My husband and I are celebrating the ninth anniversary of our wedding tomorrow. We’re high school sweethearts who sometimes act more like quarrelsome siblings — we did, in essence, grow up together.

I first set eyes on Austin a little more than 16 years ago, in April, during soccer season. I caught sight of that tall, blonde drink of water on the field from my vantage point in the stands and that was it.

I had a penchant for stalking boys (just ask my other adolescent crushes), so I spent the next four months “running into” Austin at Taco Time, his place of summer employment, or at his house (my best friend was dating his younger brother and I was the frequent third wheel). He finally succumbed to my charms and asked me out on our first date: dinner at Garfield’s in south Des Moines on August 21st, 1998.

Now here we are, with a life together more rich than we could have ever imagined as teenagers.

However, when it comes to traditional romantic occasions, such as our anniversary or Valentine’s Day, our mutual efforts leave more than a little room for improvement. There was the first year, when Austin attempted to frame our wedding vows but ended up slicing off the tip of his nose when the glass in the frame tipped out while we was cleaning it. The experience must have been particularly scarring (figuratively AND literally — just take a close look at his nose), because that was probably the last time we exchanged anniversary gifts.

That said, I scrounged up a little something this year to commemorate our 9th year of matrimony. But if I’m being perfectly honest, the only reason I have any gift at all is because I was researching children’s book illustrator Sophie Blackall today for another blog post I’m working on.

Blackall is the artist behind such fantastic books as “Big Red Lollipop” and the Ivy and Bean chapter book series, in addition to many others. Her Chinese ink and watercolor images are amazingly detailed and incredibly distinctive, making her one of my all-time favorite illustrators. Thus, you can imagine the happy dance I did when I discovered she has an ETSY SHOP!!! where she sells incredibly reasonably priced prints of some of her amazing illustrations.

Many of the prints are from a fascinating collection of drawings illustrating actual Missed Connections Craigslist classifieds from New York City, which were published as a book, “Missed Connections: Love, Lost & Found.” Others are simply beautiful images celebrating love. Here’s the one that’s en route to my house:

Sophie Blackall Print

It’s a sentiment about our relationship I feel quite profoundly; if things hadn’t lined up just so, we never would have met, fallen in love and brought our beautiful girls into this world. I love you, Austin.




April marks two years since Austin and I lost our third child at 22-weeks gestation. It’s hard to believe two years have passed; the pain can feel as fresh as yesterday but it can also feel like I’ve carried the weight of it for decades.

My love for our baby is not complex; it is pure and unending. But my comprehension of and reflection on what happened is VERY complex, and I’m not certain I will ever make sense of it all in my lifetime. I do know that I’ve been changed by his existence in many important and wonderful ways. His life and death brought me to know God, to literally hear Him speak to me, as I never expected I would. If you know me, ask me about it some time.

These and many, many, more thoughts are with me every day, but I share them now because I believe God gave me my son for a purpose – both to shape my life in many large and small ways but also to influence the lives of others. For that reason, I feel compelled to share how my experience has shaped my thoughts on the importance of first trimester prenatal testing.



Our baby, a boy, had a non-hereditary, chromosome disorder called Trisomy 18, in which three copies of the 18th chromosome are present. It occurs in 1 in 2,500 pregnancies. The abnormality caused countless malformations of the body, including missing and abnormal organs, bones and limbs. The results were fatal, as is almost always the case with this syndrome and especially for boys.

For the 5 months prior to our 20-week ultrasound, we had envisioned and loved a child we thought would now be nearing his second birthday, toddling around, learning new words, being played with, snuggled, kissed and hugged a million times each day. In reality, from the moment of his conception, that life we envisioned for him could never have been. But once imagined, it was impossible to un-imagine. As I recently told Austin, you can’t change where your heart has been.

When I was pregnant the first time around with my oldest daughter, Eloise, I was young, 25, with no family history of birth defects or chromosomal abnormalities. My risk level couldn’t have been much lower.

When offered prenatal testing, I declined and told my doctor, as many women do, that if I were to learn our child had Down syndrome, we wouldn’t choose to do anything differently. More specifically, we did not intend to abort a baby who had Down syndrome.

We went through a scare at our 20-week ultrasound when they discovered Eloise had a single umbilical artery. Umbilical cords should have two arteries and one vein, but a missing artery occurs in about 1 percent of babies and a percentage of those occurrences has been linked to structural anomalies and chromosomal disorders such as Trisomies 21 (Down syndrome) and 18. Subsequent ultrasounds reassured us there was no cause for concern, and Eloise was born healthy.

Similarly, I did not undergo testing for my second daughter, Charlotte’s, pregnancy, and she was born without issue.

When we conceived a third time, I was still in my late-20s and still blissfully naïve. No testing necessary.

But then, the world fell apart at our 20-week ultrasound. Our 4- and 2-year-old daughters were in the room with us, excited to learn if they’d have a new baby brother or sister. Our families were planning to meet us at a restaurant afterward for the big gender reveal. Half-made whoopee pies were sitting in the fridge at home, waiting to be filled with pink or blue-colored icing. Then, the ultrasound technician told us something was wrong and that we’d have to talk to the doctor. And at that moment, here’s what I learned:

Those bad things you feel silly worrying about? Chromosomal disorders and birth defects? They happen every day, there are statistics for a reason, and there’s no reason they can’t happen to you.

I had been reluctant to acknowledge or act on my fears. It was almost as if I superstitiously thought that by choosing not to do prenatal testing my pseudo-confidence would somehow keep those scary things at bay. I also feared that if I said “yes” to testing, it might give people – my doctor, in particular – the impression that I wouldn’t accept a child with Down syndrome.



What hadn’t sunk in for me until then, and what I learned on our long and painful journey, is that prenatal tests aren’t just about Down syndrome. They also test for other, more severe, often fatal disorders. And opting to participate in prenatal testing shouldn’t be associated with any sort of stigma or shame. It doesn’t necessarily mean a parent intends to end a pregnancy in which an abnormality is detected. Instead, prenatal testing allows parents to prepare themselves as fully as possible for whatever the pregnancy might bring.

In many cases, prenatal testing will result in a pregnancy with significantly reduced stress levels thanks to clean test results. (Maternal stress has been shown to increase the risks of miscarriage and negatively affect a baby’s development.)

It might mean making plans to deliver at a hospital with a skilled neonatal team that’s prepared to treat complicated health issues that have been identified, possibly saving the baby’s life.

In the case of a Down syndrome diagnosis, in-utero therapies are beginning to be implemented to foster optimal brain development before birth.

On the other hand, it might mean preparing for the loss of the pregnancy because of a fatal disorder or defect, but beginning that process months earlier than we were able to.

Most importantly, if genetic testing reveals an abnormality, the information enables parents to prepare emotionally as early as possible, adjusting their expectations, evaluating how they plan to share the news with their other children or friends and family, making plans for how or whether to proceed with the pregnancy and seeking the best medical, psychological and spiritual help possible.

What would it have meant for me? Surely I would be living in an alternate universe.

I would not choose to change where life has taken me in the wake of our loss. However, I wish I could have spared my daughters the confusion and uncertainty of that time in our lives—being ushered out of the ultrasound room, watching their mother disappear into the darkness of grief, having their lives turned upside down when we immediately moved in with my parents, struggling to understand the explanation that our baby was too sick to live with us and that God needed to take care of him instead.



When I was pregnant with Flora, our now-7-month-old, I could no longer let my naivety lead me blindly, hoping for the best, assuming lightning wouldn’t strike twice. I’d lived through hell and barely climbed my way out; things were going to be different this time around.

Thankfully, I had the guidance of skilled perinatologists who thoroughly explained the various testing options available. (The American Pregnancy Association offers a good overview here.) Doctors now recommend that all women be screened for Down syndrome and other trisomy disorders. But this information, when presented in the doctor’s office in the early stages of your pregnancy, can be overwhelming. And when you think you have nothing to fear, it’s easier to just tune it all out and choose not to participate.

