The Magic Hour

For as long as I can remember, I have been an early morning riser. I’m not sure what makes a person wake early. Neither my husband nor daughter are morning people. Both tend to come more alive at night and have no problem sleeping late into the mornings with the sun blazing through the windows and the hum of the buzzy world beginning its day.

I think a big part of the early morning wake-up time for me stems from anxiety. When I was young, there was always worry about getting up and ready for school and walking to school, which took some time.  From my mid-20’s until I retired, I rose early to make sure lunches got packed, my daughter got to school, pets were fed and walked, and I allowed plenty of time to commute to my job. For the better part of my working life, I was a commuter, often facing a 45-minute drive to work. Over the years, there was much anxiety over weather and road conditions. I have many memories of traumatic drives to and from work.

My commuting experiences included:

  • Hitting deer
  • Getting flat tires
  • Narrowly avoiding accidents with erratic drivers
  • Watching funnel clouds form in stormy skies
  • Fearfully praying out loud while slipping and sliding on icy roads.

But despite waking early to deal with the day’s anxieties, I have found that I’ve had no pressure many days.  I‘ve developed a certain amount of excitement about waking early and being alone with a cup of coffee when dawn breaks. I think of this time as the magic hour when I am handed the gift of watching a resting world come to life.

Typically I awake between 4:30 and 6:00 a.m.  Coffee is the first order of business. With messy hair and java in hand, I head to the den and stand at the windows to stare out into the yard. Often I see the shadows of little rabbits sneakily nibbling in my flower beds. And frequently, we are visited by a small herd of deer that roam the neighborhood at night when resident’s dogs are locked indoors. Next, I fire up my computer or grab a tablet of paper and begin writing.  At this hour, I am undistracted, my thoughts are clear and my own, un-driven by tasks and outside demands.  I can sit and ponder anything I wish, from my most outrageous wishes to my darkest memories.  I can giggle to myself, or shed tears over past pains, all alone, with no witnesses, other than the little houseplants and our pet turtle Tootles, who sit nearby. 

Time alone is significant to me. I need time to muster up the strength to face difficult things, hatch exciting plans, reflect on events that have transpired, and strategize on solving problems. I also need time to just sit, and breathe, close my eyes, and absorb stillness.  Early mornings are my time for being present in calmness.

One of my favorite books, as a child, was a Little Golden Book edition of A CHILD’S GARDEN OF VERSES by Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by Eloise Wilkin.  Wilkin’s illustration style spoke to me as a child of the 60s.  And though Stevenson’s poems were written in 1885, they capture a small child’s sense of wonder and curiosity about how things work in the world.  My favorite poem was My Shadow, in particular, the last stanza, which begins: “One morning very early, before the sun was up, I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup.” I’m certain Stevenson wrote this from his own “magic hour” experience. I too have stepped outdoors at dawn into the stillness and mystery. Perhaps, like me, Stevenson was an early morning riser who woke to create, wonder and seek answers to life’s questions.

My Shadow

by Robert Louis Stevenson

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,

And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.

He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;

And I see him jump before me when I jump into my bed.


The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow –

Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;

For he sometimes shoots up taller like an India-rubber ball,

And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all.


He hasn’t got a notion of how children ought to play,

And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.

He stays so close beside me, he’s a coward you can see;

I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!


One morning, very early, before the sun was up,

I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;

But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head,

Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.


Source: The Golden Book of Poetry (1947)

A World of Watchers

Every once in a while, Facebook likes to remind me of posts I’ve made in the past.  The other day, I received a notice of a post I’d made four years ago when I caught a juvenile Six-lined Racerunner (a type of lizard) while weeding in my garden.  The photo made me smile.

So many times when I’ve been alone outdoors, I’ve felt very much not alone and as though someone is watching me.  At first glance, one would never see just who is watching, but by spending more and more time in nature, you begin to see the eyes, sense the movements, or find the clues of others that are nearby and very much aware of your presence, even if you don’t always see them.

The story behind the Six-lined Racerunner is that for a few years, whenever I’d be working in the vegetable garden, I had the sensation of being watched, or I would see something darting about in the perimeter of my vision. I would turn to look and study things but never find that thing I felt was near.  Then one day, I spotted it, basking quietly among the zucchini vines. 

