VingananeeThis fabulous story came into our home via my mother.  It was ex libris – a discard from the Brookings Public Library, and it had already been rebound and was an ugly book.

But what a beautiful story.

This Liberian folk tale, retold by Verna Aardema and illustrated by Ellen Weiss tells the tale of four friends  - Spider and his three workers Buck Deer, Lion, and Rat. They live and work together, each with a job that best suits them, and after a hard day’s work, the tree toad who lives in the yard sings them to sleep.

Into their orderly life come chaos in the form of a giant hairy monster named the Vingananee.  He demands the stew from Rat, and threatens to eat Rat for noncompliance. Rat fights for the stew and ends up tied to a tree behind the house.

“I’m the Vingananee,/and I am hungry./ Give me your stew,/Or I will eat you!”

Each of the friends agrees in turn to defeat the Vingananee and literally save their dinner. And each day the Vingananee eats their stew.

Typically in a trickster story (when there is a spider), the trickster is the spider, but in this story Spider is not even interested in trying after Lion and Buck Deer end up tied to a tree.  It’s the little tree toad who thinks that he might be able to defeat the Vingananee.

What I love about this story are the conventions of the storyteller. There is repetition, escalation, and great onomatopoeia – Rat sweeps – fras fras fras; the Vingananee walks, pusu pusu pusu; and the tree toad sings them to sleep, tau au au au aut - among other sounds.

And I love it when the little guy wins.

The Vingananee and the Tree Toad by Verna Aardema, illustrations by Ellen Weiss, but I think this lovely book is out of print. Snatch it up at a used book store if you can find it.


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Welcome, February 1!

Today is the day that we reach the point halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox.  Imbolc, or St. Brigid’s Day is the beginning of the Celtic spring and the time when we can sense that the days are getting longer. 

So although we have at least three feet of snow in some places on the yard and six inches of new show fell today, we can celebrate that the sun is returning, the time that it is light each day is growing longer, and somewhere under the snow, the snowdrops and the crocus are considering shoots of green and reaching toward the sun.

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Which reminded me of a book – The Story of the Root Children, Illustrated by Sibylle von Olfers - 


Sixteen Candles

31Jan14

Ingalls WagonI wrote this last year. I’m not sure why I didn’t post it. The ladies have passed drivers education, now, and are juniors in high school. Seventeen years ago today I was told that the baby I was going to have was two babies.  

I am going to try to tell this story. Parts if it I have told so many times, but I want to get back to the feelings of those days more so than the happenings. It is blurry, but only because it all happened so fast and the days following it were a haze.

On January 31, 1997 I was very pregnant. I was working at the lumber yard in accounts payable and I was taking two classes in my masters program at Northwestern. I had this idea that this was the lightest quarter. I was taking a Design of Learning Environments where the professor routinely pitted the education students against the learning sciences students, and I was taking a class called Socializing Contexts and Institutions where my discussion section included a football player soon to be winningest coach in NU’s history.

I was big. I had to get to class early so that in one class I could sit between the lefty and the righty desk and at the the other get the one table with a chair. I no longer fit in a desk. I was miserable. My skin was stretched over my pregnant belly, and it Itched. Since Christmas I had not gone out much. My stomach was the topic of conversation wherever I went. The grocery store where the lady at the fish counter told me my stomach “didn’t look real” to the drive through at Wendy’s. I was tired of talking about my stomach.

At forty one weeks gestation, Dr. F (my obstetrician) wanted me to have a fluid check. Emily my eldest went to 41 weeks, so I didn’t think it was odd. There had been few concerns with the pregnancy. I was feeling good, I had wicked heartburn, I gained only 17 pounds, and I was borderline gestationally diabetic. But I had energy, and I agreed to the fluid check and stress test because it would be no big deal.

Friday arrived and Mom was staying with us. She was here for the arrival of the baby, and she had fallen at Christmas and shattered her wrist. The hand surgeon had reconstructed her with an external fixiture and a titanium plate, and she was here for the six week check in. Sam picked me up at the lumberyard and Mom was home chillin’ with Em. We were to get Mom to the hand surgeon at 3:30 and we headed off to my 1:30 fluid check at the hospital.

I was feeling great. I’d been having titanic Braxton Hicks contractions, but there was no indication that anything was unusual. We arrived at the hospital on time, and things were quiet in the sonogram department. We chatted and laughed as I got the explanation and the gown.

The lovely white haired tech explained, “We will take four images, one from each quadrant.” She put the wand on my belly and then moved it up. “I’ll start up here.” Okay, cool. I was lying on the table/bed in the dim light, joking with Sam. And we got quieter and quieter as more and more pictures came out of the machine.

