reading

Father's Day Reading

Scene of the crime…

With Father’s Day hitting this Sunday, it inevitably got me thinking about my dad, specifically about my dad and reading. My dad died when I was ten. A huge portion of my memories of my father involve watching him read. My dad read ALL THE TIME. He would take piles of books out from the library and sit on our couch, all day and night, and he would read and read and read. He would chain-smoke Benson & Hedges 100s while he read and he would never, ever return those books to the library.

NEVER.

We had mountains of past-due library books in every room in our house, topped with sliding whitecaps made from all of the overdue penalty slips that arrived in our mailbox every day, begging us to return all of the publically-owned books we were hoarding. Those slips were largely ignored.

My dad loved our local library and so did we. And the librarians loved my dad. He was well-read, charming, had an adorably thick Scottish brogue, and always treated the librarians with respect, which is ironic, given how little respect he paid the library’s return policy.

Father's Day Reading

This was our preferred branch for “borrowing” books…

I have vivid memories of driving carloads and carloads of long-hoarded books down to Detroit’s main library branch after – if I’m remembering correctly – some kind of legal action was finally threatened. Fortunately, a friend who worked in the library system “fixed” the problem for us, but only after we did our best to return as many of the ill-gotten books as we could. I remember us meeting him after-hours at a side door of the main branch and just throwing what looked like hundreds of books onto carts, so he could log them back into the system and prevent the library police from taking my dad away to the overdue debtor’s prison. (At least, that was how it felt at the time.)

In retrospect, I am struck by three main thoughts about our long period of familial library larceny.

#1). That was just crazy behavior. Crazy. Seriously, who does that?

#2). I can’t help but wonder if that whole mess was even a partial inspiration behind my own desire to create such a large “bought-and-paid-for… look, I even have the receipts!” home library for my daughter.

And, #3). I wonder if that’s why I never had any books that belonged to my father.

Because, even though you could easily describe my father as a voriacious reader, after he died (which wasn’t that long after our “Great Midnight Library Return” adventure), we barely had any of “his” books left in the house. I’m a person who owns a lot of books. If you went through my bookshelves at home, you’d find an odd mix of titles, but you’d also find copies of every book that ever really MEANT something to me. So, with that in mind, it feels very odd to me that my dad, who also, apparently, treasured books, didn’t do the same thing.

Now my father grew up really poor in Scotland and we were pretty broke when I was a kid, so maybe book-ownership was just an extravagance that he simply didn’t have. Maybe he relied on public libraries completely to supply himself with books, which makes for a nomadic reading existence, because, eventually, you have to give those books back. (No matter how hard we fought to prove that rule wrong.) But it always felt unusual to me that my father, the big reader, left such a non-existent book footprint in our home. There was no “Robbie Burns Memorial Library” left on our bookshelves after he was gone. (On the flip side of that, after I die, my daughter is going to be stuck with figuring out what to do with forty different copies of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

BUT that book footprint got a little more distinct last year when my mother moved out of my childhood home after living there for thirty-six years. As I was helping her clean out our house, she pulled a very dusty box-set of three books off a high shelf. It was a 1965 edition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. In the decades I’d lived in that house, it was the first time I ever noticed them.

Lord of the Rings

One box-set to bind them all…

“These were your dad’s,” my mom said. “They were a gift from his friends.” She opened to the title page of Return of the King and showed me the inscription – “To Robbie from the Boys – June 1973.” [read the rest of the post…]

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April 2nd is International Children’s Book Day, an annual event that celebrates reading, literacy, and the million-and-a-half wonderful things about children’s literature. So, as I was trying to think of something to say on the topic (that I haven’t already said), I kept coming back to one recurring thought – I LOVE READING IN BED.

I do. I really do.

The Under-Appreciated Art of Bedtime Reading

Normally, when we read in bed, we’re both in our pajamas and firmly tucked in, but we don’t invite photographers to those events…

I don’t think beds get enough credit from the publishing industry. They are the IDEAL environments for reading, particularly for reading with your kids. Case in point: There’s a new start-up company in New York, Casper, which sells mattresses made of latex and memory foam – a friend has one and digs it. But the thing that I LOVE about this company that is they not only send you your bed, but, with each mattress, they send you a book to read IN your new bed. (And you can sign-up for email bedtime reading updates on their site too.) They KNOW that their mattresses have more than one use.

