Archive for July, 2015

Emily’s Library, Part 9: 14 More Books for Young Readers

Welcome to another installment in my attempts to build the perfect children’s library for my niece and, in so doing, guide others to great books for young people. Indeed, this post is being published as I depart to visit Emily — carrying three of the books mentioned below! (See if you can guess which three.)

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail, One Word from Sophia (2015)

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail’s One Word from Sophia (2015)Averbeck and Ismail‘s book has a nice sense of humor, and a clever protagonist who loves words. What? That’s not enough for you? OK, well, it’s also a great example of what I call incidental diversity: it features characters of color, but race is not explicitly part of the story. (Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day is the classic example of this type of book.) Indeed, the protagonist’s family might be all of African descent; or there might be some of African descent and others of European descent. It’s not clear, and it’s not important to the story. I’m thinking that Emily will like the book because it has a smart and determined heroine, fun wordplay, and good jokes. If you need more reasons to check this book out, take a look at my blog post devoted to One Word from Sophia.

Kelly DiPucchio and Christian Robinson, Gaston (2014)

Kelly DiPuccio and Christian Robinson, Gaston (2014)Gaston does not quite seem to have his poodle sisters’ knack of behaving well, though he does his best. Then, a chance encounter with a family of bulldogs (one of whom is a poodle) makes Mrs. Poodle and Mrs. Bulldog wonder if there’s been a mix-up. A gently comic story about what it means to be part of a family, with an unexpected twist. Even better, because Robinson’s visual palette evokes classic children’s illustrators like Roger Duvoisin, the book feels like a classic from the moment you pick it up.

Marianne Dubuc, The Lion and the Bird (2014)

Marianne Dubuc, The Lion and the Bird (2014)A gentle tale given to Emily by a friend of the family — but one I would have otherwise given to her myself. It’s about making a new friend, the joys of friendship, and the sadness that accompanies the inevitability of being apart. (We cannot always be near those we love. Or, as the book says, “And so it goes. Sometimes life is like that.”) With few words and beautiful art, Dubuc’s book communicates the joy and loneliness of having and missing friends.

Michael Hall, Red: A Crayon’s Story (2015)

Michael Hall, Red: A Crayon's Story (2015)A big part of the fun of Hall‘s book is that the reader immediately knows something that the book’s characters fail to recognize. Though the main character is identified as Red, we can see that he’s just a blue crayon in a red wrapper. So, right away, readers understand that the words and the pictures contradict one another — the red wrapper does not accurately identify the crayon’s color. Of course, the metaphor is also hard to miss: superficial judgments based on labels fail to miss what’s inside a person (or crayon). But you don’t need to catch the tale’s allegorical elements to enjoy Red’s discovery that he is in fact Blue, and very good at drawing blue things, too!

Ben Hatke, Julia’s House for Lost Creatures (2014)

Ben Hatke, Julia's House for Lost Creatures (2014)The creator of the Zita the Space Girl comics directs his talents towards a new medium: Julia’s House for Lost Creatures is Ben Hatke’s first picture book. In it, independent-minded Julia — who looks to be about five but has the confidence and responsibility of someone older — sets up her home right by the sea. The house is vast. It’s cozy. It’s got knick-knacks, lots of books, and a workshop where she can make things. But it’s too quiet, and so she paints a sign, hanging it up outside the front door: “Julia’s House for Lost Creatures.” They start coming: Patched Up Kitty, a very sad troll, a mermaid, gnomes, and more! Soon, looking after all the lost creatures is wearing Julia out. So, she comes up with a plan. If learning to live and work with others is a message here, the book’s appeals reside in the quirky, spacious old house, the variety of creatures (each of whom has a distinct personality), and seeing resourceful Julia in charge of them all.

For more, including original sketches, see Jules Danielson’s post on the book.

