WordPlay – building communities

What happened with Libby Hunter saw some local teens acting out from boredom? She and friend Elissa Yancey decided to find a solution and founded WordPlay, Cincinnati’s Creative Learning and Writing Center, a place for kids to be creative and succeed.

Pippin Rush filmed Libby and I talking about WordPlay, how it’s changing young lives, and of course, books. Enjoy!

Music courtesy of David Hunter. Special thanks to Pippin Rush, videographer.

P.S. Max and Calvin have been to WordPlay and they loved it!

Word Play-HD from julia mace on Vimeo.

Unlocking memories with The Secret Garden

My Papa and I blowing out my candles on my sixth birthday. My own kids just turned six! Read about it here: http://bit.ly/1OBPVUN

My Papa and I blowing out my candles on my sixth birthday. My own kids just turned six!
Read about it here.

On my first read of The Secret Garden, the first few pages made me burst into tears and tell my parents it was horrible.

Spoiler alert – I made it through the part where young Mary Lennox wakes up in India to find everyone she knows dead or gone.

My original misgivings aside, I fell in love with this classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett and read it several more times throughout childhood. The book was given to me my Gigi (my grandmother), who bought it in England. In subsequent years, we traveled there together.

My Gigi's inscription in the book.

My Gigi’s inscription in the book.

The story, first published in 1911, and the trip were a strong influence on my future as I later ended up living in England.

My mom and I recently saw the play of The Secret Garden at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.

“I wish Gigi was here with us,” I said, referring to my grandmother. “But she would be 106 and senile.”

We laughed. We weren’t being cruel; sometimes laughter is all you can do about the hard things in life.

I had many years with Gigi; she passed away when I was 32. She was around 91 and had dementia for 10 years. Her later years, when our roles were reversed, allowed me to make amends for my bratty teenage self.

Mary finding the door of the garden. Illustration by Charles Robinson.

I wasn’t as fortunate with her husband, my Papa, whose memory is tied up in my first reading of The Secret Garden. He was dying of Cancer while I read the book in the hospital waiting room. I was surprised when he actually died. I was eight.

The gorgeous play not only made my mom and I cry and laugh; it caused us to talk about the past.

I know it’s always made my mom sad that her children don’t have as many memories of her dad. But I do have some nice memories tucked into my brain, including the fuzzy, not-so-nice ones of him being sick.

Revisiting the past lead me to a cool revelation. I have always had pieces of my Papa, right here in my mom. She looks like him (but pretty). She has his sunny outlook and social disposition. She has his smarts and work ethic.

And she carries his memories, like when she burst out one recent Christmas morning and said, “My Dad would have loved this.”

One more of us. Gigi made the cake. The dress had a duck on it. (She bought me my beloved stuffed duck.)

One more of us. Gigi made the cake. The dress had a duck on it.
(She bought me my beloved stuffed duck.)

This is the beauty of the written word and the glory of books. Stories tie us to our selves, our loves, and help us remember.

About the book and more info
My Papa, Verne McClellan, passed way years before the Internet – 1978 – but as a small-town lawyer and community-leader in Mt. Vernon, Indiana, I thought he might show up on Google. Besides his ancestry listing, I found one mention of him in his friend Bill Goss’ 2009 obit:

“Bill and Verne McClellan arranged for the purchases of the properties of GE Plastics, BWX, and WSI, located west of Mt. Vernon.”

My mom confirms this is true. I thought that was cool.

If you haven’t read The Secret Garden, please indulge. My copy was illustrated by Charles Robinson.

My other favorite book by Burnett is The Little Princess with gorgeous illustrations by Tasha Tudor.

For Cincinnati locals, the play has left the Playhouse but check out their current season.

Things have been gross but we’re still reading

The cow takes a ride.

The cow takes a ride.

When the plague hit our house last week, my blog took a backseat. Ok, it wasn’t the plague but the throw-up bug the boys and I got sure felt like it. At least to me; they seemed to recover so quickly.

Right after I got sick, Calvin wanted me to read him a book. He carried it into me as I slumped on the bathroom floor. Max was a little more sympathetic, telling me, “Mama, I take a deep breath when I don’t want to throw up.” However, the next day he was over it and asked me, “Why are you lying around so much?”

As Max and I sprawled on the couch after he caught it, he asked me to get him some olives.

“Olives? Baby, that might upset your stomach,” I said.

“Just get the puke bucket,” he shrugged.

Grossness aside, here’s a quick recap of the books that are on our minds this week.

Moo! written by David LaRochelle and illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka. LaRochelle wrote one of our favorites, How Martha Saved Her Parents from Green Beans. (Read about it in a previous blog post.) LaRochelle successfully uses one word all the way through a book (moo) to depict a cow going on a joyride. The only other word used is baa when the cow tries to blame crashing the car on an unsuspecting sheep. The boys like it because it’s funny, they know the word moo, and can read it themselves.

These kids invite their large friend to tea.

These kids invite their large friend to tea.

If you were having a tea party what would be better than inviting T. Rex? I selected Tea Rex written and illustrated by Molly Idle because Max loves dinosaurs. The mishaps of the tea party are funny and in the end the kids get invited to T. Rex’s house for tea. They also meet his friends! Of course Max points out, “Those dinosaurs didn’t live in the same era!”

Ah, my little scientist.

Where to find the books and other info

You can find Tea Rex at Powell’s. Idle has a great website and another dinosaur book, Camp Rex. And here’s an awesome interview about Tea Rex and the process of creating it on Debbie Redpath Ohi’s blog. (She’s a great illustrator too.)

Check out Moo! The Moo-vie on LaRochelle’s website. And you can find Moo! and more on Mike Wohnoutka’s site. They won the 2014 Minnesota Book Award for “Moo!”

Here’s some other info: I’m happy to say that I had a piece published in The Mid. Please click on this link to take a look. If you’re wondering what it’s about….it’s an essay on my return to aerobics and Jazzercise. Like what you read? Please share it!

Ode to Mr. Frank and sunglasses are a pillar of civilization

If you dropped your keys in the sewer and had two choices: go get your dad or your dad’s best friend next door, what would you do? Me? I got the friend.

Words of wisdom from Mr. Frank, "The two pillars of civilization: sunglasses and pick-up trucks."

Words of wisdom from Mr. Frank, “The two pillars of civilization: sunglasses and pick-up trucks.”

Facing the two houses, I went to the one where Mr. Frank lived. Mr. Frank amiably got a hanger to help me fish out my keys. Unfortunately, my Dad noticed us and came outside. As expected, he was irritated. But Mr. Frank was an expert at fixing all things – he got the keys out and calmed down my Dad. Did I mention I was in my 20s when this happened?

Let me tell you about Frank, or Mr. Frank to his wife and friends. He lived by his own code and had a lot of sayings. Here are some telling Frankisms: “The two pillars of civilization: sunglasses and pick-up trucks,” “Your true character is whoever you are in the dark,” “There are two kinds of people in this world, cat lovers and morons, ” and “What do you mean, what do I mean?”

If you knew him, he would do anything for you. Frank and my Dad moved me multiple times. He could and would fix anything. He brought a calm demeanor to awkward situations. He would loan you his truck. Feed your cat. I’ll never forget when he looked me right in the eye and said, “You can do anything you want.” I believed him because I always believed Frank.

Mr. Frank died last June in his early 60s; it pains me to write it. That’s why, standing in the Vero Beach Book Center on vacation, the title Mr. Frank caught my eye. I flipped through it, thought it looked charming and bought it for myself. The story, written and illustrated by Irene Luxbacher is based on her father. It’s beautiful.

Mr. Franks sews through the decades.

Mr. Franks sews through the decades.

Mr. Frank, an elderly tailor, gets a phone call asking for the most important order of his career. Luxbacher takes you through the decades of his work and the fashion trends he worked on.

My boys love it. I first read the story to Calvin and when he saw what Mr. Frank was working on – a superhero outfit for his grandson – he gasped, “Maxy will LOVE this!” He continued to be delighted by Mr. Frank’s other costumes and said, “I wish he would make me a metro bus costume.” (Calvin is obsessed with buses.)

Max did love the costume and asked for the book three nights in a row, “I want to read the book where the guy makes all the clothes.” He was fascinated with Mr. Frank’s process, “Look, he had to find just the right thing and then draw lines before he would cut it,” Max said.

Snuggled into bed on vacation, the three of us savored the last page showing Mr. Frank and his grandson sewing together.

My boys love the last page of Mr. Frank.

My boys love the last page of Mr. Frank.

I love this book. I love it for the vacation memories it helped cement. I love it that the title and story remind me of my Mr. Frank. It’s funny too, since Frank’s fashion statement was “Brown is the new black.”

Max has asked me if I’m still sad about Mr. Frank. “Yes, I am Max,” I try to explain. “I’ll always be sad but I’ll always have good memories too.”

Everyone should be so lucky to have a Mr. Frank.

In loving memory of Frank Wilson Reinig (May 28, 1953 – June 28, 2014)

“Well to be perfectly Frank…which I am…”

Where to find the book and more information
Check out your local bookstore for Mr. Frank or you can order it from Anansi Press. I recommend looking at Luxbacher’s website to see more of her gorgeous work. I plan on checking out The Imaginary Garden and she has several art books too. (Max will be happy!)

Eat your vegetables. (And see Max act.)

