Warrior Cats

The New Prophecy, book 1

I just love the second set in the Warrior Cat series, THE NEW PROPHECY (six books). It’s all about coming together across boundaries, a message that we desperately need to hear and act on in these divisive times. If every child read these books and internalized their message, I venture to say that we would be looking forward to a world where justice and respect for the natural environment are key values of society.

I hasten to add that the Warriors series is anything but didactic. They are addictive, page-turning stories about four “clans” of feral cats who live in a forest on the edge of a human community.

The hero of the first set of six books starts out as a “kittypet” named Rusty who becomes curious about the wild cats he sees on the edge of his yard and eventually decides to join them and forsake his safe, comfortable world for the call within himself to hunt his own food, experience the untamed natural world, and enjoy the camaraderie—and the rivalries—of living amongst his own kind, unbeholden to any human providers.

The stigma of being raised as a “kittypet” rather than being born to the clan is one of the many ways that the author, Erin Hunter, artfully raises questions of belonging and prejudice among humankind.

Into the wild

These books teach political lessons, too. The dark shadow of the clan’s deputy, Tigerclaw, overshadows the span of the entire series. Tigerclaw, ruthless and cunning, who seeks power at any cost, forms a stark contrast with our hero, who on entering the clan as a kitten-apprentice is rechristened “Firepaw.” Throughout the series, Firepaw consistently reaches out to cats in need of help—whether they hail from his own “Thunder Clan” or one of the three rival clans who populate the wood and meet in peace only on the nights of the full moon, where they discuss common threats and negotiate boundaries and other concerns, much like nations coming together at NATO or the UN.

I realize these books are wildly popular, and some readers may feel inclined to rail at me for publicizing them rather than equally deserving, but less well known, children’s books. My feeling, however, is that any books which have so much potential to instill a love for wilderness and wild things along with an appreciation for the role of compassion and justice both within and across social boundaries deserve all the publicity they can get.

If you decide to read them or pass them on to the little ones in your life, please note that they really need to be read in order! The original series begins with INTO THE WILD, and there is a handy list of all the books on the website: Http://warrior cats.com. Be careful venturing beyond the booklist on the website, though, or you will encounter spoilers.

Thanks to Sam and Violet, my nephew and niece (niece’s daughter, actually) who piqued my interest in the series.

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The Salamander Room

Nature and children seem appropriate subjects for summertime musings, and writing about Diary of an Earthworm made me think of another picture book I liked so much I got a copy for myself as well as my nephew.

salamander roomThe Salamander Room is a gorgeously illustrated tale of a little boy, Brian, who finds a “little orange salamander” in the woods and takes it home. Instead of outright denying him his new pet, Brian’s mother instead asks some practical questions—“Where will he sleep?” “When he wakes up, where will he play?”—and then observes, “He will miss his friends in the forest.”

The mother’s responses demonstrate a perceptive compassion that extends to the salamander itself, a gentle reminder to her son Brian that the salamander is not a pretty toy from the store, a plaything made for his own devices, but a wild creature with its own needs, desires, and concerns. By phrasing her observations as questions and statements that demand Brian’s response, she (and the author) avoid accusatory, didactic diatribes on humans and nature, inviting Brian instead to think through the consequences of his action, both for himself and the fellow creature he has taken from its native environment.

Brian’s responses to his mother’s questions and observations (which continue on to the subject of food, and the consequent creation of an entire ecological foodchain) create the magic of the book as the boy envisions how he will transform his room to suit the salamander’s needs. The illustrations by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher show the gradual transformation of Brian’s bedroom to a virtual forest, a complete habitat for the salamander and its food and friends, lush and verdant, lovingly depicted.

The story, by Anne Mazer, is a wise and wonderful tale that creates its own magic. I’m so glad I stumbled on it.

Two Tales of Earthworms

I love children’s picture books, and I also love earthworms (the latter discussed in a previous post), so it’s not surprising that two of my favorite picture books feature this lowly but supremely important tiller of soil. hair in my dirt Gary Larson’s There’s a Hair in My Dirt presents a decided contrast with Diary of a Worm (story by Doreen Cronin; charming pictures by Harry Bliss). Of course part of the difference is that Larson’s book is really meant more for adults. One of my favorite bloggers, Isaac Yuen of Ekostories, wrote about Larson’s book here, providing a useful summary and thoughtful commentary.

