Two for the Show: Three Books on the River

by Phyl­lis Root and Jacque­line Brig­gs Martin

Sum­mer­time. And whether we live by water or only dream of liv­ing by water, read­ing about riv­er adven­tures is fun. We are for­tu­nate to have a num­ber of won­der­ful books that take us out onto the water. We are unfor­tu­nate that only one of the books on today’s list can eas­i­ly be found at a library.

We two blog­gers dream of a library that does not “weed,” but keeps books on the shelves because they are time­less and will always appeal to chil­dren. Per­haps that’s what we are try­ing to do with this blog: cre­ate our own “library” of books that nour­ish won­der, grow sym­pa­thy, fill brains with possibility.

What bet­ter place to do all that than the riv­er? Let’s shove off.

Mr Gumpy's Outing coverMr. Gumpy’s Out­ing, by John Burn­ing­ham. Some library copies of Mr. Gumpy’s Out­ing look like they are one hun­dred years old, not mere­ly forty-five. It is such a good sto­ry that it deserves not to be over­looked because it looks worn. Time to sum­mon the library angels of our nature to donate new copies. As you all may know, “Mr. Gumpy owned a boat and his house was by a riv­er.” When he goes out in his boat var­i­ous char­ac­ters come up to the riv­er bank and ask to go along. He says yes to all but there are some rules. The chil­dren are not to squab­ble, the rab­bit not to hop about, the cat not to chase the rab­bit, the dog not to chase the cat, the pig not to muck about, the sheep not to bleat, the chick­ens not to flap (it’s hard not to list them all because the verbs are so won­der­ful), the calf not to tram­ple, and the goat not to kick. For a while all goes along well, but life is life. And we know they will do what they are not to do. …So the boat tips over, but no lec­tures from Mr. Gumpy. That may be the best part of the book. He says, “We’ll walk home across the fields…It’s time for tea.” Mr. Gumpy knew some­thing like this would hap­pen. It’s in the nature of chil­dren to squab­ble and calves to tram­ple. We can still drink tea and eat sweets. This book is sure to please, whether being read or act­ed out by young actors. It’s a joy.

Three Days coverSo is Vera B. Williams’ Three Days on a Riv­er in a Red Canoe a joy. Though this book is not avail­able in any of three east­ern Iowa libraries, an Ama­zon check shows it is still being pur­chased and loved by read­ers. Pub­lished in 1981, it is writ­ten as a child’s jour­nal of a canoe trip that takes place after the nar­ra­tor, walk­ing home from school, notices a red canoe for sale. She, Sam, Mom and Aunt Rosie “pool” their mon­ey and buy the canoe. Mom and Aunt Rosie come up with a three-day trip. They buy sup­plies and then “drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove and drove.” What child does not have that mem­o­ry of a long car trip?

The book includes so much — Mom and Aunt Rosie low­er­ing the boat over a water­fall, camp cook­ing, instruc­tions on how to tie a half hitch, a recipe for pan­cakes and fruit stew, and dumplings, sketch­es of fish and fowl. It is as if we were on the trip.

The tone also con­tributes to the spe­cial-ness of this book. Vera B. Williams has cap­tured the leisure­ly feel­ing of a riv­er trip: let’s stop to swim, tell sto­ries at night, watch a muskrat. And there’s the unspo­ken car­ing. When Sam stands up and falls out of the canoe, he gets towed to shore. “Mom doesn’t say much, but she looks upset. Aunt Rose looks scared. Sam changes to dry clothes and we canoe on.” Vera B. Williams doesn’t need to say how much Mom and Aunt Rosie love the kids. That love and car­ing infus­es the sto­ry, as in all of Williams’s work — and that’s why we keep going back to it.

The Cow Who Fell coverPer­haps it’s not the same as a parent’s love for a child, but how can we not love Hen­dri­ka, the Dutch cow, envi­sioned by Phyl­lis Krasilovsky and illus­trat­ed by the won­der­ful Peter Spi­er? The Cow Who Fell in the Canal was first pub­lished in 1957. Accord­ing to Krasilovsky’s obit­u­ary in the New York Times the book became so pop­u­lar in the Nether­lands that the author was fet­ed by the Dutch Con­sul in New York. The book begins: “Hen­dri­ka was an unhap­py cow. She lived on a farm in Hol­land, where it is very flat. All sum­mer long she ate grass. All win­ter long she ate hay. All win­ter and all sum­mer she did noth­ing but eat.” She’s learned about the city from Pieter, the horse, who comes to pick up the milk. One day while out eat­ing grass she falls into the canal. Of course she con­tin­ues eat­ing and then stum­bles upon a raft. Spi­er shows us the entire process of push­ing and maneu­ver­ing and final­ly falling onto the raft. Then the adven­ture begins! Hen­dri­ka is the mis­chie­vous child in all of us. She runs, she tram­ples, she wears a straw hat and final­ly she goes home, where “she had so much to think about.” If this book had no words it would be won­der­ful because Peter Spier’s illus­tra­tions are so full of detail and ener­gy. But the words tell us of a great adven­ture that left the wan­der­er changed — as all good adven­tures do, as all good books do.

Oth­er riv­er pic­ture books:

Give Her the Riv­er, by Michael Den­nis Browne illus by Wen­dell Minor. Atheneum, 2004. A father’s thoughts about his daughter.

Riv­er Friend­ly, Riv­er Wild, by Jane Kurtz, illus­trat­ed by Neil Bren­nan. Aladdin Reprint, 2007. A sto­ry inspired by the flood­ing of the Red River.

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