Farmer Boy: The Midnight Garden Classic Middle Grade Read-along (November)

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Illustrated by Garth Williams

First Published 1933, Harper & Row, 373 pages

#3 in the Little House Series

Recommended for All!

farmer boy

I LOVE the Little House books! I grew up with the yellow paperback boxed set, and it’s still one of my prized bookish possessions. I also watched the Little House on the Prairie television series with my family, so I had a hearty dose of Little House goodness throughout my childhood.

How excited I was to discover that the November book for The Midnight Garden’s Classic Middle Grade Readalong was Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder!

So here I am to share some thoughts about the story I haven’t read in years, before heading over to The Midnight Garden to join in on the discussion there. I hope you’ll stop by as well! (Next month the book is Little Women!!)

I still remember those gorgeous, thick descriptions of food in the Little House books. Menus, maple sugar making tips, pie and pancake eating—Farmer Boy especially is chock full of such wonderful things.

Here are a few examples:

“Big yellow cheeses were stacked there, and large brown cakes of maple sugar, and there were crusty loaves of fresh-baked bread, and four large cakes, and one whole shelf full of pies” (25). YUM!

Or how about this:

“Mother was frying pancakes and the big blue platter, keeping hot on the stove’s hearth, was full of plump brown sausage cakes in their brown grave…There was oatmeal with plenty of thick cream and maple sugar. There were fried potatoes, and the golden buckwheat cakes, as many as Almanzo wanted to eat, with sausages and gravy or with butter and maple syrup. There were preserves and jams and jellies and doughnuts. But best of all Almanzo like the spicy apple pie, with its thick, rich juice and its crumbly crust. He ate two big wedges of the pie” (38).

If I could get invited over for one of the meals from Farmer Boy, that would be a treat!

farmer boy meal uaAlmanzo’s story is a delight—this stand alone novel gives us more times with the boy who would become Laura’s husband—and what memorable times they are.

I had forgotten the perils of being a schoolteacher that are discussed in that first bit of the book, when Almanzo treks to school as a nine year old. That’s right—Almanzo’s school teacher actually faces the possibility of getting “thrashed” by the big boys at school who are disrespectful and just general HOOLIGANS!

Then the teacher breaks out a whip that Almanzo’s father supplied him with, and puts those boys in their place. This sounds a bit intense, doesn’t it? A teacher with a whip?? What’s going on with that?? I was shocked to read that the previous schoolteacher DIED after he was beat up by the bigger students. Did you know that school could be so dangerous back in rural New York state in the late 19th century? I hadn’t remembered any of this from my childhood reading, so it’s been fascinating revisiting FARMER BOY. This definitely also makes me want to do some research and find out more.

As I read, I actually used stickies to mark all the foodie passages. There’s a lot of apple pie being eaten, that’s for sure! And stacks of pancakes with maple syrup. Who wouldn’t want to visit Alamanzo’s house? Taking part in one of those meals would be fantastic.

Speaking of spirituality in children’s literature—I think there’s something to say about that here. To me, sharing a meal with people can be a spiritual activity. Not every meal, but there is something significant and intimate that can happen among family and friends when you eat together. The descriptive passages of the meals eaten in the Little House books highlights (at least to me) the importance that families in this culture placed on sharing a meal. After all, they had worked so hard to grow and prepare that food. I think there is a significant aspect of the book in those passages—there’s something to be said about how sharing and partaking of food encourages community. Go check out the descriptions of Almanzo eating at meal times and let me know what you think…

And–Almanzo and his siblings learn how to run the farm! I was amazed at the way Laura Ingalls Wilder describes so many of the activities a boy of Almanzo’s age living on a farm in the late 19th century would learn. Planting corn, keeping corn from freezing, protecting the potato crop, sheep shearing, getting ice for the ice house, breaking calves—the list goes on! All that hard work as a family would surely play a role in its strength—and I think this is apparent in the story.

Can you believe the way Eliza Jane saved Almanzo from getting whipped for ruining the wall in the parlor?

How about that exploding potato?

And the half dollar Almanzo’s father gives him after he asks for a nickel?

