by Judy Newman with Alexie Basil
I am a word person. Like many people who work in publishing, I love a good word puzzle and I play to win at word games. I looked forward to spelling bees when I was a kid (I wish I could find the adult version now), and I recently figured out that I enjoy my weekends more when I block out enough time to complete the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. I do it in pen, and I only work on the physical paper (not the digital edition). I am not a speedy solver, but I always finish. And I love reading Rex Parker’s blog and being part of a community of puzzle people.
I respect people who use language carefully. It grates on my nerves when someone says “We should have went,” and it kills me when I hear otherwise smart people in the office say “verse” instead of “versus.” And I know that, for me, the best way to nurture my love of words is by reading.
Last week in Life of a Reader, I reminisced about writing a report on coal during one of two summers I spent interning at the Massachusetts State House. In those pre-Internet days, I had to lug huge technical volumes from the library to my desk to do my research. And while I found this topic super boring, I did enjoy the interesting—although not that useful to me—polysyllabic words I learned in the process: Bituminous. Anthracite. Pyrite. Particulate matter. Polychlorinated dibenzofurans. Slagging. Agglomerating.
While this internship was a step on my career path and did increase my vocabulary, it paid terribly. I worked as a volunteer for the first summer, and I got only a small stipend for the second. I still had to get another job so I could earn some real money to pay my bills.
Thus began my tenure working as a waitress at Cape Cod Ice Cream and Restaurant in the then-newly opened Chestnut Hill Mall in Newton, Massachusetts.
I loved waitressing. Unlike my sister—who, on her way to Harvard Medical School, waitressed at Brigham’s in Newton Center and hated it—I really enjoyed making sure customers had happy mealtimes at our restaurant. I loved the fast pace of the kitchen—yelling back and forth with the short-order cooks (“Where’s my Burger Deluxe?!”), digging deep into the freezers to scoop ice cream, making massive sundaes or cones topped with rainbow sprinkles, and the camaraderie of my friends who worked there.
We summer waitresses (mostly teenagers who wore white dresses and blue aprons with big pockets) had fun, competing to see who got the best tips and sneaking into the bathroom together during our breaks to eat Sara Lee cheesecake taken from the refrigerated dessert case. It was the ’70s, and the Chestnut Hill Mall and Sara Lee desserts were pretty new to our community. The Beach Boys’ Endless Summer was our soundtrack, and we were young and wild and free.
But the happy-go-luckiness of our waitressing lives changed when one of our friends—who I will call “Tracy N.”—made a secret plan to run away with the (much older) manager of our restaurant. Only we, her waitress friends, knew about this plan. Tracy N. swore us to secrecy.
I don’t remember the exact emotional chain of events, but a day or so after Tracy N. and the manager left Cape Cod Ice Cream and Restaurant after work and didn’t come back, I felt compelled to act.
I might have been channeling my future parent-of-two-teenagers self, or maybe I just activated some deep moral compass, but I decided to spill the beans.
I took some newspapers and magazines (mixing up the fonts and colors to make it more difficult to trace), cut out letters, and glued them together to form an anonymous note to Tracy N.’s parents telling them where she was. I know this sounds like a bad wannabe Stephen King short story, but it was absolutely true life.
This is a reproduction of my note. The original (which maybe the N family has in their scrapbook) was cruder-looking. But the words are the same:
Tracy’s parents got my letter by snail mail (which was the only kind of mail in those days), and I heard later that they left immediately to drive two and a half hours north to New Hampshire to find their 18-year-old daughter.
We friends didn’t get too many details about the family rescue-and-recovery mission, but I do know that Tracy and the manager were convinced to come back to Newton.
Memories are unreliable but, in my mind, Tracy’s parents allowed her and the manager to live in their backyard in a trailer. That doesn’t really sound right, though. But I like a happy ending, so I’ll leave it at that for now.
The point I do accurately remember is Tracy N. knew immediately who had written this anonymous note, with its cutout letters glued together. Me.
I got a phone call from another friend announcing that my cover was blown and we were all to meet at Langley’s Deli in Newton Center (or at Pewter Pot—I don’t remember which—but definitely not at the Chestnut Hill mall). Wherever we were, Tracy N. confronted me. “You,” she said, “are the only one of our friends who would create a letter like that.”
“You,” she said, “are the only one of our friends who is a word person.”
She forgave me because, even though I had betrayed her confidence, she realized I was just trying to be a good friend. And, of course, I was secretly happy to be outed as a word person.
This aspect of my personality—using words to help my friend—reminds me of one of my favorite wordsmiths and one of the dearest friends I have met in children’s literature: Charlotte A. Cavatica. Which brings us to the Scholastic Reading Club Dollar Deal for this week, Charlotte’s Web. Charlotte—the word-loving heroine of E. B. White’s beloved classic—uses her words brilliantly. She chooses five words. She weaves them into her web. And with those words she saves the life of her friend Wilbur. I might not have saved Tracy N.’s life exactly, but I do think it all worked out for the best.
Charlotte’s Web is a celebration of the power of words and the joy of wonderful writing. From the moment that eight-year-old Fern demands her father spare the runt of the litter (the baby pig she will feed and care for and name Wilbur) to the evening in the barn cellar when Charlotte greets Wilbur with the word “Salutations,” you know you are reading something truly special.
