A Christmas Like Helen’s

It’s a new year, and I am about to embark on an entirely new existence in (gulp) three days, but because Christmas technically lasts until the 6th, I am going to give myself a few more days to write about the books we read this time of year.

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Recently, my family (the family I made) moved to a small farming town in Western Massachusetts.  Although we have integrated ourselves completely into the broader community surrounding this little town, we are far, far away (hundreds of years away) from being accepted to town-folk as “local”.  This idea of being forever an outsider in our adopted town may seem frustrating to some, but not to me.  As someone who grew up in a small town in northern Vermont, founded by one of my ancestors, where my grandmother and father graduated from the same high-school as I did, I get it.  My family (the family who made me), what’s left of them, still live in Vermont, and when I go there, no matter how long I’ve been away, I’ll always be considered a “local”.  More local, in fact, than people who have spent the last twenty years of their lives there (something I certainly have not done).

Being as it is–the place that has been claimed for me by my ancestors is a small town in northern Vermont, whether I like it or not–Mary Azarian’s art has always been, and will always be, a mainstay in my life.  Her hand-painted, wood-cut prints have graced the walls of my childhood and travelled with me here, to my new home, so that no matter where I am, I will always remember where I have come from.  Her art is stunning to any eye, but having an intimate relationship with the land and culture from whence it came makes it all the more powerful.  It makes it feel like home.

It is not surprising then, that I consistently choose her books to share with my children.  Also not surprising is the fact that the book is written by another multi-generational Vermonter, Natalie Kinsey-Warnock (whose familial history in Vermont makes Mary Azarian look like a fresh-off-the-train city-slicker).  In A Christmas Like Helen’s, Kinsey-Warnock tells the story of a Vermont Christmas in the time of her grandmother, Helen–a time when community, giving, and simple living were not just hallmarks of Christmas, but present in all aspects of life throughout the year.

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To have a Christmas like Helen’s

you’ll need to be born on a Vermont hill farm,

before cars, or telephones, or electricity,

and be the youngest of seven children.

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You’ll have to have four clever brothers

who make snow rollers and bobsleds,

who sometimes hitch themselves to a sled

and let you drive them like horses.

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You’ll have to like animals:…

…especially a big black-and-white tom

that lets you dress him up

and push him around in a doll carriage.

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You’ll hold your sister’s hand

going to the one-room schoolhouse

that’s a mile from home,

and you’ll walk there even on days

when it’s forty degrees below zero.

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You’ll have to not mind

living in a place

where winter lasts nearly eight months.

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You won’t be thinking of Christmas

when spring finally rolls around

and the sap rises in the trees,

but the syrup you’ll have

on your Christmas breakfast

must be made now.

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To have a Christmas like Helen’s,

your family will keep the spirit of Christmas all year long.

Your father and brothers will hay fields and cut wood

for an injured neighbor,

and when another neighbor’s barn burns,

you’ll help him build a new barn.

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When winter blankets the hills in white,

you’ll harvest ice from the pond in the woods

and snowshoe up and over every hill

to find the perfect balsam fir

and help drag it home.

After supper,

someone will suggest skating in the moonlight,

and even though it’s late,

and cold,

and you’re the youngest,

your mother lets you go,

because it’s Christmas.

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To have a Christmas like Helen’s,

you’ll go to church on Christmas Eve in a hay-filled pung,

under buffalo robes and wool blankets.

The church will glow

with a candle in every window.

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…someone will start singing

“O Holy Night,”

while overhead

the cold stars will be thick enough

to scoop up with a spoon.

At the end of the book, Kinsey-Warnock admits, “our Christmases aren’t exactly like Helen’s.”  Our aren’t either, but there are so many things in this book that cause memories to stir–sugaring, haying, the candle-lit Christmas Eve service at church, pond-skating, my ten-year-old brother and his friends pulling me to first grade in a sled up a steep hill at least a mile long, my grandmother being one of seven children (although not the youngest) with four clever brothers, a certain moonlit toboggan ride…

I’m not sure what stirs inside my children when we read this book–whether it’s the recognition of the change of light in Azarian’s pictures, the author’s inviting second-person prose, or Helen’s father looking remarkably akin to their pediatrician.  I’d like to think they are sensing the history that is a part of them, even though they can’t conceptualize it yet.

Tomorrow,

there will be peppermint sticks and popcorn balls,

toy trucks and sleds for your brothers, and dolls for your sisters,

and the last box under the tree

will be a pair of skates just for you. 

