My childhood memories are of the lovely idleness of summertime — of freedom to play unhindered; to wear any old thing and spend the day out of doors, returning home grass-stained, mosquito-bitten, grimy, and worn out; to drink from the hose, sit on the porch slurping popsicles, pedal to nowhere on a bike; to wake to the slow drone of a lawnmower and fall asleep to the rumblings of a thunderstorm.
The leisure to daydream and play outdoors is a treasure worth guarding — don’t you think?
Today I have five older and vintage books absolutely redolent with the freedom and out-of-doors-ness of old style summer, in contrast to the Organized & Enriching Activities sprouting up like mushrooms today. Perhaps it will give you such a sweet taste of what it might look like to experience some unhurried days that you will make a way for that to happen this summer.
Time of Wonder, written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey published in 1957 by Viking Penguin
One of the granddaddies of American children’s literature, McCloskey won the Caldecott in 1958 for this book, inspired by the summers he and his family spent on an island off the coast of Maine.
From the outset, he captures the slowing down of time that happens, the awareness of nature that occurs, when we leave the rush of city life behind and make our way to rustic, quieter places.
“Out on the islands that poke their rocky shores above the waters of Penobscot Bay, you can watch the time of the world go by, from minute to minute, hour to hour, from day to day, season to season.“
Here, his languid, lyrical prose beckons us to listen to the splash of raindrops, look at the ripples of a boat’s wake disappearing into the fog, feel the rocks warmed by the sun, smell the seaweed, and sense the majesty of the stars. It’s children’s literature that’s not written down to children in the least. Really beautiful.
All is not tranquil, though, because a hurricane is brewing! Preparations have to be made. Ominous winds rise. And the worst of the storm has to be endured with the help of a story and someloud singing!
It’s an achingly beautiful look at a rich way of life, to share with children ages 7 and older, or just to enjoy as an adult. Of course, McCloskey’s gorgeous artwork takes center stage on every page.
Island Summer, written and illustrated by Catherine Stock published in 1999 by Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books
This gem by Catherine Stock is based on her childhood holidays spent at her “grandparents’ cottage on an island off the coast of South Africa,” though the illustrations are set in a village on a Greek isle.
As it’s Greece, of course it’s a spectacular setting. Mediterranean waters, moonlight-white houses rambling up sun-soaked, olive green hillsides. Yes, I could breathe easier here.
Our story begins as the cold rains of winter are ending and the summer sun strengthens, soothing “the angry waves into a flat shimmering sea and soak[ing] up the muddy puddles like freshly baked pound cake sops up melted chocolate.“
We watch as ferryboats unload passengers and their kit. As inns welcome the summer folk. As ladies in flowery dresses and children with sand buckets soak up the beauty and warmth, loll in hammocks, play soccer on the beach, and dance to fiddles by starlight.
The whole book is fragrant with the loveliness of this place, and this pace.
As always, Stock’s watercolor work is a dream. I am a huge fan of hers! This is for ages 3 and up.
July, written and illustrated by James Stevenson published in 1990 by Greenwillow Books
If I were to guess a setting for this book, I’d say the Jersey shore. James Stevenson is a New Yorker, so it must be out in that neck of the woods at any rate.
Beyond the many, many storybooks he’s written, Stevenson has done a number of these memoir type books which I really like. Filled with a sprinkling of thoughts, bits and pieces of recollections, they are a light-handed but thoughtful glimpse of his past, and America’s past.
This one is about his childhood summers, spent with his grandparents at their beach cottage. Stevenson was born in 1929, so these reminiscences are of the 1930s, with rumble seats in the cars, pocket watches adorning the grandpas, and gossiping telephoneoperators.
Memories are made of characters — friends, cranky old geezers, croquet-playing senior citizens; and places — Moffats’ windmill, the boardwalk, the bathhouses; and moments — sand castle building and Uncle Freddie crunching his car and campfires on the beach.
All of these vignettes are illustrated in fleeting, gestural images in watercolor. Stevenson captures an entire world and time and mood in the slimmest flick of a paintbrush.
