Bookshelf: The Beatryce Prophecy

I would not be unique in saying how much I love Kate DiCamillo, or Sophie Blackall. I have a Sophie Blackall print hanging in our condo that I first saw when riding a subway in New York. It features a quirky group of subway riders including two nuns sharing headphones, a guy in a bear costume, a woman holding a fiddle leaf fig, and a guy playing an accordion.

I just love her sensibility, and I like to think how Kate must have swooned to have her illustrate The Beatryce Prophecy, to “illuminate” it and give it life.

The first DiCamillo Book I read was The Tale of Despereaux and I loved the voice and the quirkiness and how it talked about darkness and light, good and evil, wrapped up in a great story with unforgettable characters. I’ll never forget her description of poor, beaten Mig’s “cauliflower ears.” The Beatryce Prophecy is also quirky with great characters. There’s a goat that strikes fear in the heart of grown men and a mute girl, there’s a mystery that needs solving, and underneath it all there’s something deeper going on. What’s the importance of prophecies, and what can change the world? This book talks about the importance of stories, of reading, of words, of using your voice, of power and laying down your power.

I picked up this book at the perfect time, when I had the time to read it all in a couple of big gulps on a few gray days. I read it as I’m approaching a writing project of my own, puzzling how to intertwine the bones of plot with the tendons and sinew of theme and purpose and things that matter. DiCamillo does it so, so well.

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The Best Story Ever

On September 4th I wrote a post about Nate and Jo’s wedding ceremony getting postponed due to Covid, and while we were sad we had to cancel the plans in Washington State, we knew it would all work out and there would be a good story to tell. We had no idea what was in store for us two weeks later.

First, Nate had to get over Covid. Their friends were really sweet, even dropped off pretty white flowers and a bag of chips and hot sauce, Nate and Jo’s fave.

They decided to get married in Austin, and we got to work planning a ceremony at our ranch that would take place at 8AM Sunday morning, September 19th. We had about 12 days to get the ranch ready and make all the wedding plans. By the time Alayna and Choi flew in to Austin on the 17th, we were just about ready and so excited! Imagine a bottle of champagne that’s been shaken-that was us. Then Alayna and Choi gave us this happy news.

Alayna told us she was ten weeks pregnant and we exploded in a joyful, crying, hugging, high-fiving fizz of celebration. We decided to keep it a secret from our families until after Nate and Jo got married and drove off Sunday afternoon. After a full day Saturday getting everything ready, we gathered that night for barbeque down the road with all the families. Nate and Jo seemed amazingly calm and so, so happy.

Many people have asked, “Why so early on a Sunday morning?” When the sun came peeking over the horizon, and our good friend who did the ceremony came in to our last minute hustle and bustle and showed us a pic he snapped, I knew Jo’s instinct for Sunday morning was right.

You may remember from the last post how Jo hadn’t tried on her dress until the night before she was supposed to leave. This dress, it was something special. She had dreamed it up and found a seamstress who could make it, something with a transparent layer on top of a silky layer. The sun shone through the sleeves and hit the tips of the tall grass and it really was just beautiful. So were our friend’s words, about love and faith and the sacred vows they were making.

After the ceremony we took pictures, and then Nate and Jo went off to take some more pictures while we got the breakfast tacos and juice set out. (Did I mention that a morning wedding means a super simple menu? Breakfast tacos, fruit, coffee and mimosas!) While we were doing this, I heard someone say, “Hey, there’s horses!” Horses? We don’t have horses.

We found out later they had escaped from a ranch nearby, they really seemed like a touch of magic galloping across the meadow with their tails flying. Nate and Jo did a first dance not long after the horses departed.

And then there was brunch, and toasts, all of us gathered around tables we’d pushed end to end to make one long table down the driveway. Lots and lots of sweet words to bless this couple as they start their life together. Jo’s sister made us all cry.

And then they cut the cake, and we threw petals as they ran to their car, and then they drove off down our asphalt drive. We told our families about Alayna being pregnant, and we continued celebrating, and our ranch is now full of so many more wonderful memories. I would have never imagined the horses, and I didn’t have a clue we’d have baby news that weekend, but could I have imagined these two sitting in a field full of tall grass grinning nose to nose in their wedding best? I had a hunch.


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Bookshelf: Ways to Make Sunshine

I wish this had been on my shelf a long time ago. On the heels of lots of rescheduling/looking on the bright side around here (thank you covid), I was already sold on this title. When I saw reviews comparing the main character to Ramona, one of my favorites growing up, I couldn’t wait to crack it open, and this cover . . . so cute! Renée Watson gives us Ryan, an African American fourth grader who is full of spunk from the first line of the book when she tells us, “I am a girl with a name that a lot of boys have.” But when the boy sitting next to her in class points this out to the substitute teacher she feels compelled to say, “I do not have a boy’s name. I have my name. My name is Ryan and Ryan means ‘king’ and that means I am a leader . . .”

A few pages later she races this same boy at recess and almost wins but doesn’t because she trips on her own shoelaces. She doesn’t complain or pout (even though she skinned her knee and it’s bleeding) or make excuses (even though her friend says it’s no fair). She keeps up her end of the bet and buys the boy his candy, but she buys herself some, too. She’s had a hard day, and she needs some chocolate. I like this girl.