Both books engage with plenty of humor. Some of my favorite lines from Larson include: “Mother Worm . . . . tried to make their home as cheery as possible, even going so far as always putting silverware on the table—despite the fact that none of them had arms.” And “[Harriet] was as excited as a tapeworm in a meat patty!” From Diary of a Worm there are humorous references to Junior Worm (as I call the unnamed first-person narrator) eating his homework and telling his sister that “no matter how much time she spends looking in the mirror [a puddle on the ground in the drawing], her face will always look just like her rear end.”

Along with the hysterically funny one-liners are some much needed reminders of important truths. From Larson: “As any worm with half a ganglion knows, the plants did a little more than just make the air crisp and clean—they made the air air! Every molecule of oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere was put there by a plant.” My husband especially enjoyed Larson’s reminder that the grey squirrel, though “cute,” is an aggressive invader that has driven out native Red Squirrels (and attempts to invade people’s attics, as well—the source of my better half’s quarrel with them).

Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin; illustrated by Harry Bliss. One of my favorite books!

Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin; illustrated by Harry Bliss.
One of my favorite books!

Diary begins by informing the reader that “Mom says there are three things I should always remember: 1. The earth gives us everything we need. 2. When we dig tunnels, we help take care of the earth. 3. Never bother Daddy when he’s eating the newspaper.” Junior Worm ends his little tale by concluding: “It’s not always easy being a worm. We’re very small, and sometimes people forget that we’re even here. But, like Mom always says, the earth never forgets we’re here.”

Both books also address the question of humans and their relationship to the natural world. For Larson, this is the heart of his book, addressed in an unabashedly moral tale told by Father Worm featuring a “beautiful young maiden” named Harriet whose sentimental and well-meaning but uninformed interventions in Nature ultimately result in her rather gruesome death when she “rescues” a mouse from a snake—a mouse infected with a deadly disease. Yeah, not really a children’s book. (Although little boys may well like it because of that—as Larson reminds us, some things about biology can’t be changed.) Like the little worm, the reader is tempted to ask, “What kind of story is that?”

But Larson’s gruesome little satire is designed to illustrate a very specific moral: “Loving Nature is not the same as understanding it. . . . Connections . . . are the key to understanding the natural world.” And earthworms, it turns out, are crucial in this natural web: “We till, aerate, and enrich the earth’s soil, making it suitable for plants. No worms, no plants; and no plants, no so-called higher animals running around with their oh-so-precious backbones! . . . Heck, we’re invertebrates . . . . Spineless superheroes, that’s what we are!”

Diary‘s examples are more specific, giving the reader a visceral sense through the drawings of how a worm might respond to activities that many humans engage in without giving them a thought: “Fishing season started today. We all dug deeper.” Followed by a worm’s-eye view on the next page of child playing hopscotch, “a very dangerous game,” that nicely illustrates E.O. Wilson‘s parting words in his introduction to Larson’s book: “Just watch where you step; be careful of little lives.”

Both contain appealing illustrations, Larson’s with his trademark critters that manage to look anatomically correct even while wearing harlequin eyeglasses and a beehive hairdo (for Mother Worm), while the humans are typically Larson: goofy-looking, overweight, and rather grotesque. Harry Bliss’s drawings in Diary of a Worm strike a nice balance: whimsical without straying into cutsey—the be-spectacled worm father and baseball-capped son no more anthropomorphic than Larson’s worm family, the background details such as bottle-cap seats for the little worms in class a charming way of showing the small dimensions of the worm family in a way that relates to children’s experience.

Where Diary differs most strikingly from Dirt is its portrayal of inter-species friendship between Junior Worm and Spider. Obviously in the real world, the two seldom meet and Spider would be more interested in Worm as potential food if they did. Nonetheless, the interactions between Worm and Spider nicely illustrate how each differs from the other, giving the reader a good sense of how special and unique each kind of creature is. To quote from Wilson’s introduction to the Larson book: “We all need one another, each in our special niche.”

Each of these books does indeed occupy its own special niche, and each is well worth perusing multiple times for its richness in both text and pictures. Their minds and hearts engaged by books that teach love of Nature, future generations will be better primed to follow Wilson’s parting dictum: “Just watch where you step; be careful of little lives.”

Madeleine L’Engle’s The Young Unicorns

Photo from publisher's website: http://us.macmillan.com/author/madeleinelengle

Photo from publisher’s website

Around the same time that I purchased the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe (whose influence is described in a previous post), I stumbled upon Madeleine L’Engle‘s The Young Unicorns while browsing the book department of the same store that had furnished my nice edition of Poe. I believe I was thirteen or so, and the title caught my eye at once, as I loved both fantasy and horses. Plus, I was already familiar with L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which had been quite literally a life-changing book. The Young Unicorns was to be life changing as well.

