Are We There Yet?

Are we there yet? After flying all night, the Midgets wait for curbside pickup at Sky Harbor Airport.. August 2011

Mbot woke up just fine yesterday morning, but it turns out I did not.

Self-diagnosis: the common cold. Symptoms: scratchy throat, cough, low fever, short temper, general dishevelment, lack of creativity and, perhaps unrelated (only House would know), an urge to organize the laundry room but no energy to do it. Sitting in front of the computer after herding the Midgets through the day, I may as well be strapped into a car seat that’s not in a car for how fast I’m progressing with a post.

After several terrific starts that turned out about as well as the laundry room effort, I got the message: Medicate, bedicate.

What message is the universe sending you?

All the Pretty Little Zebras

Throwing up is much more fun to read about than to actually do.

Saturday night again, and I am lying in Mbot’s room because he’s waking, crying, every thirty minutes. He only threw up once, earlier this evening, on Husbot, but he’s been stuffy for two days. There’s no fever. But when the child who has, since conception, fought sleep–at eighteen months to the point of holding his eyelids open with his fingers when they wouldn’t stay up by themselves–says, “I just want to go to sleep,” I know he’s not feeling good.

The trouble is, my friend Solveig visited a few weeks ago and sensing that I needed some adult programming in my life, had Season One of House sent to me after she left. I have been watching it for two weeks. I am addicted. I’d only ever seen Hugh Laurie in Stuart Little. I thought he was fabulous. I wondered, Who is this guy? Why doesn’t everyone think he’s fabulous? Well it turns out everyone does and has since time immemorial.

But because each evening after the Midgets go to bed I’ve been absorbing forty-five minutes of medical drama, when I saw Mbot’s puffy, glassy eyes this evening, it was hard not to think terrible things. Is he the child who has reacted badly to the all-natural carpet cleaner that no one else notices because in spite of all my efforts, Mbot ends up sleeping on the floor most of the night? We hosed off the patio this afternoon, raising dust: could it be Valley Fever? The litter box is in the Midget’s bathroom. Toxoplasmosis?And look–there’s the antique cat now, throwing up in the doorway. Is it a hairball, or could it be related?

I grew up hearing the old medical school adage that a member of Dr. House’s staff repeated in the pilot: when you hear hoof beats, don’t think zebras. The obvious is usually the answer. Obviously, though, it’s not always. I know of enough exceptions to know that sometimes, the circus comes to town.

But Mbot is sleeping peacefully. And so I will go to bed. And I will get up when he cries again, and I will rub his back and check his temperature and maybe give him another dose of infant Tylenol. It’s grape flavored, so it tastes good, if nothing else.

I think I either need to watch less TV, so I stop thinking zebras, or more, so it all just jumbles together and I can’t remember any specifics. Maybe I just need to practice compartmentalization. Look, I’m self-diagnosing. Sleep, I think, might be an antidote, both for Mbot and for me.

How’s your Saturday night developing?

Sky on the Ground

We do not often have reflections on the ground, here in Phoenix. Not like where I grew up, in Southeast Alaska, where the ocean and the low clouds were Siamese twins, connected at the horizon, reflecting one another. There, because they were a feature of daily life, we avoided puddles. Here, because they are an exception to the arid desert rule, we put on our boots and celebrate them.

My body still has not acclimatized to the desert. The year Mbot was born, there was little rain. It was too hot to venture outside with an infant until November. A year almost to the day after Mbot was born, the monsoons came. In an essay titled “Coyote Carrying Rabbit,” I wrote, “One night in early July, the temperature dropped thirty degrees in two hours, from 112 to 82. Just before dawn, a clatter of raindrops awoke me to an eerie yellow light. The rain had not come for months and months and months. I rolled the stroller through a bright lake of sky, reaching to pull on wet leaves along the way, unleashing miniature rainstorms, and making up poems: ‘Pretty trees/Dripping leaves/Pine needles tipped with silver beads/Smooth bright puddles on the ground/Like pieces of sky have fallen down.’

“As we walked, I felt as if a forgotten part of myself was stirring to life. The process of becoming ossified in the suburban heat, which attacks from the flat close surfaces of apartment buildings; supermarket facades so similar one to another that you cease to see them; the forgettable faces of strip malls; the endless black macadam—occurs so slowly that you don’t even know it has happened until you are broken open by the monsoon.

