Huddled under voluminous blankets, watching the white pile up outside my windows, I reach for the old purple paperback that first gave me the word snowbound.
The book’s been sitting on a shelf next to the glider where I feed my four-month-old daughter six times a day. It’s there with the other children’s books whose covers can carry me back to parts of my life that I would otherwise never remember. This cover is a painting of a young girl standing in front of a glowing hearth, reading a book aloud to four other children. Their eyes are fixed on her.
I remember this image so well, I can almost feel the warm light on my skin, almost sense the snow outside their windows. Inside the cover, I find my name inscribed in careful, crooked second-grade cursive. I haven’t read Schoolroom in the Parlor by Rebecca Caudill for nearly twenty years. I don’t know what to expect when I open it again.
“‘I put all my books away the day Miss Cora’s school ended,’ said Chris. ‘That was the Friday before Christmas. I’m going to leave them there until school starts again. That won’t be till the first Monday in August’…”
I’m eight years old again, snug as a bug in a book.
The family is setting up the fire in the parlor they’ve turned into a schoolroom for the winter.
These words crackled with warmth long before I knew what they meant. I still don’t know what andirons are.
Father rides off on horseback to choose a prize for the children’s ‘Great Thoughts’ contest. The oldest daughter and teacher-for-the-winter Althy has taught a proverb or poem every day in January—who will remember the most, come the end of the month? The mysterious brown paper package from Father goes to the winner.
When the snow really sets in, the children all join in shoveling paths to the stable, the well, and the woodpile. The two youngest girls are handed long black breadpans to use as shovels. When I first read this book, I had no memory of snow, and no experience with breadpans. But I wanted to be there, knee-deep in the drifts, watching Father shovel faster than any of the rest of us, chipping in to weather winter as a family.
“Come outdoors with me a minute…”
When words like firmament and ethereal come up in the schoolroom, Mother takes her youngest daughter outside to show her the stars, the “spangled heavens.”
Author Rebecca Caudill never tells you how great this family is. But you feel it in everything they say and do.
The adventures the Fairchild children enjoy are real, exciting adventures. They’re given freedom and challenged with responsibilities (playing on their own in the orchard all day, rafting across the river to the store…), but there are limits. There are expectations and consequences. Their lives are warmly lit and safely enclosed, like the cozy schoolroom in the parlor. As a child, I barely noticed Mother and Father. Now I see that it’s Father and Mother who make it all safe, make it home, make it possible.
Caudill doesn’t paint this family as overachievers. The children aren’t angelic geniuses. Mother isn’t super-organized, equipped with charts, books, or blogs about homeschooling and cookery. Father doesn’t wax eloquent about efficiency, education, and hard work. These are regular people, regular parents who simply care about what their children learn.
It’s a simple story. And it’s stoking my fires of hope: this, I want for my daughter. I want her to have a sweet and sturdy structure for her adventures. I want her to have a mother and father who don’t need to be the main characters of their own life stories.
And I want her to learn how to be amazed.
“Bonnie! Bonnie, wake up!” somebody was saying…
Father set the lamp on the table. He lifted Bonnie from underneath the covers, set her on the edge of the bed, and began to jerk on her shoes and stockings….
”Let’s go now,” he said, and he hurried down the stairs, lighting the way with the lamp….
Mother was already outside. Chris and Emmy and Althy were there.
“Look!” said Father to Debby and Bonnie. “Look at the sky.”
“Debby and Bonnie turned their faces up and looked into the sky. There, across the immense dark-blue dome of the sky, enormous yellow-green curtains of light, tipped with fieriest red, rolled and folded, one after another–rolled and folded, rolled and folded…And below, on the still, snowbound earth stood the Fairchilds, wrapped in blankets, watching, watching.”
It’s a true classic that can capture the imagination of the same girl at nine and at twenty-nine. When I finish it, I set Schoolroom in the Parlor back in its rightful place on the shelf of treasures—just until my daughter’s hands are ready to turn the pages.
While Schoolroom in the Parlor is no longer readily available new, here are a few recommended titles that also express the wonder of learning and a supportive family influence.
Kate Roberts is a writer, editor, and new mom who has watched stories speak into children’s lives over nine years of working with children as a nanny, teacher, and special-needs caregiver. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter. They love to read Winnie the Pooh together.