The story is filled with these episodes that paint a colorful picture of Almanzo Wilder’s life—the story delighted me as a young reader and it fascinates me today.

What about you? Did you grow up with the Little House books? Did you read Farmer Boy as part of The Midnight Garden read-along??

Do you have a favorite foodie passage from the book?


#AtoZchallenge: “Y” is for YOUR Favorite Book (Giveaway from The Midnight Garden!)

What’s your favorite book? Or, like most people, do you have several? One of my favorite childhood books (and it’s still one of my favorite as an adult) is:

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

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Montgomery’s spirited heroine entranced me from the start of the story! I turned the pages as fast as I could to see if Matthew and Marilla would allow Anne to stay at Green Gables, even though she wasn’t a boy. I saw myself and my best friend in Anne and Diana, and cringed as Anne brought her slate down on that annoying boy, Gilbert’s, head. Anne’s adventures and mishaps kept me entertained, and they still do. I went on to read the entire series, and I still re-read the books as an adult. Then, there are other wonderful gems by Montgomery to read, such as Emily of New Moon, A Tangled Web, The Blue Castle, and Magic for Marigold (to name a few).

The beautiful descriptions of P.E.I. in Anne and Montgomery’s other books keep me returning to them again and again. I won’t ever get tired of Anne. When I finally made it to Prince Edward Island several years ago, it was even more gorgeous than I had imagined. I can’t wait to return.

The Midnight Garden is having a discussion of Anne of Green Gables and they are hosting a fabulous giveaway of the Anne books, with their new covers by Source Books. Go check it out and enter the contest!

What’s your favorite book? Do share–I would love to hear!

#AtoZchallenge: “K” is for Keeping the Castle (2012) by Patrice Kindl

Keeping the Castle been described as a combination of Jane Austen and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Since I Capture the Castle is one of my favorite books, I was excited to snag this one for my classroom library when I was teaching. However, a year has passed and I still haven’t read it! Perhaps it’s time to move it up the TBR list!


Here’s the GoodReads summary:

“Seventeen-year-old Althea is the sole support of her entire family, and she must marry well. But there are few wealthy suitors–or suitors of any kind–in their small Yorkshire town of Lesser Hoo. Then, the young and attractive (and very rich) Lord Boring arrives, and Althea sets her plans in motion. There’s only one problem; his friend and business manager Mr. Fredericks keeps getting in the way. And, as it turns out, Fredericks has his own set of plans . . .”

If you haven’t read I Capture the Castle, you may want to consider it after reading its summary:

” ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink…’

This is the diary of Cassandra Mortmain, which tells of her extraordinary family and their crumbling castle home. Cassandra’s father was once a famous writer, but now he mainly reads detective novels while his family slide into genteel poverty. Her sister Rose is bored and beautiful, and desperate to marry riches. Their step-mother Topaz has habit of striding through the countryside wearing only her wellington boots. But all their lives will be soon be transformed by the arrival of new neighbours from America, and Cassandra finds herself falling in love…”


Have you read either of these castle books??

Top Ten Tuesday: Rewind–Top Ten Childhood Faves

toptentuesday2 This Tuesday is a Rewind. That means bloggers can choose any of the past Top Ten Topics for today! There were a lot of topics I could have chosen, but I realized picking my Top Ten Childhood Favorites would be appropriate since I read and review so much children’s literature (in addition to YA). It’s hard to keep it to ten, but here is my attempt. You will also see that I’m cheating a little by including series, but what can I say?!?

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Anne of Green Gables

Anne Shirley is undoubtedly one of my favorite heroines, and her antics and adventures living with Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert in Avonlea were the cause of many re-readings of this early 20th century classic by L.M. Montgomery. I can never read the Anne books too many times!


Watership Down

My father introduced me to the rabbits of Watership Down such as Hazel and Fiver with a cream-colored hardback by Richard Adams. I loved this book and now have two more paperback editions of it. Who can resist reading about the journey of these rabbits to find a place to settle in the English countryside?


