Tuesday, October 29, 2013

if you want to see a whale

One afternoon this week, I found myself leaving the playground after school pickup with only one child.

Elliott said to me quietly as we did so, as I picked up the bag of Nicholas' extra things he did not need for basketball practice and spotted Julia walking with her group over to her dance class, it is just like when I was at school for half days.  We get the afternoon together.

Ah, yes.  Those wonderful afternoons in which he and I would come home after I picked him up from school, eat lunch together and spend a few hours together, just us.  Reading.  Drawing.  Walking.  Being together.  Some times quite imperfectly, but still, in a way that we both relied upon to reconnect.

He and I both miss these afternoons, though the missing has eased a bit over the past few months as he adjusts to full day school.

But we both got a bit excited for our afternoon hour and a half together before everyone else came home.  And in the flurry of dinner making and homework and practicing that I knew would inevitably come once everyone was home, I knew his quiet voice and slower pace would get, gets, a bit lost.

We headed home, with a brief stop for the perfect just us accessory, and made a snack.  Our usual.  Popcorn by me.  And a special secret recipe he has created for hot chocolate.

The hour a bit later today, with the sun already falling below the trees, the chill setting in and the days shortening, the afternoon sun fell away.  And so, just as our days have moved from afternoons mostly together to afternoons mostly apart, the sun moved just as quickly forward, and in the time it took to make this favorite snack he and I, the light changed from bright to dwindling.

It is easy with our children, but especially for Elliott, to forget his youngness.  To forget that I wish for him the same childhood that Julia and Nicholas had, of time to play, to wonder, and to be.  I used to lie on a blanket in our backyard with Nicholas, in that last hour before Jonathan would get home from work, and play I Spy with the clouds.  Doing nothing else but trying to look at something the way that he did.  To see through his eyes.

if you want to see a whale
by Julie Fogliano, pictures by Erin E. Stead

But two children later, and the schedules of growing children.  It is easy to forget that all of this is new to Elliott, even though the rest of us have all done this several times before.  And that he still needs this space and time, the coming back to us, the quiet, the nestling.  Being read to.  At a pace that allows his mind time "for waiting and time for looking and time for wondering[.]"

And then, we built a fire together in the wood stove and sat down in front of it, a huge bowl of popcorn at our feet and mugs in our hands.

What had we picked up on our way home?  Well, we had stopped by our local branch of our public library.  For a book that was waiting for me on the holdshelf.  As Elliott and I sauntered off the playground and danced across the cross walk, I had remembered a book was waiting there for me.  And knew I wanted it to be a part of our afternoon.  I had been thinking about this book, anticipating it and wanting to read it with Elliott, for a few days since I had heard about it.  Julie Fogliano and Erin E. Stead's If You Want to See a Whale.

I was excited, because this book, And Then It's Spring, also by the Fogliano and Stead team, and this picture below, still represents Elliott's little self in ways I never would have been able to put to words.  And so, to this talented author and illustrator team, I am already extremely grateful.

and then it's spring
by Julie Fogliano, pictures by Erin E. Stead

So If You Want to See a Whale, with its slow pace, quiet words, detailed and seductive illustrations (a bit of a temptation-to-caress problem given the butter on our fingertips), and huggable grippable size.  About giving children the time and space to wonder and imagine.   I had to have it for our afternoon together, to not leave it alone and unread on the holdshelf a day longer.

I read about this book here and immediately went to our public library's website and did my usual, search, entering the title and then, if I am lucky enough that our library has it, putting it on my list of books to gather next time we are at the branch.  Or, if another library in our city's system has it, requesting that it be brought to our local branch for pickup.  Or, if no branches have a copy, I go to the statewide library sharing system, MaineCat, and see if I can get my mitts on it there.  And then, on the sad day that I can find it nowhere?  I wait.  Until some library does.

For If You Want to See a Whale, I found that there was an available copy at our library's branch out on Peaks Island.  I pressed request, and them imagined the trip that this book would have to take to us.  Perhaps like this?

if you want to see a whale
by Julie Fogliano, pictures by Erin E. Stead

Delivered by a small and quiet boy and his dog, across Casco Bay.  Perhaps lovingly delivered by this island boy who wanted to put it directly into the hands of another small boy, who would love it just as well.

