Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
Your House By The Sea
When someone asks me, “What’s your favorite book?” the wheels in my head start spinning. After all, it’s an outrageously loaded question. It’s almost like asking me, “Which is your favorite kid?”
But every time I’m forced to sit down and make some kind of choice, the same few titles spin around, jockeying for position. Most of those are books I connected with as a child, through seemingly endless evenings of leaning against my mother while she read chapters aloud from The Hobbit, or closing my eyes to hear my father’s voice change completely to read an El Ahrairah in the midst of Watership Down.
But the one that meant the most to me, that still means the most to me, is Miss Rumphius.
In only a few dozen pages, that story imparted more beautiful imagery and important life lessons than any other. Miss Rumphius, who I never felt mature or important enough to call Alice, has a life that from childhood to dotage is a guideline to a well lived existence.
Here’s a woman, in what appears to be pre-World War existence, who becomes educated and independent. She travels alone, she cultivates hobbies and academic interests. She is friends with herself and she is endlessly curious about the world around her.
At the same time, in a world of children’s books filled with female characters who either become mothers or have no family of their own, family is important to her. She never expresses any sort of regret over her life choices, but clearly loves her nieces and great-nephews and all the children tangentially related to her. Who even as a child understood the importance of a connection with her family, and who as an elderly woman opens her door to her extended family with grace and love.
That’s only the subtext. That’s only the hidden lessons, taken away from watching her age as the pages turned, year after year of my own life. The text of the story too is instructive. When she listened as a child to her grandfather’s tale of travel and adventure, she told him she would also travel the world, and also live in a house by the sea.
And so she did. But it was her house by the sea, a different sort of home and a different sort of sea than her grandfather chose. And they were her adventures, inspired by but entirely different from the tales her grandfather told.
Which taught me that while imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, you can pay homage to your inspirations in your own way, with your own compass, and having had them lead you in no way diminishes your own successes.
Miss Rumphius’s grandfather told her that it was all well and good to travel and learn and live your live the way your chose, but there was one other thing. “You have to make the world a more beautiful place.”
Now, in the book, Miss Rumphius’s grandfather was a painter. Miss Rumphius grew up to seed an entire countryside with flowers. But I always took this admonition to mean something more flexible, a little deeper.
When I went to art school, I thought I too would make the world a more beautiful place. But going to school in the inner city I saw so many kinds of ugliness — poverty, hunger, addiction. And in that context, I couldn’t help but see that beauty isn’t just in adornments. It’s in removing the ugliness hiding what’s already there.
I’ve devoted much of my adult life to social justice, confident that every time my efforts help a woman fleeing domestic abuse, or a child learn to read a book like Miss Rumphius, the world is slightly more beautiful.
And maybe I’ll never live by the sea, but I will live in a place that I’ve chosen and made mine. And my heart will always be open to my family, ready to love. And most importantly, I will strive always to like myself. To do what makes me happy, and what I know is right, and to cultivate in myself that which I admire in others.
So I cherish my dog-eared, crumbling copy of Miss Rumphius, keeping these lessons close to my heart—
Any home can be your house by the sea. Any adventure can be your adventure. Be true to yourself, and someday, no matter how many years have passed, you will find that you too have made the world a more beautiful place.
Lea Grover is a writer and toddler-wrangler living in Chicago. When she isn’t cultivating an impressive dust bunny collection she waxes philosophic about raising interfaith children, marriage after a terminal cancer diagnosis, and vegetarian cooking. Her work has been featured on the Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Daily Mail Online, iVillage Australia, Red Shoes Review, The Dusty Owl Quarterly, and her daughters’ toy refrigerator door. When she isn’t revising her memoir, she can be found singing opera to her children or smeared to the elbow in Townsend pastels. You can follow her blog, Becoming SuperMommy, on Facebook, Pinterest, Google+, and @bcmgsupermommy.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
One of my favorite books growing up was The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I was a tomboy and spent most of my time playing outdoors with my brothers so I felt a connection to the three children bringing the garden back to life. The messages about the healing power of nature and the importance of friendship still resonate with me to his day.
