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Just the right time

Let’s talk about the book neither of my six-year-old grandchildren would let me read.

I almost didn’t read it myself. When I plucked Patricia MacLachlan’s What You Know First from the library shelf, I saw right away the book’s illustrations would not appeal to my young listeners. The pictures are engravings by Barry Moser, and the effect is black silhouettes with a hint of color. Beautiful, certainly, perfect for the bittersweet story about being uprooted, but too monochromatic to pull in these children.

I riffled through the pages anyway. After all, MacLachlan not only wrote Sarah, Plain and Tall and its two sequels; she wrote Nora’s Chicks, another story about change. We’d read it, and my grandchildren had liked that one okay. It’s true that no passages in Nora’s Chicks made them shriek with laughter and beg me to read a favorite page over and over, but books like that are rare.

One such story is Another Brother by Matthew Cordell. Davy, who happens to be a sheep, is content when his family consists of him and his parents. Then more brothers arrive, one after another and another, until Davy is followed everywhere by his twelve brothers, each one copying Davy’s every move. When Davy burps, twelve brothers burp. When Davy acts like a monkey, twelve brothers act like monkeys. (The illustration of thirteen sheep acting like monkeys is classic.)

Finally, though, each brother strikes out on his own, and Davy loses his entourage. His happiness is short-lived, of course — we could all see that coming — and Davy mopes around until one morning he yawns — and hears an answering yawn from down the hall. When he bangs an elbow in the bathroom, he shouts, “Honkin’ plunger!” and hears, like a call-and-response, “Honkin’ plunger!”

The mimicker is a new sister named Gertie, but “Honkin’ plunger!” is the phrase that invariably sends all three of my grandchildren into shrieking, tummy-clutching paroxysms of laughter. Okay, it has the same effect on me. “Honkin’ plunger!” we all cry joyously.

But back to What You Know First. For several days, I couldn’t get past the first line. I usually pull several books at a time from my bag and let the listeners decide which one to read next, and again and again, What You Know First received zero votes.

“I think you’d like this book,” I’d say hopefully, but both first graders spurned it, separately and together. While I understand the book has no “Honkin’ plunger!” moments, it does have searing emotion. The child narrator recalls watching her father sell his cows before the family moves from the prairie to the coast. He allows his favorite animal, Bess, to lean against him for a moment, then goes off on a long walk by himself.

When I read that page in the library, my throat swelled. I’m sure my grandchildren would respect this grief the way they respected the anguish of Evan (a fox), after his beloved dog dies in Brian Lies’s A Rough Patch. Not that I’m trying to be the buzzkill grandma. But that’s a point of literature, is it not, to help us make sense of the world and its tragedies?

I almost read the book to my six-year-old grandson. He included it in the line-up the other night, then changed his mind at the last minute in favor of Emily Lockhart’s Skunkdog. Dumpling, the dog, has no sense of smell. He's obedient and loving but needs a friend. When he meets a skunk, he gets sprayed to kingdom come, but thanks to his olfactory issue, he isn’t deterred. It was a good story, a funny story with its own genuine emotions. But I sighed as I returned What You Know First to my bag unread.

Then my husband and I stayed with my granddaughter one Saturday night. “I’m reading What You Know First to Grandpa,” I announced after we had torn through every other book in my bag. “I think he’ll like it.”

“I read it the other day,” my husband said, and then he caught on. “I’d like to hear it,” he said.

So, I read the book at last. Then we talked about the farmer’s sadness at selling his cows. We talked about how author MacLachlan did, in fact, move away from the prairie when she was young, and how she, like her book’s character, carries a bag of prairie dirt with her everywhere she goes.

My granddaughter attended a Montessori school for preschool and kindergarten. This year she left that beloved community for a French immersion school in her neighborhood. Whether or not my granddaughter will connect this story with her own recent transition, I couldn’t say. I can’t even claim to have read it to her by design, because I didn’t. But it has occurred to me since that some books are like warm helping hands, extended at just the right time.

At a recent family gathering, I mentioned Another Brother and its never-fail laugh line.

“Oh, ‘Honkin’ plunger!’” my daughter, mother of my grandsons, said. “We’ve been hearing that and didn’t know why.”

Then we all went to pieces together. “Honkin’ plunger!”

Margo Bartlett
Margo Bartlett
Margo Bartlett wrote, copy-edited, and proofread for newspapers for nearly thirty years and currently does occasional freelance writing and editing. She previously worked for a school book fair company, which offered her the chance to catch up on children’s and YA literature, her favorite genres.

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