A Time of Loss

On March 30, 2020, the world lost Tomie dePaola. March 8, 2021, we lost Norton Juster. March 25, 2021, Beverly Cleary died. May 23, 2021, Eric Carle died. And May 25, 2021, Lois Ehlert died.

I’m still trying to absorb this. Every one of these creators left a body of wonderful, beautiful work. They all lived full lives. And I’m still having a hard time.

I say it with Dylan Thomas… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I once half joked here that Eric Carle should win the Nobel Prize for Literature. (I’ve also thought of Ashley Bryan– I just checked, and, thank God, he’s still alive, ever brilliant and ever a mentor at age 97.)

Of course, we can comfort ourselves that the beautiful books and stories will live on. And, yes, they do.

But as I’m here, with a Spriggan curled up sleeping beside me, and the Changeling presumably reading in bed… I have another thought.

I’m thinking of the when the warm sun comes up, how it shines on a little egg lying on a leaf. Out of the egg– pop!– comes a little caterpillar. The caterpillar needs food. It eats and it eats all different things. It builds a small house around itself for a nice rest, and out comes– a beautiful butterfly!

Every single creator I list above? For each of these creators I’ve seen an outpouring of loving memories: “She wrote back to me and I have that postcard to this very day,” “He smiled and said, ‘Call me Eric,'” “He had such a great sense of humour.”

Words and images endure, yes, of course: but these creators left behind an energized, inspired series of artists and authors who will continue to create new and original work. More? Eric Carle co-founded the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art which does an incredible amount of good. I will never forget running into the beautiful artist and author, Grace Lin, there with her daughter. We were there masked, social distancing, and I stammered out my request for a signed book for the Changeling and the Spriggan, telling her how my girl reads up everything she writes.

Without Eric Carle, I wouldn’t have had the space to encounter Grace Lin. He’s been such a warm, nourishing sun to so many creators. That museum gives honour to the creators of preceding generations and support to the creators of the present. It’s a living, breathing testament to the greatness of the arts.

One of the exhibits I remember clearly from the Museum was “Eric Carle’s Angels: An Homage to Paul Klee,” where we had a chance to see how his art evolved in response to the influences of Paul Klee, even the past 5 years. There was thought, abstraction, playfulness: he never stopped learning, never stopped absorbing. That takes humility.

Humility, a willingness to learn, the generosity and openness to shine a light on others and warm them with education and support: this is the legacy these creators (all of them, so far as I can tell from the outpouring of love I see and hear) are leaving behind.

I’ve got a lot of writing to do here, and several reviews in progress, but I couldn’t let tonight go by without saying this:

I never wrote to any of these five. (The Changeling did write to Beverly Cleary, a few months before her death.) I have a membership to the Carle Museum– but I never wrote to Eric Carle.

I have a recording my parents took of me “reading” (reciting) The Very Hungry Caterpillar as a child. I read it every night to the Changeling when she took her bath. (The first time I got to the last page– she cried at the butterfly, she was so surprised!) I have it off by heart in English and Welsh, both.

I wish I’d written to tell him. I regret not having done so, I regret it deeply. I think he was such a part of the landscape to me that I never thought to because… the warm sun comes up, you know? But the sun is setting tonight and while I know it will rise in the morning, tonight I’m sad. I wish I’d told Eric Carle that I care. I wrote to a few other creators tonight.

I hope you all reach out to tell people whose work matters to you that it really does. And, if you ever get the chance– visit the Eric Carle Museum and just absorb the greatness of picture books. There are so many, and the warm sun of the generations behind us has given us that space to learn, enjoy, and be inspired.

Thank you, Tomie dePaola, Norton Juster, Beverly Cleary, Eric Carle, Lois Ehlert– your memories are an ongoing blessing on the children’s book community and families everywhere.

And to everyone out there who knew these great creators: I’m holding you all in my thoughts, too. It’s tough to say goodbye, even when the books are still there.

Cat Books: Because I want to

Hello. I’m in the middle of a Very Heartfelt Post about something else, but then two books involving cats fell on me and I decided I need to write about them.

