Spring is busting out all over here in Michigan—finally, and I’m ready to celebrate “Mrs. Muddle style.” From the top of the stack today we have Mrs. Muddle’s Holidays by Laura F. Nielsen (Farrar Straus Giroux; ages 5-8.) Mrs. Muddle moves onto Maple Street and leads the way for the neighborhood’s children in creative celebrations of everything from “The First Snow” to the “Birth of the Inventor of the Roller Skate.” The cozy illustrations by Thomas F. Yezerski make the most of every celebration and we even see Mrs. Muddle on rollerskates. I had to laugh at her description in Booklist, the review journal of the American Library Association, “…energetic, gray-haired party-animal Mrs. Muddle.” Naturally the kids adore her, and in the end young Katie organizes an extra special party on their street, one not on the calendar—“Mrs. Muddle Day,” for their fun loving neighbor.
In Bottle Houses: The Creative World of Grandma Prisbrey, by Melissa Eskridge Slaymaker, vibrant creativity literally bursts from the pages (Henry Holt; ages 5-8.) It’s a personal favorite, appealing to the part of me that obviously longs to be a little more eccentric. It is sadly out of print, but hopefully your library will also carry it. Grandma Prisbrey was a real woman, a self-taught artist who “…wasn’t a regular person who did things in the regular way.” She salvaged glass bottles of all colors and types to cement into a uniquely beautiful house filled with a rainbow of sunlight. Eventually additional structures morphed into an entire Bottle Village that is now a State of California Historical Landmark. Unfortunately it was damaged in the 1994 earthquake.
From her enormous collections of pencils and dolls to her fascinating array of bottle structures, Grandma P.’s interests parallel those of many children. Her love of color even led her to safely dye kittens pink, green, and blue for her grandchildren. The lovely illustrations by Julie Paschkis have a bright folk art quality similar to Grandma Prisbrey’s bottle art. (See my review of another book illustrated by Julie Paschkis.) Shells, headlights, lipstick tubes and other treasures salvaged from the dump positively glow—it’s enough to send us all out dumpster diving. (I rarely need a nudge.)
Although she looks and dresses like a stereotypical grandmother, Grandma Prisbrey’s individuality is revealed through her art. She has tremendous imagination and perseverance—her can-do attitude shines throughout the book, and a personality as colorful as her bottle houses is revealed by quirky quotes. “The cactus reminds me of myself. It’s independent, prickly, and asks nothing from anybody. And it blooms in all colors.” Despite her declared independence, she accepts help from her sons with windows and doors, and it’s clear that greater interaction with people follows as they are drawn to her creative and innovative little buildings.
In his book The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life, Dr. Gene D. Cohen discussed creativity at length and stated, “It can occur at any age and under any circumstances, but the richness of experience that age provides us magnifies the possibilities tremendously. The unique combination of creativity and life experience creates a dynamic dimension for inner growth with aging.”
To my knowledge, it was Dr. Cohen who initiated the first effort to focus attention on positive older characters in children’s books. In 1994 he founded the Washington DC Center on Aging, along with the program—Societal Education About Aging for Change. The goal of SEA Change is to promote media that portrays aging and intergenerational relationships in a positive light. It was learning of his efforts around children’s literature that sparked my own interest.
Too many children’s books advertise late life as boring and staid, when they could wave bright banners for the real truth—older adults are creative, inventive beings. They are people with years of practice making their own fun, creating art in many forms, and exploring a vast array of interests—often without the help of technology. It’s refreshing to see picture books that paint the possibilities. We can best point today’s kids toward healthy aging by showing them positive role models when they are very young.