a list of…five books to launch a new year!

Here are five very different vantage points for looking at a yearful of days…

A Time to Keep:  The Tasha Tudor Book of Holidays, written and illustrated by Tasha Tudor

My battered copy of this old book is testimony to how it has been loved over the years. 

Lavishly illustrated, with sparse text, this book recounts a year’s worth of amazingly creative, nostalgic, charming holiday traditions celebrated by grandma as she raised her children.

 Beginning with a merry dance around a bonfire on New Year’s Day, there’s a Twelfth Night celebration with goat sleighs and costumed charades, elaborate valentines delivered by the enchanting Sparrow Post, maple-sugaring, a lovely Easter egg tree, an elaborate Midsummer’s Eve marionette show in the carriage shed, Fourth of July canoe picnic, an astonishing birthday cake floating down the river, an extravagant harvest-time Doll’s Fair, halloween parties, candle-making, a sweet Christmas creche tucked in a lovely candelit cove in the woods…and much more.

I cannot tell you how much this book inspired my kids’ own creative play, and spurred us all on to exercise our imaginations in celebrating even ordinary days with beauty and creativity and wonder.  Yes, my kids made their own Sparrow Post office, as well as Indian encampments in our back yard, dolls’ Christmas stockings, canoe picnics, and wintertime hikes across the icy lake to a bonfire-and-marshmallows treat on a scraggly island.  Rich, memory-filled, creative goings-on don’t occur without effort and imagination and Tasha Tudor’s book serves as a kind of polar star to guide us into that way of thinking. 

Besides that, her illustrations are beyond wonderful, of course.  If you can resist longing for this kind of fun after looking through this book, well…I am sorry!  This is a prized book!  Read it, and invent some new celebrations this year.

Ox-Cart Man, by Donald Hall, pictures by Barbara Cooney

Winner of the Caldecott Medal in 1980, this is a favorite book for many, including our family.

The book begins as a New England farmer loads up his cart with all kinds of goods which his family has labored for months to prepare.  Sheep’s wool, a woven shawl, handknit mittens, candles and shingles and birch brooms, potatoes and apples and maple sugar…all of it goes in the cart, and off he walks for ten days, until he arrives at the market town.  There he sells every last bit, buys a few choice items, including a Barlow knife for his son’s carvings (a fact which made my son desperately yearn for his own  Barlow knife for years!), and returns home.

The rest of the year follows, with a comforting sameness, carving new brooms, spinning new wool, planting new potatoes, dipping new candles, all of which will make their way to market town on the next trip.

The tranquil, steady narration of this 1800s rural family, season after season, is like an ever-rippling stream.  Gentle, beautiful words and phrases walk us through, line by line, month after month, this practical, living-off-the-land way of life. Donald Hall is a poet laureate who wrote this originally as a poem, and then revised it to become a children’s book.  The result is a gorgeous piece of poetic prose, so memorable in its clean, hushed, simple text.

Barbara Cooney’s medal-winning pictures are a perfect match.  Her folk-art style, her ability to capture the essence of place and of peace, are fantastic, and the care she takes with her artwork makes these pictures worthy of hanging in a museum.  I love her for that.

The Year at Maple Hill Farm, by Alice and Martin Provensen

The Provensens are a husband-wife team who have won numerous awards for their collaborative work in children’s lit.  This is one of their engaging books about the happenings at their home, Maple Hill Farm.

The farm animals are in the spotlight here, through all twelve months of the year.  The Provensens write with a deep love for these particular animals and understanding of them; rather than an aloof, scientific lesson, it feels like a walk about the farmyard, listening to the owners chat about all we see.

In wintry January, the animals huddle close to the barn so they can be fed.  Deer wander near, looking for an apple under the snow.  By April, a lot of eggs are being laid, by hens, robins, and geese…and the big black sheepdog is busy stealing the ones he finds.  That same dog feels a bit embarrassed as the warm weather descends, because his magnificent shaggy coat gets a buzz cut.  At the same time, the cocky rooster’s tail feathers moult, so he’s a bit abashed, too.  The good grey cat teaches her kittens to hunt; the big bay horse is ticklish about rain; one of the cats must be held in a towel in order to get her to swallow her medicine.  We get the inside scoop on all these guys as we step through the months.

In keeping with the neighborly cadence of the text, the illustrations also have a homespun tone.  Some two-page spreads, some pages with many smaller cameos, give plenty of opportunity for the often-hidden or overlooked details of the farm.  Colorful, but never garish, charming pictures that beg to be looked at for a good long time.  A long-time favorite of ours.

Children of the Forest, story and illustrations by Elsa Beskow

Elsa Beskow is a beloved Swedish children’s illustrator.  She produced dozens of books,  primarily from 1900-1930,  and wrote a number of the stories she illustrated.

Children of the Forest is a charming tale of some little folk who live in a tiny house tucked under the roots of a pine tree.  The four little children wear bright red-and-white spotted caps, so that they can crouch down on the forest floor when threatened,  looking for all the world like a patch of mushrooms.  This story takes us through the seasons with this little forest family.  Games with the squirrels and frogs.  Piggy-back rides on friendly bats.  Troubles with snakes, and ants, and trolls.  Gathering berries and nuts for winter.  Visits with fairies.  School lessons under Mrs. Owl.  And delightful winter escapades with snowy-white hares to pull their wooden sleds. 

The sweet, woodsy lifestyle of these little people is tantalizing to read about and certainly fans a curiosity for all sorts of cunning bits of nature.  Elsa Beskow’s illustrations are utterly captivating.  Completely irresistable!  Perfect fodder for a child’s imagination. 

Chicken Soup with Rice, story and illustrations by Maurice Sendak

Another title from the Nutshell Library, which I blogged about awhile ago.  This one is a book of months, quite unlike any other calendar-oriented book you’ll find.

The running theme of the book is a glorious bowl of chicken soup with rice!  It seems that the small boy in this story absolutely adores his chicken soup and is looking forward to twelve highly irregular episodes of chicken-soup-razzamatazz throughout the year.

Gliding on ice skates on the frozen pond in January, he is sipping chicken soup with rice.  Riding on an elephant in far off Bombay in April, he is dreaming of his chicken soup with rice.  Under water.  Along the Nile.  He even decorates his Christmas tree with soup bowls!  For, all seasons of the year are nice for eating chicken soup with rice!

Completely absurd, but disarmingly catchy, this little poetic ode to chicken soup has been a kids’ favorite for almost 50 years.  Sendak’s very merry illustrations are the perfect fit for the story, of course.  The tiny Nutshell Library size has a special charm, but even in a slightly bigger copy, Sendak’s genius child-awareness shines through.

Here are the Amazon links:
A Time to Keep: The Tasha Tudor Book of Holidays
Ox-Cart Man
The Year At Maple Hill Farm
Children of the Forest
Chicken Soup with Rice: A Book of Months
Nutshell Library (Caldecott Collection)