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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.

 

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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.

 

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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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Nice Work, Franklin! by Suzanne Tripp Jurmain

 

In this lead up to Presidents’ Day, and with the presidential primaries in full swing, it’s the perfect time to share Nice Work, Franklin!, a dee-lightful and uplifting picture book.

NICE WORK, FRANKLIN!
Written by Suzanne Tripp Jurmain
Illustrated by Larry Day
(Dial BYR; $17.99, Ages 5 and up)

 

Nice_Work_Franklin

This historical fiction book asks the question, “Do Presidents Have Challenges?” and answers with “You’d better believe it.” Jurmain goes on to explain that those challenges can be personal or national or sometimes both. For Franklin Delano Roosevelt or FDR as he was known, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, it would not seem that life would present him with many challenges notes Jurmain.  “He was rich. He was smart. He was popular.” He also happened to be the cousin of Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States, who served as an important role model for the career-driven FDR. Destined to do “big stuff,” the younger Roosevelt got into politics first in New York then moved on to running the Navy. It was even looking like he might make a run for governor.

Then, in 1921, at age 39, FDR’s legs were paralyzed by Polio, an illness that at the time had no cure. Rather than wallow in self-pity, the solution-oriented Roosevelt was determined not to give in to the disease. He used leg braces and crutches and exercised to strengthen his leg muscles as best he could. And when he wasn’t up to task, Franklin’s popular wife, Eleanor, got involved making speeches on his behalf. As his health improved, Franklin decided to run for governor of New York, making him the first disabled person to seek office. Franklin, when hearing people’s objections, responded with his typical can do attitude. “The governor of New York State does not have to be an acrobat.”

The start of the Great Depression immediately following the NYC Stock Market crash of 1929 or Black Friday as it was known, meant millions of people lost their jobs. Not one to be easily discouraged, Franklin felt he could do something to lift America out of its troubles. In 1932 he became the 32nd President of the United States. At his inaugural speech, FDR gave hope to Americans with his famous line, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Then he got about the business of putting Americans back to work by creating a government jobs program, giving seniors Social Security benefits and creating funding for the unemployed. He even took to the radio with his “Fireside Chats” to speak directly to the American public. He went on to be elected (a total of four times) and watched the nation rise from the depths of despair. And though he still could not walk, he was responsible for putting the country back on its feet again.

Nice Work, Franklin! reminds readers of the power of positive thinking. Thanks to his can do approach and record of success, FDR will always be a role model for students. Jurmain aptly chose to highlight some of Roosevelt’s most important contributions to American society in a straight forward manner that is both informative and encouraging. Rather than attempt to cover his entire presidency, the author has concentrated on his first term in office, a pivotal time in U.S. history. Day, who has twice teamed up with Jurmain on some other presidential themed picture books, captures not only Franklin’s appearance, but his personality as well. The scenes he illustrated depict a nation desperate to recover and on the verge of great change. Two outstanding spreads for me were the one showing the endless lines of jobless men waiting for soup, and the inspiring image of Roosevelt standing up at his swearing-in ceremony ready to give his inaugural address. Between Jurmain’s anecdotes that demonstrate Franklin’s determination to overcome his challenges, and Day’s artwork resulting from “weeks sketching at the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park,” Nice Work, Franklin! will make a welcome addition to any classroom.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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