Hard to believe my Crafty Cora will be six in September! So happy she’s still excited about fingerpainting.
As I dropped yet another unread novel into the return bin at the library this morning, it occurred to me that this column is three years old. I started it after writing for what seemed like the billionth time on some social media profile that the last book I read was a picturebook not some New York Times bestseller for grown-ups or Oprah reading club suggestion.
Time flies when you’re raising a little one. But some things don’t change that quickly. I’m still sharing the bulk of my leisure reading time with Cora. However, what we’re reading is starting to change.
For her 4th birthday, my aunt sent Cora a bunch of books including two chapter books, both by E.B. White. I read Charlotte’s Web when I was a kid. The Trumpet of the Swan was new to me. Both are great stories that demonstrate White’s love and respect for animals of all kinds. Cora listened to them intently, back-to-back. A few months later, after a journey into The Secret Garden, we’re rereading them again, simultaneously. Per Cora’s request, we read a chapter in one, then a chapter from the other. She’s picking up on similarities in the story lines and reminding me of things that will happen a few chapters down the road. It’s amazing to see how she’s soaking it all up.
Amazing and a little sad. While one of the things I advocate for in this column is that readers of all ages ought to be picturebook readers, part of me knows that as Cora gets older we’ll read fewer of these stories and spend more time with long books with few pictures. (Side note: Having the books in the house for Cora and watching how the older kids gravitate towards them is a reminder that people will read what you make available and it’s up to me to be sure all our diets continue to include a healthy serving of Caldecott contenders.)
For now, Cora still looks forward to the pages in the chapter books with illustrations.
I can remember than feeling. And not just from when I was practicing reading and a page with a picture meant fewer words I had to struggle through. The pictures helped me see the rest of the description more vividly. Some would say they were a crutch, that White’s writing doesn’t need images. I guess I think of them more like training wheels, bolstering young readers as they embark on new reading challenges, in this case, reading stories of more than 200 pages.
But they really are more than that. Garth Williams’ illustrations are well worth our attention; imaginative pen and ink drawings, my personal medium of choice for years. Click here to see some of the original drawings complete with page markings and proof numbers. (I love to see those traces of process.)
As we embark on the third volume of this column, be prepared to see a shift in some of the content. I still plan to write primarily about picturebooks, but there’s likely to be some graphic novels and illustrated chapter books in the mix as well. Regardless, I hope to keep thinking about the role books with pictures play in creative and intellectual development.
This subject of this issue of Picturebooks on the Potty – Goldie Blox and the Spinning Machine – is one part book, one part educational toy, and one part girl power battle cry. The book tells the story of a girl named Goldie who builds a machine to spin her toys modeled after the ballerina in her music box. The goal: Get more girls to see science, technology, engineering, and math as arenas for creative play, exploration, and potential careers.
To be honest, The Spinning Machine wouldn’t have made this column as a stand alone picturebook. The story just isn’t that captivating. (You can find some of my recommendations for picturebooks about kids who build stuff here and here.) What Goldie Blox does that these other books don’t, however, is provide materials for readers to build alongside Goldie. This is good news for parents as well as kids. No pressure to gather supplies and mine Pinterest for DIY project ideas. Our kids, boys included, can start tinkering immediately.
But girls are the primary audience for Goldie Blox. Combining their love of storytelling with all kids’ tendency to come up with new ways to play with their toys, the makers hope to reach millions of girls who are would-be engineers but, “just might not know it yet.” After only one reading, Crafty Cora has spent hours playing independently with the peg board, washers, axels, spools, blox, and snap-on figurines that came with the book. She has set the parts up in various configurations and made up scenarios for each scene.
Cora wasn’t the only girl around here excited about Goldie Blox. Her older sister, grandmother, aunt, and I have all spent time messing around with the kit. In this way it’s been a cross-generational activity, one which each participant approaches a bit differently, thus demonstrating that there’s more than one way to spin a sloth.