I think that’s genius. I mean, I know that’s ultimately just a marketing campaign, but it’s a GREAT ONE. Why don’t more people market books and beds together? Beds and books should always be seen as symbiotic entities. Yes, my kid reads everywhere — at the breakfast table, on the toilet, on a shelf in one of our closets that she calls her “reading nook.” Reading isn’t only for bedtime, BUT some of our best, most memorable reading moments have occurred in bed.

When I bought the final Harry Potter book the morning it was released, I retreated into our guest room, sprawled out on the bed, and only came out for bathroom breaks and to loudly annoy my wife with comments like “OH MY GOD, YOU WOULDN’T BELIEVE WHO JUST DIED!” When I was first introducing our infant daughter to books, we started in our rocker next to the crib (which was intimate and amazing), but I still remember the day she got her first big-girl bed and I could finally squeeze into it with her and read a pile of our favorite picture books until I could feel her fall asleep on my right shoulder. (Her side of the bed is right, mine is left. No idea why, but we never deviate.)

My daughter has been introduced to Hogwarts, Narnia, Oz, and thousands of other precious literary landscapes in her little twin bed, with a hodgepodge pile of pillows behind us, her discounted Muppets sheets from Target below us, and her fire-engine red IKEA desk-lamp next to us, giving us just enough mood lighting to always try for “one chapter more.”

You’ll see a lot of talk online about the importance of creating safe reading spaces for kids and I couldn’t agree more. Kids needs places where they really feel comfortable to curl up with a good book and let themselves explore. But, personally, I think beds are often overlooked as reading spaces, which is a shame. Not only are beds comfortable – sometimes they’re too comfortable and you do more sleeping than reading (I get that criticism) – but they also represent these inviting, safe places, where we spend almost a quarter of our lives. We’re open in bed, we relax in bed, we let our guards down in bed.

Those are just a few of the reasons why bedtime reading with your kids is so important. It’s that symbiotic relationship between bed and books. Lying in bed can make you more open to the ideas, images, and emotions of a book, BUT the right book can also act as the perfect guide into a really restful night of sleep. The rhythms of reading are soothing – they can both expand your mind and relax it. Reading in bed can either give you a mental workout that knocks you out or it can give you a mental massage that lulls you into a deep, deep sleep. I will say that, without a doubt, my daughter always, ALWAYS sleeps better if we read to her before bed.

So, for International Children’s Book Day, here’s what I want you to do – Grab a children’s book, an old favorite, and read it in bed tonight. If you have kids, great. Revisit a classic with them and enjoy the togetherness. If you don’t have kids, no big deal. Find one of your childhood favorites and just try to lose yourself in the images and cadences and the memories of reading in your pajamas.

OH, and, if you are a parent, make sure that your kid has enough pillows, a good bed-side lamp, and a flashlight, so they can keep reading long after you told them to stop. (Some things are more important than sleep.)

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WHAT IF YOU CAN’T THINK OF A GOOD BOOK TO READ AT BEDTIME?

Fair question. Here are a few of my favorite bedtime kids’ books. Some are soothing, some are beautiful, some are uproariously funny and actually wake your kid up, which sounds counter-productive (which it is), but it’s a whole lot of fun too… [read the rest of the post…]

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I’ve told this story before, but, when my wife told me that we were going to have our first child, the following day, I drove to the bookstore and I bought my yet-to-be-born daughter a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer.

It was the very first thing I ever bought her. We hadn’t bought any clothes or toys or diapers yet. We hadn’t even gone to the doctor’s to confirm that the pregnancy test was right. But the moment that I found out that I was going to be a father, that I was going to be responsible for bringing a child into the world, an impulse in my brain clambered above the fog created by all of my worries, fears and anxieties, waved its arms and proudly announced, “HEY, the kid needs a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth!”Tom_Burns_RR_Pic

And I listened. The best part was I already owned a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth, but I wanted her to have her own copy. It felt important to me and, to be honest, it still does.