At first, I was unsure what I was seeing. It seemed a bit snake-like around the head and with its’ little stripes and coloring… like a baby snake. But then it moved, and I saw legs. I realized it was a lizard of some type.  It was about 4 inches long and moved like a bolt of lightning. My eyes tried to follow it, but it was so fast and blended in so well that I quickly lost sight of it.

Once I’d seen the lizard, I looked for it every day.  More and more frequently, I was able to find it. Somedays, it was confusing because it would be on my right, then suddenly on my left.  And then it dawned on me that there was more than one. 

Over time I must have sighted between 4 and 6. All seemed to be about 4 inches long. But then, one day, while clearing leaves from a nearby flower bed, I removed a clump of leaves and exposed an adult pair in the act of mating. They were perhaps 6 inches long and more mature than the others I’d seen –maybe the parents of the others.  I learned that they were burrowing beneath the corners of my raised beds and no doubt were doing their part to reduce insect populations in the garden.  I grew to love the little family of lizards living among our vegetables.

My husband and I have lived in our new city home for just a wee bit more than a year. Even though we have started gardening,  in our new location, I still miss the flowers and garden residents at our old home. I was grateful that Facebook reminded me of discovering the lizards not so long ago.

There were so many hidden watchers I discovered there over the years. Finding them requires time, sitting still, listening, watching, and soaking in your surroundings.  I recall seeing snakes and baby bunnies hiding in the grass, sphinx moths among the flowers, and the occasional walking stick trying hard to blend in with its surroundings.  Each discovery was like finding a hidden nugget of gold.

I have a new E-book in the works that will be coming out soon. It is titled, WHAT WILL YOU SPY WITH NATURE LOVING EYES? It’s about the creatures that live hidden all around us and features photographs I’ve taken over the last several years of hidden animals. The book illustrates camouflaging techniques used by animals and provides tips for deducing what kinds of animals might be in your vicinity. I hope children will love it. I know watching for who might be watching me is a favorite game I play whenever I spend time in nature. Honestly, we are never alone.

Coming soon: my newest E-book, WHAT WILL YOU SPY WITH NATURE-LOVING EYES?

May Day Memories

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite things about spring was May Day.  It was a sweet and quiet event, celebrated at school and by just a handful of children on our block.  My mother explained it only as a celebration of spring and a way to let people know we cared about them.

We made little baskets by rolling cones of pretty pastel-colored construction paper. Then we stapled a strip of paper on either side of the cone opening,  to make a handle. If Mom had leftover scraps of lace or doilies, we cut pieces of the lacy work and glued them around the tops of the cone.  Then she instructed us to go outside and pick some flowers. Our yard always had some kind of flowers growing. We picked dandelions, violets, tulips, and my two most favorite flowers of all… lilacs and lily of the valley.

We brought our little bouquets back to the house, where mom trimmed the stems and wrapped them in a damp paper towel.  She then applied another layer of wrap such as tin foil or wax paper around the stems and held everything together with a rubber band.  We made several little bouquets and stuffed them into the paper cone baskets.  Then as a special extra something, we dropped in some sweet little hard candies. 

There was even one year when we must not have had construction paper in the house, so we used soup cans. We washed the cans, removed the labels, and Dad punched holes on either side of the can opening. Then we threaded twine through the holes and tied knots to make a handle. Mom attached ribbon bows on the corner of the cans to add some color then, we filled them with the usual bouquets.

The next part of the project was for us kids to disperse into the neighborhood, sneak up on people’s porches, hang the flower baskets on every doorknob, then ring doorbells and run. Often times we could get well away from a door before it was opened, but sometimes it was necessary to hide in the nearest bush.  Our objective was to deliver a surprise and not be caught doing it.

I remember a few of the elderly ladies, who surely knew we were near, opening their doors and loudly saying, “Oh how beautiful! Now, where did these come from?”  We always felt like we’d gotten away with a great caper. Still, there was also such deep satisfaction in giving our elderly friends something special and letting them know they were seen and loved.  This is something I’m sure more and more elderly would love to experience in this day and age.  And it’s something we should be teaching our children– honoring, respecting, and giving back to those who are now shut in and isolated.

