Distilling a full life into 32 pages is such a hard thing to do. It requires deep reflection, a willingness to seize a single theme and, at the very same time, to let all the other beautiful and important and relevant themes in that beautiful and important and relevant life go. Hayley Barrett and Diana Dusyka manage this task brilliantly in their picture book biography of Maria Mitchell. WHAT MISS MITCHELL SAW is a marriage of deliberate storytelling and expansive art, a book that focuses readers on knowing and naming, cornerstones of scientific inquiry, but doesn’t get mired in details of astronomy, its devices, and its techniques. I’m really glad I finally picked this gem up. You should too!
“No good book is loved by everyone,
and any good book is bound to bother somebody.”
~ Mac Barnett
Even if you don’t recognize the name Margaret Wise Brown, you’re likely to have read some of her books. The Runaway Bunny, Bumblebugs and Elephants, The Little Fireman, Goodnight Moon, among so many others. Hers are classics of childhood reading, even today, and I know I’m not the only mother of grown children who can still recite them rote. (And every now and then, does.)
Mac Barnett’s biography of Brown is unusual, deeply literary, and spellbinding. I cannot get enough of it. And while often such books are criticized as being inaccessible to children, I believe my kids would have adored this book. Would they have appreciated the metaphor that turns a single life into a single book? Would they have grasped, when they were small, the dangers of a gatekeeper? Maybe not. But they would have understood being misunderstood. They would have felt the joyful zaniness of buying an entire cart of flowers or bringing ducks into a place for no reason at all. They wanted desperately to know more about things they knew were frowned upon, like swimming naked in an ocean, or borrowing the fur from a dead rabbit. I think they’d have peered into the life of the woman behind books in their very own bedrooms and felt satisfied.
I cannot express how much I admire this book. I’m going to read it aloud to my kids, adults though they may be, when they’re home for the holidays. I’m not kidding. Because the important thing about me is that I share the stories that move me most. I’m grateful to Mac Barnett, Sarah Jacoby, and Margaret Wise Brown for this beautiful reminder of that.
I’ve been making my way through the 2019 edition of The Best American Science and Nature Writing, edited by Sy Montgomery, and as is the case every year, it’s like taking a master class in communicating life and living and all the ways those two things happen in this world. I try to read a couple essays a week, but often pause, struck dumb by a piece that begs for a deeper study. That’s what happened with Matt Jones’ No Heart, No Moon.
Originally published in The Southern Review, the essay is available in its entirety at Jones’ website. It’s a stunning example of literary nonfiction, of taking the facts of a story and weaving them into something that is informative and also deeply meaningful. Art. I read the essay before bed, and re-read it the very next morning, out loud, with my morning tea. It’s gorgeously written, layered with connections that surprise and worry. I’ll be studying it for a while, sharing it with students and friends, pondering the mechanics and the message.