But this book would likely ride the ferry across Casco Bay.  Sit on a shelf our our small local branch in a residential neighborhood nearby, decidedly not island.  And then, be picked up by Elliott and I on own way home from school, a skip in both our steps as we hugged the book when it was placed in our hands by the librarian, and headed home to our special snack and just us afternoon.

He and I reconnected, shored ourselves up, and had our time together.  Our pace slowing to the repetitive and thoughtful pace of this book.  Soon, the door slammed and the happy chaos of family life returned, the older kids arriving home, backpacks thudding loudly onto the kitchen floor.  Needing lots of things.  Snacks.  Planning.  Forms to be filled out.  To be listened to as they told of the day's excitements, bumps, and struggles.

Elliott and I gave each other another squeeze.  Threw another log on the fire.  And carried the still half full popcorn bowl into the kitchen.  To join the pace of the rest of our day.  Holding hands as we walked into the kitchen.  An unspoken and solid tie between us, our breathing quickening to match the happy frenzy in the kitchen, but behind that, a peacefulness and comfortableness of our shared story and afternoon.

illustration by Erin E. Stead
Global Literacy Campaign

Sunday, October 27, 2013

tardy tasty green and local breakfast

Have you eaten here?  Hot Suppa in Portland?  Oh my.  Let's just say I am still thinking about a breakfast we had there months ago.  During the meal, I may have teared up a bit over the deliciousness.  Especially over the lemon ricotta crepe that I did not even order (thank you, dear), but managed to snarf away a good deal of.  And I must tell you, that though fried chicken and a waffle sounds a bit heavy and perhaps even gross for breakfast?  It was not.  It was, sniff, perfect.  Julia's eyes may have rolled back in her head over her enjoyment of the bacon waffles, and Nicholas' waffle with a side of fried green tomatoes had Jonathan and I quoting Fannie Flagg for the rest of the day.  "You're just a bee charmer, Idgie Threadgoode. That's what you are, a bee charmer."

We are breakfast people.  We love a good hearty breakfast.  And with the mornings a bit chillier in the house, before the wood stoves get it warmed up for the day, a big hearty breakfast is especially enjoyed on weekend mornings.  Because part of the joy of a huge breakfast is that one can eat it in their pajamas, and let's admit here that these breakfasts often come at the time when many families would be eating lunch, eating it at home is really the best choice.  

So, this weekend we tried to recreate a bit of the joy of our Hot Suppa breakfast.

We started with our favorite ricotta waffle recipe, and added in bacon and chocolate chips (Elliott's suggestion) to the batter to make it more in league with Hot Suppa.  

If my waffle iron was working correctly, I would show you them cooking.  But it is not, and what was first one side of the iron not working is now neither side really working.  One side requires a good deal of patience.  Frequent checking, it turned out, was not a good idea.  So there were some rather stuck on and unfortunate looking waffles.  But they still tasted delicious.

And, with the frosts that are taking away more and more of our garden each night, I am racing to preserve and save what I can.  Therefore, there is a surprising splash of green on our counters these days of herbs for pestos, cold weather crops still thriving, and...lots and lots of green tomatoes.

We are searching for ways to use them since we do not have much luck ripening them inside when they are still this green.  We are having this for dinner tonight.

But we decided to give the fried green tomatoes a try.  And we are so glad we did.  Most of them never made it to the table.  It was, after all, lunch time.  We used this recipe, just the fried green tomatoes part of it.  The breading was divine.

While we were cooking, Elliott apparently felt we needed a bit of sprucing up and fancy to make it a true restaurant quality experience.  So he placed out linens and then ran about the house collecting items to decorate the table.

I don't really have an explanation for this.  I do know it was nearby on the bench, laid out for a possible Dorothy costume for Julia.  And it somehow got repurposed.  But it made Elliott very happy.

