It must be spring: Crazy Mama Bluebird has returned. There’s a bluebird house under our back deck, and we’ve had a nesting pair every spring since we moved here three years ago. They’re an amusing couple; the hardworking papa busies himself down below the deck, inspecting his house, while his mate spends her days attacking her own reflection in our windows. She darts forward, delivering sharp raps to the glass, over and over, as fierce as any warrior sparrow-queen in a Redwall book.
We’ve tried all the tricks recommended on the birding sites, like pictures of owls taped to the glass. She just finds a new window. Last spring she targeted the high window in our entryway, the one we can only reach by ladder. In the early mornings, she’d wake us up with her frantic, insistent drumroll on the glass. Scott would stagger into the hall and hurl rolled-up socks at the window to scare her away. By late March, when she finally retired to the nest her patient spouse had carefully arranged to her satisfaction, there were five pairs of socks sitting on the inaccessible windowsill next to the paper airplane my father (aka “Funny Grandpa”) landed there during his last visit.
Now she’s back. She reminds the girls of Ginger Pye, the puppy in Eleanor Estes’s book of the same name. For a time, Ginger is terrorized by a strange dog who stares out at him from a large pier-glass mirror. Yesterday we were talking about this book, discussing the part when Ginger is missing and his young owners, Rachel and Jerry, are seeking the identity of an Unsavory Character who had been lurking about their house. Before long, the reader has a pretty good idea who the dognapper is, but Jerry and Rachel haven’t a clue. They’re stalking an imaginary suspect whom they’ve pictured right down to his sinister mustache, while all the time the (mustache-less) truth is right in front of them. The girls and I talked about how this is a good example of dramatic irony.
They want to know if there is dramatic irony in the antics of fierce Mama Bluebird, since we know something she doesn’t know. That led me to ponder what our house must look like through her eyes—this mammoth structure full of hostile rivals, all darting beaks and fluttering wings. How brave she is, and how persevering! Imagine preparing to raise a family under such conditions! It’s no wonder she seems a little crazed at times.
I love that we use the word “links” to describe internet sites cross-referenced on a web page. I wonder who coined the term. It’s a perfect metaphor for the interconnectedness of all knowledge. Each thing to know is a link in the chain; each link I click on binds a new idea to those I have already encountered.
I’ve always loved to play the game of conversational backtracking, where you try to retrace your steps to see how on earth you started out talking about, say, the Olympics and ten minutes later found yourself deep in a discussion about iodized salt. Sometimes, after a busy day with the kids, I try to make a list of the links we encountered in that day’s discovery chain. I can never remember all of them. And the chain isn’t a straight line; it sprawls out in a dozen directions—but all of them are linked.
Like yesterday’s breakfast conversation. It began with poetry, as breakfast usually does. This led to a rambling discussion which encompassed:
—Our favorite poets
—Emily Dickinson in particular (Jane’s favorite)
—Our favorite books about Emily Dickinson:
Poetry For Young People, edited by Frances Brolin
Emily by Michael Bedard, beautifully illustrated by Barbara Cooney
The Mouse of Amherst by Elizabeth Spires—an absolute gem of a book!
—Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Illustrated Edition by T. S. Eliot (because Grandma J. gave it to Rose for Christmas along with The Mouse of Amherst, and therefore the two are forever linked in Beanie’s mind)
—Back to our favorite poets: Rose announces that hers is “the guy who wrote that poem about the fairy queen. Edmund somebody.”
Me: “Do you mean Spenser? The Faerie Queene?” (Knowing full well she has never read it and frankly surprised she’s even heard of it.)
Rose: “Yes, that’s the one. It’s in that ‘Green Grass’ book. It says Edmund Spenser wrote ‘Roses are red, violets are blue,’ and that’s my favorite poem.”
—Brief digression into the unsurpassable humor (by 6- and 9-year-old standards) to be found in the pages of And the Green Grass Grew All Around, a collection of folk songs and silly rhymes.
—Back to Faerie Queene—do we have it? Yes, parts, at least, in my old college Norton Anthology. We read a few stanzas describing Britomart, the heroine.
—This reminds Beanie of K-Mart. Possible side-discussion squelched by older sisters.
—Britomart is compared to Minerva. Who knows the Greek name for Minerva? Jane knows but graciously allows Rose to answer, in consideration of Rose’s current passion for Greek myths.
—Instead of answering, Rose re-asserts her claim on all things related to Ancient Greece.
—Cue argument: Jane wants to learn Greek, like Rose is doing. Rose doesn’t want her to–she likes being the only student of Ancient Greek in the house.
—This sparks a debate about whether it is whether it is possible to “own” a subject.
