the areas of fantasy and science fiction since even the context of these are often made up. Proponents argue that one can come to know by research or by careful preplanning as J. K. Rowling did with the Harry Potter series as she meticulously laid out her fictional community before she got involved in the story.

Within the last couple of months, I’ve published what I know and what I wish I knew. Thema Literary Magazine published, in their “Missing Letters” volume, an essay describing my search to know the rest of the story. Mama saved nearly all the letters I wrote home over the years but stopped in 1982 when Daddy died. Where are the others? Why did she stop? I wish I knew.

On the other hand, in its December edition, The Writer Magazine published my article on a subject with which I am well-acquainted. “Ranking Rejection” as the magazine suggests on the cover blurb tells why, even in rejection, some “no’s” are better than others. I know each category well and can illustrate each of them from my rejection folder, beginning with zero for no answer at all to ten for an acceptance!   

While I like seeing the article in print with my byline, I do wish I didn’t know this topic quite so well!

Myself and My World: A Biography of William Faulkner

On a week when Joyce Carol Oates was quoted as saying, “If Mississippians read, Faulkner would be banned,” it just so happened that this Mississippian was in the midst of an excellent biography of William Faulkner, Myself and the World: A Biography of William Faulkner by Robert W. Hamblin. It seemed the perfect foil for her statement.

Hamblin himself notes that excellent biographies of Faulkner have been written by academics for academics. His intended audience, the general reading public including younger readers, brought him to write an interesting and readable volume. Chronologically, he follows Faulkner from his birth in New Albany, Mississippi to his death with his wish fulfilled of leaving work that would live long after him.

Contrasts abound in Faulkner’s life. Critical acclaim in the world at large was followed by antipathy in his native Mississippi. His brilliant writing periods intersperse with times when he fell prey to alcoholism.  Family ties include devotion to his mother and taking an orphaned niece into the family but having multiple extramarital affairs.

Hamblin says if the book causes the readers to want to read (or reread) Faulkner’s novels and stories, it will have served its purpose. I will admit that I found myself wanting to do just that as I read the account of where he was in life as each manuscript was finished. Starting with the Snopes trilogy, I plan to read with the biography at hand to match the time in his life to the book he was writing. I recommend the biography even to those who aren’t all that interested in Faulkner’s work.

Even before I begin the Snopes books, I just downloaded The White Rose of Memphis, his grandfather Falkner’s claim to fame, intriguingly mentioned in Hamblin’s introduction.

So, Joyce Carol, there are those of us in Mississippi who read quite a bit. Sometimes we used to read your books.

Playboy Magazine and The Snowy Day

People who know me well may be surprised that Hugh Hefner’s death triggered thoughts for a blog. Then again, there have been other strange topics covered here from time to time. The second surprise may come in pairing Playboy magazine with The Snowy Day. Hang with me, and I’ll connect the dots.

When he answered the phone, Ezra Jack Keats expected the first words he heard, “Long distance from Chicago.” He’d had a problem with Playboy magazine’s paycheck sent for an illustration he had done for them. They’d overpaid him. Scrupulously honest, he’d called the magazine and talked to a secretary who knew nothing about it but promised to check and get back with him.

But this wasn’t that phone call! A different voice said, “Mr. Keats? This is Ruth Gagliardo from the American Library Association. Are you sitting down? I have wonderful news for you. Your book The Snowy Day has won the Caldecott Award.” She sounded excited.

Still a novice in the children’s book world, Keats had no idea what a Caldecott Award was. He thanked her for the award and figured he’d ask around later and find out what he’d won.

“Would you like to make a statement?” she asked.

How should he respond? “Well, I’m certainly happy for the little boy in the book.”

“Oh, my. How touching! I’ll always remember what you said . . . Your Snowy Day, we all believe, will be a landmark in children’s books.” Mrs. Gagliardo asked him to keep the award a secret until after the press released the story. Keats promised and surreptitiously questioned friends who said the Caldecott was the highest award given for picture books.

If you’re still curious about the Playboy issue, Keats got a another long distance call from Chicago, the Playboy secretary saying the editors decided his art was worth more than the original agreement – no mistake and he could keep the money.

I can’t guarantee that the picture in my photo is the one under discussion since he did several for Playboy, but the magazine date makes it possible. Herbert Gold’s description in the piece of fiction “Happy Hipster” says, “He had a long creased horsy face, intelligent, and with large square teeth, a long lazy body with lots of lean on it.” Seems to me Keats captured the fellow pretty well, and one might actually read the magazine for the story and enjoy the art.

