This month for our kid’s book club we are reading Homeplace, by Anne Shelby, with illustrations by Wendy Anderson Halperin. This out of print gem was published in 1995 and teaches about ancestors, generations, farm life, and the feeling of connectedness we receive by physically being in a place special to our family history.
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As the story begins, the girl and her grandmother pick produce from the garden, cut flowers, and bring them inside. They sit down in the little girls’ room in a wicker rocking chair next to a cradle and freshly cut roses in an old-fashioned milk jug.
Sitting on her grandmother’s lap, the girl listens to the story of her great-great-great-great grandpa who built the house. He cut down trees and pulled them with an ox to a clearing where he made logs for a cabin. He planted corn and used it to feed his horse and chicken.
Her great-great-great-great-grandma baked corn bread, washed clothes in the river, and put babies to sleep on a corn-shuck bed.
“…was your great-great-great-grandpa.”
The author’s unadorned storytelling rhythm mimics the steadiness of a family tree chart, descending methodically to each set of grandparents stanza by stanza.
The girl’s great-great-great grandparents cleared more land and planted wheat and sorghum for molasses. They spun sheep’s wool to make clothing and blankets to wrap the babies in. “One of the babies…was your great-great-grandpa. He grew like wheat stalks, likes sunflowers at the edge of the garden.”
Each child born on the farm is likened to the growth of some plant in the field or one kind of flower growing around the cabin. The children, too, are part of the living, breathing homeplace that each couple has spent their life cultivating.
One of these babies was Great-Grandma. She helped plow with the tractor. Great-grandpa helped her can jars of peaches. They picnicked in a field and saw a Raggedy Ann doll in the store for $1.95.
They took their children for car rides, and one of the children, the grandmother says, “was me. It was my turn to take care of the old homeplace.” Grandma tells how she and Grandpa added a greenhouse and playhouse. She says that one of their babies was the girl’s mother. She worked with her husband to fix the chimney and build a nursery for the babies.
“And one of the babies was You!” The grandma looks into the eyes of her granddaughter. This time, the grandmother tells the granddaughter, “You are growing like a “melon in the patch, like tulips in the springtime of the year, like a young tree coming up from old roots, deep down in the ground.”
Along the bottom of the page are baby toys and heirlooms from each generation – 1810, 1850, 1880, 1910, 1950, and 1995 – including the rocking horse, cradle, milk jug, and Raggedy Ann doll.
I love that in this book, the growth of one man into a multi-generational family is seamlessly contrasted with the growth of small cabin and corn field into a large farmhouse with pastures and fields and a garden. The girl is indeed like a tree coming up from old roots – the product of generations of parents who came before her – and we all are.
There’s something special about standing physically in the cabin that your great-great-grandfather built, sitting in the chair that your great-grandmother sat in, or holding the doll that was your grandmother’s.
Children can learn about their family history through being physically present in the places their ancestors lived and touching their things. Heirlooms have a power to transport us to times past. Children are experienced with imagining and can easily pretend to cut down a tree, build a cabin, rock a baby in a wicker rocking chair, or ride in an old car to a picnic. Showing them the actual rocking chair that their great grandmother used can only spark their imagination further and help them feel like they really are young branches from old roots deep in the ground.
Here are some discussion questions to ask when reading Homeplace with a child:
-What was special about the house where the little girl lived?
-Do you think grandma and grandpa were ever little babies?
-Do you know where grandma and grandpa lived when they were born?
-What places are special to our family?
-What objects do we have that are passed down from our grandparents?
-What is a generation? How many generations are there in this book?
Hope you enjoy the book!
Author Ann Shelby grew up in Kentucky and lives in farmhouse that has been in her family for many generations. She has written several children’s books about Appalachia, including: