The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

1876

In one of the most famous scenes in American literature, Tom Sawyer is condemned to whitewashing the front fence as a Saturday morning punishment inflicted by Aunt Polly.  Taking stock of his pocket treasures, he realizes he cannot buy his way out.  Desperate for freedom, he has a sudden flash of inspiration.  Combining an acute understanding of human nature with masterful acting skills, he soon finds himself seated on a barrel in the shade eating an apple, his first booty, while his friend Ben paints away.  Tom “planned the slaughter of more innocents.  There was no lack of material…”  By the end of the afternoon, Tom has amassed a fortune (including a dead rat and a string, twelve marbles, a one-eyed kitten, and four pieces of orange-peel.)  And the fence has been whitewashed thrice over.

There is a reason that classics are classics.  The delight in discovering Mark Twain’s droll wit, pitch-perfect ear for colloquial speech, acerbic social commentary, and deft portrayal of boyhood along the Mississippi River is reason enough to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  There is also the imperative of reading a common literary canon.  Families are bound by shared memories, and cultures are bound by a common vocabulary of images.  Mark Twain is the quintessential American author and Tom Sawyer should be a familiar icon to all.  Every child can benefit by Tom’s epiphany that Saturday morning.  “He had discovered a great law of human action – without knowing it – namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”

Among literary characters, Tom is one of the greats.  He is a good-natured adventurous romantic who combines ingenuity, courage, humor, honor, and a strong penchant for mischief.  Consider the following.  Spurned by Becky Thatcher, Tom takes to the Mississippi River where he leads a pirate’s life on Jackson Island with Huck Finn and Joe Harper.  The boys watch the townsfolk search the river for their drowned bodies.  That night, Tom slips away, thinking to leave a note for his Aunt Polly to ease her anguish.  Overhearing plans for the impending memorial service, he desists, and the three runaways make their triumphant return at their own funeral.  Tom is a prankster, but a lovable one, and the feelings between the boy and his guardian aunt run deep.

There is more.  For anyone who gets hooked on Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the incomparable sequel. The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court can follow.

The illustrations above are by an unknown artist from the Association of Illustrators, True Williams – the wonderfully-named illustrator for the original edition, and Richard Rogers.

Classic Poetry: An Illustrated Collection

Classic Poetry: An Illustrated Collection selected by Michael Rosen

1998

Illustrated by Paul Howard

Many of us may be philistines when it comes to poetry, but children are not.  They delight in the musicality of meter, the humor of limericks, the wordplay of rhyme.  They are adept at memorization – poems are easily engraved in memory in the young and, once owned, are there for a lifetime.  A poem memorized in childhood can be recited on a deathbed.

There are countless anthologies, many excellent, none exhaustive.  It is good to have a number on hand.  Classic Poetry has a particularly rich selection with stylistically diverse illustrations to accompany the poems along with portraits, both visual and text, of the poets.

Some are silly, as only Edward Lear can be.

Far and few, far and few
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve.

Some are musical, none more so than Banjo Paterson’s lyrics that were written as a bush ballad.

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong, 
Under the shade of a coolibah-tree, 
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled, 
‘Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?....’

Some celebrate the exoticisms of language, as in John Masefield’s “Cargoes”.

Quinquireme of Ninevah from Distant Ophir
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine
With a cargo of ivory
And apes and peacocks
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

We should never underestimate the intelligence of children. They might not know a quinquireme from a Spanish galleon on first pass, but they will figure it out.  Their ears will respond even in the presence of nonsense.  Try a poem a day.  Or sit down with an anthology and read it from start to finish. 

Home For a Bunny

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Home For a Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown

1956

Illustrated by Garth Williams

 

“In the Spring a bunny came down the road.

He was going to find a home of his own.

A home for a bunny,

A home of his own,

Under a rock,

Under a stone,

Under a log,

Or under the ground.

Where would a bunny find a home?”

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Home For a Bunny chronicles the search for home. A bunny passes a robin’s nest, a frog’s bog, and a groundhog’s log, before meeting another bunny and finding his rightful place in a cozy burrow. Garth Williams, the illustrator of Little Fur Family, Stuart Little, and Little House in the Big Woods, among others, provided the naturalistic illustrations – in his hands, the natural world awakening to springtime becomes the essential backdrop to the story.

