Review: Ox-Cart Man

“In October he backed his ox into his cart and he and his family filled it up with everything they made or grew all year long that was left over.”

With these words begins the classic Ox-Cart Man, written by Donald Hall and illustrated by Barbara Cooney. This Caldecott Medal winner is a treasure of spare American storytelling, and a tribute to the canny resourcefulness of settlers who eked out a living in the wilderness prior to the Industrial Revolution.

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The story is short and simple: an early nineteenth-century farmer loads up his cart with the harvest and makes his annual trek to the market in a New England port town. The contents of his cart represent months of work for his family: broomsticks carved the previous winter, mittens knit from wool that had been shorn from the sheep in spring, produce that had grown through the summer and finally ripened for winter eating. He walks for ten days, sells all his goods, and then as the autumn wanes he walks back home to his waiting family with a few strikingly simple treats from town. Immediately the family settles back in to producing all that they need – and more – in another year on their isolated farm.

With geese flapping and maple syrup boiling, this picturesque representation of pioneering sustainability is enough to please any small reader, but it also reaches much deeper. Cooney’s colorful early-American paintings depict a family working in cooperation with the turning seasons, harvesting what they need as it becomes available from the earth and the animals. Each person contributes in this diversified rural setting, and their requirements from town are remarkably few (“an embroidery needle that came from a boat in the harbor that had sailed all the way from England.”).

Although the Man and his family are given no names, we begin to share a certain intimacy with them as they gather in the bounty of the year and settle in for winter. Working with placid expressions, they exude a contentment that is perhaps a trifle nostalgic, but also very desirable. The Man – who splits his own shingles and stitches his own harness – has a kindly temperament; when he finally sells his ox he first kisses him on the nose.

This rhythmic story makes a valuable imprint on a young child’s mind. It grants not only an insight into how people lived for generations, but also an appreciation for the skills they learned to survive. The necessity of their hard labors is softened by their triumph in meeting all their own needs, and ultimately living a good and quiet life.

From toddlers interested in farm animals to middle-grade students with a budding love of history, this book is a peaceful read-aloud with children. With sweet stylized pictures and lyrical text, it is a finely-textured praise of traditional skills, self-reliance, and an unbreakable family bond.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Yonder by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Lloyd Bloom (Sadly, this book is long out of print, but well worth finding used or in a library.)

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Review: The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

A character in a story often doesn’t realize what treasure he possesses until he has lost it. The same can be true of a society; but thankfully our treasure has been recovered in The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris.

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A number of newly-pertinent words were added to the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary for children; words like blog and voicemail. But a few people noticed that words were also left out, making way for the jargon of the technical age. These discards were words of the natural world, suddenly deemed so unfamiliar and irrelevant to the lives of children that they no longer warranted a place in a common school dictionary. Mourning their loss, Robert Macfarlane set out with illustrator Jackie Morris to bring these words back.

But surely, you protest, language changes. Antiquated terminology should be dropped in favor of current usage. What were these old words, so unceremoniously banished from the childhood lexicon?

Well, I’ll tell you.

Acorn. Dandelion. Fern. Ivy. Otter. Raven. Weasel. Willow.

There are twenty in all.

You see how grave this is from many points of view. These are simple words, naming common outdoor discoveries; they should be as familiar to any youngster as the milk she pours on her cereal. How can she not know the joy of blowing away her wishes with the dandelion seeds? How can that squished bouquet of cheerful yellow flowers not have a name? And how much fun is missed if she cannot chuckle over Piglet’s “haycorns”Aesop’s Fables and The Wind In The Willows lose vital members of their cast, and Poe’s majestic poem has no meaning for her. Such a child has been denied both experience of the natural world and references to it; how then can she love it?

But all is not yet lost. Macfarlane and Morris return these words to us in grand style. Written a decade after the telling omissions, their gorgeous book devotes three spectacular full-page spreads to the reintroduction of each word. The first two pages allocated to every lost word depict its letters, scattered like puzzle pieces with other letters among various flora and fauna. The second pair of pages presents the word, bringing it to life by describing the organism itself. An acrostic poem exuberantly depicts the plant or animal named, and opposite this is a portrait of it in detail enough to please any naturalist. On the final spread we then find a splendid illustration of the subject – now no longer lost, but lovably familiar – in its own habitat. We recognize it, and recall with satisfaction that indeed we have loved it.

The Lost Words is a lush book, and it doesn’t even need to argue that these words – these birds and beasts and growing things – are important. Rather, it shows us. It captures the gleam in a kingfisher’s eye, the temper of the irascible magpie, the twitter of a flock of starlings. It preserves the blazing beauty of the heather, and the possibilities of a lowly conker. It demonstrates the value of these lost words by reminding us that they are more than words: they are living things that have a rightful place in our language and our world.

This striking volume is large, like a coffee-table book; perfect for studying in detail. It cannot fail to ignite a fresh appreciation for our fellow creatures, and a desire to encounter them in both field and literature. The poetry is delicious and the paintings truly impressive. Readers of any age can savor it, but above all it should be shared with our children; that these words – and the wild things they represent – need not be lost from our collective memory.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: The Complete Book of the Flower Fairies by Cicely Mary Barker

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Review: Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt

I’m beginning to wonder if it will ever be spring in my corner of the world, but those of you who live in milder climes know that gardening season is upon us. Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, written by Kate Messner and illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal, is just the thing to get children ready to get their hands dirty.

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This book is part fact and part fiction. It unfolds the sweet story of a girl and her Nana as they tend their garden throughout the year. Combining the girl’s observations with her grandmother’s wisdom, the book vividly chronicles the activities that take place up in the garden (planting seeds, picking tomatoes) and down in the dirt (earthworms tunneling, roots spreading) over the course of a growing season. The descriptions capture not only the fun and loving relationship between the multi-generational gardeners, but also what really happens to make a garden grow.

There is so much to love about this book. Over the better part of a year we see an active grandmother investing lots of quality time into both a productive garden and her eager helper. She doesn’t just tell her granddaughter how to garden; she shows her. They dig and water and weed diligently through the different seasons, but always make time for those special moments: spraying each other with the hose or snuggling up for a story. And together they work with nature to cultivate their bountiful garden.

But the humans are not the only ones working in the garden. There are insects and arachnids, invertebrates and rodents, birds and reptiles all doing their part to care for the earth. Of course, sometimes that means eating one another or looking a bit weird as they burrow in the soil; but our narrator and her grandmother know that a garden is a living thing, and everyone has a role. The words and the text bring colorful insight to this lively interaction, and at the end is a detailed glossary of all the creatures that are mentioned.

This book is a fresh version of the yearly cycle of seasons and growth. The words are bursting with meaning and the pictures are simple but rich. If you hope to inspire a young gardener to grow their own food, or even just help them understand the balance of the natural world, this is an excellent choice. Smaller children will enjoy the detail of the words and pictures, and school-age kids will soak up facts without even knowing it. Happy gardening!

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: A Seed Is Sleepy by Dianna Aston

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