Around the World in Picture Books

With vacation plans cancelled, field trips foregone, and friends warily keeping their distance, picture books became our window to the world in a whole new way this pandemic year.  We skated Holland’s canals, went reindeer sledding in Lapland, and watched kites soaring in China, all from the cuddly comfort of our couch.

Among our favorite tour guides was Elizabeth F. McCrady’s Children of Foreign Lands, especially “Wilhelmina of Holland,” affectionately dubbed “Little Hyena” by my young traveling companions. We had fun comparing McCrady’s lovely vintage illustrations and traditional stories of life long ago with photographs of contemporary children in the From Dawn to Dusk series. Flutterbudget especially seemed fascinated with these children whose daily life is so different yet in some ways reassuringly similar to ours.

At every stop, we consulted atlases, sketched pictures of our favorite scenes, and sampled the local cuisine. We planted our own tulip garden, played Chinese jump rope, and tried the much-lauded “discover how blubber keeps polar animals warm” experiment (are mine the only children who object to having their hands smeared with slimy, smelly lard preparatory to plunging them into a bowl of ice water? And can anyone suggest a fail-proof way to remove lard from the frozen arms of a screaming child? Foreign travel certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted!)

Having fortified our flagging spirits with Norwegian butter cookies, we beat a hasty retreat to Africa, where I resumed our customary practices: consult atlas, read mountain of picture books, draw sketches, sample recipes. We had found our travel groove. Ho hum. I never suspected something was missing. But Africa was about to change me from a tourist seeking fun adventures to a pilgrim longing for transformation.

Timing is a curious thing. During our African sojourn, I happened to be working on a huge project for a ministry I volunteer with – a ministry that plants churches and starts schools in Tanzania. As I copyedited the stories of hundreds of children waiting for sponsors, the common themes of poverty, abandonment and hunger confronted me relentlessly. Two meals a day were a luxury; one meal common; days without meals no surprise. And those meals when they did come? Beans and rice. “Beans and rice, beans and rice, beans and rice”…those words beat a tattoo in my mind as I lay awake at night.

Visions of my pantry danced through my mind – sacks of rice, towers of canned beans for sure, but also cookies, crackers, pretzels (all “healthy and organic, of course). Snacks are their own food group around here! I suddenly saw my meal planning efforts in their truly ridiculous light…my nail-biting attempts to scroll through a dozen food blogs looking for that magical new recipe that would leave everyone smacking their lips and content for at least a couple hours…my harried efforts to please the preferences of my carnivore husband, omnivore daughters, and plant-based self…my frantic worries over how to balance nutrition with peace in our home.

Into this wrangle came the sanity of beans and rice. Simple, inexpensive, wholesome. And it’s what people all over the world eat every single day of their lives. One night I threw caution to the wind and cooked up a big batch of Tanzanian beans and rice for dinner. The girls didn’t complain. In fact, they ate it surprisingly well. We all agreed it was delicious. But then we talked about what it would be like to always eat this exact same dish. Every. Single. Day. Twice a day – if we were lucky. We couldn’t begin to fathom the thought.

Luckily in America there’s no end of variety even in the beans and rice department. A quick food blog scan reaped enough recipes for me to never cook the same beans and rice twice in my lifetime. I limited myself to just a few recipes, put them in a rotation, and began to serve beans and rice several times a week. No one complained. Everyone ate beans and rice at least as well as they ate or didn’t eat the more complicated recipes I had been cooking. The grocery bill plummeted. My weekly meal planning session went from forever long to about 10 minutes. I found myself washing far fewer dishes. I spent more time with my girls.

About this time I checked two books out of the library that had been on my list for awhile: What the World Eats and Material World. I spent a couple spellbound evenings rifling the pages. These books show pictures of families sitting together with one week’s worth of groceries and all their material possessions piled around them. By American standards, the piles are pitifully meager. A bag of rice, a bowl of lentils, perhaps a slender handful of greens; a few cooking bowls and a blanket; and what seems completely incomprehensible – NO TOYS. Gasp!

Again, my mind scanned our closets and cupboards, and I writhed in shame over all the stuffed animals, outdoor equipment, and “educational” toys sitting untouched. I had unwittingly bought into the notion that having a rich childhood, and especially a vibrant homeschool, equated to stuff… er, “resources,” right?

I already considered myself fairly minimal when it came to toys because of my utter loathing of clutter. And I needed to remind myself that guilt tripping can be just as damaging as the other extreme. A few quality toys do bring joy and depth to my girls’ childhood; some resources are necessary to educate them appropriately. But when I took a step back, pondered what’s normal for a huge portion of the world, and honestly considered what my kids play with every day versus what gathers dust, my head started spinning.

I couldn’t believe the thrift store pile I amassed or how much lighter I felt. With less stuff, the girls could actually find the toys they do enjoy and play with them more. They had less to fight over. They had less to pick up at the end of the day. My next challenge: preventing the toy surplus from ever piling up in our home again. This means new boundaries around birthdays and gift-giving holidays. It means sending something old to the thrift store before acquiring something new. It means pausing that knee-jerk, Amazon one-click reaction. But most of all, it means new beliefs in my heart about what my children truly need, what brings meaning to our lives, where our joy and peace are found, what education is all about. Lessons I thought I had already learned, but our closets told such a different story.

We’re still happily sailing the seven seas, this time in the excellent company of our beloved little black cat Jenny Linsky. As we map our way through Jenny Goes to Sea, I’m finding myself less worried about cute activities and more about where the voyage leads our hearts. If our ship crosses paths with yours somewhere on the Atlantic, give a holler to let us know how the journey is transforming you.

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