Tag Archives: Children’s books

Our Brains are Story-Making Machines

Take a look at these two images. If you give it a second, odds are your brain will start to construct a story as to why those images are next to each other. Is there a connection? Is there a story here?

It isn’t too hard to start to imagine how these two images could tell a story, but according to David Linden, a  professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, your brain will automatically start trying to figure out a narrative even when I show you something like this.

No matter how improbable, your brain wants to make a connection.

Linden says you can’t help it. It’s what comes naturally. Linden believes the brain is hard-wired to tell stories.  It’s a subconscious function that automatically kicks in. A survival mechanism. After all if you see this:

And then this.

Well, it’s nice to have a brain that is quick to analyze cause and effect.

And isn’t that the essence of story. Connecting one action and to another to another, all the while examining why and how and what to help us figure out how to live?

In my last post, I looked at the book “How Pictures Work” by Molly Bang, where she does a great analysis of how our minds can make stories out of abstract shapes if they are in the right relationship to each other.

Simply placing images side-by-side will kick speculation into gear. But what happens when the relationship gets more complex–as with the Heider-Simmel animation?

Developed in 1944, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel, experimental psychologists at Smith College, created it to investigate how our brain can make complex inferences from relatively little data.

The two investigators simply told their subjects to watch the (very short) movie and “write down what happened.” Almost every one of the undergraduates saw the shapes as animate characters in a relationship.

I won’t tell you what most of them said, but there’s a good summary of the experiment and some of the findings here. But before you go, check out the animation yourself and see what your story-making mind tells you.

If you want to share, I’d love to hear the story that you saw!

 

 

 

 

 

The Children’s Hour

 

Last week Julie Larios wrote about the poem The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat on this blog. It brought back memories of my dad reading to us every Sunday night. Every once in a while it was an evening of poems, including that Gingham Dog and Calico cat one.

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.

The Cremation of Sam McGee (Robert Service), Casey at the Bat (Ernest Lawrence Thayer) and The Jabborwocky (Lewis Carroll) were favorites.

Sometimes the poems were sentimental like Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud  or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Children’s Hour.

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.

Now there’s a kid’s poem!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43190/bed-in-summer

 

 

 

So Many Books, Just the Right Amount of Time

Is there anything more luxurious than summertime reading. A long summer day, a world before you on the page; the time to look up, half seeing the world around you, half still in the dream. As a child it was easy to slip into that world for hours at a time. There was so much time and grown ups to make sure the world kept on spinning. It’s harder as an adult to experience the true luxury of summertime reading, but sometimes things fall in place.

Right now I’m at Long Beach, WA. The ocean is rolling in outside my window.

I have a well-stocked bookshelf. Someone else’s choices to explore, which I love to do.

Not to mention the three  books I brought along with my Kindle.

It feels like the day can unfold at its leisure. I can read a bit, stare a bit, think a bit. Read some more. Perfect.

Here from my collection of images of books in art is how summertime reading  feels.

Illustration by Chris Gall

 

Illustration by Kurt Solmssen

 

Photo by Hesham Alhumaid

 

Illustration by Susan Estelle Kwas

 

Illustration by Rita C. Ford

 

Illustration by Elsa Jenna

 

Illustration by Eugeni Balakshin

Learning a new language can add magic to your writing

 

Trying to learn a new language in your 60’s is a bit like beating your head against a brick wall—in an entertaining kind of way. It’s hard. Much harder than I imagined. First I had to stop comparing my 60-something brain to my 20-something brain.

In my twenties if I’d studied Spanish for five years, I’d have been fluent. Now, after five years of study I’m hovering in the doorway of intermediate, but not fully in the room. I had to learn early in the process to define progress as simply knowing more this week than I did last week. It had to be as simple as that or I would have been utterly discouraged.

So why do it? Why learn a brand new language?

Really, it was to change myself. To feel that even in my sixties and older I could become new. Instead of looking back and wishing that I could speak a foreign language, I realized that I could become someone who did.

