Mary Oliver and Holoholo

I’ve spent the last week with Clay in Kauai, celebrating our 30th, and I have a few observations.

1) This long-legged, beaky white bird is a stalker.

I’ve watched him walk along the top of that tropical hedge, following people who may or may not notice.

Why is this important to share? It’s not. But I love this bird, and Mary Oliver says in her poem Sometimes, published in her book Red Bird, “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” So here I am, telling about the astonishing way this bird turns his back to the ocean and cocks his head at the people, rolling back and forth as regularly as the waves.

Oliver’s words are the first words you’ll see when you go to my website, and they articulate why I write and share. It’s not only the big things, like giant cliffs and humpback whales that are noteworthy, although these are also certainly worthy of note. Which brings me to my next observation.

2) Keep your head on a swivel.

This is not the season to see humpback whales in Kauai. Most of them are already headed to Alaska to fill up on krill, but this mama had a baby she wanted to fatten up before they set out. Their big, black backs rolled above the surface of the ocean as they dove and swam, and it was totally magic, partly because it was unexpected. Which brings me to my third observation.

3) When people are standing by the side of the road, pointing at the ocean, pull over. Park (even if it’s illegal) and see what all the fuss is about.

There were at least half a dozen big turtles hanging out in a small, rocky bay. The waves would pick them up, and in the light blue curl before it crested, we could see them hanging suspended, unbothered by the roll or the crash or the onlookers. A pod of dolphins passed by as we watched the turtles. They were racing, leaping out of the water, dozens of them. Incredible. You know what else is incredible?

4) Peanut butter, oozing over the crust.

We’ve had some amazing meals (and spent some amazing money on them) but the simple pleasure of a peanut butter sandwich, brought to you like a gift from the man I’ve loved well over half my life, while sitting on a balcony overlooking the crashing ocean, a long-legged, beaky white bird on a hedge, whales and turtles out there like unexpected gifts . . . priceless.

A boat captain introduced us to the Hawaiian term “holoholo.” When looking it up on the Hawaiian language resource provided by Ulukau called Wehewehe wikiwiki (love that name so much) it’s defined as, “to go for a walk, ride or sail; to go out for pleasure, stroll, promenade.”

Captain Glen explained it like when you work a full week, and then it’s the weekend and you pack up the kids and an ice chest and head out into your day not knowing what the day may bring exactly, but ready to enjoy it.

Here’s an example from Wehewehe wikiwiki, used in a sentence: “He pule holoholo ʻana, a continuous prayer.”

I think Mary Oliver was an expert in holoholo because it takes strolling, going out for pleasure, looking at life like a continuous prayer to notice like she noticed, and write like she wrote. And it doesn’t take being in Kauai to pay attention, be astonished, and tell about it (but it doesn’t hurt!).

There are sunsets and peanut butter back in Texas, countless things to notice with the people I love and plenty of holoholo to be had.

Leave a Comment

Storytime: Journeys

Desert Girl, Monsoon Boy by Tara Dairman, illustrated by Archana Sreenivasan

The simplicity of this book, only a few rhyming words per page, makes it a really great readaloud.

Patterned veil

Covered hair

Desert here

Monsoon there

The format, showing the desert and monsoon terrains separately for most of the book, is a great way to follow two narratives. We’re introduced to cultures that are very different in some ways (the boy goes to school but the girl stays home) but also the same (they sit on the ground to eat and both are victims of their climate.) Both families have to pick up and leave when sand storms (desert) and flood waters (monsoon) invade their homes, and it’s so satisfying when we see them both arrive in a better place. Their worlds come together in a shared spread at a high hill where they share a campfire and songs and cultures. For readers who want more, there’s an author and illustrator’s note that unpack each represented culture.

How to Make an Apple Pie and see the world by Marjorie Priceman

I love the wry voice in this book that sends a girl around the globe, looking for ingredients for her pie. What starts as an easy task, making an apple pie (get ingredients, mix them well, bake and serve) becomes more complicated when the market is closed. “In that case, go home and pack a suitcase,” we read, and then we’re instructed to bring our shopping list and walking shoes and spend the six days we’ll be on the steamship bound for Europe to brush up on our Italian.

From the farm where you gather “superb semolina wheat” you’ll travel to France for a French chicken’s elegant egg, and the chicken which travels with you so the egg doesn’t break. You’ll go to Sri Lanka for cinammon, England for the cow who joins your travels along with the chicken so your milk will be fresh, and so on. Jamaica, salt from the ocean on the way, and finally Vermont for the apples before heading home. There’s a simple map of the world at the back to track your route and an apple pie recipe. Basically, this book has it all, including fun illustrations.

Same, Same but Different by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw

Two boys, one in America and one in India, exchange letters, first with pictures of their worlds. I love that their letters begin with, “this is my world,” and not “this is my home in America” or “this is my home in India.” Where we live is our world most days, and there are so many “worlds” in this big world to awaken our curiosity.

