Saturday, September 8, 2007

Beverly and Her Ducks

Many years ago, back when I was in college working on my Master's Degree in Deaf Education, I decided to step away from the plethora of school work and attend a dinner party at the home of a friend. Going back to school awakened many dormant loves for me; the greatest perhaps is my love of children's literature. It is rather imperative that teachers in the lower elementary grades have a vast knowledge of interesting, motivating and high quality literature to use to hook children to the magic of story telling. And it is magic for me to share these wonderful stories with my students year after year.

During dinner I was discussing some of the titles I rediscovered while browsing in the children's department at Barnes and Noble that weekend, such as The Gingerbread Man and Curious George. As the conversation proceeded my host, Beverly, shared with me as well. It seems that Beverly's mother was an artist with an interest in using her talents to create books for children. Her passion resided with the paintings however, not with the text. Her mother would fashion detailed paintings that when put together would tell a story and later write out an accompanying text. When her manuscripts were completed she would send them out to various publishers who all gave the same response. They loved the artwork but were less than enamoured by the writing.

Intrigued and fueled by a few Bacardi and Cokes I asked Beverly if she had any of the paintings because I would love to take on the challenge of writing the text to go along with them. We'd be a perfect marriage, I assured her, because I have no talent as an artist but enjoy spinning a tale.
So, we weaved our way upstairs where Beverly showed me some of the artwork from this one particular book about ducks which was framed and displayed in her son's room.

It was reminiscent of the illustrations from one of my favorite authors as a child, Carolyn Haywood. Ms. Haywood's wrote and illustrated many books for children beginning in the late 30s and continued her prolific career for the next 50 years. I was constantly going to the library as a young boy to check out books like Here's a Penny, Penny and Peter, Two and Two are Four, Eddie and the Fire Engine, "B" is for Betsy, Betsy and the Boys and Back to School with Betsy.

She wrote sweet, innocent stories of children doing ordinary things. Nothing earth shattering happened in their white, middle class homes filled with love and respect and a mom, dad and 2.5 children. Can't you just feel the whispers of a bygone era wafting through the black and white lines of these two pictures from "B" is for Betsy and Here's a Penny? They stand as a portrait to America at a particular point in time and I could not get enough.

Several years ago I was curious to see if urban children living in the world of today would find these stories of interest. To test this point Lauren and I read Here's a Penny aloud everyday. Our students got it. Even though their world is far removed from the outside trapping described in the book they could relate to the characters as they struggled with independence while at the same time wanting to stay close to mom. We eventually read them the sequel to this called Penny and Peter which STILL makes me cry.

As I stood in that bedroom looking at the illustration illuminated only by the dim light of a Winnie-the-Pooh lamp, I thought how wonderful it would be to write a modern children's book that gave props to the fantastic Carolyn Haywood. Her prose include the following passage from Here's a Penny:

Penny picked up the kitten. It was so thin he could feel all of its tiny bones. The kitten curled up contentedly in Penny's arms. When they reached home, Penny ran into the house to show the kitten to his mother. "I've got a kitten," he cried.
Beverly agreed that this was a super-duper idea and several days later photographed 18 pieces of artwork that her mother had created for a book about a girl feeding some ducks and sent them along to me. It was about this time that I was taking a six day writing institute designed for lower elementary school teachers to improve their understanding of the writing process and thus inform their own teaching. Each section was led by a different group leader who met with us when the speaker for the day had finished presenting. My particular group leader was a young girl from Brooklyn with little teaching experience. It was in this small group that we spent time writing in our writer's notebooks. This meant sitting for almost an hour writing anything we wanted. By the end of the institute we were asked to share a piece with our classmates who would then provide feedback. I chose to share a bit of the text to the book (a work in progress) I now called Beverly and her Ducks.

My group leader took issue with my word choice in the following sentence; White cotton curtains that blew across Beverly's back, massaging her as she slept. Her exact words on the written critique were "Massaging her back? Are you sure about that word?!?!" She underlined the offensive word massaging and in the discussion that followed she stated that she thought it sounded inappropriate. I told her that that was her own personal hangup and she shouldn't try to make something innocent ugly. Ultimately in the end I changed it to "'sweeping' over her as she slept" but resented her for pushing her own dirty thoughts onto my little story. I changed it back when the class was finished. :)

Anyhoo, I thought I would share a few of the pictures with you and some of the writing I came up with to walk alongside it. I am especially in love with the first sentence because it captures exactly what I wanted to say as far as wedding the old with the new.

Beverly and Her Ducks

Many years ago when the adults of today were still children and those children were full of wonder, there lived a special little girl named Beverly. She wasn't special because she could jump the highest or throw the farthest or blow huge bubbles with her bubble gum, she was special simply because she thought herself to be.

Beverly's parents thought their daughter was special too and liked to surround her with things that were beautiful in their eyes. Red geraniums in terra cotta pots to line her windowsill, white cotton curtains that blew across Beverly's back, massaging her as she slept, and a soft feather pillow to place her small head in the evenings.

Beverly was living in her age of innocence and although she was too young to fully understand the words, inside she felt secure, happy and loved.

But Beverly had a secret.

Each summer morning before her parents awoke she sprang out of bed to anxiously peer out of the open window towards the pasture before her. The fresh farm air caressed her cheeks like a mother's gentle hand. She searched across the grass, past the splintered wooden fence to the quiet lake beyond. There she could see her friends silently frolicking in the clear water.

Sadly, Beverly's mother passed away and never got to read these new words or know that we were planning to make her dream of publishing a reality (please note: planning). I still hope that one day a mom or dad will pick up Beverly and Her Ducks and read it to their child before they tuck them in at night. And somewhere out there perhaps Beverly's mother is smiling.


Pod said...

lumpy repressed old pongo of an instructor!

