Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Big Snow!

Our book today - looking more and more ominously appropriate as this winter progresses - is Berta and Elmer Hader's charming 1948 Caldecott winner, The Big Snow.

It's the story of a northern forest and its wild animals, all of whom pause as the book opens to watch a flock of geese flying south across the sunsetting sky. The animals - jays, robins, squirrels, woodchucks, rats, raccoons, skunks, deer, rabbits - all confer on the meaning of that flight: that the cold days of winter are coming.

The book's laconic narration lets us know how each animal expects to fare (for a far more detailed - and equally charming! - examination of just such a question, you're all urged to find a copy of Bernd Heinrich's Winter World as fast as you can). The raccoons, the woodchuck, and the skunks all plan to sleep or hibernate through most of the worst of it (no amphibians are consulted in the book); the deer on the hill and the crows in the plowed fields aren't worried - we're told they know how to find ample food even during the coldest months.

But there's more to winter than cold:
Then the night after Christmas there was a rainbow around the moon ... The wise owls knew what that meant. A rainbow around the moon meant more snow. MUCH MORE. "Hoooooooooooooo," the sad trilling call of the screech owl was heard up and down and across the hillside.

And snow does indeed fall, for two days, and the book does a wonderful job of conveying not only the hushed anticipation of such an event but also the hushed duration of it and the hushed aftermath.

In that aftermath, everything in the valley covered with more than a foot of snow, the animals who were confident of surviving the cold winter months are suddenly hungry. The squirrels can't find their buried nuts; the deer's usual forage is unreachable under mounds of snow.

At the end of the book, a kindly old couple shovel out the walkway to their cozy stone house and liberally scatter a "banquet" of seeds, nuts, and bread crumbs. The hungry animals come flocking. The message might be counter-evolutionary (the animals who didn't die off because of the snow would, presumably, have passed on their more clever and resilient genes to the next generation), but it's comforting.

Comforting and familiar, to anybody who's ever spent a winter in, say, Vermont or Maine (and one hears rumors that there are crude human settlements even further north than than!), where a 'big snow' can blot out a whole stretch of days, and where some well-stocked feeders in the back yard near the wood line really can make the difference between life and death for the local animals.

It's a quietly delightful tale - I wonder how many times I'll re-read it, on storm-days this season.


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