In some ways the boys are the same. They both love to climbs trees, but Elliot has a tree house in his tree, and Kailash has monkeys in his, so they are same, same, but different. Bright illustrations take us back and forth, from Elliot’s family of four to Kailash’s family of 23, plus animals. City and country, how they get to school (both on busses but they look very different), their alphabet, and even how they say hello, repeating the simple refrain, same, same but different. It ends with a lovely sentiment, “We’re best friends even though we live in different worlds . . .” page turn to see the boys in their bedrooms, their letters from the other on their walls, and the final words, “or do we?” The simple text and fun pictures are great for readers young or old.

Journey by Aaron Becker

You know how sometimes you’re busy and you just can’t seem to get a breath? I encourage you to sit down with someone you love, maybe someone who’s begging for a little attention, and crack open this wordless book. Take the most beautiful journey together, where a girl draws a door with her red crayon (echoes of Harold and the Purple Crayon here), and enters a lush forest, draws a boat so she can ride down the river, and enters a magnificent city. People pole their boats through elevated waterways that spill into waterfalls (good thing the girl can draw a balloon before she goes over). She enters a world where a boat floats through the sky, and a blimp chases a long-tailed purple bird, and . . . in the end there’s a rescue and a friend. You’ll want to turn back and take this journey all over again.

The Notebook Keeper: A Story of Kindness from the Border by Stephen Briseño, illustrated by Magdalena Mora

“Our home is no longer a home,” Mamá tells her little girl, and so they head to the border, packing only what they can carry. For the girl, that’s her blanket, notebook, and her muñeca (doll). Their lonely group gets larger and more colorful but when they reach the border, they aren’t treated with kindness. They are told to find the notebook keeper who will tell them when they can cross. The illustrations do an excellent job of portraying emotion without getting too heavy for a young child. There is sadness, but there is also hope.

When they find Belinda and her notebook, she takes their name and country and adds them to her list, treating them kindly. Then Noemí and Mamá settle into their new life, living in a tent among many others who are waiting their turn. It turns out even Belinda is waiting, though her smile never fades. When her number finally gets called she chooses someone with generosity in their heart and kindness in their soul to take over the job. Noemí has given her beloved muñeca to another child, choosing to be kind, so Belinda chooses her and her mother to be the next notebook keepers. They go on to encourage, remind and comfort, just like Belinda did. The end is hopeful, with Noemí and Mamá gazing at the sky where birds fly free, holding hands, walking into their future together.

An author’s note explains how the real notebook keepers kept records at the San Ysidro Border, where refugees gather to wait admittance to the US from Mexico. This book is beautiful, and is a great springboard to conversation, and empathy.

Leave a Comment

Storytime: The World

I recently did school visits in eighteen different elementary schools in Richardson, Texas. At each one, I shared the story of Rebeka Uwitonze, my coauthor for Her Own Two Feet: A Rwanda Girl’s Brave Fight to Walk. What I realized as I shared was that many of these children were first or second generation immigrants from countries just as foreign as Rwanda, with stories just as brave and hard as Rebeka’s. Each one of them has a story to tell, and I wish I could have heard them all. This month I focus on books that give a peek into other countries and cultures and experiences. The more we connect through our stories, the better our world will be.

I Just Want to Say Goodnight by Rachel Isadora

This goodnight book, set on the African plains, is beautiful for the paintings, vibrant and saturated with color, and also for the sweet story of a little girl that needs to tell everyone and everything goodnight before she goes to bed. She says goodnight to the fish, the cat, the goat, the little ants, the rock, and finally, in the the end, her book (a copy of Goodnight Moon). I love the way this shows a foreign country from a child’s eyes and how we can see the similarities and differences in our western world. Baby chicks come through the open door to her bedroom and there are monkeys in the trees outside, but Lala must go to bed as all children do. She has a bed, a stuffed animal, and a book. It’s a beautiful story to drift off to sleep with.

My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood

Imagine immigrating to the US and going from a girl called Cartwheel to a girl who doesn’t want to go out anymore. She wraps herself “in a blanket of my own words and sounds. I called it my old blanket.” English, a foreign language for her, is brilliantly pictured as strange shapes coming out of stranger’s mouths. When the girl takes a walk with her mother, both wearing traditional clothes from their country, heads covered, another little girl smiles and waves. Next time they meet the girl says something, but the words come out as strange shapes. So they swing, something they both understand and love. And in that moment of shared experience, they become friends.

The girl still feels isolated and alone, but as they continue to meet and the American girl teaches her words, the shapes coming from their mouths become recognizable. A bird, a leaf, a tree, the girl repeats the words until they begin to sound “warm and soft.” Like a quilt. Each new word is like a new square in her new blanket that becomes just as comfortable as her old one. The blankets are languages, and in the end she cartwheels again, realizing, “I will always be me,” no matter where she is, or what language she speaks. Light on text with gorgeous watercolor and oil paintings, this book shows what compassion, courage, and friendship look like in the context of moving to a whole new country.