  • The maternal blood tests most widely used in the first two trimesters are not “diagnostic,” meaning they cannot tell parents definitively if their baby has an abnormality or not. Instead, they measure hormone levels in the mother’s blood, combine those with ultrasound and information about the mother (including age and ethnicity) to offer an estimate of the baby’s risk for abnormalities. Both false positives and false negatives can and do occur. When an abnormality seems likely, a diagnostic test becomes necessary. In the case of false positives, the parents are subjected to unnecessary emotional stress and the baby is subjected to the risks that accompany invasive testing.
  • Diagnostic tests for chromosomal disorders and genetic abnormalities include chorionic villus sampling (CVS), which tests tissue from the placenta, and amniocentesis, which tests the genetic material in the amniotic fluid. CVS is available between 10 and 12 weeks, allowing earlier results, but does not test for neural tube defects. Amniocentisis is usually performed later, between 15 and 20 weeks, and does test for neural tube defects. Both procedures report abnormalities with 98-99 percent accuracy. However, both procedures also carry the risk of miscarriage. For CVS, the risk has been reported at 1 in 100 procedures resulting in miscarriage. For amniocentesis, the risk ranges from 1 in 200 to 1 in 400 procedures resulting in miscarriage.

It would seem there are no good options. But miraculously, my fourth pregnancy perfectly coincided with a major breakthrough in prenatal testing: cell-free fetal DNA testing.



Using a basic blood sample drawn from the mother as early as 10 weeks gestation, a testing lab is able to sift out cell-free fetal DNA present in the mother’s blood. This fetal DNA gets into the mother’s bloodstream when cells from the placenta die and come apart, releasing genetic material that’s absorbed by the mother’s blood stream. The test is able to isolate this genetic material and examine it to determine if there are abnormal numbers of chromosomes, specifically Chromosomes 21, 18 and 13 and the X and Y sex chromosomes.

Cell-free fetal DNA was discovered in 1996, and the first genetic testing based on the technology was offered in 2011. In late 2012, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended the test for patients at an increased risk for chromosomal defects, but many OB/GYN’s have never heard about the test. Mine hadn’t.

However, we now have a history that includes a pregnancy with chromosomal abnormalities. My OB/GYN directed me to the Perinatology Center of Iowa where we were offered a cell-free fetal DNA test, under the brand name Verifi, as an alternative to CVS during the first trimester of my pregnancy.

At first glance, I assumed the test was no different than the traditional first trimester maternal blood screening, in which I would receive results that outlined the baby’s relative risks for various disorders. Those tests did not offer the certainty I needed, nor could I imagine surviving the possibility of a false positive after what we had already been through. However, I also knew I could not proceed with my pregnancy uninformed only to find out later that the baby could have something drastically wrong, however slim the chance.

We agonized over the choices but were enlightened when we did more research on the Verifi testing option. We discovered that the test detects greater than 99.9 percent of all cases of Down syndrome, more than 98 percent of all Trisomy 18 pregnancies and about 65 percent of Trisomy 13 pregnancies.

Equally important is the incredibly low rate of false positive results. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in late February 2014 made a head-to-head comparison of cell-free fetal DNA tests and standard screening methods. Cell-free fetal DNA tests were found to have a false positive rate of 0.45 percent while standard testing resulted in false positives 4.2 percent of the time.

With this information in hand, we felt confident relying on the Verifi test to provide us with the best, most accurate, information possible about the health of our baby. My blood was sent away last March and, 10 days later, we were called with clean results. Because we had opted to test for sex-linked chromosomal disorders as well, we had the added benefit of learning the baby’s gender. We were expecting our third girl.



When I look back on April of 2012, I remember how alone I felt. I couldn’t imagine that anyone, especially not anyone I knew, could have suffered in the unique ways we had. But one of the blessings and sadnesses of enduring this pain is learning just how much company we have. Countless people sought us out – neighbors, friends of friends, people we’ve known for ages – they sent us messages, called us, to tell us that they, too, endured something similar and that they had survived.

According to the March of Dimes, 1 in 150 babies are born with a chromosomal disorder and 1 in 33 are born with some sort of birth defect. How many women do you know, and how many pregnancies will they have between them? It starts to feel much closer to home.

I don’t intend to incite fear. Being pregnant is joyous and beautiful and exciting, and you have every right to expect that your baby will be the picture of perfection. But you know the old adage “hope for the best and prepare for the worst?” I know just how devastating it can be when all you do is hope because you’re afraid of the worst.

Think about it this way: The average person is expected to be in a car accident every 17.9 years, but hopefully you wear your seat belt every time you’re in the car. Buckling up doesn’t mean you’re afraid you’ll crash that day; it’s just the smart thing to do.

First trimester prenatal testing is the smart thing to do, ESPECIALLY if you would continue a pregnancy with a chromosomal abnormality or other birth defect. Most issues will be caught in a 20-week ultrasound, but, in my experience, finding out this far into the pregnancy causes emotional trauma that should be avoided at all costs. (For the perspective of another mother who chose cell-free fetal DNA testing, read “Why I Wish I Had Chosen Prenatal Testing,” a moving essay written by Patti Rice, the mother of 11 whose 10th child was born unexpectedly with Down syndrome.)

If you are pregnant, planning to become pregnant or know someone who is, I strongly urge you to ask your doctor about a cell-free fetal DNA test. Doctors who are aware of the test are recommending it as an option for those who are of advanced maternal age, have irregular standard maternal blood screenings, have irregular ultrasound findings or have a personal or family history of chromosomal disorders. However, ANYONE can request the testing. If your doctor isn’t familiar with it, don’t be afraid to ask them to look into it. It’s available in all 50 states. Just three insurance companies cover it (Aetna, Cigna and United Healthcare), but in our case, the testing company reduced our personal cost to under $200 when it wasn’t covered by our insurance.

I believe that this sort of testing will quickly become the standard of care, but in these early stages, I want to share what I’ve learned with as many people as possible. I can only hope that learning about cell-free fetal DNA testing will save one person from suffering the way we did. Or maybe it will keep someone from unnecessarily undergoing a more risky, invasive test like CVS or amniocentesis.

If you do choose to do prenatal testing, please tell people. Hopefully sharing your decision with others will help reshape how we look at prenatal testing, transforming it into something that’s viewed as one of the most caring, responsible choices you can make for your baby, yourself and your family.


For months, I’ve been hiding Barney Saltzberg’s “Good Egg” in an out-of-the-way cabinet, having found the PERFECT book for Flora’s first Easter basket. Pull-tab books aren’t always a good idea for hands that haven’t quite learned a gentle touch, but this book was just too witty and innovative to resist.

Good Egg Cover

On color-blocked pages, Saltzberg introduces us to “Egg,” whom he issues commands, much like you would a dog, on the subsequent pages. When the reader lifts the flap or pulls the tab, Egg adorably executes the command and its praise (“good egg”) is revealed.

Lie Down Good Egg

Suspense builds when the egg is asked to “speak,” and a crack appears. When the command is reissued, the top off the eggs lifts to reveal a very talkative chick within.

Speak Egg Chick



For the older reader, I love “Little Bunny Foo Foo: The Real Story,” by Cori Doerrfeld. The book is based on the nonsensical contemporary American folksong whose authorship and exact date of origin are unknown. The general consensus is that the song popped up in the mid-1960s as a camp song, confirmed by my Boomer-era mother who recalls singing it at summer camp about that time.

The song was certainly a part of my childhood. I remember singing it and gleefully “bopping” my younger sisters on the head. So caught up in the silliness, I suppose I never stopped to ponder would could possess a cute cottontail to abuse her fellow forest friends in such a fashion.