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Home For a Bunny was one of fifteen stories by Margaret Wise Brown that were published as Little Golden Books. Launched in 1942, the Little Golden Books revolutionized the publishing world by creating a populist mass market for children’s books. Instantly recognizable with their gold binding and distinctive end plates, they were displayed prominently in metal racks and sold in grocery stores, five and dimes, and drug stores. They cost 25 cents. They continued to cost 25 cents for the next twenty years. Among the initial set of twelve books was The Poky Little Puppy which became the best-selling picture book of all time. Janette Sebring Lowry, the author, received a flat fee of $75.

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This Little Golden Book belongs to …

 

Before 1942, a popular children’s picture book might sell 10,000 copies. During the heyday of the 1940’s and 1950’s, one third of Golden Book titles sold a million copies or more. Part of this was because of affordable cost and accessibility and part because of a pool of extraordinary artists who created iconic illustrations that are instantly recognizable. Take The Shy Little Kitten, The Tawny Scrawny Lion, or The Saggy Baggy Elephant (Gustaf Tenggren), I Can Fly (Mary Blair), The Three Bears (Feodor Rojankovsky), Scuffy the Tugboat (Tibor Gergely), Little Boy With a Big Horn (Aurelius Battaglia), Chicken Little (Richard Scarry, who began his career as a Golden Books contract artist) – the art was eye-catching, highly original, surprisingly sophisticated, and nostalgia-inducing. The texts, in general, played second fiddle to the art. An exception to this was the writing of Margaret Wise Brown, whose poetic words were displayed in equal partnership with the illustrations. Among the most striking were The Color Kittens (Alice and Martin Provensen), The Whispering Rabbit (Garth Williams), and The Train to Timbuctoo (Art Seiden).

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When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

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When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

1971

Illustrated by Judith Kerr

A rabbit features in the title of two exceptional books that chronicle the Jewish diaspora occasioned by Hitler’s anti-semitism. In one, the rabbit is a scruffy stuffed animal left behind by a nine year old girl when her family flees Berlin. Anna’s parents are comfortably well-off members of the assimilated German intelligentsia. They celebrate Christmas and Anna’s best friend is unaware that she is Jewish. But her distinguished father has been targeted because of his anti-Nazi writings and on the eve of Hitler’s election in 1933, the family escapes to Switzerland, leaving all their worldly goods behind. They settle in a village on Lake Zurich, then spend two years in Paris, before making their final move to London. As Anna adjusts to displacement, the rabbit becomes the symbol of all that has been taken away – language, culture, friends, home, sense of belonging.

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When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is autobiographical. Judith Kerr uses a light and knowing touch as she describes the world through the eyes of a young refugee. Anna rises to the challenge of a French school and an impecunious existence and finds pleasure in a new coat sewn from a wool remnant donated for needy children or the novelty of French onion soup at dawn during 14th July celebrations. French anti-semitism finds voice through the concierge who fears she will be cheated out of the rent money and the atrocities in Germany are alluded to through the fate of the dear and gentle Onkel Julius, ex-curator of the Berlin Natural History Museum, who commits suicide when his pass to the Berlin Zoo is rescinded. But the focus of this book is not on the horrors of the Holocaust but the experiences of a young girl who is uprooted from her country. It is a story of resilience that is particularly timely given the scope of displacement in the 21st century.

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The Hare With Amber Eyes has a broader historical sweep. Edmund de Waal traces the journey of a collection of delicate Japanese netsuke through five generations of the Ephrussi family – from Paris to Vienna, England, Japan, London. When the family palace in Vienna was requisitioned by the Nazis in 1938, the family members scattered. Their vast wealth, art collection, priceless library disappeared, but the netsuke were safeguarded by a family retainer known only as Anna, hidden until 1945 in her straw mattress. The hare with amber eyes survived the war, a symbol of artistic beauty and enlightenment quietly triumphing over demagoguery and prejudice.

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Little Women

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Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

1868

Illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith

For a book the author dismissed as “moral pap for the young”, Little Women has had an enduring hold. A slew of writers (Margaret Atwood, Simone de Beauvoir, J.K. Rowling, Susan Sontag, Jhumpa Lahiri, among them) claim this book as inspirational to their careers. The book is over 150 years old – it continues to attract new adherents.

In this one brilliant novel, Louisa May Alcott gave full rein to the contradictions that defined her. Born into a talented literate family, her father was a visionary transcendentalist philosopher (Emerson and Thoreau were family friends), an idealist whose “experiments” rarely put adequate food on the table. Her mother was “ballast to his balloon”, the pragmatic matriarch who sustained her daughters’ earthly needs. The father co-founded Fruitlands, a doomed utopian commune about which Louisa later wrote Transcendental Wild Oats, a satirical and very funny commentary – the diet was vegan, the shoes canvas, the showers cold, and the men urgently engaged in philosophical discussion in advance of any storm, leaving the mother and children to hastily harvest the meager crops (no root vegetables because they reached down rather than up towards the heavens). Louisa grew up in genteel destitution and was determined to avoid this fate as an adult. She wrote Little Women, a family story for girls, reluctantly, for money, and she channeled all of her own rebelliousness into Jo, her autobiographical double.