Another May Day custom we practiced was in elementary school during “P.E.” (physical education), now called gym class.  We danced around a Maypole.  I don’t recall much orientation to the tradition of Maypole dancing, just that we circled around a pole with colorful streamers attached to the top of the Maypole.  Each of us held streamers and circled this way and that as the streamers twisted in our hands.  We would raise our streamers and go over and under a person to our left or right. The colorful streamers danced about in kaleidoscopic fashion from our movements:  it was a cool thing. For those who don’t understand what I’m talking about, I guess I would liken it to how kids play in group parachute activities in preschools and elementary schools today. The parachute’s colors and movements make them happy, as they learn to move together as a team and see what magical things their coordinated efforts can make happen.

May Day was first practiced in ancient Rome to herald the spring season, new crops, fertility, and love. The event would last the entire month, and there were lavish celebrations and ritual observances to the gods.  The May celebrations got a little out of hand at one point, focused too much on the fertility aspect.  So, the holiday was squelched for a while.  Eventually, it became more controlled. The tradition spread to countries the world over – with many cultural variations and meanings for May Day developing over time.

May Day is celebrated on May 1st, which is significant because that date marks the midway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice.

May Day celebrations are enjoyed in many countries.  But there has been a decline in recognition of the holiday in America since the 1970s.  Today, some elementary schools continue to teach children about the custom. Still, sadly the rest of the adult world seems to be dismissive of it.

It is a custom that is beautiful, and I wish it would be revived.  But I fear that here in America, we have forgotten to celebrate the sweetest and purest things, like flowers, and all things that grow –including our growing selves.  Our holidays tend now to be about giving expensive gifts, gorging on foods, or watching sports. One can only wonder what our world might look like if we shared more flowers, more sweetness, more giving, more gratitude, and more crumbs of kindness.

Space Invaders (Part 2)

Bruno the Bear photographed by Bradley Darnell

Well, our little raccoon friend is gone. As I reported last week, we made a call to an animal control specialist who showed up the next day and set some traps. We caught her the first night, and the following day she was relocated. I had gotten up early the morning after we baited the traps, and when I approached the garage, I could hear her talking and rattling the cage. The minute I stepped into the garage, she became silent and started shaking all over with fear. I told her I was sorry, but she needed to find a more suitable place to live.

The concern, of course, was that she’d had babies in the attic garage, but after a thorough examination, none could be found. This was a great relief because relocating a mother raccoon with tiny offspring would likely not end well. The stress of finding adequate protection for them on short notice in new surroundings would have been pretty tricky.

I’m glad things were resolved quickly, and I feel better about her being in a new place in the country. I think she will fare better.

I am reminded of another wild animal that showed up in our area about a year ago. Last June or July, folks in Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas were visited by a black bear that wandered down from Wisconsin. Dubbed “Bruno,” he created quite a stir. While bears are common in Wisconsin and known to cross from Wisconsin into northern Iowa from time to time, Bruno was different. He just kept going and going further away from his home territory, in hot pursuit of who knows what. Bruno was first spotted wandering about in cornfields. Over time, he was so bold as to walk through towns, across people’s lawns, and zig-zag along highways and backcountry roads. People couldn’t believe it. He was a bear, where bears shouldn’t be, or at least a bear, where bears hadn’t lived for over 100 years.  

Bruno quickly became a media sensation, and people began tracking him, reporting his whereabouts on social media. A Facebook page called “Keeping Bruno Safe” was developed to provide the most up-to-date information on Bruno sightings. Bear biologists speculated that Bruno was a young male seeking to establish new territory. He likely became lost in his quest. Others thought he might be seeking a mate. 

Whatever his purpose was in making his long journey, his quest would take him across five states and over 1000 miles. He is perhaps a “record-breaking bear, in terms of the distance he covered.

At one point in Bruno’s journey, he crossed the Mississippi River into Missouri, heading straight for the greater St. Louis region. This was not good. Soon he got boxed into an industrialized zone with multiple lanes of high-speed traffic, train tracks, and utility areas. He became cornered in a fenced-in area with no other option but to exit into chaotic traffic and threatening conditions. Conservation officers and staff from the St. Louis Zoo had to tranquilize him and relocate him to an area of Missouri where there were known bear populations. The hope was that Bruno would find this suitable habitat. For a time, it appeared he might stay. But after only a week or so, he left Missouri and continued into Arkansas. There, Bruno found the perfect place and decided to over-winter there. And there, he remains to this day.

While Bruno may have taken some birdseed from feeders, strolled through a garden or two, or knocked over a garbage can here and there, no one complained about these things happening. Bruno found plenty of food in the forests and fields along his travels. He didn’t seem to mind people but knew to keep his distance. His biggest challenge was probably maintaining a safe distance from people who insisted on getting too close to him – forgetting he was a wild creature.

