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Archive for the ‘Classical Works’ Category

Dear Readers,

MadelineWelcome to another installment of Around the World with Newbery and Caldecott Part IV!  This post will explore just a few of the wonderful award-winning children’s books of France!  This is another preview to my upcoming Back-to-School Literature Soirée.  It is just a little over a week away, so if you’re interested, please visit here.

As a Francophile since my early 20s, when I spent nearly a year in Paris, I have returned many times to this fascinating country that holds so much of the world’s greatest art, architecture, cuisine, and natural beauty!  I love France for all of these things, but also for the pivotal part they played in helped the struggling American colonies to win their fight for independence from Great Britain.

Probably the most well-known and beloved children’s book about Paris is Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans.  Winner of the Caldecott Honor in 1940, Madeline’s Rescue won the Caldecott Medal in 1954.  My friend and former professor, Anita Silvey has done a marvelous job of telling the background of these wonderful creations by Bemelmans here.

Another author of French tales beloved by American children is Claire Huchet Bishop, a French-born American who is best known for two9780590457071 Newbery Honor titles–All Alone, which tells the story of a French boy who herds cattle in the mountains and befriends a fellow herder in need.  His compassion leads to the healing of old rivalries in the village. booksPancakes-Paris, which is unfortunately out-of-print, tells the tale of a boy given a box of pancake mix by American GIs after WWII.  Set during the same period is Twenty and Ten, the story of French school children hiding Jewish children from the Nazis.

The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson is the heartwarming story of Armand, a Parisian tramp who wants nothing to do with children.  But when three fatherless children “adopt” him, all kinds of adventures happen.  Readers will be charmed by the warmth and pathos of this story and by the tender illustrations of Garth Williams who you you will recognize as the beloved illustrator of the Little House on the Prairie series.  Winner of the Newbery Honor in 1959.

family-under-the-bridge Winner of the Caldecott Medal in 1993, Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully  tells the tale of a celebrated tightrope walker and his friendship with young Mirette.  While he teaches the devoted Mirette the art of tightrope walking, he learns some wonderful lessons too. IMG_3215 While there are many, many more wonderful titles that I haven’t touched on yet, I will conclude with a title of extraordinary beauty published during the Golden Age of children’s book illustration–the late nineteenth century.  Joan of Arc (1899) by Maurice Boutet de Monvel depicts in grand sweeping panoramas, the life of the devout French maid who led the beleaguered forces of her country to victory over England.  The artist’s devotion to the French heroine comes through his watercolor paintings with power and exuberance.  I will let the following pictures speak for themselves.

There will be lots more like this at my upcoming Rea’s Back-to-School Literature Soirée!  Hope you can join us!

boutet_monvel_panorama_01Jeanne_D_Arc_Boutet_de_Monvel_123453537667_8cfcd2fc1e_z

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Dear Readers,9780060215859-l
As many of you know, I’m hosting a Back-to-School Literature Soirée in two weeks.  In preparation for this, I’ve been reading some current medal winners as well as pulling lots of old Newbery and Caldecott Medal winners from my shelf and rereading them.  This is such a delight!  While I am learning new things, I am also taking a trip down memory lane, as rereading these treasures brings back reflections of how these books affected me when I first read them.  I have been struck by how reading these award-winning books can be a veritable trip “around the world”, as so many of them have to do with cultures, nations, and historic periods completely outside of our own familiar and comfortable world.

For the upcoming soirée I will present an “Around the World” with Newbery and Caldecott Medal winners.  We will take a trip through various nations, cultures, and historic periods through treasured classics.  Here’s an example of what our “trip” will look like:  We will travel to Holland through the wonderful works of Meindert DeJong, in The Wheel on the School and Journey From Peppermint Street. In the first book, we get90a a charming look at life in a fishing village in Holland when the school children place an old wagon wheel on their school so a mother stork will build her nest.  This tender and touching story won the Newbery Medal in 1954 and continues to have a place in the hearts of children today. In Journey from Peppermint Street, young Siebren goes on a long journey with his grandfather and in the process learns valuable lessons about the joys and mystery of life. Yonie Wondernose by Marguerite De Angeli won the Caldecott Honor in 1945 and concerns a Pennsylvania Dutch boy named Yonie who lets his curiosity get him into all kinds of scrapes.