Little Bunny Foo Foo Cover

That’s just the question Doerrfeld set out to answer in her quirky picture book. The illustrations reveal that Bunny Foo Foo may not be as malicious as we thought. And those poor, defenseless field mice? Not so poor and defenseless.

Bunny Foo Foo 1

In Doerrfeld’s version of the story, the field mice sneak into Bunny Foo Foo’s house while she’s cleaning up from baking cupcakes and make off with her sweet treats. She goes “hopping through the forest” in pursuit of the thieves. When she catches them, she smacks the mice on the head and takes back her cupcakes.

Down comes the good fairy who decides to stick her nose where it doesn’t belong.


“Little Bunny Foo Foo, I don’t want to see you scooping up the field mice and bopping them on the head.”

The fairy tells Bunny Foo Foo she’ll turn her into a monster if the abuse continues and allows her two more chances to behave. Unfortunately, the field mice, now in cahoots with the other forest animals, have already made off with Bunny Foo Foo’s cupcakes again, and Bunny Foo Foo isn’t going to stand for it. She burns through her remaining chances, becoming increasingly enraged by the pilfering rodents, and the “Good” Fairy follows through on her threat, turning Bunny Foo Foo into a monster.

Bunny Foo Foo Mad

The monstrous Bunny Foo Foo exacts her revenge, however, and satisfies her sweet tooth by gobbling up the saccharine fairy, a consequence the Good Fairy obviously hadn’t considered before wielding her wand.

Foo Foo Eats Fairy

“And down went the Good Fairy, who tasted very good indeed.”

Doerrfeld’s acrylic illustrations hold all the appeal of your children’s favorite animated movies. She’s drawn mice and birds whose rascally behavior is at first disguised by their Disney-esque cuteness. Her Good Fairy is as sugary and frosted as Bunny Foo Foo’s cupcakes. And Bunny Foo Foo’s expressions of frustration-turned-fury make her a sympathetic heroine.

Doerrfeld’s lyrics vary slightly from the original (in which Bunny Foo Foo is given THREE chances before she’s turned into a GOON, rather than a monster); but this book is sure to inspire a rollicking sing-along and inevitably a game of head bopping, but hopefully all in good (and gentle) fun.

When I was preparing for Flora’s arrival, there was very little shopping that needed to be done. We had five years worth of girls’ clothes and all the baby essentials. Our car seat was about to expire and we decided to upgrade to a video monitor (singing its praises), but other than that, it was pretty much diapers and baby shampoo.

Oh, and did I forget to mention? A little bit of book shopping, too, of course.

It was just so plainly obvious that our board book collection was lacking, and I’ll use any excuse.

As attractive as their near-indestructible format is, I have always been a reluctant consumer of board books. Primarily because too many great picture books have been inappropriately repackaged into board book format.

Click Clack Moo CoverTake “Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type,” for example. It was one of the founding editions of my children’s book collection, purchased long before any of my girls were even conceived. This incredibly witty, amazingly illustrated story is intended for children ages 3 to 7, and appropriately so.

Would I have ever considered this book in board book format? No!

Why not? For several good reasons:

1: Its sharp humor, creative plot and detailed illustrations would go completely over the head of a baby or toddler.

2: The complexity of the text would likely test the patience and interest of these young readers.

3: All of the aforementioned elements that make this an exceptional picture book would be diminished in the board book’s small-scale format.

But most importantly, by the time your baby is 7 years old and capable of fully appreciating this story, how enthusiastic do you think she’ll be about pulling out a board book at story time? Not very.

The best board books are written and constructed with babies and toddlers in mind —hence the thick sturdy pages, with wipeable, glossy surfaces designed to withstand little ones’ not-so-gentle hands. School Library Journal offers a good summary of what constitutes a truly successful board book:

“The best ones tell a simple story with few or no words, allowing readers to invent their own. Ideally, illustrations are crisp and clear, with limited images on each page, offering plenty of contrast between the background and the pictures. Occasionally, a picture book makes the successful transition to a board format, but be warned that not all picture books are equally engaging as board books. Too much text on the page is distracting and crowded, and the smaller trim size can make illustrations appear crammed on the page, losing detail and focus. The absolute best board books are the ones that withstand the test of time: not only in being indestructible, but also in holding young children’s interest as they explore and point to pictures, exclaiming, ‘again, again!’ when reaching the last page.”

Stumped by the ill-suited board book release of “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” Horn Book contributing editor Cynthia Ritter suggested that publishers are catering to “parents who want smaller, sturdier, and cheaper versions of picture books.” She suggests that money-smart parents seek out paperback editions of books before succumbing to the allure of board books. They’re “lighter and, while less durable, similar in cost to the board book and in size to the original,” she writes.

Here’s how I see it, if a book is available as a picture book, I choose that format almost without exception. Even if I incur double the cost of a board book, I gain three times the life. Inevitably, all children consider themselves “too big” for board books, usually by the time they’re two. If a picture book can survive those first two years, it will be read many more times in the years that follow, both to your first child and as well as any that may follow.

Conversely, if I’m going to buy a board book, it’s going to be specifically suited for children under two and it had better be pretty outstanding. Keeping my prejudices in mind, I’ve sought new baby-friendly titles to complement tried-and-true board book favorites like “Brown Bear, Brown Bear,” “Moo, Baa, La, La, La,” and “Goodnight Moon.”

In the process, I’ve noticed an interesting trend in my preferences: I now have a significantly larger collection of books derived from folk songs. It’s a trend that isn’t completely surprising. Many nursery rhymes and folk songs are so engrained in our memory that they’re easy to fall back on as you rock your baby to sleep in the middle of the night or attempt to distract a toddler causing a raucous at a restaurant. “This Little Piggy” and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” never grow old and rarely cease to elicit a baby’s adorable chuckles. The lyrical verses are just what you need to hold an on-the-go toddler’s attention.



One of my favorite board book discoveries in this genre has been Marla Frazee’s “Hush, Little Baby.” As a child, this was the song my parents would sing to us at bedtime, and it was the first thing that popped into my head when I was a new mom attempting to console a colicky infant.

Hush Little Baby Cover


Frazee’s rich watercolor illustrations make her one of my all-time favorites. I adored her work in “The Seven Silly Eaters” and “Everywhere Babies.” Her humor is wonderfully evident in “Boss Baby,” which she authored and illustrated. She’s also responsible for bringing “Clementine” to life in Sara Pennypacker’s popular chapter book series.

In “Hush, Little Baby,” Frazee’s beautifully detailed images lend a clever backstory to this traditional American folk-song. The opening pages of the book depict a frontier family returning home at sunset, the eldest daughter envious of the attention the new baby gets as her parents tuck the baby into bed. Turn the page and the reader spies big sister shoving her baby sister’s cradle, waking the baby and setting the song in motion.

Hush Little Baby 1

Hush Little Baby 2

Hush Little Baby 3

While Mama attempts to console the baby, Papa and Big Sister visit a peddler on the road to see if they can find something to “hush the baby.” We all know how the story goes, though, and despite their many desperate attempts, Baby howls all night long. Just as the sunrise is tingeing the sky pink, the family tumbles out of a horse drawn cart and the baby finally decides she’s tired out.

Hush Little Baby Ending

I love how Frazee has captured the siblings’ reconciliation and the parents’ utter exhaustion. Best yet, I love the sweet and innocent look on the baby’s face, in sharp contrast with earlier images of a seemingly possessed child. Isn’t that just how babies are? Utterly exhausting and maddeningly frustrating during sometimes endless fussy periods, but angelically loveable the very moment it passes.

Angry Baby

As an added bonus, the last page of the book offers the accompanying lines of music, which will be helpful for those readers who can’t exactly remember how the tune goes.



