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It Takes Only a Spark

Hollie Davis and Andrew Richmond | October 13th, 2013

The Young Collector

We’re officially going to have to give up collecting antiques. There are just too many mouths around here to feed, and every time we turn around, there are empty dishes and open mouths and screeching demands for more, more, more! We’re just about to go into hock keeping everyone fed. The cardinals are just always carping about being hungry, although it’s not as bad as when the phoebes were nesting. Oh, you thought we meant the kids? Nope, the birds. We’re officially birders now and can show you our Audubon Society membership cards to prove it.

It all started with a book. (We don’t know why people say to read to your children. It only gives them ideas.) The children’s librarian recommended a seemingly innocuous book for Nora, Mouse and Mole: Fine Feathered Friends by Herbert Wong Yee. Mouse and Mole are birding, they hear a bird call or two, and the next thing we know, Nora’s asking to hear what a cardinal sounds like. Well, sure, we think. So we found ( where she could listen to cardinals to her heart’s content. Then she wanted to hear more birds and see more pictures of birds and, not knowing any better, we just kept answering her questions. This was five months ago, and you can guess where that’s gotten us. We now have mealworms in our refrigerator, $200 worth of birdfeeders in our yard, and the only newly minted three-year-old we know who sleeps with Audubon magazines, initiates conversations about “birds of prey,” and knows the difference between an evening grosbeak and a rose-breasted one.

All this happened because of just one library book, a book that we had no idea if Nora would even like when we first cracked it. We’ve always tried to make sure the books she has are of good quality, but since this, we’ve been paying much more attention to what they may be able to help us teach. We started thinking about whether books could help us now, even with just a three-year-old, to talk about history and material culture.

We’ve also started asking ourselves a deeper, more philosophical question: we hear so much about how people don’t read to children and thus literacy flounders, but we’ve begun to wonder, what if not reading to children also means that artistic literacy flounders? We talk about what a huge void the lack of books leaves in a child’s reading life, but think of the enormous void of artwork the absence of picture books also translates to! Where else do children see so many pictures, so many styles and colors, so many expressions? Where else do they see that their imagination has the potential to leave their head entirely and to weld itself to paper and ink in the creation of a fully realized vision of another world?

Now, we realize that’s a heavy discussion, but as far as we’re concerned, reading to your kids or grandkids doesn’t have to be some complicated or full-court press approach. In fact, actually wanting Nora to learn something seems to guarantee the opposite. Conveying information to small children is much like shopping for a used car: go into the situation well informed, know how much you’re willing and able to settle for, stand your ground, and never, ever let on that you really want something.

This holds true with our experiences as well. Often older folks lament to us their children’s lack of interest in antiques and history and ask us what our parents did to try to get us interested in those things. Sometimes we think of giving the glib, oversimplified answer, “They didn’t try.” All the experts tell you to talk to your children about what you’re reading to them, and somehow we often tend to limit that to just, “Oh, do you see the yellow cat?” or “What’s the bunny doing?” But in reality, there’s no reason not to talk more broadly about what’s on the pages.

So, with all that in mind, and with the holiday season coming up, we thought perhaps we’d share some of our ideas for great art and material culture books for kids, some of Nora’s favorites, and maybe even hear from you about some of yours as well.

For us, fostering a sense of art appreciation is a good place to start. You can talk about the different media used to create pictures. Point out pencil lines or evidence of pastels, show them brush strokes or canvas texture wherever they appear. There are plenty of great artists working in children’s books, so you could go for classics such as Clare Turlay Newberry’s books (Marshmallow and Smudge are popular here, but Mittens just teaches your child how to say, “May I have a kitten?” so do yourself a favor and dodge that bullet) or Holly Hobbie, who has been around for decades and has found renewed popularity over the last 15 years or so after introducing her characters Toot and Puddle. Eric Carle works his magic in collage styles, shaping hand-decorated paper into colorful creatures, such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a technique pioneered in children’s illustrations by Leo Lionni, whose tale of self-appreciation, A Color of His Own, helped Nora learn her colors.

After talking about the different types of illustration, you can easily transition to talking about different styles or schools, as there are a number of artists who illustrate in a particular artistic style that transcends the category of illustration art. Loren Long has created a great series beginning with Otis, about the adventures of a little red farm tractor named Otis. Long’s work is clearly influenced by the great regionalist tradition of Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. Long also illustrated Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters by President Barack Obama, where his work is clearly evocative of so many of the great WPA murals. Of course, there’s the longstanding classic Madeline, written and illustrated by Ludwig Bemelmans, which evokes the Expressionists and has illustrations evocative of van Gogh.