Continuing our European tour a bit north to Denmark, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry is an inspiring story set in Copenhagen during the Nazi occupation of Denmark.  Lois Lowry, (who I was able to meet just recently in Boston!) has created her story based on the Danish people’s rescue of the Jews through the inspiring example and leadership of their King Christian X, and the profound courage of the Danish Resistance.  Ten year-old Annemarie Johansen risks her life to save her best friend Ellen Rosen and learns the meaning of courage and self-sacrifice.  If the plight of storks has peaked your interest, you can continue reading about these marvelous creatures through a lighthearted and whimsical tale, also set in Denmark (and London) about a family that saves an abducted stork! Mrs. Easter and the Storks by V.H.

Mrs. Easter and the Storks

Mrs. Easter and the Storks

Drummond will delight your youngest readers with its fun and adventure!

Another award-winning work on Denmark is Chase Me, Catch Nobody by Erik Christian Haugaard which won the Jane Adams Book Honor in 1981.  It involves a 14 year-old Danish boy on a school trip to Germany in 1937 who becomes involved in the activities of the anti-Nazi underground.  You may recognize this award-winning author from his more well-known work set in 16th century Japan, The Samurai’s Tale.

So, this is just a little preview of the upcoming journey we will take through treasures old and new during my upcoming Back-to-School Literature Soirée. Our journey will also take us to Japan, China, England, Korea, and even into the future!  There are still spots available, so if you are interested, visit my last post for info, or to register visit here.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe's home from 1852-1863

Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s home in Andover  from 1852-1863

I have the fortune to have a dear friend who lives just a couple doors down from 80 Bartlet Street in Andover, Massachusetts.  While visiting there recently, I was delighted to learn that this address was the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe.  The author lived there just after the publication of her seminal novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Indeed, she applied her first royalty check from the novel toward the renovation of the home for her large family.  Her husband, Calvin Stowe, taught Sacred Literature at Andover Theological Seminary, and it was this position that precipitated the move of the family there.

Born into a notable family devoted to faith and education, one of the ironies of Harriet’s childhood, is that when she was born, her father was disappointed that she was a girl!  A preacher himself, her father wanted sons who could follow in his footsteps, which a number did. While a few of the Beecher sons made names for themselves during their lifetimes, it was Harriet who had the most dramatic and lasting impact upon the fate of the natthe_annotated_uncle_toms_cabin.large_-1ion and upon the history of the world. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a runaway best-seller, selling 10,000 copies in the United States in its first week; 300,000 in the first year; and in Great Britain, 1.5 million copies in one year. It was subsequently translated into 60 languages and impacted other nations still under the bondage of serfdom and slavery.

Gazing at the place Harriet called home for eleven years, I enjoyed imagining the happy chaos that must have often filled the halls and chambers of this lovely stone dwelling. It is easy to romanticize the life of someone from the past, but I know better than to do so with her.  Harriet has always been an inspiration for me, because, not only was she the mother of seven children, but she often parented alone, as her husband was sickly and given to melancholy and depression.  Because of her husband’s frequent illnesses, financial matters were always a concern, which was another of Harriet’s motivations for writing, as she was often forced to supplement the family income.  But despite the tremendous pressure upon her as wife and mother, she found time to devote to her passionate desire for abolition, and became a driving force through the dramatic words that flowed from her pen.  So convincing was her characterization in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that Americans all over the country were able to identify vicariously with the suffering slaves and their brave liberators.  This identification became a catalyst for change, and through the power of Harriet’s pen the nation grew ripe for emancipation.

When the AmeriHarriet-Beecher-Stowe-and-the-Beecher-Preachers-9780399226663can Civil War broke out in 1861 Stowe wrote “It was God’s will that this nation—the North as well as the South—should deeply and terribly suffer for the sin of consenting to and encouraging the great oppressions of the South”—(The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe).  It was to her a direct breach of the second great commandment as she noted, ” . . . the enslaving of the African race is a clear violation of the great law which commands us to love our neighbor as ourself”.

If you have never enjoyed the moving experience of reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, consider picking it up as a summer read-aloud.  Though the language can seem a bit archaic at first, a little diligence will be rewarded handsomely, as the dramatic plot will quickly pull readers in. Most importantly, the lessons of compassion, empathy, and justice will linger long in listener’s hearts and minds.

A wonderful companion to the study of Stowe’s novel is Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Beecher Preachers by Jean Fritz. The stories of the rambunctious household that Harriet grew up in, and the tales of her own seven children, may have a familiar ring to contemporary families who have made home education a choice and a lifestyle.  In the often humdrum duties of daily life, it is easy to forget that sometimes, future greatness can be hidden in an unlikely package.  Though her father and her culture could not have imagined it, Harriet’s preaching turned her world upside down and helped bring justice to untold millions.

