Remembering the books that taught us more than we ever cared to learn.
The Orchard Cat by Stephen Kellogg
My very favorite children’s book has been out of print for more than a decade. I could probably recite it from memory, but that hasn’t stopped me from spending the last several years hunting down used copies with a collector’s fervor. It’s the story my mind always conjures when someone mentions “children’s books.” It’s a part of me in a way no other book is.
The story kicks off with a furious, power-hungry rant by the meanest mama you could ever picture. Think of a cross between Joan Crawford, Bea Arthur, and Cersei Lannister — only in the form of a cat dying of consumption. She’s pissed off that her life hasn’t been a smorgasbord of catnip and tuna, that she’s ending her days in a shack and not in a palace. So, in a final frenzied effort to leave a legacy, she urges her son Cat to “make himself King any way that he can” until he’s “rolling in cake.” He agrees. Mom promptly expires.
Cat sets off to the orchard wearing a crown. There, he demonstrates his power in the only way he knows how: he bullies the other animals, stealing their snacks and kicking them off the swingset. When he moves on to The House, he sees an enormous chocolate cake cooling on the windowsill. Taking a literal interpretation of his mother’s advice, he enthusiastically devours it whole.
But a shocking thing happens. Instead of feeling like royalty, he feels scared and alone — and sick to his stomach.
The boy of the house takes pity on him. He cleans Cat up, feeds him castor oil, tucks him into bed.
“What you need, kitty,” Timmy says, “is someone who cares.”
After living a day in the house experiencing something totally new — kindness with no ulterior motive — Cat is changed. He goes back to the orchard with notes of apology to each of the animals, from “sorry I was mean” to “sorry I blew up your bike.” (OK, Cat was actually kind of a sociopath.) He swears he just wanted to come by and say he was sorry, and he promises to leave if that’s what everybody wants. The animals find it in themselves to forgive him. They have a glorious garden party.
The first of my major takeaways from The Orchard Cat is that it’s OK to go against the wishes of our parents. Sometimes their advice just isn’t that good. Unfortunately, adulthood isn’t a charm against pettiness, and sometimes what grown-ups say comes from a mean, spiteful place in their hearts. We don’t have to go along with something just because a grown-up told us so; we have to go with what’s right.
Another one: kindness has an excellent return on investment. The book focuses on Cat, but the real hero of the story is Timmy. Here’s a boy who woke up to find that a stranger had demolished his cake, and what’s his reaction? It isn’t anger, or even disappointment. It’s: “wow, you’re probably going through some stuff. You need help.” And then he himself jumps in to help, without a second thought. He gives Cat the benefit of the doubt. He even strokes Cat’s fur as Cat hurls into the toilet (yes, really).
At this show of compassion, Cat is shocked and confused. It’s literally never occurred to him that he’d deserve such kindness. Once he starts thinking he might be worthy of it, he can’t help but feel others are owed the same. He would never, ever have come to the conclusion that he owed the animals an apology if someone hadn’t first shown him how much better it is to be nice. And he wouldn’t have known how much better it is to be nice if someone hadn’t been nice to him.
When we smile at people, offer them a favor, we’re not just stroking our own ego (though there’s that). And we’re not just making their life a bit easier in that moment (though there’s that, too). We’re actually making all our lives better on a long-term basis; we’re helping people make better, more thoughtful decisions about how they treat others generally.
My final takeaway is the one that’s most profoundly influenced the course of my life. And that’s that it’s not always best to be the best.
It’s not like I was ever a little despot-in-training. But I was The Smart Kid in grade school, and I took that position far more seriously than I ought to have. I strove to do as well as I could, and there’s nothing wrong with that; but I also rolled my eyes when other kids didn’t know the answer to the question. I was, intentionally or not, putting other people down to make it easier for me to rise to the top. (I was not — does it need to be said? — very popular.)
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve readjusted my own goals. Do I want more money? A better job title? Sure. But I also want time to spend with my family and friends. I want to make sure that I’m working for an employer that cares about the well-being of its community. And I want to be clear that anything I earn, I earn through integrity and hard work, and never through dirty ploys that take power from other people so I can hoard it for myself.