As for Mrs. Gagliardo’s prediction that The Snowy Day would become a landmark, here we are more than fifty years later buying Snowy Day stamps at the post office!

Maya Lin

Fittingly, Susan Goldman Rubin titles the chapters of her book Maya Lin with artful substances from nature since the natural world informs Maya's architectural art.

            Chapter 1 – Clay describes Maya’s early years in a home of Chinese ancestry with a father who is a ceramicist and a mother who is a poet. Given the chance to do her own modeling with the clay, hearing poetic words, and being surrounded by natural beauty sets a stage early for what she will become.

            Chapter 2 – Granite tells the story of her unexpected win by a college student over 1,421 entries to design the Vietnam Memorial. Who would have thought her simple symbolic design would require so much strength on her part to keep that design as she had envisioned or that she would get only a B + for the class?

            Chapter 3 – Water gave her a vision of using the biblical quote from the Martin Luther King address on the Civil Rights Memorial “Until Justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream” with water flowing over the quote.

            Chapter 4 – Earth took her back to childhood playing with her brother over hills behind their house. She created “Wave Field,” “Flutter,” and “Storm King Wave Field” from that memory experience.

            Chapter 5 – Glass kept an old barn in one sculpture and created a skylighted Noah’s ark with another, both with abundant glass to give a feeling of being outdoors in nature.

            Chapter 6 – Celadon green from her Chinese heritage was Maya’s choice for the basic color of the Museum of Chinese in America.

            Chapter 7 – Dunes and Driftwood became replacements for parking lots as she paid tribute to the paths of Lewis and Clark and the parallel path of the Native Americans to the ocean. She achieved her goal of showing what had been lost and what could be saved.

            Chapter 8 – Wood has her only design for a family home. Most of the time, Maya will not do this kind of work. However, she did not abandon her outdoor approach since the house has a tree growing up through the deck and an abundance of windows.

The final chapter sets her philosophy of giving back and thinking about what is missing as society takes over the natural world.

With many beautiful photographs, abundant research, and a gift for story-telling, Susan Goldman Rubin shows Maya, the human being, along with her artistic achievement and her love of nature.  I recommend this fascinating biography of the work of the accomplished architect which is also a Junior Library Guild selection if you would like additional verification.

Ear Worms

Okay, they’re not really worms – just the name for that song that goes around and around and around in your head – at least until you get another song to take its place.

Six years old, I walked a quarter mile down the country road to school. Playing in my head, I heard, “London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down . . .”

Grade school summers found me building a playhouse under a spreading apple tree. Amusement came with the lyrics, “It rained all night the day I left. The weather it was dry. . . Susannah, don’t you cry.”

In junior high, I watched recess athletes from the sidelines wishing I was home with a book. Passing time in my head, I heard, “Oh, do you remember Sweet Betsy from Pike who crossed the wide prairie with her brother Ike . . . ” (Turns out it was her lover Ike, but it had been cleaned up for junior high consumption.)

A high school nerd, I eschewed Elvis and his hound dog, preferring the Glee Club number Mrs. Doxey taught. The bittersweet mood playing in my head matched my own, “In the still of the night, as I gaze from my window. . . ”

A ninety-mile-a-day commute as I finished my last two years of college at Ole Miss brought “On the road again, just can’t wait to get on the road again . . . ” Technically, I wasn’t that excited, but what do you do when song lyrics accompany the hum of tires?

In adulthood, the ear worms have usually lingered after choir practice, following the seasons of Christmas, Lent, Easter, and ordinary time. “Lord, listen to your children praying, Lord send your spirit . . . ”

Is this phenomenon heredity or contagious? I watch my five-year-old grandson color his picture at the counter and carefully write B-E-N-J-A-M-I-N on the bottom, humming all the while. “There was a farmer had a dog and Bingo . . . ”

I think I’ll wait until he’s a bit older to tell him he has an ear worm.

Full Curl

The promise of a mystery set in Banff National Park overcame my hesitancy of reading a book by an unknown debut author. We had visited both Banff and the counterpart United States Rockies in recent years. I relished a vicarious return and took a chance that the new Canadian author from a Canadian publisher would be a good storyteller. Consequently, I clicked “request” on the offer from Net Galley to read Full Curl by Dave Butler (no relation).