The Magician’s Nephew (The Chronicles of Narnia)

I ate up all of the Narnia Chronicles, but I especially fell in love with the story that started it all. I was fascinated by what happened when Polly and Digory touched those rings, and were transported to another world. My mother, who studied in her 20s in England, had all the British paperback editions of these books, but she happened to own a hardback of The Magician’s Nephew. I can distinctly remember lying on the couch reading this book, and imagining what it would be like to travel to Narnia!


The Secret Garden

I read about Mary Lennox’s journey to Misselthwaite Manor multiple times, and every time I was in awe anew at the way she discovers the “secret garden.” I never get tired of reading about Dickon and Colin and the way the beauty of the natural world transformed the characters in the story.


Bread and Jam for Frances

It’s funny how children are drawn to certain books over and over again. This is how it was for me with this book. I was fascinated that Frances asked her parents to only serve her bread and jam, but eventually she just wanted something other than bread and jam! Lillian Hoban’s illustrations are wonderful, and how pleased I was by the end when Frances could eat all the good food she had been missing!


Hitty Her First Hundred Years

I loved my dolls as a girl, and this classic about a doll who is over one hundred and tells the readers all about her adventures was a winner. I adored reading about Hitty’s many travels and tribulations. I even created my own “doll movie” with my dolls, based on the story of Hitty. I just found a newer adaptation of this story with illustrations, and I may just have to get a copy.


The Wizard of Oz
by L. Frank Baum

As a child, I owned many of the Oz books, and after reading and watching the film of The Wizard of Oz, I wanted to know about other characters Baum had written books about. However, the one we know the most is the story I was always drawn back to—and I even staged my own performance of The Wizard of Oz with my dolls. I think the videotape is lying around somewhere.


The Baby-Sitters Club

So, here is one of my cheats and my confession that I read series books right alongside the classics. I loved The Babysitter’s Club! I ate those books right up, one after another, and whenever a new book came out in a Scholastic Book Order, you can be sure I ordered it. The girls in the club knew how to run a successful business and I was endlessly interested in their lives, even following their adventures in the Super Special editions!


Nancy Drew

Who wouldn’t want to follow Nancy Drew as she solves mysteries, whether it be with the secret of the old clock or the hidden staircase? As I read those books, I knew I was being trained for all the mysteries I would encounter when I was Nancy’s age.


Choose Your Own Adventure

I have to admit, I still enjoy reading these books as an adult! Who wouldn’t enjoy the chance to read a book and choose which way the story might go? Sure, sometimes you die, and sometimes things don’t work out the way you want them to, but you can always start over! The fact that there were so many different books in the series was fantastic.

Wardrobes, Gardens, and Hot Air Balloons: The Spirituality of Children’s Literature (Part I)


“And the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles.”

 (The Secret Garden [1911] by Frances Hodgson Burnett)

A door into the garden. A step into a wardrobe. A flight in a hot air balloon. Whether it is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911), C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950), or Pauline Fiske’s Midnight Blue (1990), literature for children, in both realistic and fantastic genres, illuminates a spirituality that cannot be ignored. At least I couldn’t ignore it. And many young readers that I talked to couldn’t either.

What is spirituality in children’s literature anyway? I’m glad you asked. In my exploring of the topic, I first had to consider a definition of spirituality itself.

What in the world is spirituality?

Some researchers of children’s spirituality including Robert Coles, David Hay, Rebecca Nye, Brendan Hyde, and Tobin Hart, among others, perceive spirituality as a universal human attribute, a fundamental aspect of existence (1990; 1998; 2008a; 2003). In other words, spirituality is an “innate human trait,” playing an important and beneficial role in people’s lives and it is not limited to one religious tradition (Hyde, 2008a, p.23, 29). I like how Sandra Schneiders expresses it: “spirituality is a project of life-integration which means that it is holistic, involving body and spirit, emotions and thought, activity and passivity, social and individual aspects of life” (2003, p. 167). In the context of studying it within children’s literature, I think of spirituality as awareness, a lived reality, which can relate to an individual’s connection with other people, the self, the natural world, or a divine source such as God. Helminiak states that spirituality “refers to everything one does that expresses or enhances one’s awareness of and commitment to the transcendent dimension of life” (p. 34).

