Activism: never too early or too late!

 

a is for activist

Originally written for his own children, this board book, read here by the author, Innosanto Nagara, introduces young kids to the positives of social change. Children can begin to see themselves as activists when they stand up for someone who is being  bullied, help with the family’s recycling, or when they ignore the color of a person’s skin to see the heart, inside.

In July of 2017, NPR Books said of A is for Activist, “Every letter is the definition of a different social movement. For F — kids learn about Feminism, when we get to G – kids learn about the meaning of grassroots organizing and why it’s important. This beautifully illustrated ABC book uses rhyming and alliteration to get your little reader excited about social change. If your child loves this work they may enjoy the author’s new work My Night at the Planetarium, which illustrates the important role the arts play in resistance.”

At that same time, NPR also noted a list of books for “woke kids” of all ages that you might want to check out!

As the title of this blog post suggests, besides never being too early to explore activism, it’s also never too late. These last several years have served as a real wake up call for me, as I’m sure they have for countless others. This past Thursday I attended my very first protest, in support of protecting Robert Mueller’s investigation. This was a small action on my part, but very important for me. I’m tired of all the lies and feeling so helpless. Being part of a like-minded group of citizens at this demonstration gave me a sense of purpose, along with cautious hope for better days.

~Becky

Protest! Nov. 2018
Just a few of the protesters before the march. I’m the ‘turquoise sleeve’ just left of the woman in the red jacket:)

 

Fantastic Find at the Bookstore #2

dick and jane

If you learned to read at school in the U.S., sometime from the 1940’s to the 1960’s, there’s a good chance that you learned with the help of Dick and Jane, their little sister, Sally, and the pets, Puff and Spot. By today’s standards of instructional materials for reading, this basal series was quite dry and some might say boring. I loved those books in my first years of school, mainly because…I WAS READING!

Dick and Jane pages

Fast forward many decades, when I trained to become a teacher and landed my first elementary position in Michigan. Although we still used a basal series in fourth grade, that year, it was packed with “real literature” and was supplemented with sets of award-winning chapter books, in addition. By the time I served as a Chapter I reading teacher in North Carolina and later taught kindergarten back in Michigan, sets of charming leveled books (like “Mrs. Wishy-Washy“) had replaced all basals. Reading instruction methods, assessment, and progress tracking had been fine-tuned, as well.

During my years of teaching and even after I retired, collecting vintage children’s readers was a hobby that I enjoyed immensely. Many of those 30+ books were the Dick and Jane variety, while some featured other children, pets, and retold folk literature. I had a few favorites, like the cover that’s pictured above, which I can actually remember from childhood. I had read an article, once, that revealed the Dick and Jane characters originally were a part of other collections before they appeared in their “own series”. These early books were known to be quite the collectors’ items and sometimes brought hundreds of dollars. I stored this information in the back of my mind, but didn’t really remember the details.

One day, as fate would have it, I was looking through shelves of used books in a little shop near St. Louis, Michigan. I picked up an old school reader that was in pretty rough shape. My heart started beating a little faster, since the Elson-Gray name on the scarred cover rang a bell. I leafed through the book, being careful not to tear the somewhat brittle pages any more than they already were…Billy and Nancy, Alice and Ned, DICK AND JANE!!!

pages inside oldest Dick and Jane

I tried not to be too overjoyed, since I couldn’t tell if the price penciled near the front of the book said $2.00 or $200. Yes, I really wanted that 1936 edition, but it wasn’t in great shape, and I’ve never spent that much money on a book in my life. Holding my breath, I walked up to the counter. Luck was with me that day, and I still have the receipt for $2.12, with tax.

When I moved from Michigan to Texas a few years ago, I was forced to dramatically cut back on the books that I would pay to ship, since I had collected many different types, over the years. As an end result, I saved just five of my children’s readers, including three regular Dick and Jane books and this very special precursor of what they would later become. I’ll treasure it forever, along with the memory of that day.

oldest Dick and Jane

I’d love to hear from you in comments if you learned to read with Dick and Jane, or if you would just like to share a memory about learning to read!

 

 

Fantastic Find at the Bookstore #1

hattie

Many of us are in agreement that we love bookstores. My favorite establishments are those that also offer used books and assorted vintage goodies, such as magazines, music and other miscellany. Although not widely traveled, I have wonderful memories of great bookshops spread from Duluth, MN, to Williamsburg, VA, with many in Michigan and Canada sandwiched in between.

