Goodbye

"Your mother can't be with you anymore..."

This will be my final post in a place that has meant a lot to me as a mother, a writer, and a reader, so please forgive my wordiness. Now is my last hurrah, and then it’s time for me to move on to other wordy things. 

I haven’t written here in a very long time. Though there has always been plenty to say, there hasn’t always been the time to say it. In the spring, I was a juror for a literary award, and had to make my way through boxes of books. Nellie was curious about this process, and frequently checked my stack of top picks to see how my choices had shifted. Even though she is someone who doesn’t like to pick favourites, she gave good advice. When she saw that a certain book had hovered near the top of the pile for a solid couple of weeks, she asked, “Will that one win?” And I sighed and said that the book really was exceptional, but that the person had won so many awards already. She said (not having read the jurors’ guidelines!) “You can’t go by that, Mom. You just have to pick the best story.”

ImageBy Mother’s Day I was still wading through the boxes, and as one of my gifts Nellie made me a tiny modeling clay replica of another book that had stayed near the top of the pile. It seemed a symbolic kind of gift — one that showed she knew what books meant to me. I thought they must mean a lot to her, too, in order to recognize that.

Weeks later Nellie and I talked it over, and agreed the author might like the little replica, so we mailed it off to her, and it was warmly received. I love that Nellie is aware not just of books but of the people who write them — partly, I’m sure, because her mom is an author. (A friend of mine is a midwife, and her daughter recently asked if Labour Day was a day for delivering babies.)

All summer, Nellie has been reading The Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley, in which Daphne and Sabrina discover that their ancestors’ famous fairy-tale book was really a history book, and the characters in it (a magical race called the Everafters) are still alive and causing all kinds of trouble. When we visited a friend’s cottage in July, Nellie brought the first in the series for her book-loving friend Frannie to read, and over the course of our stay, the girls read, and jumped on the trampoline, and read, and swam, and read, and cooked pancakes, and read, and read, and read.

couch read

jump

trampoline read

There was a time not so long ago when I fretted Nellie wouldn’t read on her own because I had read so much to her, but those worries were misguided. I think her love of stories is so deeply entrenched that it’s part of her now. Though I will still be vigilant. I can see how easy it is nowadays to be drawn away from the written word and seduced by constantly evolving, eye-popping, mind-boggling technology. Nellie got an IPod this summer — to the great reluctance of her very low-tech parents — and I worried she would quickly become one of those many sad zombies we see with gaze glued to minuscule screen, missing the world around. But again my worries were unfounded. Nellie read more this summer than she ever has — and she cartwheeled, and she did underwater somersaults, and she picked wild blueberries, and she spotted skunks and woodpeckers and foxes and blue jays and rabbits and even a deer.

What would Laura Ingalls Wilder make of all that, topped off by Pottermore and Itunes?

little house on the prairieWhile Nellie’s been reading on her own, we’ve also continued reading together. We’re a few books into the Little House series, books I loved as a child, but which are sometimes shocking to me now, in the way that so-called Indians are described as “wild men,” their faces “bold and fierce and terrible.” Ma, in particular, is blatantly racist. These passages are difficult to navigate, but I try to do so with a minimum of editing and a lot of discussion. Why is Ma so fearful of the Indians? How can she be a good person and say such cruel things? How do you think the Indians feel about the Ingalls family? How would you feel if strangers came into your neighbourhood and took over the place as theirs? (Jeremy Adam Smith’s article “How to Really Read Racist Books to Your Kids” at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Centre offers some interesting insight here. He writes, “We have to ask our children to adopt fairness to all people as a goal, and to call out unfairness when we encounter it in one of their books, movies… or inside ourselves. Research says the more explicit we are with children about that struggle, the better.”)

Of course there are simpler questions that arise in our readings too — what’s a trundle bed? What’s calico? How do horses know how to swim? The Little House books are about a way of life so different from ours that even mealtime and springtime and bedtime make for scintillating reading. This summer we’ve lived in the Big Woods with the Ingalls family, and smoked deer meat in a hollow-log smokehouse. We’ve churned butter with them, and added bright carroty milk to colour the butter yellow. We’ve traveled across the prairie with them in a covered wagon, cried when the dog Jack was lost crossing a river; cried again when he returned, worn out and starving; and we’ve dug a well, and nearly lost a man down inside it, and built a log house from scratch, then laid in bed and listened to the wolves howling all around.