What does this mean in children’s books? It means there is a spiritual geography in many stories for children, and that talking to readers about those spaces can be incredibly rewarding and rich (for both child and adult!). Put simply, spirituality in a text might be a character’s awareness of something beyond the physical dimension of existence; it could be a sensitivity that can tune into profound hope, awe, wonder, selflessness, and love. A book’s spirituality could also be revealed through a relationship between two characters–but it’s not just any relationship. And yes, spirituality can be expressed within a particular religious tradition, but not all people who consider themselves spiritual would call themselves religious.

Think of the way that Mary Lennox (see The Secret Garden) shakes off her selfishness and begins to care for and nurture others. There is certainly a “transcendent dimension” to Burnett’s story, in the way that Mary and Colin experience renewed hope through their engagement with the beauty of the natural world. Lewis’s fantasy has the religious undertones, yes, but along with those, there is a spiritual aspect in Lucy’s openness to wonder and awe, and her faith and ability to hope in the midst of difficulty and sadness (See The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardobe). Fiske’s fantasy novel illuminates the battle between good and evil, a showdown that doesn’t have to be between hobbits and the evil forces of Mordor in order to be spiritual. Sometimes the struggle can be a lot closer to home (See Midnight Blue). These few examples are meant to highlight that the spirituality of children’s literature is more than just epic battles between good and evil, supernatural happenings, or religious stories. Although, spirituality in books can certainly include these.

Another opinion of mine: spirituality in children’s literature is important, for both young and old readers. The reason for this is because SPIRITUALITY is important.

Here’s one way to think about it: In his book, Hay discusses a study with people who said they had some kind of spiritual experience. The results of questioning hundreds of these people indicate “that the initial effect of their experience is to make them look beyond themselves. They have an increased desire to care for those closest to them, to take issues of social justice more seriously and to be concerned about the total environment” (Hay, p. 29). If spirituality in a person’s life plays a role in such activities, maybe reflecting on and talking about the spirituality of books with others might be a good activity too. One more way to think about it–a book might depict a character experiencing something “spiritual” or it could be that a book just happens to nurture a reader’s spirituality, though maybe it seems lacking in any spiritual aspects at first glance. So, we could talk about the spirituality of a story, or what a story does to the spirituality of the reader. Or both.

Doing this gives us a chance to reflect on our spirituality and think more deeply about this important aspect of life. For me, this happened with contemporary works of children’s literature such as Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (2006), Oliver Jeffers’ The Heart and the Bottle (2010), and Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan (2012).

I’m an adult, you’re thinking.

Is this kind of thing supposed to happen when you read children’s or young adult literature? If you are open to it (and sometimes even if you aren’t), then yes, literature for younger readers might just tap your own spirituality. It might remind you that there was a sad moment in your life when you hid your heart away, just enough, so you could get through to the next day (see The Heart and the Bottle). You might find yourself identifying with the way Edward Tulane refuses to hope anymore after so many times of being separated from the people he wants to be near (See The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane). Even though Applegate’s novel is about a gorilla and an elephant, you might be surprised when you find yourself wondering if your own creativity could bring freedom to someone. Can art free others? (See The One and Only Ivan). These examples illustrate potential ways that reading children’s literature might nurture our spirituality. And they are just three examples: a picturebook, and two illustrated novels.

The journey of exploring the spirituality of children’s literature is neverending. There are countless texts that highlight spiritual issues and concepts. From my own experience, there is an amazing amount of books that might nurture the spirituality of young readers. But that discussion is for another time.

For now, I hope you will pick up a children’s book, and with an open mind, step through the wardrobe, open the door into the garden, and hop on the flying balloon for a journey into the spiritual dimensions of children’s literature.

Midnight Bluewardrobe

Coles, R. (1990). The Spiritual Life of Children. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Hart, T. (2003). The Secret Spiritual World of Children. Maui, Hawai: Inner Ocean.
Hay, D. with Nye, R. (2006). The Spirit of the Child. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. (Original work published 1998).
Helminiak, D.A. (1996). The Human Core of Spirituality. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Hyde, B. (2008a). Children and Spirituality. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Schneiders, S.M. (2003). Religion vs. Spirituality: A Contemporary Conundrum. Spiritus, 3, 163-185.
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