Now That’s Good Writing

February 24, 2005 @ 8:42 am | Filed under:

“A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water.”
—Carl Reiner

A wee-hours snowstorm canceled our plans for the morning, much to the girls’ satisfaction. They’ve been waiting for weeks to try out the new sleds Scott hid in the garage, the ones they aren’t supposed to know about. (Sorry, honey—I left the garage door open one day. Oops.) Upstairs in their room an indoor blizzard is raging: mittens flying, long underwear leaping out of the drawer, layer upon layer of clothing sailing through the air en route to its exuberant young owners.

Myself, I’ve always been of the Carl Reiner school of thought when it comes to snowstorms. To me, snow is: an inconvenience, an excuse to drink hot chocolate, and a once useful but now overused basis for metaphor (in that order).

But the children of my best pal, Alice Gunther, recently gave challenge to my admittedly cantankerous point of view. Alice, inspired by Julie Bogart’s The Writer’s Jungle, asked her girls how they would describe snow to someone who had never seen it before. With Alice’s permission, I reprint parts of their descriptions here:

B (age 5) “Snow feels like a cut when it gets into your boots.”
“It is white as white paper.”

C (age 7) “Snow looks like a cluster of diamonds from a fairy tale. If you leave velvet out in the snow, you will find it covered with little snowflakes, and the points look like Celtic knots. Each one is different from the others, yet they could fit together like a mosaic or a flower. Snow looks like lace on the velvet, like a queen’s dress.”

M (age 9) “Snow feels like a very cold chick—a chick with hypothermia.”
“When you step on it, it sounds like baked taco shells.”

A (age 11) “Snow looks like frosting on a cake, with jagged peaks here and there, although it is soft in most places. Where you have walked, it is flat, and greenish brown grass peaks out. As you look ahead of you, all the ground in front of you is level and very wide, almost like a flat plain. If you pick up a scoop in your gloved hand and look closely at it, it seems to have tiny craters, almost like a sponge.”

Wow. These breathtaking bits of freewriting almost make me want to go dig up my own long underwear and venture out to see the stuff firsthand.

Almost. I think instead I’ll curl up with the aforementioned mug of hot chocolate and a copy of Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” I’ll have to read it to myself, though. The kids are all outside.

To read Alice’s Writer’s Jungle review in its entirety, visit the Bravewriter discussion in the “Living Language Arts” forum at 4 Real Learning.

Comments are off

Picture Book Spotlight: It’s Not My Turn to Look for Grandma

February 21, 2005 @ 11:45 pm | Filed under: ,

It’s Not My Turn to Look for Grandma by April Halprin Wayland, illustrated by George Booth.

Dawn was just cracking over the hills. Ma was splitting kindling on the back porch.

“Woolie!” she called out. “Where in the hickory stick is Grandma?”

“Dunno,” said Woolie. “It’s not my turn to look for Grandma!”

I’ve been reading this book to my kids for eight or nine years, and it still makes us all giggle. April Halprin Wayland (author of another of our family favorites, the quiet and lovely To Rabbittown), depicts this quirky backwoods family with wit and warmth, and George Booth’s illustrations are a hoot. Ma, a hardworking backwoods mother, needs Grandma’s help and keeps sending the kids to fetch her—but Grandma’s too busy sliding down the haystack with her dirty old dog, or doing something similarly outlandish. She’s never too busy, however, for a banjo band…

The rollicking text is a joy to read aloud. The writing is fresh and lively, and the characters are pure originals—especially that dirty old dog and a pair of disreputable porcupines. George Booth’s art, which would be hilarious even without the words, captures them perfectly. If I had to narrow down our picture book collection to ten titles (horrific thought!), this one would make the cut for its never-fail ability to invoke the belly-laughs I love.

For more picture-book recommendations, visit my Booknotes page.

Those Stubborn Bunnies

February 21, 2005 @ 8:25 am | Filed under: ,

One of my favorite things about motherhood is the way my kids force me outside the box of my own head. I like to collect the little moments when their startling pronouncements on life, the universe, and everything jolt me out of my sedate, grown-up patterns of thought and make me reassess my perceptions. Like these:

Jane was five years old and we were at a conference where I had a speaking engagement. At one point, a friend’s teenaged daughter took her to the drinking fountain. She later related this story to her mother, who passed it on to me.