Sometimes it feels like one step forward, two steps back, but then once in awhile I get a reward like a talk with a taxi driver in Oaxaca, Mexico. It was a pretty simplistic conversation, but we easily chatted for 20 minutes and my husband was wonderfully impressed.

I feel less helpless when I travel, even to a non-Spanish speaking country. So many people around the world speak more than one language. It always rather embarrassed me to not be able to do anything but English (and a few phrases from long-ago French classes.)

Most of all, I’ve enjoyed how my own language has become richer by learning a different one. I can see more clearly how English is a combination of Romance languages (tracing back to Latin, of course) and Anglo-Saxon.

Take the Spanish word “dormir” meaning ”to sleep” derived from the Latin “dormire” which goes even further back into a common root language known as Proto-Indo-European which connects a whole range of languages from Hindu to Russian.

From it we get words like dormer, dormitory, dormant.  But I love how our own English verb for the actual activity is “sleep” coming to us by way of Old English by way of Proto-Germanic. It gives English a wonderful facility for humor and irony because we get to play with two-dollar words like mausoleum from Latin mausoleum. And two-bit words like grave from Old English græf. In English, you can be a scurrilous buffoon or an oafish clod.

Although I knew all those English “dormir” words, even the French dormir, it wasn’t until I was studying Spanish that it dawned on me that the sleepy Dormouse in “Alice in Wonderland” wasn’t just as random choice by Lewis Carroll.

He undoubtedly knew that “dormouse” is rooted in “dormir.” But when I first read it, I didn’t consciously make the connection, but I suspect my subconscious did. And this subconscious connection made this sleepy character feel all the more right.

Learning Spanish has reinforced just how powerful it is as a writer to know more than one language or to, at least, seek out the roots of words. If an author gets names and terms right, it can do half the work of creating a world. JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling and George RR Martin are masters at this. Rowling, in particular, really milks the Latin and Anglo-Saxon roots of English which give the Harry Potter books that entertaining mix of the grand and the mundane.

Rowling does this over and over again with her names. Albus Dumbledore, a mix of the Latin albus meaning “white” and the very homey, English-y Dumbledore. Or consider Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (lots of earthy Anglo-Saxon roots here) in contrast to Beauxbatons Academy of Magic (Latin and Greek here.)

It certainly didn’t hurt her as an author that she speaks excellent French. She also studied German and got some exposure to Greek and Latin through majoring in Classic Studies in college.

Tolkien was a scholar of linguistics, especially Germanic languages, and even developed several languages of his own. He, too, played with linguistic contrasts, but more seriously and consistently than Rowling. Bilbo Baggins and Aragorn Elessar, the Shire and Lothlorien, Frodo and Galadriel. Obviously both he and Rowling knew the Latin-rooted mortalis. Mordor and Voldemort don’t both sound ominous just by chance.

I don’t expect studying Spanish will turn me into JK Rowling or Tolkien, but maybe it will help me improve my names. After all Mouse and Bear are about as basic as you can get!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting to Know You…all too well

Pamela Lyndon Travers

Once upon a time, an author was an elusive creature. Rarely glimpsed, rarely heard from except in his or her published writings. There were the exceptions—the ever-touring Dickens and Twain. But when I was growing up a real writer was such a rare beast that I vaguely thought that all authors were either dead or perhaps lived in some land not really connected to our own.

So, I was thrilled to finally meet an actual author when I was 21–P.L. Travers of Mary Poppins fame when she was a writer in residence at my college. I had read and adored Mary Poppins as a child and here was the author herself.

The meeting, at a dinner table in my dorm, was disappointing. She was fulfilling what clearly was an annoying requirement—a meal with the students. She brushed off my shy, gushing acknowledgement of her and her books, ate as quickly as she could and immediately left. But, like Mary Poppins, she did leave me with a bit of wonder. I noticed that the salt and pepper shakers had vanished with her.

Illustration by Mary Shepard

Was it a bit of Mary Poppins magic or was P.L. just a bit of a kleptomaniac? This was certainly possible. Pamela Lyndon Travers was a complicated person. She was notorious for her snappish demeanor and extreme protectiveness of Mary Poppins. You can see a highly sentimentalized (but reasonable accurate) version of her struggles with Walt Disney over the making of the Mary Poppins film in the movie “Saving Mr. Banks.”   (Insider tip: Travers’ tears at the end are not tears of joy.)

