When things come together beautifully – what we received in the Picture Book Swap

posted in: Barbara Cooney, Donald Hall | 6

My official swap partner for Perfect Picture Books by Post was Beth and her homeschooling family in New Hampshire. They chose to send us a Caldecott medal winning picture book set in their home state, Ox-cart Man by Donald Hall, illustrated by Barbara Cooney.

Photo: VinothChandar

Beth couldn’t have known that right here, right now this is the perfect picture book for us – I’m currently reading M Little House on the Prairie, and as soon as we’d finished reading Ox-cart Man she immediately made a connection between the two. Somehow seeing the life she’s listening to shown in another book really thrilled her and ever since it has been inspiring hours and hours of role play.

Ox-cart Man depicts the rhythm of a year in the life of a New England farmer and his family in the early to mid 1800s. Opening with the farmer packing up his ox-cart with goods he and his family have grown, made and prepared throughout the preceding 12 months, we follow his journey through russet and gold autumnal countryside to Portsmouth Market, where he sells his wares, right down to his ox and cart. Using his earnings to buy a few store goods for his family he returns home to start preparing for the following year’s market, with his first task being to build a new yoke and cart.

Photo: sskennel

The tale is told in a sparse and unadorned manner (for example, barely any adjectives are used), mirroring the family life being depicted. But in the eyes of a 21st century girl it is a tale full of wonder. I think M found it both slightly baffling and rather thrilling to see how much the family makes and grows for itself (even though we make and grow quite a lot ourselves, at least by urban, British standards). Baffling because of the simple lack of “stuff” and the value placed on nowadays seemingly almost valueless items like a single needle, and thrilling because it appeals to every young child’s sense of independence and belief that they can do everything themselves.

Barbara Cooney’s illustrations match the simplicity of the text. They are unfussy, yet full of historical detail and transported M into places she had previously only pictured inside her head from descriptions in the Little House books: Portsmouth seemed to her like Pepin, the general store filled with delights (food in barrels, colourful bolts of materials, shelves stacked high with household goods) and the whole family out in the snow tapping sap from the maple trees. That said, I’m sure these images and the story will be just as exciting to someone unfamiliar with the Little House books, but who is interested in different people, places and periods in history.

Whilst preparing this post I came across this quote from Vita Sackville-West and I think it sums up for me a large amount of the appeal of Ox-cart Man and also the Little House books:

I suppose the pleasure of country life lies really in the eternally renewed evidences of the determination to live.


Having read Ox-cart Man we first decided to make something ourselves we could take to sell at market. As the Ox-cart man himself takes “a wooden box of maple sugar from the maples they tapped in March“, we decided upon maple syrup biscuits 🙂 Here’s the recipe we came up with:

M’s Maple Syrup Munchies

  • 150g unsalted butter
  • 200g sugar (we use a mix of caster sugar and demerara sugar)
  • 1 egg
  • 300g maple syrup
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons of bicarbonate of soda (US: baking soda)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 400g plain flour (US: all-purpose flour)
  • extra sugar for rolling biscuit dough in – probably about 75g

  • 1. Preheat the oven to 175 C (350 F) and grease a couple of baking trays.

    2. Beat the butter and sugar together before adding the egg, maple syrup and vanilla extract. When well blended add all remaining ingredients except for the extra sugar. Combine everything well (we did all of this in a food processor).

    3. Leave biscuit dough in fridge for 30 minutes – this makes it easier to handle.

    4. Make walnut sized balls from your biscuit dough, roll in the extra sugar and then place on baking sheets with plenty of space around them. This recipe made about 40 biscuits so you may need to make them in batches.

    5. Bake for 10 minutes in the preheated oven and let cool before eating – when they come out of the oven the biscuits will still be quite soft. Once they’ve cooled they will firm up, but remain soft on the inside.

    Then we needed an ox-cart of our own to transport our biscuits. Here’s how we did it:

    First M attached a wooden kebab skewer (like these ones) to either side of a cardboard punnet (a shoe box would also work well) – these formed the shafts.

    Next M attached a sheet of cardboard to the wagon box, sticking it down on one side, then simply curving it over to the other side.

    Next we prepared our cart wheels using more skewers, icecream tub lids and straws, and following this tutorial from Origami Mummy.

    Next we taped the straws containing the skewer-axles to the base of our cart and hitched up our ox.

    To hitch up the ox I simply doubled a large elastic band and twisted it over each shaft, and around the tummy of the ox (or in this case the Highland Coo).

    The cart was filled with our biscuits (or at least those we hadn’t eaten whilst making our carts) and then play commenced.

    For other ways to make your own covered wagon or ox-cart, take a look at this template from Verla Kay, or this one from indietutes.

    Music we listened to whilst baking biscuits and taking them to market included:

  • Ox Cart, played on the concertina by Jody Kruskal
  • M-M-M-Maple Syrup by Richard Popovic
  • Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season), sung here by Pete Seeger

  • Other activities which could work well alongside reading Ox-cart Man include:

  • Making your own candles – Wee Folk Art has a lovely post about this
  • Weaving, using a styrofoam tray and this great tutorial from Full Circle
  • Making Mittens – these lovely little felt bookmarks from babycenter.com could make great Christmas presents, or you and the kids could use an old jumper to make some lovely mittens to wear, using this tutorial from One Pearl Button.

  • So a huge thank you to Beth and her family for such a great book and for the hours of play it has inspired!

    Towards the end of next week I’ll be posting about the entire range of books which crossed the world as part of Perfect Picture Books by Post, and linking up to your blog posts about the swap… I’ve been amazed by the delights that have been shared and I’m sure you will be too!

    6 Responses

    1. Megan

      what a great idea for making a cart! very clever gluing straws on so the wheels can spin.. might just have to keep that in mind for kindy.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    CommentLuv badge

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.