“It makes me think of the idea of ghosts, and the idea that they haunt the streets lamenting the loss of their earthly selves. For if, in geographic transport—in moving to the suburbs—I can so completely lose a part of myself, so that I cannot even remember exactly what is missing, how can ghosts, who have certainly undergone a more dramatic transformation, remember that they had ever been living at all? Even for those who do not believe in ghosts, per se, the western word has been traced back as far as five thousand years, to the word gheis, which is linked to the idea “to wound, tear, pull to pieces.” Maybe the ghost myth gives voice to the different parts of ourselves that can only be conjured into being by our environment.

“The monsoon reminds me that in this place, I have lost some of what I am—or at least lost access to it—and even the memory that that missing part ever existed. But the monsoon also reminds me that my phantom self slumbers under my dry, hot skin, waiting out the drought.”

Where are you? Are there parts of you  that aren’t there?

Lava, Pompeii, and the Whole Crazy Thing

Build and Erupt Volcano Kit. $13.95 at scientificsonline. Safer than videos.

I cleverly had a niece and nephew (twins) five years before I had Midgets of my own. I arranged things this way so I could make all the parenting mistakes on someone else’s children.

You will surmise, however, from the comment my sister left to yesterday’s post about The Great Spanish YouTube Disaster, that my past mistakes were simply the starter course for the main ones later on.

This is what she wrote: “Did you not learn your lesson after helping your four and a half year old nephew find a video showing volcano footage which traumatized him for the next few years and caused him to want to evacuate our condo at the foot of Mt. Haleakala asap???!!! He survived. Mbot and Gbot will survive too ;0)”

Now, I could claim that she’s been addled by reading and rereading all those old National Geographics (see Saving the World, One Stick of Secret at a Time): maybe she just has volcanoes on the brain. But Tom Waits admitted a few days ago on NPR’s Fresh Air that he hoards them too, and he seems just fine. And besides, it would be a deliberate lie, and I like to keep the lies in this blog to indeliberate ones. And so I will relate the short, sad story. As Husbot likes to quote someone whose name I can’t conjure at the moment, “Either be a wonderful example or a horrible reminder.” So let this brief and fiery tale stand as a horrible reminder. I just wish that I’d remembered it.

There we were, vacationing on the balmy shores of Maui, my mother, The Guru, my sister and her twins, Sbot and Cbot. The twins were actually 2 1/2, not 4 1/2. And Sbot was endlessly curious about volcanoes. “Bolcanoes,” I believe, was the word he used. That should have been a sign: beware of that which you cannot yet pronounce.

I had a brilliant idea. Videos! On the computer! Which I’d conveniently set up on the dining table. Cbot sat on one side of me. Sbot sat on the other. I sat between them, feeling clever and powerful. With a few clicks, I had six or more thumbnails to choose from, two- to three-minute video clips of erupting volcanoes. I peered at them closely, chose one and hit “play.”

A great puff of smoke. A great wall of boiling red magma. Huts in the foreground. Black smoke rising off fire that toppled palm trees as it advanced toward the huts.

I can't find any bad magma hut pictures. But this is scary enough. Magma on the island of Hawaii, 1984 (NOT Maui, 2006). Photo by JD Griggs. http://www.squidoo.com

On either side of me, Sbot and Cbot’s eyes were round as lava tubes. I frantically pawed for the “stop” key, then scurried to get the frozen image off the screen.

Cbot was unconcerned. She is more of a pragmatist than the highly sensitive empath Sbot, who was asking, “Why  is it getting the town? Is the lava going to come over our condo?”

No, I assured him. No, no, no. Here is a better video, I said, searching for  something that looked more benign.

But really, are volcanoes ever benign? I figured maybe they were benign enough if they are deep in the ocean. I found a clip of an underwater volcano and rolled it with a sigh of relief.

“But where’s the fire?” asked Sbot with disappointment, watching the air bubbles rise through the darkness, completely unimpressed.

I tried again. Found a clip. Hit play. There was an eruption, excellent. There was….oh, screaming townspeople, running from a wall of ash. Where is that “stop” key when you need it?

