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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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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Review: Brother Sun, Sister Moon

With the autumn equinox just behind us, the harvest moon above us, and the commemoration of Saint Francis before us, this seems like a good moment to pause and give thanks with our children. The gorgeous Brother Sun, Sister Moon by Katherine Paterson and Pamela Dalton will fill that pause well.

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The text of this book is a “reimagining” of The Canticle of the Sun by Saint Francis of Assisi himself. He wrote this classic song of praise in his native tongue not long before his death. This abridged English translation reads beautifully and conveys the essence of the original, which is provided in full at the back of the book along with notes from the author and illustrator.

Paterson has gently shortened this prayer of thanksgiving addressed to “God, the Lord of Heaven and Earth”. She preserves the saint’s tributes to sun, moon, wind, air, water, fire, earth, peacemakers, and death. Each theme is wondrously illustrated with Dalton’s painted papercuts, taking great care to help a young reader understand just how much humanity depends on these good gifts.

For example, the scene depicting water is richly detailed with an old millwheel and pond. We see families not only drawing drinking water, but also using water power to grind their grain for bread (which is baked in the next pages, depicting fire); fruit-bearing trees spring up from the waters’ edge, where birds and children catch fish and animals come to drink. The words read:

We praise you for Sister Water, who fills the seas and rushes down the rivers – who wells up from the earth and falls down from heaven – who gives herself that all living things may grow and be nourished.

By pairing such thoughtful illustrations with these reflective words, a child is prompted to consider how much we depend on nature’s bounty, and Who has given it. Simply and naturally, Francis’ prayer will become their own.

With nostalgic images of beehives and oxen, flowers and birds, and simple families working and playing and caring for each other, this book gratefully acknowledges God’s affectionate providence. Even Death is treated kindly, as the one who “will usher us at last into your loving presence, where we will know and love you as you have always known and loved us.” The accompanying children are shown respectfully burying a chipmunk, in a poignant vignette that kindles peace rather than fear.

This adaptation is altogether lovely, without being the least bit foolish or sentimental. For children who need a gentle reminder about the importance of prayer, kindness, unselfishness, and a genuine respect for natural resources, this book would make an encouraging gift. For adults who need the same thing, I feel certain they will find it equally uplifting.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: All Things Bright and Beautiful by Cecil Frances Alexander and Bruce Whatley

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