From that first moment, I KNEW, I knew in my bones, that reading was going to be an absolutely essential part of being a father and I wasn’t wrong. During my wife’s pregnancy, as I sat there thinking about what could I EVER impart to a young child that would ever be worth a damn, my mind kept coming back to the same answer – BOOKS. I could give her books.

That didn’t mean I had to BUY her a lot of books (even though I did). It just meant I had to introduce her to books. I had to lead her to books. And that responsibility unlocked something primal in my brain that I didn’t know was there before. For the first time in a long while, I was driven. I had purpose. I was a DAD and I had a job to do.

Other dads might hunt or fish or work at a bank for their families, but me? I knew what I had to do. I had to make sure that my kid knew that, yes, there IS a monster at the end of this book, but, you know what? It’s not what you think. (It’s better.) [read the rest of the post…]

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Don't Stay Up So Late: A Treasury of Bedtime Stories Written for Children by Children

Good advice that kids never listen to…

As I’ve mentioned, 826 Michigan’s Don’t Stay Up So Late is a brilliant book, a “treasury of bedtime stories written for children by children” that was crafted with an obvious sense of affection and pride by both its publishers and student authors. But, despite all my praise, I don’t really know if I’ve been able to properly convey how much this anthology is packed with impressive details and inspired ideas. Don’t Stay Up So Late is a book that just begs for you to linger and appreciate it. So, in order to make sure that you truly get a sense of what this book is all about (and to encourage more of you to buy it), here are ten completely amazing items, details, and flourishes you can find within the pages of Don’t Stay Up So Late:

1. The book’s dedicationDon't Stay Up So Late

2. This disclaimer on the copyright pageDon't Stay Up So Late

3. The handsome title page illustrationDon't Stay Up So Late

4. Section headings like this:Don't Stay Up So Late [read the rest of the post…]

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Don't Stay Up So Late: A Treasury of Bedtime Stories Written for Children by Children

No one tells better bedtime stories than kids…

Reading at bedtime is a big deal in our house. My wife and I alternate putting our daughter down each night and our nightly rituals always involve reading before she goes to bed. Sometimes she reads to us. Most nights, we’ll either read her two or three picture books or a few chapters from longer kid-friendly novels. (We’re reading a lot of J.K. Rowling and Rick Riordan lately.) The bedtime story ritual is very, very important to our family, That said, even though we have literally read HUNDREDS of night-time books to our daughter over the years, I’m confident in saying that the hands-down coolest bedtime book we’ve ever bought for her is Don’t Stay Up So Late: A Treasury of Bedtime Stories Written for Children by Children, an AMAZING collection of stories, published by 826 Michigan, that was entirely authored by elementary school students.

Are you not convinced that a grade school kid could write an engaging bedtime story? Here’s the first story in the anthology, written by a first-grader:"The Alien in the Attic" by Zachary Smith

When I woke up I heard a rat-a-tat-tat. I went straight down the hallway and turned right and opened the attic door. I saw a green alien. The alien had eight eyes and four arms. He could make things in one minute. I grabbed him. He punched me in the nose. I called the army but the army didn’t believe me. I put him in the basement. He ran up the stairs and I picked him up, put him back, and put a gate up. I gave him some food. I wanted to keep him. I wanted to keep him forever.

The End. That’s the whole story. Admit it – that story was ten times more engaging, heartfelt, and AWESOME than 95% of the movie tie-in, Disney, or kidlit spin-off picture books that your kid begs you to buy at Target. It’s direct and honest and Don’t Stay Up So Late is FILLED with stories just like that – stories with titles like “Supersnake,” “A Cow and a Mouse at Dance Class,” “The Super Dog That Helps People,” “The Mermaid Disappeared?”, “Dr. Jell-o’s Jell-o Plan,” and “Tiny’s Tale,” to name a few.

