"The farmhouse," Donald Hall writes, recalling his boyhood, "was white, and its shutters were the usual deep green of New England. The paint was good, even in the poorest times. My grandmother's flowers showed themselves against the white clapboard, especially in her favorite round bed in front of the kitchen windows." From that family farmstead in New Hampshire, hard by the shadowed, looming mass of Mount Kearsarge, Hall has produced verse, essays, reviews, memoirs. His steady and prodigious output also has included some of America's most distinguished children's books, all of them rooted in the stony soil of New England.
For 21 years, since he abandoned a tenured post at the University of Michigan, Hall, one of this country's preeminent poets, has written from an upstairs study in his gabled house at Eagle Pond Farm. His maternal great-grandfather saved ferociously to buy that land; his grandparents managed to wrest a living from it for decades.
Hall spent most his childhood summers, during the late 1930s and into the mid-'40s, there in the company of his grandparents. Each June, he set out on a journey by train from New Haven to the hamlet of West Andover and the farm that, to a child who found city life uncongenial and classroom work a drudgery, was as near to paradise as one may approach. His grandfather arrived by horse-drawn buggy to retrieve him at the tiny depot: side by side, they rode the mile that took the boy home and deep into another century.
Two volumes of Hall's memoirs, String Too Short to be Saved and Life Work, recreate this lost world. His accounts of life on a working farm, grounded in poetic genius, good humor and preternatural skills of observation, are unequaled in the annals of rural America. Take, for instance, a soaring digression on scything: "My grandfather taught me scythe mowing. . . . It is a studious sweeping crescent in which the trick is to keep the heel (where blade joins snath) close to the ground, an angle that tilts the scythe point-up, preventing it from catching in the ground. I no longer mow with a scythe-a certain recipe for lower-back muscle spasms-but remember it the way the body remembers weights and leanings: riding a bicycle, skiing, casting flies. . . ."
This province, of Moxie and pie before bedtime, marauding woodchucks in the pea patch, blueberry thickets, hay mowing, loyal horses, of crushing labor, bitter winters, pride in every workaday task, is also the terrain of many of his books for children. The most celebrated title, of course, is The Ox-Cart Man, winner of the annual Caldecott award for the best-illustrated children's book (the paintings are by Barbara Cooney) and a perennial favorite that has sold more than a million copies since it appeared in 1979. The book is, above all, a meditation on an unlikely subject: commerce. One autumn afternoon in the 1800s, a New Hampshire farmer bound for the market at Portsmouth sets out to sell off the fruits of his labor from that year:
"In October he backed his ox into his cart/and he and his family filled it up/with everything they made or grew all year long/that was left over."
The book is imbued with magic, distilled and folkloric, arising from sources tangible-a catalog of the farm's products, flax to cabbage-and intangible: each step of the journey we sense the farmer's longing to make his way home. His haven is the house on the hill, candlelight glowing from the windows in darkness, where "his son, his daughter, and his wife were waiting for him."
In the nearly two decades since The Ox-Cart Man, Hall has written a series of children's books set in the past and recent past, in that country of fields, pastures and mountainsides. He has created a cycle of stories — The Man Who Lived Alone, Lucy's Christmas, The Farm Summer 1942, Lucy's Summer — each one interlocked and independently whole, satisfying as a draft of clear well water. It is a body of work unique in the universe of picture books and in American letters. This year he has added two titles to this memorable sequence, both from Harcourt Brace.
Old Home Day, a picture book illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully and set in the fictional village of Blackwater, pays homage to a living tradition. In 1899, New Hampshire's governor fixed an annual homecoming festival for the state. As the hardscrabble farms were emptying of young people, bound for textile mills in Massachusetts or fertile land on the new frontier, the wayfarers were called to return each August. "In summer," Hall writes, "old Blackwater people came back like the birds. They brought their grandchildren to show them where the barn was-and where they had gone to the one-room school." Today, he reminds us, families yet gather on the green, celebrating New England's history and the cherished rhythms of small-town life across this nation.
In When Willard Met Babe Ruth, a story accompanied by painter Barry Moser's masterful watercolors, two of Hall's life passions converge-New England early in this century, and baseball. Based on the premise that a 12-year-old New Hampshire farm boy meets up with "the best left-hander in baseball" one autumn afternoon in 1917, the book is a paean to sports demigods, generous fathers, loyal sons and that embattled minority, the New Hampshire Democrats.
In tone and texture, Willard harks back to The Farm Summer 1942, also illustrated by Moser. The most autobiographical of Hall's works for children, the book evokes another summer overshadowed by war. That year, the 14-year-old Hall worked alongside his grandfather in the fields. It is a season recounted with deep affection in Farm Summer; Hall's memories are recast as the experiences of Peter, a 9-year-old boy who arrives to spend the summer with his grandparents.
Even on cloudless afternoons, perfect for haying, the dark nimbus of war hangs in the air. Each night, the "big radio near the wood stove" carries news of "air raids in Europe and fighting in New Guinea." And each night, Peter sleeps in the silent farmhouse, a boy secure under layers of quilts, intuiting that safety is, after all, hard won. The children who come to Donald Hall's books will recover not only portions of America's past but of every family's individual histories and heart.
Many of this year's children's titles make time travelers of us all, offering passage to a 19th-century fishing village in England; the Ithaca of Homer's Odyssey; a Mississippi hamlet on the eve of the civil rights movement; Elizabeth Cady Stanton's hometown of Tenafly, New Jersey, in 1880.