Tove Jansson, Moomin’s Desert Island (1955/2013)

Tove Jansson, Moomin’s Desert Island (1955/2013)Drawn & Quarterly has been republishing Jansson’s Moomin comic strips in two forms: (1) large black-and-white books, each of which includes several narratives; (2) small, single-narrative color books. (They’ve added the color to Jansson’s original strips.) The latter are ideal to introduce young readers to Jansson and to comics in general: single story, nicely colored, and, well… Moomins! So, I’ve been giving these smaller books to Emily. Some of these narratives appear — in a different version — in Jansson’s novels. Others do not. This is one of the latter.  Read an excerpt at the publisher’s site (click on the word “excerpt”).

Tove Jansson, Moomin and the Sea (1957/2013)

Tove Jansson, Moomin and the Sea (1957/2013)This is an early and quite different version of the events narrated in Jansson’s novel Moominpappa at Sea (1966). Indeed, for those interested in the way that Jansson’s Moomin universe evolved, a comparison between this work and the (considerably darker) Moominpappa at Sea would be interesting. For young people, though, just enjoy this installment in the Moomins’ ongoing quest to live life on their own terms.  Read an excerpt at the publisher’s site (click on the word “excerpt”).

If you’d like to learn more about the Moomins, you might use my earlier blog post on them as a starting point. If you’re already a Moomin fan, then I highly recommend Boel Westin’s magnificent biography Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words (2014).

Jean Merrill and Ronni Solbert, The Elephant Who Liked to Smash Small Cars (1967)

Jean Merrill and Ronni Solbert, The Elephant Who Liked to Smash Small Cars (1967)To read this as a didactic story about not destroying others’ property is to miss all the fun. Sure, by the end of the book, the elephant does learn not to smash small cars. So, there is an appropriate ”lesson” here. But the joy is in the smashing. He smashes small cars and then sings about it:

Smashing cars! Smashing cars!

How I love to smash small cars!

Merrill — author of the classic children’s novel, The Pushcart War, which you should also read — even provides music for the song. Solbert’s crayon-and-ink artwork sets the playful tone for this tale of destruction and (ultimately, in the final few pages) reform. It’s a silly, joyous tale that offers an official advisory against smashing things, even as it embraces the impish impulse to destroy.

Sergio Ruzzier, A Letter for Leo (2014)

Sergio Ruzzier, A Letter for Leo (2014)Like Dubuc’s The Lion and the Bird, Sergio Ruzzier’s book is about two friends, one of whom is earthbound and the other of whom is only temporarily flightless. That is, Leo — protagonist, mailman, weasel (but the cute kind of weasel) — spends his days delivering mail, punctuated by short breaks to play bocce or to chat with friends. He never receives any mail himself, until he happens upon a bird, stuck in a mailbox and stranded far away from his flock. Like Groot, the bird only says one word — “Cheep” — but (also like Groot) his face tells us enough about what he wants or feels. Ruzzier’s faces give even his minor characters with a real sense of personality. There’s the joyous, loopy expression on the dog’s face, as Leo delivers a package that can only be a giant bone; and the kind, open face of the hen who pours Leo a cup of tea. And then there’s the fact that Leo plays bocce — most children probably don’t know the sport, but its specificity makes Leo that much more real. Little details like these make the book a delight to read and re-read. The story of Leo and Cheep is a warm tale of a friendship that transcends differences in language and species.

For original sketches and an interview, check out Jules Danielson’ post on the book.

Birgitta Sif, Frances Dean Who Loved to Dance and Dance (2014)

Birgitta Sif, Frances Dean Who Loved to Dance and Dance (2014)I bought both of these Birgitta Sif books because I noticed that, on occasion, Emily has exhibited some shyness. I would not say that shyness is a dominant character trait, but it reminded me of my own childhood shyness, and how important it is for young people to know that it’s OK to feel shy. All of us feel shy sometimes. (Don’t we?) Even better, Sif’s work is wonderful — whether or not you’re afflicted by shyness. When no one is watching, Frances Dean dances in a joyous reverie, as she listens to the birds sing. However, “when people were around, all she could feel were their eyes on her” — even though the artwork shows people minding their own business, reading a book, talking the dogs for a walk, playing with a toy sailboat. (Each of Sif’s characters seems to have her or his own inner life; even individual birds have different personalities.) The gap between Frances’ awareness and Sif’s art hints at a way past acute self-consciousness: other people are paying less attention to you than you think. By the book’s conclusion, Frances dances. And some of the other characters dance with her, too.

