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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Series Review: The Mysterious Benedict Society

The longer nights of autumn provide a cozy opportunity to begin a page-turning book series, and I have eagerly devoured this one: The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart.

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Following orphan Reynard Muldoon, the series brings together four children of exceptional abilities who share one other feature: they are all alone. They all answer an advertisement that promises adventure to children with certain unique qualities; and upon passing a very peculiar examination they meet Mr. Benedict and learn of his efforts to uncover and resist an unknown evil. The children accept their mission, without knowing fully what will be expected of them, or whether they can even trust this strange benefactor. They soon discover that the threat to their world is indeed very real, and they will have to work together quickly to find a way to stop it.

As Reynie hesitatingly forms relationships with Kate, Constance, and Sticky, he realizes that each of them will have to face their fears and, to some extent, overcome their own independent instincts in order to face a common foe. They must rely not only on their skills, but on each other. Trust does not come easily to the foursome, but it grows alongside a mutual respect as they work to solve a mystery that bears enormous consequences for the world in which, previously, they had no real home.

What makes these stories so fascinating is that it does not take place in a magical world; the children’s abilities are not supernatural, but powers of critical thinking and longing for truth. The protagonists are a bit like juvenile Sherlocks, reasoning their way through a tangle of problems. The author builds on an impressive range of facts to help his subjects along, and in so doing creates a place where both knowledge and deduction are celebrated. The writing itself is intelligent, with a thrilling vocabulary and appreciation for the most minute detail.

These stories certainly make it cool to be the smart kid, but they don’t deny a young person’s corresponding emotional or personal development. Reynie is a deeply thoughtful child who is keenly considerate of what others might be thinking or feeling. When he faces the temptation to do what seems most expedient for his own security, his innate loyalty ultimately puts the welfare of others first. As the children learn to get along, they all learn that it takes patience, kindness, and some sacrifice to care for another person. The author traces these developments with a deft sensitivity that is not the least bit cloying.

The exceptional plot is full of risk, riddles, and suspense; and I dare not give it away. Suffice it to say that you will be guessing until the last page. The antagonist proves to be quite diabolical, and at times the play between the themes of abandonment and trust is truly nerve-wracking. Yet the discomfort is warranted as the reader subconsciously begins to address these questions of human longing and achievement in her own mind. The end is wholly satisfying as each of the children, having played their own unique part, finds a place of genuine belonging.

Also striking in this series is the way the young operatives are treated by the mysterious Mr. Benedict and his bizarre staff; the children are seen very much as fully formed individuals, and accorded the respect of equals. Such a partnership is unusual in books for this age group, which tend to develop tension between youth and adults.

The friendships established in the first book endure adventures that will interest children from the age of eight or nine on up through the teen years, but I would particularly commend the whole series to children of a mature and sensitive nature. They will find encouragement to press through their fears and realize their potential as vital members of society. The series would make an excellent gift for a child who struggles to find their place, or needs reassurance that they have one.

Happy reading, Families.

If you liked this series you might also enjoy: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

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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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