Posts tagged kids books

If You Want to See a Whale: A quiet story in a perfect package.

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If You Want to See a Whale

Picture Book

Ages 2-7

By Julie Fogliano

Illustrated by Erin E. Stead

32 pages

Roaring Brook

2013

Book Trailer

 

 

If You Want to See a Whale is a flawlessly designed book. The diminutive trim size, approximately 9×7, begs to be held; the enticingly serene cover prompts readers to curl up and escape into its pages. Peeling away the deliciously smooth coated matte cover reveals a rich blue cloth with a humpback whale in relief. Complementing the deep blue background, the book’s title is stamped on the spine in a lavish copper foil which perfectly matches the endpapers. The interior paper has substantial weight and its milky white canvas spotlights the art.

 

Absent of punctuation and in a font reminiscent of a typewriter the exclusively lower-case text is judiciously set apart from the art, accentuating the story’s quiet, contemplative feel. This is not a story to be rushed through. This is a story about waiting, about being quiet, about being still. Readers, like the book’s main character, are rewarded for these virtues.

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Fogliano’s compact, lyrical prose is reminiscent of Ruth Krauss and Karla Kuskin but her style is decidedly her own. Her stories are thoughtful, poetic and sublimely profound. Like Fogliano and Stead’s other collaboration, And Then it’s Spring, If You Want to See a Whale offers tranquility—a welcome and necessary port in a sea of noise.

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Stead’s art— composed of whisper thin lines, fervently detailed and ever so delicate—invites the reader to study each spread. Color, at once saturated and transparent, is used sparingly. Stead’s incredibly involved process of creating the art can be viewed here.

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A young ginger haired boy and his loyal basset hound are determined to see a whale, but seeing a whale is no simple task. It requires an ocean, and a window for watching, and a chair for sitting, and patience, for it may take a very long time. A whale watcher cannot get too comfortable, for fear of falling asleep. A whale watcher cannot allow himself to be distracted by passing ships, or puffy clouds. A whale watcher must simply watch, and wait. And as with all important things in life, focus and determination pay off in the end.

 

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The Big Adventure of a Little Line by Serge Bloch

The Big Adventure of a Little LineIMG_1184

Picture Book

Ages 5 and up

By Serge Bloch

88 pages

Thames & Hudson

2016

 

 

 

 

 

Occasionally I’ll pick up a book from an author or illustrator I’m not familiar with and, after some research, will be stunned to discover that the person has published multiple books and is a sensation in another area of the world. French-born author and artist Serge Bloch is an example of one of these discoveries.

His animated SamSam series, based on his SamSam comic, is hugely popular in Europe. His series Max et Lili, (published in France since 1992) has sold millions of copies. He compiled and illustrated a book of Steve Martin’s tweets and he regularly draws editorial illustrations for publications including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, as well as Time and New York Magazine.

So, Serge Bloch’s extraordinary illustrations have finally etched their way into my consciousness, although I must have seen his work among the pages of some magazine or newspaper and filed it away in my brain because, as soon as I picked up The Big Adventure of a Little Line, the art was familiar. And probably not just because Bloch was clearly influenced by Tomi Ungerer, R.O. Blechman, Shel Silverstein, Quentin Blake and Charles Addams. Like these other masters of the line, Bloch is able to convey a considerable amount with minimal details. It is a true gift and I find this style immensely appealing.

I’ve had the great pleasure of knowing many artists as a result of my career in children’s books. The relationship between an artist and his art is complex and rife with struggles, but the artist’s art is essential to the artist’s well being. Creative compulsion can be exhilarating, comforting, and freeing. It can also be confusing, frightening, and debilitating. The combination of Bloch’s minimalist visual style and to-the-point story of living with and nurturing a creative drive lays bare the complicated relationship between an artist and his art starting at the most fundamental level.

Art as a profession is often the subject of parental fears. It can be incredibly difficult to develop and maintain an artistic career. But whether an artistic person decides to pursue a career in the arts is frequently irrelevant to the level of personal importance the art has in that person’s life. That creative impulse should be nurtured, loved, respected and supported. Should the person end up  in a job or career that is more financially practical, artistic expression  may prove to be an important outlet in maintaining a balanced life as well as the key to mental wellness. I highly recommend The Big Adventure of a Little Line for any person realizing an artistic inclination.

