“She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build laughter out of inadequate materials . . . She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall.”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
One of the beauties of reading classics again is the heightened ability to empathize in different seasons of life. Reading The Grapes of Wrath with my 15 year-old daughter, is an entirely different experience than reading it as a teenager. I see it now through the eyes of a grandmother, a mother, a sister and a daughter. But it is the position of Mrs. Joad that is particularly striking for me as a mother and grandmother. Steinbeck’s passage above reflects an unconscious notion many mothers feel as they strive to build strength and integrity in their families.
Becoming re-acquainted with Steinbeck’s tale of the great Dust Bowl migration displays the timeless power of literature. As we immerse in the story of a formerly middle-class family cast off from their one-time prosperous farm, forced to migrate with little more than the clothes on their backs, a few family members in extremities of health, with little money and facing cruel prejudice wherever they go, I’m struck by how capricious our relative ease and comfort can be and how blithely we view it.
I relate particularly to Mrs. Joad, as she struggles to keep her family together, knowing how important that is, yet watching the vicissitudes of fate and chance play their hand cruelly against her best intentions, and my heart aches with her mother heart. As she buries both parents along the way due to the extremities of travel and little chance of rest and sustenance, I feel I can understand her heartbreak and agony. So determined is she to keep the family together that when the men make plans to split up, she takes up a jack handle and threatens to wallop Pa if he forces his plan. The formerly mild-mannered and temperate Ma is forced to such means to do what she believes is right. Tragically, despite her best efforts the family is split up. Steinbeck describes in vivid detail how the tragedy of the Dust Bowl, corporate and individual greed, and small-minded prejudice brought such devastation to hard-working, happy, God-fearing families all across the plains.
The lessons of The Grapes of Wrath are many. But the one that is resonating with me currently is how displacement is such an ongoing human tragedy. It strips dignity, creates prejudice, subjects the innocent to violence, and destroys families. While we have no great forced migrations occurring in America today, around the world they are an ongoing reality. We have displaced Mexican children swamping our borders, the Syrian refugee crisis is daily in the news, Rwandan refugee camps burst at the seams, and there are continuing crises in Sudan and Somalia.
Watching the heartbreak of Mrs. Joad is an important exercise in learning to have a heart for refugees and for the disenfranchised around the globe. Mrs. Joad stands as an icon of the tragedy that is repeated around the world as families are forced to flee their homes. Through one of his characters, Steinbeck poses the question, “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?” It is a good question to ask ourselves. The next time we’re tempted to dismiss the plight of the refugee, whether at our border, or elsewhere on the globe, let’s remember Mrs. Joad, and say a prayer for all those in her place.
August 9, 2014 will be my Summer Literature Soirée, which many of you have attended in the past. Normally I like to do a summer reading event at the beginning of the summer and then a Back-to-School event at the end of August, early September. But due to speaking engagements and other life commitments (2 new grandchildren born this spring!), I am only able to provide one this season. Regardless, I am very much looking forward to spending this special time discussing literature, nurturing friendships, and making new acquaintances too!
So, I am mixing it up a bit this time, as I’d like to spend a bit more concentrated time digging into literary analysis with all of you! Don’t panic if you’ve never analyzed literature before as this format will empower you to feel confident and equipped to discuss literature with your children/students on a deeper level.
Here’s the literature we will discuss on August 9th:
Carver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson
Water Buffalo Days by Quang Nhuong Huynh
Lost Names by Richard Kim
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Time of Wonder by Robert McCloskey
The Little Island by Margaret Wise Brown
For convenience sake, Beautiful Feet Books will offer anyone who signs up for the soirée, an opportunity to purchase the above books discounted and have them shipped to your home, in the next week or so, to give you enough time to read them before August 9th (yeah for summer lazy days to read and rest!). If you are interested in this, please visit the this link to order as soon as possible. The book pack is featured at the bottom of the page. We will offer the above set of books at a 25% discount, but this offer will only be available until Friday, July 11. And of course, bring the books with you on August 9th, so you can work directly with the text!
So here are the details:
Date: Saturday, August 9, 2014
Place: my home: 1306 Mill Street, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
Welcome 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 twoNewbery 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. Pancakes-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.
Winner of the Caldecott Medal in 1993, Mirette on the High Wireby 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. 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.
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 Beowulfincludes 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 Angels. Young 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.”
1. Hanawalt, Barbara. A., The Middle Ages: An Illustrated History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. p.7.
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.
Rea Berg is passionate about children's books and has been republishing classic and historical children's literature for the last 30 years through her company Beautiful Feet Books. She also designs guides for teaching elementary and secondary students history using award-winning classic and historic literature. She holds both an undergraduate degree in English from Simmons College, Boston as well as a graduate degree in children's literature.