You can get a more direct feel for her in this interview with Alex Witchel that ran in the New York Times in 1994.I love many of the exchanges in what must have been an intimidating interview, but this is one I could particularly relate to as a writer. Witchel asks Travers if she is proud of her Mary Poppins books.

“Yes, I am proud,” she [Travers] says clearly. “Because I really got to know her.”

Miss Travers has written that when she was a child she wished to be a bird. Is Mary Poppins? After all, she can fly and she is the only adult capable of understanding the starlings and the wind.

“That’s something I can’t tell you,” she says. “I didn’t create Mary Poppins.”

“Oh? Who did?”

“I refuse the answer,” she says. “But I learned a lot from Mary Poppins.”

“Like what?”

“I can’t say exactly,” she snaps. “It’s not a sum. I know less about her after reading ‘Comes Back’ again.” Her tongue works itself over her lips.

“I think I would like her always to remain unknown,” she continues. “I feel I’ve been given her. Perhaps if somebody else had her she’d be different. I don’t know. I’ve forgotten so much.”

I love Travers’ acknowledgement that Mary Poppins was “given” to her. And her refusal to further explain her character. In some ways, I think writers (like Mary Poppins herself) should also remain unknown. Perhaps some of the magic goes out of things when we meet them, especially if they coldly brush us off! (Although the disappearing salt and pepper shakers almost made up for it.)

Illustration by Mary Shepard

Authors are not so private and mysterious these days. Between school visits, blog posts, social media, bookstore appearances, and late-night interviews, the world seems rotten with authors. We get to know them all too well, perhaps.

Still, believe it or not this is all by way of letting you know that I’ve been doing readings and signings lately for my new book “The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael.”

So, even if you don’t need to meet me, I love getting a chance of getting to meet you. Like so many of us introverted writers, we turn into extroverts under the right light. Even P.L. Travers start to get expansive toward the end of her New York Times interview.

If you’d like to meet the not-that-elusive Bonny Becker and learn more about my latest book, do come to see me at the Secret Garden Bookshop in Ballard, Oct. 25 at 7:00 p.m.

 

 

 

Pattern and Story

For many years I have had one foot in the world of picture books and another in the world of textiles.

Question: Is this a textile design or a children’s book illustration?

Answer: This is part of a new line of textiles called Hey Diddle Diddle, designed for In The Beginning Fabrics.

Question: Is this a textile design or a children’s book illustration?

Answer: this is the dedication page from my upcoming picture book Vivid: Poems and Notes about Color (I’ll write more about Vivid next month).

I studied weaving in college at the School for American Craftsmen. I was a pretty bad craftsperson – my selvages were always crooked.  I wanted to tell stories with my fabric, but the emphasis was more on technique.

Magpie by Yuri Vasnetsov

I also took a drawing class where the teacher dinged me for excessive pattern and flatness in my work. He asked if I really needed to draw every leaf on every tree. Yes, I did.

I felt like a misfit in all arenas. But luckily I had one class where the teacher told me to consider the things that made me different as strengths and not weaknesses. I was ready to hear that advice, and he helped me find my own direction. 

Since then my patterns have been full of stories and my stories have been full of pattern.

I like to play with the balance between the decorative and narrative, and to search for new directions.

Here is a piece that I made in 2016. Question: How was it made?

Answer: The black was stenciled onto 4 pieces of paper. The colors were painted on. The papers were rotated and stitched together.

Recently I designed some cotton scarves for my webshop Julie Paprika: Menagerie, Be Mine and Yum. The original drawings were ink on paper, painted at full size. I rotated the paper while painting.

Question: Can you tell which side is up? Can you make up stories for them?

In addition to balancing pattern and story, I try to balance having a creative life and making a living. Julie Paprika is my attempt to do both things. It would be peachy if you visited the shop.
Thank you.

