Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

My copy of Little House in the Big Woods may be 20 years old now. I can’t remember exactly how long I’ve had it. I mean, look at this photo:

The pages of my copy have the yellow-brown tint of vintage (cough, old) books. It has begun to smell like something on my grandfather’s shelves, which are stocked with titles from the 60s and 70s.

My copy has also become delicate. Look! I chipped the lower left edge of its back cover.

The fabric tape with “Book #1” written on it remains sturdy to this day though.

Whenever I turn the pages of my Little House in the Big Woods, they make a concerning creaking noise so I was dainty in reading as I didn’t want the book to fall apart (and yet I still chipped that edge. Curses!)

I am deeply attached to my copy and will keep it as long as I can. Little House in the Big Woods and 3 subsequent books from the series were gifted to me by my aunt’s mother-in-law (whom I shall call Grandma R) when I was a young girl spending her holidays in Seattle.

My aunt married an American and they settled near Seattle for many years. My cousins were raised in Washington state and my family would visit as I was growing up. These visits exposed me to elements of American culture I wouldn’t have access to otherwise. I remember going Halloween trick-or-treating one year.

Grandma R would visit my aunt and uncle’s Washington home too. During a visit when everyone converged (probably a Christmas holiday), Grandma R gave me the books. She must have chosen them because my aunt told her I was a little bookworm. I had zero life as a young girl: all I did was study, read, and write in diaries. Uh. To be fair, nothing has changed…

I remember Grandma R saying that she loved the books as a little girl and hoped I would too. I did not see her often and she has now sadly passed away. I treasure the remaining memories I have of her: how she wore pastel chunky sweaters, how she baked sugar cookies for me and my brother and my cousins using Pillsbury dough (is there a more American brand?), and how she loved collecting lighthouse-related paraphernalia from paintings to figurines. Most of all, I treasure these 4 Little House books. They are now my most tangible connections to her. Sometimes items outlive us, often they are less fleeting than memories. Sometimes, you live in the things you leave behind.

I remember loving the books as Grandma R hoped. On afternoons after school, I would devour them inside an air-conditioned car braving the notorious Jakarta traffic to get home. My body may be stuck in traffic congestion, but my imagination was absorbed by the wilderness of 19th century North America.

Rereading this at 30, I think some of the writing isn’t great: the prose doesn’t always flow well and the story is at times choppily presented. Little House in the Big Woods is slice of life – a year in the life, to be exact. It follows a year of life in the Wisconsin “Big Woods” for Laura’s family.

Life for little Laura and her family in their log house was isolated and subject to the seasons. They were hours away from the nearest town and hours away from other family members in their log houses in other areas of the “Big Woods” so they had to be self-sufficient.

We begin when winter was coming. Laura, her big sister Mary, Ma, and Pa had to cure meats to make sure they had enough food supply to last the winter. Winter was also for making maple sugar and maple syrup, spring was for making cheese, summer was for planting vegetables, and autumn was for harvest and storing food away for another winter.

Family members would visit each other for Christmas, dances, and to help each other with harvest crops. While families in the “Big Woods” were independent, there was still enough social interactions to nurture life.

As a child, I loved these descriptions of chores from a bygone era. Life, in Little House in the Big Woods, was very tactile. You churned your own butter, you made your own cheese, you created your survival. As a child getting her produce from supermarkets and her food cooked by others, there was something enchanting and exotic about Little House in the Big Woods.

As a 30-year-old, I see Little House in the Big Woods as a profoundly American product. The story it tells is the Puritan lifestyle: absolutely no work and no smiles on Sabbath day, strip yourself of all frivolity, rigid days of never-changing and never-ending chores, etc. Without this constant ethos of hard work, you would die. At times, I sensed a rejection of pleasure that I simultaneously admired and recoiled against.

This isn’t to say that life in Laura’s household was always po-faced. They had the simple joys of Pa playing his fiddle and telling stories. They sometimes went to the general store to buy pretty fabrics for dresses. They would go to grandma & grandpa’s for dances and delicious big family dinners. As an adult, however, it’s easy to see that Laura took so much pleasure in these trips because of how few and far between they were. Law of diminishing returns and all…

As a 30-year-old, Little House in the Big Woods does read like an instruction manual for the pioneer lifestyle and like an instruction manual to raise good little boys and girls. A bit didactic. At this point in my life, I prefer my stories to be subtler.

