Thursday, January 8, 2009

No Rocks in Her Head

In my last blog entry, I asked what nonfiction kids books should be stocked in any self-respecting bookstore. Among the comments from readers (which were disappointingly few, I might add) was Marcia Calhoun Forecki’s suggestion of The School Children’s Blizzard by Marty Rhodes Figley and Shelly O. Haas and Blizzard: The 1888 Whiteout by Jacqueline Ball. Because every self-respecting bookstore should have at least 4 books on the 1888 storm, I added two more on the subject, Blizzard: The Storm that Changed America by Jim Murphy and a picture book by the author I’m writing about today, Terrible Storm by Carol Otis Hurst.

Carol was a friend of mine who, sadly, died two years ago. She was a teacher, professional storyteller, and language-arts consultant who, again sadly, did not start writing kids books until she was 70. She published several worthy novels. But I thought her strongest work was her nonfiction—the delightful Terrible Storm and the extraordinary Rocks in His Head, an ALA Notable and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor Book.

Both of these books combined everything Carol was good at. She had a wry but hearty sense of humor. She told the best story you ever heard with the right cadence and buildup that took you to a satisfying finish. And she had an amazing sense of place—both in her soul and in her writing.

I’m Jewish. Like most Jewish Americans my age, I had grandparents with accents and a family history that disappears into a genealogical black hole more than three generations back. Do I know what my great-grandfather’s life in the shtetl was like? No. And what were those priceless punchlines I missed when Bubbe made cracks in Yiddish?

Carol’s family wasn’t very fancy, but they had lived in Massachusetts since dirt—and I almost mean that literally. Let’s just say the DAR had nothing on her. Generation after generation living in the same place, knowing the land, knowing the culture and history, knowing each other. There was a lot of porch sitting in New England before TV and videogames so there were a lot of stories told.

Terrible Storm and Rocks in His Head are both grounded in all of this. The first is the story of her two grandfathers, how these very different men thought of and rode out the Blizzard of 1888. Rocks is the story of Carol’s father and what can sometimes happen when a dreamer follows his or heart and passion.

They are fine nonfiction. They are simple portraits of complicated people. They take place in important times of our history, their settings drawn with vivid detail. And they are wry but hearty stories with the right cadence and buildup that takes you to two satisfying ends.


Melissa Stewart said...

First of all, I'm so glad to see the posts you inspired over on Alison Morris's ShelfTalker blog.
Second, thank you, thank you, for writing a post about Carol. I only met her once, about a year before her death, but I was mesmerized by her storytelling. I have since given copies of Rocks in His Head to six children I know, but I will never give up the copy she autographed for me. I just love that book because of its message and because I grew up not far from the Springfield, MA, museum where her father worked. I loved visiting it as a child.
Melissa Stewart

Linda Salzman said...

Lets hope the discussion you started over on ShelfTalker will continue over here. Can I tell you how excited I was that you recommended Freight Train by Donald Crews, one of our all time favorites.

More great recommendations today. You rock, Susan.

Anamaria (bookstogether) said...

I love Terrible Storm, and will look for Rocks in His Head at the library tomorrow. Thanks for sharing the author's story.

Elaine Magliaro said...


I LOVE "Rocks in His Head." It's the kind of story I liked to share with students and recommended to our third grade teachers when they were teaching the science unit on rocks and minerals.

Hurst's father's life provides such a fine example of how a person's passion for something can enrich his life--of how a self-learner can become an expert on a subject.

In regard to must-have nonfiction books. When I was an elementary librarian, I purchased every picture book biography by Don Brown for our elementary library. Don's biographies are great for reading aloud. Can't forget Kathleen Krull's biographies--of which "The Boy on Fairfield Street" is one of my favorites. And books by Barbar Kerley. Love books by Steve Jenkins--and April Pully Sayre, especially "Dig Wait Listen: A Dessert Toad's Tale." And Loreen Leedy's math books...and books by Jeannette and Jonah Winter and Jim Arnosky. I guess I could go on forever.

There are so many more wonderful nonfiction books for all ages of children today than when I began teaching in 1968.