P.S. I am currently selling a Zero Tolerance poster at Julie Paprika.
Question: Why is our government treating immigrants with such cruelty?
Answer: There is no good answer.
A small action: Buy this poster and 1oo% of the proceeds will go to United We Dream. Click here. Thank you.

Scary But Not Too Scary

 

Writing a scary book for young readers is a tricky business. Where is that line between fun scary and scary scary?

With my latest book, The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael, I’m hoping I found that line. It certainly was fun to write, even though it took forever. I really can’t remember when I jotted down the first few lines:

It was the thirteenth of November, a stormy night
When the Thirteen bus hove into sight.
Something about it didn’t seem right
But Michael McMichael boarded.

It might have been as long as 20 years ago. Long enough that the first drafts are somewhere on a discarded hard disc drive.  It was just a bit of doggerel that kept stumping me because I’d boxed myself into a corner with my rhyme scheme. The story had to make sense and have a satisfying arc, yet the first three lines of every stanza needed to end in perfect rhyme and the last line had to rhyme or near rhyme with “boarded.”

The first three lines rule wasn’t hard. It was that darn “boarded.” I think I managed to find just about every word that rhymes or near rhymes with “boarded”, from the sensible “hoarded” to the desperate and untenable “sore head.”

Years would go by as I worked on other things; The Frightful Ride forgotten only to be rediscovered once in awhile in my files and noodled with a bit more. Finally it occurred to me that I had a complete story and this might be a picture book. Luckily Sarah Ketchersid at Candlewick agreed—with a few changes.

Back to the drawing board for a few more years. Then the completed manuscript went to the marvelous Mark Fearing for illustrations. (Where I suddenly realized that a word I’d used years ago when banishing the villainous bus driver–deported–needed to be changed to “exported.” Deported had become too loaded of a word.) Then a year for printing and distribution. And finally, it is here! The official release date is July 10, 2018.

But all along it was geared to younger readers, so, of course, the scary thing is defeated in the end. But the real key to me between scary but not too scary is humor. And that was my instinct from the get-go. What was really rattling around in my mind was my memory of the macabre, rhyming tall tales of Robert Service, especially his poem The Cremation of Sam McGee.

My father read that to us when I was a kid and I loved its wonderful “chewy” language.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

 “The men who moil for gold” or “That night on the marge of Lake Lebarge,” who can beat that?

There’s that kind of juicy language throughout Service’s poem. At the same time it’s a complicated story, but Service doesn’t cheat with easy or obvious rhymes. He reaches for the great instead of the good. (I’ve always wondered if “moil” was made up, but it’s a real word as is “marge.” There’s even a Lake Laberge in the Yukon. Service definitely isn’t a cheater.)

I can’t claim I achieved a “Robert Service” but his macabre humor, his love of words and tall tale format were my inspiration. In these tense times with voices of concern all around us, it’s nice to know that sometimes our stories, even scary ones, can just be for the fun and the love of it.

Here are some more samples of Fearing’s wonderful illustrations. Thanks, Mark and Sarah and all of Candlewick for making this book possible.

 

 

 

Why Hadn’t I Done This Before?

I attended Western Washington University’s Children’s Literature Conference for the first time a few weekends ago. And I’m rather chagrined that I’d never attended this 15-year-old event before.

The conference is a gathering of some of the top creators in children’s literature right here in my own backyard—or close enough, anyway. It started relatively small 15 years ago and now it draws a sell-out crowd of over 600 teachers, students, writers, illustrators and children’s lit aficionados to Bellingham, WA.

This year’s speakers were Sophie Blackall, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Kevin Henkes. I won’t even try to list all their awards and accomplishments—but the poster for the event will give you some idea. I think you’ll recognize the books, even you don’t always recognize the name.

I have this thing. Whenever I hear a speaker, I end up kind of wanting to be them. Or, at least, thinking maybe I should talk that way. Maybe that’s how I should present myself. Although, the most heartening thing about it all is that everyone presents themselves differently (scholarly, anecdotally, ad lib, prepared, humorous, philosophically), but if they do it with honesty and care, it works.

