Henry Climbs A Mountain

Henry David Thoreau is a bear in Henry Climbs a Mountain by D.B. Johnson. This picture book has very abstract illustrations. If you’ve ever read either of Johnson’s companion books to this one, Henry Builds a Cabin and Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, then you know what I mean by “abstract”! Some kids have asked me as I read aloud Henry Builds a Cabin where the cabin is in the pictures. I tell them that it’s there alright; they just need to look at the pictures closely and think in a different way about what a cabin looks like.

Henry Climbs A Mountain

Henry Climbs A Mountain

I spent some time looking at each picture in Henry Climbs a Mountain  in detail. There are all kinds of small animals and birds there that you could easily overlook just because the illustrations are so busy. A rabbit, a porcupine, some chickadees, a chipmunk, and more. For many of the illustrations, your eye doesn’t immediately focus on a main subject like it does with many other picture books. Henry the bear is always there somewhere, but trees or birds or plants often grab your eye just as easily as Henry. Sometimes it seems like each picture is covered by a sheet of glass that is splintered into many pieces–and each piece catches the light in a different way; each picture is like a surface of shade splinters.

Henry Climbs a Mountain tells the true story (except that Henry is a bear in the book) of how Henry David Thoreau spent a night in the Concord Jail in July, 1846. Thoreau lived in Concord, Massachusetts. He went to jail because he hadn’t paid his poll taxes for 6 years. Back then, you had to pay a tax to the government before you voted–this was called a poll tax. Why didn’t he pay his poll taxes? He didn’t want to pay taxes to support the United States federal government. In 1846, slavery was legal. Thoreau didn’t want to pay taxes to support a government that allowed slavery to continue. So he was arrested by tax collector Sam Staples and went to sit in the Concord jail for a night. In the morning, his aunt paid his poll taxes and he was let out of jail.


All of the above is true and really happened. But in this book, D.B. Johnson imagines that Henry climbs a mountain while he is in jail. Henry the bear draws a picture of a mountain on the wall of his jail cell, then steps into the picture and climbs it. The mountain in his drawing is very real; it has a hummingbird, a hawk, a river to get his feet wet in, and a waterfall. On the mountain, he meets another bear, a “traveler”, with ragged clothes and no shoes. The two bears become friends as they talk and sing songs on the mountaintop. We know that this “traveler” bear is a runaway slave because he says he is following the North star. Henry gives the “traveler” his shoes and walks down the mountain barefooted as morning approaches.    

After getting out of Concord jail, Henry David Thoreau returned to the cabin he had built in the woods outside of town next to Walden Pond. He had been living there for about a year before going to jail. That is where he wrote his most famous book called Walden.

A reproduction of Thoreau's cabin. From Flickr: Maxine 2

A reproduction of Thoreau's cabin. From Flickr: Maxine 2

In the book, Henry is preparing to climb a mountain before the tax collector stops him. Was the real Thoreau preparing to climb a mountain when he encountered Sam Staples? Maybe… The night he spent in jail was either July 24 or 25, 1846. Only a month later, on August 31, Thoreau left Concord on a train headed for Bangor, Maine. From there, he made his way by stagecoach and boat to Mt. Katahdin, Maine’s highest mountain. Thoreau wrote an essay about his trip to Mt. Katahdin called Ktaadn. The mountain that Henry the bear drew on his wall looks quite a lot like Mt. Katahdin with the alpine area at the top and the spruce and balsam trees lining its sides.

Mt. Katahdin from Chimney Pond. From Flickr: The Dining Philosopher

Mt. Katahdin from Chimney Pond. From Flickr: The Dining Philosopher

What did Thoreau’s real jail cell look like? I wrote to a librarian in Concord to ask if she knew this. She sent me a passage from a book by Walter Harding called The Days of Henry Thoreau. It says that his cell was 26 feet long and 8.5 feet high. It had two “double-grated” windows. What is a grated window anyway? I’m not exactly sure, but I it definitely has something to do with bars covering the window opening, just like the old-fashioned jail windows you may have seen. Another prisoner, a cell-mate, was in Thoreau’s jail cell with him. Thoreau was very curious about the jail and wanted to learn all about the history of the jail, who all of prisoners were, and why they were there. He talked with his cell-mate about these things but must have talked too long, because his cell-mate became tired and went to sleep.