Gary said...

Pod - at first I thought you meant me and I couldn't figure out why you were being so hateful (you do mean my college instructor, right?)

kimy said...

wonderful!! I want to read more about beverly and meet the ducks! (I have a very soft spot for ducks!) I hope you stick with your plan and beverly and her ducks becomes a reality. I also LOVE children's literature, and I've fantasize about writing stories - maybe one day I will...but alas always so many ideas, so little time (at times).

taking the lead from your recommended books on 'bliss' I added an item to a new 'feature' on the mouse (the book mouse corner) where I plan to put up a weekly recommendation for 'pinkys, pups, and kittens' (names for baby mice)...the first book I posted is wonderful and if you haven't read it do!

la bellina mammina said...

I love this - and if you replace massaging (that's an offensive word???!) with caressing, will that be offensive too?

I love the idea that you and Beverly are planning to do this together - so brilliant! Do keep me in the loop:-)

Dumdad said...


This is lovely stuff.

And that was a stuffy instructor who wanted massaged deleted. I'm glad you stuck to your guns (it is the right word) but other, more sensitive writers might have been put off for life.

To be continued, I hope.

laurenbove said...

Absolutely beautiful. I remember these illustrations in a visceral way. I must have had one of her books. Thank you for bringing this to the forefront of my mind. I'm also going shopping on Amazon and using all of your EXCELLENT book suggestions. My wee kindergartener is having some transition trouble and I think I need to step up my Mommying.


Pod said...

no no! not you. are you lumpy? old? pongy?
and pod is never hateful!

Junk Thief said...

I enjoyed digging into my parents' and grandparents' childhood books when I was little. I always wanted a mix of the past, present and future. And I still do.

marxsny said...

I think it would be great to see the whole thing on its own. It seems there are many possibilities and directions the story could go in. As I read your epilogue in the last paragraph I thought I was still reading the story. I thought Oh her mother died, just like Binah in The English Roses. From the standpoint of a parent, I have to agree with the group leader. Massage is a poor choice of word.

Gary said...

Kimy - Great new feature on the Mouse. I added one of your choices to my Amazon wishlist.

La Bellina - Consider yourself in the loop.:)

Dad - Since it has been about 12 years since I wrote this bit I am sure there will be many changes when I get around to finally editing it. Oh, the writing process is really fun - this is the part I like best anyway.

Lauren - Yes, there are so many wonderful children's books for kindergarten children. Sometimes I wish my whole blog was just the sidebar so I could share them all.

JT - I agree and I just love that old book smell!

Mark - Funny that you should mention that after we just talked about this stage of the writing. There of course will always be changes. Coming from a parent I understand what you mean but isn't it sad that we have to worry about sick adults who might take this as an invitation? Oh, the world we live in.

lettuce said...

the carolyn heywood illustrations remind me of wonderful Milly Molly Mandy - and those by Beverley s mum are a delight.

I'm a little in love with that first sentence too, it seems just perfect to me.

lovely writing Gary and what a great project

Gary said...

Lettuce, I just did some research on Milly-Molly-Mandy and the illustrations and the writing seem very much like Carolyn Haywood's. I knew nothing of these books but am now looking forward to going out and buying one. Amazon has a 'search inside this book' feature that provided me with an idea of the type of story. It also appears to be the 'feel' that I am going for with the Beverly book. Thanks so much for mentioning this!

Poddy - Sometimes I do feel lumpy and old (and perhaps even pongy - but I don't know what that means) but like you, never hateful. Grr!

WAT said...

I love your dream Gary! It brings a wicked smile to my face.

laurenbove said...

Hey there Gary: I already rec'd the first books I've ordered based on your excellent suggestions. (Incidentally, one of my bff's is named Garry and recently retired from teaching/principal-ing in elementary ed.)

Rotten Ralph is Perfect for my Stinkin Sam. He was enraptured as I very animatedly, told the tale and Runaway Dinner was so alive and exciting and and and....I read it to the tune of alice's restaurant which worked perfectly. I'll be reading them in Sam's class As soon as he's "ready" for the extended day afternoon portion of K.


laurenbove said...

Also: Couldn't find Beverly and Her Ducks. Any ideas or should I just keep my eyes open at the tag sales etc.?

Gary said...

Lauren - I am so thrilled that you are enjoying those books. I am going to put some thought into books to help with transitioning from home to school and get back to you.

Sam would probably get into KAPOW! by George O'Connor (a wonderful author/illustrator and a great guy). Little boys seem to gravitate towards that book without any prompting. If George comes back to our school this year I'll see if I can get him to autograph a copy for Sam.

And from your lips to God's ears on Beverly and Her Ducks. I haven't even finished writing it yet so it is impossible to find. I really should take some time and do that so I can shop it around.

Pod said...

to pong - to have a disagreeable smell
pongy - to be of disagreeable odour
pongo - a person renowned for their constant disagreeable pong (usually miserable as well)

not to be confused with spong (ask letty)

have a cool weekend gazza


laurenbove said...

OMG: OMG: I misread the post and now I realize YOU are authoring Beverly. Sorry for having my head right up there...if you know what I mean.

I will be one of the first in line for that lovely tale with such lovely images. Very touching and vintagey feel. lovelovelove.

I am so excited to read the KAPOW book. Sam would benefit very much from your educated opinion on transition books. Thank you for thinking about it for us. I wonder if Sammy will EVER be ready,. so to speak. CT schools are great , especially in Faifield. I adore his K teacher. She's a dyed in the wool pro, but I'm finding lots of "criticism" and little "instruction" on how to assist the transition. I could use your take.


PS: Sam takes the Rotten Ralph books (we have 2) and the Runaway Dinner to bed each night. I'm getting really good at acting these out.


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