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Hello Fellow Book Lovers,

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.–Shakespeare, Sonnet 18

Well, summer’s lease is nearly over, and despite our wish that it could linger just a bit longer, school days will shortly be upon us!  So, to give us all a boost (myself included), I am hosting a “Back to School” Literature Soirée on Saturday, September 8.  I will cover more literary analysis, but this time we will look at how to analyze historical literature within the context of the heroic quest.  This will be a fun adventure as we consider how the heroes and heroines of the eras of exploration, discovery, and colonization provide examples of heroic archetypes fulfilling their own unique destinies.

I will present an overview of the best historical works for children covering the period of the early 1600s up through the Civil War.  The concentration will be early American History, but some world history will naturally be a part of that.  So roughly speaking, here is how the day should go:

9:30-10 am: Arrival and get acquainted with a cup of coffee or tea

10 am-10:30: a brief session will look at current statistics of American student’s knowledge of history and literature as well as the why’s and wherefore’s of the “notebook approach”

10:30-11:30 am: the best children’s literature of Early American Exploration, Discovery, and Colonization

11:30 am-noon: Analyzing historical literature using the elements of the heroic quest (definition and overview), anthropomorphism, the orphaned child literary trope, and others!  (not to worry, I will clearly define all of these before setting you out on your own).

Noon-1:45: Working lunch applying literary analysis to various works of historical literature. This time we will work in pairs to save time

1:45-2 pm: Coffee Break

2:00-3:00 pm: the best Children’s Literature of the American Revolution–the Civil War

3:00-3:30 pm:  Wrap up and feedback on take away

So to recap: Saturday, September 8, 2012

At my home: 1306 Mill Street, San Luis Obispo

Time: 9:30 am–3:30 pm

Cost: $30 (which will include lunch– please email me if you need gluten free or vegetarian)  You can register here.

Finally, this soiree is already half booked with ladies returning from our summer session.  So please register soon, to insure you have a place!

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Our Paris holiday continues, and as the days have been so full, and exacting (I’ve worn through 2 pairs of shoes just walking the incredible stone streets of Paris in 3 1/2 weeks!), I’ve had little time to blog on some remarkable adventures.  I hope to post a few more items this week.  The other day, I discovered that at Musée des Arts Décoratifs (adjacent the Louvre) they were hosting a special exhibit to Babar, in celebration of his 80th birthday!  As this blog is devoted to children’s literature in all its aspects, I thought it were be of interest to share what Katie and I learned on our visit.

What I didn’t know, was that Babar was actually the creation of Cécile de Brunhoff (wife of Jean), a pianist in Paris, who told her two sons a story of a little elephant whose mother is shot by hunters and moves to Paris.  As Jean de Brunhoff was an artist, the boys asked their father to draw pictures of the elephant, and the story was born.  Jean de Brunhoff’s uncles were publishers, and decided to print the books on the characteristic heavy stock paper, and in 1931 the books became an immediate success.

Cecile and Jean de Brunhoff with sons Laurent (left) and Mathieu

Jean de Brunhoff went on to write 6 more Babar books, but sadly, he died quite young, at the age of 37 of tuberculosis.  So it was that his son Laurent, upon becoming an artist himself, decided to continue the marvelous stories of Babar, and he continues to this day.

One of the delightful aspects of the exhibit was seeing the original black and white drafts of the books, with either Jean’s or Laurent’s expert cursive penmanship neatly laid out on large graph paper.  This was followed by the same page in full color with the printer’s markings for layout and so on.  As a publisher, these initial drafts give me great pleasure, I’m not sure why, except that in seeing them, it brings to mind how each book is such an exacting work of attention to detail, careful craft and a bit of whimsy too.  Here are two examples:

Our visit came full circle when we saw two beautiful illustrations that inserted Babar into the very stream of our cultural experience in Paris.  The first was Laurent de Brunhoff’s depiction of Celeste as “Liberty Leading the People” the immortal work of Eugene Delacroix’s masterpiece (La Liberté guidant le peuple) which has so many reverberations of the human pursuit of liberty and justice.  This is the classic “barricade” scene depicted so poignantly in Victor Hugo‘s Les Misérables and the young boy on the right may be the inspiration for the loveable character of Gavroche in the novel.  Having just finished reading this wonderful work with the girls in preparation for our trip makes the painting all the more memorable.  De Brunhoff’s work follows and invites the young child to join in the sentiment of the passion for liberty that is nascent in the heart of young children whether they can conceptualize it or not.  Delacroix’s work was also the inspiration for the Statue of Liberty, the gift of France commemorating the friendship of the two countries in 1886.

