Let me tell you a feel-good story. It involves love — the love of a mother for her daughter — and a daughter’s passionate, exhilarated, uncomplicated love for books. This is the true story of Deb R., her daughter Sabrina, and how I came to know them. The more we see bookstores large and small close their doors, the more grateful I am that Deb shared her story, and Sabrina has shared a wonderful cast of characters previously unknown to me.
A couple of months ago Deb asked me to help her find a series of books. All Sabrina wanted for Christmas was “Gilbert.” Deb needed to order multiple copies of each book in the collection, she explained. Sabrina loves the “Gilbert” books so much, that she reads them to pieces. Literally. While I am always thrilled to see someone who loves books that much, that’s not even the best part of the story. Sabrina is mentally and physically handicapped. She has a job at Partners in Progress that she enjoys. Whenever she rides to work on the bus, she has a “Gilbert” book — or two or three — in her bag, and she “reads” them to the other passengers. Sabrina has memorized her favorite books. Her mother needs to keep buying new copies of them because Sabrina pages through them so much and so often that they fall apart.
Gilbert, the possum, and his sister Lola, are creations from the paintbrush and pen of Diane deGroat. This author/illustrator started working in children’s literature by doing the artwork for some well-known children’s authors, such as Lois Lowry and Eve Bunting. DeGroat started on her Gilbert series in 1996 with Roses are Pink, Your Feet Really Stink, which is still Sabrina’s favorite.
I hadn’t heard of deGroat, but Deb gave my literary ego a boost by reassuring me that I’m not alone. Often when Deb and Sabrina have searched for Gilbert in libraries and bookstores, he is nowhere to be found. So it’s time to spread the word.
Diane deGroat has created a fun, inexpensive series with sympathetic characters, situations that kids can relate to and a little lesson that doesn’t come across like a 2″ x 4″ to the forehead. The titles themselves produce a smile for kids and adults alike. Now there’s a Gilbert for every season in a child’s life. A reader can start school with Gilbert in Brand New Pencils, Brand New Books and end the school year with the companion volume, No More Pencils, No More Books! No More Teacher’s Dirty Looks! The newest one, for Earth Day, Ants in Your Pants, Worms in Your Plants, is sure to please gardeners. In the final months of the year, you can enjoy We Gather Together, Now Please Get Lost for Thanksgiving, and Jingle Bells, Homework Smells for Christmas.
The Gilbert books have been so successful that his sister Lola has her own series, books for slightly younger children, that often include Gilbert, but from Lola’s point-of-view. When Lola can’t decide what to be for Halloween, she finally decides to be “a Gilbert,” because she knows he’s an original. I think Sabrina and Lola are on to something.