Colorful Book Spines

Focus in the Fog

You're doing great.

My kid does that too!

No...that's not crazy.

This season will pass.

You are loved.

You have no idea how talented you are.

These are some simple words of encouragement.  


Maybe, like most of us, a little bit of encouragement helps you keep going.  You can find that here.

 

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If you know me, you may know my love for Clifford runs deep. When I was young and Clifford was all the rage, I had a secret. You see, my dog was a huge golden retriever who bathed outside with the hose water which we didn’t put through the softener. Our well water had a lot of natural rust, so…I basically had Clifford.


In first grade, we were put into reading groups. Our group had two red-heads, so obviously we called ourselves “The Cliffords”. I wore that name with pride because, like Clifford, my beg red dog was waiting for me when I got home from school each day.


Norman Bridwell published the original Clifford book in 1963 and his lovable, red dog was based off an imaginary friend of his wife’s. Like any idea that catches on, Clifford goes on many adventures, celebrates many holidays, and inadvertently gets into lots of trouble. In fact, 188 books worth of adventures, holidays, and trouble. When we put out holiday books, there’s almost always a Clifford book in the mix because I’ve passed down my love of Clifford to my kids. In fact, my youngest two dressed up as Emily Elizabeth and Clifford once for Halloween. How cute were they?




This blog series is all about what we as adults can learn from children’s books. Obviously, I couldn’t leave out my favorite book series, but is it too simple? I’ve thought and thought about it and I think it comes down to this:


What does it mean to be a Clifford? And what does it mean to be an Emily Elizabeth?


Let me explain.


Clifford is a great friend. He’s loyal and helpful. He shows up big for Emily Elizabeth. He makes mistakes and he can’t help that his size gets him into trouble, but he takes good care of Emily and his other friends too. He takes the family on vacations

When I think of the Cliffords in my life, I think about friends who show up. In the worst times, there are people who don’t shy away from my pain. They take care of me and they do it in a big way. There are times when I go out of my way for someone and my kids may ask, “Who is this person again?” And I tell them, “It doesn’t really matter. I want to be the kind of person who shows up.” I want to be a Clifford.


What is an Emily Elizabeth? That’s a different kind of friend. If you haven’t read a Clifford book lately, here’s a spoiler: Clifford often does something to help Emily Elizabeth, but because he’s huge, he causes all kinds of mayhem. Emily is patient. She doesn’t get frustrated with him or yell at him. She sees his heart and gives him the benefit of the doubt. I’ve had friends who cut and run when things got real. Heck, I’ve been that friend. But it’s not what Emily Elizabeth would do. She stays.

Clifford shows up.

Emily Elizabeth stays.

I want to be both of them. I look for both of them in my friendships and I’m thankful for friends who are both.

In September, on my daughter’s Birthday actually, a live action Clifford movie is set to hit theaters. It looks unbelievably cheesy and you better believe I’ll be there to see it. Maybe I’ll bring my Clifford tote bag and try and sneak snacks in. Probably not, but maybe. These are definitely books that made me who I am and they’re still challenging me as an adult. If you have a Clifford or an Emily in your life, give them a call and thank them for showing up and sticking around. They’re as rare as…well, a big red dog.


Blessings,

Shannon




I remember my brother bringing this book home from our school library and he said, “Shan! you have to read this. It’s so funny.” I took a peek at the white dust cover. “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” read it aloud and thought to myself: where does the sidewalk end? I’ve never seen it. I opened the book and made my way through a few of the poems. Suddenly, I was shaking with laughter. So much so that I almost felt like I should hide it from my parents. I wasn’t used to funny books and it seemed like they shouldn’t be allowed for some reason.


Rediscovering this book as an adult, I found myself drawn to the very poems I knew were worn out on our copy of the book. (Turns out my parents were fine with a book that made us laugh and we got our own copy.)

Shel Silverstein was such a prolific artist. When I think of him, I remember these books, but he was a writer, a poet, a cartoonist, a songwriter, and a playwright. He got his start writing for Playboy (back when people actually did read it for the articles) and his editor talked him into writing a book for children. I’m so glad she did. His first children’s book was, The Giving Tree (1964) so I guess for a debut, it wasn’t too bad.


