The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street 2

By Helene Hanff
Avon Books, 1973


That is the sound of me, relaxed and content, after a whirlwind vacation. Since I last wrote I have traveled across the Atlantic to visit old friends in London … and then across the English Channel to make new friends in Paris. Unlike my usual summer vacations, most of which involve coastal beaches and lakeshores in America, this one left me little time to read. But I did manage a few titles …

As I mentioned in my last entry, I saved THE DUCHESS OF BLOOMSBURY STREET especially for this trip. As I had hoped it would, the book inspired me to observe London and Londoners more closely. This is no easy feat in a city of more than seven million people … even for me, who normally takes great pleasure in people-watching/eaves-dropping. There are simply too many people, too much movement; the senses are overloaded and one can hardly think, let alone notice. I don’t think I would have managed to observe much at all without Hanff’s encouragement.

The author also helped me to laugh at a few of the small frustrations of a trip to Europe … like fighting “a losing battle with the damnedest shower you ever saw.” Her June 1971 experience was remarkably similar to my own of July 2006 in a London hotel room:

“The shower stall is a four-foot cubicle and it has only one spigot, nonadjustable, trained on the back corner. You turn the spigot on and the water’s cold. You keep turning, and by the time the water’s hot enough for a shower you’ve got the spigot turned to full blast. Then you climb in, crouch in the back corner and drown. Dropped the soap once and there went fifteen dollars’ worth of hairdresser down the drain, my shower cap was lifted clear off my head by the torrent. Turned the spigot off and stepped thankfully out – into four feet of water. It took me fifteen minutes to mop the floor using a bathmat and two bath towels, sop-it-up, wring-it-out, sop-wring, sop-wring. Glad I shut the bathroom door or the suitcase would have been washed away.”

Hanff’s wry sense of humor and keen analysis of both people and place made THE DUCHESS OF BLOOMSBURY STREET a great vacation read.


The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

By Helene Hanff
Avon Books, 1973

My dear friend Jane strikes again.

I told her I adored 84, CHARING CROSS ROAD and she handed me … the sequel! THE DUCHESS OF BLOOMSBURY STREET is the story of Helene’s long-awaited first visit to England. The opening pages gave me the willies (good ones) and it has taken all my strength to put the book aside so that I can pack it—unread—for my trip to England this summer.

Jane also shared the good news that 84, CHARING CROSS ROAD was made into a movie. Anne Bancroft plays Helene Hanff and Anthony Hopkins plays Frank Doel. It was available at the library on VHS. Lucky me … I still own a VCR!



By Carl Hiaasen
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2002

Okay, well, there is a reason that you shouldn’t read books intended for middle-schoolers to your elementary-aged children … even if they beg, and even if the book is a Newbery Honor book and you really want to read it yourself, even if the book was made into a movie that is playing now. I read HOOT to my kids this week and they learned some things I was just as happy having them in the dark about–like the verb moon. As in “It may be funny to you, boys, but your grandmother will NOT appreciate being mooned.” Live and learn.

HOOT is the story of Roy Eberhardt, a middle-school kid recently relocated from the Midwest to Florida. In the midst of some dealings with the class bully, Roy meets a couple of misfits who are intent upon saving a community of burrowing owls. The owls’ habitat will be destroyed if plans for a new pancake house in town are brought to fruition. I loved the environmental theme and the discussions it sparked. I could overlook the bullying for the same reason … the kids were ready to talk about it. But for some reason I didn’t connect well with the characters in the story. In fact, it was the owls I cared most about; it was because of them that I invested in Roy and his friends. Perhaps this is what Carl Hiaasen intended?

Anyway, if you are planning to read HOOT aloud to younger kids, be aware that there are some language issues and that the bullying can get pretty harsh. And be prepared for the “moon” scene … and all the insanity it will inspire!


84, Charing Cross Road

By Helene Hanff
Grossman, 1970
Penguin Books, 1990

I will be in London for two weeks this summer, and my good friend Jane gave me a copy of this book to get me in the mood. Jane is the best book-giver on the planet.