I discovered Tomie de Paola’s petite gem “Mary Had a Little Lamb” at The Pumpkin Patch, our local, independent children’s book and toy store. It always astonishes me how poorly big box bookstores stock some of the children’s book greats like de Paola, Eric Carle and even some of Dr. Suess. I’ll never forget when our BAM bookstore failed to turn up either a copy of “The Cat in the Hat” or Mem Fox’s “Ten Little Fingers, Ten Little Toes.” And they wonder why I have absolutely zero interest in their ridiculous membership program!

Conversely, it was a pleasant, but not completely unexpected treat to discover a de Paola with which I was previously unfamiliar while browsing about The Pumpkin Patch. The proprietor, like most indie sellers, knows her children’s book authors and is a particularly ardent de Paola fan.

Mary Had a Little Lamb Cover

Originally published as a picture book in 1984, de Paola’s “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is a rare example of a book that’s been appropriately repackaged as a board book. The song’s succinct verses, paired with de Paola’s vibrant artwork make it perfectly suited for toddlers and babies. Of course, there are other board book incarnations of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” but there’s none better than de Paola’s. His illustrations, in themselves, are masterpieces of contemporary American folk art and are ideal for bringing to life one of the best-known American folk songs. He’s also done a masterful job of interspersing wordless pages between verses of the song, creating a pacing that’s ideal for impatient readers eager to turn the page.

For example, the page spread following the verse “And every where that Mary went / The lamb was sure to go” illustrates the little lamb following Mary while she washes the dishes in the kitchen, reads a book in the attic and then nods off to sleep.

Mary and Lamb

Mary Had a Little Lamb HousesIn addition, I appreciate the historical accuracy with which de Paola approached the project, incorporating the concluding verses of the song that few of us know and illustrating the pages with landscapes, buildings and dress that are true to the time and location in which the song was composed —1830, rural New Hampshire countryside.

De Paola also had an interest in the supposed controversy concerning the rhyme’s authorship, about which he writes in detail on his website. Traditionally, the writer Sarah Josepha Hale of Guild, New Hampshire, is credited with the creation of the original poem. However, a Mary Sawyer of Sterling, Massachussets, claimed she was THE Mary who took her pet lamb to the town’s one-room schoolhouse. She asserted that a visiting pastor-in-training witnessed the incident and composed the verses, which he gave to her.

De Paola read everything he could on the topic and concluded that he sided with Hale, especially in light of her deathbed oath that she was the sole author of the poem.

Mary Author

“I shared all of this information with Margery Cuyler, my editor at Holiday House. We agreed to produce a picture book of the poem and credit SJH (Sarah Josepha Hale) as the AUTHOR — what fun! I went to Newport and sketched actual buildings that would have been in Newport at the time of SJH. I even put a portrait of sorts on the title page of an 1850’s-1860’s lady writing at a desk with a toy lamb pull-toy near her. And guess what? I ADDED to the controversy. Letters poured in — well, OK, dribbled in — correcting me about the ‘TRUTH.’ I sent them to the Richards Free Library whose staff enjoyed answering them. I DON’T WANT ANY MORE LETTERS ABOUT WHO WROTE ‘MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB.’”



Another treasure trove of song-based board books are those offered by Child’s Play, a British publishing company that’s employed nearly every nursery rhyme or folk song one could name, from “This Little Piggy” to “”If You’re Happy and You Know It” to “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” I’m particularly fond of their “Books with Holes” board book series. These books utilize unique die cuts in their pages to reveal images that enhance the story’s development. I’ll use our favorite, “The Farmer and Dell,” to illustrate the technique.

On the opening page spread, we meet “the farmer in the dell,” seen through the first hole holding a bunch of flowers. The accompanying second verse tells us “the farmer takes a wife,” and we’re shown a group of a dozen potential spouses — some scary, some frumpy, some quirky and some sweet. The reader gets the fun of guessing whom the farmer will choose.

Farmer and the Dell 1

The page spread that follows reveals the selected wife through a new hole. In addition, we’re shown a crowd of a dozen potential children, one of whom belongs to the couple. Will it be the girl in the flowered dress or the boy on the skateboard? Maybe the boy with the chickens? Turn the page to find out.

Farmer and the Dell 2

The bright, playful illustrations and lyrical, repetitive verses make this book enjoyable for our baby, but the guessing game has captured the interest of our 4- and 6-year-old girls. They almost always choose a “Book with Holes” when I encourage them to read to Flora; and because they know the songs so well, even our pre-reader Charlotte can “read” these books. They may have the most fun with “The Farmer and the Dell,” but they also love the inventive new verses in “Little Miss Muffet.”

Miss Muffet Parrot

Along came a parrot, who crunched on her carrot.

You’ll also meet a bear who gobbled her pear, mice who munched all her rice and a poodle who nibbled her noodles, among others.

Our collection also includes “One Elephant,” which brings back fond memories of Sharon, Lois and Braham, as well as “The Ants Go Marching.” We have “Old McDonald,” too, but this edition was a case in which Child’s Play’s traditional British verses didn’t quite match up with our familiar version of the song. For instance, their horses “whinny” rather than “neigh” and their pigs “grunt” rather than “oink.” Check out their full collection of books on their website.


When I write about a book, I like to spend time learning as much as I can about the author and illustrator, their artistic methods and their literary inspirations. I’m always curious about the story behind the story.

Optical IllusionHowever, there are some books that are so iconic and familiar that it can be difficult to see their treasured images and verses afresh, to separate the story from our long-engrained impressions. It’s a little like that old optical illusion in which one either sees a young lady or an old woman — your brain usually interprets the picture one way and it can be difficult to grasp hold of the alternate image.

Such was my experience when researching “Madeline” and its author/illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans for my post about the ultimate little girl’s library.

Madeline Cover

Despite evidence to the contrary, I was one of the many who assumed Madeline had no family. Indeed, many believe that “old house in Paris” was an orphanage. I also was under the impression that Madeline was French, as was her author — anyone who would attempt to rhyme “again” and “rain” simply couldn’t be American, could they? And I was certain that Miss Clavel was a nun.


I had to throw many of my preconceived notions out the window after coming across this NPR interview with Bemelmans’ grandson, John Bemelmans Marciano, who has revived the Madeline empire in recent years with new titles like “Madeline and the Cats of the Rome” and “Madeline and the White House.”

“It’s not an orphanage; she’s not a nun; and Madeline is not French,” Marciano told NPR. “I used to get almost indignant over it, but these things take on a life of their own and sometimes misperceptions are the stuff of legends.”

According to Marciano, although Madeline attends a French boarding school, she is an American with parents bearing the surname Fogg. This detail was apparently buried in a manuscript Bemelmans drafted in the early 1950s after a visit to Texas. Marciano discovered the text and accompanying sketches while researching his grandfather and published it posthumously as “Madeline in America and Other Holiday Tales.”

Of course, if you had been looking for it, you would have taken note of the dollhouse Madeline received from “Papa” during her hospital stay in the original book. In addition, Madeline flies home on a magic carpet in “Madeline’s Christmas” and is shown happily celebrating on her father’s lap with a mother and two younger siblings nearby.

Madeline Has Family

As for Miss Clavel, Marciano insists that her apparel is that of a nurse. However, Marciano was born eight years after the death of his grandfather, so even his assertions may be a little faulty at times.

Most revealing of Madeline’s genesis is the acceptance speech Ludwig Bemelmans gave after being awarded the 1954 Caldecott Medal for “Madeline’s Rescue” (he had previously received a Caldecott Honor for “Madeline” in 1939).

Bemelmans explains that he never had ambitions of writing a children’s book, that all he ever wanted to be was a painter. However, he said the methods necessary for becoming a successful artist did not appeal to him; he did not want to exhibit himself, he did not like “the kissing of hands,” and he did not want to see his work sold and taken away.