But tonight,

before the stockings and gifts under the tree,

when you’re still in that barn,

tucked in the crook of your father’s arm,

you know that everything you ever wanted,

or ever will want,

is right there on that farm.

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The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree

With all the children’s books available today, it is nearly impossible to choose one, single illustrator I like the most.  If pressed, however, Barabara Cooney would be near the top of the list–if not at the pinnacle–so it is fitting that one of my favorite Christmas books features Cooney’s paintings and takes place high on the rocky craigs up near heaven where only a venturesome man will go.

The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, by Gloria Houston, is a beautifully written story set in the Appalachian mountains of the author’s grandmother’s youth–1918, when across the ocean the Great War raged, but in the valley all was at peace.

It was getting on toward the Christmas Ruthie would never forget.  The Christmas when the village almost did not have a Christmas tree.  It happened this way. Ruthie told me so.

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So begins the story of Ruthie’s special Christmas–special because that year was her family’s year to offer a tree to their rural Appalachian community, and  her year to be the angel in the the village’s Christmas pageant.

Come, my pretty youg’un,” Papa said one day early in the spring.  “It is time to choose the Christmas tree for the village church.”

“But, Papa, Christmas will not come for a long while,” said Ruthie.  “The sarvice trees are just now in bloom.”

“We must choose a special tree and mark it for the coming year.  It is the custom in our village,” said Papa, “for one family to give to all the folk in the village and up every hill and hollar a Christmas tree for Pine Grove Church.  This year is our turn.

“Some years a timbering man will give a fat round laurel from the northy coves, the kind the outlanders call rhododendron.  Other years the holler folk may bring a cedar to spread its fragrance throughout the village church.”

“What kind of tree shall we have, Papa?” said Ruthie.

“We shall have a balsam Christmas tree, my pretty young’un,” said Papa. “The balsam grows up the rocky criags where only a venturesome man may go.  The balsam is a perfect tree.  It grows up high, near to heaven.”

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So that spring, Ruthie and her father climb up into the mountains in search of the perfect balsam Christmas tree.  “And as is the custom, the selfsame year you shall be the heavenly angel in the village Christmas play.  It is fitting that you should mark the Christmas tree.”

What Ruthie doesn’t know on this fresh spring day–although her father must suspect it–is that shortly after they mark their perfect Christmas tree, her father will be called to fight in the war, and that she and her mother will have to work hard and make do with very little until he returns.  What neither of them know, is that her father will not return in time to fulfill his promise to the village and deliver the perfect Christmas tree to the church in time for the Christmas Eve service.  Fortunately, none of these circumstances is enough to deter one venturesome woman and her equally venturesome little girl as they climb into the high craigs one moonlit evening…

That night the preacher from Pine Grove Church knocked at the door.

“Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, Miz Green,” he said. “And Tom is not yet home from the war. Chad McKinney has been saving a prime cedar on his bottom land for Christmas next.  He’d as leave cut the tree this year.”

“This is the year our family gives the tree,” said Mama.  “Tom chose it before he went away to war.”

“I had hoped you would heed my wish,” said the preacher.  “The church must have a Christmas tree when the morrow comes.”

“Tom is as good as his word.  Our family will give the tree this year,” said Mama.

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As they came to the dark woods the winter moon made strange shadows on the snow.

“Mama, I’m afraid,” said Ruthie.

“No need to be afraid,” said Mama.  “We’re off to get the perfect balsam Christmas tree.”

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Mama pulled.  Ruthie pulled.  Pull. Pull. Back and forth until the perfect balsam Christmas tree fell softly into the snow.

Then they made their way down the ridge.  “I saw three ships come sailing in, on Christmas Day in the morning,” they sang.

Through the soft snow they led old Piedy to the church.  Together they lifted the perfect balsam Christmas tree from the sled and stood it in the corner near the belfry wall.  Just as the sun was rising over Doe Hill, they hurried home.

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“The folk shall have their Christmas tree, and you shall be the heavenly angel this year.”

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Ruthie fell fast asleep, but Mama sat long by the firelight sewing as fast as her nimble fingers could move.

As the sun rises in the sky, Mama makes a dress for Ruthie from her wedding dress–for lack of any other material, or money to buy it–and a doll out of silk stockings that Papa had sent to Mama as a special gift from overseas.

In the morning it is a mystery how the perfect balsam Christmas tree arrived at the church, although “it’s being told hereabouts that folks who live up the holler heard the angels singing high up on the ridge late into the night…”

And of course it was an angel…

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…a heavenly angel whose whispered the same prayer throughout the year: “Please send my papa home for Christmas…and please have old St. Nicholas bring me a doll with a beautiful dress, the color of cream, all trimmed with ribbons and lace.”

