Friday, July 31, 2009

Happy Birthday JKR and Harry!

I missed marking one of the important July dates on my literary calendar: the 18th was the anniversary of Jane Austen's death. But I didn't want to forget to mark the birthday of author J.K. Rowling, a birthday she shares with her fictional creation Harry Potter.

If my reckoning is right, Harry is 29 today. I always like to picture him sitting up late on his birthday eve, recollecting the midnight birthday reflections of his youth. Some of Harry's birthdays (many of which we got glimpses of) were very important, most especially his eleventh.

Last year I dipped into the archives of things I've written about HP and reprinted an essay in honor of this day. I thought I'd make it a tradition, so went poking about my files. I've not written very much Harry Potter inspired poetry (unlike my wonderfully poetic friend and fellow HP enthusiast Erin!) but I have penned a few poems. Here's one I wrote, post Deathly Hallows, from Ron's perspective. I've prefaced it with some of the original comments I jotted about the poem.

Happy Birthday JKR and Harry!

One of my favorite scenes in Deathly Hallows (and there are many) is the scene when Ron finally returns to Harry and Hermione. I especially love the moment when he sheepishly says that Dumbledore must have known that he would run out on them, hence the gift of the deluminator. And Harry says, so readily and so graciously (showing a growing wisdom) that no, Dumbledore must have known that Ron would always want to find a way back. What a beautiful insight into Dumbledore and into Ron, and what a wonderful way of looking at his friend and finding the best in him to love.

The deluminator itself is fascinating, perhaps even moreso because we're led to believe Dumbledore invented it. And of course, it's one of the very first magical objects we ever see in the Harry Potter books.

The Gift of the Deluminator

When Dumbledore gave me this gift,
I had no idea of the rift
that would come between Harry and me.

Though I thought that the present was cool,
I’m dense as a general rule --
and the point wasn’t easy to see.

For putting out lights it was great,
but I still thought there must be a mistake,
for what else was this gift really good for?

No doubt we might go undercover
in the dark so we’d not be discovered.
Was that all? I still wasn’t sure.

Of course what I didn’t know
was that darkness inside me would grow
as we toiled so long on our quest,

and that one day I’d balk,
cut ties and just walk
away from the friends I loved best.

How amazing to learn
as I longed to return
that the gift was so wise from the start.

Though it seemed to make night
what it did was move light
to illuminate inside my heart.

That’s how I returned
to the friends I had spurned,
the friends I will always hold dear.

The light led me on
and the way that it shone
made the pathway ahead of me clear.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Snippets of Sense, Bits of Beauty

Every once in a while, I need to write a "blessings round-up" as well as a "reading round-up." Here's a glimpse at just a few things I've been thankful for this week...

A walk in the rain with the sweet girl, where I got to watch her puddle-jump in her purple crocs.

Raindrops strung like a trembling fairy necklaces on slender green stems of Queen Anne's Lace.

An email from my mom, in which she detailed, in her wonderful way, the intricacies of the beautiful new web being woven each summer evening by a remarkable spider on their Virginia front porch. They've dubbed the spider Charlotte, of course!

Giggling with the sweet girl when it suddenly occurred to both of us that, like Charlotte, we read and write on the web. (Groan. Get it? I do love my seven year old's sense of wordplay and humor!)

Review copy of a book that arrived yesterday. 2 books in 1 actually, by an author I've barely heard of. Books I likely would never have picked up on my own, but the first chapters are funny and well-written.

Inter-library loan notices. Books I'm looking forward to getting off the hold shelf this Saturday!

A delicious new crockpot recipe tried (green peppers stuffed with rice, beans and salsa) and liked by the whole family.

A huge car repair, wait for it. I confess I am not really thankful for the car repair bill, which made me cry (on the phone with the lady who did the estimate, no less). It's caused a lot of stress and anxiety. After the initial tears, I spent some time fretting about the math books I still need to buy and can't afford, and the fact that this felt like the final door slam on any tentative tiny vacation plans (and oh we're tired and so in need of a vacation). What I DID love, however, was the response of a friend with whom I shared the anxiety. She promised to pray for us, and then added, "I'm excited to see how God will respond."

Expectancy! Don't you love it? I know this friend well enough to know this was not a feigned sentiment in any way. She meant it. And it made me realize how much more I long to live in that place, where crisis doesn't automatically send me crashing and wailing, but moves me at the deepest levels to wait and expect something new and good from God. Because life with him is always an exciting adventure!

