Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Appalachian Toys and Games from A to Z

New in March from University Press of Kentucky comes Appalachian Toys and Games from A to Z , the second collaboration between children's literature educator Linda Hager Pack and master water colorist, Pat Banks.  While their first children's book, A is for Appalachia!  The Alphabet Book of Appalachian Heritage explored the culture of the mountains, this useful and appealing volume focuses on toys and games prevalent in the region during the mid to late 19th Century. While both books would be welcome resources for any library or museum program on Appalachian culture, Appalachian Toys and Games offers a hands-on component to any classroom exploration through detailed descriptions of how to actually play the various games and how to create simple toys.

Moving alphabetically, the book begins with the letter "A" for apple doll. Pack describes the process of preparing a Rome Beauty apple to become the craggy face of an apple doll, complete with directions on how to carve the face and preserve the apple. Banks illustrates a finished doll, it's wizened face framed in curls and juxtaposed against a backdrop of the juicy red Rome beauties from which it was sculpted..

The letter "C," stands for corn shuck doll. For this toy, Pack forgoes the how-to approach for a more historical perspective, highlighting instead the Native American origin of these dolls. She includes the Iroquois legend of the corn husk doll as an example of story related to the toy. Banks' illustration pictures a tiny doll clasped in someone's hands against a muted background of green and gold, suggesting the outdoor playground favored by Appalachian children during this time period.

There are many descriptions of group games included in the volume such as "D" is for drop the handkerchief, "F" is for fox and hound,  "G" is for game of graces, and "H" is for hoop and stick.  Each game includes rules for how to play along with a Banks watercolor illustrating the  activity in a beautiful, impressionistic outdoor setting.

While those of us born in the 20th Century might be familiar with some of the games and toys described like hopscotch, marbles, jump rope, pick up sticks, Red Rover, and Hide and Seek, some of the games and toys are not as well known to city dwellers or even to suburbanites. For example, "W" is for whammy diddle describes a hand-carved toy that will respond to the commands "gee" and "haw." Farm folk will recognize these commands for cattle, horses, and mules to turn right and left, respectively.

Three of my favorite sections of the book involve the letters, "E," "I," and "O." For most children, eerie stories hold a fascination. Recognizing the rich oral tradition of Appalachian storytelling, Pack includes a complete eerie tale in this collection entitled, "Never Mind Them Watermelons." Banks accompanies the eerie story with a colorful illustration depicting a story teller holding her young audience rapt while in the background, a full moon holds court over a woods filled with haints, boogers, and eyes that glow red in the hollow of a nearby tree.

Near and dear to my inner child's heart are the sections entitled "I" is for imagination and "O" is for outside. Who hasn't floated hickory nut shells down the creek as sailboats? Or created little villages in the tree roots where fairy princesses could sleep on beds of moss? Or cut little pieces from their mama's clothesline to make little people with long flowing hair?  Exactly. In these sections, Pack extols the childhood ability to turn moss, rocks, sticks, creeks, and flowers into playhouses, tables, forts, castles, seas, jewelry or any fantastic world of whimsy that might be conjured by a child's imagination in the natural world. 

Next to Banks' serene rendering of a barefoot young girl crossing a creek over smooth stones, Pack summarizes "O" is for outside with a list poem filled with images of outdoor play.  Here is a brief excerpt from page 23:

"Outside is where toes were dipped,
Rocks were skipped,
And laughing children dropped from ropes
at favorite water holes."

"Childhood has always beckoned me," says Linda Hager Pack in her author's note to Appalachian Toys and Games from A to Z.  "I had no sooner stepped beyond its borders than it flirted with me to come back. 'Come play," it whispered."

In a skillful blend of how-to, history, story and verse, Pack beckons the reader to experience 19th Century playtime in Appalachia from A to Z.  It's a journey masterfully punctuated  by the illustrations of Pat Banks, who captures the visual essence of each toy and game, inviting us to play along.  Sharing this book with your favorite child, grandchild, niece, nephew, classroom teacher or librarian might just take you all on an imaginative journey outside where your inner child so longs to play.

(This review aired on WVXU's Around Cincinnati on May 12, 2013. Listen to the review at this link:  Listen!

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