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For Ruthie, both these prayers were answered.  Her father returns as the Christmas Eve service is ending, just as she is hugging her tiny doll, which felt just like the silk stockings Papa had sent to Mama. 

Innocence, tenacity, hope, love…the perfect ingredients for a perfect Christmas.

And since that time, every year for more than sixty years, a tiny angel has stood on top of a perfect balsam Christmas tree.  She wears a dress of softest silk, the color of cream, all trimmed with ribbons and lace.  The sleeves are long and flowing, and it looks as if she has wings.  The angel has coal-black curls and a dimple in each cheek.

That’s how it happened.  The Christmas of the heavenly angel and the perfect balsam Christmas tree.

Grandma Ruthie told me so.

Who Is Coming To Our House?

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“Someone, someone,” says Mouse.

I bought this book when Emerson was a toddler because of its simplicity (both words and images), and it’s still a favorite at our house at Christmas-time.  It is a board book, and although I generally don’t like board books, this is an exception, as I think the clear illustrations (they look like wood-cuts, but I may be wrong) and simple poem are perfect for little hands, eyes, and ears.  Ophelia loves to look at this one by herself and “read” it to others–the rhythm of the poem makes it easy for pre-readers to memorize.

Along with being esthetically pleasing, I also chose this book way back when because I was looking for a way to slowly introduce the story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus in a way that was meaningful for a young child, and what better way to do that than through animals.  Here, the animals of the stable are cleaning and preparing for the arrival of Mary and Joseph, all the while wondering who these people are and if they will really come.  The story is written in poem, and held together by the gentle, assuring refrain, “someone, someone,” says Mouse.

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Animals and babies–what could be sweeter?

The Christmas Magic

At the beginning of this month I told myself I would begin writing about some of my favorite Christmas books.  Clearly this has been one of my many unfulfilled hopes of 2012, but with my eye toward the New Year, let me begin…

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In keeping with my last blog about Jon J Muth, I thought it would be appropriate to start here.  I stumbled across this book in the library a few years ago, and was so compelled by the illustrations and sweet, simple story that I vowed to purchase it the next year–which I did.  (Every Christmas I buy one new Christmas book that I think is worthy of owning.) It was my first introduction to Jon J Muth, which makes me wonder why it took me so long to come around to his Zen collection…

Anyway, I should preface this post by stating that we are “Santa people”.  Among parents (many of whom are my friends) there is a growing trend in the notion that encouraging your kids to believe in Santa is “a lie”…which is true to a degree.  Also true is the fact that I lie to my kids about many things–about not knowing where that full-size Three Musketeers bar they got for Halloween went, for example.  I don’t know…it must have been misplaced…

I choose to think of Santa as a story–one of many that surround Christmas and every other day of the year.  We have fairies and root children who come out of the ground, we have gnomes and brownies, nutcrackers and mouse-kings, characters of myths and sagas, saints, heroes…  All of them carry with them a human lesson–a story of hope or betrayal, love or greed, or in the case of St. Nicholas, kindness and compassion.  And in all of them magic…potential to do something beyond physical limitations, deeds that affect the lives of others.  What could be more real?

That said, we are not over-the-top Santa people.  We don’t climb on the roof and ring bells, or have our kids pose with a mall-Santa each year.  We don’t threaten our kids with coal or willow switches (although we do joke about it now and again) nor do we buy them a million presents each year, claiming they came from the Big Man.  No…

We are Santa people, but simple Santa people.  That’s why this book is a perfect fit for us.

Far, far north, where the reindeer are, there is a snug little house with a bright red door.  And in that house lives Santa Claus.

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Every year, just when the nights are longest and the stars shine brightest, Santa feels a tingle in his whiskers.  Then he knows that the Christmas magic will soon be here.

In lieu of the typical portrayal of Santa, surrounded by elves and the flurry of Christmas preparation (which translates to making toys, packaging toys, and more, more, more toys!), this Santa is a one-man show–a tender-hearted man in bunny slippers, living in a cozy house in the great north woods, who puts himself wholly into each of his tasks, which he completes slowly and with care.

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First, Santa gathers the reindeer from the sparkling fields of snow.  “Come along home now,” he calls to them.  “The magic will be here soon.”

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As Santa continues with his holiday preparation, he brings his loving, patient presence along, whether he is caring for his animals, polishing his giant sleigh, or darning his socks.

