That Book Woman
By Heather Henson, illustrations by David Small
40 pp.; ISBN-13: 978-1416908128
Review by Amy Brozio-Andrews
Among the backwoods of Appalachia, young Cal just doesn’t get his sister Lark’s fascination with reading, or that "chicken scratch" as he refers to it. He resents the time she whiles away (every spare minute their mother gives her) as he helps his father work the farm. He knows his father’s shown him all the education he needs by observing the world around him. And Cal just about loses all control when his father offers to trade the berries Cal picked (imagining one of his mother’s pies) to the book woman who shows up one day, offering Lark new books. But no, the strange woman who rode up to the farm doesn’t want money or anything else; she’s happy to leave the books and return in two weeks time to exchange them for more.
At first Cal pays the book woman no mind, skeptical of her reasons for traveling all this way and even more skeptical of her promises to return. But as the seasons wear on, he becomes grudgingly impressed with her horse, and then as the winter bears down, with the rider, too. She certainly is determined. Every two weeks, without fail, bringing books for Lark and asking nothing in return. Maybe there is something of value in those books after all?
Heather Henson’s That Book Woman brings to life the story of the book women, more formally known as Pack Horse Librarians, one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration programs of the 1930s. Her writing style is graceful and measured, and placing the narrative in Cal’s vernacular gives the story a weight and emotional resonance that really sticks with readers, bringing them along with him as he discovers more than chicken scratch in those books. David Small’s illustrations have an aged, photographic look that complements the narrative perfectly; the artwork and story together are very much in keeping with history and enrich young readers’ understanding of the era even further. Small’s character drawings are greatly expressive — kids can just about feel the intensity of Cal’s scowl and the biting cold of the winter wind as the bundled-up librarian hands parcels of books through a crack in the door.
That Book Woman is a tribute to the Pack Horse Librarians and it’s sure to engage young readers with an interest in history, women’s history, and books, a quiet but genuinely heartfelt celebration of reading.