Review: The Wall

Memorial Day is just around the corner, and with it comes an opportunity to discuss the reason for this holiday with youngsters. An insightful story can aid these challenging conversations, and The Wall – written by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Ronald Himler – is one of the best for this purpose.

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A little boy visits the iconic Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. with his father. They walk the length of that shiny black wall, looking for a very special name. As they go along, searching together, the boy observes other visitors and the memorials they’ve left behind: a wounded veteran, a grieving couple, flags and flowers, notes and pictures. He runs his hand along that wall, noticing how it looks and how it feels.

At last they find it. They run their fingers over the name of their father and grandfather. They take a rubbing, leave a photograph, and talk together in voices thick with emotion. The boy expresses his sadness to his father, who responds with loving sympathy towards his son but also pride in the legacy of his father. The two visitors are proud of this soldier, proud of his service; though they know that such pride can never take the place of the life he might have lived with them.

This book has been around for almost thirty years, but it is just as beautiful today as when it was featured on the old Reading Rainbow program. The boy makes all the observations of a curious child trying to make sense of big issues and jumbled feelings. With the empathetic support of his father – who is mourning his own father – he faces his sense of loss. These understanding exchanges are particularly poignant as the boy admits that he is proud of his grandfather, but would rather he could be with them.

Not only is this a gentle treatment of a difficult subject, it also provides children with a point of reference for respecting the agony and the sacrifice of others. They can see that there is no time limit on the pain of missing someone, but that it is good to talk about it and that there are appropriate ways to honor someone’s memory. And that we all owe a debt of gratitude to service members who perish in the line of duty; that we need not glorify the horrors of war to honor the sacrifice they made.

I find one image particularly helpful for children: as the boy and his father bow their heads before their loved one’s place on the Wall, a gaggle of schoolchildren pass by. Their loud and thoughtless questions contrast sharply with the quiet, more private behavior of the other visitors. The boy follows his father’s example and continues to stand with his head bowed until they are gone. A young reader will easily recognize that many things are turning over in the boy’s heart and mind, and that he needs time alone to be as close to his grandfather as he ever will be. This is very useful for helping children understand the importance of quiet and respectful conduct at any place of remembrance.

The wonderfully accomplished Eve Bunting has given teachers and caregivers an optimum means of presenting young children with reverent awareness of our fallen soldiers and empathy for their families. She does not attempt to convey the political motivations of any war, nor does she stoop to empty patriotism or saccharine emotions. But in the simplest way she does explore the complexities of love and loss, pride and sacrifice. She reminds us that society has given us respectful traditions for honoring the slain, if we will but claim them.

Himler’s soft, smudgy illustrations are a perfect match for the slim, meaningful text. He depicts a cold, overcast day as a backdrop for the enormity of the Wall and the perfect rows of names. The features of the people are slightly obscured within the paint, allowing them some privacy in their grief. This creative team opens up a new space in the heart of the little boy in the story, and will do so for your own children too.

Please don’t be afraid to talk with your children about Memorial Day. Let them take some flowers to the monument downtown, or wave a flag at the parade. After reading this story I hope they will want to.

It is up to us to teach them what has been, so they can grow to determine what will be.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Tucky Jo and Little Heart, written and illustrated by Patricia Polacco

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Book List: Farm Life

As the earth awakens in the spring, children show a natural interest in the growth around them. Even for my own children – growing up on a working farm – that first sprout in the garden boxes still brings delight, and the fascination with new calves and chicks and lambs never grows dim. It’s no surprise that we love stories that reflect who we are, and so here I have assembled some of our favorite picture books depicting farm life.

Farming is always a popular theme with children, and a list of associated picture books could be almost endless. I have chosen these for their portrayal of relationships between people and the land and animals they work. Somewhat nostalgic but unerringly true, these selections capture what many families yearn for: a sense of belonging, and the tender balance of labor and love that is so universally recognizable on a farm.

One Horse Farm, written and illustrated by Dahlov Ipcar

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This sweet old-fashioned story follows the life of Big Betty the workhorse, who was born on the same day as the farmer’s son. When he is a little boy she is a big strong animal, working hard through all the seasons. But when Johnny is grown into a big strong man, Betty is too old to do the all the chores on the farm and Johnny replaces her with a tractor. Poor Betty doesn’t want to be sold with her old equipment; but she needn’t fear, for Johnny knows her true value. Theirs is a reassuring tale of friendship and respect, with vibrant mid-century illustrations of life around the year on a pre-industrial farm. Preschoolers particularly enjoy finding all the details in these illustrations.

All the Places to Love, written by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Mike Wimmer

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This thoughtful story is a tribute to generations working together on an American farm. A little boy takes his place on the family farm on the day he is born, when his grandfather carves his name on a barn rafter. In his early years he tags along with his parents and grandparents, learning from each their favorite haunts on the farm. Constantly aware that he is loved, he makes his own memories and finds his own special spot on the family’s land. When his sister is born and her name carved on the rafter, he knows just what he will need to show her as she grows. Wimmer’s gorgeous paintings create a lush backdrop for MacLachlan’s lilting text as this simple family knits its members together. Just right for a cozy bedtime story with toddlers through the early grades.

Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm, written and illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen

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This rollicking read is about the animals on a farm. Cats, dogs, horses, chickens, cows, sheep, goats, horses, and a pig named Pearl are introduced… along with all their foibles. Even the local wildlife and creepy-crawlies are included, for the farm wouldn’t be complete without them. It’s a playful, realistic look at the everyday shenanigans in a classic farmyard, where the circle of life keeps turning and each creature has its place. Some of the humor might escape younger listeners and the length might prompt you to read it in shorter segments, but for a little one who loves farm animals this is a must.

A Farm of Her Own, written by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock and illustrated by Kathleen Kolb

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Unfortunately this title is out of print, but if you can find it at your library it is well worth checking out. A girl from a small town is sent to spend the summer with her cousins on a little farm belonging to their aged uncle and aunt. She is shy and knows nothing of farm life, but the gentle hospitality of Uncle Will and Aunt Ada soon brings her out of her shell. The children learn to help the old couple with the chores, and savor both homemade treats and family stories. Sorry to go back home at the end of the summer, the girl never forgets her time on the farm. Years later, long after her aunt and uncle have passed away, she goes back to the farm, and gives to her children what Uncle Will and Aunt Ada gave to her. This precious story of simplicity and kindness will captivate readers up into the middle grades.

The Shepherd Boy, written and illustrated by Kim Lewis

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Growing up on a sheep farm in northern England, a little boy watches his father working on the farm and longs for the day when he is old enough to help. Finally, after a year of carefully tending his own stuffed lamb just as his parents look after the real ones, he receives a very special gift and he knows that his time has come. The quiet text of this story supports illustrations that are soft but striking. Lewis deftly captures the grand sweep of the countryside, the tiny bleat of a new lamb, the hot stickiness of the sheep shed at shearing time, and the adoration of a lad for his father. A short and simple story with sweetly detailed pictures, this is an endearing choice for toddlers and preschoolers.

Wherever you live, I hope that your family enjoys these glimpses into a way of life that may be very different from your own, but familiar in all the ways that matter.

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Series Review: Brambly Hedge

Spring is finally beginning to chase away the last chill days of winter, and little imaginations are ripe for exploring stories that satisfy their curiosity about the natural world. To a child the outdoors ought to be a second home; and no place could feel more like home than the world of Brambly Hedge, created by Jill Barklem.

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This classic collection of stories introduces readers to the mice who inhabit cozy Brambly Hedge. The community they have built among the trees and bushes is comfortable and friendly, with warmly detailed illustrations elaborating Barklem’s delightful tales. Through different seasons of the year and celebrations of life, the mice come together with a cheerful hospitality that spans the generations.

The stories follow no single character, but we become acquainted with Miss Poppy Eyebright, Lady Daisy, kindly Mr. Apple, incorrigible young Wilfred, and others as they go about their daily business in the hedge alongside a quiet stream. We are invited into homes with names like Crabapple Cottage and Old Oak Palace, and then into the tunnels and mills where the mice busily and cleverly attend to all their needs. Barklem’s illustrations portray snug dwellings and various means of gathering and storing food, which is of course the primary occupation of everyone in Brambly Hedge. And such food! If mice do enjoy such delicacies as honey creams and sugared violets, I should surely wish to be one.

The pleasant bustle of everyday life is punctuated by the most splendid gatherings as the mice celebrate birthdays, weddings, christenings, balls, and picnics. They have no dread of the passing of time, but mark it with traditions rooted in natural reverence and generosity. Although they address no deity in particular, the mice give thanks, pronounce blessings, and promise to love their spouses for ever and ever with verses that will sound very familiar to the Christian ear; while the affection shared between neighbors and across generations reminds us of the strength of tribal cultures which respect the wisdom of age and show a common concern for raising the young. Even from the first glance these parties are charming spectacles, evoking all that is best about family and society.

Barklem’s attention to detail is striking in every story. She correctly represents every flower, every leaf, every color and plant in its proper season. (When Poppy marries Dusty on Midsummer’s Day, she notes that the primroses are over.) Her additional whimsies: lace pinafores and meadowsweet tea, the workings of the butter mill and the salt pans, are a pure delight. The tales are well-composed and sweet, perfect for reading with someone little on your lap.

The stories are available in several different formats; they can be purchased as individual volumes, assorted boxed sets, and as a single treasury. As the plots do not necessarily build on one another, they can be collected in any order. The separate volumes are small, like the classic Beatrix Potter books, and would be pleasant to give to a little one over a period of time. The boxed sets are available in several different arrangements, containing all of the books or just a few organized by season or theme. The single-volume treasury is the best value; it contains the complete collection, but the book is not too heavy or unwieldy to open over and over again. Its larger storybook style is easy to read and is a particular favorite with my under-seven crowd, who inevitably beg for just one more.

I hope your family finds a home together in Brambly Hedge; I know you will always be welcome there.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: The Foxwood Treasury by Cynthia and Brian Paterson

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