Spelunking Online

About ten years ago, I brought my sons to Howe Caverns so that they could experience the caves.  Ever since I was a child, myself, I’d wanted to go there, to see the minerals and formations and just feel that prehistoric sense caves create the moment we enter them.

Big mistake, then, to visit Howe Caverns for the experience: they have lined the entire site with electric *colored* lights that obliterate the beautiful, subtle colors of the various minerals and rocks and create a wholly modern environment, miles below the surface of the planet.  Only in the photographs we took were the real colors visible, when the flash washed-out the artificial lights.  We used a cheap mayfly camera, but even then, the quality of the photos far surpassed what we saw with our own eyes.

So, I worried about the Lascoux Cave “virtual visit” when I first clicked on this site.  I’ve known of these caves all my life, and my father — a devoted rock hound and amateur geologist — shared with me his love for ancient mysteries that might one day reveal themselves in caves.

In some ways, the “virtual visit” is as disappointing as I’d feared.  First and foremost, the photos are much too small for marveling.  There is no sense of perspective in these narrowed views, and with no frame of reference, it is impossible to imagine the position(s) the artists had to assume in order to create these paintings and engravings.  I’ve read where there was necessarily scaffolding created to reach some places, but how big were the final works in relation to the average size of a person back then?  I wanted some way to understand the scale of it all.

Most of all, there is a loss of experience in being removed by both the camera and the internet.  Though I understand our breath alone endangers these works of art, and thus we cannot visit them in person, I feel this means we will never fully appreciate them, either.

Here is what I envision:
The artists of that time lived in a dark world when the sun set.  They were afraid of predators, including other humanoids, and they lived hard lives with work that had to be accomplished during daylight hours if they were to survive the night, the next few days, or even the season — and for that, they needed some easy way to train up their young and get them past the fears, past the errors, and quickly into the flow of
survival.  One of the best ways to do this is to fill the idle hours with stories, songs, and art.

Those caves were lit by firelight, by torches carried and thus in motion with every turn and gesture.  The animals would not only feel huge, they would feel alive and in motion — a clever guide could make the animals move to fit the story, could guide the rapt listeners through the tales.  They would mix truth and fiction, history and fantasy, to weave a cautionary tale, but also one of hope.

Some of the side areas, especially the one with the squares of color, tell me they taught others to create these paintings.  There was a class on how to mix or match colors — they had to work with materials at hand, had to spend a portion of daylight finding the red clay or burning the charcoal or otherwise developing what they needed for the artwork.

Some of the engravings may have been learning tools for shape, size, or design. Some of the handprints may have been signatures, tests for color, or even graffiti from later visitors — kids who dared sneak in, unguided. Some of the engravings might also reflect new techniques being explored, or reflect a time when painting materials became unavailable, or the artists were away or lost forever.

The virtual tour was a good start on imagining life in the distant past, getting a glimpse of the souls of these people not so very different from those of us today who love an illustrated book or even a movie.


Fiddling with Books at Walton’s Library

100_5686.jpgHope and I drove out to the William B. Ogden Library in Walton, NY, to present our Fiddling with Books program. I remember how this room looked just after the 2006 floods ravaged the community, with a loss of 12,000 books in this very room. What a change! Not a hint of the flood damage remains, save for the absence of books on this level. Instead, this is a bright, cheery community room for meetings or programs like this one.


We always start our program with When Uncle Took the Fiddle by Libba Moore Grey.  I pretend to be a tired, sleepy farmhand while Hope plays a bit of Brahms’ Lullabye. Once Uncle takes the fiddle off the shelf, though, we kick off Miss MacLeod’s Reel, also known as Uncle Joe (with lyrics including “Did you ever go to meetin’ Uncle Joe? Uncle Joe?”)

After that, we discuss the dangers of claiming someone can out-fiddle the Devil himself, as happens in Phyllis Root’s Rosie’s Fiddle. We play the soundtrack of the fiddle contest with Growling Old Man, Grumbling Old Woman with a quick switch to Devil’s Dream for the grand finale. Listening to those fiddle tunes, you don’t need to read the book to figure out who wins.


