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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Book List: Treasuries

This week I am delighted to introduce the first of my Book Lists, which will feature a selection of titles following a given theme. I am particularly excited to share these essential treasuries of children’s stories and poems, as they are among my very favorite books for readers of all ages. My own family’s copies of these classic stories are tattered from many readings, and I hope yours will be the same.

The Children’s Book of Virtues, edited by William J. Bennett and illustrated by Michael Hague

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This inspiring collection of stories and poems is an American classic. Moral tales of varying lengths are arranged according to the virtues they encourage, and brightly illustrated in Hague’s magical style. Children of all ages can enjoy these well-written versions of The Little Hero of Holland, The Boy Who Cried “Wolf”, St. George and the Dragon, The Little Red Hen, George Washington and the Cherry Tree, and other meaningful folk tales and fables from around the world. If you can buy only one book for your child, this would be my pick.

A Child’s Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson and illustrated by Tasha Tudor

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There are many editions of Stevenson’s exquisitely fun poems, but this volume with Tasha Tudor’s lovely illustrations is the best for reading with children. This is childhood unplugged. Tudor’s nostalgic paintings match Stevenson’s brilliant portrayal of a child’s mind at play, to create a book that will never grow old. (We especially love to recite My Bed Is Like A Little Boat at bedtime.)

James Herriot’s Treasury for Children, by James Herriot and illustrated by Ruth Brown and Peter Barrett

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This collection from the beloved English veterinarian is a wonderful adaptation for children. The stories – including Moses the Kitten and Bonny’s Big Day – are longer but very pleasant to read aloud, while the warm illustrations (particularly those by Ruth Brown) are gorgeous. There are many friends to be made here, both animal and human; and the stories are heartwarming without being overly sentimental.

The World of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter

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This is a boxed set of the complete, unabridged works of Beatrix Potter for children. Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, Jemima Puddle-Duck and all the old friends are here; each with their own volume as originally published. The tales can be purchased more affordably in a single volume, but the small books are charming and much easier to read with very young lap-snugglers. There are 23 books in all, and each reader will surely like some better than others; but these sweet little books with the dainty sketches and timeless watercolors all deserve to be passed on to another generation.

The Classic Treasury of Aesop’s Fables, by Aesop and illustrated by Don Daily

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This selection of Aesop’s classic fables is perfect for children. Along with The Lion and The Mouse and The Tortoise and the Hare, all the most famous stories – and a good sampling of the lesser-known tales – are retold concisely and faithfully in this excellent update. Each tale is enhanced with a full-page illustration and, of course, the moral of the story.

Each of these books provides a great deal of reading time, and options for a variety of ages and interests. They are well worth purchasing, and would make valuable gifts. If your local public library does not have them, consider suggesting these titles or even donating them to the acquisitions department. These are books to ennoble young minds and renew even the most exhausted parent. I hope they earn a treasured place on your family bookshelf.

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Review: The Tale of Despereaux

If your child reads just one book this summer, let it be this one. Let it be The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo.

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This tale of an unlikely hero’s quest is told in the style of a classic adventure story. It takes place in a castle, as all good adventures should. The hero is a very young, very small mouse named Despereaux, who is emboldened by true love to step beyond his world and is banished for it. No one expects him to return from the dungeon; but he does, and with the sole purpose of descending back into the darkness to rescue his beloved, the Princess.

Of course, the little mouse is not alone in his quest. He is both helped and hindered by those around him, and we soon realize how deeply each person’s reactions and decisions affect others. But hope, just like hurt, can come from unexpected sources, and appearances can be deceiving. Despereaux himself must learn to be brave; he must learn to become the hero.

Little Despereaux faces rejection from his family, expulsion from his home, separation from the one he loves, and the wiles of a particularly vengeful rat. The rat too has a story; as does the serving girl and the jailer and the king. They all fit together, whether they like it or not. Along the way they all learn something about dealing with loss, longing to be loved, and the comfort afforded by something as simple as a bowl of good soup.

This is no foolish parody, but rather quite a serious study of human nature; about how it can be hurt and how it can choose to respond, about why it desires music and light and beauty and why those things are worth seeking. It explores notions of justice and chivalry that have fascinated humans for centuries. Above all, this story is about love. Not the fleeting sensation of affection, but the love that is willing to forgive and to sacrifice; the love that is willing to serve.

Ideal for readers age 8 and up, Despereaux would also make a splendid family read-aloud for children much younger. With enriching language and a timeless storytelling feel, the very short chapters are easy to fall into and rather addictive. The plot does feature themes of parental abuse, abandonment, and death that are distressing; but the feelings evoked are thoughtfully discussed in close company with the narrator, who constantly urges the reader to think critically about what is happening. The thoughts and feelings of different characters – with names like Miggery Sow and Chiaroscuro – are treated with reality and empathy throughout.

Please, please read this story with the children in your life. Despereaux is the hero we all need – the hero we can all become.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame

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