by Lisa Ripperton
February 14, 2019
This on-going series – Introducing Chapter Books – is intended to highlight books that are ideal for families who are just beginning to read chapter books aloud with their children. In our experience we have found that children are typically ready to undertake the challenge of listening to stories without illustrations on each page around age five, and all of the books mentioned in this series have been selected with this age and purpose in mind. A later series will discuss books to use when your child is transitioning to reading chapter books independently.
In introducing children to chapter books, we recommend reading aloud THE SANDMAN: His Farm Stories by William J. Hopkins with children who have already enjoyed Ox-Cart Man, the nationally-beloved picture book written by Donald Hall and illustrated by Caldecott Medal winner Barbara Cooney. Those children who love the simple story of the New England farmer who loads his ox-cart at harvest time with goods his family produced that year, takes them to sell at market, then walks home with coins jingling in his pocket, are primed to hear stories that offer more information about the process of growing products for market. His Farm Stories by William J. Hopkins provides 21 detailed stories of that sort, making it an excellent book to follow Ox-Cart Man and an ideal first chapter book for young readers to listen to.
What makes His Farm Stories a great choice for younger listeners?
In each chapter the author recreates a familiar world that children will recognize with excitement. Every story begins in the same way,
Once upon a time there was a farm-house, and it was painted white and had green blinds; and it stood not far from the road. In the fence was a wide gate to let the wagons through to the barn. And the wagons, going through, had made a track that led up past the kitchen door and past the shed and past the barn and past the orchard to the wheat-field.
setting the scene for the story and beckoning the young listener to follow along.
And every story ends the same way, “And that's all.”
In between we encounter the same characters in this three-generation household ─ Uncle John, little John, Aunt Deborah, Uncle Solomon, and Aunt Phyllis ─ going about their daily business on the farm, doing work that varies with the seasons. Each chapter, focusing on a single activity, is a complete story, independent from what came before and what follows after. Episodic stories such as these enable the young listener to enter fully into an individual chapter, with no need to keep a more involved plot line in mind.
How does the author depict farm life and its seasonal activities?
On this 19th century farmstead, where virtually everything the family eats, they produce themselves, we witness the cooperative efforts of all members of the three-generation household. In many of the stories we hear about Uncle John and Uncle Solomon working in tandem to do strenuous outdoor labor, while in others, Aunt Deborah and Aunt Phyllis take turns churning butter and preparing meals. Even little John shares in the chores: driving cows to and from pasture, gathering eggs, sorting apples, raking hay, and tagging along and helping as he is able. The loading of the ox-cart for market requires the effort of all, including the faithful team of oxen who are indispensable assistants in the heavy work of the farm.
An immense amount of detail emerges in these simple stories of farm life. In the story about corn, for example, we hear how Uncle John used oxen to plow a furrow, and then harrow it, before teaming up with little John to poke holes in the ground and plant the seeds. When the corn is ripe, they strip the ears of corn off the stalks one day, then rub the kernels off the cob the next (saving the cobs to use in starting fires). Some of the corn they set aside for seed for the following spring, and some to take to market, taking the remaining sacks of corn to the mill to have it ground, eventually to be made into johnnycake in another story.
The author crafted these stories over a period of three years by telling them to his young and highly inquisitive son. Commenting on the editorial support his son provided, he says, “The detail, which may seem excessive to an older critic, was in every case ─ until I had learned to put it in at the start ─ the result of a searching cross-examination. If the bars were not put up again, the cows might get out; and if the oxen did not pass, on their return, all the familiar objects, how did they get back to the barn?”
His Farm Stories
Twenty-one stories of the everyday doings of Little John around the farm: fetching water, grinding corn, making cider, growing wheat, boiling maple syrup, and so on.
What will children take away from His Farm Stories?
Different children will take away different ideas from His Farm Stories and its sequel More Farm Stories. Some children may marvel at the long sequence of steps involved in producing foods that today they can easily purchase at the grocery store. Others may be fascinated by the technology ─ the elaborate mechanical systems devised to saw logs, press cider, and grind grain. Still others may be more interested in how life was different without running water, electricity, or motor vehicles. Yet another group, captivated by the images of the countryside in Ox-Cart Man, may be called upon to imagine in their mind’s eye what this particular farm looked like at every season, where the fields and orchard were situated in relation to one another, how the tools, feed, and animals were arranged inside the barn, and so on.
More Farm Stories
Twenty-one more stories about Little John working and playing on the farm, engaged in such activities as tending animals, growing corn, and chopping wood, or fishing, skating, and sledding.
What ages are the Farm Stories books best for?
The author used them with his young son from ages 4 to 6, who, he reported, “has heard them repeated many times, and his interest has never flagged. As the farm stories slowly grew in number, they entirely displaced the other stories.” But if the stories don’t strike a chord with your child at 4, be sure to try again when they are a year older.
How can you support your children's interest in olden times?
If His Farm Stories resonates with your children, you can further their interest by visiting living history museums. Our own family made a regular practice of doing just that. We visited the Frontier Culture Museum in the Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia several times, as well as Old Sturbridge Village in central Massachusetts, not far from where His Farm Stories takes place. Nothing beats the opportunity to see the threshing of wheat, the hackling of flax, and the baking of bread in a brick fireplace in person, especially with a knowledgeable docent at hand to field your child’s every question!
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