This gives you an idea of what the window of Thoreau's jail cell might have looked like. From Flickr: jsilvestre

This gives you an idea of what the window of Thoreau's jail cell might have looked like. From Flickr: jsilvestre

If you’d like to read more about Henry David Thoreau, ask your librarian to help you find some books about him. He is one of my favorite people from history to read about. Or you could take a look at the websites below.

The Thoreau Society

Henry David Thoreau in Wikipedia

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The Sisters of Scituate Light

The Sisters of Scituate Light is a true story from the War of 1812. It was written by Stephen Krensky and illustrated by Stacey Shuett. sisters of scituate lightThe setting is the Scituate Lighthouse in Scituate, MA. In September 1814, Rebecca and Abigail Bates scared away soldiers from a British warship by playing “Yankee Doodle” on a fife and drum. Rebecca and Abigail are now known as the “Lighthouse Army of Two”.

Their father, lighthouse keeper Simeon Bates, was not at the lighthouse when the sisters spotted the warship offshore. The warship lowered two boats with soldiers in them. Only a few months earlier, British soldiers had raided and plundered the town of Scituate. There was good reason to be afraid. It was Rebecca who suggested that they play a fife and drum to make it sound like American soldiers were close by. It must have sounded to the British like the Scituate Militia was gathering in the town. The British were fooled and the boats returned to the warship and left.

Scituate Lighthouse

Scituate Lighthouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My question: what exactly is a fife? I looked it up on Wikipedia. It’s a very high pitched flute instrument. Anytime you see a documentary on TV about the Revolutionary or Civil Wars, you probably hear it playing a military march. How did Abigail and Rebecca sound that day? Here’s a video of a fife and drum corps playing “Yankee Doodle”; the only thing is that you have to imagine only one drum and fife playing the song, instead of a whole corps!

This gives you an idea of what Rebecca's fife looked like.

This gives you an idea of what Rebecca's fife looked like.

The Scituate Lighthouse is located on Cedar Point at the entrance to Scituate Harbor. It’s about 25 miles south of Boston. It looks a bit different today than it did back in 1814. It’s about 15 feet higher because of an extension built in 1827.

Some people say that the lighthouse today is haunted by the ghosts of Rebecca and Abigail. They say that fife and drum music can be heard sometimes blending in with the waves crashing against the rocks.

The current keeper of Scituate Light has a blog. The keeper is a teacher named Bob Gallagher. He’ll be there all summer to speak with visitors to the lighthouse, but I don’t know if he’d tell you about the ghosts there.

If you’d like to read more about Scituate Light, check out New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide.

The Littlest Pilgrim

The Littlest Pilgrim is a picture book for preschool children by Brandi Dougherty, illustrated by Kirsten Richards. littlest pilgrimIt’s about a 3 or 4 year old girl, Mini, who wants to help the older kids and adults to do the work in the Plymouth Colony. She goes around the village asking if she can help with jobs like stacking wood, hunting, and fixing a door. Everyone either ignores her or tells her that she’s too little to help. Then she spots a Native American girl of about the same age in the forest and realizes that she’s not too little to make a friend.

Plymouth Colony was, of course, the first settlement of the Pilgrims who came to America on the Mayflower in 1620.  The settlement in the book could be any of the many settlements spread throughout the Plymouth Colony. The Plymouth Colony was much larger than most people think. It covered the whole southeastern portion of Massachusetts as well as some of present-day Rhode Island.