Making thank you cards and birthday cards for friends and family (especially for beloved sis Martha, who turns 54 next week!).

Good conversations, in person and by phone, with the seminary's online course consultant (who also happens to be one of my former students). His encouragement and ideas have helped to re-motivate and excite me about teaching the Anglican Essentials course again in the fall.

An encouraging note and gift from friends of the heart we haven't seen in a long while. A visit with other beloved friends of the heart.

A gracious note from a favorite author. I continue to discover new boldness and freedom in writing to favorite authors to share with them what their work has meant to me or to my family. In these days when favorite authors and musicians tend to "friend" you on Facebook, it’s actually become a whole lot easier. But I’m still always touched when one of them takes the time to write back and say thank you.

Watching and listening as the sweet girl read the whole story "The Friend of Little Children" from the Jesus Storybook Bible this morning. Her determination and concentration as she lay on her stomach in front of the book (wearing her butterfly pj's) and read by the light of her little purple flashlight (we had a brief power outage this morning, right around breakfast time). Her reading fluency, and the fact that she wanted to read this particular story on her own. My thankfulness over Jesus' immense love for my daughter, and for all of us.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Of Snakes and Thistles

Years ago, when we lived in an apartment complex in eastern Pennsylvania, we got to know a snake.

Okay, I'm exaggerating a little bit. "Get to know" might be too strong a term, but there was a snake who lived for a while in the bushes near the back door of our building, in a "prettyish kind of a little wilderness on one side" (to quote Lady Catherine de Bourgh).

He was a long, harmless black snake who liked to sleep in the shade. We might never have noticed him at all except for the fact that we would sometimes startle him when we opened the door (a door we used often, as it was near where we parked). I think we frequently woke the poor creature up from his morning nap. He would literally almost jump some days (startling poor me!) and then slither back out of sight, so you only caught a glimpse of him in passing.

He was quite beautiful. I've never been fond of snake phobia is not as bad as my spider phobia, but I've still never had a desire to really get near one...but this snake was lovely. I also became quite fond of his personality, which was as shy and retiring as one might wish for in a snake acquaintance. And I admired his tenacity: despite being rudely awakened when people came in and out of the building, he just didn't seem ready to relinquish his favorite shady spot amongst the bushes, weeds and herbs.

I actually named the snake Leroy (a royal name seemed to fit his dignity best) and found myself looking for him when I went in and out. "Good morning, Leroy!" or "Just me, Leroy, go back to sleep!" became common expressions.

One day some workers came to the apartment complex with lawn mowers and clippers. The next day Leroy had disappeared. We never saw him again.

I actually wrote a lament poem for that snake. It started "I fear Leroy has been murdered..." (I planned to post it today, but my writing files are in disarray at the moment and I can't locate a copy).

All of this probably happened 15 years ago or more, but I found myself thinking about Leroy again this week. That's because someone ruthlessly chopped up the thistle plant down the road, rooting it out and leaving almost no trace of the plant the sweet girl and I had been joyously watching as it grew this summer.

Thistles, like snakes, are much maligned. I think they might even be classified as "noxious weeds." They're prickly and spiky, like porcupines, not precisely friendly plants. Be that as it may, I was thrilled when I saw we had one growing through the tangle of grape vines climbing the metal fence at the end of our sidewalk. You have to remember, we live in a tremendously urban area. We take our nature where we can find it, rejoicing in new species as opportunities to learn and appreciate. Green stuff that grows in the cracks of broken sidewalks or through an ugly metal fence with barbed wire on top is priceless treasure. A plant like this one, hardy and amazing in its ferocious protection of its seed growing activities, with over half a dozen beautiful purple blooms at the end of its spiky leaves...well, we loved it.

And I had never seen an actual thistle, only pictures. I keep a small cross-stitched thistle (originally a Christmas ornament) on a shelf in the house, a beautiful purple emblem of my Scotch ancestry. Thistles are old Celtic symbols of nobility. Having had a chance to see one up close, I can understand that more than ever.

But now, like Leroy, it's gone. And we miss it. We went to look at it again the other day, and saw that it had been chopped completely down to the ground, rooted out. A few sad remains of spiky leaves dusted the sidewalk. We did manage to find one small, round globe of seeds, one spiky dried ball that had not been completely destroyed. Guess what we did? Yep, we opened it up, pulled out the milky soft strands, and let them fly away on the breeze. (Such rebels we are!) We cheered those tiny white flying seeds on loud and clear as they scuttled down the sidewalk on the back of the wind. We hope...we hope...

