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Kids Picture Book Review – Home in the Woods

HOME IN THE WOODS
Written and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler
(Nancy Paulsen Books; $17.99, Ages 5-8)

 

Home in the Woods cover

 

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Horn Book, Kirkus

“This book is inspired not only by the stories from [my grandmother],” says Wheeler, “but by the entire generation that experienced the Great Depression. They will soon be gone, and if we haven’t yet collected their stories, the time is now.”

 

Home in the Woods, the latest picture book by Eliza Wheeler is a treat for the eyes and soul. The embossed title on the book jacket is gorgeous as is the winter scape underneath. The water color and ink artwork is simply stunning.

Travel back in time as this compelling story, based on Wheeler’s grandmother’s life in the Wisconsin woods during the Great Depression, pulls readers right into each meticulously and movingly illustrated page.

Told from the perspective of Wheeler’s grandmother, Marvel, Home in the Woods introduces readers to the six-year-old and her seven siblings along with Mum, a newly widowed and stoic 34-year-old. This 40-page book unfolds over four seasons beginning in Summer when the time is ideal to move into an abandoned tar-paper shack they find in the woods. “You never know what treasures we’ll find,” says Mum. While Marvel doesn’t believe the rundown hut can ever be a treasure let alone a home, she carries on nonetheless relying on the closeness of her family and her mother’s optimism. That energy is conveyed in scenes like the one where seven of the siblings (the youngest, at 3- months-old, is at home with Mum) happily collect berries. Wheeler subtly shows how nature plays an important role in both the family’s struggle and survival.

 

Int1 HomeintheWoods Wheeler

Interior illustration from Home in the Woods written and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler, Nancy Paulsen Books ©2019.

 

The blue tones of Summer shift when Autumn arrives and “rust and ruby leaves” provide a beautiful backdrop for this season’s art. Everyone in the family pitches in whether it’s splitting wood to heat the shack or pulling weeds and picking “veggies.” As baby Eva munches a carrot, Mum cooks preserves and the children prepare for winter by stocking up the cellar with whatever they were able to harvest.

On a visit to Bennett’s General Store, the siblings look longingly at the inviting shop window, but they have learned how to do without. They can only afford to “buy some basics.” Cleverly, the kids have invented a game they’ve dubbed General Store that keeps them entertained for hours. Beside the hut, Marvel displays “mud sweets,” little Lowell is the jeweler, older sister Bea sells fine hats (note the creativity of the hats Mum is admiring), and the others all find fulfilling counters to man.

When Winter’s bitter winds blow, the family huddles by the pot-belly stove as the two oldest boys “trek out to hunt for food.” Blue tones return, but the flames of the fire, the glowing lantern, the gold in the children’s crowns, and in the patchwork pieces as Mum teaches Bea to quilt all depict a warmth that is the fabric of this loving family. Marvel shares how her brother Rich teaches her to read in another touching illustration that is rich with contentment.

 

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Interior illustration from Home in the Woods written and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler, Nancy Paulsen Books ©2019.

 

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Interior illustration from Home in the Woods written and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler, Nancy Paulsen Books ©2019.

 

The illustration above clues readers into Mum’s silent fears for her family while the words, “But Mum stays awake into the night …” tell us what we’ve guessed all along. Living in the woods, barely eking out a living, and supporting her family of nine has taken its toll on this strong woman. Mum prays for her children to get safely through winter and the Depression.

 

int4 HomeintheWoods Wheeler

Interior illustration from Home in the Woods written and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler, Nancy Paulsen Books ©2019.

 

The cycle of seasons culminates in Spring. “The cottonwoods are all in bloom” and a spirit of rebirth and renewal fills everyone’s hearts just as the family’s pail is filled with fresh milk at Erickson’s Farm. The children rejoice in the thrilling sound of birdsong and the blossoming of flowers. Enveloped by hope, the family has gotten through the harsh Wisconsin winter and emerged to find that the power of togetherness, teamwork and love has brought to them the promise of better days ahead and the true meaning of home.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

 

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The Most Wonderful Thing in the World by Vivian French

The Most Wonderful Thing in the World
Written by Vivian French
Illustrated by Angela Barrett
(Candlewick Press; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

 

TheMostWonderfulThinginTheWorld
Starred Reviews: Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews

Sometimes the very thing we are searching for is right before our eyes. And sometimes, if we’re fortunate, we get the opportunity to discover this truth through beautiful picture book stories like The Most Wonderful Thing in the World.

A retelling of illustrator Angela Barrett’s favorite childhood story, The Most Wonderful Thing in the World starts with a royal problem. An over-protective king and queen of a picturesque kingdom with “sky-blue water and golden bridges” must find a proper husband for their only child, Lucia. Unsure of how to find the right man, they write to “Wise Old Angelo” for advice on what to do. In response, Angelo advises them to find the man who can show them the most wonderful thing in the world. And, alas, the parade of suitors who visits the king and queen bring one bizarre item after another: “mysterious magical beasts and a piece of frozen sky,” a “mammoth tusk” and “wind machine”—“even [a] mermaid in a tank.”

In the meantime, clever Lucia finds a way to avoid the madness. Her quiet defiance enriches the storyline as do the illustrations of the city, done in soft colors and lush detail. Lucia’s parents intend on sheltering their daughter. Ironically, their decision to send her away while they choose her future husband provides Lucia the independence she needs to choose for herself.

Away from her parents’ watchful eyes, she befriends Angelo’s grandson, Salvatore, who gladly fulfills her request to show her the city, ancient and romantic—like Venice with an Edwardian twist. Through piazzas, busy markets, and “marble arches” they visit the central spaces but also the hidden gems of the city “where the grand never [think] to go.”

This middle section is my favorite part for the tone feels modern and old at the same time. The story comes alive, as if what we are reading may have actually taken place. In pictures, we see the classic architecture of the buildings juxtaposed with the fairly modern attire of the characters. While Lucia and Salvatore roam the city, the items the suitors bring, too, showcase modern technology. As a side note, I like how some of the illustrations are done in a film reel kind of lay out which may help younger readers follow along more easily.

In words, Vivian French also balances this magical space of old and new. Most powerful for me is the opening line, “Once, in the time of your grandmother’s grandmother.” While fairy tales tend to take place in a time and place centuries old, often foreign and unreal, French’s language gives readers the feeling this tale might be true—or at least the possibility of being real, like it’s just within our reach. After all, as French reminds us, “[Our] grandmother’s grandmother would remember it.”

In the end, it’s Salvatore who reveals the most wonderful thing in the world to the king and queen who realize the answer they’ve been searching for has been in plain view all along. Married, Salvatore and Lucia gracefully rule their kingdom with a deep love for their people. And while the historical details of the story are debatable, one fact is certain: love is the most wonderful thing in the world.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

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