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Then Santa lifts the harness from its hook and polishes the bells till they jingle together brightly. 

The reindeer raise their heads when they hear the music of the bells: Is the magic here?

“No, not yet,” Santa tells them.  “It’s not here yet.”

He is especially considerate when he comes to the children.

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…Santa keeps a thickly bound book, and the names of all the children are written in this book.

Santa runs his fingertips down the crinkling pages.  One by one, he reads each child’s name aloud and smiles.  For Santa loves them all, and he knows what each child at heart wants most.

Then he chooses a certain toy and tucks it into his creased leather sack.  And always the magic draws closer.

Not many toys, mind you…a “certain toy”.  One.

And that is the reason I love this book so very much–because it mirrors what Christmas is about is our family.  In this book, Santa’s world is not an factory-line created to fulfill our growing wants.  In this book, Santa’s tasks are everyday tasks, done with care, love, and thoughtfulness.  In this book, Santa isn’t superhuman–he is just a regular man, dwarfed in size by  his giant barn, sleigh and sack of toys.  In this book, Santa is only magic to the extent that he creates magic though his joy and intention, and it is this created magic that carries him–and all of us.

Now in the harness, the reindeer paw at the snow.  They know the magic is near, very near.  Santa knows, too.  He gazes up at the brilliant, numberless stars, and he thinks of all the children and how he loves them so.

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Suddenly, a warm tingling spreads from his whiskers to his soles.  And around him, the night begins to thrum with magic, the kinds of magic that makes reindeer fly.

All of us can take part in creating this magic–whether tidying or singing, baking or helping others.  We can all feel it, all share in it, and it is magic…

…whether you believe in Santa, or not.

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Modern Halloween Favorites

I realize that we are now squarely in the midst of the Christmas season, and I really am going to put all these backlogged blog ideas away. I promise. But after posting about four Halloween books I thought were okay, I really wanted to post about two Halloween books that I think are really great–worthy of taking a place on my actual bookshelf someday.  Surprisingly, despite my demonstrated proclivity for living a bit in the past, the two books I most enjoyed this Halloween were both written by popular modern authors: Chris Van Allsburg (of Polar Express and Jumangi fame), and Jon J Muth (famous for his Zen books, of which this Halloween book is one).

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I have seen Jon J Muth’s books around in libraries and bookstores and on people’s reading lists that I generally admire, but for some reason every time I’ve flipped through one of the books it seemed too…well…modern.  With a gigantic panda bear as the main character, and storylines based on Zen koans–it just seemed to represent everything I don’t like about popular new children’s books (adult themes, cartoonish drawings, kids acting spoiled and entitled, etc…).  This book somehow ended up in our library bag, however, and after I read the book aloud once–really taking the time to let the illustrations and story sink in–I was hooked.  And so were the kids.

This is a very special Halloween.  There is going to be a full moon and I know someone who will tell you a ghost story.

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The book is based on the Zen koan, “Senjo and Her Soul Are Separated”, which tells the story of a woman who runs away from her home and an arranged marriage to marry the man she loves.  Although she is happy with her new life, she remains homesick and wracked with guilt about dishonoring her family, and eventually convinces her husband to return.  Upon their return, however, they find her parents neither elated nor angry, but confused.  Senjo, they explain, had never run away.  She has been in their home all these years, sick in bed with grief from losing the man she loves.

The two Senjos, upon seeing each other, merged and became one.

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The storyteller paused, then he asked, “which Senjo is the true one?  Are they one or are they two?”

The story of Senjo is told as a (ghost) story within the story of a typical American Halloween, but the theme of duality–“our hearts pulling us in two different directions at once”–permeates throughout.

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“I haven’t decided what I’m going to be yet,” said Michael.  “Either an owl…or a pirate.”

“Perhaps you will be an Owl-Pirate,” said Stillwater.

“He can’t be an Owl-Pirate!” said Karl.  “There’s no such thing as an Owl-Pirate! He has to be one thing!”

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I laughed at this, because my children had similar differing reactions to the book.  When faced with the question–are they one or are they two?–Ophelia, without hesitation, answered “two.”  Then, pointing at the picture, she went from one Senjo to the other saying, matter-of-factly, “one, two.”  Emerson, on the other hand, stayed quiet, enthralled with the “ghost” part of the story, her wheels silently turning.

A panda who looked exactly like Stillwater came in and sat down.

“Is that Stillwater?” whispered Karl.

“Yes…no…I don’t know!” whispered Michael.