Sbot wanted to leave Maui immediately. He wanted our condo to be on the other side of the pool, so that the pool was between us and Haleakala, looming, dormant as it had been since the seventeenth century, in the distance. (“Can a pool stop lava?””Yes (lie), but we don’t have to worry.”)

Their mother took it remarkably in stride, as she admirably does most things. It was several days before Sbot expressed interest in bolcanoes again, but by then, my teaching privileges had been, understandably, revoked.

Six months later, back home in Idaho, their father took the twins on a picnic to Craters of the Moon National Monument. A special treat, just him and the kids. Sbot got one look at the lava-strewn landscape and wanted to go home.

Craters of the Moon National Monument, central Idaho. It is old. It is safe. Trust me. (www.hiker

A year later, The Guru helped them make a version of the Build and Erupt Volcano. It’s simple: You build a cone out of instant paper mache mix, let it dry, and paint it volcanoishly. Then you put a bowl of baking soda in the hollow cylinder you’ve left at the center. You pour in vinegar. Voila: instant eruption. Steam, bubbles, the whole crazy thing.

It was a great hit.

So my sister was right: Sbot survived my aunting blunder. Mbot and Gbot will survive my parenting blunders. But will I?

With every parenting  mistake I make, is the number of possible mistakes left to make reduced? Or, like the universe, is the number always expanding?

Una Navidad Sin Pluto

A rare 6-ft. long inflatable lawn decoration by Gemmy. Be the first on your street to own it. http://www.squidoo.com

Few people dispute the value of learning a second language. And studies show the earlier, the better. My brother’s wife, who is Japanese by birth, raised in Japan, cannot hear the difference between an English “l” and an “r.” Her children, however, raised in a bilingual household, who listened to their father from birth (and who will shortly stop listening to him, as they enter their teens), can differentiate the two sounds.

Other languages never came easy to me, largely, I suspect, because my ears seem to be connected to my brain by noodle necklaces instead of actual information-transmitting neurons. I sat through three years of high school French and a year each of college Italian and Spanish without gaining more than an appreciation of my genetic disposition for unilingualism. I can’t even roll an R.

My brother, on the other hand, could mimic any silly accent at all from the time he was as big as an haricot verte, and when he speaks Japanese on the telephone, no one can tell he’s a gaijin.

Only when I found myself, in my midtwenties, on the Boulevard Saint Michele ogling handsome French men, did I realize that Madame Nyudu hadn’t used the right motivations. Learning French would have meant that my dating pool would have grown by roughly ten million.

By then it was too late.

But it is not too late for my children, and Mbot’s school employs a Senora Miriam to spend thirty minutes each Tuesday tutoring her young scholars in the finer points of Spanish colors, foods, and animals. Each Friday, I receive a newsletter telling me what Senora Miriam presented, so that I can help Mbot practice his very useful second language.

I admit, we are falling behind.

One reason is that Mbot, as readers know, is three. And Senora Miriam’s teaching methods seem to be geared more toward the five year-olds in class.

Another reason is that I have been negligent in completing daily Spanish practice. My instinct is to blame Gbot, who wants to participate by playing with Mbot or pushing computer keys while we are reviewing beetles colored in Spanish colors. I admit to having given up on more than a few occasions.

But still, we struggle on. I am learning some Spanish, too. It’s all new to me; I remember nothing of what I learned in college, as I relied solely on my short-term memory to carry me through, and the files were erased in 1989. Not only is youth wasted on the young, but so often, college is, too.

It caught up with me this morning.

After breakfast, I put the netbook on the table and we studied Spanish, first with an interactive video, then with a short movie on YouTube, during which we were treated to a row of thumbnail images along the right side of the screen that showed us what other videos we could enjoy. One of the pictures was of Mickey Mouse.

Now, two nights ago, at the end of our bedtime ritual, I decided we should start practicing for our Christmas Thankful Book (see comments on Buddha’s Stocking) by reciting things we’re thankful for every evening. I asked Mbot what he was thankful for.

“Butterflies and birds,” he said, “and mammals.” I suspected he was reciting something from the Montessori Pledge to the Earth.  Then he came out of his robotic state with a sly grin. “Mickey Mouse. Donald Duck. And Pluto, too.”

So at the breakfast table this morning I thought, Mickey Mouse in Spanish! It doesn’t get any better than that.

