Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Power of Books: That Book Woman by Heather Henson

My name is Cal
and I can help Pap
with the plowing
and I can fetch the sheep
when they take a-wander.

And I can bring the cow home too
come evening time,
which is right handy,
seeing as how
my sister Lark
would keep her nose
a-twixt the pages of a book
daybreak to dusky dark
If Mama would allow

Being way up in the Appalachians, as high as the hawks fly suits Cal just fine. Not "born to sit stony-still, no scholar-boy," Cal doesn't miss hiking a jillion miles down the creek to school either, and he sure doesn't miss reading that "chicken scratch" that Lark loves so much.

So when a a britches-wearing lady comes riding up the trail, Cal sure doesn't share Lark's excitement when she finds that the rider is a "book woman," one of the "Pack Horse Librarians" sent by the Federal WPA in the Great Depression to bring library services to remote rural areas. He watches with scorn while Lark reaches out eagerly for the treasure of a new book to read and the promise of another every two weeks.

Cal is impressed, though, when the book woman continues to come, through rain, fog, and freezing days of early winter. And one day, a day when deep snow, harsh winds, and lowering skies keep even the wild things "a-hid," on a day when the family keeps the door tightly sealed against the invasive cold, there's a sudden tap-tap at the door.

And there she be--
wrapped tip to toe!
She makes her trade
right through the crack
to keep us folks
from catching cold.
I stand a spell to watch
that Book Woman
It's not the horse alone
that's brave
I reckon,
but the rider, too.

There must be something mighty powerful in book reading if it keeps his sister enthralled through the long winter and that book woman riding through such storms to bring the books to her, Cal sees. With just a look between them, Lark quietly makes a place for Cal beside her and begins to teach him how to read that chicken-scratch like she does.

And come spring, when Ma shyly offers the book woman the only thing she can spare to give her, her berry pie recipe, the lady listens to Cal read his first book.

"That's gift enough," she says.

Evocatively illustrated in ink, chalk, and watercolors by Caldecott artist David Small, Heather Henson's That Book Woman is a great way to open the eyes of modern children, who often have too many books to count, to what a library and the promise of plentiful books can really mean in the life of a child. A great read-aloud during Children's Book Week, this book has been praised by reviewers for its poetic prose and memorable illustrations which show how it once was for children for whom the chance to read a book was a wondrous gift.

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