And so, in the light of the noon time sun and in the shadow of a strangely hanging basket, the house slowly warming with the two wood stoves chugging out heat, we devoured this meal.  Affordable, most ingredients local, many from our own property, and all of us in our pajamas, some of them with footies.  The whole plate drizzled with the maple syrup that we harvest here from our own trees.  

At least one of the waffles turned out to be photo worthy.

Breakfast.  At home.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

a crayon for every book

Once there was a whale who lived in a library, by Elliott

We are all, from an early age, trying to figure out how this whole thing works. For me, drawing was a way to artificially create an environment where I could control my own little version of life that made sense to me.  
Aaron Becker, The Making of Journey 

In our oldest son's middle school, all 6th graders study Latin. Up until this point, he has studied Spanish. But in middle school, students enter from other elementary schools join students who have already been here in the elementary grades. And in order to level the playing field for everyone and begin to develop a sense of community, they teach Latin. And everyone starts from the very beginning.

Latin.  As a community building tool.  Rather genius.  Clearly this school has thought about the power of words, the power of whether you have them or not.  And what happens when you take them all away.

I am aware that what I am about to talk about is rather ironic, given the recent buzz about the importance of young children's exposure to vocabulary, literacy, and spoken language.  We are revisiting the gaps found between children of lower income families and those of higher income families in terms of preparedness for school.  And discussing how these gaps should or should not guide early preschool curriculum and the potential funding of such public programs.

However, in the wake of these reminders of the importance of parents talking to their children, from a very early age, filling those young and developing minds with connected and engaged discussion,  I give you this: the importance of books without words.  I offer to you the idea of sitting for a bit with your children without words, and even more, without making eye contact.

Because, instead, you are looking at pictures.  You are looking together, in silence, at a book.  Together, perhaps in this cold weather, in front of a fire.  With your middle school fantasy reader on one side of you, and your beginning reader, a somewhat reluctant reader at that, on the other.

A few years ago, we attended a story time with Megan Lambert in the library of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts.  The Carle is a special place for my family, one we have visited often.  That day, in the library, in which picture books are arranged alphabetically not according to their author's name, but rather by illustrator, was a good one.  One that shifted my thinking in a couple of ways.

Even just the organization of the books.  That shifts one's perspective.  As you move about the library trying to find an old favorite, you often cannot at first, because we typically focus so very much on author, on the person who provided the words to the story, not the pictures.  I also observed and learned how differently children will engage with a picture book when it is read, as it was by Megan that day, by reading the pictures and the words.  She gave the illustrations, as she sat there in the shadow of original art by Eric Carle, the same level of attention as the words.  She talked about the end pages, the colors, and wondered together with the large group of squirrely children that day about the art, about why the illustrator created the artwork in certain ways, about the parts of the story that the words do not address, such as facial expressions, predictions of plot, and many other examples of engaged and interactive reading.

For Elliott?  This library is a library of his mind, mapping on to the way he thinks.  He identifies books in the book store or books on the newly acquired shelves at the library by their illustrations.  He says, that book is by the same person who did Amos McGee, or even those pictures remind me of the Spiderwick Chronicles when he saw the Guardians of Childhood series illustrations by William Joyce.

Our youngest?  He is like Harold in Harold and the Purple Crayon.  Or Leo Lionni's Frederick.  He draws, crafts, sculpts, and visualizes his way through the world.  And if it weren't for a very skilled and patient teacher in his life, he would do this all day long.  Luckily, we have this teacher, and Elliott, with her guidance, is willingly learning to read.

But really?  He thinks in pictures.  And often, when I sit down to read aloud to him from a library book that has been on the bench for a few days, he has already read it, in his own way.  I know he could sound out the words and identify many of them, but he does not, without urging, choose to do this yet.  Instead, he reads the pictures.  And does so in ways that demonstrate a visual literacy that I can only dream of having.  And often, given that he is inferring clues from the pictures, from the facial expressions, from the details of the pictures, from what changes from page to page, he is making a story that is very different from the one that I then read to him.  Which can lead to some very funny and interesting confusions when I start to tell him a story that differs from the one he has told himself.  Often he will ask me the name of a book, you know the one where the fox keeps secrets and nobody plays with him and he is sad?  Given that I tend to think in words, in the written stories, I often have a very hard time connecting my sense of a story with what he takes from it.