Note: I took these pictures of our thistle the evening of July 3, when we were celebrating with sparklers at twilight. This was the first of its many blooms. Given its soft thistledown, and looking at various pictures, I'm pretty sure this is a Asteraceae Silybum (Milk Thistle). If anyone knows differently, I'd love to hear! I'm counting it as #8 in our 100 Species Challenge.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Reading Round-Up: Midsummer Edition

If the first quarter of the year was mystery reading time, then second quarter reading was definitely steeped in fantasy. I haven't actually planned to get so "into" certain types of reading each quarter; it's just the way things have worked out so far this year!

Here are a few notes on my reading from the second quarter. Links are to my full-length reviews on Epinions.

April/May/June reading was steeped in C.S. Lewis for me, though his name won't show up on my list of "books read." That's because I've been reading chapters and essays from a number of books about Lewis (in addition to reading some more by him that I've not finished yet). I plan to do a whole Lewisian post soon, with titles of some of the wonderful things I've been reading and re-reading. One of my favorites, and a book I did finish this spring, is A Reader's Guide to Caspian: A Journey Into C.S. Lewis's Narnia by Leland Ryken and Marjorie Lamp Mead. Ryken and Mead, both respected Lewis scholars/teachers/researchers, have created a wonderful "guided tour" into the second book of the Chronicles (they've also written one for LWW, which I've not read yet) that I think would be particularly rich for high school and college aged students.

My second quarter reading was colored by the last leg of my re-read of the entire Harry Potter series, especially the final three volumes. I'd not read Deathly Hallows since the summer it came out (when I read through it once at top-speed in the days after its release, then read it aloud to my husband, our tradition) and the book felt incredibly fresh to me as a result. I'd forgotten parts of it, and reading it right on the heels of Half-Blood Prince was marvelous. I've loved it from the start, but I was moved on much deeper levels than I expected upon this read-through. I also finished Travis Prinzi's excellent Harry Potter & Imagination, which I've not yet reviewed but still want to. It's very thoughtful: not only full of insights into HP (particularly Rowling's inclusion of social justice issues) but into the Christian fantasy tradition in general.

By the way: total HP side note/rabbit trail, but did you know that when you enter Dumbledore's name in an anagram generator, one of the many fascinating things it turns up is "BOLD DEMURE"? Fun!

Second quarter also found me reading George MacDonald's The Lost Princess; Shannon, Dean and Nathan (no relation) Hale's Rapunzel's Revenge (a graphic novel); and N.D. Wilson's 100 Cupboards. I was less taken with Cupboards than I expected to be (perhaps my expectations were too high) but am looking forward to finding and reading the sequel, which I hear is even better.

One of the most pleasant surprises of my reading spring was my ability to get, via inter-library loan, the first novel in Regina Doman's young adult fairy-tale/fantasy series, The Shadow of the Bear. A contemporary re-telling of Grimm's Snow White and Rose Red, it's darker and more thrilling than I expected, just a terrific read from start to finish.

Spring felt like just the right time to read Linda Sue Park's mid-grade novel Keeping Score, the story of a young Brooklyn girl in the 1950s and her deep love for the Dodgers. I had what felt like some personal associations with the story-line, but it would have been a gem in any respect.

Spring was also just the right time to enjoy John Yow's recently released book of essays: The Armchair Birder: Discovering the Secret Life of Familiar Birds. If you know any devoted backyard birders, this would be a great gift book. The essays are witty and stuffed with good research as well as careful observations. Conversational in tone, the kind of book you like to read on a porch or on a blanket at the park -- with your binoculars handy.

100 Species Challenge #7: "Red Magic" Daylily

I have always loved daylilies. When I was a little girl, my parents grew lots of lovely orange ones, which we called tiger lilies. I'm also partial to lemon lilies.

But this variety, Daylily Hemerocallis, often called "Red Magic," is just breathtaking. I love the contrast of the red and yellow: rich red petals, deep yellow innards, and then the striking red stamens. Just gorgeous.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

From Dinnertime Conversation...

"I'm glad I'm not an elephant. I don't like to drink through my nose."

