Book Bag: ‘Teaflet & Roog Make a Mess’ by Jeanne Birdsall; ‘Emily & Virginia’ by Robert McDowell

Staff Writer
Published: 6/17/2021 4:39:19 PM

Teaflet & Roog Make a Mess
by Jeanne Birdsall, illustrated by Jane Dyer; Alfred A. Knopf


Jeanne Birdsall has earned a notable place in contemporary children’s and young adult literature with her novels about The Penderwicks, a household of girls in Massachusetts who have various adventures as they’re growing up. The five-book series has sold over 1.5 million copies and been translated into some 30 languages since the first title, “The Penderwicks,” was published in 2005 and won a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

Birdsall, who lives in Northampton, completed her last book in the series, “The Penderwicks at Last,” in 2018, but she’s still keeping busy. And in her new book, “Teaflet & Roog Make a Mess,” a story for younger children, she’s tapped a neighbor and friend, Jane Dyer, for illustrations.

Most of those illustrations are based on needle-felted dolls that Dyer, a veteran children’s book artist, made from the wool of a small flock of sheep she keeps at a summer home in the Hilltowns. And Birdsall, who’s also a photographer, has created portraits of Dyer’s dolls and the intricate tableaus that her friend devised, such as a kitchen with a tiny refrigerator, sink and wall hangings.

The story is a good one, full of the humor and spirit Birdsall brings to her Penderwick books. Teaflet and Roog are a sister and brother, respectively, who live in a place called Trefldom, in a “little higgedly-piggedly house” that’s up in a large tree. Teaflet is a friend to many local animals that need help solving their problems, including a bluebird who’s too shy to sing and a baby hedgehog that can’t get its tail to uncurl. Roog, meantime, loves to cook and bake.

The siblings generally get along, though Roog can get annoyed when Teaflet’s animal friends mess up the kitchen. But there’s a bigger crisis afoot in Birdsall’s new book: Roog has a ton of work to do to put together his annual Strawberry Jam Party, and he and his sister have just received notice that Trefldom’s new Inspector of Neatness is coming to examine their home for things such as properly made beds, clean floors, and caps put back on toothpaste tubes.

Fail this test, the siblings learn, and they’ll be forced to clean the inspector’s home — and the Jam Party will have to be canceled!

The story becomes a bit of a page-turner as one after another of Teaflet’s animal friends accidently make a mess, such as a mouse that knocks over a bottle of flaxseed oil, and another group of critters that spill confetti all over the floor of the storeroom, where Teafelt is trying to hide them. Will brother and sister get things squared away in time to satisfy the demanding Inspector of Neatness?

Aiding the story at each turn are the imaginative dolls and settings Dyer created — Birdsdall also helped her friend design some of the dioramas — as well as Dyer’s watercolor illustrations. In some cases she’s merged her artwork, such as the photo of a raccoon doll posed by a teacup, which has spilled its “contents” in a watercolor stream that runs out of the photo to the bottom of the page.

In an interview last month with Publisher’s Weekly, Birdsall and Dyer said their book was a true collaborative effort born from their friendship.

“In the end, what Jane and I managed to do in ‘Teaflet & Roog’ was find a project that we each had wanted to do since childhood,” Birdsall said. “That is magical. And the true joy of it is that we just laughed and laughed — all the time.”


Emily & Virginia
by Robert McDowell; Homestead Lighthouse Press


Emily Dickinson, the Belle of Amherst, has been the subject of myriad books, including a fair number of novels and even short stories that invoke the story of the reclusive poet in different ways. But how often does the fictional Emily share pages with a fictional Virginia Woolf?

In “Emily & Virginia,” a novel by veteran writer, poet, editor and writing teacher Robert McDowell, Dickinson and Woolf return from the afterlife to the contemporary world to help Lily, a young female manga artist in modern Ashland, Oregon develop her talents and to navigate a series of problems — including fending off the De la Nuit, scary dark agents from the “Other World” that intend to do Lily harm.

The novel’s structure follows that of Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse,” and it also was inspired by the author’s experience of being “visited” by the spirits of Dickinson and Woolf as a boy, and during periods of his adult life. McDowell, who lives in Oregon — he once taught at Bennington College’s MFA program, according to his website — notes in an afterword to “Emily & Virginia” that he tried to run away to England as a boy because he wanted to visit Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell.

“Emily & Virginia” offers a mix of magical realism and alternative history that can play out in amusing ways, such as one scene in which Lily, Emily and Virginia are riding on a bus through Ashland and Lily is trying to suss out who these women are, and why they’re wearing old-fashioned clothes. Dickinson’s speech patterns, meanwhile, seem to mimic her poetry.

“We never told you our names!” Dickinson says. “I — am Emily — and this delightful if somewhat vexing creature — is Virginia.”

“Think of us as your long lost, eccentric aunts,” Woolf adds. “It’s more fun!”

The two offer more specific advice to Lily as the novel progresses, counseling patience, determination and a willingness to believe in herself as an artist and a woman. “Women must stand up and say No — to endless squabbles that Evolve,” Dickinson says. “No to prevarication — No to Greed that tantalizes the Heart & Soul. Oh, Women everywhere  – must-Unplague this Earth!”

“Emily & Virginia” also features appearances by several members of Woolf’s literary circle, the Bloomsbury group, including Vanessa Bell and Woolf’s husband, Leonard. Dickinson’s sister, Lavinia, is part of the story as well.

“What a treat to encounter Dickinson and Woolf forging a sisterhood out of poetry, prose, and endless curiosity about the people and places around them,” writes one reviewer, who calls the novel “a rollicking journey through time and space, exploring literature, art, friendship, and love in smart, sparkling writing.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

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