The book opens with a wistful looking boy out for a walk when he spots a small reddish-orange line lying by the side of the road. Intrigued, the boy takes the line home and rests it on a shelf alongside other cherished objects. The line sits mostly forgotten until the boy takes it down and lays it on an open page in his notebook. Thus begins the life of an artist.

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Like many lifelong relationships, this one  starts simply, though not necessarily easily, and develops over time into something integral. The boy and the line need to learn about each other, and find a way to co-exist. We follow the newly formed pair through airy, uncluttered spreads of discovery and understanding, interspersed with chaotic images of frustration and struggle.

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The line helps the boy grow into a man and becomes his complement. Traveling the world, delighting children, opening exhibits, stirring emotions and fraternizing with other artists, the creative relationship proves magical.

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The artist grows old, and eventually he and the line agree that it is time to use a bit of their magic to inspire others. As the book comes to a close, the contented elder artist snips off a small bit of his line and deposits it on a stretch of road. It is quickly spotted by a grinning girl who immediately tucks it into her pocket, an apt metaphor.

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An inherently beautiful effect of art is to bring about thoughts, feeling and emotions that one might not otherwise have had. Art does not simply exist as an expression of the artist, it also moves, inspires and stimulates. I like to imagine that many little pieces of the artist’s line were discovered, collected and carried by others throughout the career of the man and his craft, whether he meant to inspire or not.

 

 

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When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons

When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for all Seasons

When Green Becomes Tomatoes

Poetry Collection

Ages 2 and up

By Julie Fogliano

Pictures by Julie Morstad

56 pages

Roaring Brook Press

2016

 

 

 

 

Every April, elementary school teachers and librarians scramble for books to celebrate National Poetry Month and booksellers are hard-pressed to produce anything new and worthy. The standard favorites and repetitive collections are highlighted and praised for 30 days then poetry gets shoved back in the closet for eleven months. But poetry—often glossed over, taken for granted or dismissed as frivolous—is an essential medium. It often seems to get the same treatment as jazz: it is deemed important but does anyone really understand it, or care?

Generally, the very first words read to an infant are those of Mother Goose: simple rhymes whose rhythms are meant to soothe an audience instinctively soothed by a mother’s heartbeat. Rhyming poetry is, in a real way, meant to speak the language of the heart. But poetry doesn’t always rhyme or follow any convention; it sometimes seems purposely vague, and it is generally accompanied by lengthy explanation, and so, appreciating poetry takes a certain kind of awareness. A recent article in The Atlantic focuses on the importance of teaching poetry. And it is important; supremely important. These two paragraphs sum it up perfectly:

Yet poetry enables teachers to teach their students how to write, read, and understand any text. Poetry can give students a healthy outlet for surging emotions. Reading original poetry aloud in class can foster trust and empathy in the classroom community, while also emphasizing speaking and listening skills that are often neglected in high school literature classes.

Students who don’t like writing essays may like poetry, with its dearth of fixed rules and its kinship with rap. For these students, poetry can become a gateway to other forms of writing. It can help teach skills that come in handy with other kinds of writing—like precise, economical diction, for example. When Carl Sandburg writes, “The fog comes/on little cat feet,” in just six words, he endows a natural phenomenon with character, a pace, and a spirit. All forms of writing benefits from the powerful and concise phrases found in poems.

However, despite being such a necessary form for understanding both language and the human spirit, well-crafted poetry collections are few and far between. When Green Becomes Tomatoes, a truly exceptional poetry book, is a rare gift and will no doubt be a timeless classic for generations to come.

Poetry is characterized by an economy of words and Fogliano is adept at economical writing. Poetic in their simplicity her picture books, And Then it’s Spring and If You Want to See a Whale, demonstrate this austerity as well. Her refined prose is imbued with a childlike perspective that speaks to its readers on an elemental level. Reading her carefully chosen words, it’s clear that none are wasted. Fogliano writes with a beautiful simplicity that can make people believe writing for children is easy, but I assure you it is not; achieving this kind of elegant perfection requires an immense amount of skill.

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Beginning and ending with a poem for the first day of spring (March 20th), the 47 poems in When Green Becomes Tomatoes are named for the dates they honor. Fogliano’s masterful compositions encapsulate the very essence of each season and every one of these captivating, playful poems immerses its reader in a moment.

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Her style, distinctly her own and one I expect many will try (and fail) to replicate, can rightly be compared to such icons as Ruth Krauss and e e cummings.