Birgitta Sif, Oliver (2012)

Birgitta Sif, Oliver (2012)The title character of Sif’s first book prefers the company of his imagination to that of other children. He reads, creates art, plays piano for his stuffed animals, invents his own (solo) version of tennis, and has a tendency to bring his stuffed animals with him. If you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice that, in many of Sif’s two-page spreads is a girl, who also enjoys reading and tends to travel while carrying her stuffed-animal friend in the crook of her right arm. Sif handles this subtly; all the characters in these spreads are doing their own thing. So, the similarities between this girl and Oliver could easily be overlooked. However, by the book’s end, the two — her name is Olivia — have discovered one another, and a friendship has begun.

For both of these books, a merry tip of the hat to Jules Danielson’s Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog, where you can read an interview with Sif (as well as posts on other Sif books).

Beatrice Schenck de Regniers and Maurice Sendak, What Can You Do with a Shoe? (1955)

Beatrice Schenck de Regniers and Maurice Sendak, What Can You Do with a Shoe? (1955)Clearly inspired by Ruth Krauss’s books of the early 1950s, What Can You Do with a Shoe? rises above other Krauss imitators via art from Krauss’s frequent collaborator, Maurice Sendak. I don’t know the story of the book’s creation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Schenck de Regniers also drew from her observations of children (as Krauss did). I chose it as a gift for Emily because I notice that she enjoys experimenting, combining clothes in novel ways, or using a household item in a way that it wasn’t intended. Featuring the gently mischievous, very real children of Sendak’s imagination, What Can You Do with a Shoe? honors a child’s impulse to experiment. And that’s good!

Frank Tashlin, The Bear That Wasn’t (1946)

Frank Tashlin, The Bear That Wasn’t (1946)You probably know Tashlin for his animated cartoons (featuring Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny) or his films (The Girl Can’t Help It), but he also wrote several children’s books: The World That Isn’t (1951), The Possum That Didn’t (1950), and The Bear That Wasn’t (1946). His former colleague Chuck Jones also created an animated adaptation of this one. The story’s premise? While a bear hibernates, men build a factory above his cave. When he awakens, the employees expect him to be working. He insists that he’s a bear; they don’t believe him. It’s a satire of conformity, and the absurdity of trying to be anything other than who you are. I mean, hey, if you’re a bear, you’re a bear!

Rowboat Watkins, Rude Cakes (2015)

Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)Rowboat Watkins‘ Rude Cakes is my favorite picture book of 2015. It has sentient pastry, cyclopses, and a delightfully off-kilter sense of humor. It’s classic in the way that Arnold Lobel or James Marshall are classic. I like the book so much that I wrote an entire blog post about it. Read the post and then, more importantly, read the book.

That’s all for now. There will be more “Emily’s Library” installments in the future! Meanwhile, here (below) are the previous posts in this series, and other links that’ll help you find good books for young people.

Related posts on Nine Kinds of Pie:

Looking for other great children’s books?  Try these blogs and other websites:

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Meter Matters: Better No Seuss Than Faux Seuss

Dr. Seuss, What Pet Should I Get? (2015)The “new” Seuss book (due out tomorrow) is attracting a lot of notice — some of it, unfortunately, in verse.  It is possible to write great ersatz Seuss.  But it’s not easy. For faux Seuss, you must know Seuss.  It helps, too, if you’re a poet.

