That first week of September, I dropped all four of my children off at school and drove home in an empty minivan. Ordinarily, an empty minivan is a treat: a chance to put on a podcast or some music I want to listen to, or to stop for coffee and not share with anyone. But that day, I paused at a four-way stop and thought, Oh. This is normal now. This is every school morning. I didn’t put on a podcast.
What I did was spend that morning at the beach. I spread a picnic blanket on a boulder right at the water’s edge, set out my notebook, Bible, and cup of coffee, and spent the whole morning watching the water, the clouds, the sea birds. Since my eldest daughter was born, thirteen years ago, I’ve always had a small daughter with me during the day. We homeschooled for a time, and they were all there, all the time; during quarantine, we were all together, all the time. And now, during the school days, I am on my own.
I figured I’d be ambivalent about this—both very sad and also, as a staunch introvert who has never minded spending time alone, very excited. And as I sat on that boulder until my coffee was gone, reading and watching the gulls, I felt both of those things: a deep sense of grief over the season behind us (oh, but it was sweet), and a thrumming excitement for the one before us.
That afternoon, I picked up all four girls from school—the littlest looking disheveled, as only a brand-new kindergartner can—and back at home we ate blackberry almond muffins as they told me everything. All at once. They got a day’s worth of conversation into a slim forty-five minutes, and I soaked it all in. The eighth grader had homework (“Already!” she groaned); the fifth grader, also an introvert, had quiet things to tend to in her room. But I grabbed the littlest girls and Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm, and the three of us squeezed into the hammock in the backyard for a good, long read-aloud.
Let me tell you: if you need to build a happy memory with your kids, I’m not sure you can do better than Our Animal Friends. It has everything! Copious illustrations of animals—all shapes and kinds—with their personalities distilled brilliantly into a few short words; humor (“Willow is not interested in umbrella plants”); and even, by the end, a moment of poignant sadness for “the animals that were.” Alice and Martin Provensen have created a book that is hospitable, and through it, they welcomed us into Maple Hill Farm and gave us a connection to the lives lived there. Their illustrations are warm and fun and so . . . pleasant is the word I want, I think. There is something comfortable about them.
Later I found each of the older girls curled up with this book in turn. They are now in the season of algebra and orthodontia, but their reviews were glowing, which gives me hope: even as the currents of our days begin to distinguish themselves into separate threads, we can still share this. We can still laugh at the antics of Big Shot the Rooster and admire Willow’s placid beauty. This picture book reminds us that haven’t outgrown picture books yet.
Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm
Alice and Martin Provensen (1974)
This review first appeared on Little Book, Big Story