Addy, Michael and Karl looked at one another.  Then they turned and looked beside them.  Only a mask was sitting on the cushion.

Emerson has been fascinated with ghost stories lately. She must have made us tell hundreds around Halloween.  Of course our stories were of the mild variety–no violence or terror, mostly just dead people wandering around people’s houses looking for things they left behind.  The fact that Emerson was ready for a slight thrill of this variety was exciting to me, as I have always been a big fan of horror, and we all had a lot of fun with it. What never occurred to me (until I started really thinking about this book) is that these “ghost” stories serve a greater purpose than just scary fun.  They are an introduction, of sorts, to the separation of worlds–to the idea that there may be something more out there than meets the eye.

When children are very young–like Ophelia, ghost stories either don’t make sense, or are extremely frightening, because children of this age take the world quite literally.  They still believe in magic, gnomes, fairies, Santa, the Easter Bunny, etc…  There is no separation between the real world and the world of the imagination.  There is just one real world.  If young children see something in a movie or on TV, or are introduced to an idea from their parents, or see people in Halloween costumes, they have no way to distinguish these things as superficial, which is why they are easily–and truly–terrified.  However, somewhere around middle childhood (seven, eight, nine) something changes, and children are able to begin to differentiate between real and imagined. While some ideas disappear altogether (the belief in Santa, etc…), this idea of another world, another possibility, still lingers.  This, to me, is what Halloween is all about.  Dia de los Muertos.  All Hallow’s Eve. A celebration of the dead; an opening of the doors to the “Otherworld”; a recognition of something, someplace, beyond ourselves and a night when it is okay to reach for it.  A night when these two worlds unite and become one.

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Of course the implications of the Zen koan run much deeper for adults.  It can be a question of death and the separation of the physical body from the soul, or it can be a question of the separation of the dutiful part of us cohabitating with the passionate part.  I’m not sure if this is a time when children are able to grasp that duality within themselves.  Ophelia certainly is not.  (You have to be one thing!)  But maybe at seven, Emerson is beginning to understand the possibility of the Owl-Pirate…the depth behind superficiality.

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The second book I loved so much this year was The Widow’s Broom, by Chris Van Allsburg, copyright 1992.  This book was also a ghost story–although a different sort of ghost story–with a magic all its own.

Witches brooms don’t last forever…on very rare occasions a broom can lose its power without warning, and fall, with its passenger, to the earth below…which is just what happened one cold autumn night many years ago…

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And so begins the story of a witch and her broom who fall into the yard of the widow Minna Shaw.

The witch asked Minna Shaw to draw the curtains, then wrapped herself tightly in her black cape and fell soundly asleep.  She lay there, perfectly still, all day and all evening.  When she finally awoke at midnight, her wounds had completely healed.

The witch knelt and took one of the red-hot coals in her hand.  Outside she made a fire of leaves and twigs, then dropped a strand of her hair into the flame.  The fire hissed and crackled, burning with a brilliant blue light.

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Before long the witch could see a dark form flying overhead.  It was another witch, who circled slowly and landed beside the fire…then they sat side by side on the second witch’s broom and flew off, over the treetops.

When Minna Shaw woke up she wasn’t surprised to find that her guest had gone.  Witches, she knew, had unusual powers.

Emerson loves this last illustration so much that she could be found studying it all hours of the day and night.  And who can blame her?  All of the detailed illustrations of this book are wonderful (I especially like his sequential drawings), but this one… You can taste the power.  The freedom.  The possibility.

The witch comes and goes, silently in the night, but she does leave a bit of magic behind–perhaps inadvertently, perhaps  intentionally–for the widow Minna Shaw.

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The witch’s loyal and industrious broom immediately gets to work in Minna Shaw’s home, and at first the widow is so put off by its constant sweeping, that she locks it in her broom closet.  The broom must keep busy, however, and rather than listen to its constant banging on the closet door, Minna teaches it how to chop wood, feed the chickens, bring the cows in from the pasture, and play piano for her in the evenings.  What a lovely, dependable companion for a lonely widow…no?  But of course, the neighbors soon become curious…

Mr. Spivey was horrified.  “This is a wicked, wicked thing,” he said.  “This is the devil.”

“It’s evil and it’s dangerous,” he told everyone who would listen.  “We’ll all be sorry if this thing stays among us.”

Fear of the unknown escalates to hatred, and violence.

