by Lisa Ripperton
June 29, 2019
Skippack School by Marguerite de Angeli was one of two books from my childhood (the other being D’Aulaire’s Benjamin Franklin) that stood head and shoulders above the rest. I read these two books repeatedly, pored over the illustrations, and committed much of their contents to memory. It was with no small amount of trepidation that I recently reread Skippack School as an adult and was delighted to find that I enjoyed every bit as much as I did as a child.
I was about eight years old when I first read Skippack School, a perfect age, I think, for reading stories about families in other settings. We recommend that you start with regional stories, especially those based near where you live, if you can find some of equivalent caliber. As a native of Pennsylvania, these books about the Amish, Mennonites, Quakers, and others were just right for me.
Early in her writing career, Newbery Award winner Marguerite de Angeli penned eight regional stories, all but one set near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she made her home for over six decades. In this post those eight books are profiled below in the order in which they were written.
It will be evident to most readers that Marguerite de Angeli grew tremendously as a writer over the course of her career. Should you read her books in the same order as she wrote them, you will no doubt observe that growth and maybe even pick up some clues as to what constitutes more mature writing. At the time of her Newbery Award her son Maury wrote on behalf of her family in The Horn Book: “We have watched her grow literarily since the publication of the first ‘Ted and Nina’ book , increasing her fluency and magnifying her style with each new book, as the scope of each story was greater than that of the last. It was only a matter of time, we felt, until she won the prize.” [July-August, 1950, p. 268]
THE EIGHT REGIONAL BOOKS
Henner’s Lydia (1936): “a solid start”
A colorful illustration on the opening page introduces us to Lydia, a Pennsylvania Dutch girl whose Amish ancestors sailed from Germany to America generations before for the freedom to worship in their own way.
The Amish people are industrious and expect their children to contribute as soon as they are able. As Lydia’s mother says, “Teach children how to work while they are small, then when they get big they like to work.” Lydia helps with meals and other household chores, but now she has a rug to hook and her father promises a trip to market when she completes it. Yet as you can see from the picture above, Lydia is ever on the lookout for any activity more exciting than working on the hooked rug, whether that is going to school, visiting babies, or taking apples to the cider mill.
In the end she does finish the piece, earning the trip to the market in Lancaster with Pop. With such a flimsy plot line, the story moves slowly, so much so that even the author’s own son could not bring himself to finish it! But those who delight in detail in the illustrations and the text will still find much to enjoy in de Angeli’s first work.
Petite Suzanne (1937): “further afield”
Inspired by a trip the author made to the Gaspé peninsula in Quebec, Petite Suzanne features an energetic girl who befriends a “tourist lady” painting on the beach and strikes up a conversation with her, in the course of which we become acquainted with Suzanne’s French Canadian family. The tourist lady appears a couple of weeks later to take Suzanne on an excursion to Bonaventure Island, and sends her a box of paints at Christmas.
In between we witness everyday doings in the life of the fishing village: the upsetting of a boat, a day at school, a visit to the train station, and the shelling of peas, with French songs and dances interspersed periodically. Like Henner’s Lydia, this book suffers from lack of a strong plot-line, while still offering a lovely portrait of life in this close-knit community.
Skippack School (1939): “author hits her stride”
Following up on a suggestion from fellow author Elsie Singmaster to find out more about legendary schoolmaster Christopher Dock, de Angeli produces her strongest work yet in Skippack School. The story opens with Eli Shrawder’s family, having just arrived from Germany by ship, now heading west with their ox cart past German Town to their new land. The day after they arrive, neighbors show up in force to fell trees and set to work to build them a house. Eli helps with the making of shingles for the roof as seen in the accompanying illustration. By nightfall of the third day the house is complete!
Within a week Eli is on his way to school, a prospect he dreads because he has only learned a few of his letters. But Master Christopher welcomes him kindly and puts him under the tutelage of Amos, who tells Eli quietly that master helps children to do their best, giving presents for good work. Not used to the rigor of school work, Eli lets his attention wander and engages in one prank after another, yet Master Christopher never gives up on him. One day Master invites him to stay after school and help him make lead pencils, noting how interested Eli is in making things. But Eli continues to get into mischief. Not until he has to return to school to pick up a forgotten lunch basket and overhears Master Christopher praying on his behalf does he resolve to do better.
One morning with his father gone to market, his mother is called away to assist an ailing neighbor, so Eli must miss school to manage the household and care for his younger sister. Master Christopher stops by just in time for supper and afterward invites Eli to go to German Town in the morning with him. There he takes him to the paper mill and the printer’s, opening his eyes to all sorts of possibilities.