—Tory Burch (toryburch) is CEO and designer of Tory Burch, an American lifestyle brand known for color, print and eclectic details. Raised in Valley Forge, PA, Tory graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in art history, then moved to New York to pursue a career in the fashion industry. She launched Tory Burch in 2004 with a small boutique on Elizabeth Street in Manhattan, and since then the brand has grown into a global business with more than 125 freestanding stores and a presence in more than 3,000 department and specialty stores. Tory launched the Tory Burch Foundation in 2009 to support the economic empowerment of women entrepreneurs and their families in the U.S. She lives in New York City with her three sons.
What book is Juan holding and why is it important?
Click through to see video from our second ever Sensible Nonsense Project live reading!
Featuring readings about:
WE’RE DOING IT AGAIN!
One week from today — 3/25, at 6PM EST — we’ll host our second live Sensible Nonsense event.
Wait, what is this?
It’s a live reading where eight people will share their reflections on their favorite children’s books. If it is anything like last year’s, you will laugh and you will cry.
An eclectic group of professionals, graduate students, and undergraduates: Jay Kirk, Jamie-Lee Josselyn, Andrew Panebianco, Erin Peraza, Andie Davidson, Ana Schwartz, Meg Pendoley, and Juan Cabrera.
Only the coolest place in Philadelphia, the Kelly Writers House.
Oh, well, I’m not in Philadelphia.
Well, do you have an internet connection? (You must, if you’re asking these questions!) So all you have to do is click the link for KWH-TV and press play at the time of the program, and you can watch live on your computer.
I have low blood sugar.
That sounds rough. Luckily, we’ll be serving up a reception full of your favorite after-school snacks following the program.
Gosh, that sounds cool. I wish I could have been a part of the project!
Oh, but you can! The Sensible Nonsense Project ALWAYS takes submissions. Send us your essay here!
Any particular reason I should come to this?
There’ll be an exciting announcement about the future of the project.
Last time it was cancelled because of snow. Will this time be cancelled because of snow?
We really hope not.
Will it ever be spring again?
We really hope so.
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
Children, as far as I can tell, are little pagans, full of unaccountable beliefs and peasant superstitions. From triple-knotting their shoelaces to elaborately naming their toys, they have rituals for everything, and perform them as though doing otherwise would invite a curse into their lives.
Of course, I’m speaking from experience. In my childhood bedtime in particular was a matter of high ceremony. I had to be tucked in with diagrammatic precision, like a present being wrapped; I had to be armed with my favorite long-suffering pony toy, nestled in the loving choke-hold of my right arm; and I had to be read to, from books that I had committed to my personal canon with evangelical zeal.
This obsession with the rites of bedtime seems to be an integral part of childhood, as well as a recurrent theme in both children’s and grown-ups’ literature. Swann’s Way, by very reductive logic, is about a French mama’s boy’s gargantuan freak out when his doting mother forgets to wish him good night. And Goodnight Moon, the gorgeous children’s book I’d like to talk about today, is a special liturgy for sleepy children everywhere.
The book, as you likely recall, is very simple: a pajama-clad bunny sits in bed in a palatial green room with high ceilings and orange floors, surrounded by an array of objects both familiar and strange (a chair, a comb; a “bowl of mush”). As we turn the pages, we take inventory of each of these things, acquainting ourselves with the charming, garishly painted room and its contents. And then, along with our young bunny-protagonist, we wish them goodnight. “Goodnight comb, and goodnight brush,” we say, turning a page. “Goodnight stars, goodnight air,” we say. “Goodnight noises everywhere.”
It’s not hard to understand why the book is so captivating to read as an adult. Maturity, for some reason, seems to be defined in part by being completely surrounded by objects, many of them useful, few of them necessary, and almost all of them completely assimilated into the unremarkable texture of daily life. The idea that we should notice a comb, really, fully attend to it, seems like a useless mental exercise, something we would only do in a goofy drama class or if there was a chance we could make the comb spontaneously combust. The notion that we should just idly think about a comb, and maybe wish it good night now and then, just to be nice, feels worrisomely naïve.
But children, of course, relate to objects differently than we do, their world as yet uncontaminated by symbolic meanings. A cigar really is just a cigar when you’re a kid, thank god, because what else could it possibly be? Our understanding of objects has to become more complex as we grow up, for a number of practical and developmental reasons. But I wonder sometimes if that earlier understanding of the world, that willingness to see objects on their own terms, is where generosity comes from.