It’s a gentle, humorous read for ages 5 and up. I’d like to think it might stimulate some conversations between other grandparentsand grandchildren. “Grandpa, tell me about when you were a boy….”
Becky’s Birthday, written and illustrated by Tasha Tudor published in 1960 by Viking Press
Tasha Tudor, the queen of idyllic country living, has written two storybooks featuring Becky. I’ve reviewed the other title, Becky’s Christmas, here.
Becky has a summer birthday. She’s 10 years old. The birds are singing in the lilac bushes and the roosters are crowing a hearty Happy Birthday to You as she wakes up.
This longish story ambles through the entire day. There are birthday spankings from the brothers (of course!), birthday bouquets at breakfast — one from everyone in the family! But the main activities of the day center around the birthday picnic scheduled for the evening.
There’s fresh corn to shuck, a blueberry pie to bake, luscious peach ice cream to crank in the big ice-cream freezer.
When all is ready, Mother and Becky walk through the pasture to the river where the others are waiting. Becky is crowned with a lovely wreath of flowers and ushered to the most unbelievable picnic you have ever seen. Like a woodland fairyland!!
Most stunning of all — the cake, aglow with candles, comes floating down the river on a tiny raft!
This most magical of birthday celebrations is an epic ode to creativity, beauty, and the joy of celebration, illustrated throughout with Tasha’s exquisite drawings and paintings. It’s hard to find. Iwish someone would re-print these. Pure charm for ages 6 and up.
Nic of the Woods, written and illustrated by Lynd Ward published in 1965 by Houghton Mifflin Company
Lynd Ward is another distinguished American illustrator, known especially for his beautiful, strong, woodcuts.
Ward spent his summers in the Canadian woods, at Lonely Lake in Ontario. This lengthy picture book is set there.
Davey Wood and his parents are heading up to their cabin on the lake as they do every summer, but this year his new dog, Nic, is coming along.
It’s a long journey — by train, by farm wagon, and then a couple of miles by rowboat, to reach the handsome log cabin nestled among adense forest on this quiet, lonesome lake.
Davey’s job is to teach Nic all about this new lifestyle — how to sit still in the boat, how to stay nearby so as not to get lost in the forest, how to not carry on so much when Davey dives under the water.
Nic is much too curious for his own good, and tangles with just about everything you can think of: frogs, squirrels, a skunk, a porcupine. Yup. Not good.
The main trouble comes when Davey and his parents head off on a long fishing outing on Lake Algoma. It’s simply no place for a dog, and Davey reluctantly agrees to leave him with his friend Mr. McWaters. But Nic is much too forlorn without Davey, and beforelong, he’s shot out after them, and doesn’t return, instigating an earnest search for this beloved dog.
It’s a great wilderness adventure, boy-and-dog story which could be read in one sitting or broken up — there are 5 brief chapters. Ward’s handsome pen-and-brush illustrations dominate the pages.
You know what I especially like about this? Davey’s mother is a terrific wilderness gal, sporting her 1920s bathing costume, shouldering her knapsack, hiking five miles through the woods, and enjoying the fish fry at the island campsite. Hurrah for Mrs. Woods, say I.
There’s a bit of tension here with the lost dog, but all ends well. It could be read aloud to ages 5 and up.
Here’s to unscheduled, unhurried, summer days in the great out-of-doors. I hope you get some!
I remember reading Time of Wonder out loud to some fairly sophisticated 4th graders (smart and wonderful wisecrackers). I was afraid that they would find it slow but they were completely caught up in the mood of it.
That’s wonderful to hear. He depicts such a tantalizing scene.
I just tried to request 6 of your most recent recommendations at my library (a huge suburban system in the Houston area) and it had NOT A ONE. Do you just have better libraries in Minnesota, or do you own all of the older books you recommend? Do you know if there is a publishing forum where we can lobby for some of these out-of-print books to be re-issued?
Oh! That is sad! Our main Minneapolis library has a massive archives that keeps at least one copy of just about everything, it seems. Rooms of out of print material. I could live there 🙂 Maybe your librarian knows if there is one like that in your area? I do wish we could lobby for books to be reissued! If you find such a forum — please let me know! I have a mental list already 🙂