September 16

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Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!: Ten Picture Books about Farm Life by Jake Nuckolls

My Grandad is in his mid-90s.  He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, raised 3 children with my Grandma Dot, and grew up a farm boy; back when the technological revolution of the day was connecting a couple different farm houses via phone lines.  They raised flocks of all types, grew much of their food for the year, and harvested crops for pay.  He recently asked us at a Sunday dinner (family tradition) if anyone had ever tasted proper salt pork.  Only my wife, who had traveled to Sweden many years ago could say “Yes.”  He was and in many ways still is a farm boy.  Storing his wealth of knowledge above the barrels of carrots stored in salt and below the hanging cured meats.

 

These are stories about those farms.  About farms and the “dirt under the fingernails” beauty and hardship of it all.  I know there are more, but isn’t that the caveat we all use?

 

A Year at Maple Hill Farm by Alice and Martin Provensen

 

I could call this the Ox Cart Man’s calendar.  The Provensen’s walk us through the year, month by month, telling and showing the reader both the weather changes and the farmyard responsibilities.  The illustrations are packed full of farm activity as well as more than a few jokes.  The watercolors are perfectly in tune with the words and force the reader to spend time wandering through each image to find all of what’s going on.

 

The Jolly Barnyard by Annie North Bedford, Illus. by Tibor Gergely

 

Oh, The Jolly Barnyard.  I nearly had this one memorized.  Annie Bedford’s perfect rhymes are placed alongside the art of the criminally underrated Tibor Gergely.  Farmer Brown is a kind soul who loves his animals and as they receive their daily attention each realizes the care Farmer Brown bestows upon each.  The tables turn as each animal shares his plan to make Farmer Brown’s birthday special.

 

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, Illus. by Garth Williams

 

I know.  It’s sort of like cherry picking.  Low hanging fruit as they say.  E.B. White’s masterpiece is a wonderful slice of farm life.  One of the things I loved about Charlotte’s Web was that it never shied away from the hard realities for animals on the farm.  Raising animals for food, concerns about friendship, dealing with loss, death of a friend, and growing up. At the same time, it also gave a tender young boy like myself hope that there was space for mercy, patience, and understanding.

 

Farm by Elisha Cooper

 

Discovering Elisha Cooper is one of the highlights of my picture book section browsing.  Farm is a vast and open book.  While each page contains multiple illustrations, they never overwhelm the reader.  Cooper’s simple words underscore his use of wide open spaces.  It’s a loving tribute to farms.  On display are his unique artistic stylings including broad sweeping images of farms worthy of any fine art display at a museum and the sparse pages with visual lists of items (animals, tools, etc.)

 

Going to Sleep on the Farm by Wendy Cheyette Lewison, Illus. by Juan Wijingaard

 

Farm books lend themselves to bedtime books.  Why? Because everything has a rhythm.  Up early, work, eat, work, eat and rest, work, work, work, eat, rest.  The animals follow a much simpler rhythm: wake, eat or rest or eat, rest.  Going to sleep on the farm is one of the more beautiful versions of this style of book with Lewison’s lullaby-ish prose and Wijingaard’s muted illustrations. We watch a child putting toy animals to sleep, while his father tells him how each nestles down, with the child being the final sleeper.  It’s a staple at our house and a frequent baby shower gift.

 

The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Illus. by N.C. Wyeth

 

The Yearling pops up on so many lists of mine.  Top 10 books ever, books about growing up, books where the parents are good, books that treat disabilities with respect, etc… (personal lists).  We get to watch Jody Baxter grow up, simple as that.  Do his chores on the farm (or escape from them), learn the jobs he will take over as he grows, suffer when the family suffers, and rejoice when the family rejoices. A rich story taking place in the south, so thoroughly described that I can still feel the Spanish Moss.

 

The Ox Cart Man by Donald Hall, Illus. by Barbara Cooney

 

1980 winner of the Caldecott Award for good reason.  I was born the year after it won and therefore it was part of my growing up.  As with the Provensen’s Maple Hill Farm, The Ox Cart Man traces a family’s journey on their farm.  Where it differs is when the titled character makes his trip to the big city to sell goods, buy supplies, and return to his family to start the cycle again.  Illustrated with the style really only known to Barbara Cooney.  Soft and gentle and realistic.  You can tell a Cooney illustrated book simply by the pictures, no name needed.

 

Sleep Tight Farm by Eugenie Doyle, Illus. by Becca Stadtlander

 

Sleep Tight Farm is like a more focused version of The Ox Cart Man or Maple Hill Farm.  Instead of taking the whole year, it shows us the preparations made for winter.  The three of these books also focus on the roles and responsibilities of families on the farm.  Like my Grandfather as a boy, it was expected that everyone took part in one way or another.  And the illustrations? Calendar worthy… and that’s a good thing.  I’d frame any one of them on my wall.

 

Prairie Town by Bonnie Geisert, Illus. by Arthur Geisert

 

This is a whole series.  Prairie Town, River Town, Mountain Town, and Desert Town round out the batch.  They are all glorious glimpses into the day to day life of different towns in different parts of the country.  What makes these so unique is that the illustrations alter between broad-scale pictures of the whole town (from the same vantage point) and specific looks at portions of the town.  When the “camera” pulls back to look at the entire town though, pay attention, as time passes so do the stories of each place and space.  That old dilapidated building? 8 pages later might be burned to the ground.  The wedding that happened on page 4? That same couple (same color car) is now buying a home.

 

Big Red Barn by Margaret Wise Brown, Illus. by Felicia Bond

 

It almost seems as though Margaret Wise Brown wrote a book that could fit on any list… ever.  What kills me about Brown is rhyme scheme.  Just when you think you have it… you don’t.  Big Red Barn is also a going to sleep style book, but there are no humans present (as admitted in the beginning pages).  What I love about this book though is that it’s not only the traditional farm animals, but also those that are part of the natural environment.  Bats fly at night as the barn fills.  Felicia Bond, of the mouse and cookie fame, gives the whole book the feel of a descending night.

 

When not recommending books, Jake Nuckolls can be found pushing any of his four kids on the swings, hacking back the blackberries getting too close to the chicken coop, and making eyes at his wife.  He’s an aspiring writer with a small moleskin journal in his pocket at all times.  Currently working on both a Caldecott and Newbery Bracket Challenge with his kids and wife respectively.  Follow along on Instagram as Stuffofstories and on Twitter as @thestoryhunt.