Over 100,000 people followed Bruno’s story. He moved and inspired them in the most unexpected ways. Why? As I said before, he was a bear, where bears shouldn’t be. He was a wild thing that had invaded our bear-free communities and spaces. But it was more than that. Bruno appeared just two months after the outbreak of Covid-19 hit our country. When schools and businesses were mandated to close, and life as we knew it became frightening and uncertain, a bear wandered by. People fell in love with him because he was oblivious to human troubles. He was natural and pure and symbolized hope for the future as he marched onward, searching for the perfect place he could be. Like us, he wanted no trouble but to be happy, healthy, free, and safe. Never did an animal have so many people praying for his safe journey.

Much has happened since Bruno visited the heartland – a world economic crisis, countless deaths to Covid-19, a presidential election, mass shootings, attacks on our U.S. Capitol. But Bruno still reminds us that “this too shall pass.” We must push forward, give our best efforts, and believe in positive possibilities.

Space Invaders (Part 1)

A discovery was made yesterday. I went to my garage searching for a flower pot and heard someone walking and bumping around in my garage attic. I froze.  Seconds later, I heard familiar squeaks, chirps, and growls. Though I hadn’t listened to these sounds for a very long time, I immediately recognized I was listening to baby raccoons.  I walked around trying to figure out how their mother had gotten into the garage. The only thing I could determine was that she had entered through the chimney. It’s unusual for a garage to have a chimney.  Still, at some point in history, the people who owned our house operated a baking business from the garage. The stove has been long gone. But the chimney remains and opens into the attic where a stovepipe hole was connected. 

I really love animals, and of course, baby animals are so much fun to observe. But this was going to be a tricky business. In the past, I lived on a farm where a family of raccoons took up residence in our chimney. It took several nights of trapping and climbing up on the roof with flashlights to capture surprisingly fierce little balls of fluff who wandered the rooftop while their mother was off hunting. I was not anxious to experience this again –especially now that I’m in my 60s and less sure-footed.  Tom and I have agreed that our local animal control expert will have to be involved. Also, a chimney topper will be installed to prevent the invaders from returning to their hidey-hole.

It’s important to relocate the raccoons, so they don’t damage things in the garage or leave feces all over the place.   But I will miss the excitement of being near to such entertaining wild creatures.  I also realize that they won’t understand why we will interfere with their comfort. After all, they’re just minding their own business. Why can’t we? It’s such an arbitrary and complicated dance, deciding where each of us belongs, negotiating boundaries, and learning with which animals we can live side by side.

Over the years, I have met many folks who have had pet skunks, raccoons, and even one who had a pet wolf. I enjoy hearing the stories of people’s insights and relationships with these animals. However, at the end of the day, I feel we should probably let wild things be wild and not encourage wild creatures to live too close to us.

Several years ago, I watched a program about the problem raccoons have become in Japan. When I was a child, in the 1960s author, Sterling North wrote a book called Rascal about having a pet raccoon when he was a child. The Walt Disney company eventually made a film about it, which I recall enjoying. The story grew popular with children across the world. In Japan, an animated series based on the book became a beloved program among children who desired to have their own pet raccoons.  Before long, North American raccoons were imported to Japan to satisfy peoples’ desires to own them as pets. But in short order, they learned that having raccoons as pets can get complicated. 

Soon raccoons were everywhere, either turned loose into the wild or escaping their captivity.  They became invasive species, leaving unhealthy messes and damage to the point that the Japanese government issued bans on importing them and keeping them as pets.  North American raccoons were not only a problem for Japan. In only 2 or 3 decades, raccoons made their way into parts of Europe and the Caucasus. As recently as 2012, Spain had a problem with raccoons carrying rabies. And in that same year, one German city reported having 100 (yes, 100) raccoons per square kilometer!

Other stories from the past teach us that keeping wild animals is not such a great idea. Marjorie Rawlings’ heartbreaking, coming-of-age classic, The Yearling, comes to mind. Joy Adamson’s Born Free, about a couple that raised a lion cub named Elsa, is another excellent story made into a film with the same message.  I know those who have kept wild animals as pets and loved them will take issue with me. But I would argue that it takes a special kind of person and environment to handle wild animals, and not everyone is cut out for it.  We have to ask ourselves what is best for the animal.