All those years doing cartoons made Silverstein the perfect author/illustrator. His black and white drawings look like something from a sketchbook, but they’re iconic when placed beside his wonderful poems.


Silverstein’s poetry books, which also include A Light in the Attic (1981) and Falling Up (1996) are lumped together in my mind because they feel like installments of the same book. I still remember discovering A Light in the Attic and the excitement of another book to pour over.


Unlike a novel, a collection of poetry like this has something for everyone. Not all of the poems are my favorite, and if you polled 100 people they’d probably all have different poems that stood out to them. I love that, thanks to Silverstein, I was falling in love with poetry just as I was learning how to read.


As an English teacher, the poetry unit was met with all kinds of emotions from my class. Some were excited. Perhaps they had been introduced to poetry by Shel too. However, some had already written poetry off as boring or unattainable. To me, that’s like saying, “I don’t like soup.” There are simply too many types of soup to write them all off without tasting every one. I remember asking my students, “Do you have a favorite song?” Almost all of them did. “What do you like about that song?” Some credited the beat or the sound of the instruments, but most connected with the lyrics. I said, “If you love the lyrics to your favorite song, you like poetry.” You could hear a pin drop. Then I introduced them to a buffet of soup, so to speak, and let them decide which ones they liked.

The poems in Where the Sidewalk Ends fall into a few categories (in my mind): Imagination Stretchers, Humor, Lessons, and Connections.

Imagination Stretchers:

These poems take preconceived notions and and turn them on their heads a little. That little bit of “could be real” mixed with the absurd that just stretches imaginations. Take this poem:

SKY SEASONING

A piece of sky

Broke off and fell

through the crack in the ceiling

Right into my soup,

KERPLOP!

I really must state

That I usually hate

Lentil soup, but I ate

Every drop!

Delicious delicious

(A bit like plaster),

But so delicious, goodness sake--

I could have eaten a lentil-soup lake.

It's amazing the difference

A bit of sky can make.

Humor:

Let’s be honest, it’s the humor in these poems that pulls us in. Some of that humor is kind of gross in a way that delights kids. (He really knew his audience) And some is just plain funny. One of my favorites is “Sick”. Where the speaker has two pages of symptoms each more ghastly than the last. It all culminates in this wonderful ending:

I think my hair is falling out

My elbow's bent, my spine ain't straight

My temperature is 108

My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear

There's a hole inside my ear

I have a hangnail, and my heart is... what?

What's that? What's that you say?

You say today is…Saturday?

G'bye, I'm goin' out to play!

Lessons:

Just like hiding vegetables in spaghetti sauce, there are some lessons in these pages. The lesson poems are infrequent and still funny, but they pack a punch. Like Jimmy Jet and his TV Set, where Jimmy is so enamored with TV, he turns into a TV set. Another is “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out.” Hidden in all the alliteration and the list of gross garbage is a lesson about doing things we don’t want to do. Poor Cynthia “met an awful fate” in the end of the poem. The reader is left to imagine what it was.

Connections:

Some of my favorite poems are the ones that feel like they reach out from the page and whisper to the kids, “You’re okay.” Take this one:

AFRAID OF THE DARK


I'm Reginald Clark, I'm afraid of the dark

So I always insist on the light on,

And my teddy to hug,

And my blanket to rub,

And my thumby to suck or to bite on.

And three bedtime stories,

Two trips to the toilet,

Two prayers, and five hugs from my mommy,

I'm Reginald Clark, I'm afraid of the dark

So please do not close this book on me.

It’s still funny, but it makes that connection for the reader. You may have fears, but you’re not alone. Also, don’t shut the book.

This is definitely a book that made me. More than I even realized until I cracked it open again. Reading the poems aloud felt so natural, like spending time with an old friend. If you haven’t read this poems since you were a kid (or you never did), run to the library and check out any of these poetry books. Read them to your kids or grandkids or just read them for the fun of picking up a book that makes you belly laugh. It’s good for the soul.