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Some of these poems could easily stand alone as their own books.

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Morstad’s art is perfection: never excessive, always inviting. Her illustrations, luxurious at times and modest at others, harmonize with the text. Adjusting her palette to the season, choosing warm or cool colors as needed, she captures the spirit of the ever-changing flora and fauna. With a style that is reminiscent of Alain Grée and Ezra Jack Keats, she depicts a diverse group of children to accompany readers on their journey through the seasons. At a time when the lack diversity in children’s books is being spotlighted, her multi-cultural cast is an oasis in a desert.

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I’m an avid lover of the changing of the seasons; it’s such an invigorating time. I love seeing the first heralds of spring, feeling the first hint of summer heat, smelling the first breeze of autumn and experiencing the unadulterated joy of the first snow. Superbly capturing all the inherent delight that these harbingers induce, Fogliano and Morstad have created the perfect companion to all the glorious wonders of the seasons.

A marvel as welcome as spring’s first blush of color after a long, drab winter: When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons is a thing you knew you needed but didn’t fully comprehend how much until you finally had it.

 

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Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo: A flawless work of fiction.

Because of Winn DixieBecause of Winn Dixie

Middle Reader

Ages 7 to 12

By Kate DiCamillo

182 pages

Candlewick

2000

2001 Newbury Honor Book

 

 

Kate DiCamillo is an exceedingly gifted storyteller and a truly talented writer. She uses her mastery to create distinctively memorable books with vivid, natural characters that come to feel like friends. She’s penned picture books, novels and books for middle readers. DiCamillo received a 2001 Newbury Honor for Because of Winn Dixie, her first book. Additionally, she won the 2004 Newbury Medal for The Tale of Despereaux and the 2014 Newbury Medal for Flora and Ulysses. She was also chosen to be the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for the 2014-2015 term.

The first time I read Because of Winn Dixie it was in one sitting. I have since read it at least three more times and each time I’ve felt that gratifying wave of exhilaration that comes from reading an incredibly special book. There’s a magical quality imbued in her words and a comfort to her stories. It’s difficult to put into words (truly, I’ve been trying for days to capture this properly) how DiCamillo weaves a story that so quickly and seamlessly pulls readers in.

Because of Winn Dixie is told from the perspective of 10-year-old India Opal Buloni. Her smart, sweet, eager, vulnerable and bold voice feels absolutely authentic and never simplified or insufficient. Readers will identify with her worries, cheer for her efforts, and delight in her accomplishments. While it’s clear that a ten year old is telling the story—the writing is simple and direct—her thoughts, feelings and observations are familiar and universal. She’s just trying make all the pieces in her world fit together as comfortably as possible.

Opal, as she’s called, has recently moved to Naomi, Florida with her father, “the preacher.” She’s having trouble adjusting; she had to leave her school and her friends and she’s been thinking a lot about her mother, who left when she was just three. But things begin to change for the better when Opal meets an extraordinary stray dog.

Anyone who has ever loved a dog can’t help but fall in love with Winn Dixie: an energetic mutt who becomes a friend to all, who smiles when he’s happy and sometimes smiles so big it causes him to sneeze. This exceptional dog captivates all who encounter him—characters in the story as well as readers of the book.

Opal first encounters the dirty, lanky stray in a Winn Dixie Supermarket—he is wreaking havoc in the produce section and causing the manager to have a conniption. The large, homely dog seems to be having the time of his life running through the store. He rounds a corner and skids to a stop in front Opal. Then, while looking right at her, he smiles wide, showing all his teeth, and wags his tail like crazy. When the frazzled manager mentions calling the dog pound, Opal suddenly claims the troublemaker as her own, and names him Winn Dixie. (Incidentally, Winn Dixie is my second favorite supermarket name, after Piggly Wiggly.)

The immediate bond between Opal and Winn Dixie is palpable. Opal’s urgency and desire to keep this dog is plain and she knows she must proceed with caution in convincing the preacher.

The preacher loves his daughter but he uses his work to keep from facing the reality of his life: that his wife is never coming back and that raising his daughter alone means also including her in his life.

Opal explains to the preacher that she’d encountered a “Less Fortunate” in need of a home. When he learns that the “Less Fortunate” is a stray dog, he tells Opal that she doesn’t need a dog but Opal counters that this dog needs her. The preacher’s resolve is no match for Winn Dixie’s broad smile and happy sneezes. The stray found a home and Opal found a friend and, more importantly, an ally.