I also like slipping into the skin of an African American girl and seeing the world through her eyes. There is a chapter where Ryan’s mom tells her not to go swimming because her grandmother recently straightened her hair, something that took a lot of time. So while Ryan’s girlfriends are all having a blast in the pool she has to hang out on the side in her swimsuit and just get her feet wet. She can’t stand it, so finally she ties her hair up in a scarf, pulls on a shower cap and jumps in for a holding-your-breath contest. She wins, but the consequences are dire. My heart broke for Ryan when I saw the illustration, her eyes closed so she doesn’t see yet what everyone else does.

One of the girls says, “Your hair looks like it got electrocuted!” It is the perfect description spoken just how a fourth grader would say it; so, so mean. So heartbreaking. And yet you can just hear the giggles, right? We’ve all been in those circles where some clever person came up with the perfect insult that made everyone laugh. It’s brilliant how a book can give a reader empathy, build it, and word by word change the world by changing a heart, reader by reader, story by story. Whether that reader is the teaser, or the one who has been teased.

Fast forward to Ryan looking at herself in the mirror. She’s combed out her wet hair, pulled it into a rubber band making a “big, big Afro puff.” She says, “I like the way my hair looks like one massive storm cloud, how if I stretch it, it boings back into place.” Ryan decides to “try to be the beautiful person Grandma says I am.” This book is filled with goodness. Parents that love Ryan and want her best, a Grandma who speaks truth to her, and a stable church she’s gone to forever where she’s been nurtured in their Easter tradition of reciting poems. There’s a teacher that understands her quirks, friends who love her no matter what, and a market with sugary elephant ears. Sure, there’s plenty of conflict. Her dad loses his job, they move to a smaller house that’s run down, and she doesn’t have a talent for the upcoming show but ungirding Ryan’s world is sunshine and hope and positivity. I checked this book out at the library, but I’ll be buying it and adding it to my shelf.

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The Story of Love

Consider this Part Two to the post A Dark and Stormy Night, the story of Nate’s proposal to sweet Jo. On May 28th they got engaged, and ever since they’ve been planning like nuts for their wedding. They also had some really sweet engagement photos made.

photo courtesy

The plan was to get married in Olympic National Park on the morning of Sunday, September 5th. That’s right, three months and a week after getting engaged they were going to get married in a tiny little ceremony in the forest. They worked so hard, figuring out a complicated schedule of rental cars and flights, to get parents and siblings and grandparents and a few close friends to gather. Alayna and Choi were in that neck of the woods (literally) and found the most beautiful spot.

Of course, it wasn’t going to be perfect having a destination wedding in the midst of a pandemic. We laughed, a little nervously, about the stories we were sure we’d be telling about that weekend wedding. On Tuesday (5 days before the wedding), Nate found out they had both been exposed to covid the previous weekend. They have both been vaccinated but as soon as he heard they started wearing masks and both got tested. Their rapid tests came back negative that afternoon. Jo spent the night in our condo that evening, and I made sure she had a special book bedside, giddy with excitement about all that was to come.

The next day Nate got on his health portal online and thought he got a negative PCR result so even though he started feeling a little run down and sniffly, he figured it was just a sinus infection. The day was busy, busy, busy with wedding details, trying to pull last minute stuff together plus Jo moved into the condo where they will live together. Their first home is actually going to be six floors below us, a little one bedroom nest. Nate didn’t come back upstairs to our place until late, and he was really tired.

Jo got back a negative PCR result on Thursday afternoon, phew, but Nate was feeling worse. He went back and checked his health portal and realized he had seen an old PCR result from a test he took months ago. Uh-oh. He called the doctor, but they still didn’t have his new PCR results back yet. His had been sent to the lab in a different batch. Nate and Jo’s flight left Friday morning and Jo still didn’t have her dress. In fact, she hadn’t tried it on since it had been altered, but her tailor had assured her it would be delivered to our condo at 1, make that 6, well, maybe 7 . . . but, “Don’t worry,” she assured Jo, “It’s on the way.” At this point things were not looking good for Nate but we were hope, hope, hoping Nate had a really bad cold or something. Honestly, looking back, we were in denial. Nate was in bed down in their new condo when we got the text at 7:15 that the dress had arrived. I ran down to get it and met Jo and her friends up in our condo (Clay was out with Humphrey). The sun was setting, rosy pink, surely it would be all right.

Jo unzipped the garment bag, we squealed, she took the dress out of the bag, and my phone buzzed. It was Nate. I answered, and he said, “Can you hand the phone to Jo?” And sweet Jo, holding her dress in one hand, took the phone and listened for a minute. Her eyes got glassy but she did not burst into tears or rage. She did not turn to self-pity or anger. She said, “I am holding my dress, and I’m still smiling. I love you, and we’re going to get married, and it’s okay.” And that is why I am so happy my son is marrying this girl. Nate was covid positive, they would not be getting married in Olympic National Forest on Sunday morning, and it was okay. With tears running down my cheeks I hugged sweet Jo. That kind of love comes from being rooted in a love bigger than either one of us, being covered in a Holy Spirit peace we can’t understand.

And that is the story of love. Jo’s friends gave her big hugs. Nate texted me “How is Jo?” (did I mention Jo dropped her phone earlier that day and it wasn’t working?) and I texted him back, “she’s just fine.” We’ve still got Jo’s dress in our closet. I had to smile at the name on the garment bag, ironic, funny but not funny because Jo will absolutely wear that perfect wedding dress, and it won’t be long.

