Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Keep Going By Keeping Together

It was a frequent topic of conversation.  When it was not being directly referenced, our way of life mirrored the past experience.  We used everything.  Very little was discarded.  Somethings were made from nothings. We had a huge vegetable garden.  Food was preserved.  If you left a room after dark, you turned off the light.  Water was never left running, ever.  Purchases were made with cash or not made at all.

The lessons learned during The Great Depression after the Stock Market Crash by my mother, then nine-years-old, and my father, at ten-years-old, carried forth into their adult lives. You don't forget those circumstances, but truthfully, I never heard either of them complain about those lean years.  In a tender tribute based upon the childhood of her grandmother, Home In The Woods (Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, October 1, 2019) written and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler allows readers to see the strength and worth of familial love and ingenuity.  Season by season the impossible becomes probable.

This is my family.
Marv (8)
Rich (10)
Ray (14)
Mum (34)
Bea (12)
Dal (2)
Eva (3 mo.)
Lowell (4)
This is me.
Marvel (6)

Marvel's family has lost a father and a husband and their home.  It's summer.  They find a dilapidated, one-room shack in the woods.  There is a nearby outhouse.  Their mother reasons they might find glad surprises inside this barely standing house.  Inside is a table, a couple of empty wooden crates, an oven, potbelly stove, and some box springs. Amazingly enough two of the siblings locate a trap door.  It leads to a cellar with shelves filled with glass jars, a pail, a stack of cloth rags and a hand pump that works, giving them fresh clean water.

As the children and their mother work to clean and ready the shack for living, two other siblings make another discovery.  The dirt on the forest floor after years of falling leaves is dark and fertile; perfect for gardening.  To the children the woods reveal animal pathways, a creek brimming with trout, and lush berry patches.

Autumn signals the need for other tasks.  Words are written on paper slips and siblings complete the assigned work stated on the slips they select randomly.  For money their mother walks into town to assist other families with their household jobs.  The root cellar shelves are slowly filled with the fruits (and vegetables) of their labors.  Only able to afford essentials during visits to town, the siblings, now home, invent their own game of buying whatever they want.

Like the woods outside their home, winter brings indoor activities except for Ray and Marv who daily hunt in the snow and cold.  Success makes for a lively celebratory feast.  A mother watches outside a window deep into the chilly night as her children lay nestled next to her.

The first fresh breaths of spring announce new hope.  Homemade goods are exchanged for milk and eggs at a nearby farm.  Wildflowers and returning birds decorate the woods with color and song.  As Marvel looks at the shack, she marvels at the changes the seasons can bring on the outside and on the inside of her.

The voice of six-year-old Marvel reveals truth in short, poignant thoughts and sentences.  Three different voices are heard when Eliza Wheeler includes dialogue four times.  It raises the authenticity of those moments.  During each of the seasons, we are aware of all the activities inside and outside the home through beautifully described events, simple but eloquent. It's as if we are members of this family.  Here is a passage.

Bea huddles in the lamp's glow.
Mum teaches her that scraps,
put together,
make colored patchwork.

I huddle by the warm stove.
Rich teaches me that letters,
put together, make words . . .
and words, put together, 
make stories.

As you look at the front of the dust jacket, you find yourself drawn into the scene by the delicate details and natural framing of the woods.  Although the family is engaged in chores, there is a sense of peace and accomplishment, too.  The tree trunk you see on the left, continues on the other side of the spine.  When you open the jacket, the continuation is flawless.  The foreground remains darker and brighter and the background fades to near white as your eyes move left.  This space provides an opportunity to talk about this book and Eliza Wheeler's Miss Maple's SeedsThe title text is slightly raised and varnished.

Beneath the jacket, the book case gives us another view of the shack.  It is winter.  Marv and Ray are walking away from their home to go hunting, their footprints leaving a path in the snow.  We are standing farther back from the clearing as a panoramic view spreads out across both the back and the front of the case.  You get a very real sense of the stillness, cold and probably the crunch of footsteps in the snow.

On the opening and closing endpapers, in soft shades of green, Eliza Wheeler, artist, has created a bird's eye view of the shack and surrounding woods.  Important places and points of interest are labeled.  Many of these spaces are visited by the children and their mother in Marvel's story.

Rendered in

dip pens, India ink, watercolor, acrylics, and pastel pencils

all the illustrations, in intricate, fine lines and superb use of light and shadow, portray people and places in which readers, regardless of the time period, can identify.  Many of the images are full-page pictures, double-page pictures, visuals crossing the gutter to fashion a column for text or another picture or small illustrations grouped on a single page.  In addition to the narrative text, Eliza Wheeler adds explanatory short captions.  The facial expressions viewed are those of people you wish to know.  In a word, every page turn discloses, exquisiteness.

One of my many, many favorite illustrations spans two pages.  It is probably very late at night or early in the morning during a bitter winter.  On the left we are inside the shack.  The children are stretched out from their mother, Mum, who leans against the window holding the youngest child.  All eight are under a quilt.  We can see the faces of five children.  The other two have their heads at the other end of the bed.  All we see are their feet covered in socks.  Light from the stars and moon shine on the mother's upturned face. Eliza Wheeler cleverly takes the wall on the inside of the shack and turns it into the outside wall as it crosses the gutter.  Drifts of snow sparkle under the stars among the trees in the woods.  Here is the final sentence in the passage for this picture.

But Mum stays awake
into the night . . .

. . . whispering

This book is filled with hope and potential.  For all who read Home In The Woods written and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler you can see how resilience leads to success, and how hope guided by love leads the way.  The potential found here is for a multitude of discussions with readers.  On the final page in an Author's Note Eliza Wheeler speaks about the inspiration for this book, her grandmother, Marvel.  Today four of the children are still alive including Marvel.  Eliza Wheeler also invites readers to talk about their family stories.  I highly recommend this book for your professional and personal book collections.

To learn more about Eliza Wheeler and her other work, please visit her website by following the link attached to her name.  There are multiple resources related to this book.  Eliza Wheeler has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter.  At the publisher's website you can view the title page.  I know you will love reading this article in the Southwest Journal about the journey to write this book.  I did.  I might have been a bit teary, too, at the end.

UPDATE:  On December 10, 2019 Eliza Wheeler visited PictureBookBuilders to chat about this book.  It's a wonderful post with loads of information.

UPDATE:  Eliza Wheeler uploaded two videos about this book.  I believe you will enjoy them.

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