As you can well imagine, I’ve made memorable “finds” in those visits. These items tend to fall into two groups: something specific I was looking for, or a totally unexpected piece. The coup that I will relate today definitely falls into the “unexpected” category.

Prior to my recent move to Texas, I had also lived and worked in this state for some years when my children were young. Before heading back to my home state of Michigan, I began studies toward earning elementary education certification and fulfilling my quest to become a teacher. Denton, Texas, being the home of two universities, is a logical place for a used bookstore, of course. Recycled Books, Records, & CD’s , at the time I lived there, was already bursting its seams at a small location, and is today housed in a larger spot within a former opera house in the picturesque town square.

That day, I had at least one of my daughters with me, and we were just scanning the small children’s section. An author’s name on a hardcover picture book caught my eye…Don Freeman of Corduroy fame. The title, Hattie the Backstage Bat, wasn’t familiar to me, so I decided to take a look. It was a former library edition, in good shape, with no tears or other visual damage. I then looked toward the front of the book to notice that it had belonged to the local, Emily Fowler Library, and at one time been sold out of the library’s used bookshop, before ending up at Recycled Books and priced at $1.50. Turning the page, I was astounded to discover this:

Don Freeman jpeg 001 (2)

I can just imagine Mr. Freeman visiting the library during the year following publication of this book, meeting the eager listeners, and producing this original drawing for them right on the spot. Yes, Hattie’s blue hat did get a little smudged, and unfortunately an uninformed or overworked library worker  stamped “discard” in the middle of her left wing. I love it, just the same, and will treasure this book always! As an added bonus, the story is charming, and I shared it (along with other Don Freeman titles) with countless children during my years in the classroom.

In doing a little more research on this author, who died in 1978, I find on a lovely website, run by his son, that he was not only an author and illustrator of children’s books, but also a painter and lithographer who “vividly portrayed the street life and theater world of New York City in the 1930s and 40s.” That site contains a wealth of information and images, so you may want to take a few minutes out of your day for a visit.

What is your favorite “find” from a bookstore?

~Becky

 

Ding Dong School: before Mister Rogers & Sesame Street

Miss Frances Ding Dong School
“Miss Frances”

The day after Labor Day was always the first day of school in Michigan. One of my earliest memories is of my older sister, Terri, heading out for school the year I must have been four. I can see myself sitting in the bay window of our living room, and she alerted me that she was leaving for school, but mentioned how “lucky” I was that I got to stay home and watch “Ding Dong School” on television.

It all seemed rather dubious to me, since I WAS looking forward to kindergarten the next year, but it was kind of her to make the attempt. My mother looked on and seemed to be trying to gauge my response. I suppose it was hard for me to face summer’s end and be the only child remaining at home, since my younger brother was not yet born.

I DID love the show, however, and since we only had clear reception of one network in our little town in Northern, Lower Michigan, I was lucky that it ran on NBC through 1956 (followed by syndication for some years after). The presenter, Dr. Frances Horwich, known to the young viewers as our teacher, “Miss Frances,” had a calm, soothing voice that seemed to be aimed directly at me. The show always began with her ringing the large school bell, of course. She read books to us, presented various types of interesting lessons, and demonstrated art projects. Children often sent their drawings and other works in to the show, and Miss Frances would sometimes share those, as well.

a suitcase with a surprise

Sources reveal that she was an experienced educator, but had very little familiarity with working in front of the camera. From a kid’s point of view, the show felt very natural and real, as if I was actually there in her classroom. Due to the show’s popularity, many different types of products carrying the “Ding Dong School” name became available, like finger paints, balloons, valentines, and records. I don’t remember having any of those, but we did own some of the “Golden Books,” such as these shown. Titles often focused on family, community, and the use of imagination in play.

The Big Coal Truck

My afternoon kindergarten the following year paled in comparison, naturally. With a large room full of actual children and no helpers that I can remember, I’m sure that our teacher had her hands too full to give us much individualized attention. I kind of missed those mornings spent at home in our sunny living room, with my mom nearby and Miss Frances talking to me out of the black-and-white television like I was the only kid in the world. Little did I know at the time that my future would also find me as a teacher in the classroom with young children.

