Review: Over the River and Through the Wood

It’s almost time for Thanksgiving; and with it a flurry of activity as families travel across the world or across the yard to share a day with one another. Wherever you’re bound this year, members of every generation can recollect their own beloved traditions with Over the River and Through the Wood: A Thanksgiving Poem by Lydia Maria Child and illustrated by Christopher Manson.

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This striking volume contains the original words to the well-known tune, telling the story by couplets. An eager little boy peeps out the back of the sleigh (circa 1840) as his family makes their way to Grandfather’s house for Thanksgiving. As they pass through a bustling village and the still, snow-drifted countryside, he can hardly contain his excitement. Finally in the evening they come to a farm, and the boy runs into the open arms of his grandmother. The family sits down to a traditional feast, and the book concludes with all the verses and the music for the song.

The unique woodcut illustrations are a brilliant match for this story. Early American scenes come to life in a popular medium of the time. Bundled figures in shades of brown seem natural and even cheerful as they work, surrounded by the clear brightness of a snowy day. As the subjects drive along we see folks skating, sailing, ice-fishing, logging, horseshoeing; and with them we can almost feel the wind that “stings the toes and bites the nose”. The famous dapple-gray horse keeps brisk pace with the song as our impatient little boy leans forward in all the hope of good things at Grandma’s house – and so do we.

For many Americans such scenes are a part of our collective memory, if not our actual experience. Of course not everyone recognizes the sting of cold air in late November, nor even the warmth of a grandmother’s embrace. Even fewer have been out visiting in a sleigh. But however and wherever we celebrate now, Thanksgiving is still a valuable part of our national identity; and we can all recognize the desire to be with those who love us most. An idyllic old-fashioned setting is not just empty nostalgia or a narrow vision, but an invitation to renew our dedication to our own homes and families.

This book gives fresh insight to familiar words, and provides strong visual cues for sensations that children will recognize: the tingling feeling as you take a gulp of cold air, the warm smell of food cooking, the sound of laughter when friends meet, the anxious hug of someone you’ve been missing. With emphasis on the anticipation and joy of a family gathering, Manson’s rendering would be a delight to read aloud when squirmy little guests start wondering if dinner will ever be ready. Or big ones, for that matter.

Happy Thanksgiving!

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Sharing the Bread: An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Story by Pat Zietlow Miller and Jill McElmurry

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Review: In Flanders Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae

As the world prepares to mark the centennial of the Armistice which drew to a close “the war to end all wars”, it is necessary that we find a way to discuss these events with our children. Expanding on the immortal poem, In Flanders Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae by Linda Granfield and Janet Wilson addresses both the realities and the shocking imprint of this difficult chapter in human history.

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The Great War is remembered for violence on an unprecedented scale, and Americans never quite seem to know what to do with its memory. In a hundred years we still haven’t processed it as well as nations which endured it more directly. They have memorials and poppies and literature; we throw a vague Veteran’s Day sale and try not to think about it. It’s no wonder that we struggle to explain these events to our children, when as a whole we have not dealt with them ourselves.

Such ambivalence is reflected in the dearth of children’s books on the First World War. Aside from histories, picture books like Midnight: A True Story of Loyalty in World War I or The Poppy Lady: Moina Belle Michael and Her Tribute to Veterans tend to focus on a specific story from the period; one which underscores the compassionate response of an individual to a brutal and complicated conflict. While there is certainly a need for this perspective, these versions are overly sentimental and lacking in scope; they fail to do the subjects justice, let alone convey the enormity of the hostilities. What is needed is a skillful, comprehensive representation of the First World War; not just the facts, but its legacy.

Granfield’s work accomplishes this. The basis of the book are the cherished words of a Canadian doctor who served and died in the War, in the form of his famous poem “In Flanders Fields”. The first page bears a copy of the verse in the poet’s own handwriting, followed by a careful repetition of the poem a line at a time. Each line is graced with one of Wilson’s full-page color paintings. Sprinkled among these pages is Granfield’s thoughtful account of the war, including images and the background of both McCrae and his poem within the full context of the war in Europe. It ends with acknowledgement of the challenging heritage of such an awful struggle, but with a willingness to honor bravery and sacrifice in the midst of combat.

This is ideally a book for children and adults to read together. Other reviewers have noted that the format can be confusing, with the historical elements scattered throughout the lines of the poem and illustrations. If a reader is unfamiliar with the flow of the poem, this is a reasonable point. It would be worthwhile to read the poem in full several times as it appears handwritten on the first page. Once done, Granfield’s text coincides very sensibly with the illustrated lines of the poem.

The illustrations themselves are deeply evocative; depicting home front and battlefield, they are sweeping and capture a sense of being caught up in something much larger than oneself. Like Granfield’s text, they offer a treatment of these issues that is respectful and wholly appropriate for young readers with an adult guide. I would think that a child as young as seven or eight could understand what is presented in this book.

No child should have to make sense of these things alone, but with the right book and a caring adult we can address the past with an eye to the future; that history may not be repeated, and that those who served might not be forgotten.

Review: The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night

Autumn is a snug time; a time for pleasant reminiscence. If you need a classic picture book to go with your cocoa, The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night by Peter Spier is just the thing.

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The words of this story belong to an American folk song, here lovingly brought to life with Spier’s gorgeous illustrations. A fox sets out one evening by the light of a hunter’s moon to gather food for his family. He courses through prosperous farmland, past startled cows and stooks of corn, until he reaches the outskirts of a small town. He snatches a duck and a goose from the henhouse, and makes off with his haul amid a fabulous flurry of feathers; but not before arousing the suspicions of the old lady, who sends her hapless husband John after the thief. The reader cannot help but hope that the quick fox will return safely to his den with a feast for his adorable family.

My children love Peter Spier’s creations. The illustrations are packed with detail, and we can page through and hunt for interesting scenarios without even reading the words. In these scenes the fox sneaks through a mid-nineteenth-century New England countryside that is vibrant with the hues of autumn and rich with historical accuracies. However the number of illustrations produced in color depends on the edition you have.

This book was originally published in 1961, with the illustrations alternating page by page between black-and-white drawings and full-color watercolors. The drawings allowed a reader’s imagination to focus on the intricacies of each depiction, while the paintings were awash in the hues of autumn and created a sense of instant warmth. In 2013 Spier released an updated edition in which all of the original drawings are reprised in watercolor. The drawings are the same, but now they are all presented in that beloved riot of color. Both versions are excellent, and the tone and quality of the full-color work completed by the author fifty years later is every bit as charming as the original.

At the end of the story the full words are printed along with the music. If you are not familiar with the tune, this version is fun to sing with children. The lyrics do not precisely match up with those printed in the book, but that’s part of the fun with folk music. The words are simple and catchy so children can sing along. It would be a rollicking start to a family game night, harvest celebration, or children’s dance party.

This is an altogether enjoyable book to share with your family, although it might need to be explained to little listeners that foxes do in fact eat ducks and geese (alas, that wonderfully expressive goose does not survive the tale). In an unassuming way, it encourages contentment with the simple necessities of a warm home, a loving family, and a good meal. May your own hearth be a joyful place this season.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Frog Went A-Courtin’ by John Langstaff and Feodor Rojankovsky

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