(Thankfully, no, I don't think she'd tried it first.)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Early Elementary Math Resources

One of my homeschooling inspirations is the memory of the many things my Dad taught me at home when I was a preschooler. My father (who turned 77 yesterday, happy birthday!) could almost always make learning fun. When I was about four or five, he kept a blue notebook (we simply called it the blue book) where he and I did fun things together: simple math problems, writing poetry, learning the color wheel and how to mix paint colors. I loved that book!

I've tried to tap into his "learning is fun" approach when it comes to teaching math to the sweet girl. Kindergarten math went well, but we both struggled a little (as teacher and learner) in the first grade year. I think it's a combination of things: my own lack of confidence that I can teach this subject as well as history and language arts, and the fact that my daughter's skills in math feel very different than mine. While I loved lower math, especially addition and subtraction (partly thanks to the games Dad taught me) and struggled with other, more complex spatial ideas (like fractions) the sweet girl is almost exactly the opposite. Her grasp of fractions, for instance, was better at the age of four than mine was in second grade. She also enjoys learning concepts like place value.

But she's balked at learning math facts, and it doesn't help that I've second-guessed myself many a time about having blended (or moved too quickly) from manipulative to mental/abstract phases. (We use Horizons curriculum, which tends to present certain concepts and keep on reviewing them even as they present new concepts.) She actually adds and subtracts quite well, but she's not memorized many facts (much beyond 10). She can get anxious with double-digit work and carrying, a concept we just began toward the end of first grade year. And she went through a phase in spring where she decided she really didn't like working with flash cards, which just about drove this mama bear crazy. I've never been able to invest in those cool, expensive math manipulative sets (we use decorative stones from Wal-Mart's floral arranging section for counters!) but I did invest in two excellent sets of addition/subtraction flash cards from "Math in a Flash."

Watching her set up mental blocks for herself can be frustrating, especially when I know she has it in her to do the work easily. I know that both because she's bright, and because on days when everything seems to be "clicking" she can glide smoothly and easily through problems that stump her on other days. Playing math games, encouraging number play/work in every day situations, and trying to find new ways to work on memorizing facts are all part of my current plans (in a more relaxed way this summer, but stepping up the pace as we move toward fall).

With all this in mind, I've been delighted to find some terrific free online resources/helps. Here are some of my favorite early elementary math resources at the moment:

Dr. Mike's Math Games for Kids. The link is set to his page of games for first graders, but he covers bases for kids older and younger than that as well. Lots of game ideas and printable charts and worksheets.

Open Wide, Look Inside, a blog self-described as a blog about teaching elementary math, science and socials studies, with heavy emphasis on the integration of children’s literature across the curriculum. The link is set to my current favorite destination on the blog, a list of addition/subtraction resources for second graders, but you'll find all sorts of useful things for other grade levels if you poke around.

Ten Frame, one of the games we found through the Open Wide post just mentioned. It's a simple but fun computer game where children can do all sorts of things involving a frame of ten squares (two rows of five) and colored circles (filling the squares with the correct number of circles, adding circles in two frame sets, noting how many frames are empty in a given set, etc.) Cute graphics and sounds. Though this one is mostly pretty easy for her skill set, the sweet girl likes it, and I like that she can review basic concepts in such a painless way.

If your child can't get enough of worksheets, check out the Math Worksheet Site which lets you generate different types of worksheets depending on what skills you want to emphasize.

Besides these online resources, I also highly recommend Ruth Beechick's The Three R's, which combines her old title "A Home Start in Reading," "A Strong Start in Language," and "An Easy Start in Arithmetic." Sometimes I just need to go back and re-read portions of her basic but usually very solid guidance on teaching young learners in a natural way.

And we love Mathtacular, the DVD series produced by Sonlight. We used the first one last year. They call it "unbelievably understandable math." Justin, the young man who presents the concepts, is enthusiastic and engaging, and I love that my daughter gets another "teacher" at least once a week.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

100 Species #s 5 & 6: Chicory & Queen Anne's Lace

One of the best things about walking the sweet girl to camp most mornings is the opportunity to see the beautiful summer wildflowers in bloom on the roadsides. Two that grow in abundance around here are Chicory (Cichorium intybus) and Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus Carota).

In fact, they grow in such abundance that we often pick some for our small green vase on the kitchen table.

