How Cool Is This?

My kids have been captivated by Sherlock Holmes since the first time they listened to Jim Weiss’s Sherlock Holmes for Children storytelling CD. As I recall, Beanie was barely three at the time, and it took me forever to figure out what the heck she meant by the “Madawin Tone” she was always talking about. (She was, of course, referring to the famous Mazarin Stone.) Jane’s interest was piqued by the CDs, and she has enjoyed several of the Holmes stories in the original during the past couple of years.

I was therefore delighted to hear about this little nugget from Stanford University:

Welcome to a new year in Stanford’s ongoing rediscovery of the 19th century. In 2006, we will rerelease a collection of Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of Sherlock Holmes, just as they were originally printed and illustrated in The Strand Magazine. We hope you’ll join us as we continue to discover the riches of Stanford Library’s Special Collections!


Over 12 weeks from January through April 2006, Stanford will be republishing, free of charge, two early Holmes stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Speckled Band”; the nine-part novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles; and the famous “last” encounter between Holmes and Moriarty, “The Final Problem.” If you would like to receive paper facsimiles of the original magazine releases, you may sign up on our website. If you would prefer to download the facsimile as a pdf from the website, each installment will be available on successive Fridays. If you will be using the pdf files, please provide us with your email address on the subscription page, and we will send you an email every Friday, alerting you that the week’s issue is available to download.

I’ve signed us up for the paper version. Sounds like lots of fun.

Tip credit: Julie D. of Schooling with Joy

Beanie’s Christmas List

• A pink teddy bear

(So far, so good. But she’s just warming up.)

• A medium-sized ball that is purple with pink and blue diamonds.

(Um, honey, I’m not sure bouncy balls come in argyle.)

• A pinwheel

(Aha! Now we’re talking. THIS I can handle. Little do I know she’s just putting me off my guard for the final blow…)

• A toy shark—rainbow-colored. Any TYPE of shark, I’m told—”you know, like hammerhead or the other kinds.”

(Oh, sure. What matters species when it’s got rainbow-colored skin? Sure, kid, I’ll get right on that.)

This Week’s Clippings File

Just a couple of links today:

• An article on universal preschool by Diane Flynn Keith

• A call for Homeschooling Blog Awards nominations at Spunky’s site

• A request for posts on unschooling for the Carnival of Unschooling. From their site:

What is a carnival? A collection of excellent and compelling blog posts on a particular topic. In this case, unschooling. I realize there will be a bit of an overlap, but unschooling and how it works here in the real world needs more publicity.

So, please send links to interesting posts on unschooling from the past month or so. We’ll consider anything from October 1st onwards. It can be written by you or someone else. You have until the end of the month, November 30th, to get them in and we’ll post them as soon as possible after that, definitely by the following Monday.

Whoops, I guess that’s not a couple, it’s a few.

Drawing It Out

Growing up, I always wished I knew how to draw. I envied people who could draw a horse that looked like a real horse, or a face with contours and shading and expression, a real human face, not a circle with three dots and an arc. It seemed a rare and magical ability possessed by only the lucky few—maybe one kid in my class each year, and Artists in Museums. Later it turned out my sister was one of the Lucky Few. Whatever *it* was, she had it. Most of us didn’t.

Then, my senior year in college, I took a costume design class which, much to my surprise, began with a full six weeks spent not on costuming, but rather on drawing. Our one required book for the course was Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which turned out to be the best book I ever bought in a college bookstore. Because thanks to it, I discovered something astonishing.

Anyone can learn to draw. If you can write your name, you can draw. Really, truly. I don’t mean that anyone can be an artist, just as not everyone who learns to properly construct a sentence can write poetry. But basic drawing skills are not that elusive gift bestowed by fairies at your christening that I once thought they were.

About three weeks—only three weeks!—into our drawing lessons in that costume class, I drew a shoe that really, truly looked like a shoe. Contours and shading and everything. When I finished, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It wasn’t great art, mind you. But there—the frayed shoelaces, the worn place on the toe—it really was my shoe and if you held the picture in front of a pile of shoes, you could pick out the one I’d drawn.

