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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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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