I’m not saying it’s bad to have goals for bigger and better things for yourself. But taking care of number one should only be one part of your story. This book ingrained in me how much more meaningful life is when you behave in a way that takes other people’s needs into account. It’s much better — much more fulfilling, more helpful, more important — to have enjoyed playing than it is to win the game. And having good friends is a far greater treasure than a crown will ever be.
—Arielle Brousse lives in Philadelphia and raises money to support a magical, book-loving community full of wild things.
“I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me…”
Making Meaningfully Doughy Memories with Maurice Sendak
It was certainly more than my dream, at a mere 5 years, to live In The Night Kitchen. It was a definitive goal.
I knew it would be precarious, I knew there could be technical difficulties, but I knew it was possible. I had black hair like Mickey. He was an up-start, able to escape three chefs who wanted to cook him. He was a hero, understanding that cake was one of the best breakfasts. He was a clever and crowing with a profound pride in his nudity. He was just as I strove to be, and it only made sense that at night, I could, conceivably, venture into a night kitchen of my own.
I had elaborate plans drawn up, in secret from my parents. Surely they most of all — who read it to me every night for years — must have known I was hatching grandiose plans. I tried to squirrel them away in my dresser drawers and on the underside of my pet snake’s glass cage. I was pretty sure nobody knew, save my stuffed purple stegosaurus Bernice, the one real boy in whom I felt I could confide anything. A night owl from the very outset of my nocturnal career, I recall lying there in my bed, tense and ready to spring — waiting and waiting for the racket of my parent’s movements below to dissolve and for all to be still. There would go my clothes — and there would go I.
I love thinking back on how this book opened up a world for me, one not quite real but not quite pretend either. Now, I particularly relish the play of the rhymes as they tumble across the nightscape of images, letting this book careen into a song that I don’t recall, but that I must have heard loudly as a youngling experiencing a read-aloud. When read with vigor, with a quickness that lets the rhymes come out of the woodwork and stand side by side, there is an amazing momentum that does not come through when reading with emphasis placed on each turn of the page. I find that reading this book very quickly and with exaggerated tone, a special frequency is attained that ears fastened to young brains can’t help but take in seriously — which always contrasts with the fantastic nudity and visions of flight in this book. Like a throng of absurd moths to a flame radiating a very serious light — pre-school children that I now teach and to whom I read this book, who still know that the nighttime is inexplicable and who take witching hours oh so seriously, can’t get enough of this masterpiece by Uncle Maurice. Images, rhymes, rhythm, and text all interact on these pages, so that entering the world of In the night kitchen let’s children believe that they can become what Mickey is. This book convinced child-me to know that I could, and that knowing was the powerful part.
Many night attempts were first foiled by the sounds of my parents’ movements just around the corner from the bottom of the stairs. I’d freeze, having fallen just halfway out of my pajamas, pants-less, on the landing or in the room with the couches no one was supposed to touch. But I studied diligently from my bed, nestled wide-awake with Bernice. It seemed only logical that just around those corners, as soon as my mother and father turned in, that something must be ready to happen. I could hear it I listened so close. Eggbeaters were dancing with spatulas, and without me! It was more than my child mind could bear.
One or two late nights, I made it. I know I made it, but really I just think I did. Completely naked, I’m in a big tin soup pot with a ladle in my right hand, riding along on the counter’s edge, the dishwasher murmuring sweetly and fridge hissing sharply and me crowing and crowing at the nighttime.
Memories of childhood are a lot like In The Night Kitchen, with a rhythm that makes for moments of crystalline clarity, yet with doughy sections not quite yet finished cooking in between. Sprawled out on the countertop I’d sleep with a smile — a mere skirt of crumbs keeping me warm. My parents gasping, then (and this is the doughy part) smiling sweetly and crowing just a bit on their own as they carry me back up to bed.
Then, of course, cake for breakfast.
