This story of life during the Great Depression in the early 1930s was inspired by the author/illustrator’s grandmother Marvel, who in this book is a six-year-old girl, one of eight children. The book, which is narrated by Marvel and which revolves around the seasons, begins in summer. Their father recently died (“Dad lives with the angels now”) and they must find a new home and a way to feed themselves. The author writes:
“Deep in these woods, we find a shack
all wrapped in tar paper.
It’s hot outside, but the shack
Like I feel inside.
‘You never know what treasures
We’ll find,’ says Mum.”
Indeed, they discover a root cellar with fresh water from a pump and storage space for canning. They plant a garden in the rich, dark soil and find berry patches in the woods. Mum goes to town to do odd jobs for money, and the kids take turns doing chores. They invent games, learn to quilt, and learn to read:
“Rich teaches me that letters, put together, make words . . . and words, put together, make stories.”
After a year, they have mastered the art of survival, and find a measure of happiness:
“Here in these woods,
I find my brothers, my sisters,
Our mum, and me (Marvel).
The shack all wrapped in tar paper
Looks different now –
And filled up with love . . .
. . . like I feel inside.”
An Author’s Note explains how the author, Eliza, when growing up, heard many stories from her grandma Marvel and her great uncles about how they survived. She writes:
“What an incredibly hard time it must have been, and yet they recall the memories from those years as some of their best. They all had purpose and found inventive ways to work together and make it fun.”
The ink and watercolor illustrations by the author are lovely. She varies the palette to match the seasons. While spring, with its flowers, has beautiful scenes, my favorite is a double-page spread showing a winter night, in which the world is covered with snow that sparkles like the stars above.
Evaluation: This is one amazing family. I can’t imagine being a young mother, newly widowed at age 34 with eight children, including a baby of three months, and having the will not only to carry on, but to make it a fun and rewarding time for the whole family. Children who don’t know much about the Great Depression, or who are not aware of what the hardships of deep poverty must be like, will benefit from reading this story, and be inspired, as I was, by how this family coped.
Published by Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2019