Eli prepares a report of his trip with a block printing on the cover, made from a block that he carved and inked himself. Master Christopher is so pleased he gives him one of his bird paintings in return. An extraordinary book, with never a dull moment, that will be enjoyed by both girls and boys.
Thee, Hannah! (1939): “contrast in family values”
Hannah and Sally, her slightly older sister, play a game every night at bedtime, just before going to sleep. Despite being born into a Quaker family, they pretend that they are fashionable ladies on a shopping expedition choosing whether to get a red silk dress or a blue, though they will have to don their own drab garb in the morning.
“Pretty is as pretty does!” says Hannah’s mother, but Hannah still finds it hard to resist the appeal of flowered bonnets and rustling silks, especially when her best friend Cecily, who lives next door and is NOT a Quaker, can wear these all the time. Hannah loves playing dress-up at Cecily’s house and even wears one of her bonnets on a walk outside.
On the day she is to go with her sister to be fitted for a new bonnet, Hannah even kicks her old bonnet down the stairs, much to the horror of her sister and dismay of her father!
And then one day in late summer while out on an errand for her mother, she hears a voice from behind a gate between two houses, “Missy! Oh, missy! Miss, please help me! Ise got a sick chile an’ we ain’ got no water and no food. Please, Missy, get yo’ mammy or yo’ pappy an’ help me.” Hannah hastens home, returns with her father along with a basket of food and water. Later that night her father returns with Quaker garb for the runaway slaves to wear as he escorts them to the back of his own house, where they stay until safe passage by boat is found. As they are taking their leave, the woman turns to Hannah. “Li’l missy, it’s you dat he’ped me first. I knowed I could trus’ you. I knowed you was a Friend ’cause of yo’ Quaker bonnet.” At that point Hannah’s bonnet becomes no longer a burden, but something to be proud of! A thought-provoking read, especially suited for girls.
Elin’s Amerika (1941): “a struggle to stay alive”
After moving from her native Sweden to New Sweden with her mother, father, and older brother, Elin finds her days along the Delaware River to be lonely ones. She misses her grandfather, of course, but also her best friend Greta. Here there are only boys! She does find a friend in Lamefoot, the Indian healer who gathers herbs of all kinds, some for healing and others for food. She introduces Elin to the wildflowers and birds in the woods.
With it being months since arrival of a ship bearing supplies, their stores are getting low, and all hands are required to forage for fruits and nuts. It is Elin’s job to pick wild grapes the day the women of the community are gathered together for soapmaking. She notices hostile Indians headed their way and with her piercing scream alerts the women to enter the dwelling and lug the boiling soap to the upper story to pour on Indians before they set fire to the building.
Not long after, a ship is spotted, but it turns out to be bringing supplies for the Dutch colony rather than the Swedish one. But Lucia Day (December 13) is just around the corner and this year Elin is to be Lucia, serving mead and cakes, clothed in white with crown of candles on her head! A festive Christmas celebration follows soon thereafter, and then, finally, the long-anticipated Swedish ship arrives! And it brings a surprise better than anything Elin could have thought up!
There is enough action in this book for it to be a delight to both girls and boys.
Up the Hill (1942): “an exceptionally close-knit community”
Christmas Eve finds Aniela and Tadek gazing into the bakery window in their Pennsylvania mining town. Aniela’s eyes dart from one Polish pastry to another, while her brother Tad, she knows, is imagining how to draw each and every one. Up the hill toward home they hurry to join Christmas Eve festivities with their extended family where they are to feast on traditional Polish dishes. Celebration continues on the morrow as they first attend mass then go caroling with boys and girls in their neighborhood, singing the Polish songs they learned in Saturday school.
Upon returning to class after the holidays, Aniela and her classmates are delighted to hear of the new geography project their teacher has devised for them: each of them is to choose a country and find out all they can about it. Others choose Slovakia, Bohemia, England, Wales, Lithuania, and Russia, while Aniela selects Poland. At the end they have a party where each wears the costume of their country and brings traditional food to share.
A special guest arrives for their celebration–the master painter who is painting the church wall. When he asks specially to speak to Aniela because she is wearing the dress of his home town, she seizes the opportunity to tell him of Tadek and his passion for drawing and painting. Once the connection is made, Tad spends every spare moment after that with the painter. On Holy Thursday the great painting is unveiled.
”In the picture at one side were the miners in their blackened clothes, their faces tired and dirty, looking toward a shining light. At the other side was a field of waving grain with flowers growing at the edge, and standing knee deep in blossoms were happy people, men, women, and children, in the dress of the different countries from which they had come. They, too, were looking toward the light. There were Bohemians, Slovaks, Poles, and Russians. There were Welsh and English, Scotch and Germans; all the many nationalities that go to make America.”
