living with books

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We just changed the display on our seasons table and put the Halloween decorations up. The table  currently combines the signs of harvest and the turning leaves (cornucopia, gourds, Indian corn, acorns, chestnuts/buckeyes) with the fun of Halloween (witches, ghosts, trick or treating stuffed animals). But the highlight -– or at least the items our kids play with the most -– tends to be the box of seasonal books that we put under the table.

A seasons table is a corner/side table/flat surface in your house where you can display the signs, symbols and touchstones of each season for your children to examine, play with and thus learn the importance of each season. For us — in keeping with our ongoing attempts to keep clutter at bay — it’s  also a way to limit the amount of stuff we accumulate. (If we want to add something to the mix, then something else has to go.)

The books that make the cut for the seasons box are the best-loved books for each season, titles that even our too-cool-for-school eldest daughter will curl up for hours reading – even though she’s way too old for the Berenstain Bears or Clifford . If these titles were taking up space on the shelves all year, I’d be sick of the sight of them and coveting the space for something else. When they only come up from the basement for a month or so, it’s a big occasion for our kids, and the shared reading of them adds to the sense of ritual and tradition of each season.

It’s also something of a test kitchen in terms of the quality of the books, as only the favorite books get kept year upon year. And here I’m using quality to mean that elusive quality that keeps kids rereading and enjoying the book over time, not the more-easily identified and debated qualities that determine whether a book wins awards or not. So here (in no particular order) are a few of the Halloween/fall/autumn-themed books that my children have chosen to read or have read to them year after year after year.

Pumpkin Soup / A Pipkin of Pepper / Delicious by Helen Cooper

Fabulous artwork and a simple story about teamwork make all the “Pumpkin Soup” books by Helen Cooper essential picture books for this time of year. The clever and detailed art has kept our children interested as they’ve grown up, finding new things each year when they pour over the pictures.

Wild Child by Lynn Plourde

The fall title in Lynn Plourde’s quartet of season books. This story about the changing of the seasons, the end of summer’s heat, the falling of the leaves and the growing chill of autumn is a perennial favorite. It’s somewhat amazing that the publisher has allowed most of the books in this series to go quietly out of print. Wild Child appears to be the only one still available in paperback. Every so often we gift a set of these books to somebody or other, and have to get them directly from Apple Valley Books, who carry the remainder of the author’s copies. Hopefully, the publisher can return them to print or publish a single collected volume at some point.

Angelina’s Halloween by Katharine Holabird and Helen Craig

Yes, yes, I know it’s not cool to express a liking for anything that has become a cartoon series – a sin in hip bookselling circles comparable to expressing an enjoyment of anything published by  Disney (which I’ll commit below) — but my girls loved the Angelina Ballerina series, and Angelina’s Halloween is one of the best. The pictures are expressive, detailed and quite lovely, and the story about a big sister who gets tired of her little sister tagging along is something that has had great resonance in our household over the years.

Hidden Pumpkins by Anne Margaret Lewis and Jim DeWildt

My girls never get tired of the “seek and find” type of books. I couldn’t tell you what the overt storyline of this book is, except that everything rhymes. The story isn’t important in any case; the fun of this book is in pouring over the detailed pictures to find all the hidden – and expressive — pumpkins.

The Scariest Monster in the Whole Wide World by Pamela Mayer and Lydia Monks

One of the first books that went into our Halloween box, and one of the best-loved. The story is a timely reminder that kids have tons of fun dressing up for Halloween and the quality of their costume isn’t important. Who cares if you think they look like a freak? If they think they look scary/spooky/awesome, then they feel great. [Note: Appears to be out of print.]

Turtle and Snake’s Spooky Halloween by Kate Spohn

A very simple early reader, the fun of this book is in the memories of our girls reading it when they were younger and hadn’t yet mastered their letters. Our first child couldn’t say the letter ‘S’ for the longest time, so this will forever be known as “Turtle and Nake’s Pooky Halloween” in our house.

The Book of Boo by Marge Kennedy

Here’s the dreaded Disney title… Our kids were big Winnie the Pooh fans at an early age, and yes we were known to pop a video on in order to get twenty minutes peace. Winnie the Pooh’s Book of Boo came along at just the right time. The video is long gone, but the girls still seem to retain a quiet (and surreptitious) enjoyment of the book.

Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson & Axel Schleffler

Why isn’t Julia Donaldson as huge in the US as she is in the UK, where 3-4 of her books always seem to be in Amazon’s top 100? Room on the Broom is a charming picture book about a witch and her menagerie (a cat, a dog and a frog) and their misadventure with a dragon who likes to eat witches. The simple, colorful pictures (by Axel Scheffler) are very expressive and not scary at all, the story is told in rhymes that appeal to kids of all ages. There’s enough humorous detail in the picture to reward rereading and encourage kids to pour over the artwork on their own.

The Three Little Witches by Georgie Adams

This is another book that takes a pretty elementary story (three school-age witches who live together and are planning a Halloween party), adds in lots of simple but detail-laden artwork and uses simple words with lots of repetition. The story is too long to be read in a single sitting, so it makes a good book to read over a couple of nights at Halloween, and the language makes this a perfect introductory “chapter” book for kids graduating from early readers. Even my older daughter likes to re-examine the pictures and listen as I read this to her younger sister. As a child’s reading ability grows, they can begin to read this to themselves and will not be intimidated as they can be by more text-heavy early chapter books, nor will they be able to memorize this as with many favorite picture books.