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Little Women is a family story in which not much happens, except for the transformation of four girls into young women. Meg, Jo, Amy, Beth – each has a distinctive persona and each is given time and a voice – grow up under the wing of Marmee, their wise and loving mother – the moral compass. Jo is the heroine, but the book’s richness is due to the quartet. Jo, the tempestuous willful one, chafes against the constraints imposed upon her sex and her writing aspirations, yet she is sustained by the cocoon of family with all the moralistic goodness it borrows from its Concord surrounds. She can rebel, as Louisa herself did, but she is never far from the sisters and parents who nurture her. Cozy domesticity around the hearth and a turbulent writing life in the garret – those are the opposing poles.

What Louisa preferred to write was in stark contrast to her famous novel. Under a pseudonym, she wrote gothic pulp fiction – lurid melodramatic tales featuring strong willed heroines, deceitful, intent on exacting revenge, with titles like Pauline’s Passion and Punishment. They featured sex, spies, and hashish, a far cry from the family tranquility of her books about the March family. She never made public her dual writing career lest it scare off her followers. Little Women was an immediate success and the royalties assured her (and her family) a comfortable living. Yet she disdained her readers and delighted in sabotaging their conventional expectations.

jo-and-beth-by-Jessie-Willcox-SmithLouisa was not without her share of sentimentality.  One of her three sisters died at the age of 22. She had Beth, the fictional sister, follow suit. Beth, the impossibly kind, shy, selfless girl who Jo loves deeply. Her death would wring tears from a stone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Babe: The Gallant Pig

 

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Babe: The Gallant Pig by Dick King-Smith

1983

Illustrated by Mary Rayner

Dick King-Smith arrived late at writing, having exhausted prior careers as a soldier, a farmer, and a teacher. As though he needed to make up for lost time, he was remarkably prolix over a 30+ year stint, and turned out over one hundred books, most inspired by his knowledge of the barnyard. In his banner year, he published almost a book a month. No need to read all these. Pick one, and make that one Babe: The Gallant Pig, and you will have found the silk purse.

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Farmer Hagget goes to the village fair and wins a piglet in a “Guess my weight” contest. His voluble wife, whose defining characteristic is the run-on sentence, finds pleasure in the prospect of ham for Christmas. Babe, forever ignorant of his intended fate, is taken in by Fly, the black-and-white collie who teaches him the rudiments of sheep herding. Through his friendship with Ma, the aged ewe, Babe decides to adopt politeness as his modus operandi (“’If I might ask a great favor of you,….could you all please be kind enough to walk down to that gate….’”) rather than the snapping rudeness practiced by sheep dogs (“’Move, fools!….Down the hill. If you know which way ‘down’ is.’”)   The sheep, never before addressed with respect, are only too pleased to do Babe’s bidding. Using this approach, Babe saves the herd from sheep rustlers, thus saving his own neck from any future chopping block. He later takes on two dogs who have been worrying the sheep, and in the case of Ma fatally so, and he comes close to being summarily executed when Farmer Hagget believes mistakenly that Babe is the culprit. In the climactic final chapter, when he appears at the Grand Challenge Sheep Dog Trials, he is assured a place in the annals of sheep dog (or sheep-pig) history, to the cheers of spectators and readers alike.

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Few books are honored by the films that are ostensibly made in their image. Think of the Disney Winnie-the-Pooh empire as a particularly egregious example. Babe is an exception. Read the book first (needless to say), but then it is fine to see the movie. King-Smith’s animals are realistic (his pigs eat swill, his dogs snap at sheeps’ hocks, his sheep get foot rot) in all but their speech. The movie is faithful to that premise – the animals are real, but they can talk. The cast has been swollen to include a few invented characters (a dog, a cat, a duck) to round things out, and the Hagget couple has lost a bit of their nuanced complementary relationship in favor of a more stereotypic humerous bond, but these adjustments work well for the screen. And then it is a pleasure to return to the book to appreciate its more subtle workings.