And finally, as Katie and I have had the privilege of doing some research on Notre Dame de Paris, the Gothic cathedral at the center of so much of French history and culture, we were delighted to see that Babar also recognized the importance of this icon of French faith and devotion.  Here Babar and his family visit Notre Dame from the vantage  of the Pont de l’Archevêché, which we’ve enjoyed many times on our tramps around this wonderful City of Light!  Hope you enjoy our travels with Babar and all!  À bientôt“!

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Medieval History Through Literature 

The Lady of Shalott" is a Victorian ballad by the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892). Like his other early poems– "Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere" and "Galahad"– the poem recasts Arthurian subject matter loosely based on medieval sources. Elaine is depicted here by the Pre-Raphaelite artist John William Waterhouse

By Rea Berg

Studying medieval history using a literature approach offers a rich opportunity to mine some fabulous treasures of classic and historic works.  The “terms “Middle Ages” and “medieval” were first used by Italian Renaissance historians “as they sought to separate their own rapidly advancing era from what was often referred to as the “Dark Ages.”1   While no one living during the period generally accepted as the Middle Ages (400-1500), considered they were living in a dark age, in contrast to the rapidly advancing, emerging, and awakening world of the Renaissance, the difference was dramatic. This article will present a brief collection of those works that have status in the Western canon, or have achieved noteworthy awards in the world of children’s literature.

Just as no study of the ancient cultures would be complete without its greatest epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, so too the medieval period opens with the first Anglo-Saxon epic–Beowulf.  Based upon a Norse myth set in the year 500 AD, the Geat hero Beowulf saves the Danes from the man-eating monster Grendel. There are many excellent editions for children, but one that can be used across many levels is Michael Morpurgo’s, with its lyrical alliteration and vigorous illustrations by award-winning artist Michael Foreman.  For junior high students, Ian Serrallier evokes the sparse beauty of the original in his simple straightforward verse in Beowulf the Warrior.  For high school students desiring to do the full epic, Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf includes the original Anglo-Saxon opposite his translation and is notable for winning the UK’s prestigious Whitbread Book Award.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is based upon the legendary Arthur of the late fifth and early sixth century, who seeks to push back the evil and injustice of corrupt lords and Saxon invaders. Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Holy Grail, Merlin, the beautiful Queen Guinevere and the tragic Lady Elaine all continue to capture modern readers. Lady Elaine’s heart-rending story is immortalized in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 19th century poem, “The Lady of Shalot” and would make a rewarding follow up to the study. A popular edition for middle grade students is by Roger Lancelyn Green­–a classicist himself and student of C.S. Lewis. Older students will enjoy Howard Pyle‘s edition of this work, with his beautiful line drawings, or The Boy’s King Arthur; the original Scribner’s edition has incomparable illustrations by N. C. Wyeth.

The Viking discovery in North America around the year 1000 is engagingly told in the children’s classic, Leif the Lucky by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire.  The D’Aulaire’s lavish stone lithographs feature beautiful Norse runes, majestic fjords, and the muscular beauty of Viking life amidst Northern expanses.  Leif Erickson’s North American discovery comprises an important component of the movement of Christianity westward as Leif was converted to Christianity in the courts of the Norwegian King Olav Trygvason; he then carried the gospel to Greenland.  This well-researched text has been popular since its original publication in 1940.

The Adventures of Robin Hood reflects the enmity that existed in England subsequent to the Norman Conquest (1066) and which was still a factor over a hundred years later, when Richard the Lionheart came to the throne. Robert Fitzhooth, Earl of Huntington, is unjustly stripped of his lands and must resort to the life of an outlaw, under the assumed name of Robin Hood.  Robin and his merry men of Sherwood Forest resist the corrupt civil and religious leaders, and set things aright by “robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.” Roger Lancelyn Green and Howard Pyle have both written wonderful editions for middle grade students (and up) and Marcia Williams has a lavishly illustrated edition for primary. N.C.Wyeth’s illustrations for the Scribner’s edition by Paul Creswick captures the romance and adventure of this enduring story.

