Friday, May 24, 2013

The Range Eternal

I am looking forward to the long weekend - how about you?  We have had lots of rain, so it's time to get into the garden and start digging.  But I also just finished that big project I mentioned (the one with LOTS of writing) and it's time to celebrate this weekend!  Of course, I am going to celebrate by catching up on some blog posts.  I am going to start by offering you a post about one of Louise Erdrich's picture books, The Range Eternal.  This post was my first one in my goal to read all of Erdrich's books, both for children and adults.  I am also reading Love Medicine right now, although I'm reading so many things that it is taking a back seat.  And this goal is a long-term goal, not one I want to race through in this year.  So when I returned Grandmother's Pigeon to the OPI library, I wasn't planning on writing another post about Erdrich so soon.  Two days later, I was browsing the shelves at our local public library, and found The Range Eternal in the picture book section.  Both The Range Eternal and Grandmother's Pigeon  are family stories - memories of a time and place.  But while Grandmother in Grandmother's Pigeon is quirky and magical, this family story is heartfelt and poetic.

It opens with a young girl, who is stirring soup with her mother.  They are creating soup from what is at hand, not using a recipe.  "No two soups were ever the same."  The one constant in all of these soups is The Range Eternal.  That's the name of their blue enameled wood stove, the heart of their family and their home.  The stove isn't just used for cooking - it also keeps them warm throughout the frigid North Dakota winters.  The little girl sleeps  as close to the stove's heat as she can at night.  She does this not only to stay warm but also to stay safe from her fears.  She believes that Windigo, the ice monster, lurks just outside her house.  But she knows The Range Eternal will keep the family safe and protected.

The Range Eternal also creates pictures within its flames.  Those flames invite the young girl into the past of the plains, when animals ran free on a different type of eternal range.  Her family relies on this stove for everything for many years.  It is a part of their family, for better or worse - with all the chores that go into getting the stove going each morning, and all winter long.  Then, inevitably, electricity comes to their home.  When electricity comes, then the Range Eternal is no longer needed, and is replaced.  The young girl, now telling the story from her point of view as an adult and mother, yearns still for the Range Eternal, that "center of true warmth", until she find a stove of her own.  She finds that it doesn't just warm her body, it warms her soul.

Erdrich's writing is incredibly poetic and evocative without sounding too sentimental.  On the first page, when the girl and her Mama are making soup, the girl cuts onions.  She marvels "As I cut the onions, I held a kitchen match between my teeth.  I still don't know why, but the match stopped my tears."  Of course, there is science behind the match trick, but that isn't the point.  There is magic in that moment, and in that stove.

It is the same with The Range Eternal and the Windigo.  The girl huddles in the dark, worrying about the ice monster at the door.  But there is a protective heat that emanates from The Range Eternal, one that reassures the scared girl.  She knows that "Those wind claws and ice teeth would melt away before I could be hurt."  The stove looms over the little girl in the illustration, strong, tough, durable and fiery hot.

The stove unites her whole family with its work - her brothers split wood to feed The Range Eternal.  In the freezing early dawn, her father gets up and starts to feed strips of birchbark into the stove to get the warmth going before the rest of the family rouses.  The girl watches as the logs catch fire: "The roar of the heat was loud as wind, but warm.  The night's fears seemed small."  As the wood stove is carted away, the girl notes that it is "still gleaming from Mama's polishing cloth" - the loving care that Mama took to make sure the stove continued to support all of them. While the stove requires a lot of the family - chopping, feeding it, keeping the fire going at the right temperature for both heat and cooking - it gives back to the family too.  When the stove is carted away, some of the work disappears too, which saves time and effort.  But the routine of cleaning and maintaining The Range Eternal was part of their family structure.

This is a story about the girl's whole family and their relationships with each other and the stove, but the most beautiful passages are about the girl's mother.  She cooks on that stove for every meal.  She bakes potatoes for the children to keep in their pockets on their trek to school.  In the mornings, the girl recalls that "by the time we got out of bed, Mama was standing at the stove.  With one hand, she stirred the oatmeal smooth.  The other sure hand reached for salt, sugar, sometimes raisins."  Her mother is always at the stove, moving around it, working with it.  The stove and her mother are the "center of true warmth" in their home and family.