—Argument grows heated and (despite being quite an interesting idea to explore) is summarily quashed by mom. Back to Minerva, aka Athena. Now Rose wants to hear a story about Athena.
—Serendipitously, a used copy of Padraic Colum’s The Children’s Homer arrived in the mail yesterday. I pull it off the shelf and begin to read.
—When the name Helen is mentioned, Beanie interjects: Helen! My saint! No, dear, not that Helen. Not St. Helen of the Cross; Helen of Troy. Story is put on hold while Jane and Rose explain the Trojan War to Beanie. She asks for more cereal. Priorities. We return to Colum’s Homer and read the first two chapters of the Odyssey.
—Rose remembers we haven’t yet read a picture book she checked out of the library: Count Your Way Through Greece.
—Another book in the library basket catches Beanie’s eye: Candace Ransome’s When the Whippoorwill Calls, which was recently recommended by someone over at the Real Learning message boards. We read it. Lovely, lovely book. Takes place in the Blue Ridge mountains (huge gasps from both ends of the couch—those are OUR mountains!) during the time when the government was buying up land to form Shenandoah National Park.
—After the story, we look at a map of the Park online and discuss its proximity to our town.
—Then we listen to a whippoorwill song at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website.
And that brings us to about ten in the morning.
I know I posted about Journey North just last week, but we’re having so much fun with it that it’s worth mentioning again. We signed up for email “migration updates,” and every day or so we get an exciting email about what’s been sighted where. This week, barn swallows arrived in Louisiana, while the monarch butterflies (who have not yet left their wintering grounds in Mexico) suffered an attack by gale-force winds that whipped them out of their sheltered resting-places in the trees.
“It was relatively easy for us pedestrians to pick our way amongst the fallen butterflies,” writes Dr. Bill Calvert from Mexico. “But the horse carrying passengers to and from the colony didn’t bother. Some butterflies were crushed. Those that weren’t were exposed to increased risk of predation at night by the black earned mouse, and increased possibility of freezing if cold weather impacted the area. But the majority of the colony had moved down into the shallow headwaters of the Zapatero Canyon where they were protected from the high velocity winds.”
Breaking news about butterflies—my kids are on the edge of their seats!
Rose’s handwriting improved dramatically this week, quite suddenly and to my surprise. I commented on a particularly lovely word, and she told me matter-of-factly that Jane’s “writing idea” had helped her.
“What’s Jane’s writing idea?” I asked. This was the first I’d heard about any such thing.
Jane looked up from her Mossflower dictation to chime in. Jane is awfully fond of chiming in, no matter what the subject.
“It’s the bouncing-ball technique,” she enthused. “I invented it.”
“Yes, and it really works!” said Rose.
“See, Mom,” Jane explained, “here’s how it works. You pretend the line you’re writing on is a sidewalk. The point of your pencil is a little bouncy ball. The ball drops to the sidewalk from different heights and bounces back up. Sometimes, like for g or y, it rolls into the gutter. For little a, it bounces up and then you push it straight back down, see?”
I did see, sort of. Rose saw it clearly—this bouncing ball thing made more sense to her than any guidance I’ve attempted to give. She’s a perfectionist and tends to get frustrated about every tiny flaw in her handwriting. Not today, though. She contentedly bounced that ball off the sidewalk and into the gutter through half a page’s worth of “Cute Sayings” for the collection she is compiling.
Lots of material for that collection around here.
Henry Hikes to Fitchburg by D.B. Johnson.
One summer day, Henry and his friend decided to go to Fitchburg to see the country.
“I’ll walk,” said Henry. “It’s the fastest way to travel.”
“I’ll work,” Henry’s friend said, “until I have the money to buy a ticket to ride the train to Fitchburg. We’ll see who gets there first!”
So begins this charming tale based on a passage written by Henry David Thoreau. “One says to me,” Thoreau wrote, “‘I wonder that you do not lay up money; you love to travel; you might take the cars and go to Fitchburg today and see the country.’ But I am wiser than that. I have learned that the swiftest traveller is he that goes afoot.”
D.B. Johnson brings Thoreau’s message to life in the adventures of the amiable bear, Henry. While Henry’s friend works his tail off filling Mrs. Alcott’s woodbox (10 cents) and weeding Mr. Hawthorne’s garden (15 cents), Henry enjoys a long tramp across the countryside, pressing ferns, marveling at birds’ nests, and snacking on honey from a bee tree as he goes. His friend may earn the money that buys the fastest ride to Fitchburg, but Henry’s journey is the one that enriches the soul.
