a list of…five intriguing looks at long-ago days


My mother looks pleased to be the birthday girl.

Recently, I’ve been enjoying collecting stories and photographs from my parents’ and grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ childhoods.  What was mundane, everyday life to them, is fascinating to us, so changed are the ways of our society.  There are so many elderly people with rich stories tucked away in their memories, and I wish I could chat with many to learn about their interesting lives.  The books today all feature a look back to bygone days, lived in diverse, intriguing settings.


Grandfather’s Journey, written and illustrated by Allen Say

When Allen Say’s grandfather was a young man, he left his home in Japan and sailed to America, exchanging his familiar Japanese kimono for dapper trousers and a bowler hat, exploring with relish this new land, its deserts and great plains, factories and towering mountains, and its vast assortment of people.  He traveled to Japan, once, to marry his true love, but they returned, making San Francisco home.

Many years later, Grandfather Say grew homesick for Japan and moved back.  The old scenes were sweet to him once again, though sunny California still teased him with  memories.  For Grandfather Say, and for Allen Say as well, having homes on both sides of the Pacific meant an on-going sense of missing one while in the other.

In succinct, poetic sentences, Allen Say tells this touching story of his grandfather’s life, revealing the bittersweet longings that come from having homes in such distinct cultures and places. His Caldecott-Medal-winning paintings are stunning.  Each set of dark eyes in these serene Japanese faces meets our gaze and pulls us into their world; each exquisite landscape conveys the beauty — or sorrow — Grandfather experiences in that place.  Absolutely gorgeous; this is a quiet masterpiece.

Once Upon a Time and Grandma, written and illustrated by Lenore Blegvad

Emma and Luke are visiting Grandma in the big city, and today she is taking them to see the house where she grew up.  As they stand on the sidewalk, gazing up at the wrought iron fire escape and the little window on the fifth floor Grandma says was hers, she tells them stories of her childhood.

She tells of blowing soap bubbles on the fire escape balcony and visits from the organ grinder and his monkey; of the iceman and milkman with their horse drawn wagons, and of feeding those horses sugar lumps.  Most curious of all, she tells of tap-dancing in the alley-way!  Grandma?  Tap dancing? Emma can’t believe what she’s hearing.  By the end of their outing, however, Grandma  has convinced her that it’s all true, and she and Luke have grown to appreciate Grandma in many new ways.

This is a cheerful story.  It looks to me like Grandma grew up in 1930s-era New York, but despite the potential for sad memories in that era, she looks back fondly.  Blegvad’s watercolor illustrations, with pencil details, are friendly, gentle cameos.   A sweet inter-generational tale.

On Sand Island, by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by David A. Johnson

Nestled among the Apostle Islands of Lake Superior, is one named Sand Island, and there, in the early 1900s, a little boy named Carl grew up.

Living in a community of Norwegian fisherfolk, Carl longs more than anything for a boat of his own.  So, with stubborn optimism he salvages lumber washed ashore and sets to work.  At each stage in the process, Carl finds he needs the help of skilled neighbors, so he trades work he can do — berry picking or net mending — for labor he can’t muster — sawing and nailing.

By the time Carl’s boat is finished, we have met a number of warm-hearted Sand Island dwellers and learned about the beauty and neighborly life in this time and place.  Martin’s fictionalized account, based on diaries and interviews, is packed with intriguing details and vivid images, capturing the unique life and setting beautifully.

David Johnson’s artwork is fantastic, with clean, simple ink lines, subtly-hued watercolor, and a spattering of Impressionistic color that yields a grainy, long-ago quality.  A fantastic pairing of talent resulting in a very well-crafted book I love.

When I Was Young in the Mountains, by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Diane Goode

The Appalachian Mountains are the setting for this story, a gentle, sweet reminiscing about a childhood lived with grandparents among the coal miners.

Tender details, like a kiss on the head from her sooty grandfather, unnerving memories of water snakes in the swimming hole, peaceful recollections of evenings on the porch swing, looking at stars and listening to the goodnight call of a bobwhite — these and more are poetically drawn for us.  Rylant herself grew up in this setting, and her descriptions are rich with authenticity.

Diane Goode won a Caldecott Honor for her whisper-soft illustrations which usher us into these rural scenes of quiet, comforting, familiarity.  This is a favorite of many.

A Country Schoolhouse, written and illustrated by Lynne Barasch

Grandpa is a whip-smart college professor who, as a young boy in the 40’s, attended a small country schoolhouse in upstate New York.

In this book, we listen in as he describes what those days were like:  spelling bees and geography bees and freezing cold schoolrooms; outhouses and promotion days; good friends, plenty of chores, and lunchboxes packed by mother.

Woven through it all, Grandpa speaks with pride about the first-rate education he received, of all the learning they did in that humble three-room building.  Lynn Barasch’s cheery watercolors of baseball games, snowforts, and the pastoral countryside are a sunny backdrop to Grandpa’s memories.

Here are the Amazon links for these books:

Grandfather’s Journey
Once Upon a Time and Grandma
On Sand Island (Golden Kite Honors (Awards))
When I Was Young in the Mountains (Reading Rainbow Books)
A Country Schoolhouse