Every year during the busy holiday season I look for a small space of quiet and reflection in the midst of all the jarring ho-ho-hos, fa la las, and pressures to buy buy buy.
The best place to find it is in the right book. Christmas Farm, by Mary Lyn Ray, illustrated by Barry Root (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), is a quiet, lyrical gem that sings of friendship, life cycles, and the immeasurable rewards of teamwork.
Kind hearted Wilma decides she is tired of growing petunias and sunflowers. She wants a different garden, a new beginning. She decides to plant trees after realizing that people without a back hill like hers might have trouble finding a good tree for Christmas.
So she orders 62 dozen balsam seedlings, and gathers up string, scissors, shovels, and her five-year-old friend, Parker. Together they measure out twenty-four rows with string, dig sixty-two dozen holes, and plant seven hundred and forty-four seedlings.
Over the course of five years, they nurture their charges and watch them grow, Parker telling the trees all about Christmas, both of them weeding around each plant. Each year they lose some trees to mice, deer, frost, or moose. But finally, when Parker is ten, they are able to build a stand and sell their trees. Then, it’s time to start all over again, ordering more seedlings, and waiting for new sprouts to emerge from the cut trees in the spring.
In this age of fast everything, I love Ray’s emphasis on patience. Things worth cultivating, whether Christmas trees or friendships, take time. Her telling is spare, and the pace is steady and measured, with luminous passages like this one:
Far away, too, in rooms they never saw, in places they never knew, five hundred and sixty-six trees that Wilma and Parker had grown wore lights and balls and tinsel in their branches — green balsam branches that smelled the sweet smell of Christmas.
Barry Root’s watercolor and gouache paintings alternate between the warm, sunny golds, browns and greens of spring and summer, and the deep blues and icy whites of winter. His landscapes depict the rich beauty of the hillside trees, through several seasonal cycles.
The trees grow as Parker grows. He and Wilma’s longstanding friendship is lovingly portrayed through carefully placed details, such as the plate of homemade doughnuts and milk waiting for Parker on Wilma’s table. Wilma’s rustic farmhouse, homey and inviting, is rendered in warm browns and wood textures.
When they first measure out the seedling rows, Parker is at one end of the field, Wilma at the other. But a long string connects them, and for the rest of the story, they are shown working towards a common purpose — trimming, cutting, and dragging their trees. This focus on human activity, set against a natural backdrop, will encourage young readers to keep turning the pages.
Ray, a conservationist who dreamed of living in New England when she was a child, graces this story with her love of and respect for the land and the riches it can yield. She includes an author’s note explaining how Christmas trees came to be cultivated in this country, emphasizing that they are an ancient symbol of life reborn.
Christmas Farm received a starred review from Kirkus, and can be enjoyed throughout the year; kids will appreciate Wilma and Parker’s unique friendship, as it is based on a fair and equal partnership. Joy and renewal abound in shared work regardless of age.
*For an excellent post featuring books about winter trees and Christmas trees, visit Wild Rose Reader.
*Interior spreads posted by permission, copyright © 2008 Barry Root, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.