And Aniela in the striped Polish dress is standing right in front among the daisies! Near the flowers that Tad helped to paint! No question now but that Tad should become a painter rather than toiling in the mines. The wish Aniela makes on the star at Christmas Eve is coming true! With a brisk-moving plot this heart-warming story of a Polish family in a vibrant community is one for all to enjoy!
Yonie Wondernose (1944): “the making of a man”
In Yonie Wondernose we revisit the family of Henner’s Lydia. Mom and Pop are heading off on an overnight visit, leaving Granny behind with Yonie and Little Nancy. For the first time Yonie is given full responsibility for doing the chores and caring for the livestock. But as the whole family is well aware, Yonie is a Wondernose, following his curiosity wherever it leads him, even if that means neglecting his duties.
But today Yonie is mindful of what Pop promised him when he can be trusted like a man and sets off to do his chores first. He fills the pans in the chicken yard, then locks the chicken house door as Pop had told him. He gathers the firewood but before fetching water for the calves, he has a mind to take a dip in the cool Conestoga creek and off he goes. Back on task he waters the calves and feeds the pigs, but cannot find Granny anywhere. He takes the opportunity to peek inside the two hundred year old chest which he is never to open by himself. But as he lifts the lid, he hears a voice calling “Yonie!” through the open window. Dashing to the chicken house, he discovers Granny locked inside!
After a quick supper he finishes the chores and heads to bed as a storm threatens. Not long after a bright flash awakens him with a start. He hears Granny calling but can see for himself that the barn is on fire! Rushing out they lead the horses to safety first, then loose the chickens and the cows. On his way to get Dunder the bull, Yonie stops to drive the pigs to the potato field. Finally, he reaches Dunder, snaps the staff into his nose ring, and leads him up the hill.
Meanwhile neighbors are arriving to help and soon Mom and Pop, fetched by a neighbor, return too. Pop is thrilled to see all the animals safe and sound, and especially glad that Yonie led the pigs to safety before Dunder, because in all the excitement that night the mama sow had produced a litter of ten piglets.
Not only does Pop give Yonie the pick of the litter but assures him he will need a man for fall planting too. Now Yonie knows that he will be guiding the two great work horses to harrow the field for winter wheat all by himself! A not-to-be-missed story enjoyed by all ages!
Interestingly, the seed for this story was planted when de Angeli learned somewhat after the fact that the barn she spent an afternoon sketching for Henner’s Lydia burned down that very night!
Bright April (1946): “a groundbreaking book”
Like the month she was born in and named for, April was bright one moment and dark the next. But mostly she was Bright April–because of her happy family life, her participation in a Brownie Scout Troop, and her friends in her urban Philadelphia neighborhood. Mrs. Cole, their leader, always had something interesting for the girls to do at their Thursday afternoon Brownie meetings.
Usually they were making something, but sometimes she asked Flicker, a counselor at summer Scout Camp, to come and share her knowledge of the out of doors with the Brownies. Flicker’s special interest was birds, and she encouraged them to keep their eye out for more types arriving as spring advanced, even offering a special treat for the girl who could add the most birds to her list. A special Saturday outing to Wissahickon Creek afforded ample opportunity for the city girls to spot all sorts of new birds. With April being more eager than most she ended up with the longest list so she was invited to a special supper party at Deep Meadow Farm, on her tenth birthday no less! Everything on the farm was new to her: the massive barn, the cows, the horses, a brand-new calf, and a batch of kittens to play with.
Dinner was served, followed by a birthday cake with ten candles for April to blow out. An ideal evening, it seems, but the occasion is marred when one of the girls starts to express her distaste for sitting next to April. And this isn’t the first display of racial prejudice in the book. In fact, incidents are sprinkled throughout: in the opening scene where a little girl points at April and says, “You’re brown!”; when her sister has to take extra shifts as a nurse; when her brother in the army is assigned to work in the laundry; when April’s career aspirations are limited. However well the adults cope with the situation at hand, the reader begins to see the shadow under which April and other children of color live their lives.
Bright April was a groundbreaking book in that it was the first “mainstream” children’s book (i.e. first book written by a white author) that shows incidents of racial prejudice in the context of the story. While dated by today’s standards, it is important historically, because of the impact it had on African-American children in the second half of the 20th century. For Carla Hayden, the first African-American and first woman to be appointed Librarian of Congress in 2016, Bright April was a favorite children’s book. As an eight year old reader she not only saw herself in the book (like April, she, too, was a “Brownie” with brown skin and pigtails) but it was the first book in which she saw a sympathetic portrayal of Afro-American family life. Hayden maintains that children need to see their lives reflected in books, and that books can serve both as mirrors and as windows. For Hayden Bright April was both!