Sakamoto’s Swim Club: How a Teacher Led an Unlikely Team to Victory, by Julie Aberi and Chris Sasaki

Set in Hawaii in the 1930’s, this picture book takes readers to a time and place that feels foreign, even if it is in the US. Blending content that’s interesting to both adults and children, it’s an inspiring story for all ages. A short preface begins with: “Who would believe that children cooling off in the irrigation ditches of sugar plantations on the Hawaiian Island of Maui could become Olympic swimming champions? Science teacher Soichi Sakamoto believed.” So you get the scope of the story, and then turn the page and paired with gorgeous illustrations you read short, four line, rhyming stanzas. More than a historical accounting, it puts us in this place:

Valley Isle.

Lush terrain.

Migrant workers

cutting cane.

Simple, and yet it paints a clear picture, even without the illustrations, which are gorgeous. It also does a good job of drawing on common experience to really tug a child into this story, the next page:

Dawn to dusk

they toil away.

Children left

alone to play.

Kids almost a hundred years later still identify with that feeling of being around a busy adult and relying on their own resources and ingenuity to find a way to play. So many reasons to read and love this book! The note at the end includes a photo of the Three Year Swim Club, reminding the reader this is a real story about real kids.

Room For Everyone by Naaz Khan, illustrated by Mercè López

I first saw this picture book, which is set in Zanzibar, at TLA 2022. It jumped out at me as I was co-writing a picture book with a friend that was also set in Africa. I love the swahili words like daladala (a minibus/shared taxi) and parachichi (avocado) and the language, falling into clever and unpredictable rhymes and rhythms. “It’s hotter than peppers out there in the sun! Come in, there’s room for everyone!” What a lovely message, there’s room for everyone. For one old man, a herder with two goats, three fruit sellers, a farmer and his four shiny pails of fresh milk, five mamas . . . and so on. Bright colors, lots of different people doing different things, including ten divers in the end, all on their way to the shore. It’s a fun read and begs retelling and re-looking, the illustrations are equally fun.

My First Day by Phùng Nguyên Quang and Huynh Kim Lien

Set in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, the story begins with a boy sitting on his front porch, his feet dangling in the water and his “little open boat” tied up nearby. We’re told, “Today is the first day,” but we don’t know where he’s headed or what he’s about to do. All we know is this is the first time he’ll travel alone. With spare text and beautiful illustrations, we set out with him.

Clever text hints at his destination as he braves rain and rough water. “It’s different when you’re alone in the unfamiliar halls of the forest. I hear the chatter of a classroom full of animals as I move by.” This book nails the familiar experience of a first day of school. The boy paddles across a dark double page spread that reads, “When you don’t know a place, it can be scary.” He’s finally welcomed by schools of fish, a herd of water buffalo and new friends as he lands at the shore of his school.

An author’s note explains how kids get to school around the world in lots of different ways and shares facts about the Mekong Delta. And at the very end is a beautiful note to the reader from Christopher Myers. He writes that, “strangeness and familiarity are braided together,” in our world where technology, immigration and ease of travel have brought us closer. He goes on to say this book, “collapses the space between same and different and in doing so creates something very close to wonder in our everyday.” Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

My Day with the Panye by Tami Charles, illustrated by Sara Palacios

I’ve seen many women in Rwanda carrying large baskets, or yellow water containers, or bundles of maize or sweet potatoes on their heads. I’ve tried to do it myself, and failed.

In this story, set in Port-au-Prince, a little girl is finally getting to learn how to carry a basket on her head as she goes to market with her mother. Little Sister is left back with Grann so it’s just Fallon and Manman. At first, the basket falls off Fallon’s head and her Manman tells her the wisdom she learned from her mother, “Pitit, pitit, zwazo fe nich li. Little by little the bird builds its nest. Not everything is learned fast.” When I read this I was working on a manuscript of my own with a Kenyan phrase, Haraka, haraka, haina baraka, hurry, hurry has no blessing. Both wise, universal truths.

Fallon is eager to try to balance the basket on her head again, but she must first learn from her surroundings. A tap-tap bus passes playing Kompa music and Manman says to carry the panye she must be graceful, even under the weight. Then they pass walls that still stand years after the earthquake in Haiti, and Manan says strength is also needed. And to carry the panye is to care for the family, she tells Fallon as they pass mothers and daughters in the market. Finally, it’s time to try again . . . and once again it falls. Fallon almost gives up but Manman says, “Pitit, pitit, build your nest,” and after one more try, Fallon does it. She walks like a queen, like Manman, all the way home with the panye on her head.