The story is set during the period between Halloween and Thanksgiving, and the autumnal mood adds to the overtone of suspense that appears at once on the first page, when we see one of the main characters being followed by three youths in black leather jackets in a dreary November rain. The chiaroscuro contrasts between darkness and light, and the autumnal, occasionally Gothic, sensibility doubtless furnished for me part of the book’s charm. As a writer, I now realize that it’s a great example of a novel of suspense. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that those are the kinds of plots I tend to write.

One of the book’s major characters is a girl named Emily, an extraordinary musician of determined spirit who perseveres in her ambitions to become a concert pianist even after she is blinded by an intruder in her father’s apartment. Her best friend, an older boy named Dave, is a brilliant musician as well, who is also trying to overcome the darkness of his past.

young unicornsMuch of the story centers on the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City, which is referred to in the book only as “the Cathedral.” Having been raised in a mainstream Protestant denomination, I assumed it was a Roman Catholic church, as those were the only cathedrals I knew of. In actuality, Saint John the Divine is one of the most famous cathedrals of the Episcopal Church, which I joined during college. The works of Madeleine L’Engle, especially The Young Unicorns, were instrumental in leading me to a church where I could feel both spiritually and liturgically at home.

In L’Engle’s book, the Cathedral is a pervasive and numinous presence, at once life-giving, glowing with light, but at other times eerie and unsettling, with rather Gothic overtones. It is the stage upon which both good and evil strut, and is closely entwined with the lives of the main characters. Emily’s friend Dave once sang in the Cathedral choir; her endearingly eccentric teacher, Mr. Theo, is the Cathedral’s retired organist, who still plays for the occasional service. Early in the book, one of the characters describes listening to the Cathedral’s organ with more than one sense by lying down in the choir stalls in order to “feel the music through the wood.” Just as the organ music envelopes such a listener in body as well as mind, so too does the Cathedral completely envelope the plot and characters–and by extension, the reader as well.

Emily and Dave, both lost children, find shelter and stability with the Austin family, who have moved in above Emily’s apartment: parents with two teenage daughters and an small boy who is much like Charles Wallace in A Wrinkle in Time: precocious beyond his years, caring and wise. As the story unfolds, the young people find themselves caught in a web of darkness and evil  woven near the heart of the mighty Cathedral itself.

Throughout the story, spiritual issues are touched upon, briefly and lightly but with subtlety and depth, in a way that doesn’t feel preachy or obtrude on the story. That is the kind of fiction I aspire to write.

The Wind in the Willows as Eco Story

Today I’m taking a page from one of my favorite blogs, Isaac Yuen’s Ekostories, putting an eco-lens to one of my favorite childhood books, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.

wind in the willowsAs with many children’s books, the main characters are animals, but the way Grahame portrays his animal characters and their environment sets Wind in the Willows apart from the crowd. To begin with, none of the animals has human names: we know them as Mole, the Water Rat (or, more familiarly, “Ratty”), Otter, the Badger, and Toad. Only Toad and Badger are ever addressed as “Mr.”—Badger because of his superior wisdom and Toad because of his wealth and pretensions.

Like the animals’ names, the natural environment in Grahame’s book is treated very much from an animal’s point of view, and the world, though lovely and charming, contains dangers as well, and is described without cloying sentimentality. The Wild Wood occasions the most harrowing scenes in the book, and the tension as Mole becomes lost and hears unfamiliar and threatening whistles and sounds is far greater for me than the scene at the end where the animals band together to retake Toad Hall from the weasels. At the opposite pole is the wonderful chapter where Mole encounters the numinous, when he and Ratty set out to help Otter find his little, lost son.

illustration by Leah Palmer Preiss, found on alphabooks.tumblr.com

illustration by Leah Palmer Preiss, found on alphabooks.tumblr.com

Toad in many ways is given more human attributes than the others, a fact that sets him apart—and seldom in a good way. In fact, I now wonder if Grahame’s rather satiric portrayal of Toad is meant as a comment on human foibles, particularly our fascination with technology, which we see all too often as a toy for our own gratification rather than a tool to benefit society at large. In hindsight, Mr. Toad’s ill-fated love of motorcars seems a prophetic parody of the way the automobile has come to dominate nearly every aspect of life in more economically “advanced” countries. If we are unable to halt global warming, it will be in large part because we, like Toad, have become oblivious to all else but the lure of high speed, forgetful of the realities that lie in the here and now—and the consequences of our actions. “Poop-poop,” indeed.