If any historical drama fulfills Ben Franklin’s adage, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God,” it is surely the saga of the Great Charter so beautifully told in James Daugherty’s The Magna Charta. The noble Archbishop Stephen Langton, along with his “Army of God”, present heroes for our day, as these brave men stood up to wicked King John and demanded he restore the ancient laws he had so unabashedly trampled underfoot.

Thirteenth and fourteenth-century English life are the subjects, respectively of Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray, which was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1943, and Avi’s Crispin: the Cross of Lead (2003), which won the same distinction sixty years later.  Book-ending over half a century of works devoted to Medieval Europe for young readers, these two works echo surprisingly congruent notions of childhood, morality, faith, courage, civil freedoms, and what constitutes rollicking adventure stories for juvenile readers.

Adam Quartermayne, the protagonist of Adam of the Road, is the son of the traveling minstrel, Roger, and together they have some hair-raising and delightful adventures against a colorful swath of medieval life. Crispin and the Cross of Lead, is set just after the Black Death, the plague that wiped out 20 million Europeans between 1347 and 1350. Crispin is orphaned as a result, and in his travels passes through whole villages decimated by the Great Death.  A major consequence of the plague was the labor shortage that resulted in the Peasant Revolt of 1381 and contributed to agitation to end the manorial system. Avi incorporates these features into an adventure story, setting the protagonist in the midst of events that furthered the progress of human liberty.

Marguerite De Angeli won the Newbery Medal in 1950 for her novel A Door in the Wall by breaking new ground in highlighting the challenges of physical disabilities. Set during the reign of Edward III (1312-1317), spoiled young Robin is struck by a mysterious disease that leaves him lame­–a tragic fate for the son of a knight. After the household servants succumb to the plague, Robin is taken to a monastery by kind Brother Luke, whose gentle lessons impart the courage Robin needs to face his disability. Students who enjoy this read may appreciate Howard Pyle’s beautiful and darkly moving tale, Otto of the Silver Hand, whose protagonist faces physical hardship during the Germanic feudal era of the thirteenth century.  Otto’s story is the story of a little boy “who lived and suffered in those dark middle ages, of how he saw both the good and bad of men, and of how, by gentleness and love, and not by strife and hatred, he came at last to stand above other men and to be looked up to by all.”

Geraldine McCaughrean won the Whitbread Award in 1987 for her depiction of a troupe of fourteenth century Mystery Players in A Little Lower Than the AngelsYoung Gabriel plays an angel in a traveling play dramatizing gospel stories for the mostly illiterate peasants. Unlike the lighthearted minstrels in Adam of the Road, these traveling players are often run out of town by irate burghers or masters of guilds and have a hard go earning a meager subsistence, keeping out of jail, and traveling unmolested.  Young Gabriel’s struggles and moment of awakening provide a satisfying read for middle and upper grade students.

McCaughrean has done an accessible edition of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer suitable for intermediate students.  The importance of Chaucer’s tales and their impact on the progress of civil and religious liberty cannot be overstated.  Chaucer’s subtle irony exposes the hypocrisy and corruption of the powerful; his humor sheds light upon common human foibles of pride, vanity, greed, and deceit–helping us see ourselves better.  Barbara Cohen’s translation combined with the gloriously authentic drawings of Trina Schart Hyman makes a wonderful introduction for all ages.  For primary students, Marcia Williams has abridged and edited the tales and enriched them with her whimsical illustrations.  Those who enjoy Trina Schart Hyman’s work will appreciate her Caldecott Medal winner, Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz won the Newbery Medal for 2008, and deservedly so.  Schlitz created monologues students could perform that realistically depict the lives of children from the runaway villein, to the village half-wit, to the Lord’s daughter.  This is no sanitized depiction, but one full of the pathos of real human voices speaking across the centuries.

The story of the maiden soldier–Joan of Arc, is one of history’s remarkable enigmas, involving as it does, an illiterate peasant girl leading the army of France to victory during the Hundred Year’s War between England and France. Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc is the undisputed classic for high school students. In The Story of Joan of Arc the French artist/author, Maurice Boutet de Monvel, has created a lavish and moving panorama of scenes from a life both tragic and sublime.

Though this brief article cannot do justice to the wealth of literary gems available for this period, students fortunate  enough to have the opportunity to read even a handful of these timeless works will find, in the words of Matthew Arnold, “instruction and delight.”

Works Cited

1.  Hanawalt, Barbara. A., The Middle Ages: An Illustrated History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. p.7.

