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: 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: Brother Sun, Sister Moon

With the autumn equinox just behind us, the harvest moon above us, and the commemoration of Saint Francis before us, this seems like a good moment to pause and give thanks with our children. The gorgeous Brother Sun, Sister Moon by Katherine Paterson and Pamela Dalton will fill that pause well.

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The text of this book is a “reimagining” of The Canticle of the Sun by Saint Francis of Assisi himself. He wrote this classic song of praise in his native tongue not long before his death. This abridged English translation reads beautifully and conveys the essence of the original, which is provided in full at the back of the book along with notes from the author and illustrator.

Paterson has gently shortened this prayer of thanksgiving addressed to “God, the Lord of Heaven and Earth”. She preserves the saint’s tributes to sun, moon, wind, air, water, fire, earth, peacemakers, and death. Each theme is wondrously illustrated with Dalton’s painted papercuts, taking great care to help a young reader understand just how much humanity depends on these good gifts.

For example, the scene depicting water is richly detailed with an old millwheel and pond. We see families not only drawing drinking water, but also using water power to grind their grain for bread (which is baked in the next pages, depicting fire); fruit-bearing trees spring up from the waters’ edge, where birds and children catch fish and animals come to drink. The words read:

We praise you for Sister Water, who fills the seas and rushes down the rivers – who wells up from the earth and falls down from heaven – who gives herself that all living things may grow and be nourished.

By pairing such thoughtful illustrations with these reflective words, a child is prompted to consider how much we depend on nature’s bounty, and Who has given it. Simply and naturally, Francis’ prayer will become their own.

With nostalgic images of beehives and oxen, flowers and birds, and simple families working and playing and caring for each other, this book gratefully acknowledges God’s affectionate providence. Even Death is treated kindly, as the one who “will usher us at last into your loving presence, where we will know and love you as you have always known and loved us.” The accompanying children are shown respectfully burying a chipmunk, in a poignant vignette that kindles peace rather than fear.

This adaptation is altogether lovely, without being the least bit foolish or sentimental. For children who need a gentle reminder about the importance of prayer, kindness, unselfishness, and a genuine respect for natural resources, this book would make an encouraging gift. For adults who need the same thing, I feel certain they will find it equally uplifting.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: All Things Bright and Beautiful by Cecil Frances Alexander and Bruce Whatley

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