I clicked on the wee image, and the Midgets watched, entranced and smiling, as Mickey and his friends enjoyed a party at Mickey’s casa. “He’s talking Spanish!” exclaimed Mbot.

When that video ended, he pointed to another. “Una Navidad Sin Pluto,” said the title, followed by “Carlos Julio Gallego.” Oh joy! A Spanish Christmas Mickey Mouse video! Apparently, it did get better! I clicked on it and went to brush my teeth.

I came out of the bathroom five minutes and thirty-six seconds later. I know this by the timer at the bottom of the video, whose entire length was ten minutes and twenty-six seconds. Gbot was staring at the screen, frowning, with tears caught in his lashes. Mbot was silently crying, tears streaming down his face, fists trying unsuccessfully to staunch the flow, even as his eyes were glued to the screen. “Why does Mickey Mouse not have Pluto for Christmas?” he wailed.

I quickly assessed the situation on-screen. It was Christmas. Pluto’s collar had come off and he had gotten lost. Mickey was looking for him everywhere. The dialogue was muted, and just the sad, sad song went on and on: “Feliz navidad, feliz navidad….” in a heart-wrenching minor key. I stood hugging both Midgets as I assured them that Pluto would come home. Look! The reindeer are helping! Pluto’s flying! That brought a giggle from Mbot. But then the tears began again as we witnessed Mickey’s lonely, vain attempts to find his dog. It was wretched with no voice-overs, just that damned song. I didn’t need to understand Spanish to know that Merry Christmas had never been so ironic and forlorn.

We watched together for five more minutes before the joyful reunion. The belly scratchings, the panting, the tail-chasing in front of the Christmas tree.

All was well. But this afternoon on the way home from the park, Mbot’s eyes filled with tears again. “Why did Mickey’s dog get lost? Will our dog not get lost?”

Pluto was so careless, I assured him. He wandered away from home and got lost and then he found Santa Claus, who helped him get back home! And Mickey asked Santa Claus for his dog back, and that’s what he got for Christmas! And our dog is never going to get lost. That’s why we’re so careful when we take her for a walk.

That’s why we’ll be more careful when we are choosing our educational Spanish videos.

Ay carumba.

This is the one with dialogue. Sad, but not so tear-jerking as the one just set to music. YouTube.

How has lack of another language bitten you on la mierda?

What I Value Most

This little brooch is among the crown jewels of France, made by Napoleon's fave jeweller, Francois-Regnault Nitot, for Empress Marie-Louise in 1810. (www.royalmagazine.de)

From the backseat:

Gbot: “I want…be Batman.”

Mbot: “Mom, does Catwoman do bad things to Batman?”

Now, I’ve always been a little confused about Catwoman myself, who I know almost nothing about except that she looks good in a leather jumpsuit and she’s bad, for some reason, like she steals diamonds, but also good in some way, like she doesn’t harm anyone. Surely that would include Batman. Especially since he’s got the utility belt and the Bat-a-rang and all.

Me: “I don’t think so, Potato Bug. I think mainly she’s a burglar and she takes really important things.”

Pause.

Mbot: “Does she steal people’s bears?”

I can’t remember what I said. I think I assured him that no, she does not, so as to avoid nightmares and unnecessary worrying.

If she were judging only on importance to the burglee, what object would Catwoman take from me? I am legally blind, testing at about 20/400, and so Catwoman would definitely snag my contact lenses, without which I would quickly be trampled by the herd.

What would she take from you?

The Secret Life of Electricity

Very simiilar to Mbot's discontinued Pottery Barn Kid's retro phone that really works (if you have a landline), the Crosby Classic Kettle Desk Phone at nostalgiafactory.com.

Last Christmas, an aunt gave Mbot the Pottery Barn Kids black retro telephone that really works, if you have a land line. We do not. I told Mbot last December twenty-sixth that we could only pretend talk on it because it didn’t have electricity. About a month later, I hid it in the laundry room because the old fashioned handpiece on the end of the old-fashioned cord had been utilized more as a real weapon than as a pretend communication device. I had forgotten about it until today. We’d passed some repairmen working on a telephone pole.

From the backseat:

Mbot: “The man who fixes the electricity tree makes it strong. The electricity tree that doesn’t have any branches or leaves. There’s electricity at our house, Gbot, except…except” (voice saddens, corners of mouth turn down), “it’s not in my phone.”