And as for Humphrey, we got him a short haircut in anticipation for a long stint at the boarders. He has no idea what he narrowly escaped. I live in fear of him getting into the closet and messing up Jo’s dress.

And these two? Stay tuned for Part Three. I have no idea what it will be titled, but I’m certain of this, it will be a really good story.

photo courtesy

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Storytime: Be Yourself

To see summaries of the five books we used to talk about being yourself, scroll to the bottom of this post. If you have a couple minutes . . . I envisioned doing storytime posts once a month this summer, but here we are in July and here I am with my first summertime storytime post. Ahhh, these long, sometimes lazy, sometimes crazy days of summertime!

One of Humphrey’s many napping spots

Humphrey and Penny, doing the Doodle Duel

Humphrey has no problem going from lazy to crazy! (And yes, I realize Humphrey’s naps feature prominently in several storytime posts :-))He recently had a playdate with his doodle friend Penny, and those two, they have so much fun together. We were a bit reluctant bringing Penny into the condo, wondering if Humphrey would totally lose his mind since he usually only sees his friends outdoors where there’s lots of room to run and wrestle, but they were fine. Sure, they wrestled quite a bit and Humphrey only settled down for maybe half an hour in the four hours Penny was with us but no furniture was destroyed and nobody went to the bathroom inside so we counted it a success.

With dogs, pretty much what you see is what you get. They are themselves. For some reason it’s harder for us humans, young and old, and these picture books have some great reminders that we are pretty special the way we are, and we can celebrate our quirks and differences. Here’s to lazy summer days and storytimes and being yourself, no matter who you are!

Camilla’s New Hairdo by Tricia Tusa

I am a huge fan of Tricia Tusa’s illustrations! In this book, great for all ages with a not-too-long story, a woman named Camilla does her hair up in crazy hairdo’s like fruit baskets and forests, mimicking what she sees out her window. She never actually sets foot outdoors, in fact she lives in a tower with only a window and no door, until the day a little girl crash lands on her balcony and Camilla discovers she’s brave enough to not only venture outside, but invite people inside. It’s a story about being yourself while still stepping outside your comfort zone, and it’s worth multiple reads just to study those amazing hairdo’s!

The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf

Oh I love the gentle bull in this classic book, and the black and white illustrations do such a good job of showing perspective and emotion. The page where Ferdinand sits on the bee . . . but I get ahead of myself. Ferdinand isn’t like the other bulls. While they like to “run and jump and butt their heads together” Ferdinand sits quietly and smells the flowers. Some men come along looking for the roughest bulls to fight in bull fights in Madrid, and they see Ferdinand just after he sits on a bee and starts running around snorting and pawing the ground, so they choose him. Oh no! The bull fighters are so nervous when they hear about crazy Ferdinand, and there’s this great spread where Ferdinand runs into the middle of a huge crowded arena, and sits down, and smells the flowers the women have thrown from their hair onto the ground for the matador. The gentle bull refuses to fight, so he gets sent home, and he’s happy being himself, the end. What a great, great book.

The Princess and the Pig by Jonathan Emmett, illustrated by Poly Bernatene

There’s a lot of funny nuance in this book for older kids and adults, with allusions to fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty and Puss in Boots and the phrase “it’s the sort of thing that happens all the time in books.” It’s basically a tale of mistaken identity, where a piglet and baby princess get mixed up at birth and are raised in very different homes. When the peasant parents become aware of the mistake they try and make things right, but the king and queen aren’t convinced. The peasant girl may be smart and beautiful, but she doesn’t look or speak like a real princess and so she can’t possibly be their daughter. Their daughter (the pig), is dressed in fancy gowns and jewels, and so things stay the way they are. The peasant girl (who should have been raised in a castle) gets married happily ever after to a young shepherd, and the princess pig is married to a handsome prince who is assured that once he kisses her, she’ll turn into a beautiful princess because, “it’s the sort of thing that happens all the time in books.” Except . . . not in this book! This book got a good laugh out of the kids and me.

The Mightiest by Keiko Kasza

I adore this author/illustrator, and often use her books for storytime. This one was new to me but I knew it would be good and it didn’t disappoint. Lion, Elephant and Bear see a crown sitting on a rock with the words “For the Mightiest” carved on the side. They argue over who is the mightiest and will get to wear the crown, until a little old lady comes along and they decide whoever scares the lady gets the crown. Each of them scares her so much that they start arguing over who scared her most, but then a giant comes along and he takes the crown and scoops up the animals and tells them he’ll drop them over the edge of a cliff but then the old lady yells “George!” And he stops and drops the animals because she scares him. A little old lady! Turns out she’s his mama 🙂 The animals give the crown to the little old lady who was able to calm the giant, which is kind of what I expected, but then, SHE PUTS THE CROWN BACK ON THE ROCK!!! She tells them she has her little hat and it’s good enough for her, and there’s this great line, “The mightiest didn’t need a crown after all.” Isn’t that just great?

Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems

Mo Willems books are so, so good for read alouds, this one works for pretty young kids with very short text but older kids will appreciate it, too. It starts with great word play, “Leonardo was a terrible monster” could mean two things. It could mean he is really, really mean and horrible, or it could mean that he’s bad at being a monster, and in this book, it’s the latter because you turn the page and it says, “he couldn’t scare anyone.” There’s this great picture of Leonardo throwing a monster tantrum, mouth open and blue tongue flailing. What a cute monster (with human parents). I love the language, like he wants to “scare the tuna salad” out of someone. He finds a boy named Sam and he thinks he scares him but then Sam explains that he’s crying for a bunch of other reasons and not because Leonardo is scary. So Leonardo decides to just be himself, and that means being a good friend, which is exactly what Sam needs. Ahhhhhh.