That’s the wonder of good books: they take you places you couldn’t otherwise go. You’re propped up on pillows with your cool sheet pulled over you, but all the while you’re traveling, and your world is expanding, and your mind is filling with answers to questions and new questions that spin out from those answers. Like when Laura lies awake at the end of the first book, trying to find her place in the expanse. She listens to the wind moving through the big woods, and to the sound of Pa’s fiddle, and to his voice singing about auld lang syne — “the days of a long time ago,” Pa told her. And as she drifted off to sleep, she thought, “‘This is now.’ She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”

And “now” seems the right time to close this final post on a blog I began when Nellie first started to recognize clumps of letters as words. These days when I pull her door closed at night, I leave the light on, and a book is propped open before her. As Betty Smith wrote of Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, “From that time on, the world was hers for the reading.”

Thank you for reading along with Nellie and me.

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Back soon!

bird earth

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August 20, 2013 · 12:34 pm

Your most important book: guest post from Sara Angelucci

My friend (and the wonderful artist) Sara Angelucci has a question for you lovers of children’s books. Please read about her newest project below and get in touch with your memories of “a book you always carry with you.” I’d love to hear your comments here as well!

anne frankHello,

I am looking for children’s books suggestions (from YOUR CHILDHOOD) for an upcoming project I am preparing for the Koffler Gallery in the fall of 2013 entitled We’re in the Library. As one of the participating artists I have been asked to create a work in response to the idea of the school library.

For my project, I’m interested in knowing which books from childhood (approximately age 6-14) have been IMPORTANT ones and had a long-lasting impact into your adult life. In essence, a book you always carry with you deep inside.

Perhaps by way of example, I will share my story. When I was 14 I entered the school library and the librarian said, “oh my goodness Sara, you look so much like Anne Frank.” As a Catholic girl raised in a small town, I was unfamiliar with Anne Frank’s story. And my response was “who is Anne Frank?” She immediately took Anne Frank’s Diary off the shelf and said, “you should read this.” So I did, and of course, the impact was profound. Not only did I look like Anne Frank, I was her age when she started writing the diary. And, I shared many of Anne’s feelings as a young burgeoning adolescent woman. Of course, her life circumstances were beyond my comprehension, and to discover Anne’s ultimate end was devastating. Her story changed me. Perhaps it was the real shift from childhood to adulthood. 

If you should care to, I would love to hear about your most important book. I will not be able to use all of the books suggested to me, I’m searching for a short-list of ten. But if you would like to share your story, please write to me at:

sara@sara-angelucci.ca by MAY 27, 2013.

Many thanks

Sara Angelucci

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Project Bookmark: something you should know about

I’m a guest on Project Bookmark‘s blog today, one of many writers participating in a month-long campaign to support a registered charitable organization that puts poems and stories in the exact location where they were set. Read all about it below.

coffeeThink of the scene from Michael Ondaatje’s In The Skin of A Lion when a nun falls from the Bloor Street Viaduct; or of Vancouver’s Chinatown circa 1940 in The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy. This country is full of such places: real ones that appear in our stories too. Three of my own novels are set in Deep River, Ontario, the town where I grew up – at magical Rabbit Rock, thick with moss and pine needles, along the TransCanada Highway with its roaring transport trucks, or even down inside the cold dark river. I know I’ve got something right when people who know these places say they have recognized them in my stories.

To celebrate the way place inspires literature, actual “Bookmarks” have begun popping up across Canada. There are 12 so far – poster-size ceramic plaques that bring stories and poems right into the landscape where they were set.

I’ve signed on as a Project Bookmark Page Turner because I want to see more, and more, and more of them.

These markers remind me of the spots we stopped at when we were kids: getting out of the car on a road trip and stretching our legs while reading about some historic battle or church or settlement. Looking at the spot we were in and trying to imagine the thing happening there long ago. I love that Project Bookmark gives the same weight to invented stories pressed into actual places.

So I’m here not only to tell you that I’m a Page Turner, but to ask you to be one too. It’s pretty simple. You donate $20 to Project Bookmark, just as I have. If you donate today, you have the chance to win a copy of my novel, And Me Among Them.

But the best part is this: you’ll be one on a growing list of writers and readers who are building a kind of literary TransCanada Highway: “a network of sites and stories, so that we can read our way across the country.”

Join us.

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Alphacity: guest post by artist Eric Cator

On Twitter, my friend Eric Cator describes himself as “Artist, filmmaker and guy who spends more time drawing than can possibly be healthy.” I’ve been following his posts for some time, and recently noticed a series of alphabet drawings he was making for his baby daughter. In fact, he was building her a city made of letters. I was so touched by these pieces, which popped up randomly rather than in alphabetical order, that I asked him to write for Blog of Green Gables and tell us a little about what prompted him to make Alphacity. Turns out it has something to do with a love for stories, and the imaginary worlds you find there.

I’d love to hear your comments on what Eric’s written below. Did having a child inspire you to make something?

alphacityA great deal of my childhood was spent looking for another world to live in.  Specifically, I wanted to live in the ‘adult’ world (the one that parents lived in when they weren’t around their kids).  I didn’t feel like I fit in with the kid world, and anyways, I was pretty sure the adults were keeping all the really good things for themselves, and I wanted in. 

