The Elephant in the (Play)Room

I’m staving off the pandemic blues by throwing myself into a home-improvement project that includes a bookcase shaped like an elephant and several gallons of Benjamin Moore’s First Light pink paint. The idea is to transform a guest bedroom in my house into a magical kid’s playroom, one that will delight my three grandchildren once the COVID-19 pandemic is over and they can safely visit Grandma Nini again.

The gray elephant will be the focal point of a room that includes a miniature treehouse filled with tiny stuffed animals, twinkle lights, a pink trunk full of Jack and Jill magazines from the early 1960s, Madame Alexander dolls, and lots of children’s books.

The inspiration for the project dates back to 1975, when I was a rookie reporter at The Oakland Press in Pontiac, Michigan, assigned to write a feature story about 75-year-old Helen Williams, who was known in local schools as “The Story Lady.”

For many years, Helen operated a bookshop called “The Old Red House” from the living room of her Rochester, Michigan home, in addition to teaching children’s literature at Wayne State University. She was one of those people who make an indelible impression, not just because she wore her hair in Gibson Girl fluffy bouffant style and seemed like a throwback to the Edwardian era. Her house featured a special children’s reading and playroom, one that you entered through a child-size door. I’m trying to conjure up that room from memory and recreate it.

Helen started the interview (of course, she gained control of the conversation immediately), by asking if I had ever read one of her favorite authors, a Canadian-born poet named Herbert Hipwell Penny, also known as Bert Penny. I recall her reading me a selection of his poems, including one entitled Dogs Take Bigger Bite of Family Budget.

             Go pinch the penny, squeeze the eagle

            To gratify the regal beagle.

            The family meals of soup with noodle

            Won’t cost as much as poodle food’ll.

            Your pledge of grub, though only tacit,

            Is counted as a basset asset.

            And this is sure to drive you lotty:–

            The menu for a potty scottie.

            Many a man is now a debtor

            Since he became a setter petter.

            You’ll need the mint to make, by golly,

            A melancholy collie jolly.

            Though day by day we don’t begrudge it,

            How does the bitten budget judge it?

She roared with laughter after reading it, and we had a discussion about whether it was great art or – literally – doggerel. I later learned Helen had written the forward for Penny’s book Dandelion and Other Poems, describing his work as “little masterpieces. Choice and tender, witty-wise and often profound, they represent a great teacher’s ability to teach with a rare and subtle soft-touch.” After our interview, this great teacher sent me a copy of the book, inscribed in an old-fashioned hand that said, “From that old gal, Helen Williams, to a new friend and fellow reader.” Since then, I’ve become a lifelong fan of Penny’s work, especially his canine poems, such as The Preacher’s Dog.

            The preacher’s dog Spot is a friendly Dalmation,

            A volunteer guide on the road to salvation.

            On Sundays, aglow from his Saturday bath,

            He shepherds the worshippers up the straight path.

 Helen was the best kind of teacher, sharing unknown authors, and carving out spaces for kids to play or curl up with a good book. Her love of reading was infectious. As a teacher, a parent, and a grandparent, I hold her up as a model of getting others excited about books. In her honor, Dandelion will occupy a place of honor on the elephant bookshelf.

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