So, will I feel bad when animal control hauls away our little raccoon family? No. I know that they will be relocated to a more suitable habitat, away from human activity. Their habituation to humans can only lead to heartbreak or their early demise.

Stay tuned for Part II on this topic. I have more to share.

Source:

The Children’s Book That Caused Japan’s Raccoon Problem

By Laura Clark

March 16, 2015

Smithsonian Magazine

SMITHSONIANMAG.COM

Embracing Rain

It has been a rainy week here in Illinois. My knee-jerk reaction to such days is to stay indoors and put off errands until the sun reappears. But when I do this, I am restless, forcing myself to stay inside when I really want to be outside. I don’t think I’m alone in this feeling because the minute the weather clears, people come out of hiding like ants out of the ground, and suddenly the streets are bustling with activity again.

Once, on a trip to Ireland, my husband and I learned you can pretty much expect to experience three seasons of weather every day. Each day began cold and windy, which was followed by rain. Then the sun would come out, and things would dry up and warm up. We learned to wear clothing in layers and to face each day prepared for everything.  If we waited in our motel rooms for the weather to clear, we would have missed half our days.  As we looked out our windows, we saw the locals just walked about in mist and rain as if it weren’t there and were not inconvenienced in any way. No one seemed to worry about rain giving them a bad hair day or making their shoes soggy. People just rolled with it.  After a while, we did so too, and I have to say, being outdoors, exploring the world in all kinds of weather made things a bit more exciting and memorable. We visited an ancient fort in the Burren, in the rain, then headed inside to a museum where we were the only visitors. In the snack bar, we watched the rain while enjoying tea and a tray with samples of Irish cheeses and assorted fruit. A museum volunteer talked with us about our Irish family surname, and the day could not have been more perfect. On another day, we stood in the fog and mist, at the Cliffs of Moher, staring out at sea, imagining approaching ships of long ago, bringing friends and foes to Ireland’s shores.  The weather added richness to the moment, and we wouldn’t have missed it for anything in the world.

I am also reminded of an even longer time ago when my family took a Florida vacation in April. It was not during spring break, so we had to have permission to take my daughter out of school.  She was about 10 years old. Her teacher required that she keep up with her studies on the trip and write about her Florida discoveries.  Nearly every day of that trip, heavy rains impacted our plans to spend time on sunny beaches collecting shells and working on our suntans. Instead, we found other opportunities, like a marine biology lab with a visitor’s center where my daughter got to pet a sea slug. Another day we happened upon what seemed like the world’s tiniest museum, where we learned about the man who invented air conditioning. I also met a wonderful woman in an antique shop who told me how to collect periwinkles (tiny edible sea snails) from the beaches and make them into soup.

Yet another happy rainy day memory of mine was from my own childhood.  My brothers and I stayed with my grandparents in Iowa for a week during the summer.  We were rambunctious kids, likely driving my grandparents crazy trying to find things for us to do.  I remember it began to rain one afternoon, and grandma said if we wanted to play outdoors, it was fine. We were in shock. We’d never played in the rain before, but we took her up on her suggestion. Barefoot, we stepped out into the shower shivering, and squealing as the drops trickled down our backs. We delighted in feeling the sloshy grass and mud oozing between our bare toes and splashing in puddles.  All told, we may have only played outside for 15 minutes. Still, I will never forget the smell of the rain, the little earthworms that wriggled across the sidewalk, or the feel of a nice dry towel wrapped around me when we came back into the house.  I don’t remember much else from that visit, just the rain and the magical time it had offered.

Today more rain is forecast.  I had intended to garden and think I will proceed with that plan. There surely will be a slight lull between showers in which I can sneak outside to stick some pansies and chives in pots. They will definitely benefit from the rain. Maybe I’ll even go out barefoot and walk through a puddle for old time’s sake.

(Note: In keeping with a rainy day theme, my latest book review is about Beatrice Alemagna’s, On A Magical Do-Nothing Day.  Also, check-out How to Make a Pine Cone Weather Station under the Activities section.)

My granddaughter Jaycie (at right) and her cousin jumping in mud puddles after a rain. Photo by Katie Houser.

Growing Season

Yesterday was gorgeous. As I glanced out the window to see rabbits nibbling in the grass, birds seemed to be singing extra enthusiastically. By afternoon, temperatures reached the mid-70s, and most of my neighbors were outdoors raking, planting, or putting out lawn furniture. It’s official; spring is here to stay.