Lest I sound too somber a note, taken at face value, Toad’s adventures provide a comic counterpoint to the rest of the book, and they are often the chapters that small children enjoy the most. Yet, for me, the real heart of the book lies elsewhere, in the friendship of Mole and Rat, their gentle meanderings through the landscape, Mole’s brief but chilling journey into the Wild Wood, Ratty’s inchoate longings that are awakened as he bids farewell to the migratory  animals who pick up and leave as the seasons change, and the magical moment when Mole meets Nature’s god.

illustration by Paul Bransom from the 1913 ed. via Wikimedia Commons

illustration by Paul Bransom from the 1913 ed. via Wikimedia Commons

What about you? What childhood books influenced your attitude toward Nature?

Children’s Books / Adults’ Books

When I decided to self-publish my Christmas story last year, it received mostly positive reviews, but those who didn’t care for it so much had a common complaint: they thought they were getting a children’s book, and it wasn’t.

santa_final_smNowhere on the cover or in the description is there mention of children as an intended audience, but apparently the combination of Saint Nick and a Fir Tree character spelled “Kid’s Book” to more than one person. This year I’m changing the description to read: “a Christmas tale for grown-ups who haven’t forgotten the magic.”

One reader grumbled that it was too grown-up for kids and too “silly” for adults. Well, to each their own, but I find it sad that some adults feel there is no place in their lives for indulgence in a bit of whimsy or make-believe.

On the other hand, there’s ample evidence that many of us continue to enjoy not only children’s classics that we remember fondly from our young days (The Wind in the Willows gets my vote for the children’s book that I continue to love and re-read the most of all) but also new classics such as Harry Potter that take us into the realms of youthful fantasy.

red pyramidWhen I was visiting my sister this summer, I started reading my nephew’s copy of Rick Riordan’s THE RED PYRAMID, the first in the fantasy series that involves Egyptian gods and two modern-day kids. Such fun! I saw it last week at a bookstore and decided it was the perfect book to follow Tana French’s deep and gorgeous but tragic BROKEN HARBOR. Time to switch gears to something lighthearted after all that Hibernian angst.

But what of books and stories like my “Fir Tree” that seem to be neither fish nor fowl? Fantasy that doesn’t have adult levels of sex or violence, but isn’t really written with a young audience in mind. I’m drawing a blank. Are there more out there? If you can think of one, let me know.

And meantime, bring on more young adult titles, especially good fantasy. I’d like to hear suggestions for those, too.

I [heart] Earthworms

Ekostories’ excellent post on Gary Larson a couple of weeks ago (There’s a Hair in my Dirt, May 26) inspired me to write about my love for earthworms.

In those faraway days when I was working in the garden instead of on a manuscript, I encountered earthworms on a daily basis. My fascination with them began when I started to read about organic gardening and discovered the wonders of these diggers of the deep.

Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin; illustrated by Harry Bliss.
One of my favorite books!

Earthworms are nature’s primary way of tilling the soil. A garden rich in earthworms will have lovely, richly textured dirt from the worms’ gentle activity and fertile excrement, but the worms are picky. While they can easily be found if you dig deep enough beneath the grass or an undisturbed patch of ground, garden beds are not always a hospitable environment. Sun, wind, and rain are all dangers to worms if they’re directly exposed, so a bare dirt bed without any sheltering leaves or mulch isn’t a place where they’re going to settle in and make a home.

The best way to attract these little workers into your garden is to compost and mulch. The worms make their way into the compost heap, moving upwards from the soil below (I assume), and come into the garden along with the compost. Layering a blanket of leaves or mulch on top of the bed will give them protection and allow them to flourish. You’ll have wonderful soil and your plants will enjoy the added nutrients a rich soil brings.

But my reaction to earthworms is not merely utilitarian; it is emotional. I love the squirmy little critters. They’re touchingly vulnerable, especially when it rains. Many a time after a big rain, I’ve picked up a worm from the sidewalk and placed it back on the grass, under a leaf if possible. And many a time, I’ve passed dried-out worms that were caught in a cloudburst and then scorched on the pavement by the sun. Or worms that someone has trod on with careless feet.

I know, I know, there’s more than a whiff of sentimentality in this, too uncomfortably close to the blithely unaware Harriet satirized in Gary Larson’s book, but I’m not ashamed of my feelings. Like so much of the natural world, earthworms are both vital and vulnerable, and that vulnerability arouses my maternal instincts. I want them to flourish. I want to protect them.

Part of it, too, is a childish delight in creatures often dismissed with a “yuck!” But unlike spiders, snakes, and other “creepy crawlers,” worms don’t bite. They don’t sting. They’re safe to handle. Perfect for my combination of wimpiness and love for playing in the dirt.

What’s your favorite non-cute-n-cuddly critter? I’d like to know!

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