Pause.

Mbot, suddenly close to tears: “It’s crying so much.”

Me: “What’s crying, Moon Pie?”

Mbot: “The electricity cord that can’t be in my telephone.”

What secret desires are hiding all around you?

The Dance of the Japanese Eating Coat

Here, Juniper Bear is modeling a bib. It is not just a bib, but the most technologically advanced bib ever produced, and I am including the creations of every matriarchal, infantcentric society that may have existed in the annals of human history. Because it covers an area greater than the 60-square-inches that is considered adequate by your average twenty-first century American bib purveyor.

When it arrived two Christmases ago from my brother in Japan, Husbot dubbed it Mbot’s “Japanese Eating Coat.” (Since then, I have learned you can procure bibs of the same design on the internet from any number of manufacturers. Yet major retailers still have not caught on.)

Although we have two of them, we have used neither for almost a year now because Mbot is actually becoming a neater eater, and because Gbot refuses to wear a bib. He also does not like hats. This does not include the Sponge Bob padded miniature toilet seat he repeatedly wears on his head only to have it slip down around his neck, at which point he comes to me with the complaint, “I stuck.”

Yesterday morning, we had yogurt with breakfast. (Recipe of the month: when Midgets catch on that plain yogurt’s not as good as blueberry yogurt, mix the two half and half: half the sugar with almost all the taste). For the first time since April, there was a chill in the kitchen air. All summer, I have been feeding Gbot breakfast au naturel above the diaper line because not only does he refuse a bib but also, being just twenty-four months, he is messy. But yesterday it was chilly. I couldn’t strip the kid down. And so I got out the Japanese Eating Coats.

I put my foot down. If you don’t wear this, then you don’t eat. There was a fuss.

But then I danced.

12" articulated action figure High Kick Chun Li from Capcom hit Japanese consumers in 2008 for $180 apiece. Bibs and recalcitrant Midgets sold separately. http://www.kotaku.com

Kicking one heel high in front of me, leg not quite straight to avoid rupturing a hamstring, I hopped in the air. Then I kicked up the other leg. I swung my arms. At the same time I chanted, in time with my high kicks, “Japanese Eating Cooooooaaaaat, Japanese Eating Coooooaaaaat! Japanese Eating, Japanese Eating, Japanese Eating Coooooaaaaat.”

Mbot was grinning like he was at the fair. Gbot giggled uncontrollably. “Again!” “Again!” he demanded, and I indulged him until I was out of breath. They put on their Japanese Eating Coats and ate their yogurt.

So that afternoon, after picking Mbot up from school and running a few errands, it was late and everyone was tired. But we had one more stop: the eye doctor for contact lenses that had just arrived. I bundled grumpy everyone out of the car. In we went. Out we came to fetch my ID. In we went again. Out we came. “Not going home,” stated Gbot with finality.

Put your money where your mouth is, Midget, I said to myself, and strapped him back in the car. But the moment begged for levity. I glanced surreptitiously side to side. And then, in the eye doctor’s rather full parking lot, I threw my leg up high. “Japanese Eating Cooooaaaaat, Japanese Eating Cooooooooaaaaaaat….”  Mbot grinned. Gbot giggled wildly.

Never one to leave good enough alone, I tried the Eating Coats again this morning. They went on well. Mbot likes his, and Gbot usually wants to do what Mbot does. Feeling frisky, I decided to try my dance again. It was a tougher audience this morning. Gbot watched me like he was a hundred years old and had seen it all before. Mbot paused, spoon in the air, and raised his eyebrows. “Dat looks like it could hurt your body,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, both feet back on the ground. “Yes, it could.”

And I turned around to finish making my coffee. It was perhaps the shortest stage run in history. A theatrical disaster, but a personal triumph. Because they were wearing their bibs.

When has foolishness worked for you?

Buddha’s Stocking

Available, it seems, everywhere, including http://www.newegg.com, for $3.39.

Saturday the Midgets showed no sign of sleepiness after lunch which was unfortunate, because, as it was The Second Day of Halloween (see yesterday’s post), I was ready for a glass of wine and a good long nap.

