It might not have been called a book of poetry, but it was and is all about savoring words (and pictures).
My last word goes to Margaret Wise Brown from her book “Where Have You Been?”, illustrated by Barbara Cooney. This poem roosted inside me when I was about 5, and it has lived there ever since. I recite it to the crows in our neighborhood.
In the comment section I welcome any of your favorite poems or words from childhood. Thank you.
p.s. In my newsletter I mentioned the wonderful book Forgotten Words by Robert MacFarlane. It is actually called Lost Words.
Following the trend set by Julie Larios and Bonny Becker in their preceding posts on this blog, here is a favorite poem of mine from my younger years, by Ogden Nash. I even posted a copy of it on the wall of my dorm room (I have long had a thing for dinosaurs) along with my collection of dinosaur memorabilia, my freshman year at college. Keep in mind that this poem predates the Night At The Museum movies by several decades.
I thought that I would like to see
The early world that used to be,
That mastodonic mausoleum,
the Natural History Museum.
On iron seat in marble bower,
I slumbered through the closing hour.
At midnight in the vasty hall
The fossils gathered for a ball.
High above notices and bulletins
Loomed up the Mesozoic skeletons.
Aroused by who knows what elixirs,
They ground along like concrete mixers.
They bowed and scraped in reptile pleasure,
And then began to tread the measure.
There were no drums or saxophones,
But just the clatter of their bones,
A rolling, rattling, carefree circus
Of mammoth polkas and mazurkas.
Pterodactyls and brontosauruses
Sang ghostly prehistoric choruses.
Amid the megalosauric wassail
I caught the eye of one small fossil.
Cheer up, old man, he said, and winked —
It’s kind of fun to be extinct.
I still enjoy the work of Ogden Nash – his wonderful play with words. However, in rereading this poem now, it does take on a more ominous meaning than it used to!
Dad’s selections were all over the map from my mom’s favorite (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock) to Ogden Nash to Edgar Allan Poe. How could you not fall in love with words? How could you not want to be a writer and play with words, too?
T.S. Elliott was as high brow as things got. We got doses of other more adult-ish poems, like Dorothy Parker’s Resume:
Razors pain you; Rivers are damp; Acids stain you; And drugs cause cramp. Guns aren’t lawful; Nooses give; Gas smells awful; You might as well live.
But most of the poems were aimed at the kids sprawled around the living room. We loved things like Poe’s The Bells or Anabelle Lee and, of course The Raven.
It helped that we’d already heard The Purple Cow before we heard Nash’s The Abominable Snowman:
I never saw an abominable snowman I’m hoping not to see one, I’m also hoping if I do that it will be a wee one.
But as kids who were growing up in an earnest world (Dick and Jane, Howdy Doody, The Wonderful World of Disney) our absolute favorite was How to Treat Elves by Morris Bishop, which my father gleefully read in a nice treacly manner.
It was transgressive and meta in a way none of us had quite heard before. Of course, this kind of thing is everywhere now. But back in the day my father could count on a delighted audience every time he brought it out. Here it is:
“How To Treat Elves”
by Morris Bishop
I met an elf man in the woods, The wee-est little elf! Sitting under a mushroom tall– ‘Twas taller than himself!
“How do you do, little elf,” I said, “And what do you do all day?” “I dance ‘n fwolic about,” said he, “‘N scuttle about and play;”
“I s’prise the butterflies, ‘n when A katydid I see, ‘Katy didn’t’ I say, and he Says ‘Katy did!’ to me!
“I hide behind my mushroom stalk When Mister Mole comes froo, ‘N only jus’ to fwighten him I jump out’n say ‘Boo!’
“‘N then I swing on a cobweb swing Up in the air so high, ‘N the cwickets chirp to hear me sing ‘Upsy-daisy-die!’
“‘N then I play with the baby chicks, I call them, chick chick chick! ‘N what do you think of that?” said he. I said, “It makes me sick.
“It gives me sharp and shooting pains To listen to such drool.” I lifted up my foot, and squashed The God damn little fool.
In 2012 – yikes, seven years ago, already? – I wrote a blog post for the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ faculty blog, Write At Your Own Risk. I wrote that post the day after the 2012 elections, ruminating about how hopeful I was feeling, and trying to evaluate the lessons I’d learned about friends, family, community and politics. You might say the people in the country then (and the political pundits) had been fighting like cats and dogs. In that 2012 blog, I said, “As with many lessons we learn on the path to responsible behavior as neighbors and citizens, it comes in the form of a poem for children.” The poem I had in mind was Eugene Field’s wonderful “The Duel” (commonly called “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat.”)
