I love you all! Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Ramona Quimby, Age 8
I firmly believe in reading to your children.
I also firmly believe in teaching your children to love reading to themselves.
My sweet mother, thankfully, believed in the same thing, so I grew up believing that bedrooms were decorated with bookshelves and that library visits were weekend adventures. Books were birthday presents and stories were treasures that could be found in every used bookstore, thrift store, and library sale in town.
She was also the one who told me I should be a writer.
I laughed at her.
Now I have one published book, five more written, and I just got commissioned to write someone’s biography.
Yeah—I haven’t lived that one down yet.
Never laugh at your mom, kids. She’ll turn out to be right every time. Mom knows.
Mom always knows.
One of the books that my mother bought me when I was a budding reader was Ramona Quimby, Age 8. I don’t remember just how old I was when I picked this book up, (probably between eight and ten) but this book spoke to my soul. Ramona was an eight year old, with an eight year old’s problems, and although I was never half as bold as she was, I could dream that I was. Too many children’s books, especially books for young girls, revolve around crushes and cliques, boy drama and Mean Girl fights. Beverly Cleary’s books are a breath of fresh air, stories of adventures that belong solely to the heart of a child. Drama in an eight year old’s world means an egg in her lunch that wasn’t quite boiled, a father going back to college, a boy who steals her eraser, a family who isn’t always-all-the-time perfect, and a car that doesn’t want to start. Her troubles are real and true to life, and as an eight year old, I understood her.
Now, as a twenty-something, I still understand—and relate—to her struggles and triumphs. Ramona’s world isn’t perfect. Her mother has to work to keep the family going, and she spends her afternoons at her neighbor Howie’s home, stuck with little Willa Jean and Howie’s grandmother, neither of whom like Ramona much. Unlike so many children’s books, Ramona’s problems aren’t magically fixed in the last chapter. Money is still tight, her father is still tired, and life goes on. Her problems are everyday, ordinary types of problems, and she taught me that the only way to face them was to lift your chin, stick your nose in the air just the littlest bit, and keep going. Because sometimes, not everything does get fixed.
But life is still good anyway.
I will always be grateful to Ramona for the things she taught—and continues to teach—me. She was my constant companion, my friend, and my confidant when I was young, and I always return to her books when I need a reminder of who I am and what I love.
The thought that her mother did not think she was a nuisance comforted her.
I dye my hands before we go to the tombs. The crimson dye looks like blood in the candlelight, and the smell of the paint on my face makes me sick to my stomach. One day I’ll burn the black clothes that I wear and stop pretending to mourn for a man I cared nothing about, but for now appearance is everything. The world has to know its queen is weeping over her king.
The servants take me down to the tombs. The priests are already there, lighting candles and torches for my visit. I’m here to pray to the dead, after all. What better time to do that than under the full moon.
The youngest of the priests, Azel, bows his head when I enter, and I catch a fleeting glimpse of his sardonic smile. “Come to mourn, your highness?”
I smile back at him, and curtsy a little. Just enough for royalty to show respect for the gods. “I do.”
We both know I’m not here to mourn, or to pray to a corpse. The king is praised as a saint, a son of heaven in every corner of the city, but he was neither. They don’t remember his cruelty, his drunken parties, the bruises on his wife’s face. They remember his fine words. People praise the dead because they no longer have to bear their words and deeds.
I remember what he really was. So does Azel. But we’ll mourn a little longer. For appearances.
The River of Doubt
History is one of my favorite subjects. Any history. Ancient Greece, Egyptian pharaohs, Roman invasions, WWI and WWII, all of them interest me. However, I had a difficult time with history in school, and a good portion of what I learned, I forgot soon after.
I don’t like dates or maps or statistics. I can’t stand long, drawn out datelines and genealogies, geographical data and names of battles that are only ever summarized and never described.
I like stories.
To me, history is about the people. Not when they lived and how they died, but how they lived. What they saw, what they thought, how they dealt with the things happening around them. The Diary of Anne Frank, The Hiding Place, Schindler’s list, all of these books detail the lives of people living the events that no historical article or statistic will ever fully describe. Books like these ones are few and far between, and I collect them voraciously.
