Woodcuts are not a medium I naturally gravitate toward in children’s book illustrations. I miss the soft hues that characterize, say, Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius, and will always have a weakness for watercolors, but Azarian’s strident, rustic woodcuts carry their own sparse beauty.
My introduction to Mary Azarian came years ago when her charming book with Leda Schubert, Here Comes Darrell was reprinted in a collection of truck stories I scored for Pippin. Darrell is a farmer in rural Vermont who fills his year serving his neighbors until he finally must accept his neighbors’ help in the end to repair his long-neglected barn roof. It was my favorite in the anthology and often found me tearing up by the end.
Rural community! Neighborly care! Small-scale agriculture! I thought of the story again while reading so much Wendell Berry this year, and so lugged home a stack of Azarian’s work from the library to read through and test out on my children/captive victims.
The comparison between the two artist/thinkers is not unfounded, as it turns out — Azarian has done woodcuts to accompany Berry’s poems, such as here. Azarian grew up on a Virginia farm and, after an education at Smith College, moved to Vermont with her family where at various times she taught in a one-room school house, farmed, and worked full-time on her woodcuts. (I collected this last information from her wikipedia page, which is clearly and adorably edited by one of her grandkids.)
While Azarian serves as an illustrator to many authors, she’s definitely developed a particular niche. Here are some of her books our family enjoyed:
From Dawn till Dusk by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock
Discusses the protagonist’s siblings’ complaints about the hard work of their upbringing on a Vermont farm by juxtaposing each with the fun to be had in each situation. My girls especially loved the barn kittens.
Tuttle’s Red Barn: The Story of America’s Oldest Family Farm by Richard Michelson
This longer-length picture book is a great living book for moving through the history of one particular piece of New Hampshire farmland, continuously owned by one family since Pilgrim days. You can watch the permutations of each generation in many arenas: the evolution of the farm house, the diversification of the farm economy, the recycling of names from generation to generation. Spoiler alert: I read up on the place afterwards and it’s since been sold out of the family. (This is my second-most-depressing post-book research finding, second only to learning several people in On to Oregon were soon after killed in a raid.)
Barn Cat: A Counting Book by Carol P. Saul
For the youngest listeners — a vaguely Kliban-esque cat encounters a variety of animals around the farm in her quest for a bowl of fresh milk.
Before We Eat: From Farm to Table by Pat Brisson
The most Berryian of these books, Before We Eat is a simple litany of the people to whom we owe thanks as the producers of our food. The gentle rhyming text highlight the sources of various foods and concludes with an open-air intergenerational meal. “Sitting at this meal we share, / we are grateful and aware, / sending thanks upon the air… / to those workers everywhere.”
A Gardener’s Alphabet by Mary Azarian
We have a flower alphabet book already, so I was pleased to see the diversity of Azarian’s selections for each letter were not confined to just flowers.
Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel by Leslie Connor
In a vaguely Miss Rumphius story arc, Miss Bridie leaves Ireland with only a shovel and uses it to build a beautiful, satisfying life for herself in New England.
Have you read any Mary Azarian before? What other children’s book illustrators point to the beauty of a simple life for you?