I have reached the age when I habitually read the obituaries; reading of lives well-lived pleases me, and fortunately there are more of those than the other in my local paper. One name in particular caught my eye this past Sunday: Elizabeth Frackelton Moak Skorpen. When your last name is Smith, just about any other surname is cooler than yours, and this surely was one to conjure with. But it also rang a faint bell.
Reading along, I learned that she was familiarly known as Liesel, and the ringing became a little stronger. Then I came to this bit: “Liesel loved chaos. She wrote children's books when not acquiring goats, chickens, guinea pigs, many dogs and cats, and her spiritual love, horses. While her work was being published, she enjoyed nothing better than to go to schools and read to circles of rapt children.”
Aha! Elizabeth Frackelton Moak Skorpen was Liesel Moak Skorpen, author of We Were Tired of Living in a House, one of my can’t-lose storytime books and a book that was a real favorite with my daughter when she was small.
“We were tired of living in a house,” it begins, as three rumbustious children venture out, leaving behind, according to Joe Cepeda’s brilliant illustrations in the 1999 reissue, an old house that their DIY parents are busily renovating.
“So we packed a bag with sweaters
And we moved to a tree.
We liked our tree.”
Of course they love their tree: It’s breezy and full of bird song, “and our roof in the autumn turned scarlet and gold.” But then they “tumble” out and head to a pond—from which they remove to a cave and then to the seashore.
With each move they leave behind one practical item and pick up a souvenir of sorts, so the musical refrain changes, line by line, until
“we packed our bag with scarlet leaves and gold
and a frog who was a particular friend
and precious stones that caught and held the sun,
and seashells singing the songs of the surf.
And we went home to live in a house.”
The obvious thematic appeal of total independence in the wilderness and Cepeda’s vigorous oils—the squinty-eyed bears glaring at the children from across the gutter, forcing their move from their cave, are worth the price of admission all by itself—make the book a winner. But it is the sheer musicality of Skorpen’s text that won my heart. The refrain’s iambs chant themselves, the extra syllables in “frog who was a particular friend” causing the voice to rise and then fall in a lilt that can’t be denied. I read it so often I memorized it and had to force myself to remember to turn the pages for the children I was reading to.
In this year that seems to have held more than its fair share of passages—we’ve only just celebrated E.L. Konigsburg’s and Fredrick McKissack’s lives—Liesel Moak Skorpen isn’t likely to stand out. She was active for about a 10-year period from the late ’60s to the late ’70s, and all her books are, sadly, out-of-print, even my beloved reissue of We Were Tired of Living in a House. But the amount of joy my daughter, the children I worked with and I derived from her energetic idyll demands that I stop for a moment to remember her.
Liesel Moak Skorpen, thank you.
Vicky Smith is the children’s and teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.