Plymouth Colony

Plymouth Colony

It grew so big over most of the 17th century. The Plymouth Colony was ended in 1691 when it became part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

This book is more of what I’d call a “concept” book than it is historical–despite its setting. I’d say that the main idea is that a child is never too young to make a new friend–and perhaps more importantly, make a friend with someone very different from him/herself.

As I read The Littlest Pilgrim, I thought a lot about how different life is today for a preschool child than it was for a Pilgrim child of the same age. A Pilgrim child, even as young as Mini, would not be wandering around with nothing to do. From the Plimoth Plantation website:

In the 17th century, parents believed that children should be taught the skills they would need to survive as an adult. In Plymouth Colony, this meant that a large part of a child’s day was filled with work. Children as young as five ran errands, fetched wood and water, or even herded chickens! 

If Pilgrim parents were anything like their neighbors to the north, the Puritans, one of their biggest fears in raising their children would have been idleness and laziness. This being the case, I’m sure that even preschool age Pilgrims were kept busy with something productive.

What a tough life! Pilgrim parents basically treated their kids like little adults! This idea is so different from our approach to child-rearing today that I have trouble even identifying with Pilgrim children. Did they have any sense of fun or enjoyment of humor or joy in listening to stories? Did they laugh at loud at odd-smelling farts?

Plimoth Plantation: Can you see Mini? I didn't think so. Mini would be hauling a great big cart load of wood down the road if she were in this picture! From Flickr: Hallie Jo

Plimoth Plantation: Can you see Mini? I didn't think so. Mini would be hauling a great big cart load of wood down the road if she were in this picture! From Flickr: Hallie Jo

Did they ever race each other to the end of the street and back? Did they ever drop snow down each others’ shirts? Did they ever play hide and seek or any similar game? Or were all of these normal kid activities stamped out of them early on?

I’ve clearly overanalyzed The Littlest Pilgrim… It’s a sweet, romanticized story of a little Pilgrim girl who makes a new friend. But it’s kind of interesting to think about how it’s romanticized, isn’t it?

The Penderwicks

If you read Little Women and liked it, you’ll probably like The Penderwicks. Or, if you already read The Penderwicks, try Little Women! Kids who read Beverly Cleary’s books will probably like The Penderwicks too–both of these have an old-fashioned feel to them.

This is a terrible way to start out my first real post on this blog, isn’t it! Recommending Little Women!?!? It’s supposed to be about mountains and survival in the woods and all that. Sorry guys! Remember, I did say that I’m going to read all the books I can find about Massachusetts and New England too. So here we are: The Penderwicks series is set in various locations in western and central Massachusetts.

The Penderwicks ( Book 1)

The Penderwicks

The Penderwicks

 is about four sisters who are very different from one another. Rosalind is the oldest and wisest one; she’s also one of the best basketball players in her school. The next two sisters are Skye and Jane, who are both star soccer players. Skye loves science and math but hates English; Jane loves English, but is not so hot at science and math. Batty is only four years old and her best buddy is the family dog, Hound. The sisters’ mother passed away when they were young so it’s just them and their father in the house. In The Penderwicks on Gardam Street (Book 2), they face the scary prospect of a stepmother. Their father, Mr. Penderwick, is kind of odd because sometimes he speaks only in Latin; then his daughters, especially Rosalind, have to figure out what he said.   

In The Penderwicks, the family goes on a vacation to the Berkshires. They stay in a cottage on the grounds of a mansion estate owned by Mrs. Tifton called Arundel. Mrs. Tifton is a snooty, wealthy woman who keeps her gardens in perfect condition. The Penderwick sisters and Mrs. Tifton’s son, Jeffrey, get into all sorts of trouble (and fun!) at Arundel. For example, Batty has to be rescued by Jeffrey twice: once from a mean bull at a nearby farm, and again after she runs away from Arundel. Another time, Jeffrey, Jane, and Skye are playing a game of “two-on-one slaughter” when they kick a soccer ball into Mrs. Tifton’s gardens at just the moment that a judge from the Garden Club competition is walking through!     