We know that Elliott understands what he sees, that he makes meaning of his world in pictures before words.

Elliott brought a schoolwork packet home with him from school the other day.  The first page of the packet was October's Calendar, completed by Elliott.  All of the numbers of the days of the month were written by him in the appropriate boxes on the calendar grid.  And at the top of the page was a very elaborate and carefully drawn picture.  The picture was a keeper.  It was true Elliott.  And down below, every one of the 5's on the calendar was backwards.

He rushes through his worksheets in order to be able to have more time to work in his journal.  To get back to the pictures, I thought to myself when he told me he had made lots of mistakes on a worksheet he showed me because he was in a hurry to work on his journal.  He draws pictures in his journal and then uses invented spelling to tell the story that goes along with his pictures.  This journal is what he likes to do.  I felt a tremor of worry.  Will this boy learn to read?  Do we have a situation on our hands with this, our third and last child?

And then, a few days later, Elliott took me over to his journal.  And wanted to quietly share his work in it.

Library Lion, my favorite book

Library Walrus, my made-up book.  It is a book about a walrus who lives in a library.

And I was overcome with a very familiar wave of I am a terrible mother, thinking back on my reaction to Elliott's worksheets, fortunately kept to myself.  This boy knows how to tell a story.  And he knows how to read one. And he carries these stories with him, drawing on them for his imagination, creation, and learning.  Worksheets, schmerksheets.

Once there was a chipmunk and he lived in a book.

This is really the crux of what we hope for our children, for our lifelong readers, right?

* * *

 Journey, by Aaron Becker, has worked its way into our library bag, after reading a good deal of buzz about it as a potential Caldecott contender this year.

This is a book that encourages visual literacy at its finest.  I know this because, as I read it with the children, they had to encourage me to go back a few pages in order to see a detail that I had missed and therefore was confused about the story.

Reading a picture book without words with a child, such as Journey, offers many moments for observation.  Just like the backwards fives, Elliott was sometimes narrating the story for me moving from the right page back to the left, Japanese Manga style, perhaps.  It gave me a chance to remind him that in our books, the pictures always move from left to right.

Also, when I asked Nicholas (our former reluctant reader) to read the story aloud, to narrate what he was seeing, he struggled a bit at first and was feeling self conscious.  I asked him is this weird, is what you are saying aloud different than what would be going on in your head as you looked at the book?

He said,  I guess I would be noticing everything in my mind, but I wouldn't have to put it into words for you.  Putting it into words makes me notice more and makes it a fuller story, but it is more work.

Is this noticing more by putting things to words a difference between people?  Or is visual literacy something that gets lost a bit as text takes more precedence.  Is Nicholas somewhere between Elliott and I on the continuum, on this path of noticing, moving from illustrations to text?

I am thinking it is a little bit of both.  That Elliott will become more text based as he moves toward more independent reading.  But I also think there is just something about Elliott that will allow him to always be the kind of child who stands quietly and observes and sees things that the rest of us would not notice.  He will always be a visually based processor.

I knew, had already read about, the connection between Journey and Harold and the Purple Crayon.  But I had not said anything about it to the kids.  When we got to the page that showed the girl falling through the air, a circular line being drawn by her red crayon in her hand, Elliott gasped.  Without saying anything, he got up from the floor and walked over to the book shelves.  Stood for a bit, dug around for a few more moments, and then exclaimed, yes!  And returned, with Harold in hand, skipping a bit.  And laid down on his belly.  And flipped to the page on which Harold also falls, his purple crayon dragging behind him.  Both characters across separate books, come up with the same solution: a hot air ballon.

Nicholas and Elliott both noticed details I had not.  Nicholas noticed the map on the girl's bedroom wall before she went into the imagined world, and then that each new place in the story seemed to have details that were specific to different geographical locations, such as the Asian lanterns, canals like Venice, and Arabian architecture.

Nicholas said, it's cool.  I like how the pictures keep using specific colors.  It's like in The Red Book.  With the color red.  