The bedtime stories in Don’t Stay Up So Late are overflowing with exuberant, imaginative storytelling leaps, the kinds of ingenious flights of fantasy that always seem to crop up when a kid sets his mind to tell you a story. As a parent, I found the stories in the collection to be immediately endearing and couldn’t help feeling both proud for the kids and grateful to 826 Michigan for attempting to catch such lightning in a bottle. [read the rest of the post…]

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If you’re in a participating area of North America today, try taking your kid to Free Comic Book Day today, May 4th. There are a lot of really amazing books available and they’re free, free, FREE. If you’re wondering if there’s a participating store in your area, you can click HERE for the FCBD store locator. It’s an event that’s definitely worth seeking out.

Free Comic Book Day

Admit it – Getting free comics is much, much cooler than voting…

Some stores put on more of a show than others. Some will have people in elaborate costumes, prizes, comic book artists signing copies of the free books. And others will only have the books themselves and not much else. But, regardless for how elaborate your local store’s celebration is, Free Comic Book Day is a great opportunity to pick up some high-quality free reading material for your kids – comic books that have been designed to draw in new readers and introduce them to all that comics have to offer.

Free Comic Book Day

Here are some of the free comics we picked up this morning…

So, if there’s a participating store nearby you, maybe swing by with your kids and see if they’re interested. All it’ll cost is some time… unless your kids end up REALLY liking the comics and want you to buy some of the non-free ones, which… isn’t all that bad either.

Plus, Hugh freakin’ Jackman also thinks you should celebrate Free Comic Book Day and who are you to argue with Les Miserable Wolverine? Have fun today!

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Free Comic Book Day

Seriously, how can Arbor Day ever hope to compete?

Parents – Want to have a fun time with your kids at an event that actively encourages them to read? Then you should definitely take advantage of Free Comic Book Day, which takes place this Saturday, May 4th. I can tell you from experience that it’s a whole lot of fun.

What is Free Comic Book Day? To quote the official FCBD website:

Free Comic Book Day is a single day – the first Saturday in May each year – when participating comic book shops across North America and around the world give away comic books absolutely FREE to anyone who comes into their stores.

Now – important qualification coming – that doesn’t mean that EVERY comic in the store is free. What is does mean is that most of the major comic book companies publish special “free” issues for the stores to pass out on Free Comic Book Day. These free books are often designed to hook new readers, so they make a great introduction to comics and comic series that your kids may not have been exposed to yet.

If you’re interested to see what titles are available for Free Comic Book Day, Glen Weldon (from NPR’s Monkey See blog) compiled a wonderful breakdown of the best free comics for kids this year. You can find it here: Which Comics Should I Get? Your Free Comic Book Day Cheat Sheet

And, if you click on this link, you can find the Free Comic Book Day Store Locator that can help you find a store near you that’s participating in FCBD this year.

Free Comic Book Day by Sergio Aragones

I love this Free Comic Book Day promo image from the great Sergio Aragones. (Click to embiggen.)

FAIR WARNING #1 – Most stores don’t let you take unlimited copies of the free comics. Most have some policy or limit in place. Some stores only let you take one free comic per person (Boo!), some let you take four comics per person (Yay!), and, if your local store isn’t getting much foot traffic that day, some stores will let you take as many as you want (Double Yay!). You might want to call ahead to confirm your local store’s policy. [read the rest of the post…]

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Quiet! There's a Canary in the Library

Finding perceptive, interesting book suggestions can be hard…

While I love doling out kids’ book recommendations to other parents, the sad fact is – my knowledge of children’s literature is woefully finite. If we’re talking about any of the books in our home library or our local library favorites, I can puff my chest out and throw out suggestions like nobody’s business. But, if a parent or friend needs a recommendation for a book that lies outside of my home library wheelhouse, I need help. And, since there are thousands upon THOUSANDS of kids’ books that never make it into our extended library circle (despite my best efforts), I find myself looking for help with reading suggestions all the time.

As such, I thought it might be helpful if I listed some of the places I go when I’m looking for really great book suggestions. Some of these resources are fantastic at making themed recommendations – i.e. the best books for Spring, Easter, Arbor Day, etc. – and some are just excellent at profiling the coolest new children and young adult titles that totally should be on your radar. So, if you want to be a fake kids’ book expert like I am, here are five superior resources that will really make you sound like you know what you’re talking about.

