A Wickedly Special Read Aloud

April 14, 2022 Comments Off on A Wickedly Special Read Aloud

Last week, after a two-year interruption, my daughter and I returned to one of our favorite annual traditions: we took the train up to New York City to stay with my mom and explore the magical city where I grew up. Among the many adventures we had waited too long for, I took my daughter to Broadway for the first time, where we sat spellbound before the green lights and belting voices of Wicked. (I had actually seen the show as a Christmas present in 2003 with the original cast, including Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth, and I was worried no subsequent production could live up. As it turns out, it was every bit as incredible.)

Each time I take one of my kids to New York, I try and pick a special chapter book to read to them—bonus if it’s NYC-themed. (Past trips have featured this and this.) This year, I had my eye on the lavishly illustrated new chapter book, Cress Watercress (Ages 8-12, younger if reading aloud), which has absolutely nothing to do with New York City, but does happen to be written by Gregory Maguire, who wrote the novel behind the Broadway show on our itinerary.  How’s that for sneaky?

Y’all. I know I get excited about a lot of books here. But this one is really, really special. A more widely appealing family read aloud you won’t find. A more fitting read for springtime you won’t find. A wittier, more darling, more deeply felt story you won’t find. This tale about a bunny named Cress, forced to relocate with her mother and baby brother in the forest after the devastating loss of her father, is about the highs and lows of starting over: of making a home, finding your people, and learning that it’s possible to make do with “good enough” when “good” is out of reach. It’s a story about love, sorrow, creativity, and renewal—and it’s penned with a depth that elevates it above your typical middle-grade animal story.

[True, this is not your typical middle-grade animal story. But before we get down to it, since it’s been a long time since I’ve featured an animal-themed chapter book, I thought I’d link to a few past favorites: The Cricket in Times Square series, Appleblossom the Possum, My Father’s Dragon, and, of course, everything by E.B. White.

And now, without further ado, here are five reasons why Cress Watercress is a marvel to share with your children.

1. The Voices.

The best read alouds offer ample opportunities for dramatic voices, am I right?! Gregory Maguire’s taste for the theatrical comes through in every one of the characters in this large ensemble cast. And the names—oh, the absurdly delightful names. There’s Mr. Titus Pillowby Owl, the stern landlord who presides over the dead oak tree-apartment called the Broken Arms, into which the Watercress family moves, though why he never flies down from his perch is a mystery that puzzles Cress. Then there’s the superintendent, Manfred Crabgrass, an elderly, busybody field mouse whose job it is to enforce the steep rent (dead moths), though his heart softens towards Cress and her sickly baby brother, who has their mother in a constant state of worry and exhaustion.

There’s a chicken named Fricassee Sunday, who speaks mainly in questions; Tunk the Honeybear, who might not be as dim-witted as he appears; an overworked squirrel who is rapidly losing control of her rambunctious children; and Lady Agatha Cabbage, a plotting, pretentious skunk bent on making Cress her lady’s maid. Then, of course, there are the bunnies—but we’ll get to that. All of these richly developed characters, who inhabit a corner of the forest that Cress comes affectionately to term Hereabouts, live in perpetual fear of Monsieur Reynard, a fox, and the Final Drainpipe, a snake, whose threat at times is more allegorical than real.

2. The Descriptions of the Natural World.

We’ve established that Gregory Maguire is a master of character writing, but his lyricism when it comes to depicting the natural world is equally magnificent. The story begins at the close of winter and continues through spring, as we witness the waking up of the Earth—the relief of the warmer days, the delight of the blossoms, the promise of the unfurling leaf canopies—alongside young Cress.

When the bunnies dine by moonlight on their way to their new dwelling, “the setting sun was a lumpy clementine in a net bag of string clouds.” How delicious does that sound read aloud?! Let me share another. Moon imagery is a recurring motif in the story, signaling the constant of change:

The moon rose, over and over, a surprise each night it was visible.

Sometimes it was tiny, the eyelash of a hummingbird. Sometimes as fat and soap-bubbly as a badger washer-woman. Sometimes it hid behind the clouds. Sometimes it disappeared entirely from the clear sky.

Cress never entirely got used to the changes. But she began to get it: the changes in the moon, like the changes in her heart, were normal. And would never end.

3. The Relationships.

If the novel’s descriptive passages are lyrical, the dialogue—which dominates the story (remember the voices I promised you?)—is anything but. It’s blunt and testy and funny as all get out. Honestly, it’s some of the most genuinely believable, brilliantly written dialogue I’ve yet to find in middle-grade fiction. And it’s inside this dialogue that Cress’s relationships evolve.

Cress and her mother have a perfectly imperfect relationship—again, something we don’t see enough of in pre-tween lit and certainly not in animal stories. As Cress searches for her own “grown-up moments,” she continually buts up against Mama’s expectations, criticism, and general weariness. For the first time, she gleans Mama’s flaws, as she begins to experiment with the tiniest amount of rebellion. So, too, does Mama adjust the way she sees her daughter, no longer the predictable “comfort” by her side but someone with big opinions and an increasingly feisty temper. Ironically, the more Cress pushes back, the more she resembles her stubborn, courageous, compassionate Mama.

The mother-daughter relationship may be at the heart of the story—certainly at the heart of our mother-daughter spring break—-but Cress forges other nuanced and vastly different relationships, as she explores the kind of friend and neighbor she wants to be. Again, her path is littered with as many mis-steps as triumphs, including ample opportunities for reparation. And once again, the more Cress seeks out adventure apart from her family, the more she appreciates the cozy, chaotic home she returns to, even Mama’s off-tune lullabies and that unmistakable “sound of brother.”

4. The Illustrations.

By now, you’ve glimpsed a few of the interior pictures, so you’ll believe me when I say that David Litchfield—you know him from his gorgeous picture book, The Bear and the Piano—has worked sheer magic in his full-color digital art for Cress Watercress, adding whimsy and wonder to nearly every scene. The illustrations shimmer with a touch of other-worldliness and are every bit as elevated as Gregory Maguire’s prose. We feel like we’ve stepped into a world at once familiar and alien, not unlike the way Cress—or any child—feels each day of her life.

5. The Consideration of Big Life Questions.

How do we venture boldly outside our front door, knowing peril might be lurking around the bend? How do we discern friend from foe? How do we protect our family, stand up for our friends, or make our own tiny voice heard among the din of those who think they know what’s best? In the wake of sorrow, how do we find joy once again? These are the questions Cress wrestles with. They are also, of course, the very ones that underscore the human plight.

And while there are no easy answers—remember: uncertainty is as predictable as the phases of the moon—the story offers up a valuable tool to offset the change that underscores our daily existence. For Mama, it’s weaving tapestries on a loom. For Cress’ baby brother, it’s imaginative play with his stuffed carrot, Rotty. Throughout the story, art surfaces as a vehicle of self-expression, a way to find and assert oneself, to take control of the narrative. As much as Cress Watercress is about a young heroine’s journey towards self-understanding, it is also about the discovery of the art form that best suits and stimulates and heals her.

And if I say her chosen art form has something to do with a pen and some post-it notes, do you understand why I might have some extra love for this special book?

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Book published by Candlewick Press. All opinions are my own. If you’re in the Alexandria area, please consider shopping at the beautiful Old Town Books, where I am the buyer for the children’s section!

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