Madeline became Bemelmans’ solution; a method of painting what he loved and presenting those images to an appreciative audience without having to comprise himself:

“You will notice in ‘Madeline’ that there is very little text and there is a lot of picture,” Bemelmans said. “The text allows me the most varied type of illustration: there is the use of flowers, of the night, of all of Paris, and such varied detail as the cemetery at Père la Chaise and the restaurant of the Deux Magots. All this was there waiting to be used, but as yet Madeline herself hovered about as an unborn spirit.”

in rain or shine

So what brought about Madeline’s birth? Bemelmans traced the spark of creation to a mishap he experienced during a vacation by the sea in France. While bicycling home to his rented beach house with the catch of the day slung over his shoulder, Bemelmans was hit by the island’s only automobile.

Here’s cause to question Marciano’s familiarity with his grandfather’s legacy. Marciano asserts in an interview with the literacy website Reading Rockets that his grandfather was conveniently hit by an ambulance that subsequently delivered him to the hospital. But Bemelmans recalls to the finest detail “a four horsepower Super Rosengart belonging to the baker of Saint Sauveur, the capital village on the island. This car was a fragrant, flour-covered breadbasket on wheels.”

In fact, Bemelmans said he had to walk himself to the hospital, lobsters in tow. But this misfortune proved an important catalyst:

“I was put into a small, white, carbolicky bed, and it took a while for my arm to heal. Here were the stout sister that you see bringing the tray to Madeline, and the crank on the bed. In the room across the hall was a little girl who had had an appendix operation, and, standing up in the bed, with great pride she showed her scar to me. Over my bed was the crack in the ceiling ‘That had the habit, of sometimes looking like a rabbit.’ It all began to arrange itself. And after I got back to Paris I started to paint the scenery for the book. I looked up telephone numbers to rhyme with appendix.”

Madeline Hospital Inspiration

To flesh Madeline out more fully, Bemelmans drew inspiration from many of the women in his life. Her name is a more rhyme-friendly version of his wife’s Madeleine. Her appearances matches sketches Bemelmans made of his daughter, Barbara, enjoying her first trip to Paris, including a visit to the zoo.

The details of daily life in the old house in Paris are based on stories Bemelmans mother told him about her girlhood in a convent in Bavaria.

“I visited this convent with her and saw the little beds in straight rows, and the long table with the washbasins at which the girls had brushed their teeth,” he said.

Madeline Beds and Sinks

That convent school was, of course, overlooked by nuns, which most likely shaped Miss Clavel.

Even more interesting are the autobiographical components of Madeline’s character

“I myself, as a small boy, had been sent to a boarding school in Rothenburg,” Bemelmans said. “We walked through that ancient town in two straight lines. I was the smallest one.”

In Two Straight Lines

It’s no wonder Madeline has been so dear and familiar to three generations of children and adults. She is a masterful collage of very real and special people.

Finally, I was fascinated to learn more about Bemelmans’ international upbringing, which, in turn, provides explanation for the author’s unusual rhymes. He was born in an area of Austria-Hungary that is now part of Italy where he spoke French exclusively until the age of six. (“It was fashionable in Europe to bring up children who spoke nothing but French,” Bemelmans explained) At that time, Bemelmans’ father left the family for their governess and Bemelmans’ mothered moved the children to Germany, where he picked up his second language. He spent the remainder of his youth in Germany and then Austria, learning the hotel business. In 1914, he immigrated to the United States to further his apprenticeship in the hospitality industry. He joined the United States Army in 1917 and became a U.S. citizen in 1918.

Bemelmans’ former editor, May Massee, cites his 1953 memoir, “Father, Dear Father,” as one of the best sources of biographical information available on the author. Within its pages, Bemelmans has recorded the experiences and conversations of his trip to Europe with his daughter, Barbara. Barbara expresses somewhat exasperated curiousity about Bemelmans’ diverse cultural background and complex accent.

“Do you speak German with an accent too?’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘Do you speak any language correctly?’

‘Well, I have the least accent in French, or else the French are very polite, for they always say how very well I speak it for a foreigner.’

‘That’s all rather sad, Poppy.’

‘Well, it has its advantages. It’s like being a gypsy, belonging everywhere and nowhere.’”

As a result of his efforts to mimic his grandfather’s inventive prose, Marciano says he’s come to appreciate Bemelmans’ oddities:

“I think there’s something great about inconsistency,” he told NPR. “It keeps you on your toes as a reader.”

However, he sympathized with Bemelmans’ editors, citing his grandfather’s attempt to rhyme the words “Genevieve” and “beef” in “Madeline’s Rescue.”

Madeline's Rescue

“In German…the ‘v’ and the ‘f’ is the same,” he said. “I can just imagine (the editors) saying: ‘No. It does not rhyme in English.’”

For more captivating information about Ludwig Bemelmans, his writing process and the history of his books, read the entirety of his Caldecott Medal acceptance speechas well as the whole of his editor’s reflections on the author. In addition, Forbes offers an interesting look at the Madeline dynasty, past, present and future.

My dear friend is having her second child and HER FIRST GIRL!!! later this month. We showered her with baby bows and all things girly this past weekend, and I was tasked with putting together a bow-themed, children’s book trivia game for our party.

Can you name that bow?

(Find the answers at the bottom of this point)

(Find the answers at the bottom of this post)

This line-up of beribboned characters represents many of the classic heroines of children’s picture books (with a picture book newbie and a British import thrown in).

When I broke the news of my first pregnancy, my sisters presented me with a signed copy of Katherine Holabird’s “Angelina Ballerina.” Their inscription read:

Angelina Inscription

I hear baby boys are wonderful; I’ve met several that are irresistible; but as one of four sisters, I was set on having my own gaggle of girls. If I hadn’t been lying on a table during my 20-week ultrasound, I would have done a victory dance when the technician told me I was expecting a girl that first time around.

Now that our house holds three little girls, our collection of the great “girl” books has grown exponentially from that first edition of “Angelina.” While I’m a firm believer that all books can be, and should be, enjoyed equally by both genders, there is a collection of books I believe no little girl’s library should be without. Each has become a beloved classic, having proven its unique value through the test of time. These are the books I gifted as a right of passage for my friend as she prepares to become the mother of a daughter.

Eloise Cover

“Eloise,” written by Kay Thompson and illustrated by Hilary Knight
I’m a bit biased, as this is my firstborn’s namesake, but Eloise is a one-of-a-kind character. Inspired by the author’s goddaughter, Liza Minnelli, Eloise is the quirky and wonderfully self-assured 6-year-old who lives on the “tippy-top floor” of The Plaza Hotel and gets into all kinds of innocent mischief in that great establishment. I love her confidence, independence, sense of adventure and creative imagination. I love Knight’s frenetic pink, black and white drawings. And I’ve grown to love the author’s childlike, stream-of-consciousness writing style, peppered with inventive vocabulary like “skibble,“”sklank” and “sklonk.”

Madeline Cover

“Madeline,” written and illustrated by Ludwig Bemelmans
There are few children’s book characters more recognizable or more enduring than Bemelman’s Madeline. Brought to life 75 years ago, she is still the shining example of fearlessness: “She was not afraid of mice — She loved winter, snow, and ice. To the tiger in the zoo, Madeline just said, ‘Pooh-pooh.’” Not even an emergency appendectomy can shake this small girl’s bravery. Children are fascinated by Madeline’s daring and entertained by Bemelman’s irresistible rhyming text.

Henkes Book Cover

“Chrysanthemum” and “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse,” both written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes

“Chrysanthemum” is the perfect book for the current generation of children whose parents, like Chrysanthemum’s, are set on finding unique and “absolutely perfect” names. Chrysanthemum, much to her parents’ delight, loves her carefully selected name and has a healthy self-image….until she starts school. Poor Chrysanthemum is crushed when the “mean girls” make fun of her long, flowery name. And Chrysanthemum’s poor parents are devastated when their darling daughter returns home heartbroken after her first day of school. Despite their efforts to boost her spirits with favorite meals, board games and parenting books, Chrysanthemum’s plight worsens at school…until everyone’s favorite teacher affirms just how perfect Chrysanthemum’s name is.