The illustrations are dreamy, with large expanses of farmland and the North Dakota prairie.  In the paintings, color swirls around the page - there are wisps of steam above the soup, and on the stormy Windigo-filled nights, the wind whips almost audibly around the family's house.  The paintings are realistic, which is appropriate to the memoir style of the book.  But there is a hint of nostalgia and a bit of magic in these paintings too.  The stove is majestic and eternal, bright blue and shining silver.

The Range Eternal is a warm, gorgeous ode to a time that is not so long ago, and a reminder of the fact that we all sometimes need the warmth of our family and a bright blue stove.

The Range Eternal.  Louise Erdrich; paintings by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher.  Hyperion Books for Children, 2002.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Friday, May 10, 2013

Care For Our World

These last few weeks have been full of exciting holidays in Frances' Kindergarten class.  There was Earth Day, then Arbor Day before May Day came along.  She and the rest of her class are now very focused on recycling, becoming environmentally savvy and saving the earth.  Sometimes the message is a little garbled : "Mama, did you know that driving around town kills trees?"  "If you don't recycle your paper, animals will die."  But I can't fault her for her earnest words and the lesson she is trying to teach us.  And so it was a perfect time to introduce Care for Our World.

Care for Our World was nominated in the Nonfiction Picture Book category for the Cybils.  In the front jacket flap, a Punch-Out Play Set is advertised that comes with most copies of the book.  We did not receive the play set as part of our review process (it's sadly but reasonably against the rules), but I selfishly want that Punch-Out Play Set - it comes with a habitat box and animals to punch out, and it looks like so much fun!  Perhaps more fun for me to set up and play with than Frances and Gloria, but maybe not!  Gloria particularly is very interested in that kind of play.

We have read this book over and over in our house because of its ties to Frances' current curriculum.  It is a rhyming exhortation to young children to take care of the many, many things in our world.  Robbins asks children to care for each other, flowers, grass, the animals, fish and bugs.  I like the emphasis Robbins places on teamwork - that children cannot do this alone or just with one friend.  They must all come together to save Earth.  I also like that Robbins doesn't just value the animals, plants, and nature of our planet, she also emphasizes the value of supporting and caring for each other.

The rhyming text flows very naturally.  Each page follows a similar pattern - mostly a list of things children can and should care about.  Each page's list is organized into categories.  There is a spread about Australian animals - emus, kangaroos and wallabies; another page features fish, crabs and sharks.  This makes it easy for young readers to see these groups in their natural habitats, interacting with children and each other.

One of the things I love most about this books is its illustrations.  As I have noted before, I wish the illustrative style was noted in the CIP information in the front of the book.  There is certainly textured paper used in the illustrations, though, and it subtly reinforces the environmental theme.  Each double-page spread includes two children who are learning to care for their world.  On a page with a list of pets, a boy is cradling a hamster, and a girl is feeding a turtle and fish in a pond.  The children are observing nature, gently and with intention.  Their faces are friendly and open.  All of the animals, too, are friendly, cuddling with the children and other animals.  

There is only one illustration that I questioned.  The text on the page reads in part "...for black bears with cubs in deep winter sleep."  While part of the illustration does show a cut-away of bears hibernating in a den, there is no snow to indicate winter at all.  In fact, on the left-hand side of the page, the boy paddles his feet in a small pond - something that would never happen in winter.

But the illustrations and book design are elegant without being too sophisticated for young readers.  In fact the whole book is perfectly aimed at bringing environmental awareness to young readers.  I could easily see it being used in Kindergarten classes at this time of the year.  We've used it to talk about caring for animals as well as the earth, since the past few weeks Frances has focused on the environment.  It helps young children, who are very self-centered, realize the sheer number of other things on the Earth which need their help.

One drawback to this book is that there is no back matter - something that would help this book extend further in a classroom.  While Robbins is bringing nature and our world to children's attention, it would have been useful to provide a list of resources or ways children could help care for their world.  There are many things that could have been added to the book, including additional information about the animals in the book or information about endangered species.  Back matter would move this from picture book more solidly into nonfiction.

This book is still impactful for young children, even without the additional resources.  They can realize their efforts and how they can help care for our world.  It can be a conversation-starter for families and classes alike.  It can help spur young children into action.

Care for Our World.  Written by Karen Robbins; illustrated by Alexandra Ball.  Compendium, 2011.

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my personal ideas and thoughts.