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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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: Sophie’s Squash

The season is changing now almost as fast as a toddler’s mood. Enjoy a bit of both with the adorable Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller and Anne Wilsdorf.

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Precocious Sophie picks out a butternut squash for supper at the farmers’ market, but by evening the huggable fruit has become her best friend. Resisting her parents’ attempts to eat her new pal, Sophie names the squash Bernice and takes her everywhere. The two enjoy a friendship despite her parents’ warnings that a squash can’t last forever; until finally Sophie herself has to admit that her time with the squishy Bernice is coming to an end. But acting on a bit of advice from a farmer at the market, Sophie chooses a selfless resolution that even surprises her with the, ahem, fruit it ultimately bears.

Cheery pictures illustrate the sweet family themes in this story. Aside from the obvious – and totally understandable – scenario of a preschooler connecting with an unexpected object, we also glimpse a family sharing in wholesome activities and facing dilemmas in a healthy way. Both parents take Sophie to the market and the library, and discuss with her options for the inevitable end of her bosom buddy. Their suggestions as they allow her to reach the conclusion herself are evidence of a thoughtful family atmosphere (cooking the squash together, or donating it to a food pantry). Sophie’s eventual solution reflects the loving care that she receives herself.

It’s also very jolly to see what fun a child can have with an inanimate friend: tea parties and role-playing and tumbling down hills. In a world where kids are increasingly “wired”, Sophie is refreshingly unplugged. Her playful adoration of her vegetative chum spans the seasons; and when she decides to give Bernice what a squash really needs, she makes a joyful discovery about the circle of life.

This gently humorous book is a fun seasonal story-time choice for preschoolers, but readers from toddlers up through the early grades can enjoy the sweet adventures of Sophie and her squash.

Note: In the follow-up book Sophie’s Squash Goes To School our imaginative heroine has difficulty making friends at school, but learns a valuable lesson from a new friend – and this one is human.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: The Apple Doll by Elisa Kleven (This lovely out-of-print story also has instructions for making your own dried-apple doll.)

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