WHAT TO NOTICE IN THESE BOOKS
1. Artistry of book design and production
Each of these volumes is a work of art. With illustrations by the author on almost every page spread, these titles are, in some respect, picture books and, in another, chapter books. Typically, color illustrations on one page spread alternate with pencil drawings on the next. Not only are the illustrations outstanding, but the formatting of the pages is especially pleasing. The books are square with well-spaced type and generous margins.
Chapter divisions are subtle, though a couple of the books have special features opening each chapter. Skippack School has one of Master Christopher’s bird or flower paintings heading each chapter.
Elin’s Amerika features a capital letter entwined with the Tomte (the household elf) at the beginning of the text of a new chapter.
A number of the volumes have maps of the neighborhood on endpapers, but only Henner’s Lydia has a map created in stunning four-color lithography, which you can see in the accompanying illustration.
2. Warm family settings in close-knit multigenerational communities
All these stories are about immigrant families, most coming to America in search of religious freedom or economic opportunity, with one brought here against their will. Yet all gather regularly around the dinner table, often with extended family, and help each other in time of need, as when Eli Shrawder’s Mennonite family in Skippack School, needs a new house on their arrival from Germany and Yonie’s Amish family in Yonie Wondernose requires help after their barn catches fire.
3. Maintaining cultural identity in a new land
This may involve the continuation of traditions started in the old country, as in Up the Hill, or adherence to a strict set of ethics as with the Quakers in Thee, Hannah! or the Amish in Henner’s Lydia.
4. Impulse to create is encouraged
In two of these books the impulse to create drives the whole plot: Tadek and his urge to draw in Up the Hill and Eli and his passion for carving and printing in Skippack School. But in the other titles it is a thread that runs through. Think of Lydia and her hooked rug in Henner’s Lydia, for example, or the special Polish foods created in Up the Hill. In Elin’s Amerika, the whole family sits around the fire in the evening, each occupied with his or her own craft.
5. Models of parent/child interaction
I have heard a number of women say that they learned much about being a mother from Ma Ingalls in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books or from Marmee in Little Women. It seemed to me in my reading of these de Angeli titles that there were a number of excellent models here as well. Keep an eye out for them.
6. Mentors for children
Lamefoot teaches Elin her craft of foraging in Elin’s Amerika, while Master Christopher of Skippack School goes out of his way to introduce to Eli to trades that may excite his interest. And of course the painter in Up the Hill takes young Tadek under his wing.
7. Growing into responsibilities
It becomes obvious in these books that the greater the percentage of food that a family produces for itself, the greater the responsibilities that the children are expected to bear. When you see a whole cellar of stored food, it is clear that children have to play their part.
While children tend to chafe under rising expectations, at the same time they like to feel needed and are proud of increasing responsibilities. The whole plot of Yonie Wondernose hinges on his becoming trustworthy enough that Pop can hand new tasks over to him. As you read through the de Angeli books, pay attention to how children contribute to their household economies.
8. Firm, but not heavy-handed discipline
Children in these stories expect that when they do wrong they will have to pay the consequences. It may be a relatively small thing as when Hannah smears a substance on Cecily’s sash in Thee, Hannah! and has to go without her allowance until the replacement is paid for. Or it may be very consequential as when Eli has to offer the bench for sale, that he has been working on for weeks, in order to pay for the Skippack School window he broke through his carelessness.
9. Children encouraged to look outward
Looking for ways of being of service is a major theme in Thee, Hannah! Does it show up in any of the other titles?
I hope I have inspired you to pick up one or more of these titles to read with your children! My two top picks are Yonie Wondernose and Skippack School, followed closely by Elin’s Amerika and Up the Hill. Thee, Hannah! and Bright April are both thought-provoking books, well suited for use with girls.
Henner’s Lydia and Petite Suzanne are recommended only if you are interested in the Pennsylvania Dutch or the French Canadians, or you want to read all eight of these regional titles.
Alternatively, you may want to choose a title to match the era of history that you are studying. Here are the titles in chronological order of the period in which they are set:
Elin’s Amerika (c. 1650)
Skippack School (c. 1750)
Thee, Hannah! (c. 1850)
Henner’s Lydia (1930s)
Yonie Wondernose (1930s)
Petite Suzanne (1930s)
Up the Hill (1930s)
Bright April (1940s)
Share your experience
Do let us know your experience of using these books with your children! Did you appreciate the list of items to look for in these books? Do you have anything to add to it? Please hare in the comments below.