Another such book, one that isn’t fixated on dates and pumping information into your head for a test, is The River of Doubt.
I picked this book up in a thrift store a while back, thinking the title sounded good and the subject was—mildly interesting.
I was not disappointed.
The River of Doubt is the story of Theodore Roosevelt’s last—and perhaps his greatest—journey, and one that nearly resulted in his death. (Yes, I know, our 26th president was crazy. He probably almost died a lot. I admire him so much.)
After his defeat in the presidential election in 1912, Roosevelt went in search of another challenge, something that he could conquer this time. He chose the River of Doubt, a tributary of the Amazon river that had—until then—never been explored. Accompanied by some of the best guides in South America, as well as his own son, Roosevelt began a trip that would deeply impact the world, and shed a great deal of light on the murky interior of the Amazon. His journey changed the maps of that vast jungle, and the stories he brought back were so fantastic that people struggled to believe even he could have survived such an extraordinary trip.
Candice Millard’s book lays this journey out in vivid, sometimes disturbing, detail. This fascinating and brilliantly researched story is exactly the reason I love history so much, because it reveals that behind the names and dates, endless statistics and dry facts, there were people who lived and died, suffered and triumphed. Roosevelt was an amazing man, and his journey down the River of Doubt was a test that even he struggled with—and nearly didn’t overcome. The voyage was his last, and the effect it had on his health would eventually cause his death in 1919. His stubbornness carried him through a great deal of the trip, and without his solid courage and tenacity, his grave would no doubt rest on the banks of the River of Doubt.
The ordinary traveler, who never goes off the beaten route and who on this beaten route is carried by others, without himself doing anything or risking anything, does not need to show much more initiative and intelligence than an express package.
We leave the acorns cups on the porch before I go to bed. Oma says that the fairies will find them there and use them for little caps when they go sliding on the dewy grass. They’ll like that. We leave gifts on the porch for the fairies every night, and every morning they leave us a gift. Mostly just milk. Mother says the milkman leaves the milk, and that there is no such thing as fairies. She says Oma is a crazy old woman.
Oma says Mother works too hard, and she’s sad on the inside. Even when she smiles. But I already knew that. She cries at night.
She and Oma don’t get along very well. They like to fight. But Oma has to stay here with us, so that I have someone to watch me after school. Mother used to do it before Dad went away, but she doesn’t now. She has to work, and she doesn’t have time for acorn caps for fairies or swinging in the park, or making picnics for squirrels. Oma and I have to do those things all by ourselves. Oma likes it, but I wish Mother would come with us. I think she would like it.
Oma tucks me into bed at night too. We sit together on the bed, all curled up together, and wait until we hear Mother’s car pull into the driveway. Oma tells me stories about goblins and fairies, wood elves and nistlebricks. I like her stories.
She says Mother liked them too, when she was my age. But grownups don’t like to believe in fairies when they get older.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Some books are my favorite because they took me to amazing, wonderful places, they made me laugh, they helped me smile again, and they gave me friends when I was lonely.
Other books are my favorite because they made me cry.
And not cry like they do in the movies, where one solitary tear traces down the heroine’s cheek while she gazes dramatically into the distance at a gorgeous sunset while angels sing in the background and an orchestra plays heartbreaking music to emphasis that she is indeed very sad.
I mean like sitting on my bed with a mound of tissues, sobbing my heart out while my siblings give me weird looks and wonder if they should take me to the emergency room. Or a mental hospital. Or both.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is one of my all time favorite books for just that reason.
Apparently there was a movie made after this book. I never saw it, and doubt I ever will see it. This story was brutal and heartbreaking enough on the page, even when told in the naive, nearly clueless perspective of a little boy who didn’t understand who the ‘Fury’ was or why his father was making them move to ‘Out-With’.
Whether he understands it or not, Bruno, a nine year old German boy growing up amid the turmoil of WWII, is forced to follow along with his father’s—and the ‘Fury’s’—wishes. His entire family: father, mother, and sister, are all moved to ‘Out-With’, and his new life there begins.