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A Dark and Stormy Night: The Proposal

It was a dark and stormy night, the night Nate proposed to Jo.

Nate had been planning it for months, a carefully orchestrated event that first involved choosing the perfect ring and the perfect location (the roof of the Long Center parking garage where he and Jo go for downtown views and to watch the sun set). He called someone at the Long Center to make sure it would be okay, set up the photographer (one of Jo’s best friends, the talented Aubrey Jean) who would hide and take pictures when he went down on one knee, and coordinated with several of their friends who would arrange flowers and candles before they arrived. He even sent me a picture he drew of the way he envisioned it looking.

Meanwhile, Clay and Benji and me would be waiting at the condo with Jo’s family and a few close friends, ready to cheer and toast them with champagne.

Most importantly, he had to find a date that worked for her parents and brother in Louisiana (Luke, Tory and Ryan), and her sister and brother-in-law (Reagan and Cody) in Dallas to be here. All this planning meant that Jo probably had a pretty good idea the proposal was happening so it wasn’t a huge surprise. We kept asking Nate if he wanted to try and make it a surprise, maybe scratch all the planning and just go crazy and propose on a whim. He wavered for half a second, but held firm. He was certain the most important thing to Jo was having her family there, and the earliest that could happen was the evening of Friday, May 28th. The evening of Friday, May 28th, we could see the roof of the Long Center parking garage from our balcony.

No sunset would be visible to the west, only dark storm clouds that were quickly approaching. Nate and Jo opted out of entrees and wolfed down their salads in an effort to hurry through dinner as our phones buzzed with alarming warnings.


The phrases “ping pong ball sized hail” and  “people and outdoor animals will be injured” were especially alarming. I had been texting with Jo’s parents, who were being diverted off I-35 due to the terrible storms and were running late. They were worried they may miss everything. Reagan and Cody were about 45 minutes ahead of them, driving through storms but would probably make it in time . . .

At this point, Jo was pretty aware that this was the night. She had been giddy all day. Her roommate, who was in on the whole thing, was spontaneously bursting into tears of joy and excitement. Jo didn’t know how, or where, but she knew. Nate excused himself from salad and hopped on a call with Clay and his friend, Jaret. I think the photographer was texting at the same time. Their friends met Benji downstairs to pick up the candles Nate bought earlier that day. The wind was picking up. The sky was getting more wicked by the second, but Nate thought maybe if they hurried they could make it. Who cared if they got a little wet? They’d have a story to tell. About then I got a text that Reagan and Cody had arrived at the parking garage, so I went to meet them and bring them up the elevator. The plan was to park Jo’s family on higher levels so when Nate and Jo parked in the garage later, they wouldn’t see her family’s cars.

So Reagan and Cody come up, and they’re changing out of their wet clothes, when Nate and Jo call. The storm has hit, and it’s bad. No way they can go to the roof of the parking garage. They call an audible, they’re coming to the condo. Nate will propose here. The friends are on their way, they want to know if they can decorate on the 10th floor, which has a big outdoor covered area next to the pool. I tell Reagan and Cody to hurry up and hide all their stuff, and themselves, in the closet. I hide all the party stuff in another closet and run downstairs to see if we can use the 10th floor, while Clay takes another call from Nate. Jo’s toe is bleeding after stepping on something while dancing in the rain. He’ll meet them in the parking garage with paper towels . . .

By the time Jo and Nate make it up to our condo her parents have made it and are awaiting further instructions in their car out on the street so they could avoid being seen in the parking garage, her sister and brother-in-law are hiding in the closet, her friends are fiendishly decorating the outdoor area of the 10th floor while a wicked storm rages, lightning and thunder and rain blowing horizontal. We’ve done a good job of removing all traces of any party but now have to stall for . . . I find out it will be another 20 minutes. That’s a long time to wait in the closet. Benji and Clay are running tools surreptitiously to the 10th floor. I get Jo’s parents to the 9th floor garage level and to the 10th floor to wait while Jo and Nate tend to her toe. At one point I’m pouring hydrogen peroxide on the cut and Nate says, “I’m going to get a clean shirt,” and I’m all, “Okay.” I don’t say a word about who he’ll find in the closet. I just wait. I find out later he’s trying to open the door and he can’t, and inside Jo’s sister is blocking it, afraid Jo will see (she doesn’t know we’re in another room), and then Nate sees Reagan and Cody’s heads pop out and it scares the pee out of him.

I’m trying to figure out how to lure Jo into my master bathroom so I can sneak Reagan and Cody out of the closet and down to the 10th floor when she asks if she can borrow my hair dryer because her clothes are so wet from dancing in the rain. Perfect!

While Jo is distracted, I nab Regan and Cody and who dash out of the closet and out of the condo. We’re halfway down the hall to the elevator, Reagan is barefoot, when we realize Humphrey is leaping alongside, full of excitement. I take him back, take them down, and get back before Jo is dry. It isn’t long before Nate gets the go-ahead. All is ready for the big moment. Benji ferries Jo’s family up the freight elevator, back to our condo, while Nate takes Jo down to the 10th floor to “watch the storm.” She was all smiles. She said later, when Nate went down on one knee and asked her to marry him, she all of a sudden wasn’t sure what to say. Was it, yes or I will or I do?  “So I said all three!” she said.

