Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan, winner of the 1986 Newbery.
I read this book, which has no illustrations, to my 3-year-old daughter in one sitting. She kept asking for another chapter…and, no, it wasn’t bedtime or naptime. It was mid-morning, and she fell in love with this book.
I once heard Susan Patron, author of Newbery-winning The Higher Power of Lucky, speak at a conference, and she said the best piece of writing advice she’d ever received was to choose one book that she loved, a book she wished she had written, and type it up. She chose Sarah, Plain and Tall.
I can see why.
This is a nearly perfect book. (I’d say it is a perfect book, only I’m not sure there is such a thing.) I don’t think there’s a single misplaced word in the whole 58 pages. There’s certainly not a single misplaced image.
MacLachlan evokes her setting and characters clearly, simply, beautifully. She tells the reader almost nothing, and yet the pages are alive with the sights, sounds, and smells of a Midwestern farm in the mid-1800’s. They are alive with the feelings of the characters, even though emotions are almost never named. MacLachlan is a master of “show, don’t tell” and of “omit needless words.”
In the spirit of Susan Patron’s writing teacher, I thought I’d type up a few passages to share with you, so you can read for yourself some of this exquisite book (and so I can have these gorgeous words flow through my fingertips).
“I looked at the long dirt road that crawled across the plains, remembering the morning that Mama had died, cruel and sunny. They had come for her in a wagon and taken her away to be buried. And then the cousins and aunts and uncles had come and tried to fill up the house. But they couldn’t.”
“Sarah came in the spring. She came through green grass fields that bloomed Indian paintbrush, red and orange, and blue-eyed grass.”
“Matthew and Maggie came with their two children and a sack full of chickens. Maggie emptied the sack into the yard and three red banty chickens clucked and scattered. “They are for you,” she told Sarah. “For eating.” Sarah loved the chickens. She clucked back to them and fed them grain. They followed her, shuffling and scratching primly in the dirt. I knew they would not be for eating.”
“…at dawn there was the sudden sound of hail, like stones tossed against the barn. We stared out the window, watching the ice marbles bounce on the ground. And when it was over we opened the barn door and walked out into the early morning light. The hail crunched beneath our feet. It was white and gleaming for as far as we looked, like sun on glass. Like the sea.”
If you’ve not read this beautiful little gem of a book, I hope you will. Reading it is like finding a piece of perfectly smooth blue sea glass winking up at you from the sand.