Sunday, February 21, 2016

Book Review: A Day on Skates by Hilda van Stockum (1934)

Published in picture book format, but written at the middle grade level, and divided into chapters, this brief tale tells of Dutch twins, Evert (a boy) and Afke (a girl), who go with their classmates and Teacher on a day-long skating picnic. The ordinary day is punctuated along the way by various extraordinary happenings, including an encounter with a real artist, an injury, a feast of snow pancakes, and an accidental imprisonment inside an old church.

This book is a lovely slice of life tale, which is similar in some ways to Thimble Summer (1938) and Strawberry Girl (1945). Like these other titles, A Day on Skates gives a sense of the landscape and customs of the region in which it is set (Holland), while also celebrating the joy to be found in everyday events and experiences. Though it is a bit hard to believe that everything which happens in this story could truly occur to one class in just one day, the story is so charming that the reader really wants to believe in it, and easily finds herself pulled along on their journey.

I was pleased to discover that the Foreword to the book was written by Edna St. Vincent Millay. She has been a special favorite of mine, as we attended the same college and also both spent the summer between our junior and senior years at the same mountain resort some 85 years apart in time. I wondered at first why this accomplished poet was interested at all in a children's book, but my husband informed me that Millay is van Stockum's aunt by marriage. I especially enjoyed her opening line: "This is a book which mothers and fathers will sit up to finish, after the protesting child has been dragged firmly off to bed."

The writing in the story proper starts out very poetic and old-fashioned, with a meditation on the arrival of Father Frost during the night. I didn't dislike this, necessarily, but it is markedly different from the rest of the text, which is much more grounded and more appealing. Van Stockum's true talent is for capturing the importance of little things, so the moments focusing on exchanges of dialogue, or the details of food and clothing, are much more engaging, and they are what made me finish the book eagerly in one sitting.

What really makes this book so wonderful, though, are the illustrations. There are eight full-color plates, including the frontispiece, as well as black and white line drawings scattered throughout the book's six chapters. The color illustrations look like vintage Christmas cards, with their picturesque winter landscapes and crowds of young skaters dressed in old-fashioned cold-weather garb. They are all equally well done, but the picture below, from Chapter 5, is probably my favorite. I love the way the skaters form a triangle, drawing the viewer's eye under the bridge, and how the background details, such as the kids building a snowman, seem to be telling stories of their own that are never referenced by the text but are part of the book nonetheless.

I also adore the line drawings. If the larger illustrations depict the spirit of a Dutch winter, the smaller ones portray the spirits of the individual characters. I love all the little faces in this image, from Chapter 1: 

As a child, I would have pored over this picture, wanting to assign each character his or her correct name and imagining conversations between and among them. I was equally charmed by this depiction of the characters' coats and wooden shoes, carefully arranged inside their classroom: 

The level of detail in these pictures shows how well van Stockum knows her characters, and they add a dimension of personality to the story that is not quite captured by the text. 

A Day on Skates is out of copyright and can be read free online. It's a quick story that can easily be finished in an hour, and it's perfect for those days when it's too cold to do anything but cuddle up in bed in your pajamas. The Dutch names make it  a little tricky to read aloud on the fly, but the hardcover edition does have a pronunciation to help readers practice before sharing the story with a group. I highly recommend this book, and look forward to the day my girls are old enough to enjoy it with me. 

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