(Of course, I couldn’t help but smile a little. With all this manual labor, who’s got time to deal with an existential crisis?)

If I were to read Little House in the Big Woods for the first time as a 30-year-old, out of curiosity for this American children’s classic, I’d leave underwhelmed. I’d be glad to have checked it off the endless list of books I would like to read before I die but I wouldn’t seek out Little House on the Prairie, the next book in the series (and the one I remember as my favorite!).

But my relationship with Little House in the Big Woods is not purely about its content. In fact, its content matters little. The book no longer takes me to the woods of Wisconsin; it takes me to innocent childhood days of seeing firsthand life in the American suburbs, of baking Pillsbury cookies, of Grandma R’s sweaters and sweetness.

These books now embody Grandma R to me rather than a children’s story. Fiction evokes the emotional. No. Fiction is emotional.

Rereading Little House in the Big Woods also created a connection to my younger self. There were long descriptions of Pa making hunting bullets and cleaning his rifle that I forgot existed. Yet scenes and imagery of Mary churning butter and Laura’s palpable joy from receiving her first real doll for Christmas remain in my mind’s eye even to this day.

It made me smile. I was always a girly girl. Now I’m just a very feminine woman. Some things don’t change. I still had to force down boredom when reading passages about guns and hunting game. But I still devour pages about making homemade cheese and maple syrup with gusto.

It’s such a cliched takeaway, but our personal histories often eclipse the textual content of a book. The words in a book connect us to the wider world: they teach us about various fields and broaden our understanding of faraway places and people. But even without the words contained within, books embody things for us, connect us to precious memories, and become physical mementos of places and people and ourselves.

Early July Bonuses

My brother is back home for the summer holidays! And with him came some gifts. Items in the top row I had requested, but he very thoughtfully bought me the coloring book without me asking.

Top Row: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente, La Roche-Posay Toleriane Dermo-Cleanser, and NARS 413 BLKR Semi-Matte Lipstick

Bottom Row: Lost Ocean by Johanna Basford

The title of Catherynne M. Valente’s fantasy novel is a mouthful, isn’t it? I’ve been intrigued by Valente for a couple of years now. I even read the prologue of her novel Deathless on Tor’s website (which you can also read here). Whilst I really loved her lyrical writing style, I kept dithering. Not sure why now that I think about it. Then, I found out she has written a middle-grade fantasy series and decided I would rather read that even though I haven’t touched anything middle-grade in years. Moods are changeable and strange.

The plot of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making sounds pretty standard. A bored young girl is whisked off into a magical place called Fairyland where she has her own quest and adventures. I’m here for the sensory prose, however – I’ve read small bits of the novel and was not disappointed by the writing.

(Funnily enough, this is one moody acquisition that logically ties into my life. My new job is demanding so it makes sense to stock up on easier reads).

This is not a beauty blog (she protests, for the hundredth time), so I’ll keep this brief. The La Roche-Posay is a facial cleanser that I kind of regret requesting, since my skin isn’t finicky. There really is no point in buying a more expensive cleanser. As for the lipstick – err, I own a truly shameful amount of lipsticks (sounds familiar?), but that plummy red-brown color! auxiliarybeauty has an excellent blog post about 413 BLKR, including swatches.

I had pooh-poohed the coloring for adults trend as a fad, but then someone suggested I try it to alleviate some of my anxiety. So I did. And I realized that I love it, although I think I demolish the entire point by taking it way too seriously. But I guess that’s my nature – I have a tendency to pour my heart and soul into projects (while simultaneously having a tendency to avoid projects but forget I wrote that). Here are some of my work:

As you can see, I love slapping on the bright colors. I’ve seen others utilize shading and gradation to beautiful effect and at first, I was envious of such skills. But in the spirit of being kind to myself, I tell myself that all that intense vividness doesn’t mean a less-skilled work. It’s just different.