I’ll offer that poem up to you now because it’s been on my mind again lately, Maybe it’s a poem that wiggles its way into my subconscious every year there’s a national election? Maybe it’s bubbling up again because my nephew and I had a conversation about our diverging political opinions that made me lose sleep.
Maybe the poem will bubble up into your minds over the next few months, too. Similarities between ourselves and our gingham-and-calico counterparts abound.
As a writer whose audience consists of children, I’m going to reread All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Learning to share, learning to be generous, learning to offer a helping hand to people less fortunate than ourselves, learning to take turns, learning not to be bullies. Lots of lessons to re-learn amidst the meows and the bow-wow-wows.
The gingham dog and the calico cat
Side by side on the table sat;
‘T was half-past twelve, and (what do you think!)
Nor one nor t’ other had slept a wink!
The old Dutch clock and the Chinese plate
Appeared to know as sure as fate
There was going to be a terrible spat.
(I wasn’t there; I simply state
What was told to me by the Chinese plate!)
The gingham dog went “Bow-wow-wow!”
And the calico cat replied “Mee-ow!”
The air was littered, an hour or so,
With bits of gingham and calico,
While the old Dutch clock in the chimney-place
Up with its hands before its face,
For it always dreaded a family row!
(Now mind: I ‘m only telling you
What the old Dutch clock declares is true!)
The Chinese plate looked very blue,
And wailed, “Oh, dear! what shall we do!”
But the gingham dog and the calico cat
Wallowed this way and tumbled that,
Employing every tooth and claw
In the awfullest way you ever saw—
And, oh! how the gingham and calico flew!
(Don’t fancy I exaggerate—
I got my news from the Chinese plate!)
Next morning, where the two had sat
They found no trace of dog or cat;
And some folks think unto this day
That burglars stole that pair away!
But the truth about the cat and pup
Is this: they ate each other up!
Now what do you really think of that!
(The old Dutch clock it told me so,
And that is how I came to know.)
It’s Poetry Friday, by the way. Click here to head over to Linda Baie’s blog, TeacherDance, to see what people are posting.
Sometimes you don’t know the meaning of a picture book project until you are well into the work. So it was for our new book, SQUEAK!
The text and thumbnails were done and sketches well underway on a beautiful morning in Spring 2016 when insight struck. It hit during our docent group’s tour of Dunn Gardens, led by then-head gardener Zsolt Lehoczky.
As we headed out onto the Great Lawn – which is an important feature of this 100-year old Olmsted-designed estate garden – Zsolt noted the lush grass was pocked with gopher mounds. He explained that the rich soil attracts lots of worms and the worms attract the gophers.
I was walking beside fellow-docent Elizabeth Conlin. Under her breath, she murmured, “We’re all in this together.”
And I realized that’s what SQUEAK! is about. It’s the story of how, in a cause-and-effect way, a little mouse’s squeak can wake up all the animals in the meadows and mountains. “We’re all in this together.” Elizabeth’s comment became the epigraph for the book.
SQUEAK! itself caused a further effect: I have come to know Elizabeth better. It turns out this cause and effect mechanism is key to her way of being in the world. She writes:
“I was tickled about the meaning of SQUEAK! when you told me about it. We were standing outside the classroom and I think the wisteria was in bloom. I’ve thought about it often. I love the possibility of kids experiencing your book and realizing that every sound and every movement they make can reverberate far beyond their imaginings. I love the idea of children being exposed to that concept.
“We are, essentially, vibration. The only true choices we have are in how to use and direct our energy/vibrations. I became a Kundalini yoga teacher when I discovered that I have the ability to positively effect the people I come into contact with — that I could learn to do it better and more consistently with just my vibratory frequency.”
When you put a book out into the world, you really don’t know what the effect will be, much as the mouse in SQUEAK! has no idea his tiny utterance will awake an entire ecosystem. Books themselves are both a cause, and the result of a lot of effect.
•• • • • • • •
Next Monday evening, Sept. 16, at 5 pm, we will have the first public reading of SQUEAK! at Seattle’s University Bookstore. We plan a participatory reading. Everyone who comes can be part of the cause and effect of the story. The initial squeak will come from our grandson Otto, age 2, in his mouse suit. You are invited to get in on the fun. Plus, there will be snacks!
Note: Dunn Gardens is open through October and offers docented tours as well as ‘wanders.’ It is one of Seattle’s secret treasures. For more information about visiting: https://dunngardens.org/visiting-tours
About 30 years ago I got my first studio, an addition to our small house. My father designed it. He came out and built it along with my husband, family and friends. It changed my life to get a studio – to take my aspirations to be an artist seriously, to have a place to work.