Back at home, when Manman asks Fallon what the panya means to her, she says, “The panye means we are graceful when the load is heavy. We are strong, even when the earth is not. We are family, fed from love.” I kind of want to paint this on my walls at home. Empowering, and beautiful.


Leave a Comment

Storytime: Love

Whether your sweetheart is a tiny toddler in your lap, the kid across the aisle in homeroom, your child, your dog, your date, your mate . . . these books about love are the perfect excuse to cozy up and share some time together.

Love, Splat by Rob Scotton

Splat is such a great character. I love his foamy toothpaste mouth as he dreams of his crush, Kitten. I love that he steps on a piece of toilet paper on his way to the kitchen, and he has his own personal raincloud when he thinks he’s not good enough. Kitten has “snowy white paws and pea green eyes, and Splat likes her more than fish sticks and ice cream.” Rob Scotton has a knack for capturing personality, and sweetness. He makes no mention of the red umbrella Kitten holds over Splat’s head as she hands him her valentine, shielding him from his own storm, but it says a lot about who she is and how to love someone well. They end up giving each other “I like you” cards and it’s just an “awwwwwwww” kind of story that takes me back to the days of grade school crushes.

The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles by Michelle Cuevas, illustrated by Erin. E. Stead

The Uncorker of Bottles has an important job, to deliver the messages he finds in bottles floating on the sea. Sometimes they’re sad but usually they “made people quite happy, for a letter can hold the treasure of a clam-hugged pearl.” The Uncorker sees himself as unlovely, receiving a message addressed to him “was about as likely as finding a mermaid’s toenail on the beach.”

Soft colors and lovely pencil drawings illustrate this story about a man who takes his job seriously and sets out to find the owner of a party invitation that isn’t addressed to anyone. He asks, “a seagull, a sailor, and a one-man band,” but nobody claims the letter. I love the quirky characters and language, and the arc that takes us from low to high, like the tide. I love the mystery of who sent the invitation that draws everyone to the beach. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is everyone comes, and the man who thought himself unlovely dances at the water’s edge with his new friends, his heart a “glass vessel, filled to the brim.”

Viking in Love by Doug Cenko

I was hooked from the first line of this story, “Stig was like most Vikings. He loved fresh air, hearty stew, and, or course, adorable kittens.” Yes! Unfortunately Stig doesn’t like the sea. When he falls in love with a fearless viking named Ingrid who is swept out to sea he writes her a love note. What follows are two of the funniest picture book moments I’ve seen in a while. He tries sending the note out to Ingrid folded as a boat, and then folded as a bird, but when that fails . . .


These are followed by another funny scene, he grabs a kid’s inflatable horsie floaty and sets out on the sea, determined to conquer his fear and get his love note to Ingrid. But the waves toss him around, popping his floatie. We get a wordless double page spread where Stig sinks down into the sea alongside his two kittens but then . . . page turn, we see two hands plunging down to grab them, and then another page turn, Ingrid in her Viking boat holds Stig in one hand and the kittens in the other. Turns out she has a love note for Stig, tied to her own kitten, and they fall in love and sail off into the sunset, passing between two octopi who make a heart with their tentacles. It is about love and conquering your fears and it is silly and goofy and sweet and I love it.

Hug Machine by Scott Campbell

We gave this book to my son Christmas 2014 with the inscription, “To Nate, who is a great hugger.” He was fifteen years old at the time, and he really was and still is a great hugger. In this book the “hug machine” is a kid with buggy eyes and outstretched arms who calms people down and cheers them up with his hugs. But he doesn’t just hug people, as you can see from the cover. No fire hydrant, mailbox or tree is ignored. Nothing is too pokey (a porcupine) or too big (a whale) for a hug.

It is a great picture of unconditional love and the capacity of anyone, even a child, to make a difference in the world with this simple act of kindness. In the end, the hug machine is exhausted from all that hard work. When he can’t give one more hug, he receives one, and we’re reminded that givers need to be receivers, too. All that in just over 200 words, this book is simple enough to be enjoyed by toddlers with a message adults need to hear, too. It is the beauty and brilliance of a well-written picture book, nailing universal truths with humor and simplicity.

More, More, More Said the Baby by Vera B. Williams

I love thinking about all the different kinds of love when Valentine’s Day comes around. In this book the love of a daddy, mama or grandma for their sweet child is shown as they scoop those babies up, sing to them and give them affection. The paintings are bright and ethnicities are diverse. A 2015 New York Times tribute to Williams after her death says, “Her illustrations, known for bold colors and a style reminiscent of folk art, were praised by reviewers for their great tenderness and crackling vitality.” In this book each story plays out almost as if on stage. A chair or couch are the only props so our focus is on the activity, whether a kiss on the bellybutton, a swing all around, or a rock in the arms.

