In my last blog entry, I asked what nonfiction kids books should be stocked in any self-respecting bookstore. Among the comments from readers (which were disappointingly few, I might add) was Marcia Calhoun Forecki’s suggestion of The School Children’s Blizzard by Marty Rhodes Figley and Shelly O. Haas and Blizzard: The 1888 Whiteout by Jacqueline Ball. Because every self-respecting bookstore should have at least 4 books on the 1888 storm, I added two more on the subject, Blizzard: The Storm that Changed America by Jim Murphy and a picture book by the author I’m writing about today, Terrible Storm by Carol Otis Hurst.
Carol was a friend of mine who, sadly, died two years ago. She was a teacher, professional storyteller, and language-arts consultant who, again sadly, did not start writing kids books until she was 70. She published several worthy novels. But I thought her strongest work was her nonfiction—the delightful Terrible Storm and the extraordinary Rocks in His Head, an ALA Notable and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor Book.
I’m Jewish. Like most Jewish Americans my age, I had grandparents with accents and a family history that disappears into a genealogical black hole more than three generations back. Do I know what my great-grandfather’s life in the shtetl was like? No. And what were those priceless punchlines I missed when Bubbe made cracks in Yiddish?
Carol’s family wasn’t very fancy, but they had lived in Massachusetts since dirt—and I almost mean that literally. Let’s just say the DAR had nothing on her. Generation after generation living in the same place, knowing the land, knowing the culture and history, knowing each other. There was a lot of porch sitting in New England before TV and videogames so there were a lot of stories told.
Terrible Storm and Rocks in His Head are both grounded in all of this. The first is the story of her two grandfathers, how these very different men thought of and rode out the Blizzard of 1888. Rocks is the story of Carol’s father and what can sometimes happen when a dreamer follows his or heart and passion.
They are fine nonfiction. They are simple portraits of complicated people. They take place in important times of our history, their settings drawn with vivid detail. And they are wry but hearty stories with the right cadence and buildup that takes you to two satisfying ends.