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4.8 out of 5 stars
Ox-Cart Man
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60 of 60 people found the following review helpful
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.
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28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on January 27, 2002
The journey of a settler who packs up his cart with surplus that was grown, handmade, and raised on a farm in historical New England. The story takes the reader through what a family has to do to survive during this time period and what each part the family had in that survival. From a historical perspective an awesome book. With the love of history that I have on a personal note this story gives me clues to my own ancestors survival needs. I have two copies of this book one at home and one in my classroom. Very detailed illustrations, very accurate information on the settler's way of life and need for trading or selling off goods that the family helped make. The portrayal of the family with no electricity and providing their own means of survival. The story tells us that the farmer travelled ten days to reach the village of Portsmouth. I would've like to know which direction he came from, whether he had to travel from the south, the north or the west of the village. I would've also like to have know what he saw and who he might have met along the way.
Classroom Activities I do with this book:
Math - Seasons, Sequencing, Money, Trading/Selling, Time Art - Draw the seasons, quilts, weaving, looms, broom making, Science - Make candles, grow a pototo from a seed, make maple sugar,
Social Studies - 13 Colonies, Mapping Skills, Clothing, Occupations, Cooking
Reading - Write a sequel or pre-story to this book, illustrate one aspect of story or write about who he might have met along the way and which direction he came from.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on July 5, 1999
I have read this book to my three children-ages 3-7-almost every day for about three years. They have learned about how life was in the past. They now want to "start from scratch" when making everything.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
I used this book with my third grade class in talking about the skills that our ancestors needed in order to survive. The book is about a man who takes a cart load of goods to town and sells everything including the ox! My students loved the ending, but I won't give that away. This is a must have for the classroom.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on March 29, 2001
This fantastic book depicts the story of an early farm family who raise animals, work their land, and make just about everything they need. That is only the begining! The story flows well, starting with a family working together preparing goods for papa to trade in town. It continues with papa trading or selling everything he has brought, including the ox, on which he rode into town.
He comes home bearing new items, along with some surprises to give to his family so they can begin preparing for another year, and yet another harvesting of goods to sell and trade.
Gorgeous color illustrations provide a glimpse into the more simple setting of a slower paced life, as well as a sense of the pioneer family, and the rewards of working a farm together.
My favorite part is when the man kisses his oxen on the nose. A[...] So sweet. But sad too, as he is saying goodbye after having sold/traded him.
He does return home to see hIs young ox in its barn pen, and in this way, the cycle begins again...
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on January 3, 2003
Between my husband and I , we must have read this book a hundred times. My daughter always found it a source of comfort before bedtime. Why? Who knows for sure, but it is a lyrical, yet matter of fact, tale of a family that produces all it needs to live on their farm that is reassuring and lovely.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
This children's book, about nineteenth century New England farm life through the changing seasons, was illustrated by Barbara Cooney and won the 1980 Caldecott Medal for best illustration for a children's book. The book shows what we get from the earth and how we grow as a family. It also can lead into a discussion of 19th century history.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 16, 2004
When my second son was born, we somehow expected him to instantly cotton on to books the way our eldest had. As it turned out, sitting and listening to a story was not his idea of fun. That's one reason we were surprised when he suddenly got very quiet and snuggled down while Daddy read Ox-Cart Man to his big brother. From the age of one onward, it's been his favorite book.

The historical value is great, but to me, the real value lies in the listing quality of the text, which soothes my son and helps him to settle down. He loves to look at, and touch, the paintings by Barbara Cooney. There's a lot in these illustrations, and as he's grown older he's changed his focus from the man and the ox to the background detail, looking to spot a dog stealing a piece of meat in one picture, or to see the tiny new ox on the hill in another.

It's a truly lovely story. There's no traditional story arch. Nothing exciting happens. In the end, we find that, like the seasons he's just lived through, the Ox-Cart Man's life is cyclical. He will be doing the same thing over again next year.

There's another comforting element to this story. It's about family. The hard and necessary work can get done only with a close system in place. The relationships of the man and his wife and children are never stressed in the prose, but in the illustrations we can see how their very necessity is what binds the family together. They have to work seamlessly with one another.

There are very few books illustrated by Barbara Cooney that I wouldn't recommend. She seems to lend her talents only to the priviledged few who've earned it. This book is a particularly nice one, however.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 24, 2001
When I was a child, I asked my mother to read this book to me over and over again. The customs and tasks described in the book, so different from our society's modern customs, absolutely fascinated me. When I was a little older, I read the book myself many times. Needless to say, my copy is dog-eared, well-worn, and much-loved. I can honestly say that someday 'Ox-Cart Man' will be included in the list of books that I read to my future children. Open up a new world to your children or students; they will appreciate it forever!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
This work is an absolute delight. I cannot remember a children's book that visually held my interst as long as this one did and has (I must admit to having purchased a copy after reading in in or school library and have in on our coffee table).

The story is simple, so simple that it almost has a hypnotic effect. The turning of the seasons, the continuance of life, a life in much simpler times. This, for some reason, is quite comforting to me. I have read and reread this one to all four of my grandsons and each have enjoyed it in their turn. This work gives you a double treat and to my way of seeing it, a double benefit for your child. Not only is the story well written, to the point, and almost poetic in it's rhythem, but they, the children, are exposed to some wonderful art work in a style or genre, they might not otherwise encounter. Highly recommend this one.

I must admit that I use this work for other than reading to the grandkids. I have a copy of this thing on my desk with other art books. I paint and I use this work as inspiration. Many of my paintings are of this style (most certainly nowhere as good mind you, but try I do), and I use the pictures in the work, or portions of the paintings, to give me ideas, check technique and color blends.
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