Tag Archives: Children’s Books

Secret Book

The first book that comes to mind in answer to the question “what children’s book changed your life?” is not one of the famous ones. It’s the lost-in-the-shadows-of-A-Wrinkle-in-Time Madeleine L’Engle book, Meet the Austins.

However. There is another book, even more obscure. So obscure that I couldn’t remember the title or author or the main character’s name. This is what I did remember: secret book, Christmas tree farm, root cellar. It turns out that was enough (thanks to Loganberry Books and their Stump the Bookseller archives):

Lyn Cook, Samantha’s Secret Room, 1963.  Scholastic Canada.  Samantha (Sam) lives on a rural property in Canada and gains a penfriend by tying a letter to a christmas tree.  The caravan belongs to a cousin who comes to visit for a family reunion.  The secret room is in a root cellar.

The weird thing is the phrase “secret book” is actually in the solution for the book above this one and so far I haven’t found it mentioned anywhere else. So, hmm. This is definitely the book I was thinking of, though, so if it’s not the one with the secret book, I would be perplexed.

Anyway. IIRC, the “secret book” was a journal kept in the secret room, and it’s where I got the idea to start keeping a journal in an ordinary notebook (vs. a diary in one of those dated books with a lock that I always failed at). I even wrote “secret book” on the front of my first notebook. Haha. All it was missing was a “keep out. this means you.” I did not have a secret room. (Sadness. I really, really, really wanted a secret room.)  I did not even have a secret drawer in my desk. (Moar sadness. Also really, really, really wanted a rolltop desk with secret compartments.) So yeah. My secret book was kept in my desk shoved underneath whatever else was in there. Not too secret.

But it’s that not-so-secret secret book was the notebook in which I first wrote that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up (which I wrote about here). And I kept writing in that book until I filled it up and started a new book and so on and so on. So that’s why Samantha’s Secret Room is the children’s book that changed my life.

This is everything I could find about Samantha’s Secret Room and the author Lyn Cook:

  • A review of Samantha’s Secret Room from 1992 (it was re-issued in 1991) in CM: A Reviewing Journal of Canadian Materials for Young People. This review mentions Sam’s journal, but not the secret book:

The story’s events, which are occasionally related via Sam’s journal entries, occur against a backdrop of the daily and seasonal responsibilities of farm life.

The thread tying the book together is Sam’s continuing search for a secret room that belonged to her early nine­teenth-century namesake. Sam, whose own secret place to be alone is the root cellar, believes the other hidden space to be located somewhere in their old twenty-room house.

(And now, I’m beginning to think that the secret book is a giant spoiler, i.e. it wasn’t Sam’s book, but the one she finds in secret room #2, and that’s why no one’s mentioning it. I will refrain from mentioning where SR #2 is located, which is something I do remember.)

  • It has a Goodreads page. (Just added it. Now I won’t lose it again.) There’s not very much information on it, and only a few reviews, all from people who remember reading it as kids. Lots of 5-star ratings, though.
  • erm, apparently there are people who track “the oldest living writers.” ok. Lyn Cook is on this list, dated January 2014. She was born in 1918.
  • She’s also on this list of Famous Canadian Women. “May 4, 1918 – Born Lyn Cook (1918 –    ) 1st author to have books for youth published after WW ll.”
  • She’s listed at A Celebration of Women Writers. “Waddell, Evelyn Cook [aka Lyn Cook; Margaret Culverhouse] (1918 – )” That one had links which led me to…
  • A review of a different book by Lyn Cook, The Bells on Finland Street. The intro blurb says:

“Lyn Cook” is the short name for Evelyn Margaret Cook Waddell, who was a presenter for CBC Radio in the 1940s and 1950s. Her weekly half-hour radio programme, “A Doorway to Fairyland,” had child actors voicing the parts of characters in the books she presented.  The Bells on Finland Street is her first novel, and was followed by a number of novels for young readers. Because her written work includes publications before 1950, she is on the list of authors to be included in the Canada’s Early Women Writers (CEWW) database, part of the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory (CWRC), being established at the University of Alberta.

  • …and this post from 2012 about a poem Lyn Cook published in the 1940s (using her grandmother’s name, Margaret Culverhouse):

Only two of the authors our project deals with are actually still alive. … children’s author Lyn Cook, otherwise Evelyn Cook Waddell. I telephoned Mrs. Waddell a week or so ago, as I was flying out to Ontario, where she lives. I was unable to meet with her, as she lives farther than I thought from my destination, but we spoke for quite a while about her years as a CBC children’s radio show host, and her life as a mother and children’s author in the 1950s and 60s.

I thought “A Doorway to Fairyland” might be in the CBC’s digital archives (there is lots of cool old stuff there), but nope. I did run across this, though:

Thursday, April 26, 2012: Singer-songwriter Bonnie Ste-Croix traveled the whole country recording her latest album, Canadian Girl, but she always finds her way home to Gaspé. Bonnie shares a book that was a childhood favourite, Samantha’s Secret Room, by Lyn Cook.

An audio clip seemed like an appropriate way to wrap up this post, but it’s not working for me. Well, maybe that’s even more appropriate for an out-of-print almost-but-not-quite-forgotten book.