One afternoon two of the Spivey boys and their dog walked along the road where the broom was happy at work.  When they saw what it was doing, they kicked the small stones the broom had swept aside back into its path.  The broom ignored them and shuffled off to sweep another part of the road.  But the Spivey boys would not leave it alone.  They called the broom names.  When it continued to ignore them, they picked up a couple of sticks and started tapping the broom’s handle.

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…the broom turned to the two boys and knocked them both on the head so hard they fell to the ground in tears.

We can all see where this is going…

One of the farmers took it out and gently held it against the stake while the others wrapped it in yards of rope.  They carried the broom outside, drove the stake into the ground, and gathered straw around it.

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Mr. Spivey lit the fire.  In no time, flames turned the broom to ashes.

What a sadly recognizable human story.  What a sad display of the lower elements of human nature.  What an important example of the fact that we need not look to the alien for evil.  We carry it here, within ourselves.

But remember, this is a ghost story…of a sort.  It is also a book for children.  It is a book about fear, no doubt, but it is also a book about courage, about humans’ ability to override evil with good, and about strong women with tricks up their sleeves…

Did you underestimate that widow, Minna Shaw?  You shouldn’t have.  She (and her faithful broom) prevail in the end.

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Trick-or-Treat

With only a few days to go until Thanksgiving, I thought maybe I would share a little bit about our Halloween, which to me feels like yesterday.  I’m not exactly sure where time goes these days.  Every time I sit down to write a little bit on this blog, I tell myself, now is the time where I will start writing regularly…and then a few more weeks go by…  But this only means that over the past year I have been living more of my life in the real world and less of my life in the virtual world–a gift, really, although I do so love to stop and collect my thoughts sometimes…

So Halloween, yes!  I have to say that our Halloweens so far as a family, although sweet and simple, have been somewhat on the generic side–costumes, trick-or-treating, jack-o-lanterns, pumpkin seeds, hot cider.  We have never gone overboard with decorations, or costumes (although I did like the year that we all dressed as the characters from Olivia) and although I think it has always been somewhat enjoyable for the kids (except for the year Emerson was sick, or there was a snowstorm…), it has never been more than a bump in our everyday existence.  But why is this, I wonder, when Halloween has always and forever been one of my favorite holidays–a time to recognize the darkness both outside and in, a time to be mischievous and brave, a time to step outside of ourselves and our worlds for one night and become whoever we want to be?

This year we decided to get a little bit more into the spirit of Halloween, and by that I don’t mean paper ghosts and bats on the windows and lots and lots of candy.  By that I mean delving into the darkness this holiday ushers in, bringing out qualities in ourselves that during other times may be more elusive.  The dreamy days of summer are far behind us, and now begins the time when we are most awake, most inside ourselves, most connected with the deep beyond.  It is a time for magic…for werewolves and witches, ghosts and ghouls, and we wanted to share that with the girls as much as their ages and fear-threshold would allow.

This year–because we are addicted to it–we took the girls to Old Sturbridge Village, which on first appearance may seem like a vacuous tourist-snare (this was our thought as we waited in the lengthy line to get in) but turned out to be perfect.  Once all the people were in and spread out, it didn’t seem crowded at all, and what says “haunted” more than a recreated seventeenth-century village lit only by jack-o-lanterns?  It was low on candy (although there was trick-or-treating–the houses were manned [womanned] by people dressed as story-book characters…the three bears sitting around a bowl of real porridge; Alice, the Mad Hatter, the Mad Hare and the Cheshire Cat having an un-birthday party with a real cake and candles, speaking in riddle the entire time; Mary and her real lamb; and so on…) and high on spooks. We started off the night by watching an old-time shadow puppet performance of Jack and the Beanstalk, and ended the night listening to ghost stories, quietly told in the Old Quaker Meeting house, where the only thing we could see were the silhouettes of people and the shadows of flickering candles on the walls.  They told “real” ghost stories, about “real” ghosts (quotations are Emerson’s, and she is referring to people who have died but still linger around us, not quirky miniatures in white sheets).  A good time was had by all.

…and speaking of stories, here are some of the books we enjoyed leading up to Halloween–not quite on par with Emerson’s ghost stories, but nice for Ophelia.  (With Emerson, we spent a lot of time telling our own ghost stories, and these she enjoyed so much that I’m looking forward to making-up some doozies for next year…) All of these books are stories of people (and pumpkins, and quirky miniatures in white sheets) harnessing (or not-quite-harnessing, but daring to try) the power and magic that lives inside them.  Perfect theme for Halloween, and for a little girl about to become four…

In order of publication:

Georgie’s Halloween by Robert Bright, copyright 1958.  I think we all remember Georgie, the shy little ghost.  I do, vaguely at least.