Ahh, Jo’s face, and Nate’s grin, these two . . . photo courtesy

This was the first picture we saw, all waiting up in the condo. Not a dry eye. .

Dark clouds can’t stop these two! photo courtesy

Loved watching these girls celebrate their friends well, photo courtesy

Storm? What storm? These guys made it beautiful no matter what! photo

It happened! And it was so sweet. photo

You remember how we tried to tempt Nate to go for the surprise? How we thought it would be so cool if he could fool Jo, if she didn’t see it coming? Well, we were wrong. I knew it as soon as I saw the first hug, and then the next, and the next. This girl, she loves her family, and they love her, so, so much. They are tight. It makes me happy that Nate will be marrying a girl who has been loved like that. Jo just fell into their arms, so happy and so complete when she got to share her joy with her mom and dad, sister and brother.

Just look at these sweet faces, left to right Jo’s mom Tory, proud dad Luke, she’s hugging brother Ryan, and brother-in-law Cody is grinning-photo courtesy

Ahhh these sisters! Jo and Reagan, photo courtesy

These two, Jo and Nate, we wish them love and joy. Jo held on to those flowers all night, clutched them tight. I’ll hold on to these memories the way you held on to that bouquet-oh what a night! photo courtesy

And one last picture, one last footnote to our story. The next day? The sun came out! We caught this pic of Nate on one knee, acting out the proposal, a sunbeam resting right on Jo’s ring. It just feels like a wink from up above, a benediction perhaps? He approves. All that thunder the night before? It was clapping. 🙂

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A Virtual Visit From Rwanda

top row left to right Sonni Mackzum (ANLM), Meredith Davis, Rebeka Uwitonze, and below students from Cotting School

In January, I got an email from Ms. Cain at Cotting School in Lexington, MA. She had a class of 14-18 year old students with physical, behavioral and cognitive disabilities who picked Her Own Two Feet to read as a class and she said they were loving it. She was wondering if there was any way she could chat with Rebeka and me about our book some time. My knee jerk reaction was that sure, I would love to talk to her class, but connecting with Rebeka was too hard. With a seven hour time difference between Rwanda and Texas and spotty technology, not to mention that fact that Rebeka is in school and it would require asking Africa New Life staff in both Portland and Rwanda to help set it all up . . . it’s just something I don’t ever do.

But then I read the email again. This sounded like a pretty special group of students, and a pretty cool teacher. I googled the school, and wow. Part of their mission statement is to, “provide outreach services, nationally and internationally, to expand our commitment and expertise in the field of special education . . . enable students to realize their highest potential both during and after their enrollment.” I decided to ask the good people at Africa New Life and see what they said.

The phrase “chance comes once” is a big deal in our book.

It’s the idea that sometimes a chance comes along just once and you’ve got to take it, even if it’s hard. Rebeka had several of these “chance comes once” moments. Like when she had the chance to have surgery to straighten her clubbed feet, but it was hard. It meant leaving her family at the age of nine, and flying across the ocean to live with strangers (our family) for almost a year. The kids at Cotting School have had “chance comes once” moments, and my friends at ANL recognized this as one of those chance comes once moments, too. They said yes, and the wheels began to turn. Augustine, who helped me with interviews when Rebeka and I were writing the book, translating for Rebeka’s parents, arranged the details with Rebeka’s school and got the wheels rolling in Portland.

Augustine showing me Rebeka’s school file in 2017

Sonni (pictured in the top left of our zoom screenshot) set up our call and was on at 5:30AM Portland time the morning of our virtual visit. We got a call from Augustine that the French president was in Rwanda, roads were blocked between Kigali and Kayonza and he was running a bit late that morning, but the headmaster had things under control and as I sat in my computer in Austin, Texas in my little zoom box, chatting with Sonni in her cozy little zoom box in Portland, talking to Augustine in his mobile zoom box driving down the road in Rwanda using his cell, all of a sudden the headmaster in Kayonza popped up in his zoom box, and then there was Rebeka, looking so spiffy in her new high school uniform with that same dazzling smile and sparkle in her eye.

My eyes got all welled up with tears but I kept my cool and shortly after, more and more zoom boxes popped up in Massachusetts as the students in Ms. Cain’s class came in, each on their own computers so they would all be able to interact well during our visit. They asked such good questions, both easy (“How old are you?”) and difficult (“Why couldn’t the doctors fix your arms?”), and Rebeka took them all in stride. It was awesome to hear from her again and see her interact with readers and talk about her story.

After about thirty minutes she had to get back to class, but I stayed on and shared some slides and we chatted a little more before saying goodbye.

I am so grateful for the opportunities to connect with students and share Rebeka’s story. I am a thousand, million, kajillion times grateful to Africa New Life for the hoops they jumped through to bring Rebeka onto our call with Ms. Cain’s class, all the way from Rwanda. And I am grateful for how this slide, with a quote taken from the book, never fails to recalibrate my day. One of the last things I do during an author visit is teach students how to say the word thank you in Kinyarwanda. It’s murakoze. I say murakoze to the people at ANL, to Ms. Cain and her students, and to the one who continues to bless this story.