At first, it seems like a very dull place. His only neighbors are strange people behind a high fence, people who wear stripped pajamas and go about with their heads shaved. His father is in charge of this strange camp, and most days Bruno doesn’t see him at all. His sister is going through her ‘difficult’ stages, as he sees it, and he is bored and lonely.
Until he happens across Schmuel, a boy his own age, who lives on the other side of the fence.
The odd pair become friends, despite the barriers between them, and Bruno starts to feel at home in ‘Out-With’. But ‘Out-With’ is not a place for a nine year old, and his peace doesn’t last long.
Thus, the horrors of the Nazi regime and of Auschwitz are hidden behind innocence. Through clever wording and brilliant insight, we see one of the worst atrocities in human history through the eyes of a nine year old boy, demonstrating powerfully that children have to be taught to hate. As much as I enjoyed reading this book, it was one of the most painful books I’ve ever read, and not one I have the stomach to open often. Still, I think it’s one that everyone should read at one point or another. As George Santayana states so eloquently, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
“Well, don’t be long,” said Gretel rudely—because unlike Bruno she never stopped to think about the fact that Maria was a person with feelings just like hers.
Under the Willows
The sun is already setting when I make it to the willows, but he isn’t waiting for me. He promised he would come this time, swore up and down that he’d be able to slip away, but I didn’t really think he would. His master is so much more strict than mine. I can get away after supper is served, when the elders are putting the youngest to sleep and the mothers are nursing their children and gossiping in the doors of the huts, but it’s harder for him. The drivers don’t leave the slaves on his plantation alone until the moon is high, and he’s been whipped four times for sneaking off early.
I feel the scars beneath his thin shirt every time he holds me.
I’ve told him three times that we should stop meeting. He’ll be sold for this eventually, or beaten to death for it, if his overseer has any say in it. I don’t think it’s worth the risk, but he always laughs and kisses my forehead and says I’m always worth the risk.
I hate it when he talks like that. I can’t help but come back for it.
The stream flows past the willows, thick with the flecked gold of their fallen leaves. I lean against a trunk and close my eyes, half-hoping if I wait a few more minutes he’ll come, half-hoping he’ll think better of it this time.
I don’t have to wait long.
“Told you I’d make it,” he whispers, ducking under the leaves and flashing me his cheeky smile. “Thought I was lying this time, didn’t you?”
I did. But I hoped he wasn’t.
House of Many Ways
Do you know what I love?
Books . . . about books.
More specifically, I love books about readers, because it isn’t hard for me to slip right into the pages and feel as though I am living the story myself. In addition, books about books almost always feature an amazing, incredible library. The sort of library every single one of us readers would like to own ourselves, complete with floor to ceiling shelving and old desks, dusty ink pots and lovely old manuscripts with crumbling pages.
Someday, I’ll have a library like that. And no one will ever see me again.
But until then, I’ll have to be content with the little library in my bedroom and enjoy reading about fantastic, overblown libraries instead of owning one. One of my favorite books featuring this sort of library is House of Many Ways.
House of Many Ways is the sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle, a book I reviewed a few months ago. This series is one of my all time favorites, simply because of the whimsical, fairytale-like way it’s written, and the wonderful characters that have stayed with me from the moment I first picked the book up.
But House of Many Ways holds a special place in my heart, because this story is about Charmain, and Charmain is a reader.
Unfortunately for Charmain, she has grown up in a home where her reading is encouraged and everything else is—handled for her. Her mother spoils her and her father keeps out of the way and lets her mother raise her the way she likes. So when Charmain is asked to take care of her Great-Uncle William’s home while he is away, she finds herself in the decidedly uncomfortable position of having to learn to manage a very magical home on her own. Even in a magical home dishes won’t wash themselves, laundry piles up, and the plumbing doesn’t always work properly.
And so, Charmain is forced to pull her nose out of her books and learn to manage all sorts of problems, including a terrified little dog, a wizard’s apprentice who never seems to manage a spell properly, and a host of rioting little kobolds who are supposed to take care of the housekeeping and chores, but instead delight in snipping all the pink blossoms off the hydrangea bushes and magicking the water taps right out of the kitchen sink.
