Inspired by her childhood memories of a river in Maine, Lisa Westberg Peters wrote Good Morning, River. It was the beautiful St. Croix River, and the book’s flap says that because of her fondness, she’d “wanted to write a story that would make rivers seem less scary to children.” Her book traces the river’s appearance through milestones in the life of a little girl. It’s a simple story with beautiful illustrations that were drawn – of course – with watercolors.
The drawings capture the seasons around the river, whether it’s autumn leaves in the misty forest, or green springtime leaves when the ice thaws. Deborah Kogan Ray teaches the art of children’s book illustration, and she’s created an impressive suite of pictures. The book’s cover shows a peaceful snow along the river’s edge, but there’s a hazy yellow-green when it’s mid-summer and “the river sparkled in hot white sunlight…” And when the book takes a somber turn, the river even turns a dismal grey, matching the sky and dark leaves of the forest against the silhouette of a dreary brown mountain.
The book opens with a strange mystery: will the river ever talk to the little girl? An old man named Carl says the river will tell him when it’s safe to walk on its ice.
In the springtime, Carl and Katherine take a canoe ride, and pretend they’re boating through a steamy jungle stream filled with alligators and snakes. “Shimmery heat” rises from the riverbank’s sand in summer – and the little girl takes her first swim in the river’s water. But it’s when she’s relaxing against a log, singing songs to herself, that the river “answered with its own music – a steady slap…slap…slap of the evening ripples.”
One morning Carl isn’t there, on a grey autumn day when the wind whips the river into waves. The book hints that he has a health problem, and the little girl watches as “the car disappeared in the dust of the gravel road,” in a beautiful orange illustration. It’s the real message of the book: how the river seems to magically reflect the girl’s moods. “All that fall, the cold drizzle chilled the chickadees into silence…” The text savors each season’s changes with its own kind of poetry. (“The river was swollen with snow melt and rain. Floodwater rose to the limbs of the trees, and everywhere was the sweet smell of rotting leaves.”)
And at the end of the book, the little girl hears the river’s voice after all.
There’s a secret character in Sally Arnold: the Appalachian Mountains. “The setting of the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia…were ideal subject matter for my paintings,” says illustrator Bill Farnsworth – “combined with the very real people of this part of America.” Author Cheryl Ryan lived on one of the mountain’s crooked ridges, where she’d heard the folk stories about Sally Arnold. Ryan lives in a tiny West Virginia town on a crooked ridge they call Sally’s Backbone – and decided to write her own story about Sally.
She dedicates it to “all who have ever gone down Sally’s Backbone to Fox’s store.”
A little girl named Jenny works in her grandfather’s store, but she knows most people shop on Saturday night, when they come for a weekend visit to the country town. When she’s bored, she plays her fiddle and pretends it’s Saturday night. There’s a checkerboard on a barrel and canned goods on the shelves. And the customers tell stories of a woman named Sally Arnold.
There’s a real sense of the town and its people, so Sally assumes the size of a legend. Sally has white hair and she looks like a witch. She lived by herself, in a shack which was “ready to slide into the creek.” She was always collecting things, sometimes searching the ditches for berries, mushrooms, and wild asparagus. “Maybe she’s just lonely,” thinks the little girl – who is already lonely herself. And on Saturday night, Sally plays the harmonica while Jenny plays the fiddle and her grandfather strums on a banjo.
There’s a mystery around Sally, and Jenny wants to explore it. One day after church, she follows Sally to her shack up the ridge. But instead she falls into the creek, her wet hair covering her eyes. The next thing she sees are “blue eyes framed in wrinkles,” as Sally Arnold has the last laugh. “Well, look what the creek brought me today! Company!”
And it turns out that Sally’s shack has a charm all its own. There’s hummingbirds in the flowers by the porch. A lazy cat stretches and yawns. Sally weaves “gathering baskets” out of the cattails she’s collected at the mud flats. Ands he understands the life of a bluebird carrying straw. “She gathers what she needs from what she finds and makes something new.” And soon it’s Sally and the little girl who are searching the ditches and road banks for berries, mushrooms, and wild asparagus. “They talk. They sing. And they never, ever walk down the road empty-handed.”