A Day on Skates : The Story of a Dutch Picnic
by Hilda Van Stockum, Hilda Van Stockum (Illustrator), Edna St Vincent Millay (Designer)
Reviewed by Catherine Fournier
On summer evenings, while our children wash the dishes, we read stories aloud. Guides, basketball practice, school meetings — all the things that keep the family busy through the school year have finished and the fading light of a summer evening is perfect for listening to a classic story. Last summer, we read The Lord of the Rings. The children hung on every word. Even the ones who were really too young to follow the story were spell-bound by the swirling words and images. They play Hobbit and Black Riders still, galloping around the yard and swinging from the trees.
A classic story, one that uses the images and themes that speak to all of us, written in language that captures the setting and characters bringing them to life before your eyes, appeals to any age. The youngest child's imagination fills with new ideas that will train his mind in healthy directions, while the older audience hears the struggles and challenges of their own life reshaped and retold, and gain comfort and fresh insight from the telling.
Sometimes, it works the other way around. When I announced that we would be reading A Day on Skates, the older children rolled their eyes, muttered, "a baby story" and left the room. They had better things to do. I began to read. "In that small country called Holland, with its many canals and dykes, its low fields and quaint little villages, Father Frost went prowling round on January night, with his bag full of wonders." The small children sat quietly, entranced.
I read on, and by the time I had reached the fourth page, "They hung their scarves and caps on numbered pegs along the walls and left their wooden shoes side by side on the floor, hastening on stockinged feet to their class-rooms." the worldly ones, those who had better things to do than listen to a baby story, were sitting on the floor around me.
I won't tell you what the story is about other than to say that it takes place one winter day in Holland and involves skating. I don't want take any chances at all that you won't read it to your own children or for yourself if you don't have children. I won't tell you the names of the characters, or even the numerous scrapes and adventures that they get into, only that I read until my throat was sore, and my children begged for more.
Hilda Van Stockum is a true story teller. She writes with the humor, honesty and the humility of someone who truly loves and understands children. She knows how to construct a plot to hold an audience's interest without resorting to dramatics or violence, a refreshing change from modern offerings on the Juvenile Literature shelves. She brings her characters and their surroundings to life with her narrative, which combines description and action in just the right proportion. Children want to know all about a place, especially an unfamiliar place like Holland, but in only terms of what is important to them. They don't want to know the major export of a town or the length of its canal, but they do want to know that on the canal were lines of "tents from which flags were flying merrily" which sold tiny round fried cakes which could be eaten on benches arranged in front. Hilda Van Stockum provides all these details and helps us appreciate their beauty.
Most important, from a parent's point of view, is that the author presents nice children. They are not nauseatingly good, nor are they appallingly bad. They are normal happy children. They try to be good, they correct themselves and each other when they make mistakes, they squabble a little bit, and they have a pleasant day with numerous small adventures. (But I won't tell you what they are.) We feel they could be our friends and we enjoy reading their story. This tells our audiences that they too are normal happy children and that we like them that way.
Children learn by example, and they take their example from everything around them including the stories we read aloud and give them to read. Lord of the Rings provides one kind of example; the many disguises of both good and evil, and the long struggle between them. A Day of Skates is a much needed different example. It tells of the beauty of small ordinary things, of the security of their parent's love that makes these children so unconsciously happy, and the pleasure of their friendships that keeps them so cheerful. It shows us that even a 'baby story' can teach us to appreciate these things in our lives.
The story is suitable for reading aloud to children ages four and up, and could be read silently by a Grade Three reader. A medium sized book of forty pages, it would last four or five sessions, say a week of dish washing. It has beautifully detailed active and colorful illustrations done by the author that provide yet another peek into this Dutch winter world. A delightful book that I will award the highest honors of our home, that of being loved to death. But I'll get a second copy to save for my grandchildren.
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