1. EarlyWord.com

EarlyWord.com

This is where librarians get all their inside information…

Anybody who loves literature should have EarlyWord.com bookmarked and they should check it daily. It’s a site designed for collection development librarians – a.k.a. the people at your local library who decide what books they should buy for your community. The founders of EarlyWord keep a very keen eye on what’s being published by all of the major publishers, specifically so they can let librarians know what books they should be keeping an eye on as well. They alert librarians about hot new titles, they keep track of literary awards, they profile books that have been mentioned on TV or that have been turned into movies lately – all because they know that those are the books that patrons will be asking about at their local libraries soon.

EarlyWord.com has a Kids’ Section that’s extremely worth checking out on a weekly basis. They have a recurring feature called “Kids New Title Radar” where they profile the most significant new kids’ books coming out every week. Their kids’ section collect kids’ book trailers, they suggest reading lists for major holidays and events – it’s an amazing resource. And, if you check out the right-hand sidebar of the site, you can find a treasure trove of valuable information, ranging from a calendar of upcoming book-to-film adaptations to a downloadable Excel list that collects every kids’ book that made it onto a major “best books” list in 2012. This is easily one of my favorite sites on the web.

2. The Books on Top of the Shelves in the Kids’ Section at Your Local Library

I’m not going to point out that your local youth librarian is a great resource for reading recommendations because…well, duh. That’s their job. If you’re struggling to find really good books for your kids and you haven’t asked your local librarian for help yet, you’re missing out. So, while the importance of kids’ librarians may be obvious (to me, at least), some of the things they do for you on a regular basis may not be. For example, when you walk into the children’s section of most libraries, you’ll see a variety of books prominently displayed either on top of the shelves or arraigned on a rack at the end of the shelves. Again, this may be obvious, but… you know they’re there for a reason, right?

Quiet! There's a Canary in the Library

No, no, the good stuff is ON TOP of the shelves…

All of those “featured books” aren’t there to add a splash of color to the shelves. They’ve been placed there ON PURPOSE by the librarians. This is how they communicate their personal reading suggestions or how they highlight new, exciting titles that the library has just acquired. Whenever I enter the children’s section at our library, the very first thing I do is a circuit around the shelves to see what the librarians are suggesting this week. Thanks to the simple act of balancing a book on top of a shelf, I have “discovered” so many spectacular books that never would’ve been on my radar before. So, the next time you’re at the library, be sure to keep your eyes on the shelves. [read the rest of the post…]

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The Berenstain Bears and the Big Blooper

If Sister Bear can be fallible, can’t we all?

I write a lot about the joys of reading aloud to your kid. This is a cautionary tale about what happens when reading aloud goes wrong.

Before we begin, for the record, I am a fan of The Berenstain Bears. While I know some parents who find their books to be provincial and occasionally preachy, I think, for the most part, Stan and Jan Berenstain are extremely skilled at crafting very engaging and accessible stories for early readers. (I should note that I, personally, very much prefer the earlier Berenstain Bear books – Old Hat, New Hat; The Berenstain Bears’ Science Fair; The Berenstain Bears and the Sitter, etc – to the newer editions that Jan co-wrote with their son Michael.)

The Berenstain Bears series was the first example of series fiction that my daughter really fell in love with, and I think that’s a pretty common occurrence. Many parents are comfortable buying their young children Berenstain Bears books for a variety of reasons – the stories are well told, the art is consistent, the books are inexpensive, the characters are captivating, the quality of the storytelling greatly outshines the other books on that one spinning rack at the bookstore (normally, cheap Barbie or princess books) – the list goes on and on. Berenstain Bears books have become a foundational pillar of modern children’s literature because they’ve created this very warm, very safe place for young readers to return to again and again.

Which was why I was so surprised when a Berenstain Bear book made me say the F-word in front of my daughter.

LET ME EXPLAIN…

The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies

It looks SO innocent on its cover, doesn’t it?

