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: 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: Book Girl, by Sarah Clarkson

Today I have a special find for my female bibliophile friends… and ladies, this book is especially for you. Yes, it will ultimately benefit the children in your life, but this one is a treasure for you. I am thrilled to share with you Book Girl by writer, speaker, and blogger Sarah Clarkson.

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This book is a celebration of the sisterhood enjoyed by women who love to read. Encouragingly written from a Christian perspective, it discusses the intelligent empathy that women develop when they are thoughtful lifelong readers, and the values they impart by sharing good books with one another. For by reading we not only encounter our own thoughts and feelings, but we engage with people, places, and ideas far beyond our own imagining. We are shaped by what we read; so we ought to read what is good and true and beautiful.

Inspired by her mother’s example and the recent birth of her own daughter, Clarkson’s enthusiasm for quality reading is contagious. She offers advice for “book girls” of all stages, including suggestions for how to make reading time a pleasant priority. As she acknowledges, some of us were born reading and haven’t stopped; many have been distracted by life and don’t read as much as we would like; others have never developed the habit but wonder what people love about all those printed pages. Wherever you fall – and whatever your age – this book is for you.

The author makes a compelling case for not only why women should read, but what we should read: books that form as a whole person and nourish us through the seasons of life. Above all, books that prepare us to become the heroine in our own story, embracing and giving all that is good to the world.

To that end, Clarkson has here shared with readers many of her favorite and most formative reading recommendations. Her collection is finer than gold. She painstakingly arranges fiction, biographies, spiritual classics and more into more than twenty book lists. With uplifting accounts of how each theme supports the overall balance of the reading life, she goes on to offer a short review of each title. The scope is breathtaking and includes everything from Wendell Berry to P.G. Wodehouse. Other favorites include C.S. Lewis, Charlotte Brontë, Madeleine L’Engle, Lucy Maud Montgomery, and dozens more for children and adults.

The book could easily be savored in its entirety or in useful tidbits, but it is not one to lay aside after one reading. It is made to be revisited frequently over many years, as a wholesome source of inspiration. (I am quite serious about “many years”; there is enough here to keep the most serious bluestocking busy for a long time.)

Most of my reviews are for children’s books, but this one is an investment in all of us. It is by being readers that we teach our children to become readers, and share with them the exquisite graces of the reading life. Book Girl is all of that and more, for it nudges us to fill our hearts and heads with the very best – and then to share it with the world.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Caught Up In A Story: Fostering a Storyformed Life of Great Books & Imagination with Your Children, also by Sarah Clarkson

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