Michiko Kakutani’s metrical mess offers an excellent caution to aspiring Seussifiers. Though doubtless intended as a fond tribute, it betrays little awareness of Seussian poetics or, for that matter, of poetry in general.  Seuss typically wrote in anapestic tetrameter, sometimes introducing a pair of anapestic feet with an iamb.  For those unfamiliar with these terms, an iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. An anapest is two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable; tetrameter means that this pattern repeats four times in one line. If you need to hear an example in your head and cannot recall a Seuss lyric, then think of a limerick. Limericks typically use anapestic trimeter (three anapests per line) for the first, second, and fifth lines.  Edward Lear is the limerick’s most famous purveyor, but the form strongly influenced Seuss’s work, too. Those anapests give Seuss’s verse its particular swing.

Kakutani‘s verse, on the other hand, has no regular metrical pattern.  It seems to switch between iambs and anapests at random.  And yet, I keep seeing her poem (I use the term “poem” loosely) described as “Seussian.”  It isn’t.

Writing fake Seuss is a challenge, but not impossible. The late David Rakoff’s “Samsa and Seuss” does it brilliantly. It imagines an epistolary exchange between Gregor Samsa (of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”) and Dr. Seuss.  It aired on This American Life exactly three years ago, read by Jonathan Goldstein (as Samsa) and Rakoff (as Seuss). It runs 13 minutes. I’ve embedded the audio below. Or click here for a link to the whole show.


As you enjoy the new Seuss (or do not),

Remember that rhythm that can’t be forgot.

Anapestic’s the metric. It swings! And it sings!

It dances and shimmies. It gives words their wings.

If in versification you are not a leader,

You’ll be better off if you don’t mess with meter.

Related reading:

Hat tip to Jonathan Gorbach for “Samsa and Seuss.”  An additional tip of the red-and-white-striped topper to Joseph Thomas for catching an error in the initial version of this post, and to Richard Flynn for correcting that correction.

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Upgrade Vortex

abstract black-and-white vortex

upgrade vortex, n. The hidden temporal, cognitive, and/or financial costs of getting a new electronic device (tablet, smart phone, computer, etc.).

We need a term to describe the experience of obtaining a new technological item, and then the (guaranteed but never mentioned) troubleshooting and cost that inevitably follows. I propose “upgrade vortex” — upgrade both because this is the catalyst that precipitates the condition (“I need to upgrade my smartphone”) and because spending time in this vortex is an inevitable part of getting the upgrade. I use the word vortex because the problems and tasks whirl around you, threaten to engulf you, but you can ultimately escape them. For example, with the latest iteration of your smart phone, you now need to buy a (more expensive) new plan. Or, you cannot simply transfer your old data and apps to the new tablet because first the new tablet’s system must itself be updated; so, set it up as a new tablet, install the update, and then move your old tablet’s information over. Or the set-up instructions turn out not to work, and so you end up troubleshooting its problems yourself, either via help discussion forums, or the company’s help line.  Or you realize you’ve been sent a dud, and need to return it and try again.*  And, quite possibly, all of the above. But, eventually, you leave the vortex and enjoy your new piece of technology. Hooray!

Until it’s time to upgrade again.  Then,… you re-enter the upgrade vortex.


* If anyone loved Logitech’s ultra-thin keyboard for the iPad (as I did), let me warn you against getting a Logitech ultra-thin keyboard for the iPad 2 Air… because it doesn’t work.

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Songs to Learn and Sing: Five Great Tunes for Small People

Tony Schwartz, Millions of MusiciansI think music is everything. Without music, I don’t think there’d be life; there would be no world left, then. Everybody’d be downhearted. Don’t you think so?

— unidentified plumber, on opening track of Tony Schwartz’s Millions of Musicians (1956)

Whether you have young people in your life or simply like light-hearted music, here are five songs to learn and sing. For each, I’m providing lyrics, chords, a video of me performing the song, and audio of an artist with actual musical talent performing the song. (The chords and lyrics are my transcriptions. Lower-case letter indicates minor; upper-case indicates major.) With apologies for my manifest deficiencies as a performer (yes, yes, I do plan to keep my day job), here are five fun songs, starting with the easiest to play & ending with the most challenging.

Wee Hairy Beasties, Animal Crackers (2006)1. “A Newt Called Tiny.” Not only does this song use a mere three chords (E, B, and A), but it’s also only about 17 seconds in length. Also, since this is simply a I-IV-V chord sequence, it’s easy to change keys (try it with F, C, B-flat, say). I love the song because it’s silly and is based on a pun. It sticks in your head, is easy to remember, and (perhaps, in part, because of its brevity) never gets annoying.  Well, not to me.

The lyrics: The chords:
Oh, I’ve got a newt called Tiny. E
I call him Tiny because he’s my newt. E                             B
I haven’t had him long. B
I found him in the pond, B
Breathing through exterior fronds. E
Oh, I’ve got a newt called Tiny. A                             E
I call him Tiny because he’s my newt. B                             E

Here’s the tune as performed in 2006 by the Wee Hairy Beasties, who are — or were, since I don’t know if they’re still active — Kelly Hogan, Jon Langford and Sally Timms (both of the Mekons), and Devil In A Woodpile.  They also wrote the song.

Moon Mullican, The Very Best of Moon Mullican2. “Make Friends.” Another three-chord song! Just to jazz it up a bit, I play a brief intro. & outro (modeled on Moon Mullican’s rendition), but you really only need the three chords.  Also, though I always think of this as a Moon Mullican song, its writer is Ed McGraw. You can find the tune on The Very Best of Moon Mullican.

It’s a fun song and excellent advice!

The lyrics: The chords:
Make friends with the rich, G
And make friends with the poor. C                            G
Make friends with the high, G
And make friends with the low. D
Even the little child, G
You ought to greet him with a smile. C                            G
While traveling through this world, G                            D
Try to make friends. D                            G
Make friends, make friends, G
Make friends, try to make friends. C                            G
While traveling through this world, G
Try to make friends. G                            D
Wear a smile, not a frown. G
And don’t you put your neighbor down. C                            G
While traveling through this world, G                            D
Try to make friends. D                            G
Sometimes you may be weak, G
And sometimes you may be strong. C                            G
Sometimes talked about, G
And sometimes treated wrong. D
But you just can’t miss G
If you just remember this: C                            G
While traveling through this world, G                            D
Try to make friends. D                            G
[Repeat CHORUS]
While traveling through this world, G                            D
Try to make friends. D                            G

I then play a brief outro and conclude on a G7 chord.

You’ll notice that, when I sing the song, I change “greet him with a smile” to “greet her with a smile.” I make the change because I like to sing this song to my niece.  One other thing: When the “make friends” lands on the D chord, I’ll add a D sus chord as a little “country” flourish.

To hear the song sung properly, here’s Moon Mullican’s recording (1963):

The Hoosier Hot Shots: promotional photo3. “From the Indies to the Andes in His Undies” is the first of two songs by the Hoosier Hot Shots. If you’ve never heard of them, well, perhaps you know Spike Jones and His City Slickers? The Hoosier Hot Shots were cutting novelty records before Spike Jones, and were a big influence on him and his City Slickers. The Hot Shots continued making records into the 1950s, but are (sadly) not as well remembered. In their heyday (the 1930s), however, they were popular. “Are you ready, Hezzie?” — spoken by Ken Trietsch to his brother Paul “Hezzie” Trietsch at the beginning of many a recording — even became a national catchphrase.

A bit more “advanced” than the previous two tunes, this one uses six chords. The song was written by Larry Royal, Billy Faber, and Ernie Burnett. Burnett also wrote the music for “My Melancholy Baby,” but I don’t know anything about Royal or Faber.