…But while the children rang doorbells and shouted boldly for treats, Georgie stayed hidden, and maybe you saw him–just maybe–and maybe you didn’t.  And that was just as it should be, because Georgie was a gentle little ghost and he was shy.

This is the story of Georgie, who, despite his fear, is convinced by his friends–some mice, a cat, and an owl–to venture out on Halloween night in hopes of winning a costume contest.  I love it for its display of bravery, and for showing that not all ghosts are scary–not everything is always as it seems.  The 1950’s pencil drawings are great too.

Although Georgie is persuaded to leave the house of the Whittaker’s, he is not gone long…

Now Mr. Whittaker did not see him even then, he was so busy looking the wrong way.  But the children saw him and recognized their favorite little ghost.  And so they shouted all together: “It’s Georgie! It’s GEORGIE!”

If only they had not shouted quite so loud!

With all the shouting, Georgie quickly runs all the way home (before he has a chance to win the prize for best contest and before Mr. Whittaker can see him of course, which is another great part of the story–the magic only kids can perceive), and is greeted by his friends the mice, who give him their own prize…

…And maybe it was the best kind of prize for Halloween, because it had come right out of a very old, creaky and squeaky bureau drawer. (Of course we adults and seven-year-olds laugh at the fact that his ribbon reads “Giant Pumpkin”)

At that, Georgie was so happy and pleased, he might well have forgotten everything else.  But even tonight, as soon as Mr. and Mrs. Whittaker were home again–

Georgie did not forget to creak the stairs just as usual–or to squeak the parlor door, just as usual.  As for Mr. and Mrs. Whittaker, they were still so puzzled and betwizzled by what had happened on the green that, while they went to bed as they should, they forgot to blow out the pumpkin in the parlor window.  But Georgie took care of that, thank goodness!

Oh Georgie, wouldn’t everyone love to have a ghost like you haunting their house?

Wispy, the Littlest Witch, by Rosemary Leahy Varney and illustrated by Robert Mashens, copyright 1977.

Much like Georgie, this is the story of a young witch excited for Halloween but still a little too small to fly…

Wispy turned around three times and whispered, “Kiddlekazoo, klippity klee, Magic buckles, fly for me!”

Nothing happened.

Wispy stared at the shoes, waiting.  Still, nothing happened.

“These clothes are just too big for me,” said Wispy.  “That’s why I can’t fly.”

Thinking the problem is only with her clothes, Wispy quickly stuffs her shoes and hat, and pins up the hem of her dress and her sleeves before riding off the meet the grown witches…

Unlike Georgie’s sweet, encouraging friends, the witches laugh at Wispy…all except one, who offers her an important Hallow’s Eve job…

“Can you cook?”

Wispy’s eyes sparkled.  “Yes, that I can do,” she said.

She was still smiling when she crawled into her little bed.  For now, she was truly a Halloween witch.

Such a sweet story, and I love the simple watercolor illustrations–especially the watermarks.

The Fierce Yellow Pumpkin, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrations by Richard Egielski, copyright 2003.

This is a “long-lost story” by Margaret Wise Brown, which was illustrated after her death.  I love Margaret Wise Brown’s stories, and this is no exception.  It is the story of a pumpkin who admires the resident scarecrow for his ability to scare the birds.  The pumpkin aspires to this “fierce” status…

But try as he would, his own pumpkin face stayed smooth and yellow and shining.

Then one day the sun did not shine as hot as fire.  And blackbirds, skies full of blackbirds, began flying over the big field.  There was a burning smell of leaves in the air and a crisp tingle that tickled the fat little pumpkin’s sides…

…then that night and the night after, something began to happen.  The first cold frosts came in the night.  And the fat little, round little, yellow little pumpkin woke up one morning and discovered that he was a fiery orange-yellow pumpkin.  The color of the sun.  A fierce, burning color.

Then three little children came galloping through the big field past the old one-eyed scarecrow.  They ran up to the fat little, round little, orange little pumpkin, and one little girl called out, “Here he is.  Here is our pumpkin!”

I have to admit, that although I love the story, I’m not bonkers about the illustrations.  I can’t help but wonder what this book would have looked like if Margaret Wise Brown chose her own collaborator.  Hmmm…

Finally, Only a Witch Can Fly, by Alison McGhee, illustrated by Taeeun Yoo, copyright 2009.