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Geographer Strabo

Strabo

Geography: Traveling the World Through the Pages of a Book

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page. –Saint Augustine (354-430)

The ancient Greek, Strabo (c. 64 BC-24 AD), is credited with writing the first complete book of geography, in the years that Augustus Caesar reigned as emperor of the vast Roman Empire. Because travel was difficult in the ancient world, and most people, with the exception of merchants and sailors, rarely traveled far from the homes of their birth, knowledge of the world was very limited. But with the reign of peace brought about under Augustus, Strabo changed all that when he traveled extensively in what was then the known world.  He traveled throughout Asia Minor, into Egypt to the border of Ethiopia, into Tuscany, and many other parts of Europe. What Strabo’s Geographica did was to combine the knowledge of the land and topography of regions with anthropological information, which proved invaluable to all future students of history, philosophy and science.

Strabo’s Geographica demonstrates the importance of travel to having a broad and informed knowledge of the world, its peoples, customs, and beliefs.  The notion that travel expands us in good ways is summed up in Mark Twain’s maxim: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” While this is a worthy goal and often desirable in youth, when responsibilities are few and freedom is possible, travel is an option to any and all who simply open the pages of a good book.  Indeed, it might be stated that by traveling extensively through literature, one is truly prepared for the lessons of life one will meet in future far-flung places.

An award-winning children’s author who understood the importance of literature and travel to inform his youthful readers about the beauty and wonder of the natural world, was Holling Clancy Holling (1900-1973).  His most popular books created a new genre of children’s literature­–the geo-history.  But in these books, the travelers are not human, but are creations of the author’s imagination.  Holling understood how central the element of adventure is to his audience, and so he created anthropomorphic1 characters that readers can identify with–a tiny Indian canoe, a lone cottonwood tree on the Great Plains, a baby snapping turtle, and an ivory bird–carved by a young sailor. By following their travels, readers learn painlessly important facts of history, science and geography.

Holling’s most well-known work is titled Paddle-to-the-Sea and is the story of an Indian boy who carves a tiny canoe with an Indian figure, which he names Paddle-to-the-Sea.  He inscribes upon the bottom, “Please put me back in water, I am Paddle to the Sea.” (image here)  The boy then places the canoe at the headwaters to the Great Lakes, where it will eventually follow the currents, tides, and winds though each of the Great Lakes, and finally to the Saint Lawrence River and out to the Atlantic Ocean. The genius of this work, is that in following the intrepid adventures of this tiny canoe, the reader learns all about the history, geography, ecology, and industry of the majestic Great Lakes. Paddle barely survives a trip through a sawmill, a fishing net, a vast forest fire, and a fall over Niagara Falls; but he is also the object of care and kindness of many human characters he encounters along the way. He also sojourns for some time in a marsh, a pond, and passes through the giant locks of Sault Ste. Marie.  As befits his noble Indian character, the tiny passenger is always brave, stoic and undaunted.

In Tree in the Trail, the author creates an intriguing story around a young cottonwood sapling growing up on the Great Plains long before the white man “discovered” these areas.  Nurtured and protected by a young Kansas Indian, the tree grows to become a symbol of significance for the Indian tribes–Kansas, Sioux, Pawnee, Comanche and Dakota, that seek shelter in its shade and ascribe meaning to its survival. Detailed and lavish illustrations reveal the way of the life of the buffalo hunting tribes, their customs and beliefs. Eventually Spanish conquistadores, French trappers, and then American frontiersmen pass by, each leaving a mark of some kind upon the tree. While wildlife build nests, rest, and take shelter under the tree, lonely frontiersmen leave messages for the folks back home at this “post office”.  This beautiful panorama of life over a period of 200 years, is told with authenticity and warmth.  The tree is eventually struck by lightning, dies, and is chopped down to make a yoke to travel the Santa Fe Trail.  Now the tree that had been rooted so long, is free to travel and discover the world of the wild, wild West.

In Minn of the Mississippi, a baby snapping turtle hatches out of its protective shell at Little Elk Lake, Minnesota­, one of the headwaters of the Ol’ Miss–little knowing it will eventually travel a long and winding journey to the Gulf of Mexico–over 2500 miles away. At just a tad over an inch long, the tiny snapper is vulnerable to hungry crows, mischievous boys, and ravenous pickerel, fishing for a tasty snack.  These dangers prove nearly fatal for the little turtle, and though she manages to survive, she does so minus one rear leg, shot off by a careless boy shooting at crows.  Thus begins the intrepid adventures of Minn, who, in the course of her travels will encounter raccoons, mink, otter, muskrats, beaver, and a host of other river creatures.