Avoiding vegetables is a childhood art form. Growing up, I would spit vegetables into my napkin when my parents weren’t looking. (I also enjoyed making my brother laugh when he had milk in his mouth. He would spit it all over the table much to the outrage of our dad.) It was the 70s and on babysitter nights, we had TV dinners with the pea, square carrot and corn combo. This made me gag and reach for my napkin. My husband said he and his siblings would put unwanted greenery on a little ledge under the dining room table.

These green beans are mean.

Not eating your vegetables pays off in one of our favorite books. In How Martha Saved Her Parents from Green Beans, Martha refuses to eat her green beans every Tuesday night. “Green beans are bad. Very bad,” Martha thinks. The author is David LaRochelle and the book is illustrated by Mark Fearing.

Martha’s refusal to eat green beans is rewarded. When mean green beans with beady eyes, long curly mustaches, hats, and pointy boots swagger into town terrorizing anyone who has ever eaten a green bean, they leave Martha alone. They make rude noises, hoop and holler, and take Martha’s parents captive.

At first, Martha enjoys it. She doesn’t have to clean her room! She stays up late, eats cookies and sugary cereal for dinner, and watches bad TV. It’s a little like she’s in her 20s but she’s a little girl. But she misses her parents (what you won’t admit in your 20s) and decides to rescue them in the morning.

The leader of the beans is not scared when she threatens to eat them. “You’ve never eaten a green bean in your life,” he sneers. (See Max act out the scene in a video clip.)

Martha faces her fears.

Gulp. Martha eats all the beans, rescues her parents, and settles into a life of eating less threatening veggies. But does she? That nice leafy salad looks menacing.

Little Pea
Little Pea written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and illustrated by Jen Corace, is about the culinary habits of vegetables. Little Pea is a happy little guy, except at dinner. Did you know peas eat candy for dinner? And his parents make him eat it.

For some reason, I like to read this story sounding like Tom Haverford, Aziz Ansari’s character on NBC’s Parks and Recreation. I know I’m weird but it works.

Yum. Yum. Extra Yum.

Yum. Yum. Extra Yum.

My boys crack up at the image of little Pea eating his candy. “One. Yuck. Two. Blech. Three. Plck. Four. Pleh.” This is a line my family often repeats in daily life.

Little Pea finally gets dessert. Spinach! “Yum. Yum. Extra yum.” (Another great line we repeat.)

“But candy is dessert and spinach is regular food,” Calvin said. “It’s all mixed up!”

Little pea and his parents live “hap-pea-ly ever after.”

How to find these books and more info

After checking out How Martha Saved Her Parents From Green Beans about 20 times from the library, we bought it. You can find it at Cincinnati’s Blue Manatee or order it from Powell’s City of Books. Author LaRochelle is also a pumpkin carver! Check out his designs and other books on his website. Mark Fearing offers green bean coloring pages on his website. His blog features mean green beans and other cool stuff.

You can find Little Pea at Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s little books at Chronicle Books or Rosenthal’s website. She’s also the co-author of another wonderful book that we love, Exclamation Mark with Tom Lichtenheld. My husband and I discovered it at Carmichael’s in Louisville, Kentucky. Lichtenheld is also the author of the Max and Calvin approved Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site.

Take a moment to peruse Rosenthal’s site. She has adult books, art projects, the works. I also found the illustrations on Jen Corace’s site beautiful.

Shout out to Melissa Currence for helping and inspiring me with this blog!

Kissing cousins and being weird is cool

How do you know a book is a hit? Ask a six-year-old if they like it. If their eyes get big and they retell you the entire story at a fast pace, complete with dramatic hand gestures, I’d say it’s a win.

This was my niece Margot’s response to the book Two Speckled Eggs written and illustrated by Jennifer K. Mann. Calvin and I love this book so we got it for Margot for Christmas.

Margot and Calvin love each other. They also love Two Speckled Eggs.

Margot and Calvin love each other. They also love Two Speckled Eggs.

Let me tell you about Margot and Calvin. These first cousins have a soft spot for each other. When they kissed on vacation last year, Max proclaimed, “They’re married!” (The boys were four and Margot five at the time.) This made us all laugh, except maybe my brother. Fast forward a few months and Calvin started wearing a fake ring. When  someone asked him where he got it, he seriously said, “I got it when I married Margot.” When I tried to tell him he really wasn’t married to Margot (and it’s not the Civil War era) he got mad so I let it be.

The love continued. At our family reunion in Columbus, Ohio, Calvin tried to kiss Margot in front of all MY first cousins. My husband Eddie told them, “That’s how we do it down south.” On Christmas Day, I overheard Margot say to Calvin, “I know you like me the best because you always try to kiss me.”