If my father were still alive, he would be asking if I’d gotten my potatoes “in.” For as long as I can remember, the rule was to plant your potatoes and onions by Easter.  Dad loved gardening and did so until his hands, legs, and hips no longer cooperated.  Dad’s family took gardening seriously and used their entire one-and-a-half acre property to grow food. The whole family worked at it, and Grandma canned hundreds of jars of vegetables for them to eat each year. I used to marvel at one room in my grandparent’s basement, lined with shelves filled with canning jars. Such work in a day and age when canned goods from the grocery store were so cheap and available! But that had not always been the case. My grandparents were from another era when resources weren’t always at hand and families were ever-conscious about how they’d feed their children over the year. Gardening to them was about survival.

When I was 10, I wanted a garden of my own, with no vegetables, only flowers. I told Dad, and he seemed pleased. He offered me a small patch of earth next to the back porch.  I was thrilled. Of course, I had no money and no ideas on what to plant, but this would be mine to tend.  Dad also happened to be a seed-saver and presented me with some old butter tubs filled with seeds he’d collected in the fall. There were zinnias, marigolds, and morning glories. It was a start. He taught me about preparing the soil, scattering the seeds, and gently covering them with a shallow layer of dirt. Every day I gently watered the plot and waited hopefully. In a short time, my seeds sprouted. I monitored how the different flowers developed and how much space they took up, which grew fast, which grew slowly, shrub-like, or required a trellis. I also noticed other plants sprout that shouldn’t be in my garden– weeds.  And I learned to pluck them the minute they appeared. That small plot taught me a lot.

When I grew up and moved away to college, spring called to me again. While other kids geared up for finals, looked for summer jobs or played Frisbee on the quad, I tended small pots of cherry tomatoes and green peppers in my dorm room window. I missed home, and knew that my Dad would be working in his garden a hundred miles away from me. Once I was in my twenties, married, and had a home of my own, a garden was part of the plan. Over the years, I’ve lived in many places, and my gardens grew and grew in each location until I began to long for a country life where I could have a large garden and live close to the earth. 

After several decades, the big garden became difficult for me to maintain and produced more food than my husband and I needed. In deciding to scale back on projects and maintenance in our lives, we opted for a house with a tiny yard. It’s easier to care for, and now I find new ways to satisfy my urge to grow things. I plant more perennial flowers to attract butterflies and hummingbirds.  I have a small raised bed where I will grow just a handful of potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and eggplants.  I’ll grow herbs in small pots scattered here and there, and we’ll raise things indoors as well. My husband grows bean sprouts in a jar. In just a few days we can harvest them to enjoy in salads and on sandwiches.  This year we also are growing oyster mushrooms from a kit we found at Walmart.  It’s not the type of gardening I’m used to, but I still love learning how things grow and finding that you don’t always have to have more and more land to enjoy gardening. Sun, water, seeds, and a few pots of soil are all you need to experience the magic of growing great things.

The Secret Visitor

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve just published my first E-book, “Cleverly… The Fox,” which is available for purchase through Amazon. To learn more about it, just click on “E-books” in the menu above. This story was inspired by my love for foxes, even though I rarely get to see one. I’ve also developed a fox-related activity for children, provided under the “Activities” menu option.

For many years my husband and I lived in the country and only recently traded our bucolic lifestyle for one in a city. Alas, we are older and keeping up our rural property seemed to consume too much of our time and, energies. We have lived in our new home one year now, and while we love our house and community, there are some things from our past life that we still ache for, namely wildlife.

Over the years, encountering wildlife was a daily thrill. We lived on the margins of agricultural land, and our property was surrounded by woods and prairie. It was Eden to us. During our time there, our endless nature encounters gave me the idea to begin writing children’s stories. There were visits by coyotes, Cooper’s hawks, turkeys, skunks, raccoons, opossum, and deer. But of all the animals we frequently watched, one was conspicuously absent — the red fox. We had hoped to see one, and we did, but it was about a mile from our home. A family, in fact, that took up residence near the home of a friend. One year we spotted kits, and I thought surely they would grow and disperse, and possibly one of them could wind up living close to us. But it was not to be. For fifteen years, we watched, listened, and waited. If a fox ever came, we saw no evidence.