“Is there a problem?” Sam asked.
“Oh, no. Everything looks great. Let me show you what I’m doing. See that triangle there? I am measuring the spaces to see how much fluid there is. That line,” she said, running her finger down the center of the screen, “that is the line that separates one from the other.”

Now for a fleeting second I thought that she meant the line that separates me from the baby, but I’m slow sometimes though not stupid.
“One from the other what?” I asked. The look on her face was priceless. She went pale, (matched her hair) and she just stared at me. “Do not tell me at forty one weeks I’m having twins…” I felt like I was Lucy or Laura Petrie or some other sitcom mom. This was not real, right?
“You didn’t know? I just thought it was a scheduling mix up. We always schedule twice as long for twins.”
Do I look like I knew?
Now she started to flutter. She started moving the wand around on my belly and then collected herself. “Let me just finish up.”
Okay.
“Do you want to know the sexes?” she asked, unable to really concentrate.
“I think that I have had enough surprises. Tell me everything you can,” I insisted.
And the details she could provide included position (head down), gender (girls), relative size (equal), fluid status (all good).
“This means that the tech that is doing your non-stress test doesn’t know you are having twins.”
Yes, as I just found out. So to make the next test more efficient she marked where the girls’ heart tones were on my stomach WITH A SHARPIE.
Great.
Did you all forget about Mom chillin’ at home with Emily (age three)? Well I hadn’t. I am watching the clock, and I know it will be tight, but we will still get her to the orthopedic surgeon.
Stress test passed. Babies responded to stimuli with strong heart beats. Nothing to worry about. So we waddle back to the car, laughing a little too loud, just trying to figure out what the what…

Cut to us, pulling up outside our house, not ten minutes later. Mom had become worried when she hadn’t heard from us. I know she was concerned about me, but her immediate issue was the hand surgeon. She had called my sister because she thought she would be late, and my sister drove the 30-45 to our house so that Mom would get to the doctor. We would have made it, but Mom was standing with her coat on, looking out the window for Liz.

I don’t know what the plan was for Em, but Mom was itching to go. She stepped out on the stoop, and I burst into tears. I tried explaining as best I could why we were late, how one baby had morphed into two, and then we needed to leave. My sister drove up to the curb and saw me in tears, gesturing madly. She thought I was mad at Mom for calling her (actually I was a little bit, but that hadn’t registered yet). When she finally heard the news, she swept Mom off to the doctor where they promptly cooled their heels for an hour.

The two girls arrived about 34 hours later.

Between those two events there are at least two more posts: supply triage and labor and delivery. This one is long enough.


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I have written about waiting to leave for school in the morning as a kid.  Captain Kangaroo was integral to the experience for many reasons, but specifically the clock at the bottom of the screen let us know when it was time to leave.  I thank Captain Kangaroo for introducing me to Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton.

This is a story of obsolescence and growing old after working hard and doing your best.  Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne his steam shovel are part of the great United States expansion of machines, roads, and buildings.  They work hard and well and their labor is central to the effort – and then along come diesel powered machines and Mike and Mary Anne find themselves obsolete.  They go looking for work outside of the big cities where they find a community that is building a new city hall.  Mike claims that he and Mary Anne can dig the cellar for the new hall in one day. “Impossible!” A challenge is struck and Mike and Mary Anne work from sun up to sun down drawing a huge crowd of onlookers.  They finish in time, but they have forgotten to leave themselves a way out.

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Of course there is a wonderful solution to the questions: did they succeed? how will they get out? what will Mike and Mary Anne do in this age of bigger, better, faster?

The story is wonderful, affirming our faith in the triumph of humanity over machine, and the drawings are terrific – they have a whiff of the naturalistic art of the thirties and forties, and the anthropomorphic shovel, Mary Anne, is both fierce and sweet.

This is one book that I hope never goes out of print.

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, story and pictures by Caldecott medalist Virginia Lee Burton


Mr DogThis story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

From Shakespeare’s Henry V, 1598:

There are lots of dog books — The Poky Little Puppy, Spot, I Am a Puppy (My name is Bruno),and Martha Speaks but none entertained us quite so much as Mr. Dog: the Dog Who Belonged to Himself by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrations by Garth Williams of the Little House Books and Charlotte’s Web fame..

While she is known for the bedtime classic, Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown also wrote a number of other well loved stories.  We had a Golden Books omnibus that opened with this story. The other two stories in the collection, The Seven Little Postmen and The Color Kittens, deserve their own post.

Mr. Dog was “a funny dog named Crispin’s Crispian. He was named Crispin’s Crispian because he belonged to himself.”  He liked what he liked when he liked it.  In the morning he would go to the icebox and serve himself with “bread and milk.” Funnier still, “He liked strawberries.”