Each story has a similar refrain, a chant, focusing on an adorable part of the baby’s body. “Just look at you with your perfect bellybutton, right in the middle, right in the middle, right in the middle of your fat little belly, “ or, “Just look at you with your ten little toes, right on the ends, right on the ends, right on the ends of your two little feet,” and finally Little Bird’s mama croons, “Just look at you with your two closed eyes, right on either side, right on either side, right on either side of your neat little nose.” The babies can’t get enough, they beg for more, more, more, or in sleepy Little Bird’s case, “Mmm. Mmmm. Mmmm.” So, so sweet, the entire text acts as a refrain, a tribute to being treasured and loved and cared for.

Hot Dog by Doug Salati

I can’t resist including Hot Dog, especially since it just won the Caldecott Medal for most distinguished American picture book for children in 2023. We moved downtown a few years ago during the pandemic, and because of our doodle Humphrey (he’s a Double Doodle actually, as if the word doodle isn’t quite cute enough) we entered the world of dog parks. We began to meet lots of dog owners, many who got “pandemic pups.” Most of these new friends were single without kids and their dogs were their children. We just recently went to Humphrey’s friend Penny’s third birthday party. I have never encountered such love for pooches as I have the past couple years, and if a dog can have a birthday party, they most certainly can be a valentine.

This review is my love letter to this wonderfully simple book. I love the illustrations, the super brief rhyming text, and the world of city and sea. Hot dog is a weiner dog with a kindly bespectacled owner who gets it when the city is so hot he can’t sit, and the crowds are “too close! too loud! too much! THAT’S IT!” That dog won’t move one bit . . . until something changes. His owner calls a cab, hops on a train, then a ferry, and takes them both to a “welcome whiff of someplace new where she kicks off her shoes and that doggie runs and runs.” A bunch of wordless spreads follow, inviting you to take your own sweet time to notice the shells, the seal, and the setting sun. I love that they go back to the city, all cooled off, and now it’s a good place. It’s familiar. It’s home. Sometimes we all just need a break. I loved taking one with this book.

Leave a Comment

What I’ve Learned from River

I’ve had the privilege and joy of watching my grandson, River, twice a week for the past few months as Alayna went back to work part time. In a shameless display of grandmotherly picture sharing, I give you ten things I’ve learned from River lately:

  1. It’s okay if your hair looks funny. It makes people smile
  2. Reread your favorite books.
  3. You can never say enough “I love you’s.”
  4. Get on the floor. It’s as whole new world down there.
  5. Food should be experienced, not just eaten.
  6. Go outside as often as possible
  7. Naps are important.
  8. Take lots of walks.
  9. Dogs can be great playmates.
  10. Eat lots of fruit, it’s sweet and delicious! Also, apples can be toys.
  11. And one more . . . our bodies are amazing. That thing in your mouth that makes a sound like a motor? Amazing.

Read 6 Comments

Storytime: Courage

There are so many books that can be read about courage, and so many reasons kids (and adults) need them. These are just a few of the ones that capture my heart and inspire me.

Pablo by Rascal

This is a simple, odd book, and it’s about so much more than a chick hatching out of a shell. It’s about starting new things (like a new year!) and how it’s exciting but also scary so maybe you take it one peck at a time. It’s about not missing a speck of the world around us. It’s about moving forward while not entirely leaving what’s behind us.

There’s suspense as we slowly see first one eye, then another, a beak, a leg, a wing emerge from the shell, the entire book in black and white, until we see the full yellow chick. And there’s delight in imagining this chick inside his shell, having “a small croissant and a hot chocolate” to gather his strength. “Pablo has to come out of his shell. He’s too big for it.” I could share this with my 8 month old grandson, or my 75 year old mother, and they’d both love it for different reasons. Or maybe the same. Love it for it’s symmetry, simplicity, surprises, and sweet story.

Story Boat by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Rashin Kheiriyeh

A picture book totally rooted in what a child’s perspective may be like for a family forced to flee their home. It is traumatic and chaotic and yet kids are kids are kids, and they bloom where they are planted. Their imaginations buoy them, blessedly ignorant of some of the trauma and uncertainty. There is sadness as they traverse barren landscapes, migrating with people of all ages, or stay in tents, but page to page there is hope as they look at each small belonging they still have and imagine where it could take them.

Here is a cup.

Old and fine, warm as a hug.

Every morning,

As things keep changing,

We sit, wherever we are

And sip, sip, sip,

Sippy, sip, sip


From this cup.

We turn the page and are transported, with the kids, in their cup. It makes me think about my own “”familiars,” and how they are my home just as surely as the walls and roof. I put this as a January, New Year, pick because it is about new beginnings, and hope. It also inspires me to connect with those in my city who are recent immigrants and listen to their stories, like boats that have carried them to our foreign shores.

Courage Hats - Hoefler, Kate

Courage Hats, by Kate Hoefler and Jessixa Bagley

I love the set up that comes in the first few pages of this book. “Not everyone loves a train. That’s the world. But sometimes you’ve got to take one anyway.” What a great line, shorthand for so many times when we find ourselves in unavoidable, fear-inducing situations, whether it’s the first day of kindergarten or college.