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17: I’m Bored

I'm BoredI’m Bored by Michael Ian Black

illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

Purchased at Chapters on Robson. I didn’t see it on the shelf at first, but I checked the computer and it said there was one (one? eep!) left. I headed back to the shelf and a-ha! The reason I’d missed it was because the spine is yellow. I’d been looking for blue. I grabbed it and vamoosed before anyone else could lay claim 😉

Ok, so I didn’t buy this for me. I got it for my younger niece for her birthday. I read it before I wrapped it up. And now you know my picture book secret.

Anyhow, she’s turning six and she learned to read this year, so I’m glad this came out this year as I couldn’t get away with a picture book next year (which makes me sad! no more picture books 😦 maybe I’ll have to buy them for myself ;)). She’ll breeze through the text, but I got it for the illustrations.

Full disclosure: I’ve been following Debbie’s various blogs since forever and she’s good friends with Erin.

The truth is, I buy most picture books based on the illustrations. I love picture book art. And it’s the illustrations that make I’m Bored special. There’s one image in the mid-story montage of a sofa-ship that totally reminded me of the couch forts my brother and I used to make. The bored little girl is perfect for the story and the potato is so expressive. How did she do that? It’s a blob and a couple lines!

That said, the story seems simple, but it’s got some great elements. I love the flamingo twist (how could I not?) and I think the book really gets that “I’m so bored” tone/mood just right.

I wonder how many people remember that feeling. It’s hard to be truly bored as an adult. (Nearly impossible if you’re a writer because everything’s material. Maybe if you were stuck in a cave or something. It’s still material, but after a while, enough already.) Sure people will say they’re bored, but as an adult, you’re in control, you can always do something.

As a kid, you’re limited in your options. If you’ve run out of books to read, you can’t just head out to buy/borrow more books—you have to get permission, wait for your parents to have time in their schedules, etc. So you have to work within your constraints. You could re-read something or you could use your imagination and make up your own story…!

I waffled a bit over whether to give this four or five stars (I reserve five stars for books that changed my life). I think if I’d just picked it up off the shelf, I would’ve given it four. But because I can’t detach it from the backstory and all I’ve learned watching I’m Bored go from story to finished product, not to mention all the extras associated with it, I couldn’t not give it five. Debbie has gone above and beyond in creating bonus material. I mean, seriously, just go and look. Plus, she’ll write back to kids who write to her. She is awesome.

Miss Suzy

Miss Suzy
by Miriam Young, pictures by Arnold Lobel
read by Tara Rose Stromberg

(via Crooked House)

Had to post this because I had this book! (I think my parents still have it.) I always thought it was one of those random things we had that no one else has heard of, but after a quick look around the interwebs it appears lots of people have fond memories of this book. And if you have 10 minutes, you can have it read to you 🙂

Read Both

I think there is a trend for kids to read longer books younger, at least in the sort of community I teach in. But I don’t get the sense that this causes them to abandon picture books earlier. Rather, they read both. In my classroom today I’ve loads of picture books and the kids love for me to read them and to read them again and again on their own. Twenty years ago I focused pretty much exclusively on chapter books. So while kids seem to be reading chapter books younger they are also enjoying picture books when they are older.

Monica Edinger

[I]t was BECAUSE of picture books that [my son] was reading Stuart Little at 4, not despite them … And even now that he’s 7 and reading from the 9-12 wall at the store, we don’t eschew the picture books. When I left for work this morning, in fact, he was switching between a YA title, Silverwing, to a picture book by Jamie Lee Curtis (no shit).

George Murray

One of my nieces reads much like I did as a kid, so I’ve been thinking quite a bit about kids’ books and reading recently.

I started reading when I was 4, before I started school. I don’t remember learning to read. It was like an on-off switch, I guess, much the way math always was for me. Once I figured it out, I just could. But that doesn’t mean I immediately ran out and started reading adult fiction. I was 7 or 8 when I started dabbling in grown-up stories, but it wasn’t until I was 10 that I started regularly picking up my parents’ novels and reading them before they had finished.

Although I had the ability to read pretty much anything, what I wanted to read were things I could relate to: stories with kid (or teen) protagonists, stories about school, friends & (fr)enemies, and dealing with parents and little brothers. Just because those books were too easy for me reading-level-wise didn’t mean I wanted to skip over the stories. Even after I started reading grown-up fiction, I still continued to read YA right alongside. And I’d still go back and re-read my favorite picture and chapter books on occasion.

What the people who are pushing their kids to read up seem to be clueless about is that a story can be profound even if the reading level is basic (or non-existent). David Wiesner’s Flotsam has no words, but it still tells an engaging and imaginative story, one that actually requires the reader to think more to understand it than if it had words:

I think the ability to understand/interpret story is a more difficult skill than simply being able to read. People take more or less time to learn how to read, but most eventually do. On the other hand, some people never figure out how to interpret a story on their own (as you can tell by reading reviews at places like Amazon & Goodreads).*

When one is an early reader, it’s easy to get caught up in just devouring words. For me, it wasn’t enough just to read, I had to read fast. I read so fast that I often missed plot points on my first read of a book (something I’d notice when re-reading, which fortunately I often did). A wordless picture book like Flotsam forces the power-reader to slow down to figure out the story, developing creative and analytical thinking skills. And that’s a good thing!

*Afterthought: I think this is also the reason why many wannabe writers think writing a children’s book will be easy. They are just looking at the words (surface elements) and not thinking more deeply about the story. In reality, writing a complex, nuanced story with few words and a simple vocabulary takes a great deal of skill.