Remembering the books that taught us more than we ever cared to learn.
The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn
I have always been a worrisome person.
When I was little and we’d go new places, I’d stick close to a parent and wait until I felt safe enough to speak, run or play. I would read every sign, every safety rule, and ask a million questions about any and all new experiences. These days I just go into a silent frenzy. If you’re a Virgo, you probably understand this phenomenon too well.
So when I was going off to kindergarten and I found out that my two best buds at the time were in the class next door, I was one panicky five year old. What if no one liked me? What if my TEACHER didn’t like me? What if I couldn’t find my classroom or the library or the bathroom?
That’s when my mom swooped in with The Kissing Hand.
This book is the story of a little raccoon named Chester who is going to school for the first time. He has many of the same fears that I did—making friends, getting lost, orienting himself with the area, being away from his family. His mom tells him that she has the secret to making him feel better about being away from home. She kisses the inside of his palm and lets him know that her love and support are being given to him and that they will spread right up into his heart. He will be warm and cozy all throughout school with the knowledge that “Mommy loves you, Mommy loves you.”
I’m almost twenty three, and my mother STILL sends me texts with the words “Kissing Hand” every time I have a new experience. She bought the same book for my sister and brother, too.
I love this book because it acknowledges the fact that children have very real feelings that cannot, and should not, be overlooked. It does not ignore the fear; rather, it addresses the fear in a way that can help a child move on. It prepares children for the fact that things will change, but support and love are there if you choose to seek them.
I just moved to a new city to start a new teaching job. The first day of school is tomorrow, and what better story to read on the first day than The Kissing Hand?
—Allie is a Pre-Kindergarten teacher who can’t stop herself from looking ahead to the next adventure.
It’s International Children’s Book Day! We at The Sensible Nonsense Project celebrated by curling up with some old friends and a classic or two. How about you?
"When I was eleven, I didn’t know I was gay; I only knew that I felt different from other people, even from my own family. I was beginning to try to put together the puzzle pieces: I knew I liked boys, the clothes they wore, and the things they did, but I knew I didn’t want to marry one… I had to go underground.
Enter Harriet M. Welsch, who became my role model and savior. I read Harriet the Spy soon after it came out (and I now bless the school librarian who put it on the library shelves for me to find). I was absolutely shocked by it at the time. Shocked that Harriet could defy her parents and her friends and still survive. Shocked that she loved and missed Ole Golly so much that she threw a shoe at her father to express her anger. Shocked that an adult author could know so well what really went on in the minds of children.
But the thing that shocked me the most about Harriet was her cross-dressing. It’s an aspect of the novel that girls today would miss entirely (thank goodness!), but in 1965 Harriet’s spy clothes struck me as revolutionary. Back then, girls in blue jeans and hooded sweatshirts were uncommon, though not unheard of. But Harriet’s high-top sneakers were solely boys’ wear…
I’ve read elsewhere of women my age who were inspired to keep notebooks and start their own spy routes, eat tomato sandwiches, and leave anonymous notes after reading Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret. At eleven I didn’t particularly like tomatoes, didn’t have the patience to write, and already had a spy route, so I wasn’t inspired to start any of those things. What Harriet did inspire me to do was to experiment with cross-dressing. I used whatever money I earned doing odd jobs to buy boys’ clothes on the sly and then went into other neighborhoods to play at passing as a boy. When an old man in a grocery store called me “Sonny,” I knew I had passed the test. It was remarkably easy to do, and it was as deliciously thrilling as sneaking into Agatha K. Plumber’s dumbwaiter."
~ Check out this essay at The Horn Book, in which author Kathleen T. Horning suggests that, as a queer kid in the ’60s, reading Harriet the Spy saved her life — or, at least, made it a bit more comfortable.
Check out this essay at The Horn Book, in which author Kathleen T. Horning suggests that, as a queer kid in the ’60s, reading Harriet the Spy saved her life — or, at least, made it a bit more comfortable.
“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
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.
The Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene
On a warm summer night in the backyard of my family’s house, I am in a tent reading with a flashlight. I can hear crickets chirping, smell my freshly washed hair on the pillow and feel the cool cotton sheets that are all I need to cover me tonight.
…Nancy has a midnight rendezvous planned with the creepy caretaker of whatever neat place she finds herself in this time. She slips into a fresh, crisp cotton blouse and some stretch pants, grabs a flashlight and heads out quietly with her best friends, George and Bess. There is a full moon, she can easily see the meeting place and can hear crickets, the air is heavy with the sweet smell of lilacs…
I feel like I am there with her! I am so engrossed that I don’t realize I have been wiggling a loose tooth until all of a sudden it comes out in my fingers. I don’t even feel pain. I just taste the blood in my mouth. That’s the kind of power Nancy has over me.
I first met Nancy Drew in the backseat of a 1970 Ford station wagon when I was nine years old. I was traveling with my large family by car from our home in Michigan to visit our relatives in California. The moment I met her, my obsession began. I loved everything about her. She was smart, independent, beautiful, and dripping with mystery. She had titian hair — I had never heard of that color before — and flashing sapphire eyes. The thing I found most fascinating about her, though, was that she was an only child. Being the youngest of six children, with two older sisters, I found that through Nancy I could have a glimpse at a life uncluttered by siblings. Strangely enough, my friendship with Nancy may never have started without my sisters’ introduction. I inherited my first Nancy Drew mystery from my sister Julie, who had gotten it from our eldest sister, Gloria.
Nancy also had the other thing that I most longed for: age. I was quite a bit younger than my sisters (Julie is 5 years older than me; Gloria, 16) and they always got to do so many more interesting things than I did. Nancy was a teenager who had her own car (a roadster with running boards!) and could come and go as she pleased. The Bobbsey Twins couldn’t do that!
Nancy also had power. Her friends, George and Bess, always seemed to follow her lead. She called the shots. It was always a battle between me and my friends as to where and what we would play that day, and I usually lost. And Nancy even had a boyfriend who was in college. How cool would that be?
Many a Saturday morning while I was stuck at home doing chores I envied Nancy for having Hannah, the housekeeper. She didn’t make Nancy stay in and scour the tub instead of going out and solving mysteries. And her father was always supportive, never telling her she was too young, or that she had to stay home and do her homework instead of going off on an adventure.
As time went on, and my reading skills got better, my relationship with Nancy deepened. We had some important things in common. We were both clever and, mostly, well behaved. We both adored animals and were polite to our elders. When my father died the winter that I was eleven, it comforted me to know that Nancy had lost her mother and managed to go on to great things. I always knew that I would grow up to be just like her, to use my razor sharp wit to solve mystery after mystery.
Now when I look back, I realize that Nancy Drew was the big sister that I always wanted. She never bossed me around, or left me out. She didn’t make me deal with the real life stuff that my family imposed on me. She was perfect in every way, and she was whatever I wanted her to be. Sometimes, I still think I will be her when I grow up. I can turn to her anytime and she is still a comfort to me when things get too adult and complicated in my life.
Do you think that’s why I dye my hair red?
—Mingo Reynolds has red hair and solves mysteries on a daily basis.
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.
What was your favorite childhood book, and why? Looking back, what lessons from the book still resonate with you?
Kristie says: Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes. I liked it because it was about a mouse with a unique name. It taught me how to love the unique things about myself that ARE special, and it taught me that my shortened first name is beautiful.