I like how she can draw things and use them like how they would be used in real life, Elliott said.  That was an interesting comment to me, as in my mind, the act of drawing a simple version of an object conjured up the real object, and therefore made these objects real.  In Elliott's mind, these objects were drawn and remained pretend, just usable as if they were real.  It was a small but interesting difference.  And one I would not have thought about otherwise.

This theme of connected reading.  Between people reading a book together.  But also of the opportunities that some books give children to draw connections between different books, between different stories and their characters.  Between illustrators.

I noticed it when we read Linda Urban's Center of Everything, which drew upon the story of L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time, and Stead's When You Reach Me, spun some of the same ideas, of time travel or time bending and looking for clues in the world around you a bit differently...to spin a different tale.  In Stead and Urban's books, words connect the stories.  Becker accomplishes the same thing, with pictures.

These books without words.  By taking away words, we use our eyes more.  Observe more.  Notice small things.  Look for clues.  In this quieter place, it is as if time can stand still for a few moments while the illustrator's world is frozen for us, and we can look, listen, wonder.  We do not turn the page where someone else will tell us with their words what happens next.  Because that place where ambiguity meets the flood of meaningful information that comes to us visually, when pictures are done well, is where a story can take off.  And in unexpected ways.

And once this breath full of time and observation has been exhaled, we are perhaps more ready to spin tales ourselves, to reference other stories, to look for what can come next.  To turn the page.  The mental flexibility that wordless reading supports.  In books, but also in life.  The knowledge that two people can stand in front of the same picture, or the same map of the world, and see very different things.

I believe that this kind of reading, this kind of literacy, will allow children -- in the future and when their minds permit it -- to draw connections between different ideas, different perspectives, different possibilities.  We will see them better able to wonder about problems, hear them say I know somebody else that that happened to, I remember another time when we did this and what happened, I see something there, another explanation, that we might have overlooked.  This is a critical skill.  And a powerful one.

So, though I am a strong believer in the need to talk to and read to your children in connected and engaged and interactive ways, I want to remind everyone of another need as well: to sometimes sit together.  Next to each other.  In silence.  Not putting words to pictures before your children's minds have had a chance to make the pictures into their own stories.
The format of a wordless book came about pretty naturally for me.  I wanted the pictures to really tell the story.  And I like how the reader has to figure out what is going on.  It forces them to have to sit there and take it all in without feeling like they have to turn the page and keep reading. But making it work is a whole other question and you have to solve all your problems visually.  You have to tell the story without using language.
Aaron Becker, The Making of Journey 

Taking away words.  It allows my different aged readers and me to read a story together in wonderful ways.  It allows children who do not know each other to move forward together and make a story of their own.  It forces everyone to develop a common story, together.

And it reminds us to always carry a crayon, in case we fall.  Because that crayon can give us the ability to write, or draw, our own future.

Sunday, October 20, 2013


Most of the leaves in the woods of our favorite walk are down now.  Looking at the light, and the colors in certain sections of the trees, it could just as easily be 35 degrees as it could be a warmish 60.  And in the course of a day, the temperatures can fluctuate quite dramatically.

And therefore, a walk in these woods began with us all in our necessary bright colors this time of year, given various possible hunting seasons underway.  And in various layers of warmth, hats, jackets and wool socks.  As we walked, the sun rose higher, the light intensified, and the warm colors of leaves still on the trees started to assert themselves.  Still here.  Still Fall.

And the chilly beginning, hands in pockets, a bit disconnected and grumpish, moved into carefree running, rock hopping and general silliness.  The layers of clothing came off and moved from one child to another as their body temperature required it.  As the sun rose higher and everyone's mood and energy level rose, and we opened ourselves to the air around us, alone in the woods.  On this walk, moods went from edgy and tense.  To quiet.  And then chatty.  Then giddy.

The kids found joy in the wildness and in the discovery of new pockets of adventure.  Such as leaf sliding and climbing on a steep hill deep in the woods.

I do believe that Elliott had a lengthy and quiet conversation, that may have included singing, with the chilly and gently babbling brook.  I wish I could have heard what he was saying.