Henkes writes children’s struggles, happinesses and thought processes better than any author I know, and his illustrations are just as exceptional. Which is why I also count “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” as another great classic. Lilly is a mouse with immense enthusiasm for school and for her teacher. But when her enthusiasm for her new purple plastic purse, movie star sunglasses and three shiny quarters become a nuisance at school, she’s reprimanded by her beloved teacher and her once positive feelings quickly swing toward the other end of the spectrum. In her rage, Lilly draws an offensive picture of her teacher, which she comes to regret when her emotions cool off. In the end, amends are made and Lilly gets a chance to show off her new acquisitions at an appropriate time. It’s a great book for children with big personalities and big emotions.

Angelina Cover

“Angelina Ballerina,” written by Katharine Holabird and illustrated by Helen Craig

The author was the second eldest of four sisters who grew up and had two daughters of her own, so its no wonder she imagined a book that’s held such appeal for tutu-obsessed readers for three decades. “Angelina” is much more than a book about ballet, however. It’s a book about a child (a mouse child) that has a dream of becoming something great. What makes Angelina admirable is the discipline and focus with which she chases that dream in order to earn her “happily ever after.” And nothing beats Craig’s delightful illustrations; so many of her images remained clear in my memory despite the decades that lapsed between my childhood readings and the book’s reintroduction when I became a parent.

Miss Rumphius Cover

“Miss Rumphius,” written and illustrated by Barbara Cooney
Though not bow adorned, I will argue that Cooney’s “Miss Rumphius” is THE most inspiring of female picture book characters. The book, published in the year of my birth, long ago earned its spot as my all-time favorite children’s book, in large part because of the breathtaking beauty of the rich and detailed images with which Cooney illustrated this story. Equally moving is the protagonist, Miss Alice Rumphius, the little girl who grows up painting with her grandfather in his cigar shop by the harbor. She admires the exotic images her grandfather paints from the memories of his travels, and she vows that she, too, will travel to faraway places before returning to live by the sea. However, little Alice’s grandfather tells her there is a third, more difficult thing she must do in her life: find a way to make the world more beautiful.

As we turn the pages, we watch Alice grow into a young woman who does, indeed, travel to faraway places – mountains, deserts and lush islands. In her later years, she makes her home in a cottage by the sea and at last discovers how to accomplish the third task of her life. Miss Rumphius spends a spring and summer traversing nearly every inch of her seaside village, scattering lupine seeds in her wake and earning her strange looks from passerbys. But when the landscape explodes with the “blue and purple and rose-colored lupines” the next spring, she is lauded as the Lupine Lady, inspiring the generations that follow to seek their own ways of making the world more beautiful.
Miss Rumphius serves as a sterling role model of a person (regardless of gender) whose life is defined by neither love nor career but by the rich and varied adventures of her life. Her achievement of that “third, most difficult task” is a goal to which all people should aspire – to leave this world better than we found it.

Olivia Cover

“Olivia,” written and illustrated by Ian Falconer
“Olivia” is the most recent of the “classics” but well-deserving of her place on my girls’ must-have list. After the book’s debut in 2000, Falconer earned a Caldecott and praise putting him up there with the children’s book greats, including comparisons to the aforementioned “Eloise” illustrator, Hilary Knight. The story is simply an introduction to the book’s namesake, Olivia: what she likes, what her talents and interests are, who her family is, what her days are like. What makes Olivia special is her own fabulous opinion of herself, her seemingly endless energy, her unique style and her joie de vivre. Children would want Olivia as a friend, and adults will identify with the exasperating aspects of parenting such an independent and energetic kid/pig: when OIivia gets dressed, “she has to try on everything;” when it’s naptime, “Olivia’s not at all sleepy;” after seeing the Degas exhibit, Olivia decides to try her hand at the artist’s technique on the walls at home; and every night involves tough negotiations as to the duration of the evening’s story time. Flaconer’s illustrations are stunning and his writing is brilliantly humorous. He’s created a nearly flawless series of “Olivia” sequels and I can’t wait to see what he creates next.

New Girl Books Covers

“Fancy Nancy,” “Pinkalicious,” and “The Very Fairy Princess” are several other storybook girls who have arrived on the scene more recently and who offer a bit more frill. They’ve proven immensely popular with today’s little girls, but I would suggest that, like a red wine, they may need a little time to age before we determine if they have the legs to last.

Who else would you add to the list of great picture book girls?

Answers: 1. Angelina Ballerina, 2. Chrysanthemum, 3. Olivia, 4. Eloise, 5. Fancy Nancy, 6. Milly-Molly-Mandy, 7. Madeline

The Reading Queen

I am so proud of how impressed Eloise was of herself on Friday.

She had the day off from school and, like she does most mornings, she woke up and immediately grabbed a book: “Ivy and Bean: What’s the Big Idea?” She read during breakfast and on the way to and from dropping her younger sister off at preschool (she even read while walking to the back hall to put on her coat). She took a break mid-morning but was right back at it when we drove south to Des Moines to visit Dad at work. At one point during the hour drive, Charlotte became frustrated because Eloise wouldn’t raise her head from her book to answer a question Charlotte had asked her at least three times. “Stop being a reading worm,” she shouted. (That’s Charlotte for “book worm.”)

We stopped in at Dad’s office, ate lunch, had a playdate with a friend and then headed home. While Charlotte and Flora nodded off, Eloise sat in the back absorbed in her book again and I enjoyed an hour of peace and quiet. Just as we were pulling into our neighborhood, Eloise held up her book so I could see it in the rearview mirror and gave me a beaming smile.

“I can’t believe I read a whole chapter book in one day!” she said.

That’s right, my KINDERGARTENER read 121 pages in one day. She’s reading at a level I didn’t reach until second or third grade!

I’d like to take a little credit for Eloise’s reading prowess, but I am absolutely BLOWN AWAY by what she’s learned in her kindergarten classroom this year.

In 1988, I attended half-day kindergarten, where I learned my ABCs, numbers, sharing and general classroom behavior. Today’s kindergarten curriculum bears little resemblance to that of my youth. Eloise and her classmates are reading, writing in full sentences, taking spelling tests and doing multiplication and division word problems. At church today, I could barely hold a group of 4- & 5-year-olds’ attention for five minutes, but Eloise’s kindergarten teacher, Angie Bonthuis, has somehow managed to give 20 students the rock-solid foundation on which the rest of their education will be built. In my opinion, Mrs. B is a master of her profession, deserving of a superhero’s cape and a Fortune 500 CEO’s salary.

As Eloise’s reading abilities skyrocket, my new challenge is finding beginner chapter books that have stories of substance and are written with originality and creativity. One of my favorite discoveries has been “Kelsey Green, Reading Queen,” written by Claudia Mills with illustrations by Rob Shepperson. The book is the first in what will become a series about the “Franklin School Friends,” including Kelsey and her best friends, Annika and Izzy.

Kelsey Green Cover

In this debut story, Kelsey takes center stage, and we come to learn just how much she loves to read. In fact, her classroom teacher would likely argue that Kelsey likes to read just a little too much, as she’s often caught with a piece of fiction hidden inside her textbook during math lessons. This is one of the many reasons I love Mills’ book so much; over the years, I had more than one book confiscated when I was found reading at an inappropriate time.

Kelsey’s obsession is only taken up a notch when the school principal, Mr. Boone, announces a school-wde reading challenge: if the students read two thousand books before April, he’ll shave off his beard. To top it off, the class that reads the most books will be awarded a pizza party and the students who read the most in each classroom will have their name engraved on a plaque.

