Saturday, August 12, 2017

Happy Birthday, Don Freeman - August 11

Happy Birthday, Don Freeman - August 11
(August 11, 1908 - February 1, 1978)

If you keep looking, one day you will find what you are looking for.

My favorite book by Don Freeman, author and illustrator of Corduroy, is Manuelo, the Playing Mantis. This book was published 25 years after Freeman's death when the "manuscript and drawings were found by [his] son in the attic of the family's home." (BookPage).

Manuelo loves music but can't make music of his own like crickets, frogs, grasshoppers and katydids. He is unsuccessful playing a flute he makes out of a reed and a trumpet he makes out of a flower. As he is losing hope, Manuelo meets, Debby Webster, a spider, who has an idea that might help. A walnut shell, a stick, and Debby's strong webs make a cello and a bluebird feather serves as a bow. Finally, after many failed attempts Manuelo succeeds at making his own music.

In 2014, I had the idea to take my family on a nature walk to find a praying mantis. I really thought we would find one and I would read Manuelo, the Playing Mantis with my children.
I had my camera ready. The kids were looking. It seemed like the perfect spot.
We were determined to find a praying mantis.
Over there? No.
Over here? No.
We saw many cool creatures like these little green frogs.
And this enormous dragonfly, but no praying mantis.
It wasn't a total loss. We hiked the park together, but I chose not to read Manuelo, the Playing Mantis to my children. My search was not over.

The following year (2015), I was inside the house and my daughter screams for me to come outside. On our van she found a big bug. I looked at it and with hope I said, "I think it is a baby praying mantis. I am going to need that in a few weeks for Don Freeman's birthday."

I quickly found our butterfly house, captured the bug, and started making plans to keep the bug until August. (As I look back I can't help thinking, "What was I thinking?")
Upon closer inspection, it was not a praying mantis, but another green bug. Katydid, maybe?
Don Freeman's birthday passed again without a celebration. Then in December 2015, we were celebrating Henry Cole's birthday at a Christmas tree farm. One of the workers at the farm came up to my family and said, "Do you know what this is?"

We didn't know. He said, "It is a praying mantis pod." I was so excited! I thought, "Next year, we will have praying mantises for sure!"
I placed the pod in the center of this plant in my yard so I would remember it come spring. Spring came, I found my praying mantis pod, but it was a squishy mess. No praying mantises, again! (As I look at the picture of the pod today, I now know that it was definitely a praying mantis pod, but one that was old. The praying mantises had already hatched from it.) So, 2016 didn't bring a Don Freeman birthday celebration either, but there is always next year.
2017 was filled with hope when a friend texted in the spring, "We ordered too many praying mantis pods, would you like a few?"  Of course, I said "Yes!"
We kept two of the pods outside, but the other we kept inside in this small container. Then, one day, my son noticed something amazing. 
Praying mantis babies! Hundreds of them!
We put the pod in our butterfly house and quickly took it out to our garden. 
They were crawling everywhere!

A few days later a second pod hatched and we had more praying mantises. We released them in our garden too. The third pod never hatched.
For the next few weeks we watched them grow in our garden. They were easy to spot because they were tan in color.
Do you see two praying mantises?
They grew and grew and changed to green. This made them harder to find. 
When July came we were unable find any praying mantises.
I was slightly worried I wouldn't be able to find one come August, but I still had hope that this would be the year. (There had to at least one in the garden, right?) But, our hope was all but gone when I spent the week leading up to August 11th searching our garden and nothing. Well, I shouldn't say nothing. There were lots of other cool creatures that I saw, just like 2014; butterflies, dragonflies, bees of all kinds, grasshoppers. But, no praying mantises.

On Don Freeman's birthday, August 11th, I baked zucchini bread on a rainy afternoon. When the bread was finished the sun came out. I took a bag full of kitchen scraps to the compost bin. I passed the garden and thought, I wonder if a praying mantis would be more visible after rain. Maybe one would come up to the top of a plant to dry off? So, after I dumped my scraps I stopped to look one last time.

Within a minute I peered over and on the edge of one of the great blue lobelia plants I saw Manuelo, the Playing Mantis! All I had with me was the empty bag that held my kitchen scraps. 
He was difficult to catch but I got him in the bag and brought him into the house for my children to see.

He crawled on the kitchen counter for a bit, and then we decided to put him in a bug house while we read the book.

Later, we took Manuelo back to the exact plant where he was found.
He initially didn't want to come out.
But, soon he reached and returned to the garden.
Do you see him? 

This will become one of the most memorable reading experiences ever. I will never forget the feeling I had when I saw the praying mantis. Excitement, of course. Happiness, too. But also a feeling of validation. This is why I kept looking. I wasn't going to give up, just like Manuelo.
1. Don Freeman's Website -- Check out this website! Tons of information!

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