In the early days of this blog, I wrote a post on A.A. Milne’s The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh (here). That post was in response to KevinfromCanada’s “Creating a Reading Legacy” (here). There Kevin says:
Any serious reader knows that one of the most important factors in creating a literate adult is to read to a child. And then to move on to introducing books to the child. And to keep that process going.
I have three young sons. Carter is six, Holland is four, and Calvin is just over a year-and-a-half. We try to read to our children all the time. Kevin’s post isn’t just about reading to children, though; it is also about gifting beautiful books that call out to be read, that demand to be a cherished physical object, passed down through the generations.
So, with this post, I wish to start a new series on this blog, a series devoted to reading and reviewing children’s books, particularly those we might consider heirloom quality, both because the story is timeless and the book itself is beautiful to behold. What better place to start than with The New York Review of Books Children’s Collection, a series of children’s books dedicated to bringing back into print sturdy, beautiful editions of books that should never have gone out of print.
Today marks their release of Palmer Brown’s Hickory (1978). I’m not embarrassed to say this: when I finished reading the book to my boys and it washed over me, I started to cry. Such power from a book about a mouse and a grasshopper.
The basic story is simple — Hickory, the eldest son of a family of mice who lives in a grandfather clock, decides to move out to the fields where he meets a grasshopper named Hope — but so ellegantly presented. It’s first lines contain the ghost that will haunt us in the end:
Halfway up the stairs of an old farmhouse, on the broad landing, stood a tall grandfather clock, ticking time away. Its face had painted on it a sad-eyed moon which moved with the days of the month. Partway down the front of the walnut case there was a round glass window, so that you could watch the brass pendulum swing and see it tick. And, because there was a hole near one of the feet at the back of the clock, in the bottom there lived a family of mice.
This is where Hickory lives with his parents, his brother Dickory, and his sister Dock. It’s a peaceful home, filled with love, yet, over wonderfully illustrated pages of hi-jinks and an encounter with some field-mice, we come to see that Hickory is restless. One night he is telling stories (we already know he’s going to leave his home in the clock), and we know that his adventure story will come to an end. It’s as if his family does too, and so their comments illuminate this book:
Hickory’s brother said, “It is not fair to begin a story without knowing the end.”
His sister said, “Anyone can guess the ending.”
His mother said, “I do not want to hear it if the ending is sad.”
His father said, “All stories have their endings in their beginnings, if you know where to look.”
This story progresses slowly, a bit like the time and seasons in times of peace and refleciton. It’s nearly half-way through, in fact, when Hickory meets a friend in the field, a grasshopper named Hope, whom Hickory calls Hop for short. Palmer Brown describes the plants and colors as the year begins to speed through, and Hickory begins a quest to save Hop from the impending frost.
I tell you, I thought I knew how this story was going to end — Brown doesn’t keep it secret and, indeed, as father mouse says, it’s there in the first lines — but it doesn’t quite end the way I expected. Rather, it all comes together to become a beautiful rendering of friendship, hope, and the beautiful yet tragic passage of time that left me incapable of speaking.
Carter and Holland picked up on the peace and friendship, and I could see them, two who have experienced the seasons’ turning only a few times, getting a feel for the rhythm of time. I also believe, though, that they understood the book better than any of us realize. Holland in particular seemed more pensive and reverent when we finished, and he has been very protective of Hop in the weeks since we finished the book, as if he also knows that that is the best way to live.
I’ll let them tell you a bit:
What is this story about?
Carter: A mouse. Nothing really happens to the mouse.
Holland: He gets his toes pinched by a booby trap for mice!
What is your favorite thing about the book?
Carter: The beginning where he goes outside.
Holland: Hop. She’s a grasshopper.
What will happen to Hop if the frost comes?
Holland: She would get killed.
Carter: She will die.
So what did they do?
Holland: Find a place to get warm.
Where was that?
Holland [with big eyes]: Nowhere.
Should people read this book?
Carter: Yes. It helped me feel good.
Holland: Yes. Because it’s fun. Every part.