Blessings,

Shannon




I've been having a lot of fun revisiting some of my favorite children's books this summer. When I think of books that made me, often it’s the illustrations that are burned into my memory. Sure, I remember a clever tale like Harold and the Purple Crayon and a funny story like Alexander, but illustrations tend to stick with me the most. Spend enough time around children’s books and you’ll agree that the best art in the world is found within the pages of books meant for kids. And I’m so glad it is. The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton is one of the those books. It won the Caldecott Award in 1943 for its gorgeous illustrations. Even if you don’t remember this title (or you get it confused with the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder) one look at the illustrations may jog your memory and give you that nostalgic feeling books from childhood often do.


On the surface, this is a book about urban sprawl. Burton didn’t intend for it to be political in any way. In fact, she was speaking from her experience. However, it’s about how the landscape of rural settings change over time based on what we value. The main character is the house. When I first met my husband, I told him, “Something weird about me is I personify.” He recently reminded me I said this. I hadn’t remembered saying that, but I’m also not surprised. I do give things human qualities. So this little red house who has a smile and is called “she” and “her” wiggles her way into my heart every time I read the book.


If you flip through the book, the house doesn’t move. Things are added around her, but she stays put. Even the words in the book are art. There are no text blocks but rather beautiful text shapes. This book is a feast for the eyes.

This book for kids has some significant take-aways for adults:


1. Take note of beauty

The little house notices things. She loves the change of seasons. She watches the moon grow each night. She pays attention to the children playing in the brook in the spring, swimming in summer, going to school in the fall, and skating in the winter.


Last night I couldn’t sleep. I stumbled downstairs to sleep on the couch and caught myself before lying down on a pile of lazar tag guns. My first instinct was to get mad. Why didn’t my son take these back downstairs when he was finished? But then I found myself smiling. How fun that he had enough friends over for a game of lazar tag that had to expand into the upstairs because the basement wasn’t big enough to hold it.

Like the little house, I love the change of seasons. There’s nothing like the first buds of spring or the first cool breeze of autumn. I also love to look at the moon. But sometimes I need a little reminder to stop rushing around and look up or look out at the beauty around me whether it’s a sunset or a pile of lazar tag guns on the couch.


2. Watch what we call progress

All of the things that happen around the little house would probably be considered progress: a paved road, gas stations, trolley cars, schools, garages, an elevated train, subway rails, and sky scrapers. But these things made life for the little house miserable. She missed the apple trees and the daisies. She couldn’t see the moon anymore. She didn’t notice the change of seasons because of all the of hurrying people and pollution around her. Soon her color faded and she looked sad and dilapidated. Our beautiful little smiling house began to look like the junk around her -the junk we thought of as "progress".


I'm not saying get rid of all technology. I mean, that would actually be terrible for my blog. Just kidding (kind of). I often need to ask myself which things are actually progress and which ones are a distraction from the beauty all around me. Social media or even some the podcasts and books I listen to give me a sense of urgency but add very little value to my life. I should go sit under an apple tree or watch the kids play instead of wasting my time with them. Progress should actually make things better.



3. Long for redemption

This is just a sad story if we never get to the end where the great-great-granddaughter recognizes the house and moves her to another hill so she can live in the unspoiled country once more. This priceless house (the builder said she “shall never be sold for gold or silver”) finds herself surrounded by an ugly city. She starts to blend into her surroundings, but someone sees her for what she is -precious. The house is as good as ever on the inside, so they put her on wheels and move her. It’s this aspect of the story that always sticks with me. It reminds me of my Saviour. I don’t know why He chooses to see me as precious or why he set me apart and gave me new life. But I’m so glad he did. Even when I blend into my surroundings, he sees me as special, something priceless. I know some people who have no idea how priceless they are and I long for their redemption the same way I long for someone to take that little house out of the city and give it a new foundation under the stars.


Of the seven children’s books Virginia Lee Burton published, not one has ever gone out of print. Since she wrote them 70-80 years ago, that’s unbelievable to me. I know a lot of people forgo a card when they attend a baby shower and buy a book instead. That’s such a cool idea and The Little House would be a good choice if you ever have that opportunity. Buy it, but before you wrap it, take some time to read it. Flip through the pages and see the landscape change. Fall in love with the Little House all over again. You won’t be sorry.



Blessings,

Shannon


 
 

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