And while he was chatting away, Julia was splashing intentionally, the dappled light catching on the drops.

And Nicholas.  Because really, it is not a trip to the brook for us without one of us falling in, he took the fall for us this weekend.  Unintentionally.  And the brook is cold this time of year.  But he handled it better than some of the younger ones might have.  And continued on.

Julia was zig zagging back and forth across the brook, finding different ways across, back and forth, back and forth.  Weaving her way up the river.

A step, cautious and tentative.  Then a rebalancing upon a tippy mossy slippery low in the water rock, composing oneself, and then leaping up to high and dry ones.

The intentional placement, rebalancing, and leaping onward of each river crossing.  Of each walk together in the woods.  Allows us to leap into the week ahead, and hopefully do so a bit more resilient when we face some of the likely stress and mishaps of the coming week.

Friday, October 18, 2013

these brief and wondrous years

I have been thinking a great deal lately about the difference between a Young Adult book and a Middle Grade book.

This is primarily because I currently have a 12 year old who is branching out and forward in what he wants to read, and what he can tolerate in terms of reading level and content. Twelve is the beginning of the recommended age for YA books.  And we also have a nine year old reader who lands right smack in the middle of the stated middle grade reader age range. And sits there so happily.

Over the summer Julia, said nine year old reader, read a great deal, and the books she loved most included L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time series, Stead's When You Reach Me, Urban's the Center of Everything, and Palacio's Wonder.

Julia has devoured every Linda Urban book we have found, after loving, hugging, and tucking the Center of Everything under her pillow. And then reading it again.  She has now read three of Urban's books in a row, getting to know a sensitive and charmingly quirky child, having an internal struggle, and then a crisis, and then having the family rally, circle the wagons, and coming out changed, thoughtful, a bit different, but well supported.  I think Julia has been immersing herself in Urban's worlds, wrapping them around herself like a trusty old sweater.

Or like fuzzing her lovey, ZZ, each night for a few moments, soothing herself, before she falls asleep.  I have heard her say a few times as we pack her up for sleepovers that she doesn't need her lovey, she could leave him behind, but she will just throw him in just in case.  Her comfort, her safe place, as she looks out at the bigger world.

Upon entering her first day of school this year, Julia struggled a bit as it came time for me to go, and for her to stay and spend the day with her new group of peers and a new teacher. A bit later into the morning, Julia's teacher placed Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper into Julia's hands as she reached for her comfort book, A Wrinkle in Time.

Try this, her teacher said. And thus created a solid footing in Julia's world.  And in ours as well.

Julia came home not wanting or needing to talk about those first few moments of hesitation and worry as school began, about what had seemed so important when I had last seen her. And instead wanted to talk about her new book, and the girl in it who could not speak. I put on my mommy hat and listened, swallowing my immediate connection between Julia's shyness and another child's inability to communicate. She couldn't remember the book's title that first day, but she could remember the picture on the cover. A goldfish. Rules? I asked. No, she said, something about her brain, her head...

With the exception of having to be the child of two humiliating parents who alternate between singing loudly and then lecturing on the importance of kindness in the front seat of the car while she is strapped and captured in the back seat, Julia has a pretty good life. Safe, no trauma, happy. Yes, I am aware that we are troubling her in ways that we do not realize, in ways that at some point a professional with letters after her name in the years to come will list for us.  But if we consider real trauma and hardship of the major stressor kind of harm, we are doing OK.

Which brings me to this essay, one I read a while back by Jeanne Birdsall, the author of our family's first hugely successful summer read aloud a few years ago: The Penderwicks series. If one believed that in order to imagine, dream of, and create such a loving clumsy forgiving and ah shucks kind of family, the author needed to have lived such a life of goodness, one would believe that Jeanne Birdsall lived a very charmed life.