Have you ever been called a gormless duff? Neither have I, but it sounds pretty bad. When Jane gets angry, she pulls out a big bag of Shakespearean insults. She shouted this one to the other team during a soccer game after she was knocked over while dribbling the ball. When Skye retaliates to defend Jane, both teams get into a big fight and the game is called off by the referees. Other horrible insults: “Silly Git”,  “Gooseberry Louse”, “Churl”, “Knave”, “Fish Head”.

In The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, Mr. Penderwick reads a letter from his wife who passed away many years before. In it, she tells him to date again because she doesn’t want him to be lonely. He doesn’t really like the idea of dating again. But his sister, Aunt Claire, makes him agree to go on at least three dates. The sisters don’t like the idea of their dad dating either. They don’t want a stepmother. So they agree to carry out a secret plan: the Save-Daddy Plan. They try to set up their dad with crazy women who he certainly will not like.    

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street

 

berkshires mansion

Looks like Arundel? From Flickr: "Old Astorian"

Arundel is not a real place in the Berkshires. The Berkshires are mountains in western Massachusetts. This map shows you the general area. Berkshires MapIt’s supposed to be in a place called Framley, MA, but this town doesn’t really exist. There are quite a lot of mansions like Arundel in the Berkshires. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, wealthy businessmen from New York City and Boston built many huge vacation homes there. Arundel might look something like the mansion in the picture above. 

Cameron, MA, the setting of the The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, doesn’t exist in real life either. But it is very much like Amherst, MA. There is an actual Wildwood Elementary School in Amherst (pictured below). But there is not an actual Gardam Street. In the book, Gardam Street is a cul-de-sac (or dead end) that is within walking distance of Wildwood School. It also borders a park called Quigley Woods. Quigley Woods is not a real park, but there is a place called Fraternity Park close to the school. I couldn’t find any pictures of this park, but satellite pictures on Google Earth show that it has plenty of trees, just like Quigley Woods. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst is very close to both Wildwood school and Fraternity Park. We could easily imagine it to be Cameron University, where Mr. Penderwick is a professor of botany. 

Wildwood Elementary, the Penderwick sisters' school

Wildwood Elementary, the Penderwick sisters' school

 

 

 Jeanne Birdsall has written two books (so far) in the Penderwick series. She says in an interview that she plans to write three more books for a total of five in the series. Maybe one of these will be set in Boston. That would be cool because it’s closer to where we live!

Anyway, this post was waaaaay too long! I’ll be working on a shorter post next time. I don’t want you guys to fall asleep while reading it! I hope you’ll go find The Penderwicks at the library and read it soon!

Mountain Adventures & New England

This blog is about children’s books. But I haven’t really decided who it’s for yet. Will kids like to read it? Maybe not–it might be too wordy and pedantic, although I will link to it on the Saugus Public Library’s children’s website. I’m hoping some kids who like to read the same kinds of books as me will read it once in awhile. Children’s librarians or parents? Maybe some. My mom? Definitely!

Each blog post will be about a different book or series of books. I’m going to read children’s books about mountains, wilderness survival, and New England. For that last one, my goal is to read every children’s fiction book set in New England. Not too ambitious, eh? This may take me awhile. Then, of course, there are more books about these things being published all the time.

Blah, blah, blah… another blog about children’s books… blah, blah, blah. Seriously, one unusual concept I’d like to focus on in this blog is where the stories happen. I’m going to match the story against the real facts about places, the land, buildings, etc in the stories. For each book, I’ll do some research (I’m hoping to be a tourist and travel to the locations of some stories), then tell you what I found out. I’ll include maps, pictures, links to informative websites, and report whatever else I find out.

Right now, I’ve got a bunch of library books on my shelf set in Massachusetts. So I’ll begin there. The next post will be about the “Penderwicks” series by Jeanne Birdsall.