The Secret River by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Illustrated by Leo & Dian Dillon
Calpurnia lived in a dark forest in Florida. Calpurnia was her name "because she was born to be a poet." Her dog's name was Buggy-horse, because he had an enormous stomach that made his back dip in the middle, "just like an old buggy horse." Calpurnia loved poetry and everyday she would find inspiration in nature's little things, like the two birds singing outside her window, or the sun shining, or the oranges on the trees.
come what may.
If I did not love
and my father
I would run away.
Because it is a running-away
kind of day.
On that lovely day, Calpurnia finds out that the times are hard around the forest. Her father makes his money selling fish at the market, but now there are no fish to catch. "I shall have to close my fish market, and things will go hard with all of us." Calpurnia knows she must do something to help her family so she decides to go fishing herself. Wondering what a fish would like to bite on, she decides to make some pink paper roses to use as bait. On her way to the river she drops by Mother Albirtha's house, the wisest person in the forest. Mother Albirtha tells her about the secret river; nobody knows where it is but "you will know the river when you see it. Just follow your nose."
Calpurnia didn't know exactly what "follow you nose" meant, but she let nature guide her. She saw a bunny and followed it, then a blue jay and then, there she was, in front of a river. She sat by the cypress trees on its shore and stared at the river which was "singing as it ran by." The river was full of fish and Calpurnia asked them if they minded it if she caught some of them to save the forest from hard times. She hopped on a boat tied to the bank and used her pink paper roses to catch as many fish as she could fit on the boat. On her way back home she shares her fish with the animals she encounters (owl, bear, panther):
If somebody scares you, the thing to do
is give somebody something to do.
Then they never bother you.
Sometimes they say "thank you."
Calpurnia stopped by Mother Albirtha to thank her for all her help and give her some fish. And then she made it home exhausted. The next day her father took the fish to the market and the hard times became "soft times."
Calpurnia tried to find the secret river again but she was unable. Mother Albirtha explained to her that she found the river when it was truly needed and said: "You can go there any time you want to. In your mind. Close your eyes, and you will see it."
The Secret River won the Newbery Honor in 1956. It's a beautiful tale of magic, imagination and perseverance. It's text is lyrical and full of gorgeous imagery. Calpurnia's little poems add a cadence of the time and place. This new edition with illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon is stunning. The book begs to be shared out loud in the higher elementary grades. Wonderful!