New Twists on an Old Classic – Old MacDonald Revisited

Most classic children’s songs are classics for a reason – they have catchy tunes, repetitive lyrics, and opportunities for kids to get involved in the action.

Old MacDonald Had a Farm is just one such classic. It couldn’t be simpler – the lyrics name some of the different animals that can be found a farm, and give kids a chance to make funny animal noises. They also include nonsense lyrics (E-I-E-I-O), which are always fun to say and easy for kids to remember!

Kids are happy to sing this song again…and again…and again…It’s enough to drive anyone mad!

Fear not, though, because the Raincity Librarian is here for you. Here are three picture books that put a new spin on an old classic, and might just make your storytimes or programs a bit more exciting for everyone!

Old MacDonald Had a Truck

Forget the animals – Old MacDonald has heavy duty machinery! Great illustrations, trucks and construction equipment, and a Mrs. MacDonald who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. There’s lots to love in this cute, fun story.

Old MacDonald Had a Woodshop

More tools! In this version of the song, Old MacDonald and his animals are working on a surprise, and are pulling out all the tools in the woodshop to do it. There’s sawing, drilling, chiselling, filing, painting and more, with fun sound effects to match!

Old Mikamba Had a Farm

Rachel Isadora puts an international spin on the old farmyard classic, transporting the action to Africa! Old Mikamba’s farm is filled with all sorts of exciting animals like lions and elephants, with great sound effects to match. A fun and refreshing twist, with Isadora’s signature fantastic illustrations.

Hopefully these three twists on Old MacDonald will help inject a bit of variety into your programs. Enjoy!

Review: The Plague and I by Betty MacDonald

“Getting tuberculosis in the middle of your life is like starting downtown to do a lot of urgent errands and being hit by a bus. When you regain consciousness you remember nothing about the urgent errands. You can’t even remember where you were going. The important things now are the pain in your leg; the soreness in your back; what you will have for dinner; who is in the next bed.”

Betty MacDonald was a single mother of two young daughters in the 1940’s when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, or TB, and sent away to a sanatorium. In her memoir The Plague and I, Macdonald reflects on the year she spent away from her family and surrounded by fellow residents from all different backgrounds and walks of life, brought together by a shared battle against a frighteningly prevalent, and often deadly, disease.

“We patients at The Pines differed in color, nationality, political beliefs, I.Q., age, religion, background and ambition. According to the standards of normal living, the only things most of us had in common were being alive and speaking English, but as patients in the sanatorium we had everything in common were firmly cemented together…”

TB, for many of us in the western world, is a disease most often relegated to historical novels and old movies. TB has always reminded me of the old Bing Crosby film The Bells of St. Mary’s, which stars Ingrid Bergman as a beautiful nun who contracts tuberculosis and has to move to a warmer, dryer climate to recover. TB is often mentally placed in a box with other old-timey diseases that only appear in old stories, like scarlet fever, diphtheria, cholera and leprosy – diseases that few of us privileged to live in relative comfort in developed countries will ever witness first-hand, but that sadly still ravage communities in many parts of the world, including parts of my own country.

For MacDonald, TB temporarily robbed of her everything she held dear. She was only able to see her young daughters once a month, for only ten minutes at a time. This was meant both to protect her young daughters from contagion and to limit any “excitement” that might tire MacDonald and prevent her recovery, but it was heartbreaking for the entire family. MacDonald was one of the lucky ones – she was able to leave the sanatorium after only a year of treatment. Many of her fellow residents would spend years at a time separated from their loved ones – it wasn’t uncommon for patients to remain at the sanatorium for five years or more as TB ravaged their bodies. Patients’ lives in the sanatorium were strictly controlled and monitored, to an extent that would horrify modern patients – they couldn’t bring personal belongings into the ward, they weren’t supposed to talk or read or get out of their beds without strict permission, they weren’t even permitted to have an extra blanket if they felt cold, as all bed linens were strictly controlled. They were shouted at and told off off strict, disciplinarian nurses and medical staff for any perceived violation of the rules. Every aspect of a patient’s life was carefully monitored, controlled and regulated, and contact with outside world was extremely limited. In many ways, patients came to feel as though they were criminals, stripped of their most basic freedoms, and with little control over any aspect of their lives. Whereas most contemporary hospitals strive to take a more integrated approach to medicine that works to care for a patient mentally and emotionally as well as physically, these patients were left to battle a potentially terminal disease removed from their loved ones in a setting that often felt more like a prison than a hospital.