This doesn’t mean I became a stunning visual artist. That particular gift isn’t mine. But if I want to draw a tree—and IF I have plenty of time with no interruptions to concentration, which is a mighty big if—I can draw a darn good tree. Good enough to please me, at least. And I practiced alligators and elephants to please my kids. It’s always handy to be able to whip out an alligator on demand. During the months young Jane spent in the hospital, years ago, I discovered to my great surprise that I had an undeserved reputation for being a good artist—solely because, due to Jane’s frequent requests, I’d perfected a quick giraffe sketch that apparently impressed the playroom attendants. They didn’t realize it was the ONLY thing I could sketch quickly and cleverly. I set them straight when they asked me to help draw a mural on the clinic wall. It was an outer-space mural, so I told them I was afraid I wouldn’t be much help. No giraffes in space, you know.

Anyway, the reason I’m posting about this today is because we’ve got a holiday weekend coming up, and it’s very likely there’s going to be a stretch of time somewhere when everyone is lazing around, and you’ll have obliging grandparents or uncles on hand to entertain the kids, and if you’re like me and always wished you could draw, well, you should. That’s all. Check out the Betty Edwards book, or Drawing With Children: A Creative Method for Adult Beginners, Too by Mona Brooke, and give it a try. Remind yourself: if I can write my name, I can draw a respectable shoe. Or giraffe. Or whatever.


These are some drawing books my kids are nuts about. The Usborne ones NEVER stay on the shelf; someone is always using one, it seems. They’re also fond of the Draw Write Now series, but we’ve always ignored the Write part. They just like the step-by-step instructions for drawing things like the Statue of Liberty and buffalo. (We only have a couple of them, but I’m assuming the others are just as good.)

I Can Draw Animals

I Can Draw People

I Can Crayon

On The Farm, Kids & Critters, Storybook Characters (Draw Write Now, Book 1)

Christopher Columbus, Autumn Harvest, The Weather (Draw Write Now, Book 2)

Native Americans, North America, The Pilgrims (Draw Write Now, Book 3)

The Polar Regions, The Arctic, The Antarctic (Draw Write Now, Book 4)

The United States, From Sea to Sea, Moving Forward (Draw Write Now, Book 5)

Animals & Habitats — On Land, Ponds & Rivers, Oceans (Draw Write Now, Book 6)

Animals of the World, Part 1: Tropical Forests, Northern Forests, Forests Down Under (Draw Write Now, Book 7)

Animals of the World, Part 2: Savannas, Grasslands, Mountains and Deserts (Draw Write Now, Book 8)

Mark Kistler’s Draw Squad

And these are two books that I’ve been using to improve my own skills a little…I especially love the snippets of advice Claire Walker Leslie gives for drawing trees, plants, birds, etc. She has a knack for pointing out just the right way to approach the tricky bits that don’t come naturally to me, like how to make a tree branch look like it’s really curving out of a trunk.

Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You

The Usborne Complete Book of Drawing

The Gift that Keeps on Giving (Back to Me)

The first Christmas Scott and I were married, I gave him an electric guitar. Now, this may seem like a ridiculously impractical present to give a guy who lived in a small apartment above elderly, amiable-but-strict landlords. But I knew he’d always wanted to play the guitar (he was already a fantastic drummer), and it was our first Christmas as man and wife, and we were expecting our first baby, and I wanted to give him something really, really special. But an electric guitar, you’re saying. Ah, but the thing is: you don’t always have to plug it in. And from my exhaustive research (which consisted of a phone call to Scott’s buddy Chris, the guy who’d played lead guitar in Scott’s college band), I knew that an electric guitar is both easier to learn on (you don’t have to press down on the strings as hard) and—when not plugged into the amplifier—actually quieter than an acoustic.

So I had my plan. An electric guitar. Ah, but what kind? Kids’ books, I knew something about. Houseplants, I knew. If you needed to know what kind of gesneriad would thrive best in your kitchen, I was your girl. But what I knew about electric guitars could fit on the leaf of an Aeschynanthus lobbianus. A bit of sleuthing was in order. Fortunately I had that expert knowledge of children’s literature to call upon. What would Nancy Drew have done? Aha, she’d catch Ned reading a Musician magazine and casually pump him for information. Gee, that’s a swell one! Which one do you like? From this brilliantly excuted detective work I discovered three important things: 1) any self-respecting would-be guitarist would want the kind of guitar favored by Eric Clapton; 2) Eric Clapton’s favorite guitar was a black Fender Stratocaster with a white pick guard (whatever a pick guard was); and 3) a real Stratocaster was stratospherically out of my price range.

What to do, what to do. When flummoxed, Nancy would hash it out with George. Aha! Another call to Chris-the-supercool-guitar-player was in order. Unlike George, Chris actually had some useful information for me. I could buy a far-less-expensive Stratocaster knockoff (also made by Fender, of course) called a Squire. He even told me, bless him, exactly where in Manhattan to go for the right model and the best deal. The reasonable price included an amplifier with which Scott could annoy his mother by plugging in and cranking up to 11 on our next visit to his parents’ home. I’m such a good wife.