As far as I’m concerned, Goldie Blox has already earned her keep. Still, I’m eager to see what else she might inspire.
I’m not sure how many kids ask their parents, “Can I do food coloring?” Perhaps more than I can imagine. Cora has been doing food coloring since she was one. That’s when we started taking a set of translucent tupperware containers (red, yellow, and blue + one clear) into the bath to transfer colored water from one to another and watch the magic.
Last year for her birthday, we filled squirt guns with colors and she and her “friends” made some collaborative paintings (see Paint by Squirt Gun).
This summer, after our freezer was accidentally defrosted and refrozen by our very well meaning dog sitters, we harvested a giant clump of ice and got busy pouring with salt food colored water on it. Thanks again Tinkerlab for a great invitation!
These were all exciting experiences that provided us both “permission to play.” But the fun really began for me this weekend when Cora asked for food coloring and made her own choices about what to do with it. Her actions echoed those from the past, but she was the master of ceremonies, determining the tools she needed and the order of events. Here’s a quick recap.
I was busy for hours on end making sauces and pressure canning them so Cora was getting into just about every nook and cranny of the kitchen trying to keep herself occupied. She eventually stumbled on a stack of tiny blue plastic cups we have used for grape juice in our hippie hebrew school program. She stacked them and counted them and stacked them again. Then she made her request,
“Mom, can I do food coloring?”
While Cora was ready to line up 50 cups to play with, she settled on 5, which turned into 6 once we realized we needed another to complete a rainbow of colors.
After that, she asked for a plate to put them on. I gave her two; one dark blue, one white. She moved the cups from one plate to the other talking about how they looked different one each. Then came the request for “a block of cheese.” It took awhile, but I finally realized she meant a block of ice. So, we filled a square tupperware about a 3/4 of an inch with water and found some other things to do while it froze.
Once she had some cups filled up, she asked for a bowl to dump them into.
Game over. It was a VERY busy day, with lots and lots of dirty dishes to be done.
This gallery contains 23 photos.
This gallery contains 17 photos.
I thrive in liminal spaces. Professionally, I am operating on the edges of my field. Personally, I often find myself straddling borders. I named this blog to honor these aspects of my experience.
The name was also intended to make reference to the artwork of children, my children in particular. As a teacher and a parent, I respect and appreciate young children’s spontaneous creative activities. Cora was just scribbling when I started this blog. Now she’s discovering the lines. I just hope that she never lets them imprison her.
Dan and I are in the process of renovating a rental house. It’s pretty much down to studs at this point. We brought Cora to work with us yesterday, with paints and brushes in tow. At first it just seemed like a good way for her to keep herself busy (and out of trouble) while we did what we had to do. But when we reversed our regular edict to “only draw on paper” and invited her to paint the walls of the kitchen, I wound up distracted in unexpected ways, getting meta about what she was doing.
Cora didn’t just paint in one small area, she relished the chance to tag every surface she could reach. This first had me thinking of her process in relation to graffiti artists “bombing” a site, like the Australian artists whose work went viral last month. But then a friend compared it to Jackson Pollock. Indeed, like the late great Jack the Dripper Cora was following her natural inclinations, approaching the canvas in an all-over style, moving her arm in big circles and dancing her lines around the room. Like Pollock, she seemed to be tapping into something primitive.
Cora took breaks from her painting from time to time, as if stepping away to gain new perspective, then returned with renewed energy and new colors on her palette. Most remarkably, she didn’t paint a single stroke on her body and begged to wash her hands when she was finished. Anyone who has followed her painting practice knows this is highly unusual. She was immersed in the process; experiencing flow.
While at first I was just happy she was keeping busy and out of the way, in the end, I was proud of her work and of me and Dan for providing her this opportunity for authentic creative play. We’re heading back this morning with more materials in hand. I can’t see what she does next.