Over the years the studio filled up with projects in process and completed, with supplies to make new things, with paper, with cardboard, with fabric, with pictures that I pinned up for reference or inspiration, with pets. It was too full, but I never wanted to stop creating long enough to make it clean and organized.
This spring nature intervened. A tree fell through the roof of the studio.
Luckily it missed me by about 6 inches. Luckily we have good insurance. Luckily it missed most of my art and equipment.
Movers packed up and removed 164 boxes of art, objects, supplies and books from my studio and the adjacent bookshelves. After a bit, Greater Seattle Construction got to work and rebuilt.
Four months later the studio was repaired, repainted and empty. GSC did a great job.
The movers brought back all of the boxes.
I went through every item and ruthlessly discarded things. I unpacked and sorted, shelved and organized.
Now my studio is airy and clean. At least for the moment.
A clean space is no guarantee of fresh ideas or creative flow. But it does allow for the possibility.
It feels good to be back in this room of my own, heading into the future.
Like most readers, I’m a magpie when it comes to picking up odd facts and wonders. All things books make for particularly glittering tidbits. I can never resist a chance to see unusual and beautiful books.
— Tucked into a far corner of the annex to Carolina Rediviva, the main library at Sweden’s Uppsala University, a book sits alone behind bulletproof glass. You might think its remote placement indicates its minor significance. But look closer and you’ll see a work of visual splendor. It’s the Codex Argenteus, a beautiful and mysterious bible from the sixth century.
—How about Emily Dickinson’s herbarium? So many writers have been gardeners and have written about gardens that it might be easier to make a list of those who didn’t. But even in this crowded company, Emily Dickinson stands out. She not only attended the fragile beauty of flowers with an artist’s eye—before she’d written any of her famous verse—but she did so with the keen eye of a botanist, a field of work then open to anyone with the leisure, curiosity, and creativity to undertake it.
— Artist Yiota Demetriou’s new book of love letters can only be read when warmed by human touch. The book is a metaphor for relationships and the insecurity that comes with love and grief.
Of course, there’s always a chance to read books about such books.
Or unexpected connections and literary inspirations:
— The influence of “The Year Without a Summer” on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein when a sun-obscuring ash cloud ejected from one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions in recorded history caused temperatures to plummet the world over. Frankenstein and the Climate Refugess of 1816
I could probably spend all day at this. So I think the thing for all us magpies to do is to give ourselves a magpie holiday every once in awhile and simply allow ourselves an entire day to just follow from one shiny object to another at our leisure.
Inspired by Julie Paschkis (one of my Books Around the Table co-conspirators) questioning how the phrase “And how!” might have come into existence, I spent a wonderful afternoon looking at websites which trace the origin of strange phrases in English. If one person says to another, “Pistachio ice cream is the best ice cream on the planet!” and the other responds “And how!” you have to scratch your head and wonder about that (well, you don’t have to, but if you’re a writer with any curiosity about your language, you probably do.) How on earth did “And how!” come to mean “Absolutely! Amen to that!” Nothing on the surface of the phrase – definitions or etymologies of individual words, for example – explains it. So I scratched my head and began to explore.
There’s no doubt anymore, thanks to the internet, that if I wonder about something, many other people have wondered about it, too. I googled “origins” and “phrases” and “English” and in less time than it takes to blink (7/10ths of one second, to be precise) I had 68,500,000 hits. Granted, not all the hits would tell me about the curious origins of English phrases, but even if I only looked at a millionth of them, I would have a nice 68 to spend my day on.
Websites from Bored Panda to the Oxford Royale Academy (that’s quite a spread, yes?) have posted articles about phrase origins. Ever scratched your head and wondered about the following?
“Pleased as punch….” The word “punch” used to be capitalized, as far back as the 1600’s, because it came from the Punch and Judy puppet shows, where two puppets fought it out in front of a delighted audience. Punch was a mean cuss, always playing tricks on Judy or banging on her head with a stick, and he always took pleasure doing it. I found the long literary history of the phrase (back to Charles !! of England, who – in 1662 – ordered a command performance of the puppet show from an Italian puppeteer known by the alias Pollicinella) at a site called Idiomation: Historically Speaking. Punch and Judy were also the origin of the words “punch line” and “slapstick.” If you head over there after this, be sure to read about the woman who researches and writes the entries – her own history is impressive.
“Go haywire…” I love this phrase, maybe because I know how it feels to do it? Here’s what Mental Floss says about it in their list of 16 curious phrases: “What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the ‘messed up’ sense of the word.”