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Storytime: Be Wise

To see summaries of the five books we used to talk about being wise, scroll to the bottom of this post. If you have a couple minutes . . . it’s almost summer! Just look at this beaut of a sunflower, insisting we take note.

And even though I’m not a slave to a school schedule the way I once was, it’s the end of May and it just feels right to slow down and shift gears this time of year. I believe we’re designed for seasons of rest in our lives. Humphrey firmly agrees.

And so I’ll be taking a break from my story times this summer, but may post a few goodies here that I read to my sweet group before I started putting them on this blog. I will miss reading to my kids but hope to see them Sunday mornings. It has given me so much joy to share stories with them each week, to put down our book and do stretches, play simon-says, or come up close to our cameras and do “baby boo-boo.” (Don’t know baby boo-boo? Stop and ask me sometime. It’s great for warming up your smile muscles :-))

I wish everyone a summer of sun and fun and lots of good books and stories. Be wise and wear your sunscreen and stay hydrated and eat lots of ice cream and play outside and turn off the screens. And one more thing, a dear friend of mine always says, “Tell three people you love them.” He says it pretty much every time I see him, and those are some pretty wise words.

left to right, Clay, Meredith, Teresa, Brett (wise guy), Rich and Tracy

Here’s our books about being wise:

Harry by the Sea by Gene Zion, illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham

Harry is famous for Harry and the Dirty Dog, but this book is pretty great, too. This time, Harry runs off looking for a way to cool down, but when he comes out of the sea covered in seaweed, everyone thinks he looks like a sea monster and Harry can’t find his family because everyone’s striped beach umbrella looks the same. He finally thinks he hears someone calling his name and goes running towards the voice, but the man is calling, “Hurry, hurry, hurry, not Harry!” It’s the hot dog man, but all ends well when the family hears Harry barking, they’re reunited, and they return to the beach next time with a uniquely spotted umbrella so Harry will have no trouble finding his way back to them. How wise!

Clever Tom and the Leprechaun by Linda Shute

Clever Tom finds himself a leprechaun and is set on getting the little guy’s fortune. He snatches him up and they traipse through a ditch and over a peat bog and finally into a great field of flowering weeds that all look alike. The leprechaun points out the exact weed where Tom should dig, but first he’ll have to go get his shovel. Tom decides to tie his red garter around the plant to mark the spot, and makes the leprechaun promise not to remove it, which he does. Tom releases his captive, but while Tom is gone the leprechaun ties red garters to all the other weeds so when Tom gets back, he has no idea which weed is the right weed. You should have heard the kids groan! The best part of this book was asking the kids how they could have been wise and marked the treasure. They came up with all sorts of good ideas, including bringing a shovel in the first place!

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems

This books was a crowd favorite, and even the kids who had read it before delighted in hearing it again. The bus driver breaks the fourth wall on the title page, in fact his words of warning are the title when he warns us, “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!” Then he leaves and for the whole book, the little blue wide-eyed pigeon tries to convince us to let him drive the bus. He begs, he lies, he tries to be cute, then he begs some more and finally throws a major hissy fit, but we readers stand firm. We DO NOT let the pigeon drive the bus, do we? Why? Because we are wise! And then the bus driver comes back and thanks us, he drives off and the pigeon is dejected . . . until he gets a new dream. Maybe he’ll drive a truck! Pretty much anything Mo Willems does will be a story time home run.

Pigsty by Mark Teague

I love the big, bright pictures in this book and the short text makes it a good one for younger kids. In this story, Wendell’s mom tells him his room is so messy it’s turning into a pigsty and when he goes to his room, he actually finds a pig in his bed. Wendell says, “It’s not so bad,” his mom says, “Fine,” so the room gets messier and more pigs move in. It’s fun at first, but pretty soon the pigs start “hogging” the pillows (tee hee) and when they get hoof prints on his comic books and chew on his baseball cards he’s had enough. Wendell enlists the pigs to help clean up (that’s wise) and the pigs decide it’s too clean, they’d rather go back to the farm. Best happily ever after: “From that day on, Wendell kept his room clean . . . ” ha! You’re welcome parents 🙂

The Boy Who Cried Wolf Retold by B. G. Hennessy, illustrated by Boris Kulikov

When I showed this book to the kids, they all said they’d heard the story, which I don’t think I need to repeat here. But none of the kids had seen this illustrated version, which I think is cleverly done. The sheep have great personalities, they’re happy to stare at flowers and butterflies while the boy is bored. When he goes off yelling about a wolf, they stare after him with eyes wide and mouths agape. And in the end when a wolf appears, they take care of themselves, hiding up in a tree while the hapless boy scratches his furrowed brow, alone and confused. It’s obvious who ISN’T wise in this story, but it’s fun to see how the illustrator adds some subtext with the wise little flock of sheep.

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Storytime: Feelings

It is so easy to find picture books that go along with the theme of FEELINGS (scroll down to find reviews for this week’s picks). Maybe because it’s something we deal with every day as humans and so it resonates with authors and illustrators. Kids have a hard time hiding their feelings, like when they get that gift they’ve been hoping for and they’re full of joy. I love this picture of Rebeka when we got her a ridiculously huge Curious George for Christmas.

Rebeka Uwitonze, Christmas 2012

This pic is an all time family favorite. Guess who got to push the down button in the elevator, and who didn’t?