When Ebay was still a novelty, I often looked up collectibles that interested me. One day, I saw some of Frances Horwich’s personal items related to the show up for auction, following her death, such as a custom-made chair with her name on it, her collection of school bells, and awards that she had received. I did some research and learned that she and her husband had no children, so I suppose there was no one in particular to leave these types of things in a will. At first this seemed very sad, that her belongings would simply go to the highest unknown bidders on the Internet. After giving this some more thought, however, I realized how insignificant “things” really are and how many thousands of individuals, like myself, remembered this woman for providing them with a pleasant first education experience. That seemed much more important, in the grand scheme of things.

~Becky

Collectible Stickers from Roller Rinks of the Past with “Atlas Obscura”

Growing up in the small town of Tawas City, Michigan, in the early to mid-1960’s, Friday night at the East Tawas Rollerdrome was THE place to go! My best friend, Jean, and I practiced skating without falling down and flirting with boys who were also trying to act cool and make it around the rink without hitting the wooden floor. If I close my eyes, I can still hear the rumble of wheels, smell the dust, and also hear the corny music, which thankfully evolved into “by request,” for teens who were willing to bring their own records from home. Here’s an image of the sticker from that establishment of long ago.rollerdrome

Now, on to the great article at “Atlas Obscura” that initiated this blast from the past!       ~Becky

Lighthouses I have Known and Loved

tawas lighthouse

National Lighthouse Day can’t sneak past me without a mention of my experiences with those stately structures. I didn’t truly understand, while growing up in a small town on the shores of Lake Huron, in Michigan, how lucky I was to have such easy access to Tawas Bay and the beautiful lake, with its moaning fog horn and elegant lighthouse. Years ago, the light wasn’t open to visitors, as it is now, but I loved the hot summer days when my parents would drive all the way out to the end of Tawas Point so that my siblings and I could gawk. Many a rainy night I fell asleep to the comforting sounds of the foghorn, in the distance.

lake_huron lighthouse map
As an added bonus, we often traveled north along the lake shore toward Rogers City, to visit relatives. This gave us a chance to view several other pretty lighthouses along the way, such as the one at Sturgeon Point, and when we reached our destination, near Forty Mile Point.

 

Michigan isn’t the only state to sport lovely lighthouses, of course. I had the opportunity to visit several that are situated along the Atlantic coast of the United States while living in North Carolina, such as the lights of Bodie Island (left) and Cape Hatteras (right). Quite the tourist destinations.

Bodie Island light NC                                      north carolina lighthouse

Years later, when a teaching job brought me back to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I discovered an entirely new group of lighthouses to explore along the shores of Lake Superior. Several that had become private enterprises, such as at Sand Bay and Big Bay, even rented out rooms to overnight guests, which was great fun!

One of my favorite Michigan lighthouses, and possibly the last one I visited before moving to Texas, is pictured below at Ontanogan. It offers an impressive museum area to show visitors what life might have been like for early “keepers of the light.”

lighthouse Ontanogan

Although my writing was prompted by our country’s National Lighthouse Day, the title of this piece also opens its arms to encompass an important spot in Ontario, Canada, as well. I spent several lovely vacations there, near Bruce Mines (below), and couldn’t complete this post without including that memory.

lighthouse in Bruce Bay Canada

Recipe Notebook from the Past

Laurium House
Vintage photo of unknown neighbors and what years later would become my home. The border is formed from wallpaper recovered within the kitchen walls!

Decades ago, my former husband and I bought a fixer-upper home that had been built around 1900 in a small town of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The house needed tons of work, and we basically lived upstairs while we began remodeling the first floor. When I say “we,” I mean mainly that he did the carpentry, and I cleaned up during and after the work was completed.

Since the kitchen was on the first floor and needed to be functional as soon as possible, that room was one of the priorities. While taking out the drawers in the kitchen for painting and new hardware, a small notebook was found jammed into the deep, dark depths of a cabinet. The booklet’s pages were somewhat discolored, and the brown, waxed cover bore the words “Memorandum Book.”

Within those lined pages, I discovered a delightful collection of handwritten recipes and helpful household hints. Some of them were even affixed with what must have been the names of the owner’s friends who had shared, as I recognized several of the last names of families living in that and the neighboring town. The penmanship style was similar to that of my mother or aunts who reliably sent letters to keep up on family news. I felt like I had struck gold.