Instead, I strapped them in the Midgetmobile and headed south to Cost Plus World Market. I needed wine glasses–the last one had died dramatically on the floor the evening before due to an encounter with, I believe, the handle of the Little Helper Broom (see Passengers in Zone 4, Please Board While Doing the Charleston). And I had promised the Midgets a second try at Cost Plus, which is both a wonderful and a terrible place for the 40-inch and under set . We’d been there a few days earlier, to buy a rug, and it hadn’t gone well. Our premature retreat was accompanied by dual sputterfusses due to the Siren’s song of so many cool little cheap toys and candy arranged like….candy, 32 inches off the floor on aisles narrow enough to allow access to any stroller passenger with a 35-inch wingspan.

Foolishly, I’d promised to return in a few days, to give the Midgets a second chance at good behavior. Then, I promised, saying words I knew at the time were wrong wrong wrong, they could each pick out one of the cool little cheap toys.

So. Saturday afternoon. Back on site. And a picture of the Midgets, clapped  into the double stroller, could have appeared on the Wikipedia page for “angelic.”

I found my $1.99 wine glasses. And then we rolled into the Danger Zone for their rewards. Mbot, after some hemming and hawing and then wanting what Gbot had and then changing his mind–an early sign that my plan was an incredibly shitty one–reluctantly handed the Happy Glasses with wind-up nose to the clerk. Gbot handed over his push-button twirly globe with the shark inside. Mbot decided he’d rather have Gbot’s. I told him it was too late to change his mind.

On the ride north, the situation deteriorated. Mbot stole Gbot’s twirly globe. Gbot cried. I reprimanded Mbot. Mbot cried. I heard myself saying, “I got these for you as a treat because you were so good. I got them to make you happy.” But I couldn’t quite get those last words out my mouth because they sounded so stupid. I kept stopping, trying to find words that made sense. “I got them to help make you happy…I got them…” Why? You can’t make someone be happy, and certainly a toy can’t make you happy. If there’s happiness to be had, a toy can draw it out–sometimes. What those toys were making them was miserable.

I should have known. Gbot’s birthday had been a few days before, and he’d gotten some pretty cool loot, including an Elmo Lego fire truck and fire station. Which were objects of contention from the start. An hour after we’d assembled them, an act which required each Midget pulling pieces away from the other and then crying about it, both truck and station and both Elmos were dismantled and forgotten, the pieces strewn in every corner of the room where the most harm they could do was bruise an instep.

What had I expected from the Happy Glasses? I hadn’t thought that far ahead. I had thought, I admit, that the Midgets would get a treat and be delighted by it.

But every new toy is something that has to be shared. Something new to fight over. Something that is not as desirable as what your brother’s playing with. Thorstein Veblen, who Mark Kingwell in a Harper’s article calls “the still-reigning genius of consumer economics,” argued that consumer economics is driven by a desire for distinction: not by the desire for more and better but the desire for more and better than the other guy. 

I’d fallen right into the American consumerism trap. And I’d pushed it upon my children–I did it for them–and their behavior was…human. Thorsten Veblen was rolling his eyes in the grave, muttering, “I’ve already said ‘I told you so’ a hundred million times.”

Electronic scans show that the meditation of Buddhist monks trigger calmness and pleasure centers in the brain. Happiness comes from within (or from within little orange vials) and all that. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Yeah.

The Happy Glasses were broken within five minutes of use. It took the twirly globe fell apart the next day. I celebrated as I threw them out.

So this Christmas, our household is taking a different approach to gift-giving. I’m not sure exactly what, because how pleasurable is a stocking with nothing in it? The answer to that is all about expectation: How many times do you reach into the drawer for a pair of socks and despair because none of them have candy canes inside?

Recent studies have found what everyone already knew: expectation and happiness are more closely related than toys and happiness. And if the other guys have stockings full of loot, expectations for your own rise. But however I decide to handle my consumer conundrum, Christmas this year will not involve a lot of trips to Wal-Mart, and certainly not a lot of trips to Cost Plus World Market.

Except if we need more wine glasses.

Available at http://www.2ols.com in sets of twelve. Various colored faux jewels provide even more to fight about.

What really makes you happy? Really?

Twelve Over Forty: The Literary Superhero’s List of Olde Reads

One of the advantages of being a forty-four year old mother of weebots is that I know of a lot of good picture books that are as old as I am. And so, in the spirit of the latest overused literary marketing tool–displaying the talents of the young (Narrative’s “Fifteen below Thirty”, The New Yorker’s “Twenty under Forty”)–I’ve compiled a list of the exceptional old. I call it “Twelve Over Forty.”