Minn will live in a river that has been witness to thousands of years of history from the ancient Indian Mound Builders, to numerous American Indian tribes, to frontiersmen of French and American stripe, and to Civil War soldiers transported upon this watery highway.  Minn will encounter every conceivable mode of river transport, and the various types of men and women that ply these waters. Minn will learn that this river is ever-changing its course, carving, cutting, creating, new paths for itself, while wiping out and forever burying its past under layers and layers of mud.

In Seabird, a ship’s boy named Ezra at watch on an 18th century whaler, when the sudden uplift of a seagull in flight alerts him to a dangerous iceberg dead ahead. The boy’s gratitude to the seabird for saving the ship from almost certain destruction inspires him to carve an ivory seabird as a mascot for the ship and crew.  This seabird travels the Seven Seas with Ezra as the crew seeks out the lucrative whale for the oil and other commodities necessary to life in that day.

For mates aboard a whaling ship, life is not only a traveling adventure, but the pursuit of whales is a deadly hair-raising challenge in itself.  Ezra learns firsthand the heart-stopping fear of a Nantucket sleighride, the terror and power of being high in the rigging during a raging storm “South of the Line” and the tedious boredom of life at sea for years on end. But Ezra also experiences the azure beauty of the islands of the South Seas, the exotic sights and sounds of Chinese ports, and the magnificence of the earth’s largest living mammal–the whale.

The story of Seabird traverses three generations of seamen­–Ezra, his son Nate, and his grandson Jim. In the course of their lives, the sea and the ships that ply her, change from the seagoing whale ship, to the swift and sleek merchant Clipper ships, to the age of the steamship.  Seabird is handed down through these generations, a symbol of the courage of those “That go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep”2.

Holling Clancy Holling, along with his wife Lucille, have created an enduring literary legacy for youthful adventurers who are still a bit young to take off traveling on their own.  His works have inspired generations of children to study geography, history, and the natural world and quite likely, later on, to throw on the traveler’s backpack, and see the world.  Proving the maxim of Emily Dickenson that

“There is no Frigate like a book

To take us Lands away. . .”3

1.  An anthropomorphic character is an inanimate object, a plant or animal, who has been given human characteristics and qualities.  This literary technique is often used in children’s literature to enable young readers to identify with a particular creation or character invented by the author.

2. Psalm 107:23.

3. Dickenson, Emily. Complete Poems. Accessed 29 December 2011 at: http://www.bartleby.com/113/1099.html

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The celebration of Epiphany occurs in the liturgical calendar on January 6th and marks the official end of the Twelve Days of

Christmas. The traditional Twelve Days of Christmas begins with Christmas Eve on the evening of December 24 and continues until the feast of Epiphany. The actual Christmas season continues until the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, which in many Western liturgical calendars is celebrated on the Sunday after January 6th. So given that we are (at least liturgically) still within the Christmas season,  I thought it would be nice to highlight some of my favorite children’s books dealing with the visit of the Magi to the Christ child. Probably no other aspect of Christ’s birth has gotten more attention than the visit of the Magi to the infant King.  While many of our fictionalized notions don’t bear much resemblance to the actual story, there are a few children’s books that I think really enhance the story in ways that reflects back upon the truth of how marvelous, transcendent, and numinous the story of this visit is.

The Other Wise Man by Henry Van Dyke is a fictionalized tale based on the Magi’s visit.  In this case an additional Magi is seeking the infant child in order to bring his gifts as well.  But along the way, the Magi encounters unfortunate souls that need his material help.  Despite being pressed for time and wanting to continue his journey, this Wise Man sacrifices his own wants to the needs of others.  The tale by Van Dyke has unfortunately been adapted and rewritten by a number of authors.  Be sure to get the original and curl up with a tale that evokes the meaning of a what constitutes a truly Wise Man.

This is the Star by Joyce Dunbar, and Song of the Camels by Elizabeth Coatsworth are both simple poems that describe the events surrounding the Star of Bethlehem using simple text paired with beautiful illustrations. The former uses the focus of the star to build the action in lovely rhyming verse, while the latter uses the perspective of the camels bearing the Wise Men to show another aspect of this transcendent night.