OK, in reality, the incident was maybe 90% my fault, 10% the book’s fault (maybe more like 70/30). The book in question was The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies, a fun little tale of Brother and Sister Bear learning not to expect toys, candy, and presents every time they go out to the store. It’s a book designed to tell children not to lose their minds in front of the candy rack at the supermarket checkout, so I fully support Stan and Jan‘s intentions behind writing the book. It has a great lesson at its core. HOWEVER, it also features a tongue-twister that completely got the better of me one night at bedtime. [read the rest of the post…]

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Dr. Seuss' ABC

A, B, and then C? SO predictable…

While I’d like to think that any good book is timeless, there are certain kinds of books that you end up buying for your children that do seem to come with a very implicit “best if used by” date stamped on their side. For example, I know many children who, once they reached a certain age, refused to read board books anymore. To them, board books = baby books. And, regardless of the book itself (we have board book versions of older-skewing books like Olivia and Madeline), some six-year-olds just won’t be seen dead reading a board book. Another example of a kind of kid’s book that comes with a very distinct shelf-life is the Alphabet Book.

Alphabet books are possibly one of the most common kinds of picture books you can find for younger pre-readers. Their mission is simple and true – reinforcing kids’ knowledge of the alphabet from A to Z. This can be accomplished through pictures, rhyming couplets, you name it. Start at A, end at Z – they come with their own structure built in. No wonder there are so many alphabet books on the market. However, what happens to the book once a kid learns their alphabet backwards and forwards?

Unlike storybooks, alphabet books can be fairly utilitarian. They normally don’t feature stories, characters, or emotions for children to encounter and revisit. Most alphabet books just want to make sure that kids know that J comes before K and, once that’s accomplished, it’s O.K. (letters 15 and 11, respectively) to put them aside. However, there are classes of alphabet books and some are much more expertly executed than others. Some alphabet books transcend mere letter instruction and can stand on their own two feet much longer than their more cheaply produced brethren.

So, if you’re looking for a good alphabet book and you’ll like it to have a longer shelf-life than the crappy paperback A-to-Z book that came with your Happy Meal, here are six really great examples of alphabet books that do a whole lot more than just teach kids about letters.

1. The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

The Ghastlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

Simply a classic.

Let’s get this out of the way right at the top – the greatest alphabet book of ALL TIME is Edward Gorey‘s The Gashlycrumb Tinies.

Granted, it’s more of a commentary on alphabet books than anything, but it is one of the most brilliant, oddball, most often-copied books I’ve ever read. (Fair warning – there are a LOT of lame “parodies” of The Gashlycrumb Tinies out there.) But it is dark. And it is macabre. It is really, really macabre. And if your kid is into that, they might LOVE it. Personally, I know my daughter is far too easily creeped out to really enjoy a line like “X is for Xerses devoured by mice” without it giving her nightmares for a week. In regards to your own kid, you can read the whole book online here and decide for yourself. But, even though I can’t imagine ever giving The Gashlycrumb Tinies to a still-learning-to-read three-year-old, there is such genius and humor in Gorey’s work that it’d be a shame to keep this alphabet book away from kids entirely. As such, there’s a copy of The Gashlycrumb Tinies sitting on our “Books My Kid Will Read in the Future” shelf that’ll be waiting for my daughter whenever I think she’s ready for it.

The Ghastlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

Hands down, the greatest literary death of all time.

2. On Market Street by Arnold Lobel, illustrated by Anita Lobel

On Market Street

Using capitalism to teach kids the alphabet…genius.

I’ve known about Arnold Lobel since I was a kid thanks to his classic Frog and Toad books, but I’ll admit that On Market Street, a truly wonderful alphabet book, was my first introduction to the work of his wife, Anita Lobel, a hugely talented children’s book creator in her own right. On Market Street is one of those rare picture books that you’ll find your kids revisiting again and again, if only to re-appreciate and re-explore the depth and complexity of the artwork. The premise is relatively simple – a young child heads down Market Street “to see what I might buy”. The Lobels then lead us past an A-to-Z series of wildly imaginative merchants who all have bodies constructed out of whatever it is they’re selling. Thus, the apple vendor is made entirely out of apples, the book seller is made entirely out of books, etc. [read the rest of the post…]

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