Although this book is the most modern of the bunch, it is written as a sestina–and poetry form that originated with the French troubadours in the 12th century.  I love exposing my children to different types of rhythm, so they are better able to feel the breadth of language.  For this, I was excited to find this book.  The illustrations aren’t bad either.

Your heart tells you now and you walk to the door. Cat arches his back and croons, soon.

Far above are the stars you love, singing their far away tune, but black cat beside you hums, Poor you, poor, poor.

How awful it is not to fly in the sky.

This story, however, is not a story of defeat.

Hold tight to your broom and float past the stars, and turn to the heavens and soar.  For only a witch can fly past the moon.

Only a witch can fly.

I hope your Halloween season was full of inner awakening and transformation as well!

(And speaking of transformation, here we are on Word Press!  Not a planned move, and certainly frustrating, but maybe a good move in the end.  We’ll see…)

Bookshelf: Dr. Suess and Election Night

Last month, I attended the famous (in our house) All4Kids Consignment Sale–my biannual “mom’s night out” to purchase Emerson’s entire wardrobe for that season, on the cheap.  I’ve been doing this sale for years now, and I have the whole routine down to a science: make a list of specific needs and legitimate wants and scout those out in the beginning (bathing suits, rain boots, roller skates, long silk gloves for Halloween costume, etc…), file through the clothes in Emerson’s size and the size above(can’t you hear the hangers clicking together as I quickly flip through each item of clothing?), speed-browse the game and puzzle section and see if there is anything that looks fun (this year’s finds were Operation, Tiddly-Winks, Kid’s Cranium, and Mancala…all for a dollar each), and then, then I head to the book section, set down my (very full) bag, sit down on the floor and peruse the bins.  Oh the beautiful, hard-back, mint condition, Caldecott Medal winners I have found there…beautiful, beautiful books, all for a dollar or two…

This fall (well, let’s face it, every fall…and spring) I came home with quite a few treasures.  One of them, was this Dr. Seuss book:

As Matty and I read this to the girls over the past month, we couldn’t help but notice how timely the stories were–the story of Yertle, for example, a big man (turtle) in a high place.  But Yertle–how did you get there?

“I’m ruler,” said Yertle, “of all that I see.
But I don’t see enough.  That’s the trouble with me…
…This throne that I sit on is too, too low down.
It ought to be higher!” he said with a frown.
 
So Yertle the Turtle King, lifted his hand
And Yertle, the Turtle King, gave a command.
He ordered nine turtles to swim to his stone
And, using these turtles, he built a new throne.
He made each turtle stand on another one’s back
And he piled them all up in a nine-turtle stack.
 
 
“All mine!” Yertle cried. “Oh, the things I now rule!
I’m king of a cow! And I’m king of a mule!
I’m king of a house! And, what’s more, beyond that,
I’m king of a blueberry bush and a cat!
I’m Yertle the Turtle! Oh marvelous me!
For I am the ruler of all I can see!”
 
And all through that morning, he sat there up high
Saying over and over, “A great king am I!”
Until ‘long about noon.  Then he heard a faint sight.
“What’s that?” snapped the king
And he looked down the stack.
And he saw, at the bottom, a turtle named Mack.
Just a part of his throne.  And this plain little turtle
Looked up and he said, “Beg your pardon, King Yertle.
I’ve pains in my back and my shoulders and knees.
How long must we stand here, Your Majesty, please?”
 
 

 
“Your majesty, please…I don’t like to complain,
But down here below, we are feeling great pain.
I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,
But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.
We turtles can’t stand it.  Our shells will all crack!
Besides, we need food.  We are starving!” groaned Mack.

As we read this at home, it started to remind of a little something…  The character of Yertle the Turtle, of course, is not based on American CEOs, but on someone far more insidious (Hitler, in fact), but the greed is there, and the selfishness, and the delusions of grandeur, and the disregard for the rights of others…(shall I go on?)  It’s hard to read such a politically charged author–who spent his life advocating progressive ideas and social change–and not take away something that has to do with the here-and-now.

We all know the end of Yertle the Turtle, a big man brought down by a tiny action from a “plain little turtle whose name was just Mack.”  As flawed as I think our two-party political system is, I am thankful to live in a country where all people still have a voice, a say in the outcome of where this country is headed.  There are some of us out there on this day-after-election who, I’m sure, think this country is going straight to hell.  But I happen to think that Theodor Geisel, that “Dr.” every kid longs to hear, that champion of human rights, that man who denounced racism, isolationism, and discrimination of any sort, would be smiling right now.

 
And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he,
Is the King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
And the turtles, of course…all the turtles are free,
As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.