Sophie Blackall

Author/illustrator Sophie Blackall shared the things she loves, including six books that were important in her life and she used these as a springboard to anecdotes about herself and her writing. I was intrigued by her fun, idiosyncratic selection: Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard , The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by DuBose Heyward and Marjorie Flack, The Unstrung Harp by Edward Gorey , The Principle of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman , Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. The nicest touch of all? She gave her copy of each book to six members of the audience who shared the titles of books that had been important to them.

The give-away seemed to fit into Blackall’s overall approach to life and work. She’s generous. She’s a giver. Check out this project she’s starting for other writers and artists: https://www.milkwoodfarm.org/

Poet and writer of young adult novels, Benajmin Alire Sáenz gave an almost stream-of-consciousness incantation of a talk. Sáenz, who starts his own day with a “word of the day,” repeated the phrase “the word of the day is” throughout his talk. Each time invoking a new word and new idea. “The word of the day is” became something of a catchphrase for the rest of the day.

For Sáenz, in general, the word of the day would have to be “words of the day” including Latino, gay, philosopher, survivor, award-winner, role model and maybe even life-saver. On his Twitter feed are comments like this:

i’m a gay transgender man and i can’t even begin to tell you how grateful i am for this story; it saved my life. thank you so much.

8:02 PM – 8 Mar 2018

And photos like this:

Benjamin Alire Sáenz and a fan

The word of the day for author Pam Muñoz Ryan was clearly serendipity, in particular when it came her latest book Echo. Researching a story that was going to be about segregation Ryan ran across a photo of a classroom of children each holding a harmonica. When she asked about it she was told it was a 1931 photo of the school’s harmonica band, something that apparently was common at the time.

Harmonica bands! What was not to like? Ryan reasoned. As Ryan followed that trail, her story changed completely, turning quite unexpectedly into a tale about a magical harmonica and how it connected three different children in three different times and places but all somewhat connected to WWII and Nazi Germany.

Pam Muñoz Ryan

Pam seems to be one of those people who can turn the every-day events of their lives into stories. Funny stories. Like the time she joined band, decided to play violin, broke said violin, tried to super glue it back together, got ejected from band, but ended up in chorus, then was asked to write an article about being in chorus, which led to her doing more writing, which led to her, of course, becoming a famous author. Isn’t joining band in the 4th grade how everyone’s life stitches together?

Author/illustrator Kevin Henkes word of the day was “waiting.” A common theme in his work and his life. He waits, he said, for ideas. Then he has to wait to see if the idea proves good and solid. His characters wait, like the characters in his book Waiting. And this feels apt, he says because children themselves are always waiting.

A particular creative quirk of his that struck me: he likes to have a title from the very beginning of writing. It helps him know and remember what the book is about. What I liked about Henkes’ presentation was his awareness of and respect for the creative process and for his readers.

It showed in his talk and it shows up in his work. Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse was one of the texts I pored over when I was trying to figure out how to write picture books. The only bad part: it gave me the notion that picture books could be over 1,000 words. Well, if they’re by Kevin Henkes, maybe.

Keep your eyes open for the 2019 WWU Children’s Literature Conference with an equally impressive line-up of speakers: Barbara O’Connor, Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann, Neal and Jarrod Shusterman, and Jerry Pinkney.

Another major children’s lit event that WWU is hosting this year is the May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture on April 28, 2018. This free, annual event features an author, critic, librarian, historian or teacher of children’s literature, of any country, who prepares and presents paper considered to be a significant contribution to the field of children’s literature. This year’s speaker is Naomi Shihab Nye who has received four Pushcart Prizes, was a National Book Award finalist, and has been named a Guggenheim Fellow, among other honors.

Books and bad weather

Illustration by Karen Hollingsworth

Books and bad weather just seem to go together. It’s so enticing to settle in with a book in hand and snow, wind and rain at the window.

Illustration by Lorenzo Mattotti

It can be a moment of solitude…

Illustration by Samantha Dodge

or a moment that unites us.

Illustration by Vincent Mahe

Illustration by Adrian Tomine

Sometimes you can create your own shelter.

