Thursday, September 15, 2011

Veggies and More

I was recently interviewed by an online book shop, Little Ones Books, about my picture book Up, Down, and Around. They asked some fun questions, so here's the interview---

Q: What is the main message you want children to get out of your book Up, Down, and Around?

Ayres: Help! No messages! Books are to enjoy. I hope children will get excited about seeing those giant carrots, and oh my goodness, how many ants are there on the pages, and look there's a worm under the ground. The sense of wonder is one of the most precious gifts of childhood and I'm hoping my books appeal to that sense.

Q: What was the most fun aspect of creating and writing UP, Down, and Around?

Ayres: Seeing the art! You write a picture book text and sort of imagine how it might turn out, but once I saw some of Nadine Westcott's sketches I got very excited. The writing wasn't too hard, as there aren't too many words in this book. I did fiddle around with the verbs--climb, vine, twine, wind. That was fun.

Q: What is YOUR favorite vegetable?

Ayres: Tomatoes, hands down. But I had a sort-of rule---I had to like every veggie in the book. When I was a small child I was a very picky eater, so corn and tomatoes and potatoes were about my only veggies, but these days, I love lots of them. You didn't ask about a least favorite veggie. I'll answer that anyway---brussels sprouts---bleah! But they're my dad's favorite. All our tongues get to make up their own minds about what tastes good.

Q: Do you personally have a garden?

Ayres: I love to play in the dirt. I grow mostly flowers and flowering shrubs. We have two houses, so I'm not in one place all summer at the present time. If I planted veggies in Massachusetts, by the time they ripened, I'd be back in Pittsburgh. So the bunnies and the deer and the bears would eat them all. I do plant herbs in a big pot by the back door. That's it for now. Oh, and my smallest granddaughter likes to eat my begonias. Does that count?

Q: What has been the most rewarding experience you've had of a child with this book?

Ayres: I love it when kids dance to the story. Probably the most amazing moment came while on tour for the Pennsylvania One Book (Every Young Child) when an entire library full of kindergarten children (300 of them) sang my story to me. Wow!

Q: Is there anything you would change about Up, Down, and Around now that its been out for awhile?

Ayres: No. To me, it's yummy, just as it is.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Foxy Thoughts

Some say you can’t go home again—that any attempt to recreate a beloved moment in the past is doomed to fail. I agree and at the same time, disagree. Last summer I took a group of students on a travel course to the Maritime Provinces of Canada, an extraordinary two weeks. My only regret was that I hadn’t somehow made the trip with my husband, as one or two particular spots seemed to have his name inscribed on them.

This summer, we took that chance and repeated a section of the journey—traveling The Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. In my husband’s words the night we arrived, “…there’s something about Cape Breton. It makes you relax whether you want to or not.” I was relieved then, and even more so as the days passed and he kept remarking on the natural beauty of the island, the politeness and friendliness of the people. Oh, and we had to eat fresh-off-the-boat-seafood every night. We both loved every minute—I had guessed right.

The key to returning is not to attempt a re-creation, but rather to design a brand new experience. Yes, you might revisit some much-admired locales but add others as well. While we retraced my previous summer’s steps along the Skyline and Middle Head Trails, we added a round of golf. (Great scenery, lousy golf scores, but who cared?) We experienced the same mild, sunny weather, but also added a new destination to the trip, so that I too would have fresh sights and novel experiences. The fortress at Louisbourg allowed us to visit, at least in the imagination, an eighteenth century French military community, and even eat lunch from a menu that might have existed in that time. (We had oversized napkins tied about our necks and were only given a spoon—forks were for the fancy folk back then.) And while we saw moose on the Skyline Trail as I had the summer before (the same large rack of antlers—the same moose?) we did not go searching for whales. Instead , we discovered a fox, waiting for us at the Louisbourg Lighthouse (or she discovered us). Now my husband wants to return yet again—there’s much of Nova Scotia that we haven’t yet seen…

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Whose Tree?

About two weeks ago, a massive storm hit the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. Six trees went down in our yard that night, including one spectacular white pine nearly a hundred feet tall that stood sentinel at the edge between yard and wetland. Some called the wind a micro-burst; some called it a tornado. I call it terrifying when the winds reach a speed that produces a high pitched, singing sound. I wanted to hide.

The next morning I surveyed the damage and took pictures, which I then sent to various family and friends. My older daughter was first to reply: “That’s Rob’s tree isn’t it? He’ll be so sad.” Rob is a painter and has painted landscapes, which include that tree, so yes, he has a claim. In my reply, however, I mentioned that I thought it was my husband’s tree, as he was the one who climbed up with a ladder to remove dead branches and stubs, to give the tree its particularly graceful shape. My younger daughter then weighed in: “That was our tree. The tree we were looking at when we got married. And now it’s gone!” I reminded her that she has the painting made of that tree during the week of the wedding. I also mentioned that it is now a unique wedding, as nobody else can ever be married in front of that tree again. She’s a botanist, a plantswoman who understands the cycle of growth and decay. She laughed.

