Story entices children to imagine life without mother

Teaching Your Child

Teaching Your Child


"Did Mama sing every day?" asked Caleb. "Every-single-day?" He sat close to the fire, his chin in his hand. It was dusk, and the dogs lay beside him on the warm hearthstones.

"Every-single-day," I told him for the second time this week. For the twentieth time this month. The hundredth time this year? And the past few years?

Each time I read this introduction to "Sarah, Plain and Tall," I imagine a little boy and his older sister conversing just before bedtime, longing for the mother who is no longer theirs. I want to enter the page and provide them with some comfort. Patricia MacLachlan tells their story so tenderly and simply, a reader is practically compelled to get involved.

The 1986 Newbery Medal winner also has an interesting effect on children. They are a little fearful when reading about children whose mother has died. At the same time, young readers are drawn to the characters. Most children find it hard to imagine life without a mother. They tend to become very protective of the little boy Caleb and his sister, Anna.


Particularly when they learn how Mama died.

"And Mama handed me to you in the yellow blanket and said ..." He waited for me to finish the story. "And said ...?"

I sighed. "And Mama said, "Isn't he beautiful, Anna?' "

"And I was," Caleb finished.

Caleb thought the story was over, and I didn't tell him what I had really thought. He was homely and plain, and he had a terrible holler and a horrid smell. But these were not the worst of him. Mama died the next morning. That was the worst thing about Caleb.

"Isn't he beautiful, Anna?" Her last words to me. I had gone to bed thinking how wretched he looked. And I forgot to say good night.

While reading this book aloud in a group, children become very quiet at this spot. Imagine not saying goodnight to your mother and then finding out the next morning that she had died.

It would seem that this is a depressing book, but it is quite the opposite. When Papa decides to place an advertisement in a newspaper for a new wife, Sarah enters the picture. Life becomes a little brighter.

Sarah doesn't pretend to take the place of Anna's and Caleb's mother. She simply is herself. Anna wants to know if Sarah can braid hair, make stew and bake bread. Yes, she can, Sarah says, but she prefers to build bookshelves and paint.

Caleb wants to know if Sarah can keep a fire going at night and if she snores. She assures him that she can keep a fire going. She's not sure if she snores, though. Her cat, Seal, has not told her.

They both want to know if Sarah sings, and were glad when she wrote at the bottom of one of her letters to Papa, "Tell them I sing."

Sarah's gentle honesty is refreshing and provides healing for the children and Papa. To become Papa's wife, she moves from a seaside home in Maine to the prairie. She misses the sea, her brother William and her three aunts "who all squawk together like crows at dawn."

She shares her longings with Maggie, a neighbor who also was a mail-order bride.

"There are always things to miss," Maggie tells her. "No matter where you are."

How insightful. It's easy to focus on what we don't have rather than what we do. Being content has very little to do with our surroundings. It has everything to do with our perception of those surroundings.

This book is a wonderful read-aloud for young children. The sweet, innocent story just might warm an adult's heart, too.

Happy Mother's Day to all you moms and to all of you who, like Sarah, fulfill a mother's role in the life of a child.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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