As MacDonald reveals in her memoir, though, even in the most difficult of situations, one can always find humour and humanity. MacDonald describes the colourful cast of characters she shared her ward with, and the friendships she quickly developed. While the staff at the sanatorium often seemed cold, hard, even ruthless, their outward demeanour often hid kind, caring souls;

“The Medical Director ruled his sanatorium and the patients with a rod of iron, said constantly that people with tuberculosis were ungrateful, stupid uncooperative and unworthy. Then, carefully screening himself from his own kindness the way he screened his patients from their operations, he loaned those same ungrateful, stupid, uncooperative, and unworthy patients money, bought them bathrobes and pajamas, took care of their families and children, listened to their problems, helped them get work, and fretted twenty-four hours a day over their welfare.”

The medical staff at The Pines TB sanatorium were working with limited drugs, knowledge and resources to treat what was at the time a poorly-understood (by the public, at least), highly contagious and difficult to treat disease that was running rampant through urban areas. MacDonald was herself infected by a coworker who had knowingly been contagious for at least 19 years, and had infected an unknown number of people. Doctors and nurses were applying contemporary medical knowledge and widely accepted ideas surrounding recovery and behaviour, and though some staff were perhaps genuinely unkind and cruel (there are always bad apples in any bunch), by and large they were simply trying to do the best they could with what they had and what they knew.

MacDonald approaches her year in the sanatorium with gentleness and heart, and although the text does feel very much a product of its times (it was written in the 1940’s), MacDonald’s wit and humour are still very approachable and highly enjoyable. She’s just as happy to poke fun at herself as at others, and moments of laughter are tempered with moments of wistful sadness and quiet reflection. MacDonald was one of the lucky ones, a fact she never takes lightly, and while her treatment at the sanatorium left much to be desired, it was also the only affordable option available to a single mother of limited income, without which she likely would not have been able to recover.  While TB is treatable with modern medicines, and is no longer as widespread as it once was, it remains a potent and lethal disease in many communities even in Canada, and should not be taken lightly, or quickly forgotten.

The Plague and I is a fascinating slice of life story, a reflection on a specific moment in history that gives us glimpses into a bygone era that’s both so very similar and dissimilar from our own. It’s a story about never losing your sense of humour, no matter the situation, and about trying to make the best out of even the most daunting realities. Charming, witty, sensitive and heartfelt, The Plague and I is definitely worth checking out.

Ten Great LGBTQ Picture Books

Early this week I attended a workshop put on by two sections of the BC Library Association – YAACS and the LGBTQ Interest Group. Three engaging, experienced presenters shared some great recommendations for picture books, middle grade books and YA books with LGBTQ+ content. It was a fascinating presentation, and I walked away with heaps of great ideas I couldn’t wait to share!

One of the speakers, Rob Bittner, talked about LGBTQ+ themes in picture books, and shared a handful of fantastic titles. These are all brilliant books that every library, whether public or school, should consider adding to their collection! Here just ten of the books that Rob shared with us:

10,000 Dresses

Every night, Bailey dreams about magical dresses: dresses made of crystals and rainbows, dresses made of flowers, dresses made of windows…Unfortunately, when Bailey’s awake, no one wants to hear about these beautiful dreams. Quite the contrary: “You’re a BOY!” Mother and Father tell Bailey. “You shouldn’t be thinking about dresses at all.” Then Bailey meets Laurel, an older girl who is touched and inspired by Bailey’s imagination and courage. In friendship, the two of them begin making dresses together. And Bailey becomes the girl she always dreamed she’d be!

And Tango Makes Three

In the zoo there are all kinds of animal families. But Tango’s family is not like any of the others. This illustrated children’s book fictionalizes the true story of two male penguins who became partners and raised a penguin chick in the Central Park Zoo.

Call Me Tree / Llamame Arbol

In this spare, lyrically written story, we join a child on a journey of self-discovery. Finding a way to grow from the inside out, just like a tree, the child develops as an individual comfortable in the natural world and in relationships with others. The child begins “Within/ The deep dark earth,” like a seed, ready to grow and then dream and reach out to the world. Soon the child discovers birds and the sky and other children: Trees and trees/ Just like me! Each is different too. The child embraces them all because All trees have roots/ All trees belong. Maya Christina Gonzalez once again combines her talents as an artist and a storyteller to craft a gentle, empowering story about belonging, connecting with nature, and becoming your fullest self. Young readers will be inspired to dream and reach, reach and dream . . . and to be as free and unique as trees.”

Donovan’s Big Day

Donovan’s two moms are getting married, and he can’t wait for the celebration to begin. After all, as ringbearer, he has a very important job to do. Any boy or girl with same-sex parents—or who knows a same-sex couple—will appreciate this picture book about love, family, and marriage.  The story captures the joy and excitement of a wedding day while the illustrations show the happy occasion from a child’s point of view.