Running Mr. Dog

Now lest you think that Crispin’s Crispian is just a crotchety old man who smokes his pipe, scratches his hindquarters, and barks at kids to stay offa his lawn, we learn that he likes to chase squirrels just like the next dog.  But he is looking for a friend. So one day, after chasing the requisite critters, he runs in to a little five-year-old boy:

“Who are you and who do you belong to?” asked the little boy. “I am Crispin’s Crispian and I belong to myself,” said Crispian. “Who and what are you?” “I am a boy,” said the little boy, “and I belong to myself.” “I am so glad,” said Crispin’s Crispian. “Come and live with me.”

So off to the grocers and then Crispian’s crooked house where there is a table, a kitchen, a fireplace, and two beds.  Here we learn that Crispian is a conservative.  I LOVE this definition of conservative:

“Crispin’s Crispian was a conservative. He liked everything at the right time –
dinner at dinnertime,
lunch at lunchtime,
breakfast in time for breakfast,
and sunrise at sunrise,
and sunset at sunset.
And at bedtime –
At bedtime, he liked everything in its own place –
the cup in the saucer,
the chair under the table,
the stars in the heaven,
the moon in the sky,
and himself in his own little bed.”

It’s not as creepy as it sounds, and I actually don’t remember how it ends. I do know that the girls wanted me to read often. I enjoyed the friendship, the sharing, the precursor to wanting to keep your room organized not because your mom will yell but because Mr. Dog does.

Mr. Dog: the Dog Who Belonged to Himself by Margaret Wise Brown, Illustrations by Garth Williams


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“Far beyond the moon and stars,
Twenty light- years south of Mars,
Spins the Gentle Bunny Planet.
And the Bunny Queen is Janet.”

Three books that help us know that our imagination, hope, and love can transform even the worst day.

When we first found these stories, they were three small books (First Tomato, Moss Pillows and The Island Light) in a boxed set. Each tells the story of a young rabbit who has had a bad day. Robert, Claire, and Felix survive disastrous days to be whisked off to the Bunny Planet, where Janet the Queen helps them have “the day that should have been.”

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Everyone needs a visit to the Bunny Planet now and then. There you can have “toasted tangerines” (your favorite snack) and soup made just for you.  You can rest in a tree or see your sweater steam near the fire as it dries.  We each know that place that will bring us peace in a world where things can often go wrong.

My girls were never huge Ruby and Max fans, but they loved this book.  I shared it with my sister’s children, and my niece (a special ed teacher in a suburban middle school and someone who has seen her share of dreadful days) has embraced this book as a talisman.

I am happy that this book is back in print.  There was a while there that I bought copies from any used book store where they were available.  Now it is a three-in-one omnibus, still compact in size. This is a “must have” as it will reward re-reading.

When I taught an Autobiography and Memoir class a number of years ago, I brought this book in. I asked my students to take a bad memory and go on a visit to the Bunny Planet. They got to rewrite the day as the way it should have been.  One of my students was excited. “My brother and I LOVED that book when we were kids.”  Truth be told, when I read it aloud to my students in class, the room got a little dusty – yeah – I had something in my throat – yeah – that’s it.

“It is the first duty of a flagging spirit to seek renewal in the latitudes of whimsy. I, for one, dream on beyond the five planets to a world without wickedness; verdant, mild, and populated by amiable lapins.”

-Benjamin Franklin, letter to his nephew, 1771.

Voyage to the Bunny Planet by Rosemary Wells


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I love this book.  I remember it from when I was a child.  We didn’t own a copy of this book, but I first experienced it on mornings before school in the mid-60s when Captain Kangaroo read it to us all via his childrens’ television program.  I remember the pages would shake when the peddler would shake his finger at the monkeys.

I wish that we had a copy of this when I was a kid. The author’s name is so great  - Esphyr Slobodkina   – I would have love trying to say that name then (because I have so much fun saying it now).

This is a book that I give as a gift to new parents.  It is not one in the usual pile of “books for new parents,” but it should be.  There is a lot to love here.  There is a wonderful physicality to the story.  The peddler has a tall pile of caps on his head.  The idea of walking with that pile of caps and not having them fall off or the pile fall over is already fun to try to imagine.  That the peddler is tired is no surprise. And then there are those monkeys!

Where could this story be set with this man, these trees, and monkeys?  And who cares? The charm of this story is in the wonderful repetition, the escalating reactions of the peddler and the monkeys, and the ah ha! solution – monkey see, monkey do!

Between the phrase, “You monkeys, you…” and “tzt tzt tzt” – this is a story with enough repetition that pre-readers can join in with parents “reading the story,” and it is one of those books with a small enough vocabulary to encourage early readers.

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The author and artist, the aforementioned Slobodkina, was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists (with de Kooning and Pollock) and a pioneer in abstract art in this country.

It may not sell as well as The Cat in the Hat, but I like this headwear story infinitely better.

Caps for Sale: A Tale of a Peddler




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