Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A New England Farm Is More Than Fields and Cows: A New Picturebook to Love

Richard Michelson, an award-winning Massachusetts poet, and Mary Azarian, Vermont's beloved illustrator, have collaborated on a gem of a picturebook: TUTTLE'S RED BARN: The Story of America's Oldest Family Farm.

The tale opens in 1616, with the arrival of John Tuttle on a storm-wracked Maine coast. It took the young English settler ten days to walk inland to the settlement of Dover, New Hampshire -- at the time, a cluster of twenty cabins surrounded by forest and unhappy displaced Native Americans.

Generation by generation, Michelson's clear prose portrays the eagerness and delight of the Tuttle sons who chose to carry on the family farm. And although the Red Barn is known today as one of New England's highlights, an engrossing shop of fresh foods from both the family farm and its neighbors (extending to France!), it wasn't until the 1920s that the family created this thriving store. Until then, "Tuttle's farm" more or less supported itself. Michelson shows clearly how the hunger for what had been left behind brought travelers home to Dover, NH, to purchase the home-grown and farm-made comforts that tasted and felt so good, on the tongue, to the hands, and in the heart.

Azarian's colorful woodcut prints bring this history to life on the pages of the generously framed picturebook. In her hands, people beam at each other, bond to their work, and treasure the barn full of animals and possibilities. I especially like the family likenesses that she conveys, and the colorful garments and surroundings for the Tuttle family members.

Creating a children's book that will entertain the little ones in your lap while at the same time drawing them into the course of America's dreams and growth is far from simple. But Azarian and Michelson have crafted this one well; I found it comparable to Donald Hall's delicious OLD HOME DAY, and to the Vermont family narratives spun by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock, like her WILDERNESS CAT. Although it is less complex than, say, Karen Hesse's THE STONE LAMP, it has the same clear love of the purpose and pursuit of independence in its narrative and its images.

I predict that most copies of the book will show steady wear, as parents and grandparents will open them repeatedly to explore with young children, mostly preschool ages. So if you're a dedicated Azarian collector, better buy two copies: one to preserve and gently regard with pleasure, and the other one to love so much that it grows soft and even a bit worn -- a familiar friend for family and guest alike.
A bit of background: You don't need to know this to enjoy the book, but Vermont resident Mary Azarian has now illustrated more than 40 books, including SNOWFLAKE BENTLEY, for which she won the Caldecott Medal. Rich Michelson, perhaps best known for his art and book arts gallery in Northampton, Mass., is an award-winning poet whose books for children have been shaped by his own two (one daughter, one son) -- and he is married to the granddaughter of a farmer. I like what New England humorist Rebecca Rule has witten about TUTTLE'S RED BARN: that it "tells the history of a family, a place and a nation. It's a tour de force. That's French for wicked good book."

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