84, CHARING CROSS ROAD is a book of letters written over a twenty year period between Helene Hanff, an American writer and bibliophile, and Frank Doel, an English bookseller. The book contains no commentary or notes of any kind, just the letters. The story of Helene and Frank’s relationship, which was built mostly upon a shared passion for old English books, unfolds at its own pace, defies logic and geography and even time. I read this in a single sitting (too hot to move in the Northeast today, much less do laundry) and wept at the end.

The book brought to mind another book of letters I have read and loved … a book I recommend to all the children’s book writers I know. Ursula Nordstrom, the legendary editor at Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls, was a dedicated letter writer and Marcus J. Pfister has edited and published a large volume of her correspondence. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Margaret Wise Brown, and Maurice Sendak are just a few of the authors Ms. Nordstrom mentored; reading her encouragement and criticism and devotion to some of the great names in children’s literature is a must. (The book is called DEAR GENIUS, a salutation Nordstrom liked to use when writing to her authors. Can you stand it?!)

Not surprisingly, I have been itching to write a letter all day. Not an email, not a note, not even a blog entry … a true letter, written longhand in my out-of-practice scrawl, stamped, and mailed via the good old US Postal Service. (When was the last time you wrote one of these letters? When was the last time one appeared in your mailbox?) Imagine a mailbox with no bills and no rejections, just letters …


Tracking Trash

By Loree Griffin Burns
Houghton Mifflin, 2007

Sorry to have been so quiet this past week, but I have been BUSY. Second pages arrived on Tuesday. That is, my editor sent me the updated design and layout pages for my (very first) book. I suppose I am biased, but it is gorgeous. I am so pleased with the paper choices, the colors, the fonts, the layout choices, the sidebar designs … even the Glossary is beautiful. The entire book should be complete and ready to ship to production by June 30.

Someone pinch me!


Ps. I’ve been reading A WRINKLE IN TIME, by Madeleine L’Engle (for the first time in twenty-five years) and HOOT, by Carl Hiaasen (with the kids). So more book blurbs coming …


By Lois Lowry
Houghton Mifflin, 2006

Although you wouldn’t know it by reading this book blog, I do occasionally read books I don’t like. I just don’t like to write about them. I just want to learn what I can from them and move on. No need to post all that negativity to the world; I’ll leave that to critics with thicker skins than mine! Anyway, someone asked me why I only write here about books I like, and now you know.

Speaking of books I like …

Lois Lowry’s latest novel, GOSSAMER, is now at the top of the list. This is one of those books that makes me proud to be human, and to be a writer. It is the story of an angry little boy and the forces at work in his life. There are the usual complicated forces—his parents, his foster-care guardian, a dog named Toby. And then there are the usually unrecognized forces—the dream-givers and creatures who inflict nightmares. With a gossamer touch of her own, Lois Lowry creates a refreshing story of triumph and resiliency and promise. I think this book will become a classic.


Here Lies the Librarian

by Richard Peck
Dial, 2006

Richard Peck astounds me. His writing is so tight and easy to read. And his characters are so quirky and loveable that I forgive the downright unbelievable things they see and do. This new novel doesn’t best my favorite of Peck’s books, A YEAR DOWN YONDER, but there were parts of it that I adored. For example, the first two chapters.

Two chapters—a mere twenty-one pages—of utterly perfect fiction. They are incredibly well done, the sort of work I can only aspire to, I fear. Characters are introduced completely and unforgettably in a single sentence. Unrealistic circumstances, like bodies hanging from trees, become believable and create, in the space of several paragraphs, a place like none other in the world. A place, I might add, that I couldn’t bear to leave once I had entered. (Dinner? Didn’t we just have dinner last night? Fix yourself a bagel, kids. I’ll make up for it tomorrow, I promise. Oh, my poor, poor children!)

As if all that weren’t enough, there was a clever surprise in these first two chapters that just blew me away. Never saw it coming.

I will read this book again very soon and try to enjoy it less … so that I can study it more.


Servants of the Map

by Andrea Barrett
W.W. Norton & Company, 2002

I once heard this definition of a great short story: fiction that takes mere minutes to read and a lifetime to forget. Of the hundreds (thousands?) of short stories I have read in my lifetime, I have read two such stories. I read each in a single sitting, but they spoke to me in a way I will never quite shake. One of these was in a collection of stories that won the National Book Award in 1996, SHIP FEVER, by Andrea Barrett. The story, called ‘The Littoral Zone’ is as vivid in my mind today as it was when I read it a decade ago. And so when I walked into the local used book store and browsed their new fiction shelf, I was thrilled to see SERVANTS OF THE MAP, a second story collection by Barrett. As I was facing the holiday weekend without any fiction on hand, I picked it up.