This is the sort of beautiful book that can be shared with all ages. You’ve got a small girl named Mae. The train will take her deep into bear places, and bears are big and eat small things. And you’ve got Bear, who is big, and the trian is heading into people places. People are small and eat big things.

Did you know you can wear courage on your head? Part of the charm of this book for me is how in the midst of the simple story of a girl and a bear on a train, truths are stated. In this world you may be afraid of trains, but you can wear courage on your head. “No matter how you feel about a train, someone else feels the same way.” What a comfort that is! And in the end, when you share your fears and go through something hard together you don’t need that courage hat anymore. You’ve made a friend, just like Bear and Mae, who end up at camp together in the end. It is about the big and the small, courage and friendship and paper bag hats all wrapped up together.

Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome

This would be a wonderful first introduction to Harriet Tubman, a glimpse at so many different roles this incredible woman played accompanied by gorgeous illustrations. At a time of year when I’m looking backward as well as forward, I am inspired by a life so well-lived. Each page goes back in time, starting when Harriet is an old woman to when she was Harriet the suffragist, and before that a General (ferrying slaves to freedom across the river at the end of the war), Union spy, nurse, Aunt Harriet who helped her parents make it to freedom and a new home in Canada, Moses, and even further back to when she was a conductor on the underground railroad,

with no trains

and no tracks

just passengers

traveling to freedom

up north

through swamps

past slave catchers

across rivers

under the cover of night

and then way back to when she was a slave called Minty, and before that to when she was Araminta, a young girl.

What a wonderful way to honor this incredible woman, and remind us that our days add up to our lives. As a new year rolls in, I’m reminded to make those days count.

Lincoln Clears a Path: Abraham Lincoln’s Agricultural Legacy by Peggy Thomas, illustrated by Stacy Innerst

This one is a big longer so good for slightly older kids, it’s a brilliantly written book tracing the dawn of a new age ushered in by the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, but looking at it through the lens of farming and its impact on Abraham Lincoln. He used what he knew about working and clearing the land to inform how he cleared a path to freedom, an unexpected analogy that works really well. Thwack! He cut trees with his dad to clear a path for fields. Swish! He cleared brush. Thwump! He pulled stumps. Yah! He used a horse to plow fields.

The book starts with carefully chosen anecdotes about Lincoln’s childhood. He once planted seven acres of pumpkin seeds that were washed away in a storm, learning how to deal with frustration and disappointment and not give up. He went back for his dog, left behind on the icy banks of a river when his family moved, showing that even at a young age he cared for the less fortunate, and had a tender heart.

I didn’t know that Lincoln was responsible for the USDA (thwack!), which supported farmers who supported the troops. Or the Homestead Act (swish!), that allowed citizens and immigrants who believed slavery was wrong to settle land in the west. He created the Pacific Railway Act (thwump!), clearing a path across the nation, and he created land-grant colleges (yah!), clearing a path for students. All these facts that could have felt dry and boring are presented in a compelling way, bringing the language from the fields to governing and showing how there were so many things beyond the Civil War that tended the soil that eventually grew into the Emancipation Proclamation.

It’s a good book for any time of year, and inspiring as we begin a new year to think of what we’re capable of no matter what our background. How can we “”Lincoln”” our lives to make this world a better place? “

Leave a Comment

Storytime: Christmas

I love seasonal books, maybe because I only take them out once a year and they go along with so many memories of family gathered and good meals. In December, they beckon me to slow down in the midst of busyness. I put as many as I can face out, setting them against the spines of other books on shelves and scattered on the coffee table. They are a part of my home, ingrained in my family’s lives, part of our stories. Here’s a few of my favorites.

Red Ranger Came Calling by Berkeley Breathed

It’s the story of a young boy who calls himself the Red Ranger of Mars who doesn’t believe in Santa but begins second guessing himself when he sees a small man with pointy ears turning up the path next to a mailbox labeled Saunder Clös. The boy is so shocked the most “flowery” thing he can think to say is, “Mister, you look like a turnip.” That line gets me every time. It goes on to say, “I could not recall ever actually seeing a genuine elf, nor calling one a vegetable, but I was certain that I just had.” The boy meets the most ancient man he’s ever seen, gets his hopes up, has them dashed, and in the end experiences a Christmas miracle when he turns from anger to kindness for the sake of an old man’s dream, and ultimately, his own. That last page turn, inspiring.

Only a Star by Margery Facklam, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

This book is very short, perfect for the very young and up. It explores a simple question, “What were the trimmings that first Christmas morning? What brightened the stable to welcome the child?” From dewdrops on a spider web that turn to diamonds in the starlight, to a scurrying scarab beetle that gleams like an emerald, the author imagines what might have been found in nature and declares it beautiful. I love a book that explores the “extraordinary in the ordinary” theme, a book that causes us to pause and notice the world around us in all its glory. It is what children do, too, calling us to see snail trails and dust sparkles. And if you have a child like my youngest still is, at the ripe age of 21, you’ll love the notes at the end that give fun facts about each creature.