McKenzie and Alayna Davis, cousins, (McKenzie pushed the button)

But all joking aside, sometimes the feelings are not easy or fun to deal with. A good picture book can help if the feelings you’re dealing with are negative, and honestly the book doesn’t even have to be about feelings! Just the act of sitting down together, opening a book and turning your eyes to something different for a while can help diffuse the sad/mad/bad stuff. And if the feelings are great? Well, picture books can capture that pretty fantastically, too! Just look how my friend, Anne, does it here . . .

Rad! by Anne Bustard, illustrated by Daniel Wiseman

There is a lot to love in this book with spare text and bright pictures that works great for the little two year old’s in your crowd and the older kids, too. Five cool cats with rhyming names: Esther, Chester, Hester, Sylvester and Lester go skateboarding, but Lester is more timid than the others. They encourage him to practice and try but he’s afraid and worried, but finally he says, “Maybe,” then gives it a go . . . but wipes out. There’s great repetition with those fun-to-say rhyming names as Esther, Chester, Hester and Sylvester encourage Lester to give it one more try, which he does, and “Rad!” it turns out he’s got some cool moves on that skateboard. Elation! Full of confidence, he has his eye on surfboards for tomorrow, and this time his friends are worried! The last double page spread is super cute (check out the worried crab on the surfboard :-)).

Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems

This title, this cover, it is full of Mo Willems brilliance from end paper to end paper and ALL the feelings. Little Trixie is full of excitement as she sets off to the laundromat with her dad and her beloved Knuffle Bunny. (I love the illustrations, hand drawn ink sketches laid on top of digital photography.) She has a blast playing around with the laundry (pants on head, waving around mom’s bra, while dad smiles and reached into basket to shove dirty clothes into machine, not paying attention, oh no, he’s reaching for Knuffle Bunny . . .). On the way home Trixie realizes she’s missing something and we see distress, she tries to tell her dad but she only speaks baby talk so we see major panic and frustration and anger and then they get home and mom knows immediately what’s going on so they race back to the laundromat and Trixie watches, worried as her parents search the machines. Just when Dad says Knuffle Bunny is gone for good he checks one more time and JOY, he finds the bunny! I really don’t know if there is a better display of the full range of emotions in a picture book, or a cuter name for a stuffed animal than Knuffle Bunny.

It Could Have Been Worse by A.H. Benjamin, illustrated by Tim Warnes

This book is about a grumbling mouse, and it encourages kids (and their parents :-)) to wonder about the things going on that we don’t see but should be thankful for. I’m thankful for any book that can stop my grumbling! What looks like disaster for mouse is actually salvation, and what looks like an inconvenience is a gift. He’s on his way home from visiting a cousin when he loses his balance and falls through some sticker bushes. The mouse is grouchy and says, “Ouch, this isn’t my lucky day!” What he doesn’t realize, but the reader sees in the illustrations, is that the sticker bush stops a cat that’s been chasing him. He falls in a hole and grumbles, not realizing it saves him from a hawk. It’s fun to always be in on something the little mouse isn’t, kind of like a secret between the illustrator and the reader, and at the end there’s a repeated refrain you can take with you and use again. “It could have been much worse!”

A Little Old Man by Natalie Norton, illustrated by Will Huntington

This book is really old but hopefully you can get your hand on it at a library or second-hand store. It’s such a sweet, simple world to step into. It’s about, you guessed it, a little old man 🙂 He lives “in a little house on a little island in the middle of a great big ocean.” What a great set up. All seems well, he has all he needs with food and work and a garden but he has nobody to share it all with. He’d like a cat, he even dreams of a cat. And then one day a storm comes and washes his house into the ocean, but a boat comes and lands on his island so it’s okay, he can live there instead, and on the boat is a cat and better yet, the cat has kittens! And here’s the best part, the last line is, “And the little old man was never sad or lonely again.” Ahhh. I do love me a happy ending, especially with a kitten or two curled up in it.

See the Cat: Three Stories About a Dog by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka

This book cracks me up, and what’s cool about it is that it works as an easy reader and a great read aloud for storytime. The first of three short stories is the best for our feelings theme. It’s a conversation between the book and a dog. The book says, “See the cat,” and then the dog answers, in a speech bubble, “I am not a cat. I am a dog.” The book answers, “See the blue cat,” and this time the dog emphatically says, “I am NOT blue and I am NOT a cat.” The conversation, and emotions, escalate until the dog is insisting he is not a blue cat in a green dress riding a pink unicorn and then he looks behind him and sees . . . a blue cat in a green dress riding a pink unicorn (the book wasn’t talking about him!). Then we get to see what an embarrassed dog looks like 🙂 The second and third stories are equally silly and funny and clever and meta.


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Storytime: Mothers

This week, our story time books all have mothers in them, frustrated moms and brave moms, comforting and visionary moms, and one mom who smells like roses and is waiting on the doorstep with a kiss for her little boy. To go straight to the summaries of the books, scroll down. I’m going to pause just a minute and share a few pics. In this first one, my mom, my sister (who wasn’t a mom yet), and my husband’s mom were all waiting outside the hospital door while on the other side I was becoming a mom for the very first time.