Then the last winter we lived there, I was worried about my chickens trying to keep warm in their unheated coop. I got the idea to build a temporary “winter coop” in the garage, where there was access to electricity for heat lamps. This turned out to be a cozy arrangement, and I liked taking only two steps outside the kitchen door to gather fresh eggs for our breakfast. But one morning, after an evening snowfall, I stepped outside to discover tracks coming from our prairie and walking right up to the garage door. Small dog tracks — one foot in front of the other — a fox! It appeared the fox had paused at the door, considering ways to get into the garage. Then the tracks continued past the garage and hugged our house’s foundation, eventually passing on through the yard.

For the next few weeks, the fox was a regular secret visitor. I never saw him or her. I suspect the visits were at night while I slept. Just two months later, we were preparing to move. I was in the living room packing a box when Tom, in a strained whisper said, “Julie, fox!” I ran to the kitchen, and there he was, all beautiful and orange, crouched warily on our patio, checking the birds at the feeder but nervously looking here and there. Then quickly, he darted into a bush and made his way out of the yard. Perhaps he sensed he was being watched. Needless to say, we were overjoyed. It had taken fifteen years, but we finally got to see our fox.

A year later, settled into our new home; Tom and I had just said good night when suddenly we were jolted by the strange sound of an animal. If you can imagine a distressed cat attempting to bark, that would be the sound. I’d heard the sound before in a recording — a fox. Tom agreed with my assessment, and it made sense. We lived near a park with a creek and woods, and it happened to be fox mating season. The following day we explored the back yard, and sure enough, following along some rabbit tracks that zigged and zagged across the yard, we found the tracks of a fox. It was a happy discovery and it’s good to know that we can look forward to more secret visitors.

Fox tracks adjacent to rabbit tracks.

Again, again, again!

I never seem to run out of ideas for stories. But what I do struggle with, and I think most writers do, is developing the “It” factor that will hook a reader and make them want to read your book. So many things are at play in writing children’s books, such as the subject matter, story arc, problem resolution, word choices, cadence, repetition, illustrations, and on and on. And we must not forget that children’s books must also be child-centric. In short, there simply is nothing simple about writing a children’s story.

Every time I study a children’s book, I ask myself, is this a story they will want to read again. I ask myself this same thing about my own writing. It’s hard to tell. Every reader’s needs are different, and those needs change constantly. What becomes important or enjoyable to one child may have no special power over another — for instance, the classic Itsy Bitsy Spider. I remember reading the story as a child and, of course, singing the song with accompanying hand motions. For me, it was mildly amusing but not something I needed or wanted to do over and over. But I looked at this story a little differently after an interaction I had with a child several years ago.

I used to work in my church’s “nursery” on Sundays. For those of you who aren’t familiar with a church nursery, it’s where families can drop off tiny kids (from infants to kindergarten age) to be babysat during worship services. This service helps to cut down on distractions or disturbances during a sermon. Each week, I worked with two or three other ladies to rock babies, change diapers, read stories and play on the floor with toys. The other ladies I worked with were probably 20 to 30 years older than me and preferred to devote their attention to infants and let the others just play. I spent most of my time with toddlers. One week a young mother brought her three-year-old daughter, who had severe separation anxiety, and commenced screaming and crying for the duration of the church service. When her mother returned and learned her child had been a wreck and we were unable to calm her, we all felt horrible. I was sure we’d never see her again. But I was wrong.

The following week Mom brought her daughter back, and again, she reacted to her mother’s departure most extremely. I was on it. I walked to the door with a stuffed animal and a book and said, “I have something special for you!” She was not convinced, but her mother handed her off to me and quickly scurried down the hall. I carried the sobbing child to a rocking chair and said, “Let’s find out about this crazy little spider.” She squirmed and pushed and didn’t want to calm down, but I ignored this and began to read in a calm, quiet voice and tried to look totally enthralled with the images in the book. She quieted down to listen, looking at me as if I was nuts. I read the pages slowly, holding the book with one hand, and with the other hand I made my fingers crawl across the top of the book, over to her arm. I touched her arm lightly, then ran my fingers back over to my side as if I was afraid to touch her. I acted out the spider’s climb up the water spout, the spider being washed back down by rain, and the sun coming out to dry up all the rain. Her eyes revealed there was some interest. When I finished the book, I closed it and said, “He made it!” And she said, “Again!” Ahh. She was going to be alright, I thought.