One of our favorite books in the program is Moose Music by Sue Porter — the cover illustration alone is hilarious. Moose comes across an old fiddle mired in muck — never a good sign — and decides to play some songs… a bit of a trick with hooves, and the results are what you might expect. The teeth-rattling, ear-splitting “moose music” drives off everyone within earshot, but when his equally-talented true love comes to sing along with his playing, it is enough to set off volcanoes. We like to accompany this book with a goofy version of Flop-Eared Mule, complete with out-of-tune banjo.

We love to include the audience as much as possible, and among the sing-along opportunities is our presentation of Anne Isaacs’s original tall tale Swamp Angel — which actually includes a tiny image of a fiddler amongst the illustrations by Paul O. Zelinski! We pair this book up with the rowdy Old Joe Clark.


We try to vary the fiddle tunes, so that we have presented musical forms — waltzes, reels, and jigs — as well as a good representation of various traditions. Here, we feature Budge Wilson’s A Fiddle for Angus as we present a French-Canadien selection: Saint Anne’s Reel — complete with clogging! Budge included the beautiful Song for the Mira in her book, a love song to a river, and we are working on an arrangement of the song to include in the program, per Ms Wilson’s request.

We always end the program with Alys Burgard’s Flying Feet, the story of the time a tiny Irish village seeks a dance teacher. When two excellent dancers both arrive to apply for the job, the only solution is a dance competition, right? Right! We have learned that if we stand up for this tune, everyone does, and we all dance to Irish Washerwoman.


After the program, we always take a few minutes to discuss the instruments with the kids.

Book Review: The Sea Monster by Chris Wormell

It’s always interesting to see what sort of children’s story awaits beneath a “monster” title.

When my firstborn was just discovering books, he had a penchant for monsters, and I’m pretty certain we looked at every book published for children with a monster theme or image. Favorites included Mercer Mayer’s There’s a Nightmare in My Closet, Doug Cushman’s Not Counting Monsters, and even The Berenstain Bears and the Green-Eyed Monster just to see Papa Bear turn green.  When I spotted Chris Wormell’s The Sea Monster, I had to peek inside and see what was new in monsters for children.

Chris Wormell brings his readers on a magical visit to the ocean shore, in the company of a little boy, his faithful dog, an old man, and a mysterious sea creature who is a little bit of all these things. While there is acknowledged danger — the boy is adrift on the ocean, far from shore —  it is never a frightening or threatening situation that would make a young reader uncomfortable with the story. By the time the danger is realized, the rescue is already underway.  Wormell is never saccharine or heavy-handed in telling the story; he trusts his illustrations to explain what he leaves unsaid.

The result is a magical story, told quietly, so that we might hear the lapping of gentle waves, the cries of seagulls, and the distant barking of a little boy’s dog.  Richly colored illustrations provide a sense of immensity: the vastness of the sea, the sheer height of the cliffs, and the mystery of love, in the form of an ancient monster.

The Sea Monster
Chris Wormell
Published 2005 by Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 0224070258

Book Review: Marcia Williams’s retelling of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

More than six hundred years ago, Geoffrey Chaucer commenced the writing of his Canterbury Tales.  The work was never finished: of the 30 pilgrims, each was to tell two tales, to help pass the time on the journey to Canterbury and back, but today we have only the unfinished fragments in countless interpretations and translations.

Marcia Williams took on the awesome challenge of retelling Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for a new generation of younger readers.  Referring (with credit given on the copyright page) to Dr. Lesley A. Coote’s student-friendly edition as the basis for Williams’ own text, the stories are told in modern English with snippets of the original text provided in the illustrations, in word bubbles from the characters, where their context makes them less alien and more charming.