Apparently, not so.
Bad things were done to me when I was small. Lacking adequate physical defenses, I escaped into my imagination, where I could be all-powerful and the scariest monster was the witch in my closet. Imagination expands when exercised; mine grew strong and wily, 
and a pleasure to me, too, when the bad things were in abeyance.
Jeanne Birdsall, Middle Grade Saved My Life, for the Horn Book Magazine 

I encourage you to read the whole article, linked here. It is wonderful, and makes one think about the author as a person, her child self and her grownup author self, and why she writes what she writes.
Not all children are treated as badly as I was, and for that we can be grateful. But all children have to work out the role of creativity, fantasy, and learning in their lives, often at the same age I was when books saved me — nine to twelve, the years for reading middle grade books. This is when children are moving toward an identity apart from their families but haven’t yet submerged themselves in peer groups. For these brief and wondrous years, they are individuals open to and ripe for the very best we can give them, including those books written just for them, books that invite them into the world outside their families, their schoolrooms, their own lives.
Jeanne Birdsall, Middle Grade Saved My Life, for the Horn Book Magazine

It's a challenge, a dance, knowing when to be a gatekeeper for your children and when standing in their path keeps them from developing independence, self actualization, and self confidence.  But, I do have the sense, given my middle grade reader's young and open mind, that there are certain subjects to which she has not yet been exposed and for which she is not yet feeling ready.

When Julia was about to finish The Center of Everything, I began searching my children's book lists and websites for a next book for her, delighted with her enthusiasm for that story and wanting to have another resting on her nightstand, at attention, and waiting for when Julia was ready to move from Urban's world into another.  

I found Counting by Sevens, by Holly Goldberg Sloan.  Since Julia had taken The Center of Everything out from under her pillow and begun reading it from the beginning again, I had time to get started on it myself, sneaking it off her nightstand each night after she fell asleep, to read.  It is a wonderful book.  Of kindness and strength during difficult struggles, and of finding connections with other people and of these connections inspiring greatness in individuals.  I loved it.  But, it is a story of a terrible loss.  And this loss, quite accurately, pervades the book, and pervades every moment of the chid's experience.

When Julia finally read it, I warned her that there was going to be something in it that was difficult.  She came to me one night, having just gotten to the part, eyes full of shiny tears and said, it just happened.  And stood there, saying nothing more, the book in her hand hanging down by her knees.  We talked and snuggled for a bit that night.  And she tried to return to the book for several nights after that.  And she did get further into the book.  But one night she came to me again and said.  It's just so sad.  Do I need to keep reading it?

And there is something about this story.  True to its realistic fiction category, the child's sadness and isolation goes on and on.  I struggled with it.  As Julia struggled to shore herself up and head off to school after her summer of family togetherness, I was missing them, missing her, too.  And the idea of a child losing her parents during all this?  That was hard to bear.  And given the book's realism, there is no magical undoing of the loss she experiences.  Only recovery.  And recovery, says the child psychologist, is slow.  Chapters and chapters and almost the whole book, slow.  It is, in fact, stewing in the juices of its sadness.  

And so, as a reader, Julia asserted, with me reminding her that she had this right, to not to.  To not read something, or to abandon a book, forever, or for a while.

Since that night, she has read Rules and Touch Blue, by Cynthia Lord.  And true to Julia, she's sticking with her comfort zone, sticking with the same author, hoping for the comfort of the same storyteller.

This past weekend, I was again reading a book I was going to leave on Julia's nightstand as a possible next read, as I did with Counting By Sevens.   I had found another highly acclaimed title, One for the Murphys, by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, and I read it close to her in our heap of sleeping bags at camp.  Also, a wonderful book.  I devoured it in two nights and, as I still do about my former foster care patients, I have thought of this book's main character for the past week often, missing her a bit, wondering how she is doing.

But, again, this child experiences violence, violence that has not yet come into Julia's world, though Hunt's is a careful presentation of it, embedded in a protective hug of caring others and resilience of the child supported by loving adults.  But still.

I have moved on to Because of Mr. Terupt, by Rob Buyea.  I know something bad is coming...it is predicted several times, but I think Julia might be able to tolerate whatever it is a bit more.  I have told Julia about the story of both potential next books.  She plans to read Terupt next.

