Ezra Jack Keats

Literary Conversations are for Kids, Too


Book clubs aren’t the only place literary conversations take place.  My granddaughter Olivia and I discuss books every time I read to her.  Our deepest and most prolonged discussions take place around Over in the Meadow, a counting song beautifully illustrated with Ezra Jack Keats’ stunning collages. It has been a treasured favorite since my own kids were read-to-me age.  

In Over in the Meadow, ten mother animals and their babies dig, caw and buzz their way through the sand, nests and  beehives. This book’s version of the song (based on an original text attributed to Olive A Wadsworth) includes, among other creatures, turtles, fish, crickets and an old mother muskrat and her little ratties four. For whatever reason Olivia is obsessed with the muskrat. Our book club conversation begins like this:

“Muskrat!  Muskrat!” she shrieks the minute I arrive, gesturing with her hand a motion of diving into water. I take Olivia into my lap. First we examine the book’s cover. I point to the title and read it aloud; she responds  by pointing to the three baby birds peeping out from the tree.  

“Sing!” says Olivia, recalling from our prior readings that is what the baby birds do when we get to their page. 

Next we turn to the title page, a beautiful collage  of a green field. We examine ferns, maple leaves, and clover before  identifying the two “O’s” in the book’s title.  When we get to the dedication page (to Bernice), Olivia points to the blue dragonfly flitting across the page. “Dagafy,” she says. The dagafly reappears on page two and the baby bluebirds from the cover illustration are still singing to their mother on page three. We depend on and appreciate the illustrator’s foreshadowing of the text by cuing the reader through his art. 

Page four is where our conversation really gets going.  “Muskrat!” Olivia shouts and dives into the text the way Old Mother Muskrat’s little ratties four dive into the reeds on the shore. She identifies a detail of the story not referenced by the text but is a fact she can infer from her own life experience.. “Mommy muskrat hands?” Olivia asks pointing to the mother muskrat’s paws. 

“Yes,” I reply, “Mommy muskrat hands.” Next time I’ll introduce the word “paw.”

Olivia comments on the action in these two pages.  We agree there is a whole lotta diving going on.  We observe that each character is doing something different: swimming, diving, watching from the shore. We extrapolate from the illustration, moving from Mommy muskrat hands to her own and then to mine.

Come the seven crickets, I offer up brief comments about poetry’s convention of visual or sight rhymes (even/seven) and how later in the verse this visual rhyme is repeated in reverse (seven/even.)  We could also discuss how words in the English language evolve, meaning one thing in one era and something else in another. For now though, I leave the gay mother cricket to chirp cheery notes as all mothers — gay or not, crickets or not — chirp with their children. Eight, nine, and ten we bask with the lizards, croak with the froggies and finally shine with the fireflies. 

Although Olivia is not yet two, our conversations about books are lively and expansive. Through them, the English language becomes a word-meadow where a devoted grandmother and her curious granddaughter run free with love and delight. 

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