I definitely go more haywire than this….
“The whole shebang….” Another favorite phrase of mine. Mental Floss is less sure of the origin of this, but says, “The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.” That sounds right to me, especially given how many Irish were coming to America before and during the Civil War.
The whole shebang of a shebeen in Ballybeg House, Co. Wicklow, Ireland
“Minding your P’s and Q’s…” Speaking of drinking establishments, P’s and Q’s refer to pints and quarts, which barmaids had to keep track of serving so that the bills would be correct. To mind your p’s and q’s means to get things right, to be careful and do what you should be doing. You can find it in the list of curious phrases over at Owlcation, a site of “engineers, product and community advocates, moderators, and editors that are passionate about writing and online know-how. In addition to our official team, we are a tight-knit community of thousands of writers and enthusiasts.” If you visit, you’ll see articles as diverse as “The Many Uses of Cow Dung” and “The Moon Rabbit in Legend and Culture.”
“Mad as a hatter….” You might think you know the origin of this one. But according to Grammarly, “No, you didn’t already know this one, because it didn’t originate from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Its origins date from the 17th and 18th centuries — well before Lewis Carroll’s book was published. In 17th century France, poisoning occurred among hat makers who used mercury for the hat felt. The ‘Mad Hatter Disease’ was marked by shyness, irritability, and tremors that would make the person appear ‘mad.'”
I’m going to end here and say toodle-oo. If you want to know where “toodle-oo” came from, you’ll be astounded by the length of the article about it over at The Phrase Finder.
In December 2015, I received an email from a father in Novato, California: “I wanted to write you because you’re my daughter’s favorite author. And we just wanted to let you know how much we LOVE the Zelda and Ivy series! I wanted to thank you for writing and illustrating the book series my daughter will always remember as her childhood favorite. You are truly a hero of hers!”
He went on to say how they have several copies of each of the six Zelda and Ivy books and that they’ve done all the crafts on my website.
“And last year our family had a baby sister, and my older daughter thought Ivy would make a perfect name. And honestly, we were a coin flip away from naming our second child after your book’s character.” (They named her Zoe.)
As the years passed, Luna, the older daughter, began a tradition of making a yearly Christmas art project that related to Zelda and Ivy: Z&I Christmas ornaments for the tree, an elaborate Lego Z&I house, including outdoor sandbox, swing, pirate hideout, lemonade stand, birdbath, bunkbeds, piano – the complete setting of the books.
When we did a launch event for Little Wolf’s First Howling at Charlie’s Corner in San Francisco in April 2017, Luna and her family drove down and we got to meet in person. I invited them, if they were ever in Seattle, to come by my studio for an art project and tea.
Luna sent another amazing Christmas project last December: a Twelve Days of Advent calendar that has Christmas outfits for Zelda and Ivy paperdolls behind each door.
Then last month, they took me up on my visit offer. We made gouache resist paintings together in my studio – and chomped on cucumber sandwiches (of course) with tea.
All of this is the unexpected golden extra – the cream that I didn’t even know was in the offing as I worked alone in my studio cooking up the Zelda and Ivy books.
It makes me smile to re-read Luna’s dad’s note: “Our family has TONS of Zelda and Ivy inside jokes too: we often play Go Fish, joke about cucumber sandwiches, sing “Take me out to the ball game” as a bedtime lullaby, often play pirates, occasionally change our names to Yolanda/Boleo Rose and say “halibut” if something is amiss, Luna got a (velvet-looking) gown (gloves and boa included) last Christmas, and a baton she reluctantly shares with her younger sister Zoe, she also has a Lucky Jewel, camps inside, digs holes to China, creates interesting “concoctions” and much more..”
What is better than to know something I wrote became part of my readers’ family’s lexicon and lives?
When Luna’s family visited, they brought along Fourth of July outfits for the Z&I paperdolls
and a beautiful illustrated book of Luna’s own, The Fox Princesses, in which sisters named Luna and Zoe team up with Zelda and Ivy to help a bear.
The cover and the conclusion of Luna’s latest book.
Best of all, was to have these sweet sisters working beside me at the drawing table on a lovely July day, together in that happy hum of creating.
Like Luna near the end of The Fox Princesses, I beamed.
Books Around The Table is the blog of Margaret Chodos-Irvine, Laura Kvasnosky, Julie Larios, Julie Paschkis and Bonny Becker. We are a critique group of children's book authors and illustrators who have been meeting monthly since 1994 to talk about books we are working on, books we have read, our art and our lives. We invite you to sit down with us around the table and join the conversation.