With her mama gone, her friends in another city and her father always “preaching or thinking about preaching or getting ready to preach,” Opal yearned for someone who would just listen to her, and Winn Dixie was able to fill that void. Not only was he a great listener, he also seemed to consider what Opal was saying before “responding.” Right away Opal starts talking to Winn Dixie about everything, and talking to him gives her confidence.

Because of her talks with Winn Dixie, Opal finds the courage to ask the preacher about her absent mother. “I’ve been talking to Winn Dixie and he agreed with me that, since I’m ten years old, you should tell me ten things about my mama. Just ten things, that’s all.”

The preacher supplies Opal with ten facts about her mother—some kind, some unpleasant, but all true. And with that exchange Opal makes a tiny crack in the preacher’s protective shell, a crack that eventually becomes an entrance into a whole new relationship with her father.

Because of Winn Dixie, Opal begins to explore her new town and the people who inhabit it. She starts at the pet store. There she meets Otis, the man who runs the shop. Winn Dixie is starting to look like a proper well-loved dog and he needs a collar and a leash but Opal has no money. She quickly strikes a deal with Otis: she’ll sweep and clean the store every day to work off the cost of the items.

Ms. Franny, the librarian, suffers quite a fright when she mistakes Winn Dixie for a bear. Years before, she’d had a bear walk right into the library and steal a book from her and she’s been afraid of a recurrence ever since. Opal invites Winn Dixie inside to put Ms. Franny at ease. When Winn Dixie smiles wide at Ms. Franny and rests his head in her lap, the three are fast friends.

When Winn Dixie runs into the overgrown, tangled yard of “the witch,” Opal has no choice but to follow. There in the yard she finds Gloria Dump feeding peanut-butter sandwiches to an ecstatic Winn Dixie. “You can always trust a dog that likes peanut-butter.” The elderly, mostly blind woman becomes Opal’s newest friend.

One day, while at the pet store, Opal discovers that Otis had been in prison. Her immediate reaction is to be frightened, but Otis isn’t scary. He’s kindhearted and he takes excellent care of the animals. Early in the morning, before the store opens, he takes all the animals out of their cages and plays his guitar for them. The animals sit transfixed, like stone statues, under the spell of Otis’ alluring music. Opal can’t reconcile the seeming contradiction of an ex-con who is a good and kind person.

While having lunch with Gloria, she poses the question; “Do you think I should be afraid of him?. . . For doing bad things? For being in jail?” Gloria Dump says not a word and leads Opal to the very back of her yard. There stands a giant tree with countless empty bottles tied to and hanging from nearly every branch. Gloria—the nicest person Opal knows—explains that the bottles represent all the bad things she’s ever done and that mistakes are a part of being human.

Each new friend Opal makes shares stories of love, loss, adventure and sadness; these enchanting gems nestled amongst Opal’s frank narrative come together in a beautiful tapestry. With each new friend Opal learns something new about the people around her, about herself and about the world. She learns that every person faces struggles and one may never know what sadness and pain another person is harboring. And she learns that good friends boost each other up and help guide your way; they make the hard times in life a little bit easier and the good times in life even better.

Because of Winn Dixie is a remarkable book, one that I never wanted to end and one I know I will read again and again. Gift it to all the children you know, read it for yourself even if you do not have children, or read it aloud to your whole family.

 

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Mouse Paint by Ellen Stoll Walsh: A playful lesson in primary colors.

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Board Book

Ages Birth to 3

By Ellen Stoll Walsh

16 pages

Harcourt

1995

 

 

This lighthearted, simple story is also a lesson in primary colors. Three white mice are able to conceal themselves against a sheet of white paper and become invisible to a sleek, gray cat. But when the inquisitive mice discover three paint jars—one red, one yellow and one blue—they nearly blow their cover!

Thinking the jars they’ve discovered are for painting themselves, the three adventurous mice jump right in.

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Their paint drips onto the paper creating bright puddles of color, inspiring the mice to play.

As each mouse—boldly adorned in a primary hue—dances, hops or jumps in the puddles, new and wonderful colors are created.

The illustrations, done in cut-paper collage, are set against a white background and clearly differentiate each vivid color.  The clean and unembellished design is incredibly pleasing; Walsh manages to make a seemingly basic array of primary and secondary colors seem like a celebration.

Each lesson in color mixing is given two full spreads, allowing children time to process how the new colors are made.