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The Tale of Peter Rabbit

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The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

1902

Illustrated by Beatrix Potter

With characters named Jemima Puddle-duck and Mrs. Tiggy-winkle, you might think that Beatrix Potter’s tales are fluff and whimsy. But if you read the 23 little volumes in the boxed set, you will find surprising sophistication and subtle wit. There is a dense richness – of language, of nuance, of humor. Beatrix Potter wrote with a no-nonsense matter-of-fact edge, for she was familiar enough with the natural world to realize that lyrical romanticism is hardly the apposite tone. The animals in her world are very aware of their position in the food chain. Peter Rabbit’s father ended up in Mr. McGregor’s meat pie. The foxhounds, after saving the clueless Jemima Puddle-duck from the wily fox, proceed to gobble down her eggs. Squirrel Nutkin lays three dead mice (a shocking image) at the foot of the old owl as a propitiatory offering in exchange for nuts. The stories are rich because Beatrix Potter, like the best of children’s authors, understood that children are not really as sentimental as some might hope.peter57

The Tale of Peter Rabbit, her masterpiece, is a perfect story. It is an allegorical tale of the explorations of childhood, with Mr. McGregor’s garden being the delicious and dangerous world that any spirited bunny would want to experience. The story is beautifully balanced with its rise and fall structure, beginning and ending with the quiet comfort of home and mother. In between, Peter Rabbit experiences the pleasures of the forbidden feast, the fright of the chase, the despair of isolation. There is beautiful pairing of text and illustration, as can only happen when writer and artist are one and the same. What could better convey Peter Rabbit’s aloneness than the delicate image of a forlorn shoe lost among the cabbages? Where has a child’s desolation been better portrayed than in the picture of Peter Rabbit leaning against the locked garden door, one foot resting on the other, a single tear falling?peter44

Beatrix Potter’s exquisite watercolor illustrations convey the artist’s deep understanding of the natural world. Her appreciation began as a child – raised by governesses, sheltered from other children, she observed and sketched her menagerie of animals who would peter08later people her stories. As a young adult, she developed a passionate interest in mycology and her botanical illustrations of fungi and lichens were highly regarded by other naturalists. In her children’s books, her illustrations of animal characters have become iconic, but her tree trunks, leaves, rocks, and dirt are as beautifully rendered as her velvety soft bunnies.

Aside: The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, one of several image015-thumbnailstories set in Mr. McGregor’s garden, begins with an imaginative premise: “It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is ‘soporific’”.

 

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Now We Were Very Young & Now We Are Six

 

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When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six by A.A. Milne

1924, 1926

Illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard

 

James James

Morrison Morrison

Weatherby George Dupree

Took great

Care of his Mother,

Though he was only three.

James James

Said to his Mother,

“Mother,” he said, said he:

“You must never go down to the end of the town,

if you don’t go down with me.”

 

The mother, alas, ignores her son’s injunction and vanishes, irretrievably: “LAST SEEN/WANDERING VAGUELY/QUITE OF HER OWN ACCORD”. In Ernest Shepard’s accompanying illustration, the young James is madly pedaling his tricycle in desperate pursuit of his flighty mother as she disappears around a corner. download-3Disobedience is one of A.A. Milne’s most memorizable poems, and one of his best. He portrays the wonderful independence of a child’s mind and the natural audacity – James James goes immediately to the royals for help, in this case King John. Children reading the poem delight in the conceit – for children who are rarely in charge, it is a welcome relief to enter a world in which the mother is leashed to the tricycle rather than vice versa, and the mother is guilty of disobedience and suffers the consequences. It is a sign of Milne’s respect for children that there is no happy resolution – the mother is gone, for good. James James is not particularly sad about his loss, but simply disappointed that his mother failed to listen to him.DdFwIR9X0AENVXB

Milne published his two volumes of poetry when his only child, Christopher Robin, was four and six. The world portrayed was that of his son, one of Nurses and Nannies, beetles and bears and the great outdoors, and the occasional royalty. These latter were whimsical and flawed. Take the ruler in The King’s Breakfast, for instance, who is thwarted in his desire for some butter for his bread. The Queen, the Dairymaid, and the cow all try to persuade him that marmalade would be preferable. The King takes to his bed, whimpering with dismay, until he finally gets his desire fulfilled. Or Bad Sir Brian Botany, an old obstreperous knight who uses his battle axe to blip the villagers on their heads – until they rise up and dunk him in the duck pond, and more.   It is a world in which children can be wonderfully entertained by not much, as when a child watches spellbound as two raindrops (James and John) race, with many starts and stops, down a window-pane.

