Books you hated, and one you’ll love!
An inside out and backward book review. Bear with me!
For a presentation at LoonSong this fall, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about awful books–the kind of books I couldn’t stand but that my kids wanted to read over and over. The illustrations were ugly. The text was uglier. I’ve been trying to figure out what it was about those books that attracted them. I want to know what I, as a writer, could learn from those books. What was that magic element?
One in particular stands out in my mind: A Visit to the Sesame Street Firehouse. Now, normally I wouldn’t have had such a title in my home collection. But sometimes your child is given a book that makes you cringe. You read it to them because it’s a new book, and a gift, and they are at that age where they come to all books with an open heart and mind, eager to know what it contains.
You know before you even start that this book is so bad your child, whom you have, of course, imbued with good taste, will probably not sit through the first reading, or, if they do, will certainly never want to read it again. And you know this because you are at that age where you come to parenting with an open heart and mind, eager to believe that your children will know a bad book when they hear one!
So you read A Visit to the Sesame Street Firehouse to your child and you put it on the bookshelf where you are certain it will sit until the next library book sale rolls around and you can donate it, in good conscience, to the cause.
But you are wrong. Your child does want to read it again. And again. And again. No matter how many times you bury it under piles of good books, it resurfaces. You reach the point where you have memorized the words. Still, he wants to read it again. Why?
It wasn’t until I was directing a small library and was exposed to the passion young boys have for books about big trucks that I thought I’d begun to understand my son’s passion for A Visit to the Sesame Street Firehouse. It was the only truck book in our house! I had been a woefully neglectful parent not to realize this need earlier. Poor kid. A Visit to the Sesame Street Firehouse had filled a gaping hole in his life. Had I known, I could probably have found a good truck book. One that didn’t have hideous illustrations. One that had an actual story. You know. With a plot!
But recently, as I began working on this presentation, I tracked down a copy of the book. (Ours having disappeared somewhere along the line. Blessed be.) And I realized something else about this book. Something that made a lot more sense, given what I know about my son. It’s full of facts. Facts about firefighting. Facts about the different trucks and tools of the trade. Facts about fire safety. That is what I, as a writer, needed to know about this book. Some kids love facts! My son was one of them.
Now, there’s quite a lot of incredible nonfiction out there. I spent last spring teaching a class in writing nonfiction for children and young adults, so I’ve been immersed in it. It’s good. It’s really good.
But I’ve just finished reading a new middle grade novel that would also appeal to young lovers of facts. And it is a book that no parent would groan at the prospect of reading over and over to their kid. A Stitch in Time is a debut novel by gifted writer Daphne Kalmar. It is about an 11-year-old girl named Donut with a passion for geography and an interest in taxidermy. Donut lives in Vermont in the 1920s. Donut’s prize possession is the Rand McNally World Atlas, 2nd edition–though she is saving her poker winnings (!) for a much coveted 3rd edition. She pours over that book, memorizing geographical features of and the names of cities along rivers. Facts!
Donut’s mother died in childbirth, and her father has just died in an accident. Her citified aunt has come to take Donut back to Boston. But Donut doesn’t want to go. How can she leave her collection of unique, beloved friends and neighbors? How can she leave only home she’s ever known? How can she leave the bears hooting to other across the pond and her new friend, the mouse with the notched ear? And so she begins to plan.
Kalmar is one of those writers who delights in the details of the natural world, so Donut does, too. Never squeamish or fearful, Donut knows her way around the woods and waters near her home. Kalmar has created a delightfully self-reliant character who knows what she wants. She stubborn and determined, but her heart and mind are open. She can allow for possibility, and that’s what makes this book so satisfying. There is depth here, just as there is in the pond near Donut’s home. And as in the pond, there are things hidden here that can’t be seen at first glance. We adult readers may suspect how this book is going to end, and we may wonder how Kalmar will make us feel okay about that. But we needn’t worry. Our hearts are in good hands. Kalmar lead there gently and convincingly, so that by the time the ending comes, we know it is the right one. And we, like Donut, are good with that.
For kids who love facts, and for anyone who loves gorgeous writing, this debut novel is a must. Get it. Read it. And then read it again!