Children may not love more fairly or intelligently than adults—if they did, adulthood would be pretty doomed—but they do seem to love more abundantly. The way kids love dogs, toys, teachers, older children, playgounds, candy, and exercise is astonishing, a realm of emotional possibility to which we can have only vicarious access. We’re lucky if life gives us a handful of people to love; and, knowing that, it’s hard not to envy children, to admire their world which is so capaciously loving, and so full of lovable objects.
I’m not a child, at least not technically. My idea of a good time typically involves long periods of sitting down, and I don’t believe that toys have souls. But Goodnight Moon is still one of the most beautiful books I’ve read, and a book which, I hope, still informs the way I engage with the world. I’m probably not capable of wishing a comb goodnight, at least not without embarrassment. But I hope I’m still able to love the world with real attachment and a sense of wonder—an ability which might not be the hallmark of adulthood, but which will certainly keep me from getting bored.
—Emily Harnett has been lucky enough to stay in Philadelphia, and at the Writers House, in some professional capacity. She enjoys twentieth century fiction, which she hopes to study next year as a PhD student. Emily’s other research interests include, but are not limited to, Russian history and politics, napping, and Kanye West.
Sorry, Sensible Nonsense fans — tonight’s live event is canceled due to inclement weather.
Sounds like a perfect time to snuggle up and read, though! We suggest these wintry classics:
The Sensible Nonsense Project LIVE — in ONE WEEK!
Help us honor the humor, pathos, and enduring wisdom of children’s books! Six speakers will share stories about their own favorite childhood books, what those books taught them, and how those lessons continue to influence their adult lives. Stay on afterward for a delicious reception inspired by after-school snacks, and to get more information about how you, too, can participate in the project.
Hosted by Arielle Brousse
Sponsored by Creative Ventures
EMILY HARNETT (C’13)
ANDIE DAVIDSON (C’15)
DYLAN LEAHY (C’16)
Thursday, Feb. 13th | 6:00pm | Arts Café
Kelly Writers House | 3805 Locust Walk
JAY KIRK is the author of Kingdom Under Glass (Henry Holt), which was named one of the Best Nonfiction Books of 2010 by the Washington Post. His award-winning nonfiction has been published in Harper’s, GQ, The New York Times Magazine, and anthologized in Best American Crime Writing, Best American Travel Writing, and Submersion Journalism: Reporting in the Radical First Person from Harper’s Magazine. He was a National Magazine Award Finalist in 2013, and the recipient of a 2005 Pew Fellowship in the Arts. He currently teaches in Penn’s Creative Writing Program. His next book, Avoid the Day (HarperCollins), is due out in 2015.
CAITLIN GOODMAN is a librarian and archivist in the Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia and writes the monthly “Grumpy Librarian” readers’ advisory column for City Paper. She lives in Philadelphia and, like all librarians, loves cats and cardigans.
EMILY HARNETT (C’13) has been lucky enough to stay in Philadelphia, and at the Writers House, in some professional capacity. She enjoys twentieth century fiction, which she hopes to study next year as a PhD student. Emily’s other research interests include, but are not limited to, Russian history and politics, napping, and Kanye West.
ANDREW PANEBIANCO is a writer at the Philly ad firm, Brownstein Group. Prior to that he inflicted piles of Romantic poetry and Shakespeare on a decade’s worth of college kids. He is also the author of nearly 200 definitions to words that aren’t, but should be. Read more at wordsthatarent.com, and follow him @fancywhitebread.
If ANDIE DAVIDSON (C’15) had her own personal Room of Requirement, it would likely be filled with coffee, chocolate, and books. An English major and French minor, she is a grammar freak and nearly-certifiable shopaholic. In between exploring (or wandering, as her friends would call it) and searching for Crumple-Horned Snorkacks, she can usually be found reading, making up stories in her head, or overusing parentheses.
DYLAN LEAHY (C’16) plans on majoring in English and minoring in Cinema Studies because he enjoys the idea of a future without job security. He filters most of his experiences through pop culture and idolizes various TV lesbians (cheerleader or otherwise). He’s been obsessed with stories and the way they are told ever since his dad read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to him when he was seven.
Neil Gaiman reads Green Eggs and Ham!
This has been making the rounds, but here is such an appropriate place for it to stop on those rounds.
(Reminder: nine days until The Sensible Nonsense Project’s live event! Come on by or tune in live online.)