I’m thrilled to be writing about The Secret River, newly illustrated by two-time Caldecott Medal winners Leo and Diane Dillon (Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears and Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions).  According to the end page, The Secret River is the only story Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (best known for The Yearling) wrote specifically for children. (Most of us think of The Yearling as a novel for teens but apparently, Rawlings didn’t write it with that age group in mind.) The Secret River was originally published in 1955, after Rawlings’ death, and posthumously awarded a Newbery Honor in 1956.


If you don’t know it, it’s an enchanting story about a precocious poetry-writing young girl named Calpurnia, who lives in a forest with her father, mother, and a dog named Buggy-horse. One day, Calpurnia learns from her father that “hard times have come to the forest.” Her father will soon have to close his fish market because there are no more fish being caught. So the little girl goes to see Mother Albirtha, “the wisest person in the forest,” and asks: “Will you tell me where I can catch some big fish, so that hard times will be soft times?” When Mother Albirtha tells her about a secret river overflowing with fish, Calpurnia and her trusty dog set off to find it. Sure enough, the plucky girl and her canine companion locate the secret river and soon they have a boat load of catfish. The journey back home includes encounters with a hungry owl, bear, and panther, but Calpurnia makes it back safely with her bounty, saves her father’s fish market and—because everyone is economically linked—brings “soft times” back to her community. Later, when Calpurnia tries to find the river again, she learns a valuable lesson about the power of imagination and being happy with what you have.


The Dillons’ stunning picture-book version of The Secret River does justice to Rawlings’ captivating tale about the richness of imagination and overcoming obstacles in times of need. Without detracting from the text, there’s a lot going on in the pictures. Like the story itself, the illustrations (a mix of beautiful full-page acrylic paintings, smaller panels, and silhouettes) are a blend of the magical and realistic (trees have faces, bees and flowers adorn Calpurnia’s hair as she imagines a poem about bees). Even though it appears to be from a different time, different world, I suspect the words and images will resonate with today’s kids (ages 6 to 10) and the adults in their lives.


P.S. Speaking of visually stunning books, earlier this week, the American Library Association announced this year’s Caldecott Medal winner (for the most distinguished picture book for children). And I was happy to learn that the top prize had gone to Erin E. Stead for A Sick Day for Amos McGee. As I described in a recent post, this is an all-around fantastic picture book about the friendship between a gentle zookeeper and his animal pals—whimsically written and exquisitely illustrated by the husband-and-wife team of Philip and Erin Stead. (By the way, two other titles were also named Caldecott Honor Books: Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave, illustrated by Bryan Collier, written by Laban Carrick Hill; and Interrupting Chicken, written and illustrated by David Ezra Stein.)


Are you familiar with The Secret River and The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings? Do you think they resonate with young readers today?

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