Of all the great books my family and I have enjoyed, I found it difficult to narrow the list to those I discussed in “A Dozen Great Books for Young Children” (TOS, Fall 2015). Yet, as high as the bar was for inclusion in that article, two books by Cynthia Rylant made the cut.
Each of those books, Poppleton and Henry and Mudge and the Great Grandpas is a part of a series. And, although each is excellent in its own right, part of the reason I included these two books is that any child who enjoys them likely will continue on to read the whole series—and, when he’s done with those, he likely will be delighted to discover that the author who penned all of those wonderful books has penned many more.
Cynthia Rylant is a prolific writer, and, although she has written some relatively well-known series, she’s also written a number of less popular but truly wonderful stand-alone stories. I’d like to discuss three of these gems here.
Good Morning, Sweetie Pie: And Other Poems for Little Children, as the title suggests, is a collection of poems meant to be read to young children. In the lead poem, which shares the book’s title, Rylant describes the experience of waking up in a world full of love. It begins:
When the birds begin their singing
And the sun begins its sunning
And the morning glories
Open up all blue . . .
There’s a mama or a papa
Or a Gramma somewhere saying:
“Good morning, Sweetie Pie,
How are you?”
And a child is slowly waking,
Slowly taking his sweet time,
He’s been flying in his dreams
The whole night through.
But his little ears hear someone
And he knows it’s someone dear
Who is saying: “’Morning, Honey,
I love you.”1
The five stanzas that follow are equally beautiful, as they follow the boy’s experiences through breakfast.
In the seven poems that follow, Rylant writes about little boys and girls having fun with those they love throughout the day. A favorite of mine, “Little Cutie Face,” portrays with a delightful cadence the playful adventures of and mutual love between a father and his daughter. It begins:
Papa loves to give a ride
To little Cutie-Face.
He picks her up and gallops off
And takes her place to place.
He takes his Cutie up the hill
And gallops her back down.
He rides her to the castle
And around the castle-town.
He takes her to the ocean
On his bumpy papa-back,
Then stands right in the middle
With his little Cutie-pack!2
Other poems in the book include stories of a boy’s adventures in his sandbox, a girl’s ride in the car with her papa, and a baby taking a bath. The final poem is about a mama who carries her sleepy boy to bed, “covers him with little stars / and kisses his sweet head.”3
The illustrations, by Jane Dyer, beautifully capture both the seriousness of children at play and the benevolent approach they have to the world and to the people they love. These splendid illustrations make this collection of poems all the more worth reading to your very own Sweetie-Pie.
The second gem by Rylant is titled Mr. Griggs’ Work. Mr. Griggs works at an old post office, and, the narrator tells us, he is pretty old himself and has worked at the post office a very long time.
This post-office work consumed Mr. Griggs’s life. “He thought about it almost all the time.” 4 He would think of it while washing dishes or while lying in bed awake at night.
Even when he went for a quiet walk in the woods, Mr. Griggs couldn’t stop thinking about his work. When a blue jay zipped over his head, he’d think: “Express Mail.” When a squirrel darted up a tree with an acorn in its mouth, he’d think: “Special Delivery.” The little holes in a rotten maple tree would remind him of his mailboxes. He couldn’t even look at a chipmunk without remembering the chipmunk stamp of 1978. But Mr. Griggs didn’t mind. He loved his work.5
Naturally, then, when Mr. Griggs becomes so sick that he has to miss a day of work—for the first time ever in the many years he has worked for the post office—this causes him much despair. He feels, in fact, “like a dead letter.”6
But Mr. Griggs does not stay sick for long. And, thanks to the illustrations by Julie Downing, as he gets better, we see him happily anticipating his return to work and, ultimately, “unlocking the door of his beloved post office” with a face of pure joy.7
The story of Mr. Griggs ends in a way that is at once typical of Rylant’s stories and uniquely benevolent:
He ran his fingers over his old letter scale, he sniffed at his stamp drawer, he lined up his meters and punchers, and he glanced lovingly at all the brass mailboxes lining the walls. In all the world that day there was nothing finer than Mr. Griggs’ work.8
Whereas Good Morning, Sweetie Pie and Mr. Griggs’ Work are for younger readers, from newborns to three-year-olds, and from three-year-olds to six-year-olds, respectively; the third gem, The Blue Hill Meadows, is perfect for children from about six years old on up.
The Blue Hill Meadows has four chapters, each of which is a stand-alone story, and the stories are related only by the location and the characters (so it is not technically a chapter book). The first chapter begins:
Blue Hill, Virginia, lay in a soft green valley with blue-gray mountains and clear, shining lakes all around. It was here that the Meadow family lived—Sullivan and Eva and their boys, Willie and Ray. And it was here that they found their much-loved dog.
Actually, it was Sullivan Meadow who did the finding. Coming from work one warm summer day, he saw her wandering—a thin and weary dog—so he stopped his truck, put her inside, and took her on home.
The Meadows gave the dog some cool water and warm meat loaf and they petted away her fears. Then she curled around Sullivan’s vest and slept all night long.
By morning she had a name—Lady—and Sullivan was on his way to the store for another vest.9
Each chapter/story is comprised of vignettes, each of which integrates with the overarching plot of the story.
As the first chapter, “A Much-Loved Dog,” proceeds, it tells of the time Lady gave birth to puppies. The second chapter, “October Lake,” tells of the day Sullivan Meadow took Willie on a fishing trip. The third, “Blizzard Party,” tells how the family weathered a rare blizzard in Blue Hill. And the final chapter, “A Perfect Gift,” tells of Willie’s search for a gift for his mom on Mother’s Day.
Like the first two gems, the story of The Blue Hill Meadows is beautifully enhanced by a competent illustrator. Ellen Beier’s watercolors are works of art in themselves, and their quiet beauty perfectly accompanies the settings, events, and pace of these stories. Viewing Beier’s illustrations while reading this book gives rise to feelings of gratefulness for the world we live in and for the pleasures it affords.
All three gems, though written for different ages, share a similar outlook on life. In a note to readers on her website, Cynthia Rylant sums up that outlook, saying, “it is really a beautiful world. It is a world worth writing about. We go through many changes in our lives, and some of them are hard. But the sky still has stars at night, the moon still shines. The world does not leave us empty-handed.”10 Nor, I might add, does Cynthia Rylant.
With these three books, the world is an even better, more beautiful place. Put them in the hands of young children everywhere.