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Have you seen, the Ox-Cart Man, the Ox-Cart Man...
on June 30, 2004
Most books that focus on continuity and the circle of life/the seasons/etc. like to concentrate on that theme via animals munching on other animals. We sometimes forget that there are subtler ways to present this same theme. Consider the lovely "Ox-Cart Man" by Donald Hall. A 1980 Caldecott Award winner, the tale focuses on the yearly passage of one man selling his goods only to do it all over again the next year. Ultimately this is one of the most comforting books out there.
The book takes place in what looks to be the mid 19th century. A man that is never named lives on a farm with his wife, daughter, and son. The book begins with the family packing his cart with the various goods they have to sell. There are mittens knit by his daughter, shawls spun and woven by his wife, and birch brooms carved by his son. The book catalogues the items packed away in an oddly riveting fashion. Next, the man travels on foot to a harbor town named Portsmouth. There, he sells the items including his beloved ox. There's a shot of the man kissing his ox good-bye on the nose, which (when you consider the slime factor) is simultaneously touching and gross. He next goes out and buys an iron kettle, an embroidery needle for his daughter, a knife for his son, and two pounds of wintergreen peppermint candies. The man walks home to his family waiting for him and as the seasons pass they build up their items to sell once more. One of my favorite lines is the last one. "And geese squawked in the barnyard, dropping feathers as soft as clouds".
Those people who follow poetry will recognize the name Donald Hall and appreciate the simplicity of his writing in this book. I loved that it began without explaining or pausing, immediately launching into a description of the man loading up his cart. When adult writers or poets write for children, they usually haven't a clue how to go about it (paging Madonna...). Mr. Hall does not suffer from this dilemma. He knows exactly how to make a book that could have been dry and dull, fascinating. Therefore, he uses the repetition of lines to catch the ears of kids. There's an entire page in this book that contains ten lines all beginning with the words, "He sold". I'm both old and young enough to remember when "Ox-Cart Man" was read on Reading Rainbow (one of the very few Caldecott winners to appear on that show) and even as a kid I loved the words in this story. I assure you that this book, for whatever other flaws you may chose to find in it, is not boring in the least.
I was especially taken with the illustrations in this book as well. Illustrator Barbara Cooney is no stranger to Caldecott medals. Having already illustrated the magnificent (and I highly recommend it) "Chanticleer and the Fox", her award count is higher than most. For this book, Cooney adopted a style that has a great many similarities to the kinds of outsider art created during the 19th century. The characters in this book have a kind of purposely flat presence on the page. At the same time, Cooney hasn't sacrificed perspective or the illusion of distance in these prints. Each page is both beautiful and simple, matching the text word for word with appropriate pictures. If the book says that there were turnips, cabbages, a wooden box of maple sugar, and potatoes then by gum you're going to see every single one of those objects on the opposing page. As a kid, I'd always be disturbed by picture books where the words failed to match the text. Here I have no such fears.
Some picture books are filled with bright snazzy flash-in-the pan illustrations and narratives that will date themselves in ten years or less. Others are quiet simple offerings that display beauty as well as a kind of central integrity. "Ox-Cart Man" is in the latter category. This is a book that will be loved for decades and that will only grow more precious in the eyes of children as the years go on. For a fun pairing, try reading it to your kiddies with "Swamp Angel", by Anne Isaacs. Books like this one should be treasured. Fortunately, I think this one already is.