By Sarah Buchwalder
My nine-year-old daughter is an almost compulsive reader. Dinner time is family time, but while she eats breakfast and lunch, she has to have something in front of her to read. (Which is fine by me, because reading is the ONLY thing that has kept her in her chair long enough to finish a meal over the years….) Yesterday during lunch, I noticed her re-reading – for probably the hundredth time – a picture book from her second-grade year: Brother Hugo and the Bear, by Katy Beebe. This particular book has been on our shelf since we started homeschooling. We generally adhere to the classical method outlined in The Well-Trained Mind, and the book was recommended as one among many enrichment texts for second grade (in which students become familiar with the medieval period). My older daughter dutifully read Brother Hugo when she was seven and put it back on the shelf. When it was my younger daughter’s turn to read it, it didn’t return to the shelf for a long time. Often it was next to her bed, thrown on the sofa, or piled on the coffee table; sometimes it was left on the kitchen counter, or the front steps, or up in the treehouse.
If you’ve never run into this picture book, it’s a sweet and humorous little story that introduces children to the history behind illuminated manuscripts. Based on a snippet in an actual twelfth century letter, from an abbot of the monastery at Cluny to the prior of the Grande Chartreuse (in which he asks to borrow some of the works of St. Augustine because “the greater part of our volume was eaten by a bear”), the reader learns a little bit about the monasticism of the Middle Ages and a little more about what it would have been like to work in the scriptorium.
Apparently my daughter would not at all mind being assigned to the scriptorium of a monastery, considering how she spends her free time. Sure, she plays with her Playmobil castle and runs a mud restaurant under the porch, loves dress-up and builds elaborate fairy houses, and researches and runs experiments on the most effective ways to get on her older sister’s nerves, but when she’s not doing schoolwork, she’s most likely to be found in her “office” (a battered work table crammed into her closet), laboriously copying and illustrating her favorite books. There are lots of little jars lying around our house, filled with things like charcoal she’s pounded into dust and mixed with water; do-it-yourself ink. Last year around this time she eagerly awaited the arrival of a guide to illuminated letters she had me order with some of her birthday money. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when it finally arrived; every day, multiple times a day, I was asked if the mail had come and if her book was in it. Her fascination with medieval manuscripts and bookmaking provoked a several months’ long hunt – on Amazon, other online used book sellers, Ebay, and the Maine library system - for an out-of-print DK Eyewitness book, simply called Book, that she desperately wanted. (Good news: we finally found a copy!) Most recently she fiddled with a gold leaf substitute. Gold ink in her Christmas stocking wasn’t good enough; she wanted the experience of applying it. She tried painting the ink on facial tissue and pasting it onto her illuminated letters, but it fell apart when she tried to glue it. Next she tried painting it on aluminum foil, but that was too heavy and stiff. Not the feel she was looking for. Finally she tried tissue paper, but that didn’t make the cut either. Hopefully she finds something that meets her standards, because, given the current going price for a packet of real gold leaf, it’s not an option. (!) It’s an interest she’s becoming well-known for; her uncle (my brother), an artist, just had a fellow artist friend make a hand-bound book for her to practice in for a more authentic experience.
Watching my daughter read over her macaroni and cheese, I mused on how much just one, slim picture book has shaped her childhood; I wondered too how it might influence her future. It’s taught her so many things (such as problem solving and the hands-on knowledge of working with materials) besides the little history lesson it was intended to teach. I also felt very grateful for the time and flexibility that homeschooling allows for pursuing such highly specific interests. While history has since marched on to the printing press, paperback novels, laser printers, Kindle, and all the way to the A.I. applications that now seem to threaten the act of writing itself, I hope the real Brother Hugo is resting easy, knowing that his life’s labor was not in vain, and that at least one little girl at a thousand years and five thousand miles distance appreciates and even revels in his life’s work.
Sarah is a mother of three and a New York expat, homeschooling on the Midcoast. Her degree is in philosophy and she wears multiple hats at HOME (and home). She sort of classically educates her kids and likes being by the ocean, growing food, and having meaningful conversations with friends. She is a pet mom to an especially handsome bearded dragon, three chatty guinea pigs, and a fluctuating flock of hapless Ancona ducks.