Now that I’ve inundated you with shiny new things, it’s time to actually review a book. I finished Yoko Ogawa’s short story collection Revenge last week and really loved it. Its full-length review will be my next post.

Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault

Jane, the Fox and Me

Translated from French by Cristelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou

At this point, I’ve read three of Groundwood Books’ graphic novels for children. Organized by reading order and incidentally, from least to most adored: A Year without Mom by Dasha Tolstikova, Harvey by Herve Bouchard and Janice Nadeau, and now, Jane, the Fox and Me. I’m sensing a pattern here: the artwork is always superlative, the stories quiet, gentle, and tender. So quiet, gentle, and tender are they – that all of them are a tad forgettable.

That’s not to say that Groundwood Books choose stinkers. Far from it. These are good graphic novels with some excellent qualities. To me personally, they just don’t have that special something that would push me to rate them higher. And in fact, I respect Groundwood Books for choosing subdued atmosphere over dramatic bombast. One of the elements I appreciate from these graphic novels is how precisely they capture a child’s innocence/self-centeredness. Political havoc in A Year without Mom matters not to little Dasha. She’s more concerned about her first crush and how her school friends treat her. A parent’s death is unreal to the titular protagonist of Harvey – he spends the night thinking of an old movie he once saw.

Jane, the Fox and Me similarly tells of a young child’s tribulations. Helene is not living in a war-torn country. She is not dealing with abusive parents. But she is struggling all the same. Girls who were once her friends are bullying her at school. Her mother, although loving, is too tired raising three children alone to notice. Helene finds solace in reading Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. She identifies with Jane, from her plainness to her mettle. But when Helene’s class leaves for a two-week nature camp, will Jane Eyre alone save her from the cruelty of other kids?

I’m not the first reviewer who has noticed that Helene’s world is drawn in black-and-white yet moments when she is recounting Jane Eyre are fully colored. A clever and beautiful touch, I think. Not to mention, long-term bibliophiles would relate – As a child, school is too mundane and gray to be real, fictional worlds were brighter and felt more corporeal to me.

So to conclude, I was mildly disappointed because I had heard such lovely things about Jane, the Fox and Me on booktube. Perhaps the hype ruined it for me even though there was nothing particularly wrong with Jane, the Fox and Me. Britt and Arsenault really captured Helene’s isolation and loneliness exceptionally well. You can really feel Helene and her perspective of the world.

Of course, the artwork is simply beautiful – I expect no less from anything Groundwood Books publish at this point. Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki is the final unread Groundwood graphic novel I own and I’m looking forward to it.

Harvey by Herve Bouchard and Janice Nadeau


My edition of Harvey was translated from French by Helen Mixter

Someone ought to stop me from compulsively checking on Groundwood Books’ catalogue. The Canadian children’s publisher has released many beautiful picture books and graphic novels. Harvey is the second graphic novel of theirs I’ve read and the art doesn’t disappoint. The illustration style is lovely and whimsical, with a muted color scheme that echoes the story’s mood and setting. I can’t remember any bright shades anywhere in Harvey.



Harvey feels like a picture book/graphic novel hybrid. There are no speech bubbles, although dialogue exists. All the text is presented in a picture book format. And the text’s font relays a subtle sweet touch. Handwritten and stiff, it perfectly mimics a schoolboy’s best classroom writing.

The plot follows Harvey, our eponymous narrator of young grade school age. Harvey and his younger brother had only finished racing and playing in the slush of Canada’s early spring when they find out their father has died of a heart attack. Harvey deals with the boy’s life immediately prior to this sudden death and his reactions and coping approach immediately after.

Having read Groundwood’s Harvey and A Year Without Mom (reviewed here), I have a hunch that their editors love gentle, tender stories. Because A Year Without Mom is set in early 1990s Moscow, I had thought the graphic novel would impart some historical and political lessons. With Harvey, I had thought the father’s sudden death would feed a lot of drama into the story. But it is not so in both cases. Both Harvey and A Year Without Mom are about kids quietly struggling with life. Their struggles aren’t overwhelmingly bombastic. Rather, they are relatable day to day hurts and aches: problems at school, problems with friends, feeling alone and out of place and uprooted.

