Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 24, 2014

Charm Strings

When poet Amy Ludwig Van Derwater announced she was putting together a string of buttons Victorian ladies called a charm string, and requested a button from friends, I spilled out my button box. Memories rose from the soft clatter. One green cloth button was from a vintage coat I bought during the first winter my husband and I spent together. A wee frog was from when my grown daughter was a baby. Bent and broken paper cards of buttons had been retrieved from my mother’s jar of buttons after she died. And I found a few wooden buttons I’d bought after the owner of a used bookshop gave me a copy of Maine Charm Strings, decades ago, saying she thought the book was meant for me.

Recently I spoke with a friend about journals we had as girls, and how often first diaries are gifts from older women: that precious belief that we had something to say, before we knew that ourselves. I also love the idea of buttons moving from hand to hand, with their various colors, shapes, and the vaguest hints of stories, which change in every pair of ears, eyes, and hands. You can read more about Amy’s quest for buttons and words at The Poem Farm. And please comment there before next Thursday for a chance to win a copy of my book, Views from a Window Seat.


The gift of one book inspired one of my own, set in nineteenth century Salem. It was never published, but below is an excerpt in which Lucy’s older sister introduces her to charm strings:

“You’re just the right age to start a charm string.”  Caroline lowered her voice the way she did whenever she spoke of magic.  She unrolled some string saved from packages. Using tiny bird-shaped scissors, she snipped off a piece of string as long as Lucy’s arm.

“All you have to do is thread the buttons together.  Every button should be different.  Start with a large one. That round wooden one looks good. You put them on the string until you have nine hundred and ninety-nine.”

“What happens then?”

“Your life changes.  You win the great dream of your heart.”

Lucy laced the string through two holes in the polished wooden button, then threaded on a brass, china, and cloth-covered button.  She looked through the buttons darkened by time and chose one that was fan-shaped, one with a picture of a solemn, still robin, a speckled stone button and one made from a ribbon coiled into a rose.  The rest were plain and round, but smooth as the wave-worn rocks on the beach. They felt good on her palm.

Caroline picked up another one that showed a cat with tiny painted whiskers, a little dot of a mouth, dark ears, and a curled-in tail. “Don’t take so many that the pile looks smaller when you’re done. Twelve buttons is good to start.  After this you either have to find the buttons or they should be gifts.  The more buttons you get, the luckier you’ll be.”

Lucy slipped a silver button on the string. The sound was soothing, like milk splashing from a pitcher. “If you don’t have all the buttons you need, how do you know that it works?  Mother says you shouldn’t believe everything you’re told.”

“Sometimes you have to be content with hints instead of proof.  You don’t expect the seashells and stones you find washed up on the shore to tell you everything about the ocean.  You can’t expect clouds to spell out the afternoon’s weather.”

“That’s different.”

“Mother’s right that you shouldn’t believe everything you hear, but if lore has been passed along, it’s lasted for a reason.”


For more Poetry Friday posts, please visit Tara at A Teaching Life.







  1. Love the idea of charm strings and of journals and buttons belng related to each other and I also love the excerpt of your writing, and it ought to find a home.

    • I don’t make it a habit to collect friends named Amy, but I consider myself very lucky to have a very dear few. Thank you!

  2. What a lovely excerpt and beautiful buttons!

  3. My first journal was a five year diary. I recorded the most astounding information–like what I ate for breakfast, scores on my spelling tests, and what time I went to bed. I was only eight, so not such a bad start!

    • When I research, I’m pretty thrilled if someone mentions what they had for breakfast! But I get it that five years of spelling test scores might not be the most enlightening detail. It’s interesting to read your comment after reading your blog re how you’re finding yourself pulled by detail, and maybe missing the wonder. If only we could find wonder in each and every detail. If only it were always in the blueberries on the oatmeal.

  4. Lovely excerpt, Jeannine. Just stopped by Amy’s but didn’t enter the contest — I got your book for Christmas! Will be digging in soon.

    • Thank you, Karen! I hope you dig up something of use!

  5. Charm strings are fascinating, especially because you have to find most of the buttons or receive them as gifts! I just told someone today that I would loan her your book. She is struggling with finding her voice and I think she will find it very reassuring.

    • I do love the idea of looking on the ground or in corners and especially available attics for buttons (given, found, or I might add purloined, when they’re neglected?) but after starting a charm string realized I was too shy to pursue. Maybe with the right child. Or connecting over the internet, with no doors involved.

      Thank you for sharing my book, and letting me know. I wish your friend the best in her important struggle. An ongoing one, so we keep looking for patches of light.

  6. I have so many buttons, and this story ‘charms’ me to think I might introduce this lovely idea to my granddaughters, a little later (they’re 4 1/2 & 2) I think, but it seems something to hold onto for life really. I’ve used buttons with writing groups at school, Jeannine. The students love writing from the idea of a ‘lost’ button, to what, then to whom, was it attached? Why the loss? And on-their imaginations know no bounds! Thank you for sharing this small part of some of a story-I like the flavor of it!

    • How lovely to introduce charm strings to those truck-building-and-pink-loving princesses! and to think of you starting young writers off with buttons. One of my favorite picture books is Corduroy, who loses a button and finds the friend of his dreams.

  7. Jeannine! How grateful I feel to have found you, your writing, buttons, and MAINE CHARM STRING. This is the most perfect excerpt, one I may copy into my new button story book. Thank you, as always, for your wisdom here…and for sharing such a fantastic photo!! xo, a.

    • And I’m grateful to know you! It felt great to see some of my writer and teacher friends discovering all the wonders of your blog through my link. Yay for buttons and words that connect. Dipping into an old manuscript felt a bit like dipping into a button box — I remember this! And I’m glad you like the photo. You can’t see it in the shadow, but in the upper left there’s a green cloth one like the one I sent you. I clipped those off the coat and replaced them with some fleur-des-lisle buttons. That may, or may not, be around here somewhere.

  8. Beautiful. Makes me long to have all those buttons back that we sold at Mom’s sewing-themed yard sale…

    • I’m sure buttons will come your way if you want them. Just ask!

  9. Jeannie,
    I didn’t join in the button project, though think it’s terrific, but loved seeing that you are responsible for the story about Mary Anning. When I used to be part of the committee bringing authors and illustrators to our schools in western NY (semi-retired now) we all met Michael Dooling and bought your book for our reading centers and libraries. Wow!

    • Janis, thank you for letting me know you liked Mary Anning and Michael Dooling. And thank you for your work bringing authors and illustrators to schools!

  10. Jeannine- I loved reading your excerpt and hearing the stories behind some of your buttons. I have VIEWS FROM A WINDOW SEAT and have just started to read it. Like Linda B., I think a charm string would make a fantastic activity to share with my granddaughter when she’s older (she’s only 3). I really enjoyed your post.

    • Wonderful what Amy has started with her buttons! We will let those three year olds grow up a bit, but lucky them to be heirs to such stories. And I’m touched that you are reading Views from a Window Seat — thank you!

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