Many of the recipes were desserts, although some were of casseroles or various types of vegetable and meat dishes. Two different versions of the Cornish meat pie regional specialty called the “pasty” were offered. Household hints ranged from a mixture that could be used to soften a hardened paintbrush to a home remedy for cough syrup.

When we said “goodbye” to that house some years later, the notebook found a new home in my paternal grandmother’s wooden recipe box and left with me.

I was recently encouraged to see that an online author acquaintance, Karen Musser Nortman, had put out a call for camping and/or Upper Peninsula recipes to accompany her current Frannie Shoemaker Campground Mystery, which is set in the area. I’m happy to say that the directions I submitted for pasties, “cry baby” cookies, and pasta sauce, all copied from that old notebook, now appear in the fiction book, Real Actors, Not People. What a fun way to recycle a few of those rescued recipes!

~Becky~

How Mrs. Wishy-Washy Saved the Day: a former teacher’s reflections

Mrs. Wishy-Washy

Becky as Mrs. Wishy-Washy
Becky as Mrs. Wishy-Washy on Halloween at her last school!

 

When I moved back to my home state of Michigan about fifteen years ago, I jumped at the chance to teach kindergarten at a Pre-K/K early learning center. That public school was in the Upper Peninsula and part of the state’s most northern K-12 school district. My recent teaching experiences were with upper elementary students, and it had been years since I worked in a preschool or completed a short stint in kindergarten during my student teaching. To say that I was nervous is an understatement!

Imagine my excitement when I discovered a dark cupboard full of colorful ‘big books’ the first day I visited my new classroom.  Many of the titles were written by the prolific New Zealand author, Joy Cowley, whose books I hadn’t previously encountered.  During that school year, I learned to love her books just as much as my students adored them!

All of Ms. Cowley’s books are great, but Mrs. Wishy-Washy was the most popular character, hands down. Here’s some background about her:

  • Who is Mrs. Wishy-Washy?  One of Joy Cowley’s most-loved characters
  • What is very important to her?  Cleanliness!
  • Where do she and Mr. Wishy-Washy live?  In a rural area in the state of Washington
  • When does she get grouchy?  When something gets in the way of her washing
  • Why do her animals sometimes look sad?  They are tired of being washed!

Besides tales of keeping other characters and her surroundings clean, other antics involve a farm fair, birthdays, gardening, baking, and appearing on TV. The students loved chiming in during ‘shared reading’ time and then reading on their own with the small-book versions of the matching titles.

 

Ms. Cowley’s books are very conducive to a wide variety of literacy lessons:  beginning and ending sounds, blending, rhyming, story elements, sequencing, building words, spelling patterns, sight words…the list goes on and on!  Beyond that, many of them also lend themselves easily to tie-ins with other areas of the curriculum, such as science, math and social studies.

It’s no wonder that I again sought out Mrs. Wishy-Washy and friends some years later, when I found myself teaching young learners in another U.P. location. In relief, I found the school library housed many of her big books for the teachers to share, and that the smaller versions were already on the shelf in my classroom.

For those of you who write for kids, this author has a wonderful book titled Writing from the Heart that I’ve found to be a great resource for my own writing. If you’re teaching or have young children and haven’t met Mrs. Wishy-Washy and Joy Cowley’s other books, you may want to check them out. I’d love to hear about your favorite picture book characters OR about your ‘go-to’ resource books for writers!

barn-no attrib. required

What Draws Children to Certain Books?

flicka, ricka, and dicka

During much of my childhood, the public library in our little town was housed in a small area adjacent to the fire station. Each time I arrived at the library with my family, I worried that the fire alarm might sound during our visit. However, I remember a span of several years when I would hurry immediately to a certain shelf where the books by Maj Lindman were lined up, and I soon forgot all my worries.

This author/illustrator from Sweden produced several series of picture books from the 1920s through the 1960s, including those featuring the triplet boys, “Snipp, Snapp, and Snurr,” and also the set of titles built around triplet girls, “Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.” I’m happy to say that I’ve collected one from each series, which are library editions published in 1960. I see that Albert Whitman & Company has reissued many of these books (some with paper dolls, no less!); but, for me, those actually printed during my childhood mean so much more.

