Almost every Thursday afternoon when school lets out, my daughters and I drive to the Sarah Partridge Library in East Middlebury. From 4:00-5:00 PM on Thursdays, Mona Rogers, the Sarah Partridge Librarian, has a “Craft Circle” for children. The original vision for this craft hour was that Mrs. Rogers would teach all of us to knit. This idea was abandoned when it became clear that most of my daughters are still too young to knit — and since my daughters make up 98% of the children who attend craft hour, they direct the agenda. In the end, Mrs. Rogers taught me to knit, which I continue to do during craft hour: I knit while standing, with frequent breaks in order to referee sibling squabbles or pull my youngest child off the bookshelves.
Between the knitting and the child-wrangling, it’s rare that I have time to look at books. But the other week, thanks to a big bowl of microwave popcorn that was occupying all of my children, I was able to peruse the used books for sale.
This isn’t a normal activity for me, children aside. I’m not especially anxious to add to our already-overflowing home bookshelves, and when I’m at the library I figure that the point is: free books! But since my children were munching their popcorn next to the shelves of used books, I could browse and still keep an eye on them.
Used book sales are about hope. There’s a reason why most of these books have been exiled from the library shelves or donated by their prior owners. There’s usually a large selection of boilerplate mysteries, spy thrillers, and romance novels. I’ve decided that cookbooks are the bread machines of books: people think they’ll use them, but instead they just take up space in the kitchen. And travel books are quickly out-of-date, plus fairly useless once you’ve actually visited the place.
But every once in a while, there’s a used book gem to be found. That day, I found it.
I can’t remember what prompted me to pick up the slim, green hardcover. It was clearly very old. The book’s title and author were stamped into the front cover — Animals Through the Year by Margaret Waring Buck — along with a beautiful print depicting two young deer, a possum, a chipmunk, and a mouse in the wild. It was clearly a children’s book — and we have so many children’s books at home that I wasn’t looking for one more.
Opening the book, I saw that it was a discard from the Sarah Partridge Library (back when it was the Community House Library). The book was first published in 1941, although this was a 1949 edition, and it had been checked out last on August 30, 1993.
When I fanned through the pages, I knew that I had to buy Animals Through the Year. It’s organized by season, and each page describes a certain animal (20 in all) and how it spends that season. The descriptions are clear and fascinating, written for young children without oversimplifying or pandering.
What really sold me, though, were the illustrations: On every page is a gorgeous block print of the animal described. Some are in color, but most are black-and-white.
Animals Through the Year cost me $1 — more than the usual 10 cents, because it was “antique.” I showed it to my daughters once we returned home, and they all huddled together on the couch, looking at the pictures while my 7-year-old daughter read out loud. Later that night, she asked if she could take the new book to bed with her. Since then, one daughter or another has picked it up from its home on the table beside our living room “comfy chair” to look at the pictures or learn more about what our animal neighbors are doing this time of year.
Meanwhile, I have become obsessed with Margaret Waring Buck. There’s not much to be found about her, but her papers now reside in Archives & Special Collections at the University of Connecticut’s Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. The brief biography on the Dodd Center website informed me that Margaret Waring Buck was born in New York City in 1905, and died in Mystic, Connecticut in 1997. She was an illustrator, naturalist, and physiognomist. Animals Through the Year was her first book, and she wrote and illustrated ten more between 1947 and 1979. All were nature books for children, with the exception of The Face — What it Means: The Merton Method of Character Analysis, which was based upon her studies with Dr. Holmes W. Merton on the “science” of Face Reading.
All her books are out of print now, but that hasn’t stopped me. Thanks to the magic of online shopping, I’ve been able to obtain used copies — all library discards — of In Woods and Fields, In Yards and Gardens, and In Ponds and Streams for under $10. Like Animals Through the Year, these books are filled with plainspoken information and gorgeous illustrations (ink drawings instead of block prints). Along the Seashore and How they Grow are on my wish list, because I don’t want to be greedy and buy up Waring Buck’s entire oeuvre in one swoop; it’s important to have something to look forward to.
The obvious question is: WHY? Why have I suddenly become a fan and collector of the works of a little-known author and illustrator of children’s nature books? I am not the collecting type — haven’t collected a thing since my childhood doll and thimble collections.
I’ve thought about this, and I believe the answer is: It’s April, and there’s still snow on the ground. For over four months, the only nature we’ve seen outside has been limited to the occasional squirrel or crow. I am ready for the plants and animals to return; I am craving wildlife.
And when wildlife returns, I will pull down one of our books by Margaret Waring Buck, find the relevant page, gather my girls around me, and read. Because, 74 years later, the first words of Animals Through the Year are still true: “Many baby animals first see this beautiful world in the spring months of March, April, and May.”