Kelsey develops a cutthroat rivalry with her classmate Simon, a fellow bookworm, in pursuit of the top-reader honors. She becomes convinced that Simon is faking his reading totals and enlists her friends in her efforts to spy on him. On the other hand, the contest also inspires Kelsey to help a classmate who struggles with reading discover a book series he can enjoy (even if her motives are based on her desire to bolster the class’ total).

The book is rightly praised for the accuracy with which Mills has written about various school scenarios and everyday challenges third-graders encounter. And Kelsey’s reading list, which includes books such as “The Secret Garden” and “Sarah, Plain & Tall,” serves as a great syllabus for young readers like my Eloise.

What are your favorite early chapter books, both new and old?

A friend and high school classmate of mine runs a fantastic blog called PreachTeach, offering thoughts on family life from the perspective of a woman of faith and a former teacher. This week, the PreachTeach, Erica Douglas, offered up an amazing picture book recommendation for Black History Month: “Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story of the Underground Railroad.”

Henry's Freedom Box Cover

After reading Erica’s words of praise for Ellen Levine’s educational but captivating book, I jumped online and reserved a copy of the book at the Ames Public Library.

Her recommendation was well-timed, especially considering how tongue-tied I found myself trying to explain Martin Luther King Jr. Day to my 5- and 4-year-olds last month.

I am grateful my girls have grown up in an environment in which they consider differences in skin color no more worthy of comment than differences in eye color. Although I recognized that there are places in the world ­—in this country, for that matter — where racial inequality and discrimination still exist, my children have yet to be exposed to the idea that anyone could be treated with unkindness simply because he or she was born with skin any shade but white.

Martin Luther King Jr.In fact, our discussion about Martin Luther King Jr. only came about because Eloise, my kindergartener, wanted to know why she had school on January 20th, while her younger sister Charlotte’s preschool did not.

“Well, today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and some schools and business close to celebrate it as a holiday,” I said. “I’m sure you’ve been talking about Martin Luther King Jr. in school, haven’t you?”

Apparently they had not (although you can’t always trust a kindergartener’s report on what they’ve been up to at school).

I have to admit, I was apprehensive about delving into the topics of civil rights and slavery. First, I have neither the talents of a teacher nor the adequate mastery of the history to feel qualified to do it justice. Second, I was uncomfortable with the idea of telling my daughters that people once thought that those with dark skin were not considered a white person’s equal.

I honestly think Eloise and Charlotte have never given skin color a passing thought. So why introduce the idea? Would it cause them to observe a difference (if only visual) that they had never considered before? It was the same thought process I went through when debating whether to take the girls to Monsters Inc. We had never had bedtime fears, especially not about monsters under the bed or in the closet. Would watching the movie cause them to wonder if there are monsters lurking a night?

As my mind turned circles with Eloise waiting patiently for an explanation, I came to two conclusions: 1.) I MAJORLY overthink things, 2.) There’s no ignoring history.

As much as I’d like my children to live forever in their bubble that’s void of any ignorant discrimination, I know that someday, likely much sooner than I can imagine, they’ll hear someone being made fun of for how they look, how they talk, how they love, how they adapt to learn or what they need to physically navigate the world.

If they can be taught the history of racial inequality in our country, of genocide in many other parts of the world, and they can understand the injustice and horror of slavery, then they will be better armed to recognize the existence of discrimination and inequality in the world around them.

As the political theorist and Irish statesman Edmund Burke is credited with saying:

“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”

It is my hope that my children will be taught an adequate amount of American and world history over the course of their formal education, including units on slavery and civil rights. But a parent cannot rely on schools alone to teach our children about humanity’s past mistakes and to teach them what tolerance and equality mean in today’s world.

My girls need to hear me say that it’s wrong to treat people unfairly because they differ from us in some way, be it how they look or act or what they believe or don’t believe about God and what He teaches. They need to hear me say that we need to respect others’ differences, even if we don’t understand them. They need to see me show respect to those who are different than me and show compassion for those who experience greater struggles or disadvantages than I do.

So how do we teach children about slavery and inequality without making the world seem like a bad and scary place? I’m not sure. But reading “Henry’s Freedom Box” together was a great place to start.

Author Ellen Levine accomplished a remarkable feat with this picture book. It tells the true story of Henry Brown, a slave who was first sold and separated from his family at age 13 and later lost his own wife and three children when they were sold in a slave market. Desperate for freedom and ownership over his own life, Henry mailed himself to freedom, crunched into a 3’x2’x2.5’ crate bound for Philadelphia, “a place where there are no slaves!”

As Erica put it on PreachTeach, “the story expresses the ugliness of slavery so simply to children.” Levine opens her story in such a way that children are quickly able to comprehend the injustice of the life of a slave:

Henry Brown

 “Henry Brown wasn’t sure how old he was. Henry was a slave. And slaves weren’t allowed to know their birthdays.”

No birthday?! I think the shock of that alone grabbed Eloise attention and held it the whole book through.

I, however, was moved to tears by this image:

Henry Brown and Mom

Henry is held on his mother’s lap and wrapped in her arms just the way I sit with my children. While she holds him, she says:

“Do you see those leaves blowing in the wind? They are torn from the trees like slave children are form from their families.”

These words were so moving; I was curious if it was, indeed, something Henry’s mother had spoken to him as a youth. The narrative he so passionately composed in 1816 (available in full here) reveal the pain of this memory in full detail:

At an early age, my mother would take me on her knee, and pointing to the forest trees adjacent, now being stripped of their thick foliage by autumnal winds, would say to me, “my son, as yonder leaves are stripped from off the trees of the forest, so are the children of slaves swept away from them by the hands of cruel tyrants;” and her voice would tremble, and she would seem almost chocked with her deep emotions, while the big tears would find their way down her saddened cheeks, as she fondly pressed me to her heaving bosom, as if to save me from so dreaded a calamity. I was young then, but I well recollect the sadness of her countenance, and the mournfulness of her words, and they made a deep impression upon my youthful mind. Mothers of the North, as you gaze upon the free forms of your idolized little ones, as they playfully and confidently move around you, O if you knew that the lapse of a few years would infallibly remove them from your affectionate care, not to be laid in the silent grave, “where the wicked cease from troubling,” but to be the sport of cruel men, and the victims of barbarous tyrants, who would snatch them from your side, as the robber seizes upon the bag of gold in the traveller’s hand; O, would not your life then be rendered a miserable one indeed? Who can trace the workings of a slave mother’s soul, as she counts over the hours, the departure of which, she almost knows, will rob her of her darling children, and consign them to a fate more horrible than death’s cold embrace! O, who can hear of these cruel deprivations, and not be aroused to action in the slave’s behalf?

These words encapsulate every mother’s greatest fear – that one’s child could be taken from her forever. For Henry’s mother, this fear was a guaranteed eventuality, and that fear was realized when her master died and his slaves were divided amongst his four sons.

Henry was sent to work at one of the sons’ tobacco factory where, “if you made a mistake, the boss would beat you.” Artist Kadir Nelson breathtaking beautiful images capture the not-so-beautiful parts of Henry’s life and the lives of his fellow slaves. You see the dejection in his eyes and posture. You see the white man glaring at him on the street. You see the panic in Henry’s face when he learns his wife and children have been sold. You see the fear in his son’s face as he’s carted away.

Henry's Sadness

But you also see the determination in Henry’s face and the steel in his back when he decides to risk death and mail himself to freedom. And you see his long-awaited happiness when he finally escapes the confines of that box.

Henry's Freedom

Levine and Nelson have elegantly communicated the sad realities of slavery but have done so in captivating story-telling form. Young readers are impressed by Henry’s daring escape and are particularly fascinated by the cut-away images revealing Henry hidden within his cramped box.