While looking my copies over, recently, I considered what it was that I had liked so much about them as a child. Possibly I can put some of my discoveries to use when fashioning my own books for young readers. I came up with the following factors:

  • Settings – The country’s name, “Sweden,” is stated in two out of the three books that I own in these series. Even when not mentioned outright, the setting depicted in the book feels very different from my neighborhood that was in the midst of a small town in Michigan.
  • Freedom  – Since many of the stories take place on farms or in other rural areas, the children often seem quite free to roam as they please and have many adventures that often involve animals, as well.
  • Names – Beyond the triplets’ monikers, many of the other characters have names that were also unfamiliar and interesting to me.
  • Family structure – Until I was somewhat older and a nearby neighbor gave birth to triplets, I had never known any such families. (Imagine my surprise when that trio was made up of one boy and two girls!).
  • Visually appealing – The lovely, full-page illustrations are so pleasing to the eyes, and many of the editions use a somewhat enlarged and easy-to-see font.
  • Simple stories that often involve extended families – This serves as a vehicle to get the children away from their homes and broadens the story options.
  • Surprise endings or subtle lessons to be learned – As I remember, the resolutions seemed satisfying to me as a child.

All that being said, it appears that some of the books are rather long and run over 1200 words. My mother preferred to read shorter books for story time, especially since I also had an even younger brother. My father usually chose to tell us stories that he made up, on the rare evenings when he arrived home early enough from work. My older sister was always eager to read to me, though, for which I am forever grateful.

snipp, snapp, snurr

Although the type of stories that appeals to today’s children has evolved, I’m sure, I believe that there are still some nuggets of basic childhood yearnings to be found in the pages from our youth. I’d love to hear about your favorite childhood books and what it was that drew you to them!

 

 

 

 

Peter Mayle: A Life in Provence

provence

 

I was recently saddened to learn that one of my favorite authors, Peter Mayle, has died. The first book I ever bought by Mr. Mayle was Where Did I Come From?, which was purchased over 40 years ago in anticipation of telling my children about the facts of life. Decades later, when I was introduced to his travel memoir, A Year in Provence, I had no idea that this was even the same author. During the intervening years, he had published several other books for children and worked in advertising. He and his wife then took the plunge and gave up their lives in England to relocate in France.

The book was serialized for the BBC, and I came across the videos (yes, videos) at the library, while living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Filmed in Provence, the story was mesmerizing. I could relate in some small way to what he and his wife faced, having myself moved to various parts of the U.S. and adjusted to unfamiliar cultures. Those changes never required learning another language, however!

The views and vistas portrayed in the films were like nothing I have ever had access to on a daily basis, even in the most scenic areas of Michigan’s Great Lakes, North Carolina’s shores, Virginia’s mountains, or Texas Hill Country. Beyond the story’s familiar theme of moving to a different type of world, one can also find the more elusive theme of life never being too far along to try something new. This is such an important belief, and I think it resonates for many of us.

The mini-series wasn’t a critical success, evidently, although John Thaw’s portrayal of Peter Mayle was excellent. I loved it, though, and have watched it more times than I care to admit. Thanks to finding the series on the dusty bottom shelf at the library, I was led to the body of works by this wonderful author. I still remember the pleasure of cuddling up by the fireplace with a snowstorm raging outdoors and experiencing the warmth of the French countryside and the scent of lavender.

Peter Mayle wrote several successful sequels to that book, which are presented a bit more like collections of short stories. All the books contain humor, food, wine, weather, friendship, local culture and beautiful locales. How else would I ever have bumped into truffles (the mushroom-like fungi, not the chocolates), boules, the mistral, or pastis? This author wrote other enjoyable non-fiction, in addition, usually centered on various interesting aspects of French culture. To my delight, there were also his novels to devour, which portray many of the same characteristics as his memoirs, along with crimes solved, business deals conducted and wine produced. There’s some romance to be found, as well. A lovely movie with Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard is based on Mayle’s book, A Good Year.

With regret, I have to admit that I didn’t bring the entire collection of Mr. Mayle’s books with me when I moved. I did keep A Year in Provence, of course, and I especially value my ARC (advance reading copy/uncorrected proof) of A Good Year, with the plain blue cover. This format seems just that much closer to the author’s keyboard, somehow.

Try his first book, and if you love it, you’ll have a treasure trove to explore beyond that one. I’m extremely sorry that he’s gone, but surely this author knew that his writing had affected the lives of others, as evidenced by the book sales and fans, increased tourism to Provence, and readers who sought him out when visiting the region.

Merci, Monsieur Mayle!