Do you remember the first time you were entrusted with an important “job” by your family and feeling a real sense of responsibility?
For five-year-old Ernestine, it was when her mama asked her to deliver two jars of milk to their neighbors in the holler. She would have to set off alone at dawn to walk through dense thickets and overgrown vines, all while hiking up and down a winding mountain path before climbing through a barbed wire fence. Not to mention the possibility of encountering wild animals. No small feat!
In the empowering picture book, Ernestine’s Milky Way by Kerry Madden-Lunsford and Emily Sutton (Schwartz & Wade, 2019), we tag along with Ernestine as she shows everyone that she is indeed a big girl and a good neighbor.
This beautifully told story, set in 1940’s Maggie Valley, North Carolina, brims with heartwarming goodness and has the feel of such classics as Steig’s Brave Irene and Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains.
From the very first page, we know we’re in for something special:
Deep in the hills and hollers of Maggie Valley, where the sun rose over an old rock house, lived Ernestine, her mama, and their cow, Ole Peg. Daddy was off in the war, so it was up to Mama and Ernestine to keep the farm running.
Every morning, Ernestine hollered out her window to the Great Smoky Mountains, “I’m five years old and a big girl!”
After milking Ole Peg, Mama and Ernestine enjoy some of the milk for breakfast, in tea and oatmeal. Extra milk is kept cold in mason jars in the springhouse.
One day, Mama asks Ernestine about delivering milk to Mrs. Ramsey, who needs it for her children’s breakfast (they didn’t have a milk cow and their Daddy was off to war too). Mama, who was expecting twins, would have done it herself, but she was under doctor’s orders to stick close to home.
So the next day, Ernestine, armed with her best “can-do” spirit, assures Mama that she can make the delivery despite the challenges.
And so Ernestine set off in the silent dawn beneath a lavender sky. She carried the jars in an old feed sack close to her heart while the mountains slept like giant elephants under a scattering of stars.
As determined Ernestine makes her way along the path, she keeps hearing strange sounds. In the thicket of crabapple and blackberry, she hears a “snuffa-snuffa-snufflin’.” Is it a lone wolf? In the gooseberry and honeysuckle brush she hears a “grunta-grunta-gruntin’.” Oh no! Could it be “a passel of sleek panthers with glistening fangs?” By the time she reaches the valley of doghobble and devil’s walking stick, she hears something “scratcha-scratcha-scratchin’ up a tree.” Maybe it’s a big black bear with sharp claws!
Luckily it wasn’t any of those things. Instead, she’s relieved to see a family of skunks, some whistle-pigs, and some baby raccoons. Phew!
Finally, she reaches the barbed wire fence and handily climbs through it. At last! She’s practically there! And it feels so good to be on the other side with the sun shining on her face.
But suddenly one of the jars slips out of the feed sack and rolls down the hill. Ernestine chases after it, as it bounces, spins, and twirls. But no matter how hard she tries, she just can’t catch that runaway jar of milk.
Ernestine is devastated. She walks up to the Ramsey house in tears. Now there won’t be enough milk for Mrs. Ramsey and her nine children. And Mama will be disappointed in her.
But is that other jar of milk really lost and gone forever?
You’ll have to read the book to find out. Suffice to say, a passel of hungry kids do devour bowls of steamy oatmeal with fresh milk, homemade corn bread and creamy butter. Mama is proud of Ernestine after all — so proud, that Ernestine gets to deliver milk to the Ramseys every morning from then on.
Since I loved Kerry’s Maggie Valley Trilogy (Gentle’s Holler, Louisiana’s Song, Jessie’s Mountain), reading Ernestine’s Milky Way felt like a wonderful coming home — home to a plain country life marked by hard work and a love of family, community, and neighborliness.
The close bond between Mama and Ernestine is established early on as we learn they are left to run the farm by themselves. Mama affectionately refers to herself as the “Big Dipper” and Ernestine as the “Little Dipper,” reminding her daughter that though Daddy is far away in Germany, he sees the same stars they do in the Milky Way.
In this day and age of picture books with very short texts (some can feel gimmicky and leave me wanting), it’s such a pleasure to read Kerry’s lovingly crafted narrative — a return to a form of classic storytelling that sweeps you up in its embrace of the past with a strong sense of place and tradition. Her voice is friendly and reassuring, making the story appealing and accessible to readers of all stripes.
Emily Sutton’s gorgeous ink and watercolor illustrations brilliantly capture the wildness of the mountain terrain — its glorious colors and textures, whether bush, bramble, tree, wildflower, or hillside. Love the predominant sunny yellow/green/brown palette that echoes Ernestine’s optimism and the congeniality of the Ramsey family, as they gather round the big breakfast table. Also love all the animals, who seem happy and content with their eating, roaming and tree climbing (who can resist baby raccoons?). Readers will also enjoy spying the wee mouse in the barn, the adorable chicks in the yard, and the frolicsome Ramsey pups.