The lyrics: The chords:
From the Indies to the Andes in his undies, G               C
And he never took a shave except on Mondays. G               C
He didn’t eat a thing but chocolate Sundays. Bb              d
’Twas a very, very daring thing to do! G               C
And he carried for a charm a kippered herring G               C
To protect him when the tropic sun was glaring. G               C
Whoever met him thought he needed airing. Bb              d
’Twas a very, very daring thing to do! G               C
Otto Zilch, F
He’s the hero of the ages. C
Otto Zilch, D9
He will surely enter his-try’s pages. d                G
From the Indes to the Andes — what a mission! G               C
Stopping only now and then to do some fishin’. G               C
And he went without a copyright permission. Bb              d
’Twas a very, very daring thing to do! G               C
Otto Zilch, F
He’s the idol of the nation. C
He’ll be called D9
To the Senate for inves-ti-gation. d                G
And he carried for a spare a pair of panties, G               C
But they didn’t fit him well — they were his aunties’ G               C
In his undies from the Indes to the Andes — Bb              d
’Twas a very, very daring thing to do! G               C
’Twas a very, very daring thing to do! G               C

I play the final G and C at the 10th & 8th frets, respectively — using the 5th string as the tonic for the G, and the 6th string for the C.

Here’s the Hoosier Hot Shots’ recording (1939):

The Hoosier Hot Shots, The Definitive Hoosier Hot Shots Collection4. “I Like Bananas (Because They Have No Bones)” is another novelty tune from the Hoosier Hot Shots. Both of these songs have the distinction of being purely silly, and happily unimpeded by the racist or sexist “humor” that one sometimes encounters in songs of the period. The songwriter, Chris Yacich, is known primarily for this song.

We’ve more chords here, in part, because the song changes key after the introductory verse.

The lyrics: The music:
[Notes for intro:]
D F# G A F# E
D→E, D→E, D C# A
A A B F# E D
I don’t like to whistle D
Can’t blow saxophones E
I like bananas A
Because they have no bones. A                    D
Instrumental bridge:
||: C  a7  e7 G :||
I stood by the fruit store on the corner, C                     G7                   C
Just to watch a funny-looking man. C                     G7                   A7
And this is what he said. D9
I heard every word. D9
And I’ll tell you so you’ll understand. D9                    G
I don’t like your peaches. C
They are full of stones. D9
I like bananas G7
Because they have no bones. G7                    C
Don’t give me tomatoes. C
Can’t stand ice cream cones. D9
I like bananas G7
Because they have no bones. G7                    C
No matter where I go, C7→F
With Susie, Mae, or Anna. F                       C
I want the world to know: D9
I must have my banana. D9                    G7
Cabbages and onions C
Hurt my singing tones. D9
I like bananas G7
Because they have no bones. G7                    C

When I sing this song to my niece, I substitute “Emily” (her name) for “Susie, Mae” in the “With Susie, Mae, or Anna” line. So, please feel free to make substitutions for your audience.

Setting the standard for silliness, here’s the Hoosier Hot Shots’ recording (1935):

Fats Waller, The Middle Years, Part 2: 1938-19405. “You Meet the Nicest People in Your Dreams” is one of my all-time favorite songs. It was written by Al Hoffman, Al Goodhart, and Manny Kurtz — not famous songwriters. (Of the group, Al Hoffman might be the best known: he co-wrote “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and “On the Bumpy Road to Love.”) The first recording of “You Meet the Nicest People in Your Dreams” that I know of is by Fats Waller, though my own rendition owes more to Peter Mulvey’s cover. The song’s music and lyrics have a Tin-Pan-Alley whimsy that I find endearing. (Wack-a-nack-sack!)

