Those of you who know me know that I'm a little nutty-- or very particular, take your pick--about children's books. I've posted before on my criteria for selecting books, and now want to share a gem of a story I've found with you.
Roxaboxen, written by Alice McLerran and beautifully illustrated by Barbara Cooney (Miss Rumphius, Island Boy), caught my eye with it's lively cover illustration of children running together in a moment of play. This is not the kind of play our many of our children know at all; on a scrubby hill a boy holds a stick 'horse', in another hand is a thorny stalk--and he is chasing after a girl who is running with her stick horse over to a cluster of girls. A flag with the legend "Fort Irene" designates a clump of rocks as 'base' and cluster of girls, many with thorny stalks of their own, wait, relaxed, for their friend.
How can this not be interesting? Roxaboxen is a celebration of the imagination of children. From the first page of text--"Marian called it Roxaboxen. (She always knew the name of everything.)" --we discover that this empty lot, full of boxes and rocks, is truly the children's place to play, live, and exult in the wonders of childhood, self-government and autonomy. This is not the world of today, where pre-made play structures and fences keep children safe in every way possible. Instead, this story is a doorway to something far more special, something from another time which some parents (like me) hope our children might capture and explore on their own.
At Roxaboxen, the children begin to build their own little town. Streets are outlined with rocks, as are houses. Desert glass in amber, amethyst and sea green, makes up the house of Frances. Children open stores and sell what they might have to offer, including bread and two ice cream stands. (In Roxaboxen, you can eat all the ice cream you want. What could be better to a child?) Old car steering wheels are cars; if you are speeding, you must go to jail, which is a cluster of cactus out in that Arizona desert.
This whole book follows suit, the children invent their own games, make forts, even a cemetery to mark the grave of a dead lizard which festooned with flowers when the cactus bloom. We leave this book wistful, knowing how the inhabitants of Roxaboxen, even as adults, still remember this magical place where their imagination was free to run. Where glass, thorny sticks, and time outdoors with friends and without adult intervention makes for a true childhood treasure. The text is simple, but heartfelt, and Barbara Cooney's illustrations capture the sense of freedom and play of the children; Roxaboxen is sparse but full of life.
Another wonderful picture book which truly celebrates the child is Cynthia Rylant's All I See, illustrated by Peter Catalanotto. Imagination is a strong theme in this story, as are art and the child's sense of safety and autonomy in his world. Gregory is an artist who paints every day at the lake, bringing along his cat, his affection for Beethoven's Fifth, his easel, canvas, paints and brushes. When Gregory needs a moment of rest, he and his cat lounge in a canoe on the lake. But Gregory is not alone; a boy named Charlie also goes down to the lake and watches Gregory from a distance. Charlie is shy, but begins looking at Gregory's canvases while Gregory is in the canoe. When Charlie is one day confronted with a blank canvas, the shy boy takes a chance which begins a friendly mentoring relationship between he and Gregory. One aspect of this book I really appreciate is the idea of the 'friendly stranger', an idea many parents have moved away from in this world of non-stop Stranger Danger messages. Charlie's bravery and trust are rewarded with genuine friendship and an opportunity to be even more empowered in how he perceives his world.
Both of these books offer my son experiences that our urban world cannot truly replicate. We come close: there is a fairy house he's built in the backyard, next to the sandbox; our little plum tree he climbs and the different forts he builds in the rhododendron and under the forsythia. We have adult friends who nurture him and invite him to participate in what they are doing, even it's cutting tile and sticking it onto the wall of our re-vamped shower or making cookies; the friendly elderly gentleman around the corner who teases him in a loving way; or the parents of his friends. We are fortunate to have what we do, to live in a neighborhood which offers so many smiles. To have so many kind and caring adults in his life who enjoy some of the same things he does. One of my dearest wishes for Kiddo is that he would perceive the world as a good, safe place. I adore both of these books because this is the message that they bring to children: that they are strong, imaginative, independent little people. That Roxaboxen ( true story, by the way) takes their imagination so seriously is such an honor to those children of long ago, who did not have mothers hovering and telling them to put down their sticks. That the imposition of the artists imagination upon reality is an invitation for children to challenge their own notion of 'what is there' and asks the question "what could be there?"-- this is such a validation of what children naturally do. Without our interference, they play and learn in ways that are not only valuable to them, but memorable as well.
Long live the imagination of our growing children, even those most grown up of all!
Some other writing about books:
Some thoughts about books and a short list of titles
A list of favorite things, with some neat titles we loved
More favorite things for kids, with more titles from when Kiddo was three
And some titles, with themes in parenthesis~
"Kids" by Catherine and Laurence Anholt (feelings)
"All the Colors We Are" by Katie Kissinger (race, ancestry)
"The Good Brown Earth" by Kathy Henderson (celebrates gardens and grandparents)
"Little Blue and Little Yellow" by Leo Lionni (color, friendships, family, community)
" Stone Soup" retold by John J Muth (community, genorosity)
" Jenny's Hat" by Ezra Jack Keats (disappointment, kindness)
"Frog and Toad are Friends" by Arnold Lobel (friendship, emotions, understanding others)
"Thy Friend, Obidiah" by Brinton Turkle