Illustration by Iker Ayestaran

Illustration by Michelle Riche

In my collection of images of books in art, reading in a time of cold and dark is almost always a warm, safe moment.

Illustration by Sasha Ivoylova

But not always.

Illustration by AJ Frena

But let’s not end on this chilling note. Here’s the perfect image for cozy holiday reading.

Illustration by Raija Nokkal

Merry Christmas! Happy holidays! Season’s readings!

A Christmas for Bear: Writing a Holiday Book

The sixth book in the Mouse and Bear series, A Christmas for Bear, came out this September.

Holidays are a sure fire subject for a kid’s picture book. These days there’s a book for just about any special day you can name: Arbor Day, Halloween, Easter, Passover, Kwanzaa, Fourth of July… in fact, if you’re looking for a book idea, go through the calendar, pick a marked day, and write. There’s probably an editor looking for one of those.

Christmas is, of course, the granddaddy of all the holidays in the U.S. My Amazon search for “picture books Christmas” netted 6,782 results.

I’ve written two holiday books, both about Christmas. My first was A Christmas Crocodile illustrated by David Small, reissued last fall by Two Lions Press. My latest just came out, A Christmas for Bear, the sixth book in my Mouse and Bear series. It’s getting great reviews, including a star from Kirkus!

As with any familiar topic–bedtime stories, first day of school, a new sibling, a major holiday–part of the trick to getting published is finding a fresh way to talk about it.

With my first Christmas book, The Christmas Crocodile, the idea simply came to me–a crocodile who eats up Christmas. It took years to work it into its published form, but I was pretty confident that there weren’t many books out there featuring crocodiles and Christmas.

My latest, A Christmas for Bear, also had an easy genesis. Christmas was, of course, a natural topic for this very Western-culture-based book series that featured a joyous, celebratory Mouse and an always reluctant Bear. My bigger challenge was how to ring up something new about Mouse and Bear themselves.

Sharp-eyed readers might notice a hint that maybe Bear has presents after all.

I decided to flip things on their head a bit. I wanted Bear to be the one offering celebration. I felt that Bear should be the party guy this time around, so he’s eager to throw his first Christmas party ever. But not being very well versed in  holidays, Bear decides Christmas is all about food, mostly pickles, and a nice Christmas poem (The Night Before Christmas, of course). No presents necessary.

Mouse, naturally, finds the “no presents allowed” idea not so great. And the story centers on Mouse’s attempts to find the present he is sure must be there.

Mouse searches for a present all over Bear’s house.

In today’s world, it’s not that common for commercial picture books to work with the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of Christ. So if you’re not going to celebrate the religious significance of the festival, you substitute other things: love, togetherness, friendship, family, bounty, kindness. Christmas stories are almost always sentimental in one way or another—in fact, it’s one of the few times you can pretty shamelessly lay on the sweet if you want. But I’ve always wanted to avoid getting too saccharine. So for me, humor is the way out. But, even so, I want to say something.

What I remember most about Christmas as a child was how safe I would feel. I didn’t put it that way in my mind. But I knew I would eat well, I would laugh a lot, I would feel close to my family, I would nap in front of the living room fireplace, my father would read The Night Before Christmas, I would have trouble falling asleep. I would get at least one thing the next day that was unexpected and special.

Even though I’m not Christian, I was raised as one. And it’s a little sad to me that we don’t have some shared sense of the numinous, a shared acknowledgment of wonder and awe. But I, and most people I know, are not that comfortable with an established creed. So we really have nothing that calls us collectively to the deep and the mysterious.

So what could I do to evoke some of the values this holiday was supposed to celebrate?

I thought about what the two friends could give each other. Bear gives Mouse a telescope. In my mind, it was a way to evoke that “big thing” that was there in the original meaning of Christmas. For Mouse and Bear (and for me, too) that something big and mysterious can be found under the night sky.

Mouse gives Bear a shiny, red sled. A call to adventure and fun and a time to acknowledge where this series has been going all along—the deep friendship of these two very different characters. This is the real gift of Bear’s Christmas. But I did want to get actual presents in! Good luck making the child reader happy with a pious lesson instead of presents on Christmas morning!