Monday, November 21, 2011

Over the River and Through the Wood

The New England Boy's Song
About Thanksgiving Day
Written by Lydia Maria Child
Illustrated by Matt Tavares
Candlewick, 2011
$16.99, ages 4 and up, 32 pages

A family's eagerness to get to grandfather's house is felt in every verse and slide of their sleigh, in this handsome, cozy edition of a beloved Thanksgiving song.

Acclaimed Matt Tavares illustrates Lydia Maria Child's 1844 poem, "A Boy's Thanksgiving," which became the song, "Over the River and Through the Wood," and in the most regardful way, keeping to the simplicity of her words and the time.

The boy remains the center of the family's New England outing, leaping onto the sleigh to grip the reigns before his family steps inside. As he holds them high in his mittened hands, the boy imagines flying through a spray of snow.

After his family climbs in, the boy slips over onto the bench, and his father, sitting next to him, leans forward and raps the reigns. His mother, in a bonnet, long gold coat and billowy scarf, scoops his little sister onto her knee so she can see store fronts as they pass.

The boy's face is gleeful and eager, and his left arm, as if spring-loaded, shoots in front of his father to point to freshly made toys in a store window. The father isn't jolted in the least. If anything his jaunty countenance only grows as he soaks in his boy's joy.

But as the poem goes, nothing delays them today; only family is in their sights. "We would not stop / For doll or top, / For it is Thanksgiving day," the boy seems to sing out with not a grumble or sigh.

The sleigh is one of few on the road out of town and passes families strolling by in ankle-length woolen coats and mufflers. Just before the family crosses the bridge, a gust of wind blows the boy's hat off and their dog, black and terrier-like, who is padding behind, catches it heartily in his mouth.

The frosty air nips at the family, "stings the toes" and "bites the nose," and the wind combs the boy's hair up as if coating it with hair spray. Yet the family is only passingly put off and doesn't seem to shiver. Their coats and blankets, even the snow on branches, is painted so thickly that even shadows look cozy.

On the way out of the town, the one-horse sleigh crosses a bridge above a frozen river crowded with families ice-skating. The family's dog darts down to have a quick slide across before running up to follow them again, the look on his floppy-eared face as jubilant as the boy's.

The scenes are soothing and calm, far-removed from the frenetic cliches of today's world, of cars darting onto the on ramp on Thanksgiving Day and drivers' eyes filling with an intensity that seems sadly amiss, too much like rush-hour nerves. 

Though the frozen river is packed, no one looks agitated or rushed. Men guide their wives' hands, swiveling them to and fro; a daughter leans against her father as he guides her first glide; and a boy in skates pushes off the ice, steering a sleigh with steal runners and a wrap-around back carrying a smaller child.

Though there is a sense urgency for the family, as it rushes to make it for Thanksgiving dinner, the journey is exhilarating. Even when rabbits scamper across the path of the sleigh's horse and cause him to sidestep and twist, the gasps on the parents' faces are fleeting.

The boy, on the other hand, seems to embrace the horse's uncertainty, as he leans forward and grips the front edge of the metal sleigh, a look of wild joy in his eyes. More, more, they seem to say.

The boy's thoughts swim with so many things he looks forward to, "To see little John and Ann," and "kiss them all," "play snow-ball, / and stay as long as we can." The boy silently urges the horse to "trot fast" and "spring over the ground," and searches ahead for signs of the house.

Then all at once, the house unfolds beyond a split-rail fence, its snow-softened A-frame roof, welcoming porch and glowing window panes inspired by Child's grandfather's home, which still stands today.

The boy looks as if he could rocket off the sleigh as he spots John and Ann, whom we take as cousins, throwing snowballs around a dapper, wonderfully rotund snowman.

"We seem to go / Extremely slow, / It is so hard to wait," he says, stretching forward, as their dog races ahead, his front legs thrown back and back legs flying forward.

One read through Over the River and Through the Wood and readers will long for the pastoral life, to be swept up the side of a mountain by horse power, to hear the quiet of the woods settling deeply around.

Beautifully done and so peaceful it made me yearn to be in it, Tavares's edition is just the thing to slow readers down and keep their thoughts centered.

Tavares is the acclaimed author of so many jewels, including 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, Henry Aaron's Dream, Mudball, Lady Liberty: A Biography, and Jack and the Beanstalk.

He is also the artist of one my favorite book illustrations, a boy in hat and gloves flying high in the sky with a flock of geese. That drawing accompanies Langston Hughes' poem, "Dreams," in This Place I Know: Poems of Comfort, compiled by Georgia Heart after 9-11.

My heart soars just looking at it, perhaps because I have three boys who I hope will fly.

By Langston Hughes

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

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