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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Review: Chanticleer and the Fox

“When April with its showers sweet/The drought of March has pierced to the root…” …well when it is that time of year, it is also time to re-read these words from the prologue and a few select favorites from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. While many of the tales are not suitable for children in their original form, Barbara Cooney proves that it’s never too early to love the classics with her brilliant adaptation of Chanticleer and the Fox.

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Abridged from the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, this clever rendition tells the cautionary story of Chanticleer, an imperious rooster. He belongs to a poor widow, who cheerfully scrapes a meager living from her small farmstead. The beautiful Chanticleer is her pride and joy, and he rules the farmyard with dignity. One night he has a dream, warning him of danger in his little kingdom, but his favorite hen persuades him to disregard the premonition. He struts about as usual that morning, then meets a flattering – and strangely familiar – visitor. When proud Chanticleer is snatched by the cunning stranger he is pursued by a riotous entourage, but it will take his own wits to save his colorful feathers.

Cooney’s sanitized version of this beloved tale is tremendous fun to read with children. She has retained the sound of the Middle English language, as if a bard was reciting it for a crowd. Her vibrant illustrations won the Caldecott Medal in 1959, and the vivid colors with homey black detailing still feel fresh today. In short order she gives readers an inviting glimpse of the widow’s simple life with an array of favorite animals, and little listeners will delight in recognizing the Fox before Chanticleer does.

A lively springtime choice that is a little out of the ordinary, Chanticleer is grand to read aloud with preschoolers and children in the primary grades. You’ll need your best read-aloud voice; for adults unaccustomed to the style the language might feel stilted, but it is not difficult for young ears to comprehend and lends a decided air of adventure to this merry barnyard tale (do expect to define a few new words, like “debonair”). Barbara Cooney has beautifully preserved the historic yet familiar appeal of this charming fable that has kept readers returning for centuries. But whether you’ll be rooting for Chanticleer or the Fox, I cannot say.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Petook: An Easter Story written by Caryll Houselander and illustrated by Tomie dePaola

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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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