I really love cats. I have two cats: Penelope (Penny) the floofy elegant lady, and Telemachos (Telos) the Big Orange Doofus. I’m still deeply bitter I do not have twin stripey grey kittens named Castor and Pollux. They were in Indiana during quarantine but my husband said we couldn’t get them because I was due to give birth in the next five minutes and there wasn’t time. ANYWAY: sometimes people write really good books about cats– sometimes not. I Am a Cat by Galia Bernstein, for example: VERY GOOD. There was also A Castle Full of Cats, many years ago. VERY GOOD. And just recently we got TWO really nicely done picture books about cats, showing two different, but very true, cat personalities– one involving a dog, too, which I consider a bonus.

Elisha Cooper, of Big Cat, little cat, wrote and illustrated yes & no, which tells the story of a very simple day in the life of a cat and a dog. I bought three copies of yes & no when I first saw it… And I’m sorry to tell you that the only reason I only bought three is because they only had three copies on display. It was not my finest moment. The story follows the very different reactions of a cat and a dog to a new day, and their different visions of the day (“YES!” says the enthusiastic dog, “no” says the prickly, indifferent cat), until suddenly they converge in a set of wordless pages of glorious silent mutual enjoyment… and the muted end of the day separates them, but in a lovely companionable disjunction (“no” says the tired dog, “yes,” says the gently helpful cat)… concluding with a very slightly mischievous twist.

I’ve seen some really great analyses of this book, but one review which I thankfully can’t pinpoint right now, offered a very earnest pointer that it’s really about how you can have different interests and personalities but still get along and this would teach kids that and…

I can’t disagree more. This is, fundamentally, a true portrait of a cat and a dog, each with a distinct personality. Every kid and every adult will understand and appreciate this, together, and, in that truth, will come the recognition of their own personalities. “I’m so the cat here!” I thought as I read one page, and turned it and laughed as I was the dog on the next page. These are the conversations you’ll end up having as you read. I guess you could say it teaches about personalities and getting along and… that makes me cringe, though.

One final note: the art… wow, it’s possibly Elisha Cooper’s finest yet, and if you’ve seen his other books… you’ll know that’s baffling to consider. Watch the facial expressions and the landscapes.

Now, Atticus Caticus by Sarah Maizes with art by Kara Kramer is a book that Candlewick did not send me (I found it at the Harvard Book Store and bought it in a heartbeat like a normal person, except that normal people don’t have that poor impulse control, I’m guessing), and I have read it aloud to the Spriggan several times already just because I enjoy reading it aloud.

This is a very different cat from Elisha Cooper’s stately, aloof feline. Atticus Caticus is less like my Penny (that would be the elegant cat in yes & no) and more like my Telos (The Big Orange Doofus), but I think Atticus is smarter? Telos never stalks our toes and is actually too stupid to watch birds, honestly. Atticus wants a “chat-a-ticus” with the birds out the window… that’s a Penny trait, that is.

Fundamentally, though, the glory of this book is that it’s a perfect read-aloud book… not just in that it sings right off of the page onto the tongue, which it absolutely does, but also in that the personality of the characters (both the little kid and the cat) and the art ring together with the silly fun rhythm in an ideal, rollicking merger of pure delight in each other.

Note: I am fanatically picky about rhyming books. I studied poetry at the graduate level. I read a poem every night to the Changeling and the Spriggan (he cares! I know he cares!) and I am just… picky. This is not a “rhyming picture book,” though. It’s more like Jamberry in that the rhyme is part and parcel of a narrative poem where the rhythm and the bounce and the dance is of far greater importance than the (nevertheless satisfyingly perfect) rhyme scheme.

Side rant: Lord only knows why we have to keep talking about rhyme in children’s books. Have you read Mother Goose? Half of them have rhymes all over the place. It’s about good poetry not rhyme. And metre and rhythm and beat can be ten times more important. (End of rant.)

So there you have it! Two new cat books (sorry, Elisha Cooper, the dog is also adorable but it’s a cat book in my head), and I think you should really get both of them. Buy indie, please, and let me know if I can help you find your indie book shop!

(This is all rushed Because Baby so you know I mean it, OK?)