By Nancy Willard
Illustrated by Jane Dyer
Harcourt Brace & Company
Out of print
An almanac is defined as an annual calendar containing important dates and statistical information. Readers may be familiar with The Old Farmers Almanac. Published annually, it contains—among other things—weather forecasts, planting charts, astronomical data, and recipes for the coming year. As a child I was fascinated by it. It seemed to be able to predict weather for specific days, and general weather patterns for whole seasons with remarkable accuracy. Looking through its pages always made me feel as though I were living in a different time, yet it was full of information pertaining to the future. It was like a book of magic.
This family almanac, created by Nancy Willard and Jane Dyer, is also a book of magic. Willard gathered stories from her grandmother’s family, of life on a farm in the Midwest, at the turn of the century. When Dyer heard the stories, she was reminded of her own family’s past and their roots in Kansas.
Though a snapshot of a different time, there’s helpful advice that can be used today. It’s temperature, not light, that helps to ripen tomatoes; a slice of lemon rubbed on your hands will help rid them of stains. While some of the information is not relevant to current, daily life—like reminders to cut your ice and tips for storing it properly—it’s still deeply engrossing.
Nancy Willard won the Newbery Award in 1982 for A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers. (That same year Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby, Age 8 won a Newbery Honor.) Willard is a poet, a novelist and a picture book writer. Her writing is beautiful and full of energy, immediately drawing readers into the life of the characters.
Jane Dyer has illustrated several books, including Time for Bed, written by Mem Fox, one of my favorite books for babies. Her art in this book is superb. It’s delicate and vibrant and imbues the text with nostalgia.
Each month spans four pages and contains several sections. “Dates and Festivals” features fixed holidays, birthdays of notable figures and important dates in history. “Variable Feast Days and Holidays” highlights celebrations that fall on varying days each year.
The “Farmer’s Calendar” offers planting information, tips for the care of livestock and tips relating to nature. “Worth Knowing” and “Worth Cooking” contain facts and recipes respectively.
Each month closes with “The Voices,” direct quotes from Willard’s family members giving readers a personal glimpse into life on a farm in the early 1900s. Photographs of the people speaking in “The Voices” are featured in double page spreads, which separate the seasons, leaving a more lasting impression of times past.
There’s a section that appears in a few of the months labeled “Cow Facts” where readers learn that thirty-three cows fit in an average classroom! And when milking a cow by hand, a gallon of milk contains 340 squirts.
Amongst all these features are poems, spells, old sayings, birthstone information, etymology of the names of the months, old wives tales, and myriad other tidbits. Dyer’s amazing art is sprinkled throughout—covering a quarter page and accompanying a poem, or as a small detail along side a special date. She’s also created colorful and ornate hand-lettering to break up the traditional black type.
Use this book as a template to create your own family almanac, as a lesson on life in a different era, or as a reference for wonderful old-world recipes. Break it out at the beginning of each month to discuss upcoming holidays, or to aid in your planting schedules. Or just read through it and marvel at a lifestyle of not so very long ago, but far removed from our current way of life. However read, Cracked Corn and Snow Ice Cream is a treasure for the whole family to share.
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