So, I obliged her and read the story again, with my fingers acting out the story, but the second time I made my fingers crawl across the top of the book and over to her arm. I touched her arm lightly, then ran my fingers back over to my side, as if I was afraid to touch her, and she laughed. When I finished the story, she said, “Again!” And again, I complied. This went on for quite a while, and each time I reread the story, my finger- spider crawled up her arm a bit farther until it was brave enough to tickle her under the chin, then scurry away. This brought much giggling, followed by “Again, again, again.” She didn’t seem to tire of the game or the story, and before we knew it, Mom had returned, pleased to see that her daughter was moving past her trauma.

For the next several Sundays, the little girl returned. Though there was some pouting upon arrival, she quickly settled in, walked to the bookshelf, and came to me with Itsy Bitsy Spider. Every week we settled in to read and giggle. Soon other little kids noticed and began to gather around to listen. Soon other children wanted to act out the spider and tickle someone on the arm. Soon my timid friend reached out to tickle me. And soon she allowed others to tickle her. The walls were down and we were all one big team of spider-loving ticklers.

It wasn’t long after that, that when my little friend arrived, she could confidently kiss her mother goodbye at the door and run to play with her newfound friends. Altogether we may have read Itsy Bitsy Spider twenty times. It was a hard-working little book, and I viewed the story differently after the experience. I had always missed its magic when I was a child, thinking it was just an observation of spider’s diligent behavior. But for this one child, it represented more. I think my friend identified with the little spider, perhaps feeling a little knocked down when mother left her each week and overwhelmed by the rain of strange people around her. In the story, she saw that Itsy Bitsy Spider bravely faced his trials, eventually succeeded, and the sun came out again. My accompanying finger-play was a gentle way to tease away her fears. For her, the sunshine was finding a place where people welcomed her, and made her feel safe and part of something fun. And that’s the power of an “It” factor. A simple connection and aha moment that we want to absorb again and again and again.

A Confession

I have always loved reading. My library visits as a child are among my favorite memories. I can still smell the books, feel the quiet atmosphere, and see the illustrations in my favorite stories. Those times were magical because I was entering secret worlds, where only I was invited. At one point, during a summer reading program, the Children’s librarian pulled me aside and said, I think you might be ready for other things. I guess I was getting too old to hang out in the children’s section of the library. She said, “Let me show you some things,” and walked me over to the adult section. It was overwhelming. I didn’t know where to start. For some reason, she pulled out a copy of David Copperfield and said, “What do you think?” I read the first page, and I was in.

That summer changed everything for me. I loved being in the adult section of the library. I couldn’t believe I was allowed to be there! But despite all the wonderful things I found there, I missed the brevity and illustrations of children’s books.

Flash forward. I became a mother, and before my daughter was even born, I was buying her books. She was my excuse for going into the children’s section of bookstores. It seemed that books had grown more beautiful and exciting since I was a child. Now there were texture books for infants and toddlers, pop-up books, and books with parts that moved. Even little poofy plastic books that could be chewed or taken into the bathtub. Naturally, I had to buy some of each for her. It was always a priority for me to make sure she had good books to read. When she was older and in school, I made sure she always had a Scholastic book order to turn in. I’m pleased to say she grew up loving reading and still does.

What’s more, she has made sure her daughter has wonderful books. I now have the joy of encouraging my granddaughter to read. We read together on her visits. I buy her books. And most recently, she has been telling me she intends to write books. In fact, she works at it now.

I am now 61, recently moved to a new town, and got my library card. And I’ve become a frequent patron of a local bookstore. But I have yet to buy an adult book. Each week I borrow numerous children’s books from the library, and I relish every one. I’m sure the librarians wonder why I only check out children’s books. They perhaps assume I teach or read to a grandchild. But they’re all for me. I use them as mentor texts to see how masters write, how illustrators illustrate. I’m always surprised, awed, and inspired by the endless creativity, storytelling approaches, and magnificent tales that are out there to be told.

So here’s my confession. I am a child at heart, and I still love children’s books best. I will always read adult books on wide-ranging topics. But I will also always read children’s books because they utterly delight me. I am a mature woman with a lifetime of experiences, but deep inside, I am still that little girl in the corner of the children’s library, lost in her magical worlds. And that’s okay.

My granddaughter reading in bed.