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After all the playing in the paint, the mice are feeling sticky and give themselves a bath in the cat’s water bowl.

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Readers are given a helpful reminder on how to create the new colors when the newly cleaned mice decide to continue painting. This time they use the paper instead of themselves and, learning from their past experience, they leave a little bit of white so that they may continue hiding from the cat.

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Walsh’s masterful technique at introducing a basic concept is quite likely to prompt little ones to explore color and art, painting and drawing.

 

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If I Had a Dragon by Tom and Amanda Ellery: Who’s more fun, a baby brother or a dragon?

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Picture Book

Ages 2-6

By Tom Ellery

Illustrated by Amanda Ellery

40 pages

Simon & Schuster

2006

 

 

The opening page in If I Had a Dragon features a command:

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The urgency and exasperation in the voice of the speaker are palpable but the recipient of the command is unmoved.

“I don’t want to play with my brother. He’s too little.”

This common objection among children with younger siblings will be familiar to many parents and readers. Morton wishes his lump of a baby brother would change into something fun like a bulldozer or—even better—a dragon!

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Comic scenes play out between the hulking, bright green dragon and the small boy, whose shock of red hair is a wonderful complement to the emerald reptile. The massive creature is stretched over the spreads against a sparse, smoky background.

The boy imagines going for walks with his new giant friend.

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But a dragon would rather fly.

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Perhaps a game of hide and seek would be fun…

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But there are not many places such a humongous being could hide.

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Maybe the boy could teach his massive playmate to whistle?

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The succinct text is intermixed with wordless spreads and the simply drawn, cartoonish art is lively and expressive. The combination of the two makes for a hilarious picture book. As Morton imagines all the wonderful things he could do with a dragon, he quickly realizes how a dragon’s size and abilities could actually get in the way of all the fun.

Content in the knowledge that a dragon might not be the best playmate, the boy sends the imaginary beast home and happily joins his little brother for some fun in the sandbox.

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A Home for Bird by Philip C. Stead: A touching story of friendship, kindness and determination.

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Picture Book

Ages 3-7

By Philip C. Stead

32 pages

Roaring Brook Press

2012

Watch the trailer!

 

 

Philip C. Stead is the author of several books, some of which he illustrated himself and some that are illustrated by his wife, Erin E. Stead. Their book, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, won the 2011 Caldecott Medal, which is awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.

Philip C. Stead, the writer, possesses the rare ability to convey a world of thoughts with a minimal amount of text. His stories are perfectly paced and wholly satisfying. Philip C. Stead, the illustrator, creates images that invoke warm, pleasing feelings.

His art in A Home for Bird was created with crayons and gouache (an opaque watercolor paint) producing a whimsical, child-like feel. Each illustration contains its own radiant world of genial animals surrounded by curious items such as yo-yo’s, old cans, bottle caps and teacups.

The opening illustration of A Home for Bird features an old pick-up truck; “Careful Moving Company” is stenciled on its door. A small cuckoo bird has sprung from its clock and tumbled off the back of the overstuffed truck bed into the wide, unknown world. In the next spread, Vernon, a curious frog who loves to collect interesting items, discovers the newly homeless bird.

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Concerned, Vernon addresses the stoic bird but receives no response.

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The kind-hearted frog introduces Bird to Skunk and Porcupine but still, Bird says nothing. Vernon’s friends wonder if their silent new friend is lost, or missing his home. Ever helpful, Vernon prepares for a journey to help his new friend find his home.

The unlikely pair visits multiple dwellings: a discarded birdcage, a mailbox surrounded by flamingos, a nest full of eggs. Bird continues to be silent; Vernon is hopeful that Bird will speak up when they find the right home.

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After much travel and no luck, Vernon is sad for his new friend and the intrepid travelers are growing tired. Vernon decides to ask for help.

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The helpful stranger directs Vernon and Bird to a farmhouse. Inside the cozy house, Vernon introduces himself and his mute friend to some new friends. Spotting a lovely little house hanging on the wall, Vernon makes the climb up with Bird in his arms and deposits him safely behind a small door; Vernon goes to sleep behind another door—sporting a clock-face—directly beneath Bird. Vernon falls asleep to the rhythmic sounds of a clock.

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Vernon awoke in the bright house with its lovely sounds and wondered if Bird liked this home as much as he did. “And Bird said…”

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“And Vernon was happy.”

 

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