I did not consult a panel and no surveys were done. My criteria were simple: either 1. as a child, I loved the book, 2. Mbot and/or Gbot loves the book and asks for it repeatedly, or 3. both of the above.

1. A Child’s Christmas in Wales

Originally a piece written for radio and recorded by Dylan Thomas in 1952, this lyrical tale was first published as a book two years later as part of a collection by New Directions. This edition, published in 1985 by Holiday House, is available online from Barnes and Noble, with unused copies running upwards of $20, which is worth it for the lush watercolor illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman. I wasn’t introduced to this ’til my twenties, and fell immediately in love. I’ve been reading it to Mbot since he was born, and although I know he doesn’t understand much of it, he’s as mesmerized as I am by the pictures, the language, and the high adventure:

“Patient, cold and callous, our hands wrapped in socks, we waited to snowball the cats. Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and snarling, they would slide and sidle over the white back-garden walls, and the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road, would hurl our deadly snowballs at the green of their eyes. The wise cats never appeared. ”

I am a sucker for the lyrical and the slyly humorous; this snowballs the reader with both.

2. Burt Dow, Deep Water Man

“One morning, the cock crowed ‘cockty-doodly,’ and Leela rattled her stove lids klinkey-klink, shouting, ‘Hit the deck, Burt, time to eat!’ And Burt came downstairs winking and blinking his sleepy eyelids and ate his breakfast.” So begins the day of Burt Dow, an old deep-water man, who goes out cod fishing and catches a bigger adventure than he’d planned on. Published in 1963, this was Robert McCloskey‘s last book, and it’s easily as good as his better known Newbery winners, Blueberries for Sal and One Morning in MaineIt’s unfashionably long, these days, but worth reading in installments.

The way Burt gets himself out of a whale’s tummy looks to me like a playful homage to Jackson Pollack, whose drip paintings became so influential in the decade before Burt Dow chugged on the scene in his sea-worn dory the Tidely Idley, with “a firm hand on the tiller, giggling gull flying along behind.”

3. I am a Bunny, by Ole Risom, illustrated by Richard Scarry.

This is one of those books that is so simple and seemingly unimpressive that you wonder why it pulls on you days and years after reading it, like the chorus of a good song. I loved it as a kid. Mbot loved it as a two year-old. Gbot loves it now. It has under 150 words–I didn’t have a chance to count them before it disappeared from the coffee table. But “I am a bunny. My name is Nicholas,” has the staying power of “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

4. Richard Scarry’s The Great Pie Robbery

I don’t want this post to turn into a promo for Richard Scarry, but although I was weened on the Greatest Storybook Ever and Richard Scarry’s Busytown, both of which Mbot has loved, literally, to tatters, I didn’t discover The Great Pie Robbery until I was over forty. I’d say it’s among Mbot’s favorite five books, right up there with Your Body Battles a Stomachache by Vicky Cobb (see Recycle Robot vs. Sister Mary Villus.)

The key to raising literate children: starting them on books before they can escape?

5. Richard Scarry’s Busytown  is probably the top favorite in this household. According to Mbot this morning: “My best book in the whole wide world.” The pictures often tell a parallel but often more detailed much funnier story than the words–for example, there’s a pig that loses his hat, and although nothing is written about him, he can be found chasing it through several of Richard Scarry’s books.

6. Petunia

By Roger DuVoisin, Petunia enjoyed a fiftieth anniversary edition in 2000. The story about a silly goose who thinks carrying around a book will make her wise, and sets about ruining the barnyard animals’ lives with her false knowledge, has just enough repetition, craziness, and cleverness to captivate. A box firecrackers that almost blows up the animals makes it all the more attractive for the toddler set. Available on Amazon.

