We moved to Maine when my oldest child was 6 months old — almost a decade ago. We discovered a thriving literary culture here of readers and writers, across the spectrum of genres, from Stephen King to Tess Gerritsen to Terry Goodkind. We discovered quickly that this literary culture extends to children’s books. There are certain children’s books that were either written by Mainers or are about Maine that are so beloved and widely read here that they constitute a kind of mini-canon.
These are the books that are handed out by pediatricians at well child checkups, that school teachers read aloud to their classes, that are adapted into plays and put on in local theaters. These are the books that many born and bred Mainers have been passing down for generations, the books that they have extra copies of at their “camps” (Maine speak for summer cottage). And they are books that have been important in the “literary culture” of a certain funny looking white house in Bangor Maine.
Here are they are:
Goodnight Moon was published in 1947. Margaret Wise Brown lived in Connecticut and New York, but she had a summer home, called “Only House” in Vinalhaven, Maine. This is a sweet, simple story of a bunny saying good night to the different things in his room. Our children’s museum here in Bangor has the “Goodnight Moon room”, a 5 and under play area which looks identical to the room in the book. Illustrated by Clement Hurd, discerning readers will notice that the position of the moon and the lighting changes as each page turns. Another favorite by Brown is Runaway Bunny, but I always felt that one was a bit ominous (the little bunny threatens to run away and the mom pledges to hunt him down if he does).
Robert McCloskey wasn’t born in Maine but was living in Deer Isle, Maine upon his death in 2003. Make Way for Ducklings (1941), was his first and most popular book. It features baby ducks in line behind their mother waddling down busy Boston streets to find a home in the Boston Garden. Our family’s favorites are Blueberries for Sal (1948), in which a little girl and a bear cub each accidentally follow the other’s mother while gathering berries on a hill, and One Morning in Maine (1952), in which Sal loses her first tooth. Our children’s museum has a life size model of Burt Dow’s boat, with rain gear, rubber boots, and plastic fish.
Published in 1982, this story follows the life of Miss Rumphius from childhood to old age. I love it because Miss Rumphius, after hearing her grandfather talk about the exotic places he’s visited, chooses a nontraditional life of study, travel, and beauty. I like it that the oddness of her choices — remaining single and childfree — is reflected in the society of the book, where local children sort of don’t know what to make of her.
I also love it that Miss Rumphius scatters lupine seeds once she settles into her seaside home. This book is frequently put on as a play in our area. Lupines are prevalent in northern Maine and the eastern provinces of Canada. Whenever children see lupines growing wild on the side of the road after reading Miss Rumphius, they just might consider what they can do to make the world a better place.
The author, Barbara Cooney, who died in 2000 at her house in Damariscotta, Maine, considers this book semi-autobiographical. I believe the original paintings for her books set in Maine (this one and Hattie and the Wild Waves) are on display at Bowdoin College.
This book, based on the lovely “Garden Song” by Maine folk treasure Dave Mallett, is a family favorite. I cannot read it without singing it. The Garden song is one of the most popular folk songs in the US, covered by Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, John Denver, Peter Paul and Mary, you name it. You can see a video of Dave Mallett performing it here (click the first video). My children have seen Mr. Mallett perform at their schools. He has been a wonderful contributor to the arts in Maine.
Here are a couple of newer books that our family considers classics:
This fun book, published in 1995, follows a family from its city home to a vacation in Maine. Each page counts the items they bring and see along the way. We start with “one baby” and end with the “twenty fireflies” the family catches on its last night in Maine. The pictures are so detailed, you can linger over them for hours. The author isn’t from Maine, but she captures the feel of summertime here perfectly.
This book has special resonance for me, because our friends bought it for us when we were living, very unhappily, in Florida. I used to read it to my then newborn and dream of moving back to New England. It was a prophetic gift!
Maine is the least racially diverse state in the US, with 95.3 percent whites (although there are other kinds of diversity). Author Allen Sockabasin is a Passamaquoddy, a part of the Penobscot Tribe, of which there are 3000 members in Maine. Adjacent to UMaine, where I teach, is The Penobscot Indian Island Reservation, with about 500 residents. It would be hard to overstate the importance of Native American culture to Maine.
In this 2005 book, set in 1900, Little Zoo Sap and his family journey from their summer home on the coast to the deep woods for the winter. They travel on a bobsled pulled by big horses through the snow. When Zoo Sap falls off of the sled, the forest animals help him until his father returns to find him. The theme of humans as a part of the natural world is very Native and readers learn a little Passamaquoddy (the names of the animals) to boot.
We found out about this Maine author by attending a signing. Atwell’s illustrations have been described “a sort of Currier & Ives meets Grandma Moses.” In addition to its lovely illustrations, this quiet but enthralling book teaches a valuable lesson about the potentially devastating — ad restorative — effects of humanity on the environment. Atwell says: “There are so many talented children’s artists and authors that it is difficult to carve a niche truly one’s own in the world. My aim is to intrigue the child’s mind with a story they can’t predict, and do my best to make pictures that hold their attention. All the intangibles, I just hope for.”
That last line is a wonderful writer’s philosophy, isn’t it?