September ushers in the season of change, and little helpers are reaching for the apples on the lowest branches instead of chasing fireflies. It’s a fine time to venture Down the Road with one of my favorite family picture books, written by Alice Schertle and illustrated by E.B. Lewis.

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Hetty’s family has a cozy home in the country; and though she sometimes goes out with her mother and her father, she has never been allowed to walk down the road to town unaccompanied. But when Mama mentions that she wishes she had time to walk to the store and buy some eggs for tomorrow’s breakfast, Papa convinces Mama that Hetty is big enough now to do it on her own. Hetty is thrilled to be entrusted with this important task, and she sets out confidently. Conscious of her responsibilities – and mindful of the lifelong examples of her parents – she proceeds directly to the general store, politely makes her purchase, and then carefully starts home with the eggs.

She pauses only once, fatefully deciding to stop and pick some apples as a treat for the family. As she reaches up into the wild apple tree, the eggs come smashing down. Heartbroken, Hetty dreads going home without her fragile cargo, and she takes refuge in the arms of the tree. But when Papa and then Mama come down the road looking for her, Hetty’s disappointment is swallowed up in the loving embrace of her family; and together they head home with enough apples to make a pie for breakfast the next morning.

I love this comfortable book. I love to read it aloud. It is perfectly paced, and captures the precious desire of any child who longs to be big enough to help. The descriptions of Hetty’s simple surroundings and gracious behavior are a glimpse of a golden, innocent childhood; right down to the sounds her shoes make on the dirt road and the way she concentrates on her task with a song.

But for all the wholesome sweetness of Hetty and her good intentions, the real heroes of this story are her parents. They trust their daughter, and know that she will do her best precisely because they have modeled for her their own good manners, responsibility, and thoughtfulness. When she does not return, they seek her; and when she believes that she has failed, they climb right up in the tree to comfort and reassure her. With love and complete understanding, they teach their little girl to be patient with herself, to make the best of things and to learn from her mistakes. There is certainly no failure in that.

Hetty’s world glows through the warm, slightly smudgy paintings of E.B. Lewis. I particularly appreciate that Hetty and her parents are portrayed as an African-American family. We don’t see enough positive depictions of families of color in American children’s literature, but this book is a prime example of how it should be done. I highly recommend this reassuring book at any time of year for children in the early and middle grades, who know both the sting of tears and the warmth of a hug.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: One Green Apple, written by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Ted Lewin

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