It is something to trust in children, in their protective lens, in their ability to look away and to only take in what they can handle or understand.  To assert their right to be here, in this middle grade mind of child and growing, looking outward, seeing a bigger world, but still wanting to see it from the comfort and safety of family.  And, even when allowed the freedom and a bit of guidance, to stay there, in that place, for a bit longer.  Because there is really no rush to move on when there is so much wonder to observe and experience in this stage.  

Later that night, the night that Julia came to me after it happened in Counting by Sevens, I went into her room, seeing from the glow out her door that her reading light was still on.  Counting by Sevens had been banished back to my nightstand.  Julia was fast asleep, and under her arm was her worn and tattered copy, my childhood copy, of A Wrinkle in Time.  

I took the book out from under her arm, pulled up the covers, tucked back the part of the quilt that was covering her lovey ZZ's nose so he could breathe, fuzzed his head, and kissed Julia's head.  Set L'Engle on top of a stack of middle grade books on her nightstand.  And turned out the light.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

just a little longer

If I look back, I can see that I began to declare it Fall here several weeks ago.

And if you look at my pictures, you can see the changes in the colors, and I know I could feel the changes that were coming back then.  And the return to school is impossible to ignore as a reminder of the turn from warmth and sun and open time to a more structured, chillier, closer to home kind of life.

This weekend was a long weekend for all of us, and we made our way to camp, with grandparents, and my brother, my sister-in-law and our niece, our children's one beloved cousin.

And it was Fall there.  True Fall.  Colors blazing.  Smells of wood fires and crisp leaves and the sweetness of wet earth and chill.  Warm food and extra layers of blankets on the beds.  Only the pines green on the mountain range across the lake.  Colors reflected in the brook, blurring in the current.

And I feel a bit silly talking more about Fall.  And another trip to camp where it was all about one possible last time this season.  One last canoe or kayak ride.  One last walk through the woods.  One last visit there.  Each one last replacing the previous possible last one, from the visit before.  As though it is a bad thing that the same season is still going on.  But somehow, in the quick changes that seasonal transitions seem to highlight for me, I do actually feel like our life together changes so quickly at times that it is inconceivable that we might be able to have some extras in there, some time together that is still the same, not jumping into the next season, stage, or event.  Just, Fall.  Again.  Another Fall weekend.

Maybe I should count each possible one last time as a bonus.  An extra.  A stolen 'nother go at it.  This Fall when the kids are 12, 9, and 7.  There will never be another Fall like this.  When their interests are these, their musings are about this, and their minds are grappling in these ways.

Or that their bodies are in this moment.  Of wiggly and missing teeth.  Almost every picture from the weekend of Julia has either her finger or her tongue in the newly vacated space in the back.  Nine.  Part little child, part older child.  Finding her place between the young and the more mature. Deciding whether to play make believe or join in a board game.  Wanting both.  Large molars falling out instead of little front teeth.  Somehow these back ones are more weighty, and leave a bigger space, requiring a bigger leap into what comes next.

And so, another visit, more time, is indeed a bonus.

There is something about paying attention, about being present, about having the time and the space.  To be moving slowly enough to feel the wind change, to feel and see whispers of temperature and color and light shifts, ever so brief at first, that I hope will make this fast whirl of childhood feel just a bit longer, a bit less fleeting, a bit more like I am able to savor it, to remember it, to be in it.  And I am hoping the same for my children as well.

Camp is in the town that my grandparents lived out their childhood.  And where they chose as adults to purchase a bit of land on the side of a lake and to build this camp.  This weekend, we ventured downtown and in the shadows of old buildings and a tiny historical museum, we played.  These old buildings, the care with which some have been preserved, and the raw beauty of those that are currently unused.  There is no better reminder of how time passes.  How a building that was once the school my grandmother attended, then taught at, is now a store.  How many things, how many moments can pass by in a blink.

So we filed away new memories this weekend.  Of playing.  Lots and lots of playing.  Which led to lots of laughter.

In a newly spruced up space, but the place still the same.

Sleeping in a new outbuilding, long and skinny for boats, but for the weekend, a camping season extender, allowing us all to sleep outside, in sleeping bags, in a heap.  Close to one another.  Everyone within my eye's reach.  One last time...

Squeezing the time, creating the time, making it all feel as though it can last just a little longer.