The lyrics: The music:
I’ve met some very nice people,  G (w/D, 2nd string)
Some very very very nice people.  G (w/D, 2nd string)
But you meet the nicest people in your dreams.  G7               C     D
It’s funny, but it’s true.  C       e       D
That’s where I first met you.  B       gb     e
And you’re the nicest, paradise-est thing I ever knew.  A7     D7
I’ve searched this universe over G (w/D, 2nd string)
From Wack-a-nack-sack to Dover. G (w/D, 2nd string)
And now that we have met, how sweet it seems. G       G7     C
I love you more, the more I know you C       c  <– {barre chords}
Which only goes to show you G       E7
That you meet the nicest people in your dreams. A       D       G
. [bridge] G, e, a, D
[solo, accompanied by chords of first verse]
I’ve searched the universe over G (w/D, 2nd string)
From Wack-a-nack-sack to Dover. G (w/D, 2nd string)
Now that we have met, how sweet it seems. G       G7     C
I love you more, the more I know you C       c  <– {barre chords}
Which only goes to show you G       E7
That you meet the nicest people, A       D
The very, very finest people. B       E7
Oh, you meet the nicest people in your dreams. A       D       G
. Slide D (top three strings only) up to G (seventh fret, top three strings only)

N.B.: Except for bridge, e is played at fifth fret, top three strings (4 [B] – 5 [E] – 3 [D]).  Also, gb is played at seventh fret, same configuration.

Here’s Fats Waller’s version (1939), which is a delight:

That’s all. I hope you’ve enjoyed the music and, more importantly, I hope you’re inspired to try playing these songs yourself. Look at this way: if a middling amateur like me can play these, then surely you can! As I’m sure you’ve noticed, my performances all include missed notes or a similar lyrical flub. Don’t worry about getting everything perfect. Just have fun!

And, if you don’t play an instrument, then just sing along. If you’re pursuing the sing-along option, the recordings to seek are those by the Wee Hairy Beasties, Moon Mullican, the Hoosier Hot Shots, and Fats Waller (or Peter Mulvey).

P.S. I stole (er, borrowed) the title of this blog post from Echo & The Bunnymen’s hits collection, Songs to Learn and Sing (1985).

P.P.S. Try the bananas. They have no bones in them whatsoever.

P.P.P.S. I dedicate this post to my niece, Emily, who has long known the truth about bananas.

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Created Equal: The Planned Integrated Community of Village Creek, Conn.

Village Creek: Shelley Shaw and Ellen Dewhirst, 1960For America’s Independence Day, here’s a little-known chapter in the history of American anti-racism. Following the Second World War, progressives founded a dozen planned integrated communities across the country. While working on my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, I learned about one of those communities — a section of Norwalk Connecticut directly adjacent to where Johnson and Krauss lived, and where they both had several friends. Its name is Village Creek.  It was and is a fully integrated community. Here’s how it began.

In 1948, city planner Roger Willcox was looking for a home within commuting distance from New York.  He and about thirty other people, most of whom were veterans and sailors, wanted waterfront property where they could raise their families and go sailing. As Willcox recalled, when discussing the kind of community they would like to have, they decided that “one of the basic principles” was that there should be “no discrimination because of race, creed or color. The world is made of all colors, creeds, and if we’re going to build a community that we want families to grow up in, and have it recognized in the world, it ought to represent the kinds of people who live in the world.”1 In July of 1949, when they bought the land just across the creek — Village Creek — that would become the Village Creek cooperative neighborhood, they drew up a covenant prohibiting discrimination “on account of race, color, religious creed, age, sex, national origin, ancestry or physical disability.”2

Village Creek: map of lots, 1952

To ensure that it would remain an interracial community, the rules of the Village Creek Home Owners Association specified that Village Creek had to be one third black-owned and two-thirds white owned. To keep the ratio intact, anyone wishing to sell their property had to sell it back to the community. When one of the former residents told me about this ratio, I thought, “Ahh, they’re keeping it two thirds white to placate the whites in the surrounding community.” He said, no, “if we didn’t have this covenant, then if anybody wanted to sell, the real estate agents would immediately go to a black family and say you can move in here because there’s a lot of black people living here. And, of course, then it would start to become a black community. The whites would move out.” And the whole point was to keep it integrated.3

