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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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: 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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