Twelve Kinds of Ice by Ellen Bryan Obed, illustrated by Barbara McClintock

As a Texan my experience with ice is very different from Ellen Bryan Obed’s, who hails from Maine. This beautiful little book isn’t necessarily a Christmas book but I put it out each December, a perfect read with a cup of hot chocolate and even nicer with a warm little body by your side. It goes through the winter season as defined by ice, starting with “first ice,” described as the ice that forms at the top of a sheep pail in the barn, “a skim of ice so thin that it broke when we touched it.” It goes on through “black ice,” where the children skate on the Great Pond, “garden ice,” explaining how they transform their vegetable garden into a small skating rink, to the “last ice” which has, “grainy places that were coarse like sugar.” The language is lovely, and the black and white pen and ink illustrations pair perfectly, drawing us into this world of ice and the life that revolves around it.

Song of the Stars: A Christmas Story

By Sally Lloyd-Jones, illustrated by Alison Jay

When I first saw this book I felt like I was seeing an old friend. Alison Jay illustrated a quirky little board book I loved reading with my kids called Picture This, and her crackle-paint style is easily recognizable. This book is about anticipation, and culmination, as creatures and creation announce, “It’s time! It’s time!” The leaves rustle with a rumor, and one of my favorite spreads, “The skies shouted it to the seas that thundered it to the waves that roared it to the great white whales that sang it to the starfish in the deep.” What’s all the chatter about? A tiny baby, wrapped in rags. The book starts with the line, “The world was about to change forever, and it almost went by unnoticed . . .” The illustrations and words are gorgeous, and I love how it broadens the perspective of the Christmas story far, far beyond a stable in Bethlehem. The stars sing and the animals proclaim what so many couldn’t see.

The Christmas House

By Ann Turner, illustrated by Nancy Edwards Calder

I fall into this book every Christmas like entering a familiar home. The glowing windows on the cover and tiny face peeking out the window in the front door are so inviting. The text is a series of poems told from different perspectives, from the house itself to the cat and dog, various people, and even the table. So many lines to love. The table’s poem ends with:

Now all are here

where I hold your faces deep

inside my polished wood

And the house poem ends with this lovely sentiment:

I welcome them all,

I hold them all,

I gather them in,

and I let them go

at the end.

Careful words that capture so much feeling, it is a cozy book to keep out this December.

Leave a Comment

Bookshelf: The Field

I discovered this book, written by Baptiste Paul and illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara October 2019 at a USBBY (United States Board on Books for Young People) conference where there were people from all over the United States and abroad. It was a fitting to place to find a story set on a Caribbean island, about kids playing a game played all over the world. Whether you call it futbol or soccer, the universals of kids having fun rain or shine, and not wanting to go in but mamas insisting it’s time for bath and bed, will find common ground. This portrays a bright, real world I’d love to visit.

Leave a Comment

Storytime: Thanksgiving

To see summaries of the five Thanksgiving books, scroll to the bottom of this post. If you have a couple minutes . . . I’m finding so much to be grateful for these days. Sunsets.

The most precious grandbaby in the whole wide world.

Tater tots and books, a library and bookstore within walking distance, falling temperatures and birds in flight and things to look forward to like dinners and stories around tables . . . and pie. I hope you find some new treasures in the books below:

Pie Is for Sharing - Kindle edition by Ledyard, Stephanie Parsley, Chin, Jason. Children Kindle eBooks @

Pie is for Sharing creates a wonderful world, one I wish I could step into. The illustrations paint a picture of a perfect day as different families gather in a park. The kids start off sharing pie, then a book, a ball, a tree, with spare, clever text like “Other things for sharing: a jump rope, your place in the middle, a rhyme (turn the page) time . . . That one word on a beautiful spread where kids build in the sand at the edge of a lake or chase each other through the shallows while the adults sit and chat.

The day ends with sparklers and a shooting star shared on a blanket under the night sky and a little more . . . pie. A lovely circle back to the beginning as the day ends. Not a Thanksgiving book, or even a November book (it takes place in summer) but sharing and giving thanks go hand in hand, and ‘tis the season for pies.

Sophie's Squash: Miller, Pat Zietlow, Wilsdorf, Anne: 9780593181690: Books

‘Tis also the season for squash and Sophie’s Squash is adorable. One fall day Sophie chooses one at the farmer’s market. “Her parents planned to serve it for supper, but Sophie had other ideas.” What a brilliant line, inviting us to turn that first page and find out what she’s thinking.