I’ve saved my favorite for last. Lizbeth Zwerger took O’Henry’s classic tale, The Gift of the Magi, to an entirely new level with her tender watercolors and keenly sensitive eye.  The story involves a very poor but happy young couple on their first Christmas as husband and wife. Living in a tenement house at the turn of the century, they each long to get one perfect Christmas gift to show their love for each other.  Their sacrificial gifts illuminate and reflect the profound lesson of the ultimate divine gift–the gift which costs that which is most dear.  No illustrator before Zwerger captured the pathos of this tale so evocatively and so completely in sink with the author’s exquisite tale.  Do add this one to your family library.  It will likely become a treasured Christmas (and perhaps Epiphany!) tradition.

I’ll close with O’Henry’s profoundly simple and childlike conclusion to this marvelous tale.

“The magi, as you know were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents . . . and here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house.  But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest.  Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest.  Everywhere they are wisest.  They are the magi.

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Dear Reader,

Shakespeare’s The Tempest can be a delightful experience for those wanting to incorporate a bit more of the Bard into their studies of the Reformation and Renaissance era. The themes are not difficult in this play and unlike many of Shakespeare’s other works, the plot sequence is rather simple and easy-to-follow, even for young students. For the youngest reader there are two delightful approaches to take which should make this an enjoyable experience for all!  Marcia Williams in her Tales from Shakespeare has done an adaptation that will provide a worthy introduction; her detailed and colorful illustrations will hold the attention of the youngest reader.  Her well-selected passages retain the beauty of Shakespeare’s language.  Those introducing The Tempest to the youngest readers will be delighted to learn that the BBC produced an animated edition (though an abbreviated 30 minutes–it is well worth watching) which covers the main plot and themes for the youngest student of the Bard.  Though it isn’t readily available for purchase, it can be watched on YouTube in 3 ten minute parts. You can access Part 1 here.

For middle readers, Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb remains the classic revision of the Bard’s most beloved tales, and while it was originally published in 1906, it is still popular today.  Charles Lamb, a nineteenth-century essayist and his sister Mary, understood the importance of retaining the intricate twists and turns of the play’s plot while retaining the beauty of Shakespeare’s language as often as possible.  For any reader who needs an introduction, or even a refresher, these delightful re-tellings will not disappoint.  Many editions of this title include the illustrations of Elizabeth Shippen Green Elliot.  I am partial to the work of nineteenth-century children’s illustrator Arthur Rackham, who did some of the earliest illustrations for the Lamb’s edition.  At left, note his delightful depiction from The Tempest of Ariel teasing Caliban.  When Prospero relates to his daughter Miranda the story of her birth and upbringing,  she recalls a time when she had nursemaids to care for her (see at right).   And below, Rackham depicts Miranda’s lovely lines to Ferdinand, “Alas, now, work not so hard, I pray you.”

Another of my favorite nineteenth century illustrators is Edmund Dulac.  You can see here two of his illustrations from The Tempest.  His vision of Miranda and Ferdinand is stunning and his fairies conjure up all the mystery of this fantastical work.  Hunting down either of these extraordinary artists will enhance and enrich your literary experience with some of the finest art ever produced for children.  In my next post, I will provide a simple overview of the plot, themes, and fun historical facts that will, hopefully, make studying this delightful work even more enjoyable!  So, good night, and as good Prospero says,

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on;

And our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.”



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Dear Friends,

Many of you know that I authored a study guide and maps  for teaching geography and history using the well-loved Holling Clancy Holling classics Paddle-to-the-Sea, Tree-in-the-Trail, Seabird and Minn of the Mississippi.  My friend and former professor, Anita Silvey, has written a delightful biography of Holling Clancy Holling in honor of his birthday, today August 2.  I think Holling’s books will be more dear to you than ever after reading Anita’s lovely tribute to Holling on her Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac, which you can access here.  I highly recommend subscribing to her blog for those who are as enamored with children’s books as I am, and are always eager to learn more!

What Holling Clancy Holling seemed to understand intuitively is how children learn.  Children learn when their senses are completely absorbed, when they are alive and intrigued.  By perfecting a beautifully crafted story, infusing it with important facts (things children need to know about history, science and geography) and then bringing it fully to life in gorgeous art, the minds of children are respected, nurtured and engaged. This is the gift that Holling Clancy Holling gave to us and to the world through his work.  And Holling’s approach, I think, is what Sir Ken Robinson makes an appeal for in his book Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative.  I am just about half way through this, and will post some more when I’ve finished his intriguing and inspiring book!  In the meantime, pick up one of Holling’s classic works, sit down with a son or daughter and enter the beautifully crafted world of Paddle-to-the Sea, Seabird, Tree-in-the-Trail or Minn!  You’ll be happy you did!

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