Chicory is actually a flowering herb. The flowers are sometimes called "blue sailors" which I love. The fragile blooms look strikingly blue in the early morning light, though they seem to fade to lavender and then a purplish-tinged creamy white as they dry and fade.

Queen Anne's Lace is actually wild carrot. That tiny red flower you often see right in the middle is supposed to represent a drop of blood from a finger pricked while making the lace.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"Without One Star For Company"

In the morning when the sun
Is shining down on everyone
How strange to see a daytime moon
Floating like a pale balloon
Over house and barn and tree
Without one star for company.

~Dorothy Aldis

I love this poem. In fact, I loved it so much I set it to music when the sweet girl was a baby. I still have lovely memories of holding my chubby infant on my lap and crooning out the words; then later, when she reached toddler/preschool age, seeing her light up when I would sing it and hearing her begin to sing it too.

I still love this poem, but today it cracked me up. Or to be more precise, the sweet girl cracked me up. If I needed any more persuading that my seven year old has arrived firmly at the "grammar" stage of learning (the delight in facts stage, the "reality testing" stage) I need it no more.

When we left for camp this morning, the sky was a bright, vivid blue spread like a smooth canopy over the river valley. Not a cloud to be seen everywhere, but one pale white balloon of a waning gibbous moon right overhead as we walked.

"Look, Mommy, a day-time moon!" the sweet girl exclaimed, which is always cause for me to launch into the song. Which I did.

And my little girl paused thoughtfully. "I wonder why you can't see other stars in the day-time like you sometimes can the moon," she mused (sending my poetry mind reeling in the direction of Wendell Berry's "day-blind stars").

Then she added, "and why does she say 'without one star for company'? The sun IS a star, so the moon does have a star for company!"

Hmm. Good point. I suggested that perhaps the poet meant no other stars, but that the line worked best for the poem here. But my "just the facts" girl said "yes, but maybe she just didn't KNOW the sun was a star."

Of course the last time we read Eric Carle's The Hungry Caterpillar, that pillar of her toddler imagination, it also drove her buggy (pun intended) that Carle said cocoon instead of chrysalis.

Welcome to grammar land!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Here, There and Everywhere There Be Dragons

I discovered the other day that when you post a status update to Facebook about something you're considering writing, you might be surprised by how much feedback you get.

I posted this little musing: that I was pondering (just pondering, mind you!) a re-telling of St. George and the Dragon for beginning readers. To put it mildly, I was amazed by the enthusiasm this musing generated. How wonderful to hear those words of encouragement. It makes me think I really ought to try it!

The difficulty I'm facing right now is finding the time to dive into any more new projects. I've started several in July, what is meant to be my serious writing month (meaning the only month where the sweet girl is in camp enough to give me some real daylight hours in which to work). I'm posting a number of reviews at Eps because we need the income, but I'm also working on several longer-term projects: two essays, one potentially longer non-fiction book, and some fiction.

The St. George idea sort of winged me out of nowhere the other day. I've had dragons on the brain, as you can probably tell from my recent posting on re-reading (in which I contemplated some of the differences in Tolkien and Rowling's treatment of dragons). The sweet girl and I are in the midst of a read-aloud of The Silver Chair, where Eustace Scrub (former dragon!) has yet another starring role. I've been working on a story (with a contemporary setting) that combines some elements of Sleeping Beauty and St. George and the Dragon (both princes-fighting-dragon stories). And I've been thinking about the particular gifts of really good writers for beginning-intermediate readers like the sweet girl.

Thinking about St. George led me to Margaret Hodges and Trina Schart Hyman's gorgeous, oh so gorgeous, picture book version. It's a Caldecott Medal winner, just stunning.

But I know that's only one take on the legend of George, merrie saint of England. I'm particularly interested right now in different versions of the legend, and in what visual images and colors recur most often through the different re-tellings. I went to the Baldwin Online Children's Literature project, my favorite repository of old stories and legends, and searched on "St. George" within the site. LOTS of versions popped up, and I've only had time so far to read a couple.

At any rate, I do seem to be finding dragons everywhere I turn. A friend wrote me today (yes, via FB) to say she'd recently purchased a small stuffed dragon to keep beside her while she works on the fantasy book she's writing. And I just finished Regina Doman's dark and thrilling contemporary Gothic fairy-tale Black as Night in which the New York subway system was wonderfully described as a fire-breathing dragon (and a terrific fight scene takes place near the third rail underground).