Turns out that squash is “just the right size to love.” Sophie gives it a face with a marker and christens her Bernice, and after that they’re inseparable until Bernice begins to go soft and spotty. Sophie asks the man at the farmer’s market how to keep squash healthy, and he tells her fresh air, good dirt and a little love. She tucks Bernice into a bed of soft soil, and that night it snows, but come spring, Bernice produces two small squash who Sophie names Bonnie and Baxter. This is a sweet story of friendship and hope, the parents are kind, and Sophie is so loyal. May we all have a Sophie in our lives.

Pumpkin Circle: The Story of a Garden: Levenson, George, Thaler, Shmuel: 9781582460789: Books

Pumpkin Circle is an ode to the pumpkin, following its path from seeds that reach with “silky roots” to grow a dense patch of leaves and vines. Their “twisty tendrils grasp like hands stretching out to cling. They roll down into fancy curls and wind up just like springs,”

And eventually grow into big, fat orange pumpkins that will decay into “muck and dirt, a place for seeds to grow.” The photographs pair perfectly with the lyrical text, a great nonfiction picture book, pumpkin poetry.

Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade (Bank Street College of Education Flora Stieglitz Straus Award (Awards)): Sweet, Melissa: 9780547199450: Books

Balloons Over Broadway tells the story of how the Macy’s Day Parade came to be. Did you know Macy’s originally put on the parade for their employees, many of them immigrants who missed the music and dancing in the streets from their homelands? Macy’s hired Tony Sarg, also an immigrant as well as a “marionette man,” to help design that first parade on Thanksgiving Day, 1924.

It was such a success Macy’s decided to do it every year to celebrate America’s own holiday. This book is fascinating, the illustrations are genius, and Tony’s “upside-down marionettes” were, and still are, a huge hit. Tony Sarg was a child at heart, and Melissa Sweet’s art was created with the same sense of whimsy. This book could sit on your coffee table to be shared with adults as well as read to kids, it’s beautiful and fun.

Thankful inspires me with its creative gratitude, “I am thankful for things that are soft and fresh, like laundry, bread, moss on rocks.” It invites us to look closer at our worlds and notice all the little things we are thankful for. Throughout the story a young girl makes her paper chain, writing her gratitudes on each colorful link, illustrated with photos of three dimensional paper sets. It is the perfect mirror, a story about a paper chain illustrated with paper cut-outs, a story that begins with one link and ends with the chain stretched around the girls’ window, ready for her to begin reading the first link the next day. What a wonderful tradition, and a beautiful book.

Leave a Comment

Bananagrams and Revision

If you’re not a writer, maybe you think this post isn’t for you, but I would argue that everyone revises. For writers, it happens on the page all the time, but for humans, we revise our plans and our lives every time we encounter change. Sometimes the change is self-inflicted. I revised what I thought my kids are capable of when our family traveled overseas for a year.

Yes, we took our three kids, including a six-year-old, up this skinny, treacherous path, climbing 1200 feet to the top of Waynu Picchu

They all made it!

Sometimes we have no control, and unforeseen circumstances force us to revise when Plan A doesn’t work out.

Impromptu “gourmet” picnic on the hotel floor

I revised my to-do lists and my pace when Rebeka came to live with us for a year to have surgeries on her clubbed feet. My life slowed down as we took time for her to learn how to walk on her turned-straight feet.

A death, a move, an accident, kids, winning the lottery, or an empty nest . . . they all require life revision. And for writers, revision also comes in the form of edits in our manuscripts. In the same week that my new book deal was announced . . .

I received my revision letter for the first of the two-book deal, THE MINOR MIRACLE. The manuscript a publisher buys often goes through a lot of editing before it gets published. For me, it’s usually easier  to revise than to face a blank page while drafting a new story. But not always.

As I dug into my editor’s twelve-page revision letter and comments in the manuscript itself, it felt a bit like a game of Bananagrams. For those unfamiliar with the game, everyone pulls letter tiles and makes their own crossword, and when someone uses all their tiles everyone has to pull another from the big pile in the middle and incorporate it. Sometimes it’s easy. You pull an “s” and make a word plural. But sometimes you pull a “j,” and to fit it into your perfect little puzzle you have to entirely mess it up and start over.

Some of my editor’s comments will require me to cut chapters, and then add new chapters. I’m needing to think deeply about theme and motivation. There is a trickle-down effect to edits like this that affect the entire manuscript, and so I take a deep breath and mess with my tiles. My tidy manuscript is messy again.

It is great practice for life, holding loosely to my puzzle so I can change and adapt when needed. In Bananagrams, when there are no more tiles left to draw and someone finishes their puzzle, they yell “Bananas!” I’m looking forward to the day I can send my manuscript back to my editor with all the pieces back in place, the story stronger, proud of how I was able to incorporate all those edits. It is a “Bananas!” moment.

Those writers out there know there’s a good chance I’ll be playing another round before it’s all through. I’ll be okay. I love games, revision, and most importantly, this story.

Read Comment