My plan for today was to read and to sew, so naturally I did neither of those things and spent most of the day in the garden. The weather demanded it. Perfect sun, perfect breeze. Rose and I moved a number of nasturtium seedlings from the back yard to the front; I keep trying to fill in a rather stark flowerbed right in front of the house, and nothing works. This is entirely because I am an inconsistent waterer. But also an optimist. This time, as all the times before, I firmly and deeply believe I will follow through and nurture those bitty seedlings to lush abundance.
At least this time, my unmerited faith in myself didn’t cost a penny. I planted a $1.49 packet of seeds in the back garden four years ago and they have multiplied enthusiastically. I’ve tried them in the front before, but it’s a sunbaked flowerbed that really wants to house succulents and cacti. So: I’m both inconsistent and foolish. But hopeful! These nasturtiums are going to be spectacular, I am certain of it!
In the back yard, I pruned a butterfly bush and the big cape honeysuckle to make a sort of archway leading to a nook by the back fence. Rilla and I read Roxaboxen yesterday, and you know what that means. (Hannah’s post reminded me that, like Miss Rumphius a while back, here was another beloved book Rilla hadn’t met yet.) She spent the afternoon painting rocks for edging a little house under the arching branches. I yanked out a mess of bermuda grass. Lots left to do—I completely neglected the garden last summer—but we made good headway today. She’s collecting dishes and stones.
I have only cut out half the squares for our Valentine’s blanket, but I did find the cord for the sewing machine today. Progress!
I’ve been enjoying (and shuddering at) all your snake stories in the comments. I have another one of my own to tell, but it’s long, and I have to scan some pictures. It’s a place story, really, but it’s full of snakes—the story and the place.
Oh, and Rilla finished my game of Oregon Trail for me. I hear my wife died—of snakebite!
After last week’s startling discovery that Rilla had not yet made the acquaintance of Miss Rumphius (that she remembered, at least), I realized there were a number of unmissable picture books that she has, in fact, missed up to now. This is what happens when you’re the fifth child. She listens in on the older kids’ read-alouds—The Hobbit, The Strictest School in the World, Tom Sawyer—and there has been a steady stream of newly published picture books in her world, thanks in large part to the review copies I often receive. But even for a reading family, there are only so many books you can cram into a day.
Which is why Rilla made it almost to her fifth birthday without meeting Mr. and Mrs. Mallard and the Lupine Lady.
I’ve been combing through the shelves in search of other must-reads, and there’s now a two-foot-high bookstack in front of the (never used) fireplace. Several of those appear in this week’s list of recent reads.
• Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. Top of the list in every respect. “I’d like to add some beauty to life,” said Anne dreamily. “I don’t exactly want to make people KNOW more…though I know that IS the noblest ambition…but I’d love to make them have a pleasanter time because of me…to have some little joy or happy thought that would never have existed if I hadn’t been born.” That’s Anne Shirley, not Alice Rumphius, but they’re kindred spirits, aren’t they?
• Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey. Okay, I’ve been reading this book aloud for fifteen years, and I’m still undecided. Ouack: “Oh-ack”? Or “Wack”? I usually opt for the latter, but that kind of throws off the whole alphabetical rhythm. Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack…Wack?
• Hairs/Pelitos by Sandra Cisneros, illustrated by Terry Ybanez. The text of this gorgeous, lush, evocative book is a paragraph from Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Rilla, like all three of her older sisters before her, is spellbound by its rich colors, rolling cadences, and the comfortable family warmth of this unusual book that is more prose poem than story, a little girl’s description of all the kinds of hair in her family. “My mother’s hair, my mother’s hair like little rosettes, like little candy circles…”
• Koala Lou by Mem Fox, illustrated by Pamela Lofts. Honestly, I think my little ones care less about the plot of this book than they do the mama koala’s cooing refrain: “Koala Lou, I do love you.” Me, I’m crazy about the colored pencil drawings.
• Bub: Or the Very Best Thing by Natalie Babbitt. I pulled this one off the shelf for the aforementioned big stack of classics, but I knew I wouldn’t be reading it to Rilla myself. This one is reserved for the daddy of the family. It’s a special favorite of ours, and if I gave things stars, I would give it as many as I possibly could. An out-of-print gem. The king and queen want the “best thing” for their young prince, but what does that mean? Their quest for the answer takes them all over the castle—but it seems the young prince has known the answer all along.
• Jesse Bear, What Will You Wear? by Nancy White Carlstrom, illustrated by Bruce Degen. All you Five in a Row mothers out there just got a wave of nostalgia, didn’t you? 😉 Rilla faintly remembered it—it had been perhaps a year since it last found its way off the shelf into our laps. My little boys adore Jesse Bear too. Reading this with Rilla the other night was a particularly sweet moment for me; the text’s rhythm and repetition gave her just the right footing for a sudden spurt forward in reading. She took over on page two and what-will-you-wear-in-the-morning’d her way through the book. I could listen to that a hundred times in a row. (As long as you don’t make me count the stars.)