A particularly endearing feature of Williams’ book is the running commentary of characters in the margin illustrations.  Little birds discuss the actions of characters in the Knight’s tale, while squirrels and owls listen in on the Miller’s tale, and goofy fairies flit alongside the Wife of Bath’s story.  These margin dialogues provide a modern day connection and discussion points for adults who share this book with children, or for older children to discuss the stories together.

The medieval font chosen for the copyright page information particularly charmed me.  It’s always a delight when publishers remember that a few of us have to read that page, too.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
retold by Marcia Williams.
Cambridge, Mass. : Candlewick Press, c2007.
ISBN 9780763631970.

Book Review: Stick by Steve Breen

Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Steve Breen has created one of the most charming, delightful frog adventures since Mercer Mayer’s series featuring the Boy and His Frog.

In Stick, we meet an independent young frog who decides to catch lunch on his own.  Unfortunately, his aim is a little off and instead of a sweet little mosquito, he finds himself attached to a powerhouse dragonfly.  Off they go on a series of hilarious adventures with priceless, perfect visual jokes.

Not one image is wasted: every detail is involved in the storytelling, which promises that little readers will not soon tire of exploring this book — there is always some delightful new detail to discover.

The text is minimal, since the perfection of the illustrations leaves little needed.  By far, the quality of the illustrations is superior to many books geared to youngsters, which guarantees that anyone who picks up this book will enjoy it thoroughly, regardless of age.
written and illustrated by Steve Breen
New York : Dial Books For Young Readers, 2006.
ISBN 9780803731240.

Book Review: Sergio Ruzzier’s The Room of Wonders

Pius Pelosi, the rat and hero of The Room of Wonders, collects many delightful things he discovers in the course of his daily routine:  shiny keys, leaves, feathers, driftwood, and “shiny bits of glass shaped and smoothed by the ocean.”

Pius’s friends love to come by to admire his delightful collection, on display in his Room of Wonders.  They love the beauty of some objects, the whimsical shapes, and even the stories Pius can tell about so many of these found objects.  If there is no story to tell, sometimes the item can inspire Pius to make up a clever tale.

Among the countless treasures in Pius’ collection, however, there is a small, grey, entirely unremarkable pebble.  Of all the amazing wonders in Pius’s storeroom, this grey pebble is an outstanding misfit.  Its only feature, its only claim to importance, is that it was the very first item Pius ever collected.  He cannot explain to anyone the importance of this one pebble or why it holds a place among so many treasures.  It has no interesting story about discovery or location, nor can Pius invent a story on its behalf.

Eventually, outshone by the magnificence of everything else in the Room of Wonders, the pebble loses its glamour even in Pius’s eyes, and he tosses it into the river.  But soon thereafter, every other treasure in the room of wonders becomes equally disinteresting.  Item after item is given away or discarded, until the room is empty… and so is Pius’s life.

Pius spends his days in a now-wonderless room, and on his daily routine he no longer spots the treasures that might once have caught his eye.  Something is missing, not just around Pius, but within him as well… until the day a small, unremarkable pebble catches his eye.  It reminds him of his old one, and he begins once again to wonder:  where did it come from?  How did it get here?  And this pebble comes home with Pius.

In Pius, Ruzzier has created a sweetly familiar character in which we can see both parent and child in shared delight at the world around them.  Through the eyes of children, every thing appears new and marvelous, and all things are free from the dullness of familiarity.  Throughout our lives, we fill our own Rooms of Wonder without realizing it.  In fact, I have my very own rock collection, scattered throughout my house on windowsills, in bowls, and clustered under my computer monitor.  And every so-often, as I dust them off, I think to myself, “Why on earth am I keeping this?”

The Room of Wonders holds the answer.  Ruzzier’s soft color drawings illuminate and charmingly express this story that quietly blossoms inside each reader, as we come to realize that the wonder was really never in the room, but within Pius’s soul.

The Room of Wonders

Author: Sergio Ruzzier
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
First edition, ©2006
ISBN: 0374363439