Several libraries make an appearance in this book. Charmain’s mother conveniently forgets to pack her any books, but her Great-Uncle William’s study has a great many books on wizardry and other things. Later on, Charmain is also invited, through a little finagling of her own, to come and help organize things in the Royal Library, which, to her pleasure and her housemate Peter’s disgust, gets her out of the many chores that seem to keep piling up in the house.
But things in the Royal Library are mixed up and confused too, and Charmain finds herself—once quite literally—in hot water wherever she goes. Wizards and kindly witches pop up wherever she turns, and it isn’t long before her own attempts at magic yield some rather interesting results.
House of Many Ways holds to the wonderfully brilliant style of Howl’s Moving Castle. It is charming, simple, and all in all one of my favorite reads. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good fairytale or needs a book to make the world seem brighter. If you’ve read it, let me know! I would love to hear your thoughts.
She thought irritably that not one of the many books she had read had so much as mentioned washing dishes, let alone explained how you did it.
I take her down to the strawberry patch the moment the sun peaks out of the clouds. It’s still drizzling, just a little bit, but her mother will be here in a few minutes, and she’ll cry all the way home if she doesn’t get a few of ‘Grandma’s strawberries’.
It’s her favorite part of these visits. And my favorite too.
The big patch takes up half my garden now. The leaves have spread out, runners and new plants extending the borders until I barely have room for my flowers anymore. But I don’t mind. The strawberries have always been my favorite anyway.
She runs down the rows, her little feet already muddy to her ankles. She leaves footprints in the muck, but I don’t mind. I like to see them when I come out here in the evenings to water. It reminds me that this old garden still has a use.
It’s getting harder to plant everything now, especially since Harold passed. He used to do all of the digging and heavy work. Now I hire a neighbor boy to do it, and manage the rest myself. My daughter tells me I should let it grow over, she says it’s too much work for one person, especially a woman my age, but I won’t do it.
I need the strawberries.
Kindi crouches down, searching under the leaves for the bright red treasures she likes so much. Her feet are muddy and her fingers are already red and sticky with juice. I’ll have to clean her up a bit before her mother comes for her. But I don’t mind.
She offers me one, but I shake my head. I don’t like strawberries, really. Not at all. They’re only here for her. So that she’ll always remember Grandma’s strawberries.
Follow My Leader
When I was younger, I almost never read a book just once. I had more time, less work, and less selection. So, I read my favorite books over and over again, and I enjoyed them the tenth time as much as I did the first.
One of the books that I read, almost to the point of wearing the cover right off the book, was Follow My Leader.
Follow My Leader is the story of Jimmy, a teenage boy who was injured in an accident with a firecracker. The accident left him blind, and, to his way of thinking, helpless. For several months after the accident, he is reluctant to even try to learn to live with his frustrating new limits. Suddenly, everything he does is a battle, from eating to simply trying to walk across the room. Before the accident, he was a thriving student, a baseball player, and a popular kid on his block.
After it, he struggles to get out of bed.
That is, until he meets Leader, his German Shepherd guide dog.
As a child, this book opened my eyes to the struggles and frustrations of being blind, and to the amazing triumphs people without sight accomplish every day. The book’s author, James B. Garfield, also lost his sight as an adult. Jimmy’s experiences of adapting and overcoming his blindness mirror Garfield’s own, first in learning braille and in relearning how to feed and dress himself, then in bonding with his new guide dog. Leader gives Jimmy a new sense of freedom and independence, something he lost when the accident took his sight.
The challenges that Jimmy works through—and ultimately overcomes—have a deep effect on his character, even to the point of his eventual reconciliation with the boy who caused his accident. This book was an incredibly moving story about overcoming obstacles and finding hope in a hopeless situation. The way Jimmy adapts to his new life—and thrives in it—inspired me so much when I was younger, and it continues to be one of my favorites today.
“When I met you at the bus you asked me if I had your dog,” Mr Weeks reminded him. “Now you’ve got it.”