Yes indeed, it was going to be nothing but late-night pancake feasts and afternoons spent speeding around in race cars for me!  In order to learn more about the secret adult world I began lingering around adults, hoping to pick up clues from their conversations, but it soon became clear that they knew I was listening, and therefore insisted on only talking of dull and pointless things when I was around, to throw me off.  

huck finn

EW Kemble’s version of Huckleberry Finn, 1884

Now, I’m pretty sure my parents tried to warn me that the truth about adult life was that it was mostly filled with mundane activities like going to work and paying bills; things that couldn’t possibly measure up to my fantastical theories or even fictional novels.  I of course dismissed this as another clever ruse designed to dissuade me from digging any further into their secrets.

After some time however, I realized that I wasn’t reading books just to look for clues anymore, and instead I was just enjoying being with the characters and spending time in the worlds the authors had created. The truth was that I had fallen so in love with fictional worlds that I had stopped looking for hidden secrets about the adult world; it seemed more and more likely that my parents were telling the truth, and the real world would never compare to the endless imaginary lands that existed in books and comics.  Only then did I realize that these works of fiction were open doors into the minds of their writers, who likely created these worlds because they felt they didn’t ‘fit in’ with the normal world either.  It also seemed very likely that the parts of them that didn’t fit were the same parts that allowed them to create their own worlds, and by sharing these worlds they had found a way to connect to other people after all, which is what I was really after all along. 

sNow that I’m a parent, I find myself wanting to share my love of imaginary worlds with my kids.  Luckily my wife is also a writer and lover of stories, and we make a point of reading to our children daily.  I also try to put my own imagination on display around them whenever possible, with the side benefit that it often encourages them to put their imagination on display for me; at three my son is a frequent teller of make-believe stories, usually involving dinosaurs and firefighters.  My daughter is only a couple of months old, so she hasn’t begun making up her own endings to bedtime stories just yet, but I have been working on an alphabet poster that I will hang on the wall beside her crib; in this poster each letter is an entire building, and together the alphabet forms an entire city.

Hopefully, in the near future she will imagine herself in this city, perhaps living in a two-dbedroom condo on the sixth floor of the letter S, or spending her days watching the world from a balcony in the letter D.  I also hope that this ‘Alphacity’ will spark her interest in other imaginary places, and in the written language that can bring her to them.  And who knows, as she gets even older maybe she will even find some comfort here in this fictional land, on those inevitable days when she feels like she isn’t fitting in with the regular world around her.

_Eric_and_PaigeEric Cator has always loved stories, but usually tells them through pictures.  He is a Toronto-based visual artist with works in the Colart Collection, City of Toronto collection, as well as private collections throughout Canada and around the world.  He is currently working on too many things at once, but enjoying the heck out of it.

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things only a child can show you, kabuzz they see the world differently, and you see it in the regliar way

tulips

“I hope that whenever you look at this picture you will feel that you are in Holland with the tulips. NW”

From a personal perspective, one of the best offshoots of having a blog like this one is that it serves as a scrapbook of sorts, or a journal, and looking back on old posts helps me remember not just the stories we’ve read together but what was happening in our lives when we read them; what N was learning at the time, and what I was learning as her mother.

She asks questions about her homework, and I answer with poems about verbs and parallel lines and fractions. She asks questions about people with mental problems and people who live on the street and people who commit crimes — Why would anyone kill a kid? She asks questions about the news — Will war come to Toronto? and Who’s worse, Stephen Harper or Rob Ford? — and about why I say “Tuck-toyaktuk” when I tuck her in at night. “Where is Tuktoyaktuk anyway, Mom?” Sometimes she offers her own answers to the weightiest questions of all: “It isn’t sad or scary when you die, Mom. People always want to die right when they’re going to.”

I’ve often thought that being a parent gives you a chance to go over what you yourself learned the first time, and really understand it in a deeper way.  Plus you pick up more — things you missed altogether — not just about decimal points and adjectives and the Great Lakes and the greatest stories, but things only a child can show you, kabuzz they see the world differently, and you see it in the regliar way. Once N wrote me a note that said “To Momma, so she can know my knolege,” but all the while she has been teaching me too.

The world N has shown me is of superior koality, where the “fairys are verry buissy but they allways remember there tasks and allways get back to them.” The capital of this world is Yoo Nork City, and it is peopled (and aminaled) with people (and aminals) named Buzzzbee and Yoma and Mrs Thumble and Mrs Shabour, also known as Mrs Neighbour. There are pixies in this world, and they are tricksters, “so be careful if you see a tiny creacher that has no wings.” Everyone here is “odd in noticed ways,” as if “something’s buzzing inside us.” And no wonder: sometimes the fairies here do magic in front of your eyes. If you believe, you can see it; if you don’t believe, you can’t see (and you probably won’t buzz either).