So one hellishly frigid December evening I trekked downtown to the Big Intimidating Manhattan Music Store and marched my pregnant self to the counter to ask for a black Squire with amplifier please. Chris (bless him!!) had even called ahead to ensure that the proper color combo was in stock. The manager had told him, and I quote (almost): “Yeah, we got a freakin’ million of ’em.” Perfect. But oh no! The nice if slightly condescending sales clerk informed me that they only had all-white Squires. The black model was sold out. “But, but,” I stammered, and then I remembered that Nancy Drew would never stumble timidly over her words in a situation like this. “But,” I said in a firm, forceful, never-been-intimidated-a-day-in-my-life tone, “the guy on the phone this afternoon said you had a freakin’ million of them.”

Condescending Sales Clerk Guy’s eyebrows raised. “Hold on, ma’am,” he murmured, picking up a phone. “I’ll check with the stockroom.” Ma’am! He’d called me ma’am!! Victory was mine! At age just-turned-twenty-five, I looked all of sixteen—and not exactly an imposing sixteen, either. (I was beginning to look like an undeniably pregnant sixteen at that point, and I was growing accustomed to seeing people on the subway make a little triangle of glances when they looked my way: belly to face to left hand. Well, at least the boy had the decency to marry her, their slight head-nods seemed to say before they studiously looked anywhere but at me for the rest of the trip. They never offered me a seat, either. I guess they figured I’d made my bed and could darn well stand in it. I toyed with the idea of making myself a maternity top that said, “I’m 25, married, and I have a master’s degree!” but that notion seemed to shoot its own proclamation of maturity in the foot, so I never followed up on it.)

Anyway, back to No-Longer-Condescending Sales Clerk Guy. His phone call to the stock room brought bad news. They had had a bunch in stock, but a sale ad in the paper that morning had wiped them out. Only the all-white ones left. No more black ones in stock before Christmas, but if the guy I was giving it to wanted to bring it back in January and exchange it, no problem.

Ah well, it would have to do. I bought the white guitar (with free amp) and stood at the door of the shop with my two very very large parcels, wondering for the first time how I was going to get this equipment home to Queens. During rush hour. In the—oh no, it couldn’t be true—slight rain that had begun to fall. Make that sleet. Of course. The odds of my getting a cab were about as great as the odds of my being able to wrap this guitar in the leaves of the afore-mentioned Aeschynanthus lobbianus. Neither was there the remotest possibility of my spaghetti-arms having the fortitude to lug these giant boxes home from the subway—assuming I could even MAKE it to the subway, which, major wimp that I was (and remain) appeared doubtful. What now? It was at this crucial moment that I discovered Nancy Drew had deserted me. I have never forgiven her for it.

Nothing to be done but stand on a streetcorner and pray, then. It took me ten excruciating minutes to drag myself and my packages to an uptown street, where the cabs would be heading in the right direction to get me home. And then I stood there and prayed with all my might. And watched cab after cab zoom by. Finally, finally, about the time frostbite was settling into the tip of my nose, I spotted a cab whose rooftop sign indicated it was not carrying a passenger. Recklessly I left my giant boxes sitting on the curb and I stepped into the street, waving a frozen arm. The cab pulled over. I exhausted the last of my feeble strength in shoving the guitar and amp boxes into the backseat, and wearily, gratefully, I climbed in.

“Astoria,” I told the driver as he pulled away from the curb. Abruptly he pulled back over to the curb and stopped the car.

“Sorry, miss,” he told me (the imposing Ma’am having abandoned me along with that traitor, Nancy Drew). “I don’t go to Queens.”

“What do you mean, you don’t go to Queens? It’s part of New York City! New York City cabs go anywhere in New York City!”

“Sorry, miss. If I go to Queens, I’ll never get a fare back. I lose too much work that way, you see?” His voice was kind, his eyes gentle and apologetic, conveying his deep regret at having to put the needs of his family above my own.

On a warmer night, I might have been swayed by sympathy. It was, after all, only my second year in New York. I wasn’t a hardened city girl yet. And frankly, with a wimpy constitution like mine, there wasn’t much chance of my becoming one.

The forceful Ma’am-voice had worked to good effect on Sales Clerk Guy (sort of). Summoning it once more, I said sternly, “I’m sorry, but you have to take me to Queens. It’s the law.” At least, I was pretty sure it might be the law. Maybe.