I Am Jazz

From the time she was two years old, Jazz knew that she had a girl’s brain in a boy’s body. She loved pink and dressing up as a mermaid and didn’t feel like herself in boys’ clothing. This confused her family, until they took her to a doctor who said that Jazz was transgender and that she was born that way. Jazz’s story is based on her real-life experience and she tells it in a simple, clear way that will be appreciated by picture book readers, their parents, and teachers.

Jacob’s New Dress

Jacob loves playing dress-up, when he can be anything he wants to be. Some kids at school say he can’t wear “girl” clothes, but Jacob wants to wear a dress to school. Can he convince his parents to let him wear what he wants? This heartwarming story speaks to the unique challenges faced by boys who don’t identify with traditional gender roles.

Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress

Morris has a great imagination. He paints amazing pictures and he loves his classroom’s dress-up center, especially the tangerine dress. It reminds him of tigers, the sun and his mother’s hair.

The other children don’t understand–dresses, they say, are for girls. And Morris certainly isn’t welcome in the spaceship his classmates are building–astronauts, they say, don’t wear dresses.

One day Morris has a tummy ache, and his mother lets him stay home from school. He stays in bed reading about elephants, and her dreams about a space adventure with his cat, Moo. Inspired by his dream, Morris paints a fantastic picture, and everything begins to change when he takes it to school.

My Princess Boy

My Princess Boy is a nonfiction picture book about acceptance. With words and illustrations even the youngest of children can understand, My Princess Boy tells the tale of 4-year-old boy who happily expresses his authentic self by happily dressing up in dresses, and enjoying traditional girl things such as jewelry and anything pink or sparkly. The book is from a mom’s point of view, sharing both good and bad observations and experiences with friends and family, at school and in shopping stores.

My Princess Boy opens a dialogue about embracing uniqueness, and teaches you and others how to accept young boys who might cross traditional gender line clothing expectations. The book ends with the understanding that ‘my’ Princess Boy is really ‘our’ Princess Boy, and as a community, we can accept and support youth for whoever they are and however they wish to look.

This Day in June

In a wildly whimsical, validating, and exuberant reflection of the LGBT community, this title welcomes readers to experience a pride celebration and share in a day when we are all united. Also included is a reading guide chock-full of facts about LGBT history and culture, as well as a ‘Note to Parents and Caregivers’ with information on how to talk to children about sexual orientation and gender identity in age-appropriate ways.

Stella Brings the Family

Stella’s class is having a Mother’s Day celebration, but what’s a girl with two daddies to do? It’s not that she doesn’t have someone who helps her with her homework, or tucks her in at night. Stella has her Papa and Daddy who take care of her, and a whole gaggle of other loved ones who make her feel special and supported every day. She just doesn’t have a mom to invite to the party. Fortunately, Stella finds a unique solution to her party problem in this sweet story about love, acceptance, and the true meaning of family.

And this is just the beginning! There are so many fantastic LGBTQ+ themed picture books to discover and share, so get thee to a library and check them out!

What I’ve Been Reading Lately

Since I’ve been sick for the past few weeks, I’ve had a lot of time to sit on the couch and read. Here are a couple of the books I’ve burned through during my convalescence.

One Summer :  America 1927 / Bill Bryson

One Summer

Babe Ruth, Mount Rushmore, Prohibition, Jazz, Charles Lindbergh, Al Capone, the beginnings of the Great Depression, and more – Bill Bryson brings all these colourful characters and facts and more together in a book that’s as entertaining as it is educational. I love, love, love narrative nonfiction – nonfiction books that read like novels. Bill Bryson is a master of the genre, and I absolutely could not put this book down.

Divergent / Veronica Roth


Well, the books was better than the movie, I’ll give it that. I have to say, I hated the movie. Hated, hated, hated it. In contrast, I only hated, hated the book. The lead character Tris was far less annoying in the book than she was in the film – I actually cared somewhat what happened to her in the novel, which is something. But it certainly didn’t inspire me to want to pick up another YA novel any time soon….

Eden’s Outcast / John Matteson


A fascinating account of the relationship between “Little Women” author Louisa May Alcott and her father, complicated educator, writer and thinker Branson Alcott. This one was recommended to me by my mother, who has long been a voracious reader of biographies. Fascinating historical figures with intense personalities and a complex, tempestuous but ultimately loving father-daughter bond.

Racing With Death / Beau Riffenburgh


I’ve always been fascinated by Antarctic exploration, and I’ve read different accounts of Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen over the years. Racing with Death is the story of Douglas Mawson, an Australian explorer who’s largely forgotten today. Pretty exciting stuff, but not for the faint of heart (frostbite is not pretty…)