In this world there are places to dine called Splashafishchip and Kleenexfishymombofood, and they serve all kinds of delicious dishes but no dry wine, only wet. You can get soothment from eating in such places, and later you can get more soothment when you lie down to sleep, because “in the light light room, there is music.” This must be the room where you can get to Narnia through the floor tile, or to Neverland through the window, even though it is painted shut. There are endless places to go from here.

The bookshelves sag with all they have to offer — worlds inside worlds, in which no one reigns supreme even though there is a little prince and a littlest princess and a girl who can lift a horse over her head. The dresser drawers spill over with clothes that are so quickly outgrown they sometimes barely get to be worn. But no matter. There are large gold dressup shoes and vampire capes and witch hats and strings of one-size-fits-all beads in every colour, and there are loose beads, too, that sometimes escape from their tins and roll around the floor until they slip through a crack to another world.

This room is full of paper butterflies and sequined fish and stuffed aminals with mournful eyes and Zhu Zhu pets that squeak “Let’s go!” when you step on them accidentally. And who would not want to go?

And yet in all my travels, this is among the loveliest places I have ever been.

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If picture books are caterpillars …

bye bye butterfliesN is still insisting on reading the juicy novels on her own, so we’ve been making our way through a wonderful new batch of picture books lately. She loves to draw, as some of you may have noticed, so she takes particular interest in how a book is illustrated, and whether or not the author made the images. She still loves a good story, but she’s also curious about the mechanics of the words and pictures coming together, and how the pictures show us unwritten parts of the story.

We were both intrigued by the pictures in Andrew Larsen’s Bye Bye Butterflies, illustrated by Jacqueline Hudon-Verrelli. The colourful people with their overlarge heads and simple curve smiles are charming, as are the wonky brick buildings and crooked window frames in the background. What I love most is seeing the artist’s hand here — the uneven pencil-crayon strokes and the bits of newsprint that give the pictures a collage-like feel. When I see this kind of work that shows hints of its process, it reminds me of sitting up close at a ballet, and hearing the dancers’ shoes squeak across the floor with each powerful move. It’s as if I’ve been invited in.

We both enjoyed the story too, which tells of a little preschool boy named Charlie, out walking with his dad when he sees a stream of waving hands on the school rooftop. “Bye bye, butterflies!” the children holler, and a cloud of butterflies emerges above them — butterflies of all sizes and colours, lifting off into the sky. Charlie says to his father, “Maybe I could do something like that one day.”

The story jumps ahead a few months, and Charlie is in kindergarten, “doing somersaults in gym and learning to sit still during storytime.” He’s forgotten all about that butterfly moment, until one day in spring a package arrives that says “LIVE CONTENTS, OPEN IMMEDIATELY.”

“Inside the package were tiny jars. Inside the jars was some special goop. And inside the goop were teeny tiny caterpillars.”

And so begins Charlie’s experience of watching the caterpillars transform, seeing them eat the goop, grow big and fuzzy, then dangle upside down and wrap themselves inside their cocoons.

“I wish we could keep the butterflies forever,” one of Charlie’s classmates laments. “I know,” he says, remembering the hands on the rooftop. “But just wait and see!”

The children finally release the butterflies, just as Charlie had witnessed the year before. Larsen provides a beautiful circular ending by placing another little preschooler on the sidewalk below, out walking with his dad and looking up at the waving hands and the liberated butterflies.

It’s a lovely story about metamorphosis, about waiting and observing, about beginnings and endings, and then endings and new beginnings. About feeling “a little happy and a little sad all at once.” And in that way it resonates with both parent and child.

holes

I feel a little like this myself these days, as N grows in all ways, slipping her feet into my rubber boots, which are almost her size. I’ve mentioned before the moment we stood in front of her bookshelf and she said “It’s just that I like to read those kinds of books by myself now,” and how it was heartening and heart-wrenching all at once. So maybe reading is another form of metamorphosis.

N is in Grade 4 now, and they have weekly “lit circles,” where a group of kids who are reading the same novel get together and discuss various aspects of the story. Each week, a child plays a different role in the circle: one person tracks the action in the story and where the scenes  change; another makes connections between the story and his own life, or the story and other books he’s read; another quotes key passages or looks up difficult words; and another makes visual interpretations of a favourite scene or character.

How I would love to be a fly on the wall hearing her pontificate about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or Louis Sachar’s Holes, which she’s reading now. But I can’t be everywhere in her life anymore, nor should I be. Still, I like to think she’s well-prepared for this because of all our years curled up together, reading one story after another.

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