The cabbie shrugged. “No, miss. I’m very sorry.”

Miss? Miss??? That was MA’AM talking to you, buster, and don’t you forget it! Um, except he appeared not to have noticed Ma’am in the first place. Drat it, and I’d had such high hopes for her. Another disappointment, just like that fair-weather friend, Nancy Drew.

Fine. If he wanted a Miss, he’d get a Miss. Miss, in fact, came very naturally to me. Miss was tired and hungry and cold and also beginning to worry that it was getting pretty late and her beloved would be heading home from the office soon, and what if he got there first and she didn’t have time to hide the presents? At this critical point, Miss did the only thing she could do. She burst into tears.

“You have to take me,” I sobbed. “I’m pregnant!”

There. I admit it. I played the pregnancy card—AND I cried—and I’m not proud of it, but it did get me home. The cabbie even carried my boxes to the front stoop for me, bless him.

Triumphantly (though still sniffling a bit) I stashed the packages in our neighbor’s apartment—utterly unaware that they were already hiding Scott’s present to me.

Which turned out to be, believe it or not, an electric keyboard. Because he knew I’d always wanted to play piano. Yes, it was our own little everything-but-the-pathos O. Henry-style Christmas, and it was beautiful. He was surprised, I was surprised, we were both thrilled with our gifts and quite proud of our spousal astuteness. In the months that followed, each of us devoted hours to the pursuit of our respective instruments. Then spring came, and I had the baby, and that was pretty much the end of my piano career. I play a mean “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” though.

Scott, on the other hand, continued to hunker down with that guitar (we did indeed exchange the blah white one for the ultra-cool black model) every night for the next, oh, what’s it been now, eleven years? And he got good. Really really good. One guitarist I know told me Scott is “the rhythm guitarist of his dreams.” It’s that drummer training, you know. Once in a very great while he even plugs into the amp. I can’t tell you how he sounds when plugged in, because I head for the hills at the mere on-click of the amplifier. Not a girl for loud noise am I. I mean loud MUSIC. Not noise.

Definitely not noise. When he plays for us of an evening while I’m feeding the kids or, say, nursing a baby, or resting my pregnant-once-again bones beside the fire and pretending I know how to knit, I know without a doubt that I am the luckiest woman alive. I thought I was giving him this great present all those years ago. I didn’t know I was giving myself a much bigger gift. A man who fills his home with music is a treasure worth far, far more than even a real Fender Stratocaster—worth more than Eric Clapton’s old “Blackie,” autographed and everything. Wonderboy stands at his daddy’s knee, staring up in open-mouthed delight at sounds that even he can hear. Our three girls dance, whirling like winged maple seeds on the wind. He plays the songs I love to sing and never winces when I butcher the lyrics.

I had no idea, all those years ago, that what I struggled to carry to that Manhattan streetcorner wasn’t just a pretty cool gift for my husband—it was the soundtrack of our marriage, the timbre of our lives to come.

What a Nice Surprise to Wake Up To

Irene over on Real Learning just posted a link to a happy find she made—a Christmas book by one of my all-time favorite authors, Maud Hart Lovelace. We are HUGE Betsy-Tacy fans in this house; Betsy is as dominant a role model as Anne Shirley and, yes, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her merry, sometimes quixotic nature; her ability to laugh at her own mistakes (of which there are many); her passion for writing; her loyalty to friends; her stubbornness; her tendency to put her foot in her mouth—all of these qualities bring the ring of truth to the character of Betsy Ray, and since the Betsy books are semi-autobiographical, that’s no surprise. Maud was writing in a frank and affectionate way about her own childhood, and the result is a series of books that live and breathe.

So to discover a Maud Hart Lovelace story I haven’t read yet is a wonderful treat! It’s called The Trees Kneel at Christmas, and Irene describes it as “a beautiful story about a Catholic Lebanese family living in Brooklyn in 1950 or so.” I can’t wait to track it down! Thanks for making my day, Irene.

The Betsy-Tacy Books:
Betsy-Tacy and Tib
Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill
Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown
Heaven to Betsy
Betsy in Spite of Herself
Betsy Was a Junior
Betsy and Joe
Betsy and the Great World
Betsy’s Wedding

And more books set in Deep Valley:
Emily of Deep Valley (my absolute favorite MHL book)
Carney’s House Party
Winona’s Pony Cart

related links:
The Betsy-Tacy Society
Maud Hart Lovelace Society