Part of the attraction of Barrett’s writing, for me, is the science. Each of her stories is built upon some intriguing scientific foundation: the discovery of fossils and the subsequent fury to understand their meaning in the context of a world centered by humans and created by God, the quixotic and pressure-filled life of the fast-track academic scientist, the causes and cures for consumption. But science alone cannot explain my delight in these stories. There are the characters, so rich and complicated, at once annoying and sympathetic. And there are the connections, the movement of characters across time and across the stories in a fluid and uncomplicated way that makes SERVANTS OF THE MAP read almost like a novel. Each story illuminates the one before it and, of course, the one after it. By the end I found myself entrenched and intrigued and prepared to simply turn back to the first story and read it anew, armed with all I had learned since I read it last.

Short stories fit nicely around the cooking and cleaning and gardening and playing and entertaining and visiting and resting that inevitably fill weekends around here. And since I didn’t know this collection was so connected, it was a pleasant surprise to have my snippets of reading tie themselves together in such a neat and fulfilling way. I highly recommend this book!


Ps. By the way, the other short story I can’t shake is ‘Quitters, Inc.’ by Stephen King. Seriously creepy story that I have never been able to forget.

Little House in the Big Woods

by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Illustrations by Garth Williams
HarperCollins, 2004 (Full Color Edition); First published in 1932

The Easter Bunny can be a bit flighty sometimes. This year she (I’m sure it’s a she) left a copy of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS in my daughter’s Easter basket. Great book and one I have been excited to share with the kids. But the EB brought the Full-Color Collector’s Edition, and I’m a stickler for the original. (In my humble opinion, Garth William’s drawings need no embellishment of any kind.) Then again, I shouldn’t criticize the Easter Bunny … I am sure she has a lot on her mind and would not have made such a silly mistake if she had even a moment of time to think straight.


The kids and I finished reading LITTLE HOUSE this week and I am thrilled to report that everyone—seven-year-old boys included—enjoyed it. All three kids were fascinated by the time period and the lack of amenities. There were constant interruptions as they asked me “What is a churn-dash? What is a bonnet? Why didn’t Ma just buy cheese at the grocery store? Could we stop using cars and start using horses and carriages? Could you and dad build a house? Why didn’t Laura and Mary wear shoes in the summer? Maple syrup used to come from trees?” They are certainly twenty-first century kids, but I was happy to discover they are genuinely curious about the past.

We plan to work our way through the series. As luck would have it, I found a copy of the second book, FARMER BOY, at a used bookstore. No coloration, no frills, yellowed pages with that lovely old book smell … and I’m certain I paid much less than the Easter Bunny did.


The Everywhere Cat

By William Corbin
Illustrated by Consuelo Joerns
Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1970

One of the things I love about books is the randomness with which they appear in my life. Take the picture book THE EVERYWHERE CAT, for example. Until last week I had never heard of it. This is not too surprising since it has been out of print for years, possibly decades. But someone recently donated an old hardcover copy of this book to our library book sale. No one bought it. And then the library donated all the unsold books to the elementary school in town. Apparently the school librarian didn’t want this book either, because it ended up on the “free books” table. Late last week my son picked it up and took it home.

It’s an adorable little story that explores the concept of irony. The everywhere cat is simply everywhere: in the protagonist’s cellar, in her yard, on her bed, in her drawer, everywhere … until that one moment when she really, really needs a cat. (Consuelo Joerns, the illustrator, came up with a truly funny scene depicting just such a moment. I won’t give it away completely, but it involves an army of rodents.) Aside from the limited-color art and the dated clothing on the girl in the story, this book could be on the shelf at the local bookstore today. And but for a string of seemingly random decisions on the part of other people—from the original owner to the book sale shoppers to the book sale coordinators to the school librarian to my son—I might never have seen it.

I wonder what random book will make its way onto my desk tomorrow.


Ps. Just for kicks, I checked You can pick up a used copy of THE EVERYWHERE CAT for two bucks!