• The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear by Don & Audrey Wood. This one’s a Huck magnet. Rilla’s frankly a bit suspicious: she’s pretty sure the narrator is putting one over on the little mouse. Didn’t stop her from asking for it six times in succession.
• Brave Georgie Goat by Denis Roche. When I open this book, it doesn’t matter which child is on my lap: I’m 27 again, and Jane’s a two-year-old in a hospital bed. Our dear friend Joan Slattery, a Knopf editor at the time, brought Jane this book on one of her visits to the cancer ward, and we both fell head over heels in love with it. Scott too, actually. It’s difficult to convey the sweet simplicity of these three short stories about matters of vital importance to very small goats and girls. If Mommy Goat goes, how can you be sure she’ll come back? What do you do when your best friend and constant companion, your beloved red coat, doesn’t fit you anymore? And what are all those ominous shapes and sounds in your room when the lights go out? The grownup goats in these brief tales (Mommy and Grandpa) are a gentle and steady source of comfort for a little kid who is beginning to take notice of a very big world.
Barbara Cooney, books I adore, books my five-year-old loves, books my four-year-old loves, Brave Georgie Goat, Bub, Denis Roche, Don and Audrey Wood, Jesse Bear, Miss Rumphius, Natalie Babbitt, Rillabooks, Sandra Cisneros, The Little Mouse The Red Ripe Strawberry and The Big Hungry Bear
March 10, 2009 @ 7:30 pm | Filed under: Books
Originally posted in June, 2006
Only Opal: The Diary of a Young Girl, adapted by Jane Boulton, illustrated by Barbara Cooney.
I put this book on hold at the library after reading a review of it—somewhere. I couldn’t remember where. After I read it to my girls, I had to Google it because I needed to know a) whom to thank for steering me toward it and b) if other mothers were writing about the thing that pierced my heart about this book.
When the blogsearch landed on Karen Edmisten I thought: Well, of COURSE.
This heartbreakingly beautiful picture book is based on the diary of a young girl named Opal Whitely, a turn-of-the-century child whose parents died and left her to be bounced from one lumber camp to the next in the care of cold and uncaring foster parents. Opal’s surviving record of her very early days is a stunning portrait of a tender, hopeful spirit clinging to every tiny shred of beauty to be found in a grim world. A dark-eyed mouse lives in her pocket; a tall, straight-backed tree offers her strength and support. Opal has no one to love her, so she pours out her own love upon the calf in the field, even though her kind attentions earn her harsh words from the nameless woman who houses her (and works her half to death).
That the foster mother is nameless is telling: Opal is overflowing with names for the creatures she loves. As Karen Edmisten writes,
“Opal finds solace and beauty in nature and in the books her parents left her. From these books, she discovers names for her friends: her pet mouse becomes Felix Mendelssohn, her calf is Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her favorite tree is christened Michael Raphael.”
And that’s the thing that so moved me—and frightened me, in a way—about this book. Did little Opal encountered the composer, the poet, and the archangels on her own in the books her parents left behind, or were their names already familiar to her because she had learned them at her mama’s knee? I can imagine the young mother in the lumber camp, reciting poetry to her tiny daughter; a father humming snatches of a Mendelssohn melody he caught in a drawing room somewhere far away.
Am I just projecting? Is it that I read poetry—some of the very same poems, no doubt—to my own children, and their father the classical music buff plays them symphonies (very loudly) and waxes enthusiastic about the talents of certain composers? Does Only Opal pierce my heart because my children have learned about St. Michael and St. Raphael at my knee, and seeing this delicate child left abandoned to callous strangers reminds me that we are none of us guaranteed the chance to nurture our little ones all the way to adulthood? Suppose (I don’t like to suppose it) something were to happen, and Scott and I were gone. Have we planted enough fruit-bearing seeds in the children’s hearts to nourish them through whatever trials life might hold for them?
I came away from Only Opal feeling profoundly grateful for the time we have had thus far, and for the freedom we have had to make the most of that time. Thankful for the books that have shaped our days together: the many, many mornings we have spent curled up over a volume of poetry and the evenings when I had to shout “Pass the salt” over the crescendo of a Shostakovich symphony. I cannot imagine a scenario in which my children had no one to love them but a ragged little field mouse, but surely there will be times of distress or loss in their lives sooner or later. I cannot protect them from that. What I can do, what I must do, is bequeath to them a store of treasures—the fine music, the fine words, the fine and glorious tenets of our faith—that will sustain them through the unknowns that lie ahead.