The interior scenes are warm and cozy, making the reader wish he/she could join Mama and Ernestine in the kitchen at night for some warm milk or cuddle with them under their big quilt to hear them tell stories.
The double page spread of Mama and Ernestine looking at the lavender sky at dawn is breathtaking. As they gaze at the rolling hills and mountains in the distance, we get an inkling of the daunting journey ahead and can appreciate the unadorned beauty of Ernestine’s world.
As with all the illustrations in this book, the blend of colors and wealth and delicacy of detail are exquisite — you can just about smell that sweet mountain air, feel the prickliness of brush around your ankles, and hear the leaves rustling in the trees as you’re immersed in the rustic setting. And readers will love brave Ernestine, with her rosy cheeks, freckles and pigtails, a small girl so earnestly carrying that feed sack close to her heart. Who would not root for her?
Speaking of Ernestine, we learn in the Author’s Note that her story is based on Kerry’s dear, real-life friend and ‘mountain mother’ Ernestine Edwards Upchurch (1937-2017). Ernestine, a lifelong resident of Maggie Valley, really did carry a jar of raw milk at age five to their neighbor Mattie Ramsey every day.
I think kids will appreciate knowing there was a real Ernestine, and that every member of the family, no matter how small, could help in some way. They’ll note that when living off the land, nothing is taken for granted, and mutual survival depends on neighbor helping neighbor. They will be inspired by Ernestine’s journey, marvel at her pluckiness, and be comforted to know that no matter where you live, everyone looks up at the same Milky Way.
Don’t miss this warm hug of a picture book — a truly lovely slice of nostalgic Americana that munchkins will want to read again and again. Now, please pass the corn bread and butter!
Mr Cornelius and the Alphabet Soup kitchen helpers polished off at least three gallons of milk and 34 bowls of oatmeal while reading this book and were thrilled to see a recipe for skillet corn bread at the end.
Alas, we don’t have a cast iron skillet, but a 9″ round baking pan worked out just fine. We were able to get the oil nice and smoky-hot in the oven before adding the batter — love that sizzle! With generous slathers of butter, the warm corn bread elicited hollers of delight all around.
Of course since Ernestine walked past blackberry bushes, the furry ones had to have some berries with milk. Of course.
Four paws up is the verdict for Ernestine’s Milky Way and its serious yumminess. More of everything, please!
Kathryn Tucker Windham's Corn Bread
- 1 egg
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, and more for the pan
- 2 cups self-rising cornmeal
- 1/3 cup buttermilk
Preheat oven to 450°F. Beat an egg in a bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of oil to the egg. Mix in 2 cups of self-rising cornmeal. Add 1/3 cup of buttermilk. Stir until batter gets good and mushy. Pour oil to cover the bottom of a cast-iron skillet. Heat it to real hot in the oven. Remove it from the oven and pour the batter into the skillet, then put back into the oven and bake it for thirty minutes. To give it an extra-crunchy top, turn the oven on broil for the last minute or two, and you’ll have a skillet of golden-brown corn bread.
~ from Ernestine’s Milky Way by Kerry Madden-Lunsford and Emily Sutton (Schwartz & Wade, 2019), as posted at Jama’s Alphabet Soup.
ERNESTINE’S MILKY WAY
written by Kerry Madden-Lunsford
illustrated by Emily Sutton
published by Schwartz & Wade, March 2019
Picture Book for ages 3-7, 40 pp.
*Includes Corn Bread recipe
♥️ Cool interview with Kerry at Writers’ Rumpus
♥️ Another recent interview with Kerry at Susan Kaiser Greenland.
♥️ Enjoy this delicious video:
THANK YOU FOR CREATING THIS WONDERFUL BOOK, KERRY AND EMILY!
WE TOAST YOU!
“I remember the smell of the frosty air in November and seeing the branch of clear water as it rushed through the pasture making its way to join Jonathan’s Creek. I remember walking through the pasture, seeing the dirt and rocky path beneath my feet and fearing that the cold, wet jar would fall from my grasp and be broken, spilled and wasted. I remember a feeling of success in arriving safely after crawling through the wire fence twice to get to their wooden frame home. I remember the face of Mattie when I arrived with the milk and I remember Mama’s look of confidence. She believed in me. “
~ Ernestine Edwards Upchurch (1937-2017)
* Interior spreads from Ernestine’s Milky Way, text copyright © 2019 Kerry Madden-Lunsford, illustrations © 2019 Emily Sutton, published by Schwartz & Wade. All rights reserved.
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*** Copyright © 2019 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.