The Secret River by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon (Atheneum Books for Young Readers)
More words fill these pages than one finds in many a picture book, but I hope that doesn’t deter people from picking up this lavishly illustrated book that has the charm and mystery of a folk tale, with lessons underneath. This is a shortened version of the only fiction the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Yearling wrote for children.
We can appreciate stories of present-day families like ours, but a pleasant spell seems cast hearing dialogue between a mother and daughter who address each other as “Mother dear” and “my child.” The pace doesn’t rocket along, but, or because of that, enchants. A girl named Calpurnia, “as if they knew she’d be a poet,” uses strength, faith, cleverness, and a way with friends in the forest to save her family and town from hunger. The Secret River credibly shows how hard times for one means hard times for all, and, likewise, bounty for one delights the world.
The glowing illustrations are by the two-time Caldecott Medalists Leo and Diane Dillon. It’s easy to imagine ourselves as the young poet with her ever-present dog, just as Calpurnia imagines a fish well enough so that the Dillons show her as becoming one for a moment. The woods and river are mysterious, alive, and just a bit scary, except perhaps for the bear, who is more than a bit frightening: and wonderful.