Henry In the Box

The book contains just the right amount of biographical and historical information to be educational but does not overwhelm the reader with heavy amounts of facts that could be beyond their understanding. However, the author’s note on the closing page offers incredibly well-summarized overviews of slavery, the Underground Railroad and more specific details of Henry Brown’s journey.

Thank you to Erica and TeachPreach for giving me this tool to open my daughters’ eyes to an important part of all Americans’ history.

I suspect that Valentine’s Day, with all its pink and hearts, glitter and love, can be a bit frilly at times for some school-aged boys. And I’ll take a stab in the dark and say I don’t think my friend with three sons is checking out “Pinkalicious: Pink of Hearts” on her trip to the library this week.

For those looking for less gooey Valentine’s Day reading material, I offer you “Zombie in Love,” written by Kelly DiPucchio and illustrated by Scott Campbell. Keeping with my previous post about Valentine’s Day books, this one avoids actual mention of the holiday, and it’s been a frequently-requested, year-round staple on our bookshelf since my sister, Lindsay, gave it to one of the girls last February.

Zombie in Love Cover

Mortimer is a zombie who, aside from the company of his zombie dog and plentiful parasites, is quite lonely and hoping to find the love of his life in time for the Cupid’s Ball. DiPucchio and Campbell offer a playful interaction between text and picture, chronicling in word Mortimer’s earnest efforts to win the ladies over but revealing in image just how wrong he’s getting it.

Mortimer Screws Up

After enduring one failure after another, Mortimer places an add in the newspaper:

Personal Ad

Does Mortimer’s carefully crafted prose sound familiar? It brings to mind a little ditty about a letter in the personals you may have heard before:

If you like piña coladas and getting caught in the rain

If you’re not into yoga, if you have half a brain

If you like making love at midnight in the dunes of the cape

Then I’m the love that you’ve looked for, write to me and escape. 

DiPucchio combines a great sense of humor with a witty talent for playing with words. The Cupid’s Ball attendees are “well… having a ball,” and Mildred (Mortimer’s long-sought love) is described as “drop-dead gorgeous.” The couple drives off into the moonlight in a “his and hearse,” dragging tin cans with labels like “cran-brainy juice,” “baked brains,” “Dead Bull” and “Mountain Tomb.”

His and Hearse

Artist Scott Campbell punches of the humor and oddity with his quirky illustrations. I particularly love Mortimer’s ever-present companions, a band of friendly worms who can be spotted playing catch, in the midst of a game of poker, working out and donning bowties. They remind me of Oscar the Grouch’s pet worm, Slimey.


My girls, on the other hand, love Campbell’s depiction of Mortimer’s winning smile:

Mortimer's Smile

And it’s apparent that Mortimer’s met his match when we see Mildred smile “like this:”

Mildred's Smile

Eloise and Charlotte take the opportunity to do their best zombie-smile impressions at this point in the book. Based on their affection for the book, it comes as no surprise that it was a finalist for the 2012 Children’s Choice Book Awards.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Children’s Choice Book Awards, it’s a joint project of the International Reading Association and the Children’s Book Council in which publishers submit hundred of titles to be evaluated and voted on by more than 10,000 children. Throughout the school year, five review teams, located in different regions of the United States, work with their local classroom teachers and school librarians to incorporate the books into classroom activities. The most popular titles, as voted on by children whose teachers are involved in the project, are chosen as the finalists. Winners are announced in the various age categories, and it’s a great place to look for great book inspiration, because kids sure know how to pick ‘em. (This year’s Children’s Choice winner is “Nighttime Ninja.”)

Olaf ValentinesFebruary has just barely arrived, but our Valentines were done a week ago, the girls’ Valentine’s Day candy and gifts have been purchased and my husband and I actually have a date night planned during the same week in which Valentine’s Day falls.

This has NEVER happened before.

Procrastination runs thick in my blood (I intended to post this yesterday), and I’m always leaving these things to the last minute, especially when it comes to Valentine’s Day, a holiday for which I have exactly one decoration and to which I give little thought.

Of course, my life is a little like a Looney Toons cartoon; I’m the animated character trying to block the water leaking from a dam – I get a few holes plugged but that only makes the water come out faster somewhere else; eventually, the whole dam will bust apart. Let’s just say you don’t want to look in my laundry room (or anybody’s closets, for that matter).

So, to further put off the washing, I’ll share my thoughts on Valentine’s Day books.

I’ll start by saying I generally detest holiday themed books. Christmas books are the exception because their “shelf life” is longer. You can pull them out at Thanksgiving and they last until the last remnants of Christmas are cleared away, sometimes well into January if you’re anything like me. But Valentine’s Day, Easter and Halloween books only seem appropriate for a couple of weeks in their respective months. “Where is Baby’s Valentine” just isn’t fun to read in August.

Which is why my very favorite “Valentine’s Day” books are those that don’t directly reference the holiday at all. Rather, they take the holiday’s themes of hearts, affection and love and create books that can be read all year long.

My Heart Is Like a Zoo Cover

Michael Hall’s “My Heart is Like A Zoo” is a perfect example. If you’ve been perusing Pinterest lately for Valentine’s craft ideas, you may have come across pins like these:

Pinterest Heart Animals

Comprised almost entirely of various sized hearts, these animals were inspired by the bold artwork of Hall’s book of similes that compare the characteristics of a menagerie of adorable animals with the diverse feelings one has in her heart. (Watch the book trailer and see the animals in motion here.)

For example, my heart is…
“happy as a herd of hippos drinking apple juice”


OR is it “angry as a bear”?

Angry Bear

It would like to be “peaceful as a portly walrus lounging on a towel.”


But that will have to wait until March.

For now, it’s as stressed as a housecat waiting for the vet. (I made that one up myself!)

Heart Cat

Hall’s vibrant colors and imaginative use of hearts earn him comparisons to Lois Ehlert and make this book visually fascinating for children and adults. Everyone has a favorite animal: Eloise loves the seal, Charlotte fancies the blue jay and I favor the elegant heron.

Jay Seal Heron

I also enjoy the book’s closing pages, depicting the tired “zookeeper” tucked into bed and overlooked by his animal friends. As a child, I had a similar habit of lining up all my stuffed animals, and the image brings back fond memories.

Zookeeper Sleeps

The back cover of the book offers a brief tutorial on Hall’s construction methods.

Heart Zoo Tutorial

This teacher‘s students used Hall’s book as the inspiration for their amazing arctic landscape.

Arctic Heart Landscape

Not only can Hall’s artwork inspire your Valentine’s crafting, but his images also offer a great lesson on shapes (the subject addressed last week at Charlotte’s preschool). Can your child identify and count all of the hearts used to make each animal? Have them trace the individual hearts with their fingers.

Christmas BooksAll three of my girls will be getting books alongside their candy for Valentine’s this year. (I take advantage of any excuse to gift them new reading material: Easter, Halloween, first and last days of school, and I may go a little overboard at Christmas — see photographic evidence at right). At the moment, both of the older girls are hooked on fairy books. Eloise is ready for Book 4 in the Never Girls series, and Charlotte and I will be reading “Rosy and the Secret Friend” from the Fairy Bell Sisters series.

Since Flora’s reading tastes have yet to be verbalized, I’m excited to give her Leslie Patricelli’s “Huggy Kissy,” another example of a book that’s great all year round. I’m also giving her a copy of “Lily’s Chocolate Heart,” putting aside my distaste for Valentine’s-themed books. Henkes is ALWAYS worth it, and I love how he’s captured a common habit children have of hoarding their holiday candy.

Huggy Kissy & Lily Covers

As I was researching Valentine’s Day books, I came across this fantastic article at Huffington Post with tons of great suggestions for books with themes of love without the traditional Valentine’s Day cheesiness. I can’t wait to check out “Olive and the Big Secret,” “Jonathan & Martha,” and “Bear in Love.”

Three Love Books