—Jacob Kerner is a teacher, adventurer, tree climber, creator of arts and poems, urban gardener, typewriter enthusiast, and has had poems published in Apiary Magazine, The Blotter, and Adagio Verse Quarterly. Check out many a visual of his work at: deepcutsofbrotherlylove.tumblr.com
Happy Read Across America Day!
This NEA-sponsored celebration is held in honor of Dr. Seuss’ birthday. Tomorrow, he would have been 109 — but there are events in his honor all across the country today.
Check the Read Across America website for information on story hours and book swaps near you. Plus, take the Reader’s Oath!
How are you celebrating?
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (and others)
My friend recently told me that because knitting is now cool, you don’t know that you’re really old until you start quilting. I think it’s interesting that now, as a quilter, I’m here today to talk to you about how I’m not too old to read children’s books. I guess you can be both.
I read a lot of books as a child, and I think that they’ve all shaped me in some way. Some of those ways have been more profound than others.
It’s true that I left the Nonprofit Leadership program at Penn, and I think part of the reason I left that program is what I learned from children’s books—that you should do what will make you happy. I learned that sometimes, quitting is the right thing to do, and moving on to the next thing is best. I think part of how I learned this was from a book called Max Makes a Million, which is about a dog who dreams of moving to Paris to be a poet. He leaves his family behind, but he does it, and he’s happy for it.
From two other books—Frederick and Swimmy by Leo Lionni—I learned that everybody has something to contribute. We just have to be sometimes creative to find it.
Swimmy is a very small fish, but he teaches all of the other fish to band together into a giant fish to scare off the predators.
Frederick is a mouse who is trying to collect things for the winter. Everybody else is collecting food, like they should, and they’re very irritated because Frederick seems to be doing nothing. But he is collecting colors, and words, and the warmth of the sun. And when they all run out of food, he delivers these things, and they’re all thrilled to experience something other than the cold gray of the winter.
And finally, maybe less profoundly, there was a book called Bill and Pete, which was about a hippo and his best friend (and also his toothbrush), who was a bird. Which is a common relationship, I think. But this probably started me on the path to my insatiable love of interspecies best friends, which I think is a magical thing. And maybe not important to how I live my life, but it brings a lot of joy to it.
The other thing that I read a lot of were Jewish children’s books, which most people tell me aren’t real when I tell them about my children’s books. But the main lesson that I gleaned from them was that rabbis are geniuses, and will solve all of your problems. They can resolve family discord; they can help you help an evil ghost move on; and they can get rid of witches by tricking them into melting themselves. I don’t spend a lot of time with rabbis these days, but if there is an invasion of witches, they are the first people I will call.
Eventually, though, I came across The Little Prince, which is what I mainly want to talk about. I’m not sure if I really learned much from this as a child. I think part of what I want to say is that you’re never too old to read children’s books, and you’re never too old to learn from them. So while I may not have read it as a child, I definitely took in its messages. And I’m not 100% whether I learned everything from the book, or whether it resonated with me because it’s how I already felt.
The main thing that I want to say about The Little Prince is that it taught me that, in fact, not rabbis, but possibly a fox, and children were the smartest people in the world.
There are three quotes that I want to talk a little about. The first one is probably the one that people know the best, and that’s: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” I think it’s a message that a lot of people have taken away from that book: you need to look beyond things. And I think children are really good at doing that. They have wild imaginations; they can see what’s not there.
The next quote is: “You become responsible forever for what you have tamed.” This quote is probably one that summarizes my worldview. It has explained to me why we need to take care of each other, the planet, and animals. Because anything that we have made our own, we’ve made work for us, we need to take care of. For those of you who haven’t read it: the little prince is traveling through space, and he has a rose at home that he’s trying to take care of. The fox tells him that he must take care of his rose because he has tamed it.
It’s part of why I work in animal rescue, which is probably the main focus of my life these days. I have many foster dogs and live in a zoo, but it’s worth it. I think it’s important.
Finally, I think this one sort of sums up the reason that we’re all here: “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”
When my niece was a baby, I used to often think and wonder if she thought I was an idiot for always asking her what animals said and what colors things were. I thought that maybe she sat there thinking, “Come on, lady. I have told you that a hundred times.” And she probably did, because she is a very smart little girl. But we keep doing it.