Calvin came home from school the other day and said he was “over Margot” because he now likes two other girls. It’s ok, because unbeknownst to him, Margot told her mom she doesn’t want to be married. As for Max, he told me he wants to “live alone in an apartment.” (And yes, I know they will be mad at me for sharing this someday. But it’s too good!)

Lyla gives Ginger the best gift of all.

Lyla gives Ginger the best gift of all.

Back to the book. I think most of us can relate to remembering the weird kid at school or maybe we were that weird kid. In Two Speckled Eggs it’s Lyla Browning, the kid who smells funny and brings a tarantula to school. Then there is Ginger who is having a birthday party and doesn’t want to invite Lyla. Ginger’s mom, like all moms everywhere, insists that she invite Lyla to her birthday party.

This book puts a special twist on the message that the person you think is weird is surprisingly interesting and fun. I love everything about it: the story, the illustrations, and the descriptions.

Ginger’s friends don’t end up listening to her at her birthday party and they don’t appreciate her special “silver and gold cake.” Except for Lyla Browning. Lyla also gives Ginger the best present – a homemade nest with two chocolate eggs in it. After everyone leaves the party, Ginger and Lyla pretend to be birds and peck at the beloved silver and gold cake.

Calvin and I love reading this book together. We love reading about the tarantula, the cake, the chocolate eggs, and we really love the part where they pick at it like birds. (I have to admit that in a house full of boys, this feminist makes sure we read about girls.) But it’s not a book for girls it’s just a great book.

Where to find the book and other info

We discovered this book at the Clifton branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. You can buy it directly from its publisher, Candlewick Press. Mann has another book I Will Never Get A Star on Mrs. Benson’s Blackboard coming out in June. It looks awesome. And who doesn’t remember not getting stars at some point in school?

Special shout out to Leslie Cannon for serving as my Editor At Large.

 

 

Wicked good books

Stacey's party

One of Stacey’s birthday parties. She’s holding up something. I’m on her left in the white dress and bowl cut. (I’m still friends with some of these girls!)

When I was a kid, all the girls in my class wanted to get invited to Stacey’s house. Her home was complete with lots of rooms, teenage siblings, a beautiful mom that wore Dr. Scholl’s, a silver Trans Am, an outside playhouse, guinea pigs, and a secret passageway that led to a secret room.

I’m happy to say Stacey and I are back in touch. She’s a vet and mom to two kids. They gifted us two of their favorite books hailing from their former home of Maine.

The Circus Ship
In 1836, a side-wheel steamer ship set off with an unusual cargo – circus animal, people, and a band. A festive crowd gave it a big send-off. Tragically, the boat caught fire, people perished, and rumors lingered that the animals made it to islands on the Maine coast.

Chris Van Dusen was inspired by these true-life events when he wrote the gorgeous (and happy) The Circus Ship. His ship capsizes off the coast of Maine and the animals swim to shore and begin living among the people. At first they are seen as pests but in a plot twist, “the animals weren’t bothersome, the animals were kind!” the villagers come to love them.

This isle of Maine is crazy for animals.

This isle of Maine is crazy for animals.

During our last reading, Max pointed out, “Well Mama, in real life, I don’t think the lion would get along with the people because of his sharp teeth.”

When the evil circus owner comes back to claim the animals, the townspeople disguise their new friends. This page of the book never fails to be fun; you have to find the hiding animals. My boys never tire of it.

The Wicked Big Toddlah
If you’re a parent, you’ve experienced the beauty and stress of toddlerhood. Everything is a joy and a death trap. Imagine if your baby was a giant. This is the premise for Kevin HawkesThe Wicked Big Toddlah. Toddie, a Maine baby, is so wicked big he comes home on the back of a flatbed truck. The antics of Toddie and an entire town trying to care for him are hilarious.

“How do you think that toddler got those big clothes and that big hat?” Max asked.

“This caution tape is holding the people back because that diaper is the stinkiest thing in the world!” said Max.

“This caution tape is holding the people back because that diaper is the stinkiest thing in the world!” said Max.

A favorite page for my family is when he gets his diaper changed; a helicopter hovers with talc. Poop never gets old with this crowd.

My memory of having two wicked big toddlers is pretty sharp, through a sleep-deprived lens. Thinking of a giant toddler gives me a wicked big stomach!

Where to buy these books and other info
Buy The Circus Ship from Van Dusen’s website and he’ll direct you to Indie bookstores. I’ve been meaning to check out his book about Cincinnati native President William Howard Taft. President Taft is Stuck in the Bath looks hilarious.

I’ve bought The Wicked Big Toddlah from Cincinnati’s Blue Manatee Bookstore and deCafe. If they don’t have it, they will order it. If you buy it off Hawkes’ website, he will sign it. My boys also love The Wicked Big Toddlah Goes To New York.

Calvin and Max were wicked cute toddlers.

Calvin and Max were wicked cute toddlers.