As I wrote this time last year, Halloween is a serious affair at Rosa’s elementary school. This is her final year there and she wants to go out with a bang. It’s amazing to see how far her thinking on the subject of creative costuming has become. This year’s idea was pretty meta.
For the past two years, Rosa and Cora have worn related costumes. Three years ago, Rosa wanted to be something BIG, so she and her mom cooked up a giant jack-o-lantern for her to wear. Since I hadn’t had any brilliant ideas yet, and the costume looked nice and warm, I used some of the extra orange felt from Rosa’s costume and a piece of foam I had lying around to make something similar for Cora. In homage to Rosa’s obsession with mustaches, I gave Cora’s gourd a furry upper lip.
Last year, I was inspired by this tutorial for the most gorgeous DIY wings I’ve ever seen. Again, looking at fabric hanging around in my stash, I decided to make two sets of wings, one for me and one for Cora. I also made some masks and we were transformed into owls. I attached the wings to sweatshirts to make them easy to get on and off and to keep us warm (notice the trend here?). A week before Halloween, Rosa hadn’t decided what to be. She tried on my wings and begged to wear them. How could I say no? I was honored they would be part of her school’s annual costume parade.
Rosa wanted to continue the tradition of dressing up with Cora. Like most little girls I know, Cora has an interest in dressing up like a princess. Fortunately, this hasn’t developed into a full-blown obsession. I don’t think I could handle that. (See: Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein) Watching her sister play dress-up with her friends transported Rosa back in time. She and her girlfriends mastered the art when they were in preschool and kindergarten. They couldn’t last 5 minutes together without disrobing and cloaking themselves in new identities. My favorite was when they would just trade for one anothers’ street clothes. This year, Rosa declared, she and Cora would be princesses for Halloween. “It would be so funny because noone dresses up like a princess in 6th grade.”
So, we headed to the thrift store, where she found and fell in love with a gorgeous Betsey Johnson dress with the tags still on. Price = $89.95. Rosa was floored. “How could they charge so much? It’s the thrift store!” So, we talked about non-profit organizations and their need to make money and the fact that while this seemed expensive for Volunteers of America, really the dress was a bargain. If she were 5 years older and headed to the prom, I would have snatched that thing up in a heartbeat. But, it was Halloween, so I suggested we examine the dress, think about what made her like it so much and a) look for something similar but less expensive, or b) try to recreate it ourselves.
Of course this didn’t go over well because what Rosa wanted to hear at that moment was that she could have the dress. And if I were made of money, I would have said yes. Like I said it was a beautiful dress the purchase of which would surely have won me some stepmom of the year award. But I’m not made of money and I recognized this as a teaching moment.
I reminded her of the fashion camp she attended this summer and asked, “What would Jen Gillette do?” Jen was Rosa’s instructor for Fashion Blasters – a tall blonde who greeted the kids on the first day with her hair teased out and up like a runway model, wearing an outfit she’d made of found materials held up by super high platform shoes she’d bedazzled from top to bottom. She’s gone to study theater design and production at Tulane, but her spirit lives on in Columbus through the folks she inspired during her time as a Creative Consultant at the Columbus Museum of Art’s Center for Creativity. Including me.
We put our heads down and went back to the racks. I found a hot pink cotton tube dress the top of which was a lot like the Betsey Johnson design. Rosa found some curtains that were made of a similar material as its skirt. At home we talked about how to put them together. I’ve always been hesitant to sew clothes – I’m not precise enough to make things fit – so I was proud of myself for figuring out the sewing aspect. But I was sad that Rosa didn’t feel confident enough to help me. I powered through on my own. And then I realized, While Rosa wasn’t doing the sewing, this experience gave her an opportunity to spiral back to creative thinking and problem solving skills she learned this summer. And, as I reminded her to do so, I was practicing those skills too – setting a challenge and figuring out a way to address it.
Are your Halloween preparations presenting any creative challenges to you and your kids? I’d love to hear about them. You’ll see ours in a week. Sorry, no peaking.