So if anyone wants to share any more good dragon stories or illustrations, St. George or otherwise, let me know!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Notable and Quotable

"The most important reason we need the church may be to remind us of our need to find communion with Someone with whom we have nothing in common, Someone who loves us and receives us despite our difference and inadequacy. The old idea of parish churches, where everyone attended the church closet to home, meant a variety of people were blended together into a community of unlikes. In The Screwtape Letters the tempter Screwtape advises Wormwood to attack the use of local parishes as a structure because 'being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy (God) desires.'"

~Peter J. Schakel, "Is Your Lord Large Enough? How C.S. Lewis Expands Our View of God"

Monday, July 06, 2009

The Joys of Re-Reading

One of the many blessings of discovering kindred spirits in online reading communities is the realization that I am not alone as a re-reader.

I have always loved re-reading books. As a child, the books I loved most were books I went back to again and again. It surprised me when I discovered that not everybody did this, and I went through a period of time when I thought perhaps I was just weird or perhaps not as smart as people who could get everything they needed or wanted from a book the first time through and go on to other things.

Gradually I began to realize that I wasn't re-reading because I forgot "things that happened" in a story (though sometimes I did, and part of the joy was rediscovering events or lines I'd forgotten!) but for the sheer pleasure of revisiting a world I'd loved the first time through. We would never say "oh, I've been to grandma's house once, so I never need to go again." Every trip is different and new, even though elements of such visits are comfortingly familiar.

I use grandma's house as an analogy partly because it was my own paternal grandmother, who came to live with us when I was nine, who presented me with one of my first pictures of an adult re-reader. My parents, who loved books and made sure our house was full of them, were rather busy in that season of my life, busy raising four of us children, taking care of my invalid grandmother, and working hard at their various jobs and household tasks. They both read, but mostly late at night or in the cracks and crevices of their busy lives.

(Side note: I still recall marveling that my mom could fall asleep over a book, something I almost never used to do -- until the past few years. Middle age has not deprived me of my love of reading, but it has ensured there are times when I simply cannot keep my eyes open and end up with my face pillowed on a paperback.)

But my grandmother, who was confined to bed for large portions of the five years she lived with us, seemed to read constantly. And I was intrigued that she went back to her favorites again and again. Suddenly I didn't feel so strange about reading Little Women for the third or fourth time, because there was Mamaw cracking open the red covers of Jane Eyre again.

I've been reading C.S. Lewis' An Experiment in Criticism for the first time, and it's such a delight to hear Lewis talk about the joys of re-reading. He hails literary readers as "deep" readers, who often want or need to go back to the same book again and again. He seems to feel that a good book is a book that can and should be revisited often. All of this gels wonderfully with the thoughts of John Granger, whose reflections on the Harry Potter stories I've enjoyed now for several years. In his new book, Harry Potter's Bookshelf (due to be released tomorrow!) John talks about the "slow mining" one can do in the great books, books that have been written with more than one level of meaning and that provide rich treasures for those who are willing to keep going back to dig.

I don't often consciously choose what to re-read when, but more often than not, I find myself busy with a re-read at the same time I'm reading other books for the first time. Certain authors seem to pull me back into their worlds at regular intervals, and even sometimes in regular seasons (Austen is almost always an autumn/winter re-read for me.)

At the moment I'm re-reading J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and absolutely loving it. Although I typically re-read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings every 5-7 years, it had been quite a while since I'd done a full read-through of The Hobbit. I'm guessing it's been at least a decade (I know the last time was before the sweet girl was born, at any rate, so over 7 years). I'm about fifty pages from the end now, with the Battle of the Five Armies on the horizon, and while certain images and scenes have definitely come back to me, I'd also forgotten many things. It's been wonderful to re-read for the sake of the story itself, but also eye-opening to think of it as a "prelude" to LOTR (so many foreshadowings and set-ups!) and even to read it with my recent re-read of the Harry Potter series in mind.

I'm still not sure where I fall on the spectrum of thoughts about Tolkien's influence on Rowling (how direct or conscious such influence was) but it's been interesting to note certain similarities. One realization I had was how much Rowling pulls on and yet also subverts, in her usual fascinating way, the story tradition of dragons. Tolkien's Smaug is such a nasty, greedy brute, hoarding every bit of plundered treasure so that he knows down to the last ounce exactly what he's sleeping on, even though he never puts any of it to use except to encrust himself in diamond armor.

