Cal is not the readin' type. Living way high up in the Appalachian Mountains, he'd rather help Pap plow or go out after wandering sheep than try some book learning. Nope. Cal does not want to sit stoney-still reading some chicken scratch. But that Book Woman keeps coming just the same. She comes in the rain. She comes in the snow. She comes right up the side of the mountain, and Cal knows that's not easy riding. And all just to lend his sister some books. Why, that woman must be plain foolish—or is she braver than he ever thought?
That Book Woman is a rare and moving tale that honors a special part of American history—the Pack Horse Librarians, who helped untold numbers of children see the stories amid the chicken scratch, and thus made them into lifetime readers.
From School Library Journal
Grade 2–5—A simple and heartfelt paean to the Pack Horse Librarians of the 1930s who were part of a WPA program founded to take books to remote areas. Cal and his family live high in the Appalachian hills. He's proud to be a hard worker and scorns his sister, who'd read all day if allowed. When a stranger appears on horseback to deliver books, Cal wants nothing to do with her until one winter evening when she braves the snowy mountain to deliver her goods. Her courage and strong will make him realize that her job must be very important, so he asks his sister to teach him to read. Henson's free-verse narrative is peppered with colloquialisms and authentic-sounding language that might be tricky for some readers, but lend immediacy and atmosphere to the story. Done in pale browns and greens, Small's signature ink-and-watercolor illustrations depict an austere mountain home and the hardscrabble lives of family members who have little to spare. Cal's expressions of resentment and anger, and then his acceptance and enjoyment of reading, are shown with simple yet effective lines. Pair this poignant book with Kathi Appelt and Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer's Down Cut Shin Creek (HarperCollins, 2001) for an excellent unit on these dedicated women and for a great discussion starter on the importance of books.—Angela J. Reynolds, Annapolis Valley Regional Library, Bridgetown, NS, Canada
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Cal describes his way-up mountain home—“So high / we hardly sight / a soul”—but that changes when the Book Woman, a traveling librarian, rides up to the house. The Book Woman is a boon for Cal’s sister, Lark, “the readenest child you ever did see,” but no use to Cal, who is not “born / to sit so stoney-still / a-starin at some chicken scratch.” However, he is impressed by the librarian, who rides in all weather; finally, he asks Lark to teach him to read. This tribute to the Pack Horse Librarians of Appalachia has a lyric, simple style that lends itself to reading aloud. Henson, a Kentucky native, creates a reliable narrator in Cal, whose journey to reading is gentle and believable. There are a couple of stereotypes here (Mother is pregnant and barefoot), but overall, the mixed-media illustrations (ink, watercolor, pastel) support the text’s genial flow. Mountains and sky achieve a lofty spaciousness that makes the Book Woman’s ride even more impressive. An author’s note gives background on the WPA’s Pack Horse Librarian program. Grades 2-4. --Janice Del Negro
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