The intrigue lasts from beginning to end as park warden Jenny Willson (yes, with two “l’s”) almost catches the poachers who are hunting wildlife in Banff National Park only to miss them. The ante rises for her and the perpetrators as murder and drug dealing incorporate into the crime mix. Then there are the bureaucrats who are reluctant to join the chase because they don’t take a woman warden too seriously. Obviously, they don’t know Jenny Willson well.  

Dave Butler portrays the park skillfully and beautifully in the narrative without calling attention to his descriptions but giving the reader a sense of being present in the park. No doubt this ability comes from his internalizing the area during his day job as a forester and biologist near the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia.

Caution for the debut author was completely unnecessary. In fact, I was pleased to see the notation on the cover, in the front, and in the back of the book “a Jenny Willson mystery, Book 1.” Since my pleasure reading genre is a good mystery, I think I’ll be seeing Jenny Willson – with two “l’s” – again.

Trying Not to Butt In

I couldn’t help but overhear as I straightened up during my volunteer time in the children’s book area at the Oak Grove Public Library’s big sale yesterday. The mother said to her son, who was happily browsing the books, something to the effect that he needed to stop looking at the ones with pictures and find some that had a lot of words to read.

Oh, my! Oh, my! I could scarcely restrain myself. Such sacrilege – and in Children’s Picture Book Month! But, as Mama would say, “She didn’t know me from Adam’s house cat and hadn’t asked my advice.”

You haven’t asked either, but you are reading my blog so here goes. One is never too old for picture books! I’m very grateful that I still get them sometimes for Christmas, Mother’s Day, or my birthday.

My difficulty is choosing which to read as I honor Picture Book Month:

  • Do I read Jerry Pinckney’s beautifully illustrated Aesop’s fable The Lion and The Mouse, which technically can’t be read since it only has a few animal sounds for words.
  • Do I read The Nutcracker, illustrated by Susan Jeffers – one of my favorites, that I got for my birthday (along with tickets to see local production)?
  • Do I read Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day since I still get those now and then?
  • Maybe I’ll take time to peruse A Child of Books from another birthday that has far more intricate things to see than any kid has the knowledge or attention span to appreciate.
  • And let’s not forget that Thanksgiving is coming which calls for Pat Zietlow Miller’s Sharing the Bread: An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Story.

The list could go on. Fortunately, November has thirty days, and who knows, I may cheat and read some in December or even July.

I wish I had thought faster this morning. I would love to have reminded the mother, who had the best of intentions, that before her son had teeth she only let him eat soft foods like mashed potatoes. But when he became capable of chowing down on steak, she didn’t take the wonderful buttery mashed potatoes away - just encouraged him to enjoy them together.


Words hovered in my head waiting to go on paper. I’d even been encouraged to put them together and send them. I began eagerly, but then the butterflies beckoned.

Last week, a swarm of Gulf Fritillaries enticed me to frolic with them, perhaps in gratitude. Their early stages advanced from the dot of a yellow egg laid on a leaf, through a series of ever larger bundles of black spikes, to obese orange caterpillars as they stripped my Passion Flower vines to nothing by stems. (Not to worry, the vines rise from the dead as surely as a Phoenix, and they are already putting on new leaves.) Joining the Fritillaries were Monarchs, Painted Ladies, ordinary Sulphurs, grand Spicebush Swallowtails, and scores of little brown butterflies with various markings to whom I have not been introduced. On this cool crisp October morning they seemed to call, “Come outside to play.”

A quote from Robert Herrick of long ago (1591-1674) came to mind as he advised the young virgins to “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” for the “same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.” Last week’s first cool crisp October morning foreshadowed the coming of winter when butterflies would be migrating if not dying. The days for playing in the yard among the smiling butterflies grew as short as those of the rosebuds.

Still the manuscript waited. It would not write itself. Torn between the few butterfly days and the need to write words, I did what I had to do. I took turns and combined the two. While I worked in the yard outside amongst the flying friends, I thought about the next part of the story. When I came inside to write the next part of the story, I watched the butterflies out my window. I’m guessing it’s what my role model, Eudora Welty, would have done. 

I wrote this blog last week on the day of my temptation, and I’m glad I followed my urge to the yard. A cold front blew in over the weekend, and those butterflies took themselves to a warmer playground. The manuscript is still a work in progress.