It makes perfect story-telling sense for Rowling to have dragons guarding the treasures in the vaults at the deepest levels of Gringotts, the wizarding bank, but the plight of those dragons seems so sad as they're not free (not even free to be greedy and nasty as in stories of old!) and the treasures they are guarding are not their own. By the time we get to Deathly Hallows, we've been long set up to feel sympathy for dragons through Hagrid's care for a baby dragon (and his love for all wild things) and even Harry's grudging admiration for the Hungarian Horntail. The dragon the trio meets in Deathly Hallows is a sad portrait of a proud creature now broken and in chains, trained like a beaten dog to guard someone else's hoard. It makes the whole escape from Gringotts in DH yet another yet moment when Harry, acting on intuition and his own love-shaped character, frees an oppressed fellow-creature. I know it's not his main purpose (he needs to find an escape route, after all!) but it's a happy by-product of his actions, and one that he never seems to regret. As much as JKR writes about Harry's "saving people thing" it's his "freeing people/creatures thing" that feels almost as interesting, whether it's making glass walls disappear at the zoo so the boa constrictor can slither away or making sure Mr. Malfoy hands Dobby a sock. And oh, the fruit of Dobby's freedom...

I did happen to notice that the bit of treasure that Bilbo first sneaks from Smaug's mountain of treasure (the missing bit that enrages the dragon once he wakes up and realizes he's been robbed) was a two-handled cup. It reminded me forcefully of Helga Hufflepuff's cup, the horcrux Harry, Ron and Hermione manage to get from Gringotts and then flee with on the back of the dragon. This time around, the enraged creature is not the dragon (who could care less about the treasures he's guarding for wizards and goblins and only wants his freedom) but red-eyed almost totally inhuman Voldemort. No wonder Voldemort has such an affinity for snakes and basilisks. He's got a greedy, hoarding dragon heart.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Literary Parents

I'm having "one of those weeks" where I figure I may as well clean house. When you know in advance that a week is going to be filled with stressful things you can't control (like your loss of health insurance or your kid's difficult morning at the dentist) it helps to dive into a simple, practical project where you can see satisfying results almost right away. At least it helps me! (I'm reminded of the fact that I used to love...weirdly, many people thought...shelf-reading books at the library. But what could be more satisfying than seeing that things are put in their proper places, the places where people can really find what they're looking for?)

I spent much of the morning (following the sweet girl's brave survival at the dentist...first novacaine, first laughing gas) cleaning out my laundry area. The sweet girl lay on the couch nursing her sore mouth with a milkshake and the solace of Charlie and Lola episodes and I cleaned. And I do mean cleaned. Our laundry area is essentially a hallway that functions as a sort of attic. We throw stuff there whenever we can't find room for it somewhere else, and it had been months since I'd done a good digging out. There were the piles of clothes that need to be hand washed and the ones that need sorting for give away or mending. Bags with miscellaneous craft supplies and stuff from one of the last cleaning out of the small junk drawers and a box filled with S's outgrown shoes. Plastic bottles and paper towel rolls we'd saved for D's puppet making ventures. And so on...

As I sorted, tossed, dusted, scrubbed and started loads of laundry, I remembered an idea I had once for sprucing up my laundry room. It seems to be a place where I spend a lot of time doing the routine kinds of drudgery that aren't much fun and yet are necessary if the house is to keep running. So despite the fact that I sometimes begrudge how much time I spend washing, folding and sorting, I know deep down that it's a labor of love.

So here's the idea I had: to create a montage of some of my favorite pictures of literary moms and dads that I can put up on the wall. So many of the wonderful children's books I read have terrific parental characters. They're not usually central to the story, but they're there, nonetheless, often working busily and cheerfully to make home a good place for their kids to grow.

I thought I would copy a picture of Ma Ingalls (from the Garth Williams illustrations in the Little House book) washing clothes or cooking or one of the many other chores we usually see her doing. I also want to copy a Vera Neville illustration from one of the high school Betsy books, the one of her papa, Bob Ray, wearing an apron and making onion sandwiches for the family's traditional Sunday night lunch. A picture of Sal's mother, in Blueberries for Sal, either collecting berries or canning.

Those are the ones I've thought of so far. I know there are lots more I'm not thinking of right away. Can you think of beloved or iconic illustrations, from picture books or longer books, of creative literary parents who loved their kids? My laundry room awaits your ideas!