Village Creek: children playing, 1953 or 1954

At the time, integrated communities such as Village Creek were virtually unheard-of: this was the first in Connecticut, and, at the same time it was founded, across the United States veterans with similar goals were creating eleven other co-operative communities — some integrated, some simply co-operatives. Although Johnson and Krauss approved of Village Creek (and likely would have bought there if it existed when they moved to Connecticut), many Norwalk residents were suspicious. Detractors called it “Commie Creek” and claimed that the houses’ roofs were designed to guide Soviet bombers to New York City.4 But Village Creekers united against such adversity. When local banks refused to underwrite mortgages on Village Creek homes, Village Creek property owners either built their houses themselves or sought mortgages from New York City banks. When real estate agents would not show Village Creek houses to white families, Village Creekers helped sell houses by word of mouth.5

Although it was not “Commie Creek,” Village Creek did attract many progressive residents. Philip Oppenheimer, one of Village Creek’s founding members, met other founding members through their mutual support of Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign.6  Some other early residents included Doxey Wilkerson, African-American professor of Education and Daily Worker columnist; Frank Donner, civil liberties attorney, AFL-CIO lawyer, and active critic of Anti-Communist witch hunts; and Antonio Frasconi and Leona Pierce, artists who (along with their two children, Pablo and Miguel) would become friends of Johnson’s and Krauss’s.

Village Creek: Leona Pierce, Antonio Frasconi, Yolanda and Doxey Wilkerson, 1987

When Village Creek parents wanted to set up a cooperative nursery school for their children, they asked Norma Simon to help her do it. Norma — whose students inspired Krauss’s A Very Special House — and her husband Ed had moved up to the area in 1952. She had attended the Bank Street School, and by 1952 was teaching at the Thomas School in Rowayton. Norma Simon, with the help of her husband and Village Creek parents, transformed the basement of Martin and Sylvia Garment into the Community Cooperative Nursery School — which would become another place where Ruth Krauss would visit, talk with children, listen to children, make notes, and transform their ideas into children’s books. Founded on Bank Street principles, the Community Cooperative Nursery School was a progressive nursery school; enrolling the children of Village Creek, it had black children, white children, and children of many nationalities. Suspicious of its liberal founders, detractors dubbed it “the Little Red Schoolhouse.”7

In a way, this was hardly surprising, since such detractors also thought that all Village Creekers must be Communists, and even went so far as to say that the modern architecture of Village Creek houses were in fact signals to enemy planes. Norma, whose first children’s book (The Wet World) was published in 1954, soon discovered that her association with “the Little Red Schoolhouse” led to an unofficial blacklist: a PTA would invite her to speak, discover that she was director of the school, and, instead of accusing her directly, would then phone up to say, sorry, but the meeting had been cancelled, no need to come.8

That’s a bit of Village Creek’s early history, most of which had to be cut from my biography, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (2012). To the best of my knowledge, no one has written about these post-war utopian experiments. Here’s hoping someone reads this post and writes a full history, or a children’s book. 65 years after its founding, Village Creek is still going strong.


  1. Roger Willcox, telephone interview with the author, 26 Sept. 2004.
  2. Roger Willcox, “President’s Report: Welcome to our 50th Anniversary Celebration.” Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration (South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000), p. 1.
  3. Martin Garment, telephone interview with the author, 24 Sept. 2002.
  4. Philip Openheimer, [reminiscence], Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration. booklet. South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000. p. 13.
  5. Willcox, telephone interview with the author, 26 Sept. 2004.
  6. Openheimer, [reminiscence], Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration (South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000), p. 13.
  7. Norma Simon. Telephone interview with the author. 20 June 2002; Martin Garment, telephone interview, 24 Sept. 2002.
  8. Simon, telephone interview, 20 June 2002.

Further Reading

Source for photographs

Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration. booklet. South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000

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