It's a rare occasion when a book is not at the top of my list for giving or getting. First on my list of suggestions this holiday season is this incredible set of books by the pantheon of American women writers: Louisa May Alcott, Willa Cather, Zora Neale Hurston, Sarah Orne Jewett, Katherine Anne Porter, Gertrude Stein, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Edith Wharton. The eight-volume set includes novels and short stories and is published by Juniper Books, an imprint of Library of America. Of course, it's ridiculously pricey at $395.00, but oh so clever.
When I checked the website on the weekend, the set appeared to be out of stock. But that did not seem to be the case yesterday should you seriously think about purchasing it. The set weighs twelve pounds but qualifies for free shipping. The truth is that I have the Library of America Willa Cather volume home from the public library. It has the very same titles just no Charles Dana Gibson on the spine. I know I am much more likely to just dream about this set rather than buying it. Maybe I can figure out how to cover my own books in such a highly visual format.
. . .
I was never a big fan of writer Lois Lenski as a child. In fact, I don't think I read any of her books and I am not sure why that is. But Lenski herself is another matter. I am deep into the fascinating biography/appreciation of Lenski written by my friend Bobbie Malone (below left) who's a historian and educator. Bobbie came to Madison via Texas and New Orleans and knows how to tell a story as this book so beautifully demonstrates.
Lois Lenski created a body of children's literature that she both wrote and illustrated and is still in print, a rare achievement. Her first books were published while she was raising a family during the Depression and living in an old farmhouse in the countryside in New England. Lenski had to carve out time and space to create, which was even more difficult then than it is now. Kid lit, American history, cultural history, urban and rural life — all these strands come together in Lenski's work and make Bobbie's book a great read. You can find it on Amazon or locally at A Mystery to Me Bookstore on Monroe St.
Bobbie regularly gets together with a like-minded group to discuss children's literature. They are currently reading their way through the winners of the Newbery Medal. The Newbery is an annual award given by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. If you look at the list of Newbery winners you are likely to find many books that you've read.
Bobbie's group just finished reading "Miss Hickory" and she called me to say she was stopping by to loan me the book as she thought I would like it. "Miss Hickory" won the Newbery in 1947, the year I was born. The author is Carolyn Sherwin Bailey and the illustrator is Ruth Gannett. I sat down with "Miss Hickory" later that day not quite sure what Bobbie thought I would like or what this queer-looking little book was about.
It only took a few pages before I was sucked into this beyond-quirky story about a doll made of an apple twig with a hickory nut for a head, thus her name. Miss Hickory is a feisty character who's crabby and cranky and much older than the word "doll" would suggest. She lives outdoors in a little corncob house but comes into the family house in the winter. Until they go away and forget all about her. Suddenly Miss Hickory must fend for herself out in the world, surround by creatures who may be friends — or not. Her hard head means she's not very good at figuring it all out.
This is a story that is so clearly the product of a different era. It portrays a surprisingly violent world for a children's book; but perhaps one that was familiar to those who'd grown up during the Depression and WWII. There are words that are not explained or defined like wastrel, Daphne and Persephone, treble and bass. There are occurrences that are described with such subtlety that you may miss them altogether. The story is filled with moral lessons large and small about responsibility, behavior, friendship and personality.
There are also beautifully evocative descriptions of animals and the natural world. Look at Miss Hickory's shoes on the cover of the book: they're Lady Slipper Orchids and that's a Hepatica growing next to her! The author actually made me feel kindly towards the animals who were foraging in gardens.
I read "Miss Hickory" in a day, loved every minute of it, and think gardeners and those who love YA books would like it as well. But I am not sure it is really a book for children. If you do buy the book look for a hardcover version with the original cover and illustrations. Like so many classic titles, there are new versions lacking all the charm of the originals.