Apparently young Jane was delighted by the arc of the water as it came out of the spout. “Look, I’m drinking a rainbow!” she cried.

Then she took a drink, paused, and added thoughtfully, “That’s funny, I always thought rainbows would be crunchy.”

Beanie was two years old, and I was reading her Dr. Seuss’s There’s a Wocket in my Pocket for the first time.

“Did you ever have the feeling,” I read, “there’s a wasket in your basket?” Bean burst out laughing.

“A wasket in my basket! Dat’s funny.” I continued: “…Or a nureau in your bureau?” Another enormous belly-laugh.

“A nureau in my bureau! Dat’s weally funny!”

By this time I was laughing too. I went on, “…Or a woset in your closet?”

This time, no laugh. She looked puzzled.

“Huh,” she grunted. “A woset in your closet. Dat’s not funny.”

When Rose was two-going-on-three, a friend gave us a “Bunny Bowling Set.” The bowling balls were little plastic cabbages with which you attempted to knock down plastic rabbit-shaped pins. Jane set the game up and played it for a while, then wandered off. I was in the next room, fixing dinner, and heard Rose playing with the game. But she sounded frustrated. I kept hearing her knock the bunnies over with the ball, and then she’d cry out in dismay.

Finally she hollered, “Mommy! It no WORK!” I went to watch her try again. She rolled the cabbage and knocked down half the bunnies.

I cheered. “There you go! You’ve got the hang of it now.”

She looked at me incredulously. “No! It no work,” she said, through gritted teeth.

“Sure it worked!” I said. “Look how many bunnies you hit.”

Her glare was steely with pity and forced patience.

“It—no—work,” she repeated, slowly, as if she were the adult and I the child. “Bunny won’t catch cabbage!”

Be Like the Bird

February 20, 2005 @ 6:30 pm | Filed under:

In honor of The Great Backyard Bird Count, which ends today, one of my favorite poems:

Be like the bird, who
Halting in his flight
On limb too slight
Feels it give way beneath him,
Yet sings,
Knowing he hath wings.

—Victor Hugo

Comments are off

How Far that Little Candle…

February 17, 2005 @ 2:02 pm | Filed under:

When I was setting up this blog, I created a category called “Things that Inspire Me” with Small Meadow Press in mind, but I haven’t had a chance to post about it until now. This is due in part to my urge to gush for pages about Lesley Austin’s beautiful notecards and illustrated quotations—I keep drafting posts that turn into novels. And really, I don’t need to say anything at all: Lesley’s lovely offerings speak for themselves. Her new “Notes on Gratitude,” with quotations from Shakespeare, Chesterton, and others, have got me looking forward to every opportunity to write thank-you notes, so delightful are they. I ordered her “Jane Austen Missives” stationery set to give to my niece for Christmas, and once I had it in my hands, I had to get quite stern with myself in order to give it up. I plan to tuck one of Lesley’s charmingly named “Small Useful Books” into my daughters’ Easter baskets—they’ll be perfect for our nature walks this spring.

See, I’m doing it again! I can’t help it! And I haven’t even gotten to the so-perfect-it’s-uncanny illustrated quotation I ordered in honor of Scott. (“What a dreadful thing it must be to have a dull father,” by Mary Mapes Dodge—accompanied by a sepia-toned picture that makes my girls, whose father is anything but dull, grin every time they glance at it.) I’ll stop now and let you see for yourself.

Our Ongoing Unit Study on the Brain (as Taught by Wonderboy)

February 16, 2005 @ 1:13 pm | Filed under: ,

Wonderboy had his OT evaluation today. Our marvelous physical therapist, M., brought an occupational therapist, K., out to meet our little guy. I don’t know about Wonderboy, but boy was I exhausted when it was over. (Actually, he conked out even before they left, while they were writing up their notes.)

Watching his responses to various sensory stimuli and activities, I couldn’t help but marvel at the complexity of the human brain. Wonderboy’s brain abnormalities manifest in high muscle tone, irregular vestibular function, and gross & fine motor delay. What amazes me is how intricately everything is linked together. His sensorineural hearing loss contributes to vestibular problems, which contribute to gross motor delay, which is (in part) why he can’t yet, at fourteen months of age, crawl or transition from lying down to sitting and vice versa. But then again there’s the muscle tone issue which makes it hard for him to lift up his head from the tummy-down position, and babies with hearing loss hate to be cut off from visual contact with their parents. Another strike against crawling—and crawling helps a baby’s vestibular system develop properly, so it’s the chicken and the egg. Everything linked, everything working together to make motor function a challenge for this kid.