In all seriousness, even though that might be giving kids a little too much credit, I think it’s really important to remember what they can teach us. Children’s books are one of those things that bring us back to that. They show us, simply, the important messages that children know—whether they learn them from the books or bring them to the books. They know them, and we forget them.
I think it’s important to always go back to these books and see what we can find from them.
Which is why I was interested in being a part of this project. Because unlike our host, I did go and get that misguided children’s book tattoo. I am committed to them.
—Chava Spivak-Birndorf works as a lawyer at the Disability Rights Network, working mainly on issues related to transition-aged youth with disabilities. She foster dogs and volunteers with a dog rescue group. She is currently learning to use a sewing machine, starting with quilting.
Chava originally read this story at The Sensible Nonsense Project’s live show at the Kelly Writers House on February 6, 2013. You can find video and audio from that event here.
Mr. Quimby turned the bacon. Mrs. Quimby flipped the pancakes. Ramona’s stomach relaxed. In a moment her mother would slide the pancakes onto a platter and start another four cooking. Ramona could hardly wait, she was so hungry.
“Are you sure those pancakes are done?” asked Mr. Quimby as his wife slid the pancake turner under them. “They don’t look done to me.”
“They bubbled in the middle before I turned them,” said Mrs. Quimby, “and they look done to me.”
Mr. Quimby took the pancake turner from his wife. Using it as a weapon, he slashed each pancake in the center. Ramona and Beezus exchanged a shocked look. Their father had slashed their mother’s pancakes! He had gone too far. Frightened, they watched raw batter ooze from four gashes in the pancakes. Their father was right. The cakes were not done. Now what would their mother do?
Mrs. Quimby was furious. She snatched back the pancake turner, scooped up the oozing cakes, and tossed them into the garbage.
“You didn’t need to do that.” Mr. Quimby looked amused. He had won.
Today I did something I’ve never done before: I made pancakes for my sole consumption. I’ve made pancakes before, of course, for my family, but it always seemed inappropriate somehow to make them for myself. A special breakfast should be shared, right? And I’d have to throw out half the batter, and that would just feel sad and wasteful. Right? But I wanted pancakes and I didn’t want to wait, so I made them, just for me. And as I watched them in the pan, bubbling in the center, I thought of Mrs. Quimby and the ruined dinner. Because this meal, I remember, was breakfast for dinner. Breakfast for dinner was always called Upside-Down Day at our house, the special treat of pancakes at 7 PM. The thing I never noticed as a kid, even after reading Ramona and Her Mother, was that Upside-Down Day only happens when Mom and Dad are out of groceries to make an actual, nutritious dinner. So the Quimbys are out of food, and they’re in the kitchen, right, and stressed out, and Beezus hurts herself and then this happens and everything’s awful and I’ll always think of Mrs. Quimby when I make pancakes. When to flip them: when they’re bubbling in the center. This morning it was just me eating them, just me flipping them, and they turned out just right. But I remembered how different it was for Ramona that one evening. I’m amazed at how long these books have stayed with me, I don’t even remember rereading them much as a kid. It feels like they’ll always stick around.
What was your favorite childhood book, and why? Looking back, what lessons from the book still resonate with you?
Josh says: The “why” is harder to answer, but Stuart Little comes most to mind, for its magical world, including miniaturization (!), for the title character.
Last night, the simple lessons of children’s literature found an older audience of writers and readers alike at the Kelly Writers House.
Arielle Brousse, assistant director for development at the Writers House, organized an event titled “Sensible Nonsense”… Brousse said that there is a wealth of wisdom in children’s books, hidden in deceptively simple prose, and through this event, she hoped to unearth more.
GET INVOLVED WITH THE SENSIBLE NONSENSE PROJECT!
What was your favorite book as a kid, and why? Looking back, what do you think it was that made the story resonate with you?