A couple of days later I had the occasion to speak with the previous owner of our house and with her daughter. They were both sorry to see the big old tree down, and the daughter shook her head. “That was the tree-house tree.” So even before our family grew attached to the old white pine, another family had claimed and loved it.

About a week after the storm, our son and his family came to visit. The youngest grandson was very excited to see such an enormous tree lying on the ground; its root-ball rose more than twenty feet into the air which is pretty tall for a six-year-old. It wasn’t exactly lying on the ground, however. It was lying on (squashing) one of my favorite gardens. My daughter-in-law took one look and said, “Oh no! It fell on our garden!” And indeed it had, for that garden was planted by the women and children in the family several years ago.

So yes, we’re all sorry to see such a majestic tree come to the end of its life. And a part of me worries what we’ll find when the trunk is lifted off—how much of the garden will survive? But I can’t worry too much. No people, no buildings, no cars were harmed in the treefall. And plants have strong roots. They can sustain injury and re-grow.

So whose tree was it really? It belonged to all of us. And now, as the slow process of decay begins, as it is hauled off to be ground into mulch, it will return to the earth from which it sprung. A good long life, for a beautiful tree.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Books and Berries

Summer—the first image that comes to mind is a strawberry. When I was very tiny—six or seven months old—my grandfather brought me in from his garden with red juice dripping from my small pudgy chin. My mother was appalled. “You didn’t feed that baby strawberries did you?” “No. No, of course not.” But of course he had. And I’ve loved strawberries ever since.

As I grew a bit older, I discovered what would become my favorite picture book—The Poky Little Puppy. I enjoyed it because the puppies were such rascals. They misbehaved and disobeyed and got scolded. As a small child surrounded by adults, I too often got scolded, so those puppies were my friends. In one of their romps into the wide, wide world, the poky little puppy puts his nose down into the green grass and discovers a red, ripe strawberry. Their mother makes strawberry shortcake for dessert. Yum.

Fast forward many years and I became a mom myself with two rascally daughters. I must have passed along the love of strawberries, because my older daughter loved them. But my younger daughter simply vacuumed them up, not stopping to pull off the leaves. She just gobbled them, leaves, stem, fruit and all, not stopping until every berry disappeared. If we wanted to have any for guests, we had to hide them.

Now, I’m a grandmother and again, the grandchildren mostly love strawberries. The youngest one however, has even more in common with Grandma Kathy. Last summer I began sharing The Poky Little Puppy with her and for a spell it became her favorite book. At not quite two, she could recite the story by heart and turn the pages at the right times. That summer too, we prowled my back garden and there, in the green grass and between some of my flowers, wild strawberry plants were growing with those red, ripe strawberries, warm and sweet from the sun. The wild berries are tiny, no bigger than the tip of a pinkie finger. We picked them and ate them right off the stems. When they were gone, she begged for more, but we’d eaten them all.

“That’s all,” her mother said. And little E began to cry. Later when days passed and more berries ripened, my daughter used naptime to collect small cups of strawberries and wild blackberries for the family. Of course the little one gobbled hers up right away. Then she carried a cup inside for her daddy, but once she’d showed him the berries, she ate his too. Nice to know this berry trait is moving along strongly through the family.

Now it’s spring again and the world is greening again. Just the other day little E visited the park across from her house in New York. She bent down and quoted from the book, the part about there in the green grass was a red ripe strawberry. But no, not in a busy New York playground/park. Wishful thinking on her part.

But in a few weeks, when the sun shines bright enough and the days are warm enough, there in the green grass, we’ll find more red ripe strawberries. Like the poky little puppy, maybe we’ll have strawberry shortcake for dessert. And during naptime, or when our visit is over, this Grandma will sit with her computer and mess about with words and sentences, building a new story or two. I’ll also read and read. Books and berries. The perfect way to spend a summer. Don’t you agree?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Princess Thoughts

My first Prince was really a King. I was six years old, a first grader. Small town Ohio loves its football, so Homecoming was a major celebration. In the usual way of things, there was a Homecoming Queen and King, both seniors, with attendants from all the other high school classes. And then there was me, in full fancy dress—with a green shiny pillow to match my long green shiny dress—and I got to carry the Queen’s crown.

I was probably cute enough, but I’m sure I was chosen because my father was something of a town celebrity—the young, fun pastor who had a good rapport with the kids. He and my mother would be chaperones for the Senior Trip later that year—so they were surely better known than I was. But for me, this was a major Princess event. Long dress, a parade. And of course I was completely in love with the King. In my little girl mind, he was my King. I wasn’t simply the crown bearer, but the Queen herself. Royalty. Ruler of the Known Universe. I somehow simply erased the real Queen from my mind.

All of this comes to mind as we watch and enjoy the spectacle of a royal wedding. A real Prince and a real Princess—with plenty of smiles and it seems, a sense of humor. In this country, we’ve mostly left royalty behind, unless you count rock stars and sports heroes. But we do enjoy that Prince and Princess moment. Long dresses. Crowns. Fancy coaches. And a moment to dream, imagine, remember, the royal moments of our own.