It perfectly captures that sense of excitement and anxiousness and I-can’t-wait-hurry-up-and-have-that-baby feeling we all had! There’s a guy at the dog park where we take Humphrey whose wife is about to have a baby, and people keep giving him a hard time telling him he’s about to lose all his free time and he’s going to get no sleep and dirty diapers are disgusting and I tell him that’s all true but it doesn’t matter. Because he’s going to have these heart-in-his-throat moments that trump it all. Like this one, when I had all three of my chicks all gathered up plus Clay on one shoulder and yellow duck on the other and Alayna full of kisses and hugs and Nate full of crooked smiles and stories and new Benji with wide staring eyes and possibilities and life was full.

And then I blinked and they grew up and were beautiful and Alayna is adventurous and ready to embark on a life of possibilities and Nate is still full of stories and smiles and Benji’s baby staring eyes are now in an 18-year-old’s body and are taking in life all around him and I love to sit across the table and hear about what he’s seeing and thinking about it all.

I love being a mom. I love my mom, and Clay’s mom, and all the mom’s in my life. Happy Mother’s Day and I hope you can harness some kids and read them some books this week! Here are our books this week:

Scarlette Beane by Karen Wallace, illustrated by Jon Berkeley

This is a good one for young kids. There isn’t much text and the pictures are nice and big and bright. I love the blessing the mom speaks over her daughter on the first page of this book, “‘We shall call her Scarlette,’ declared Mrs. Beane. ‘She will grow tall and strong and do something wonderful.'” The family lives in a house as small as a garden shed so they work outside as much as possible, gardening while their sweet baby, Scarlette, sleeps in her stroller nearby, the ends of her magical fingers glowing green. When her dad gives Scarlette her very own garden on her fifth birthday, wonderful things happen. She grows veggies so enormous it takes a forklift to harvest the onions and chainsaws to cut the parsley. They feed everyone in the village soup, and Scarlette grows a most wonderful, magical new home for her family under the light of a full moon. A castle of vegetables!

Scaredy Cat by Joan Rankin

This picture book is just the right amount of “scary” for little guys, suspense that’s resolved on the very next page with Mama Meow, the kitten’s mother, reassuring her/him (it can be either since it’s told from the kitten’s point of view and drawn neutral, I’ll go with a girl) that whatever she’s frightened of is not so scary. The “giant” is just Auntie B and the “crocodiles” are just Auntie B’s shoes. Excitement builds when the kittens sees an “eensie-weensie spider”  that turns out to be “Scratchpooch’s” nose and whiskers which the kitten takes care of all on her own. With a BONK! and a KAPOW! from kitten, Mama Meow declares her Tiger Cat. Another good one for littles with minimal text and such a sweetness.

Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild! By Mem Fox, illustrated by Marla Frazee

I’m a huge fan of both the author and the illustrator and this book is precious to me because it’s signed by the illustrator. I have to include a picture because I love when illustrators draw a picture when they sign a book (and I’m a little jealous they can do that. I can barely sign my name when someone hands me a copy of Her Own Two Feet to sign, I’m so nervous I’ll mess up and either misspell their name, or my own, ha!)

But I digress. I love that this book keeps it real. It’s about a child named Harriet who doesn’t mean to be pesky, she just is, and a mother who doesn’t like to yell, and tries her very best to keep her cool, until she just can’t. Harriet spills her juice and some jam, pulls the tablecloth (and everything else) off the table, and rips open a pillow (with the help of the dog) . . . and then there is a terrible silence (and an awesome illustration where feathers hang suspended in the bedroom behind Harriet’s mom, where she sits at a kitchen table, her eyes wide, her pen hanging suspended above a letter). Then Mom yells and yells and Harriet says, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” in a flurry of wildness like feathers flying from pillows and then comes the hugs and the forgiveness and the settling and they laugh as they clean up their mess together. Keeping it real. I love it. Perfect for littles, minimal text, lots of feelings and love.

Dreamers by Yuyi Morales

This book is absolutely beautiful, both the illustrations and the message. While the text is spare, it’s a book for all ages including adults, with so much to talk about and look at. It’s the story of a mother with a small child who travels across a bridge and becomes an immigrant in a foreign land where she doesn’t speak the language. She and her child make mistakes as they try to understand and find their way to a library where they learn to read and find their voice. There is a lot going on in the illustrations and plenty to talk about that isn’t being said explicitly. There are Spanish and English words, and lyrical language, for example, “One day we bundled gifts in our backpack and crossed a bridge outstretched like the universe,” and in the illustration the words “Adios Corazon” (goodbye, beloved) are stitched. I love this sweet mother and her determination to give her child a better life, leaving behind her beloved homeland. At first she is suspicious of a place like a library, where books are free to borrow, she finds it improbable, then “unbelievable, surprising, unimaginable . . .” What a gift, to be reminded that books and stories are . . . a gift!

A Gift for Mama by Linda Ravin Lodding, illustrated by Alison Jay

This book is set in Vienna, where a boy named Oskar wants to buy his mama the perfect gift for her birthday. He starts off buying her a beautiful yellow rose for a single coin, but on the next page an artist wants the rose and so he trades it for a paintbrush, and ends up trading that to a conductor for some sheet music, and so it goes, until he comes to a girl with a beautiful yellow rose pinned to her dress with no gift for her mama. He gives her the candies he got from the empress and is empty-handed as he goes home to his mama that evening, until the girl runs up and gives him the rose from her dress. Oskar’s mama kisses him and tells him his gift is, “Perfect.” Perfect. 🙂


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