What I loved and related to most about Harvey is how accurately it captures a young child’s reaction to death. Little Harvey wasn’t sobbing, wasn’t distraught. In fact, his emotional reaction can feel too subdued to a reader. Little Harvey fended off the idea of death by searching for his father at home, despite seeing an ambulance take the body away. He spent the night fantasizing about a film. But gradually he grows to understand things are different now. Permanently so.

Overall, I appreciated Harvey’s art more than the story. But then, there’s not much of a story to begin with. I admired that the book feels emotionally true –especially taking into account that the story is told from a young child’s perspective. I like Harvey more than A Year Without Mom and I absolutely would love to read more of Groundwood Books’ publications.

A Year without Mom by Dasha Tolstikova


I must begin my review of A Year without Mom, a graphic memoir, with several apologies. A good graphic book review will appraise both the art and the story. Here’s apology #1: my understanding of art is low. So is my knowledge of art terminology. My description of the art will therefore be layman and subjective since I don’t quite know the conditions that make an illustration great.

Now, I could –and will—attach some pictures of the contents so you can visualize the art style. Well, here comes apology #2: I have no camera, only a cell phone and bad photography skills to boot. So yeah, questionable photo quality ahoy! You would be forgiven for thinking this post will be terminally useless and clicking the back button. For the rest of you intrepid ones, carry on!

The titular mother of A Year without Mom has been accepted to a graduate program in the United States, leaving her twelve-year old daughter Dasha behind in early 90s Moscow. Life goes on for Dasha as she continues school and navigates friendships and crushes.

You’d be forgiven for thinking the 90s Moscow setting would make this memoir lean slightly political. I thought the same. We were both wrong. Any political and historical context is glossed over entirely. You could tell the same story of 6th grade tribulations anywhere, be there Moscow or Addis Ababa or London.

I expected a dramatic story where mom’s absence overwhelmed Dasha with the task of fending for herself while dealing with a murky political climate. What I got was an everygirl story. A Year without Mom is a misleading title as the mother’s absence never felt strenuous. Dasha has always lived with her grandparents and mom being MIA still means two loving family figures and nice vacations during school holidays. A more appropriate title would be Grade School Drama as this memoir is all about Dasha’s nascent puberty. Dasha goes to school. Dasha worries about the “coolness” of good grades. Dasha has hormonal crushes. Dasha wonders if her friends are true.

I’ve read some goodreads reviews that describe the plot as dull/mundane/soporific/all of the above. One commenter stated that if it weren’t for the Moscow setting no publisher would even try to publish this book. To some degree, I agree that the “plot” feels quite throwaway and not very memorable but after page fifty, it’s crystal clear that Dasha Tolstikova wasn’t trying to follow in Marjane Satrapi’s footsteps with Persepolis. A Year without Mom is meant to be relatable, not informative. A Year without Mom shows no matter where you are, some feelings and experiences remain the same.

Once I realized that this was a piece of juvenile literature with no intention of making a grand statement, I enjoyed A Year without Mom more. There were moments when I chuckled and hung my head in shame at Dasha’s actions –so similar to my own youth and present (cough, repetitive screams of “MY LIFE IS RUINED!” cough).

I like the art more than the story. The art is in pencil and ink wash, with limited, muted colors. The color scheme (or lack thereof) is the first thing that struck out at me. Nearly everything is paper white and ink gradations, making the pages a succession of white, grey, and near-black tones. Rarely, there’s red to liven up Dasha’s cap, a character’s clothing, or the blush of one’s cheek. Rarer still are splotches of navy blue.

The art style itself is lovely, whimsical, and childlike. It looks like something a child would draw, which adds to the authenticity of a young girl’s voice.

A Year without Mom is part of my Frankfurt book loot. I’m happy to own it, as I like the art. But come now, how can you not be happy to own a freebie? For those of you considering a purchase, I’d say a youngsters and tween girls would be happy to have it. Adults should tread with more caution.

Some pictures below to give you folks a peek at the illustration style:


Dasha’s apartment and front door


Dasha and her friends


Interior of a school