All Hallows Eve by Lisa Sferlazza Johnson and Tucker Johnson

This is the story about Eve, the Halloween fairy, who takes your extra candy and leaves toys instead. It’s a clever and well-spun story that will (happily) have your kids wanting to leave most of their candy for the Halloween fairy.

A possible addition to the Halloween box his year may be On a Windy Night by Nancy Raines Day and George Bates. It’s a slightly scary tale of a boy making his way back through the woods after trick or treating. He’s alone – our youngest immediately made me promise she’d never have to trick or treat alone – and his imagination runs away with him as he imagines every rustling leaf to be a monster and every bare tree to be a skeleton. The art work is clever, full of suggestive shadows and atmospheric embellishments. The clouds take on monstrous shapes, the bare tree branches seem to reach out toward the boy and the moonlight makes a cornfield appear to come of life. Whether the book was too suggestive and scary for my youngest remains to be seen, but she did appear to greatly enjoy the story and art on first read.

It’s quite cute to see our oldest, who has recently been devouring The Penderwicks and Kate Di Camillo’s oeuvre on her own, reading through a stack of old favorite picture books, or reading them to her sister. It remind us how far we’ve come as a family, how much our girls have grown, and keeps us hunting for the next fun reading experience.

I’m not, by nature, a new-agey person. Although I live in the hippy mecca of Asheville, NC, I usually feel I’m the most conservative person in any gathering. So, when my better half began reading and acting on a book about de-cluttering with Feng Shui, I rolled my eyes a little and went back to whatever I was doing—until she began reading choice paragraphs and insights to me and (Shock! Horror!) they all seemed very relevant to my life. De-cluttering it seems (with or without Feng Shui) can be a process of letting go of things that have been holding you back or distracting you from your current life. If you view life as a journey, a process of change, you realize that most of your stuff was acquired before you grew into who you are currently. So much of this stuff will inevitably no longer be relevant to the job you currently have, lifestyle you currently follow, or interests you currently pursue.

To give a more concrete example: my family has literally thousands of books in our house. Most are titles I read (or wanted to read) at one point or another. There are, for example, shelves of fantasy & science-fiction (also science fact) from when I read a lot of SF, was actively trying to write that kind of fiction, and had a day-job where I needed to review and write about SF all the time. These days, my writing ambitions and practice are proceeding down different paths and reading Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui helped me realize that most of these books are never going to be used again by me. The very fact of their being around, taking up shelf space, the unread quietly guilting me, and the overflowing shelves having to be tidied, dusted and dealt with from time to time all takes mental energy and focus that I could be using more profitably elsewhere. Off to Goodwill with them all…

I began organizing our books on the shelves by interest areas—previously I had no organizing factor. At work, everything was categorized and alphabetical by author, but at home chaos reigned. Indian fiction initially took up a lot of space, but I’m no longer as intensely hungry for fiction from India and Pakistan as when I had first graduated from college (nearly 15 years ago), traveled in SE Asia and those authors were new and exciting to me. So I culled a great deal of older, already read and digested books from this section.

Naturally, Irish literature takes up a large section, but contained much more history and nonfiction than I realized. I decided to drop much of the random fiction and “flavor-of-the-moment” books I’d accumulated over the years (usually spur-of-the-moment purchases on trips back to my homeland) in favor of the more-serious history and literature, which is what I’m really interested in now.

The process of categorization and assigning shelf space revealed my current big literary/cultural passion to be what I’ll broadly call “the twentieth century European experience” (covering everything from Bloomsbury, Irish independence, and two world wars, through the multi-national ex-patriot experience in Europe between the wars, to the current facts of life in the EU). These are the kind of books I can’t read without opening two or three others to check references, compare and contrast, etc., so they needed to be shelved together for easy access. This wasn’t how I necessarily viewed my reading habits, but once I could see the amount of shelf space occupied by these books I began to reframe how I think about my reading time and any end goals or purpose those hours may have. So an unexpected benefit of this de-cluttering has been a mental shift in how I think about my reading habits/preferences and fresh understanding of how I’ve been choosing to use my free time.

We keep learning and growing in real time, but sometimes our mental image of ourselves, the one-line bio we assign ourselves in our heads, can’t keep up with our rate of growth, our changing focus. Our self image remains frozen in time like an obsolete mission statement or a long-neglected MySpace page. This whole de-cluttering kick helped me understand where my interests now lie and where they might take me. As I’m a very visual learner, I needed to see the amount of shelf space categories and subject areas took up, to weigh the bulk of old interests against new. This was easy to do once I gathered the physical books together — I can’t imagine how I’d do anything similar with ebooks on an ereader. (I have about 30 ebooks on my phone, but I can barely remember what they are. They’re out of sight and completely out of mind.)

Overall, we’ve probably only got rid of 20% of our books so far, with maybe another 10% that could easily be culled once I have the time and energy again. I think we still have too many books, and that’s probably the greatest testament to the influence of Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui; a couple of months ago I never would have thought one could have too many books.