7. Mop Top

Don Freeman could put his shoes under my bed anytime. He brought us Corduroy, Dandelion, the excellent and lesser known Norman the Doorman, and the excellent and almost completely unknown Mop Top, published by Scholastic Books in 1955. Not until I’d opened the fifty pounds of books Mom had sent from Idaho and read this to Mbot did I realize that Mr. Freeman wasn’t only a great illustrator and storyteller, but a poet, too. His prose are rich with internal rhythm and rhyme–maybe one reason I remembered after all these years the little boy who didn’t want to get his hair cut. Read this aloud:  “‘I thought maybe you forgot,’ said roly-poly Mister Barberoli. ‘But you’re right on the dot. It’s exactly four!’ Then in one long leap, Moppy was up on the barber-chair seat ready to get his hair cut nice and neat.”

8. The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes

By  DuBose Heyward, illustrated by Margerie Flack. 1939. Available on Amazon. I only remembered this book from my childhood as if from a dream, and so it was strange to read it to Mbot, because I remembered nothing but the feeling it had given me, a warm, soft, safe feeling. Now that I’m a mother, I appreciate it even more because it’s about a hardworking, kind, and resourceful mommy bunny who wins the coveted position of Easter Bunny and rises to the task–delivering Easter baskets all over the world in a single night, it turns out, is nothing compared to raising baby bunnies to be good citizens. In a magical turn at the end, she flies to the top of a snowy alp in a pair of golden shoes to deliver her last basket to a sick little boy. Since no one I know is familiar with this story, I find it as strange as it is wonderful that it’s available on Amazon and that the author and illustrator are Wikipediable.

9. Wynken, Blynken, and Nod 

“Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night sailed off in a wooden shoe/Sailed on a river of crystal light, into a sea of dew….” So begin the nighttime adventures of the fishermen three. First published by Riverside Press in 1915, this poem by Eugene Field appears in countless anthologies and has been set to music. This  edition, illustrated by Johanna Westerman in blue-toned watercolor paintings, is so gorgeous that I want to frame the pages and hang them on my wall. Mbot and Gbot like to find the kitty cat in every picture. North-South books, 1995, available on Amazon.

10. Santa Mouse

This Christmas rodent from 1966 never became as famous as his contemporary, Rudolph, but he’s got lasting appeal. Author Michael Brown wrote a sequel, illustrated, like the original, by Elfieda DeWitt. Predictably, the sequel’s not nearly as good, although it could start a fun family tradition of planting small yellow-wrapped gifts in the Christmas tree.

Here we have an angel singing the praises of cheese. Which I can understand. “Now through the year, this little mouse/Had saved one special thing:/A piece of cheese!/The kind that makes the angels want to sing.”

That line alone establishes Michael Brown’s inclusion in the Literary Superhero’s library. Published by Sandy Creek and available through Amazon.

11. The Plant Sitter

Here’s another sleeper by the creators of a classic, this time Harry the Dirty Dog, by author/illustrator team Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham. Published by Scholastic Books in 1959, The Plant Sitter is perfect in every way, except that it’s available on Amazon, but not for under $50.

In my favorite illustration, our industrious young protagonist dreams that the plants he’s volunteered to take care of grow so big they twine together and knock down the walls of the house. His clients are calling, “Where are my plants? Where are my plants?” He awakens to his father yelling, “Wear are my pants? Where are my pants?”

12. Just So Stories  by Rudyard Kipling, illustrated by Nicolas. This edition, O Best Beloved, published by Doubleday in 1952, is available on Amazon. This month, Mbot’s favorite of the twelve short tales is “How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin:” “Once upon a time, on an uninhabited island on the shores of the Red Sea, there lived a Parsee from whose hat the rays of the sun were reflected in more-than-oriental splendour. And the Parsee lived by the Red Sea with nothing but ahis hat and his knife and a cooking-stove of the kind that you must particularly never touch….”

Although peppered with words that are no longer socially acceptable, like “oriental,” this is Kipling at, in my opinion, his best. Displaying brevity, strong character sketches, conflict, humor, poetry, irony, and perfect narrative arc, each tale could be used to teach a novel-writing course. Best in short doses, because the word-to-picture ratio is high, and because, too, the language, while beautiful, can twist a forty-four year-old’s tongue and baffle a thirty-nine month-old brain. Maybe someday I will become an editor at a major publishing house and issue a 32-page picture book for each story. I’m not sure who I’d hire to illustrate it, but someone whose pictures were as luscious as the prose. The world would be a richer place.

There you have it: Twelve over forty. There are many notable books I have not included.  And now the obvious question: What are your favorite picture books over forty years old?