The Not-So-Great Brain
My sister and I were born only 18 months apart, and I have no real memory of life before she arrived, though being the first child and grandchild in the family, I like to imagine my days were pretty awesome in that everyone was mesmerized by my wide-eyed cuteness and devoted to keeping me happy. Then, arrived my sister. An enormous, colicy, demon-lunged monster baby, she required a higher level of upkeep due to both her near constant screaming and tendency to spontaneously stop breathing in the middle of the night. As such, my early years were largely dominated by my younger sister asking for what she wanted, and getting it for the most part.
This is not to say I didn’t love her. I did, and do, fiercely, devotedly, in the way that sisters do, despite her growing tendency to shamelessly and masterfully manipulate me. As we entered school, it became apparent that while I was smart and pleasant enough to please most adults, she was another creature entirely. Completely assured of her superior intellect from the moment she could speak, she had no fear of challenging the authority of any and all adults, and she felt no remorse if she got what she wanted by somewhat nefarious means. While this often worked to my advantage, there was an equal chance that in whatever her particular game was, I would play the coyote to her roadrunner. My parents, believing I might one day wisen up (I didn’t), left us to our own devices most of the time, so I turned to bibliotherapy for solace.
Through some miracle, The Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald entered my life. Told through the eyes of J.D. Fitzgerald, The Great Brain books told of a family living in Adenville, Utah in a largely Mormon community. I was taken by the exotic location (at least to my suburban eyes) and the adventures of the Fitzgerald boys, who always seemed to be exploring caves, or river rafting, or solving train robberies. This may be because of a failed experiment as a Girl Scout, in which I learned that camping, for our local troop anyway, did not consist of campfires, sleeping outdoors, or any use of a compass whatsoever, and included far too many yarn-based crafts for my taste.
The real star of the show, however, was Tom, middle brother and town genius. Having no fear of using his “great brain” to get his way, he was prone to swindling his friends, outsmarting the adults in town, supplying advice whether desired or not, and generally alienating people until such time as they had an insurmountable problem and begged for his help, usually for a price.
The exasperation and admiration J.D. seemed to have for his brother in equal measure was no doubt a source of comfort for me and my dealings with the great brain who resided in the lower bunk of our shared bedroom. Though her schemes were never wicked enough to warrant her being put on trial by the rest of our neighborhood as the boys of Adenville ultimately did to Tom Fitzgerald, they did ensure that she was denied recess for most of her elementary school years. From convincing her friends that they were aliens and could only speak through her as their interpreter to declaring that she would not complete her worksheets because they held no meaning for her, she was quickly branded a problem child, and her antics were rarely resolved without parental interference. As embarrassing as it was to be outsmarted by a younger sibling, it did not escape my attention it was probably best that teachers met me first.
And so I turned to J.D. and friends for a glimpse into a world where there was more adventure to be had than pick-up soccer games and street tennis, a baseball/tennis hybrid created by our the kids on our block, and where, just occasionally, the great brain got his comeuppance.
—Samantha Marker works as a teen librarian in New Jersey and is still occasionally outsmarted by her younger sister.
The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch by Ronda and David Armitage
The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch was the first story that I ever read aloud. It was around Christmastime at the age of 5 and my Godmother had given me the book as a present. I remember gathering all of my family, and their friends into the living room, and standing proud on the hearth, book in hand, ready to read.
I have always been a keen reader, but being given my very own book was something that I was happy to share with anyone who asked. I started to read. At first I was slow, and stumbled once or twice, before really getting into it. It’s about a man, and his wife, who live on the cliffs, by a lighthouse. The husband, the lighthouse keeper, rows out to the lighthouse every day to polish the light, and every day, his wife packs a lunch and sends the lunch by a wire to the lighthouse. One day, when she sends the lunch over, some seagulls steal the food, so the man and wife hatch a plan to put them off stealing it anymore.
This book is the reason that I love to read. It’s why I am now a giant fan of Harry Potter, and why I think that Twilight is badly written. I miss having that sense of pride and accomplishment that I first had when I looked up after having read that book, and seeing the smiling faces staring back at me, proud of my greatest achievement yet.