If you prefer a more rustic or folk art style, you might try Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág, or for something more modern, Jim Aylesworth’s The Folks in the Valley: A Pennsylvania Dutch ABC, illustrated by Stefano Vitale. The Folks in the Valley is actually at a great intersection of art, folk art, and material culture, as each page is fraktur-like in design, right down to hearts, flowers, and birds in the classic red, yellow, and green palette, with beautiful faux-graining touches that make it appear as though the images are done on board. Beyond the stylistic nature of the artwork, it’s a rhyming journey through a day in the life of Lancaster County Amish, filled with depictions of household and farmstead chores using material culture tools—axes, plows, rolling pins, quilts, wagons, etc.

We loved The Folks in the Valley, as is evidenced by the fact that Hollie still has it memorized, and when she wanted to peruse our copy while writing this, it had to be retrieved from the “book hospital,” a shelf where books awaiting new or reinforced bindings or small tears repaired reside. Nora loved the cover right off our used copy. Jim Aylesworth, an author who has worked with a host of talented illustrators, has created a number of favorites. We’ve never met an Aylesworth book we didn’t like! Old Black Fly, done with Stephen Gammell as illustrator, was another favorite, and Gammell’s fantastic work offers a colorful intro to Surrealism.

Once you turn a collector’s eye to the pages of children’s books, you’ll see evidence everywhere of illustrators who sought inspiration from specific historically accurate sources. It’s in the armchairs and low ceilings of Woodcock Pocket, the home of Holly Hobbie’s charming Toot & Puddle. It’s in the Arts and  Crafts-inspired home of Bear in Kady MacDonald Denton’s watercolors for Bonny Becker’s comical “Bear and Mouse” series. It’s in all of Peter Spier’s work, but particular in the classic The Fox went out on a chilly night, which should make it up to you at least a little bit if you can’t make it to Deerfield for the full New England fall experience.

After all of this, they may be ready for one of the most influential books in laying the foundation for a material culture career. Not Jobe or Prown or Montgomery, but Laura Ingalls Wilder. We cannot tell you the number of people we have encountered over the last decade whose childhood love that led them into the museum or antiques field was seeded in the pages of The Little House in the Big Woods. This book and the succeeding volumes in the series convey in a light, engaging, and, importantly, not tedious way many of the foundations of material culture and the kinds of objects that kids will inevitably encounter at museums, local historical societies, and antiques shows. There are basics from rag dolls and calico fabric to more complex things such as cheese presses and syrup-making equipment.

If you have a child who likes to read, he or she may be ready for this before you think. The best $70 we spent was on a child’s mp3 player. During Hollie’s pregnancy with Nat, she recorded the stories she read to Nora and loaded them on the player. We’ve also loaded Little House books on it, and it’s never far from where Nora is. And you can lock the volume controls, a crucial feature. After reading the Little House canon (illustrated by Garth Williams, by the way) or if questions spark more specific interests, there are always authors such as Edward Tunis (Frontier Living and Colonial Craftsmen) and Eric Sloane (Diary of an Early American Boy) whose works have illustrations that will satisfy the most curious little minds on the finer points of Colonial and frontier life.

Talking about these kinds of things with kids allows their first visits to museums to be much more meaningful. We’re definitely no experts, but our philosophy is to give the kids mental hooks to hang information on. Nothing seems to create mental hooks quite like books and pictures. Books have helped us explain all sorts of things: ways to deal with being afraid; why something is wrong; loud noises; windmills; seeds; and, we hope, eventually art and decorative arts. “Look at these pictures! Don’t the streetlights look like the ones in Madeline?” or “See that chair! The carving on it looks just like the one in Jan Brett’s version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, I think.” Or even, “We’re going to a museum, just like Olivia!”

The magical—and yes, sometimes infuriating—thing about children is that their minds, are tinderboxes. You just never know what will put the match to them, what will cause an interest to flare up and perhaps burn out quickly, or what will ignite a steady flame. You can’t control it either, so it seems to us that the best hope is to create as many opportunities for ignition as possible as often as possible. Then stand ready to feed whatever catches. Books are spark and fuel to young minds and there’s something incredible about watching the flames race through their thoughts. We’ve certainly been surprised by who our children are becoming—and at what they’ve led us to become. Birding is surely just the beginning.

We welcome ideas, tips, criticisms, and questions regarding “The Young Collector.” Andrew and Hollie may be reached by e-mail <>, on Facebook (, via their blog (www.young, or by writing The Young Collector, c/o Maine Antique Digest, PO Box 1429, Waldoboro, ME 04572.

Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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