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The Travels of Babar

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The Travels of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff

1932

Illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff

More than any other children’s picture books, the original format Babar books are objects of wonder. Grandly sized, they provide the double-spread illustrations the room they need to breath. The cream colored paper gives depth and warmth to the beautifully rendered watercolor and black line drawings. The text is in cursive, uniquely mysterious for the young reader still struggling with print. These are books that demand to be read aloud, ensuring that the child’s eyes stay focused on the rich illustrations where they belong. The original editions were reproduced directly from the author’s notebooks with his own handwritten cursive – hence the unusual format. To read Babar in anything other than their original renditions is to miss the transcendent experience. The facsimile reproductions have been reprinted from time to time and can be found with some searching. Settle for nothing less.

The saga begins with the birth of Babar, whose idyllic childhood is abruptly shattered by the death of his mother at the hands of a hunter. Jean de Brunhoff did not shrink from tragedy, but he presented tribulations matter-of-factly. After a few tears, Babar quickly moves on, in this case to a French town where his first order of business is to get outfitted – in a green suit, derby hat, and spats, no less – a transformation that causes him to rise from four legs to two. Clothes figure prominently in the Babar books. Eventually, he returns to the forest where he is crowned king and marries his cousin, Celeste. After the wedding and coronation, the couple stands alone together, their backs to us, staring out at the starry sky – the only black and white illustration in the series – a moving tribute to love.

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The Story of Babar sets the stage. In The Travels of Babar, Jean de Brunhoff was able to give full rein to his inventive imagination. What begins as a honeymoon in a hot air balloon leads to a capsizing on an island, an attack by cannibals, a ride on a distractible whale, a rescue by a passing ship, and a stint as captives in a circus. When Babar and Celeste return to their native land, they find the decimation of war. In a delightfully bizarre piece of performance art, Babar transforms the backsides of the elephants with huge painted eyes, carrot tail noses, and green and orange wigs. Alarmed by such monsters, the rhinoceroses flee in panic.

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Jean de Brunhoff wrote The Story of Babar in 1931 for his own sons, basing it on a sickroom tale told by his wife. He wrote six more books over the next six short years before he died of tuberculosis. His son, Laurent, took up the Babar mantle and created a relentless stream of books. Best to stick to the pere, whose inspired brilliance and originality of style were one-of-a-kind. His books have a charming simplicity and freshness which have no equal. It is the small imaginative details which delight with each reencounter – the flying machine drawn by a flock of white doves, Zephir’s thatch-roofed rondeval on a treehouse platform, the children’s swing suspended between Cornelius’s tusks, Father Christmas riding on a zebra.

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The seven Babar books by Jean de Brunhoff: The Story of Babar, The Travels of Babar, Babar the King, The A.B.C. of Babar, Babar and Zephir, Babar and His Children, Babar and Father Christmas.

Anne of Green Gables

 

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Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

1908

Anne of Green Gables. There is no other character remotely like her. She is irrepressible, dramatic, talkative, imaginative, high-spirited, headstrong, passionate, ebullient, lively, impulsive, heedless. She is also sensitive, self-conscious, insecure, loving, generous, well-intentioned.

She first appears, waiting expectantly in a train station, as a skinny, freckled, green-eyed, redhead – a homely child. She enters the lives of Matthew and Marilla, an elderly brother and sister who had sent away for an orphan boy to help with the chores and haplessly ended up with an unlikely girl instead. She is a dreamer, bursting with imagination, exhilarated by the world. Matthew, a quiet shy gentle unpretentious and altogether good man, is quietly delighted by her. Anne recognizes immediately that though they could not be outwardly more different, they are really kindred spirits. Marilla is slower to warm. But over the course of five years, she responds to Anne’s hunger for love and eagerness to please, and comes to value Anne’s fundamental goodness and creative spirit. Anne is transformed by the undemonstrative love of Matthew and Marilla and their lives, in turn, are transformed by their act of selflessness.

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Lucy Maud Montgomery came from Prince Edward Island and her love of place is evidenced in the Anne books. She had an emotionally charged communion with nature that she bestows upon her fictional creation. Anne does not simply appreciate the natural world, she is intoxicated by it. The plot points are set pieces (Anne inadvertently dies her hair green instead of black, she unintentionally serves her bosom friend currant wine instead of raspberry cordial), but the descriptions of the Avonlea farmstead in the twilight, the apple tree allee in full blossom, the woodland flowers by the brook, as seen through Anne’s enraptured eyes, are always genuine. The setting is beautifully rendered, by author and character alike.

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Aside:

“Do you never imagine things different from what they really are?” asked Anne wide-eyed.

“No.”

“Oh!” Anne drew a long breath. “Oh, Miss – Marilla, how much you miss!”