But the human brain is like a stubborn old man driving his car—no point in telling him “you can’t get there from here.” If the road is closed, he’ll just keep driving around until he finds some obscure, winding, unpaved back road that—eventually, after a tooth-jolting ride—gets him to his destination. Wonderboy’s brain hasn’t figured out crawling, and when you pull him to his feet he walks with a step-drag sidestep, but by golly he’s determined to move.

That determination, that drive, is what blew me away today (as it does so many days). Seriously, babies are my heroes. They push and push and try and try until they succeed—or fall asleep from exhaustion. Now there’s a work ethic for you.

Comments are off


February 15, 2005 @ 12:37 pm | Filed under:

There’s a redbellied woodpecker in the neighborhood who is very happy with my birthday present. Back in December, Scott bought me something I’d wanted for a long time: a heated deck-mounting bird bath. Because, yes, I am that big a geek.

He installed it on the back deck where I can see it from the family-room sofa. The suet feeder hangs from a hook nearby, and on the other side of the bird bath is the tube feeder with the fancy millet-sunflower-peanut mix that all the best birds go crazy for. At least, in theory they do. This year we’ve had mostly juncoes, mourning doves, and bluejays. A lone titmouse made several visits early in the season, and for a while two sociable cardinal couples dropped by every morning to gossip and munch on sunflower seeds, but I haven’t seen them since before Christmas. I’m hoping the bird bath will woo them back if the weather takes a downturn.

Mrs. Redbelly certainly displays an appreciation of the modern conveniences. Every morning, just about the time we’re finishing our breakfast, she arrives for hers. She dines on suet, refreshes with a few sips of water, and preens a while on the sun-drenched deck rail. It’s like her own personal spa.

The local mockingbird gets his kicks by harrassing her as she pops back to the suet feeder for another nibble, but Mrs. Redbelly isn’t easily cowed. She flaps at him and brandishes her rapier beak. He quickly retreats. Smugly, Mrs. Redbelly darts to the tube feeder for a peanut, showering a hail of millet seeds on the lawn below; then she returns to her sunny corner to watch the grateful juncoes feast in the grass.

Every year the kids and I count birds for Project Feederwatch. Mrs. Redbelly is the first woodpecker to visit our yard since we moved here three years ago, and it is with immense satisfaction that I click the “redbellied woodpecker” box when we enter our data each week. The official Feederwatching season lasts through April, but I hope Mrs. R. will continue her spa visits well into the spring. The mockingbird would be bored without her.

If you didn’t sign up for Project Feederwatch this year, you can still help count birds! The Great Backyard Bird Count is this weekend, February 18-21. Check it out at

Hurrah for Bravewriter

February 13, 2005 @ 9:01 pm | Filed under: , ,

I admit it: when it comes to writing curricula, I’m a snob. After all, Scott and I both write for a living; we are the kind of word geeks who sit around discussing sentence structure for fun. I’ve never felt the need to use a writing program with my kids: that’s one area I can handle on my own.

But every time I go to a conference, people ask what writing curriculum I recommend. In an effort to do justice to this frequent question, I’ve purchased several books and programs for review. None of them was anything I felt enthusiastic about passing on to other families—until I encountered Julie Bogart’s Bravewriter.

A friend tipped me off to Julie’s website, and I visited it in the same informational spirit in which I’d reviewed various other writing resources, to see if this was something I could wholeheartedly recommend to inquiring homeschoolers. Imagine my surprise when I found myself chomping at the bit to try out her ideas on my own kids—and heck, on myself! Julie’s energy and insight get me jazzed up to sit down and work. She’s a writer who loves writing about writing, and the dish she’s serving up is like mental energy bars—she makes you want to get moving, get those words down on paper! Life is rich; let’s articulate it!—that’s Julie’s message.

So I couldn’t resist. I ordered The Writer’s Jungle, joined Julie’s Bravewriter Lifestyle list, and began serving up her feast to my kids. Jane (who served as a reluctant guinea pig for trials of certain other materials whose very names now cause her to wrinkle up her nose) thinks Bravewriter is delicious. Tops on her list: doing dictations from her beloved Redwall books (full of quite challenging words to spell, I might add) and freewriting, which she loves for its license not to worry, for the moment, about spelling and proper punctuation. I’m including her latest freewrite below. Her mission was to spend ten minutes writing anything she wanted about a subject she “knows a lot about and wants to know more about.” Here it is exactly as she wrote it, spelling errors and all.

I think that Brian Jacques CONTRADIKS himself! On the Redwall “ask Brian” webpage thing they had a cople of years ago, one question said “will there ever be a good rat, fox, ect. or any bad badgers, mice, ect.” and Brian replied, NO! All the bad guys are BAD & all the good guys are GOOD. There are no crossovers, no gray areas.” But not 1ce but 2 times he contradicts himself! First in Mossflower, the wildcat Gingervere & later his wife, Sandingomm. And then again The Bellmaker! that time a searat named ______.

(“I have to look up his name, Mom,” she told me when she’d finished. “I can’t get the book now because it’s in the bedroom where Beanie is napping.”)

What I love about this piece of writing—besides its obvious passion and intensity—is that it is the beginning of legitimate critical analysis. In the weeks to come, Jane will return to this piece and flesh it out. I’m eager to hear more. In what ways do Gingervere, Sandingomm, and the unnamed searat shatter the bad-guy mold?

And what a great topic for discussion! She thinks Brian Jacques is mistaken about the nuances of his own characters. Can writers be wrong about their own work? This was a hot topic in my grad school lit classes; it’s meaty stuff. Ten minutes of scribbling at the kitchen table revealed a bubbling stew of opinion I hadn’t known my 9-year-old possessed. We’ve had great fun lunching on these ideas all week.

Looks like I finally have an enthusiastic answer for those conference inquirees.

The Deliciousness of Mah

February 13, 2005 @ 11:12 am | Filed under: , , ,

Wonderboy had new ear molds made last week. Ear molds are little custom-fitted silicone doohickeys that fit a person’s ear canal exactly and attach to behind-the-ear hearing aids. The actual hearing aids last for years, but a growing baby needs new ear molds every three to six months. Wonderboy’s current pair have started to fall out occasionally, so it was time to get new ones made.

Jane brought a friend along to the audiologist’s office to watch the procedure. The girls enjoyed watching the audi shoot goo into Wonderboy’s ears, one at a time—pleasantly blue goo which looked like gaudy swirls of cake frosting when she was finished. Wonderboy was less amused. But he’s a good sport and allowed himself to be distracted by our beloved infant hearing loss specialist, C., during the short wait for the goo to firm up. Then pop!, out it came, a perfect impression of his ear canal.

The impressions are sent to a lab, where they are used to make the new molds. Jane and her pal were dazzled by the choice of colors…didn’t I think he’d like purple molds, or maybe lime green? I opted for the faintly blue transparent kind–but they glow in the dark, so there was satisfaction all around.

I was unprepared for how much I would adore Wonderboy’s hearing aids. I love that he likes wearing them, fusses if I don’t put them in first thing each morning, tips his head expectantly while I check the batteries. They are officially my favorite form of technology, surpassing even this computer (gasp) and my propane fireplace (which is saying something—that thing draws me like a magnet).

I love that when I turned down the volume of the CD player in the car yesterday to field a question from the back seat, Wonderboy started calling out “Mah! Mah! Mah!” This is his all-purpose syllable; it means, depending on context: “Mom,” “More,” “Dad,” “Jane,” “Could you hurry up with those peas, please!” In this case, I understood it to mean, “Turn the music back on.” We were listening to the CD that came with our Signing Time videos. He knows the songs and wiggles his fingers while he listens, watching his own hand intently—his way of singing along.

“Mah!” he insisted, and I had to laugh at myself, because in my last Charlotte book I wrote a scene in which young Charlotte is inordinately proud of her baby brother for packing so much meaning into the word “Buh.” Well, maybe Charlotte was overreaching, but Wonderboy really is working to pack content into the few sounds he can currently shape. And he’s succeeding: that “Mah” speaks volumes. Driving down the road, I cranked up the volume, singing my own internal ode to hearing aids and ear molds.

Related post: Making ear molds

Comments are off