Lots to explore in this lovely book (including the identities of the neighbors who employ Henry’s friend at various odd jobs). We’ve had a soft spot for Thoreau around here every since Jane, as a tiny girl, adopted a pocket-sized copy of Walden. Enchanted by the novelty of a toddler-sized book full of important-looking, clearly-meant-for-grownups text, she carried that thing around until it was in tatters. At age three she would solemnly pretend to read it aloud: “New York City is a big house.” (I have no idea.) At age four, an eager reader, she puzzled her way through the bean-growing chapter and declared that Walden was her favorite book. That dog-eared little volume has long since disappeared, and her passion for Walden Pond dissipated the first time she entered Redwall Abbey, but our family fondness for Thoreau remains, and we were delighted to encounter him in the form of D. B. Johnson’s Henry the Bear.
Edited to add: there’s a follow-up to this post here.
For more recommendations, visit my Booknotes page.
Many thanks to MacBeth Derham for the link to this wonderful essay by the 13-year-old daughter of Allen Say, the award-winning picture-book writer and illustrator. His Grandfather’s Journey is a favorite of ours.
If the link doesn’t take you directly to his daughter’s essay, scroll down the list of authors and click on Allen Say’s name.
“My Father” by Yuriko Say
And I am similarly grateful to Julie Bogart for sharing this essay on writing by an unschooled girl who is now a college student. If you are interested in receiving Julie’s “Bravewriter Lifestyle” emails, click here.
Journey North is gearing up for the 2005 spring migration season. Check out this terrific website to learn about the migration patterns of everything from hummingbirds to gray whales. Jane, my resident butterfly enthusiast, is chomping at the bit to participate in this year’s Monarch migration watch. We’re getting our big wall map ready to start tracking the butterflies’ journey north from Mexico.
Their online Mystery Classes look like lots of fun, too. And they’re free!
One day in Elizabethan England by G. B. Kirtland, illustrated by Jerome Snyder.
Zounds! It’s a pity this book, originally published in 1962, went out of print. I’m writing about it anyway because many libraries carry it, and a quick Google search turned up a number of online booksellers that have used copies in stock. My family’s copy was a library discard, and this is definitely a case of one person’s (or library’s) trash being another person’s treasure.
The title page proclaims that the place is England, the time is 1590, and the characters are: “You.” You wake up one morning, and a busy day begins as “you pull open your velvet bed curtains and pull off the cap of lettuce leaves you wore to help you sleep.”
The chambermaid comes in to draw your bath, despite your protests that you “already had a bath just this past winter”—for this is an important day, a majestical day, a fantastical day, a day which calls for special preparations. This explains why your father has dyed his beard purple to match his breeches and your sister has donned her new popinjay-blue kirtle and her pease-porridge tawny gown. Everyone is all in a dither, anxious for this important festivity, whatever it is, to begin.
“Oh, Madame,” you say; “Oh, Sir,” says your sister. “Will it soon be time to go?”
“Nay,” says your mother; “Nay, says your father.”
“Alas!” says your sister. “Alack!” says she. “I cannot hardly wait. I wonder what she will be wearing?”
“I wonder,” you say, “will there be tumblers tumbling for her?”
“I wonder,” says your mother, “will there be mummers mumming for her?”
“And I wonder,” says your father, “I wonder will you remember your grandiloquent speech for her?”
Ah, there’s the question, and it haunts you throughout the book until at last the great moment arrives. So wrought up are you that when dinnertime comes, “you are not very hungry and so you eat rather pinglingly, having only: a sip of soup, a snip of snipe, a smidgeon of stag, a munch of mutton, a bite of boar, a pinch of pheasant, and a little lark.”
I love what author G. B. Kirtland has done in this whimsical little book. The language is delicious, the style unique, and the peek at Elizabethan life is fascinating. My kids giggle the whole way through, every time (for this is a book that demands repeated readings). By my troth, ’tis the perfect compliment to a study of Shakespeare—and a majestical, fantastical, grandiloquent remedy for a humdrum afternoon.
If your local library lacks a copy (alas and alack), try this website to see what other libraries in your area carry it.
For more book recommendations, visit my Booknotes page.
The new issue of MacBeth Derham’s excellent newsletter, WILD MONTHLY, is up on her website today. An excerpt:
“A group of students and I were once exploring some ruins. These were not ancient ruins, which are so often admired as monuments to the achievements of man, but recent ruins of maybe some 60 years, true monuments to the power of nature. These were still recognizably greenhouses, but the glass was long gone, and vines crawled up the sides and around the empty window frames. A single mature tree grew out of the middle of one of the long, low buildings, spreading its branches well beyond the limits of the former roof, while younger trees pushed their way through the floor, past potting tables, over long abandoned seedling trays, and reached for sunlight. The remains of the roofline dipped, mirroring the ground below… “
Read the rest!