Virginia Lowe describes how a favourite picture book introduced her daughter Rebecca to more than just blueberries.
Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey was enormously popular when we first borrowed it from the library. Rebecca (2y5m) had heard it three times when she went through it telling herself the story, including such quoted phrases as ‘she hadn’t gone very far, when…’ She heard it daily for the first week.
Several weeks later she was pretending that she could not climb up on our high bed, and produced her first simile: ‘I fell down like a blueberry in a pail!’ The language and concepts were making their way into her daily life. As she looked for a missing toy she exclaimed ‘Where oh where is my Possum?’ Shelling peas, she was eating many more than were going into the colander, and remarked: ‘I’m like Little Sal’ (eating more than she collected). Six months later she was delighted to discover that her winter overalls had straps crossing at the back: ‘Sal has pants like this!’ (3y4m). In fact her life compared well with Sal’s, except for one aspect. Surprisingly, it was not the bears, but the endpapers, showing Sal and her mother bottling the blueberries, which fascinated her.
Eventually the book turned up again at the library. She told her father ‘some little girl or boy borrowed it back to the library for me!’ (2y8m). Next time we found it, she asked ‘Can we pick blueberries?’ I explained that they grew only in America (they were not available then in Australia – her parents had never tasted them). So of course ‘Can we go to America and pick blueberries?’ I replied that perhaps we could one day, but it’s a very long way and we would have to go by plane. Next time we heard a plane fly over, she said wistfully ‘P’raps it’s going to America to pick blueberries’ (2y10m). We managed to locate a bookshop copy, and gave it to her for her third birthday. When John read the title page ‘Blueberries for Sal’ she at once added ‘by Robert McCloskey’ then asked ‘Who’s Robert McCloskey?’ and ‘What other books did he write?’
Sal was among Rebecca’s first literary encounters with other cultures. When ‘Little Sal and Little Bear’s mother, and Little Bear and Little Sal’s Mother are all mixed up with each other among the blueberries on Blueberry Hill’, it is not the two young ones who are concerned: ‘Little Sal’s mother was old enough to be shy of bears, even very small bears like Little Bear’. Little Sal and Little Bear just continue picking and eating blueberries, following the mother-sounds. This is a nice metaphor for the very young child’s acceptance of different cultures – yes, those people look different to us, may eat different food, wear different clothes. But then so does the family next door, so people are different – in what way is this significant?
Three weeks before Nicholas arrived Rebecca (3y2m) first played picking blueberries which became a favourite outdoor game. Setting off on another blueberrying expedition she told me ‘Brownie has got pails to put the blueberries in. “We must pick blueberries and bottle them for next winter” said Brownie’ (her pretend mouse). The game usually involved picking clover leaves from the back lawn into a ‘pail’, and ‘bottling’ them into pots (both bucket and yogurt pots from the sandpit). Eighteen months later (4y9m) she was still playing it. This time she asked for glass jars for the ‘bottling’. I sat out on the deck minding the two glass jars with Nicholas on my lap.
R: ‘You’re Sal’s mother’.
I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere or do anything else.
V: I’m sure Sal’s mother didn’t stay in the kitchen all the time!
R: But Sal is just coming home now.
V: Oh, you’ve brought all those blueberries – good girl!
R: I just did what you told me to.
Then she proceeds to ‘bottle’ them from the bucket to the jars.
R: (joking) Nicky is in the way!
V: (joking back) I’m bottling Nicks for next winter!
R: You can’t! Nick’s a little boy – you can’t eat boys! (Pauses, thinking)
R: Nick’s a boy’s name – you can’t bottle names!
Cognitive psychologists maintain that young children don’t understand how language works, that words are representations only – signifiers. But perhaps it is rather that they don’t listen hard enough to what young children actually say?
You can see Blueberries for Sal and hear it read (in a more frightening way than we would have), on www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihfPob6JyNA”>http://youtube.com/watch?v=ihfPob6JyNA. I hadn’t realised that we had the British edition – the American one says that they ‘canned’ rather than ‘bottled’ them.
Dr Virginia Lowe lives in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. She is the proprietor of Create a Kids’ Book, a manuscript assessment agency, which also runs regular workshops, interactive writing e-courses, mentorships and produces a regular free e-bulletin on writing for children and children’s literature generally. See www.createakidsbook.com.au for further details. Her book, Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two children tell (2007) is published by Routledge (978 0 415 39724 7, £29.99 pbk).