Charlotte’s Web is also about friendship, and growing up, and family, and farms. David Vozar was inspired to share his own farm memory.
“I grew up in the suburbs of Edison, New Jersey, so going to a farm was always a treat for me.
“My great-uncle would host a huge family picnic each year on the Fourth of July at his dairy farm. That is where I learned that I had hay fever, while on the hayride. One of my fondest memories was watching the cows come into the barn for milking. My brother, Mark, and I stood at one end while 50 cows would enter at the other end. As a kid, I was struck by how big the cows were and how they entered and found their way to their stalls without any prodding or help from humans.
“We walked down the long aisle and looked into their big brown eyes as they calmly ate the hay that was waiting for them. They were so gentle. Then, out of nowhere, at the end of the barn, appeared a scrawny little rooster. He stood perfectly still, staring at us for about a minute, and then sprang at us! We both screamed and ran out of the barn as fast as we could.
“The rooster chased us until we were well outside, and then he stood there making sure we would not return. It took the smallest of the animals to banish us.”
Alexie did a lot of research on E. B. White, which you can read in her piece “Remembering E. B. White.” Five Scholastic Reading Club teachers talk about how they use Charlotte’s Web in their classrooms in “Teachers Talk: The Magic of Charlotte’s Web.” Betsy and Darcy were inspired to create Charlotte and Wilbur cupcakes, and they talk about their recipes with you in this week’s Cooked Up from a Book. And don’t forget the Book Boys!
If you haven’t read Charlotte’s Web recently, I urge you to. We are offering it—this week only—for only $1.
And if you want a real treat while you’re driving to a campground or anywhere else you go to escape (but hopefully not run away!), listen to the audio recording of Charlotte’s Web, produced by Listening Library. It’s three and a half hours long and read by E. B. White himself, with a special 50th-anniversary afterword read by George Plimpton. I am on my third listen in two weeks.
PS: In case David’s memory stirred up your inner farm lover, here are some other books offered by Scholastic Reading Club that take place in the barnyard.
Old MacDonald Had a Farm
The classic sing-along becomes an interactive board book with cute, giggle-inducing illustrations and touch-and-feel animals. It’s great for teaching children animal sounds and for helping them to start recognizing words they know from the song.
Fun fact: The song “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” is based on “Ohio” from Tommy’s Tunes, which was published in 1917. The farmer’s original name was Old Macdougal! (You can check out a scanned version of Tommy’s Tunes here, which has “Ohio” on page 84 of the PDF.)
by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
A twist on the traditional farm tale, this picture book begins just after the sun goes down. Farmer Joe’s day might be over, but the animals’ night is just beginning. The moment Farmer Joe slips away, Pig, Cow, Chicken, Sheep, and Goat suit up to put on a huge punk-rock show for all the barnyard animals! Readers familiar with more classic farm stories will enjoy the animals’ personalities coming through in funny band-member archetypes, complete with cool shades and rocking instruments.
And what would their big number be but a cymbal-crashing, drum-booming rendition of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”?!
“These shade-wearing punkers are laugh-out-loud funny and the details in the illustrations are, let’s just say, baaaaa—d. Fans will definitely want a return engagement. Rock on!” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Duck on a Tractor
by David Shannon
David Shannon, writer and illustrator of Duck on a Bike and Caldecott Honor book No, David!, tells the story of Duck’s next “silly” (as Cow puts it) escapade on the farm. Now that Duck has ridden a bike, he’s ready for his next challenge: a tractor.
When Duck figures out how to work the thing, he convinces all the barnyard animals to hop aboard and take a trip to town! Even if they can make only animal sounds, Shannon lets us in on what each character is actually thinking. It’s clever and funny, and can also be used to introduce children to subtext.
“Fans of Duck’s previous outing will revel in this return to gentle anarchy.”
National Geographic Kids™: Farm Animals
by Joanne Mattern
This nonfiction reader walks kids through life on all different kinds of farms, including dairy, horse, and produce. Designed as a read-aloud, it features two sections of text per scene: one with longer words and more technical terms for grown-ups to read, and one with simpler sight words for children. Kids who love animals will enjoy the full-color photographs on each page and the easy-to-grasp fun facts.
National Geographic created a special collection of leveled nonfiction co-readers called You Read, I Read. Like this book, they all have harder text for an adult and simpler text for a child.
The Chicken Squad: The Case of the Weird Blue Chicken
by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Kevin Cornell
The four mystery-solving chick siblings are back, and the challenge is even more puzzling this time. Things keep going missing—including an entire blue-jay house!—and Dirt, Sugar, Poppy, and Sweetie are determined to catch the thief. But things turn more complicated when the chicks realize the culprit may be one of their own.…
Like its predecessor, this second installment in the Chicken Squad series—written by the creator of Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type—is hilarious. Funny illustrations and straightforward text help young readers follow the plot, while the occasional advanced word challenges readers to expand their vocabularies.
“These chickens profess to solve all sorts of mysteries, but soon it becomes evident that they are more likely just to stir up trouble….New readers have a terrific new series to laugh over.” —Kirkus Reviews
These Books Are Available from Scholastic Reading Club