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Thursday, May 30, 2019

Holling's “Keep It Simple” Formula

One of the secrets to Holling’s enduring interest by young people is his simplified vocabulary.  Dr. Seuss — Theodor Geisel — also realized this with his severely truncated lexicon in stories like The Cat in the Hat. 

Holling’s Paddle-to-the-Sea has a Fog Index of 6.9, meaning 91% of everyday words we use are harder.  His Flesch Reading Index score is 75.2, meaning 90% of other vocabulary is harder.  Similarly, only 5% of Holling’s words are “complex.  His word choices have just 1.4 syllables per word.  And, there are just 12.3 words per sentence.

This doesn’t mean Holling wrote down to youngsters or was patronizing.  It does mean a fifth grader can easily pick up a Holling book and understand the story.  Home schooling sources regularly cite Holling’s books for their educational value.  But, to a nine-year-old, Holling is a captivating, comprehensible guide to new worlds. 

(A note of thanks for to E.J. Hirsch, Jr. for What Your Fifth Grader Needs to Know: Fundamentals of a Good Fifth Grade Education, from which these statistics are cited.)

Fog Index: 
9% are easier
91% are harder
Flesch Index: 
10% are easier
90% are harder
Flesch-Kincaid Index: 
12% are easier
88% are harder

Complexity (learn more)
Complex Words: 
5% have fewer
95% have more
Syllables per Word: 
11% have fewer
89% have more
Words per Sentence: 
24% have fewer
76% have more

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Minn Is Still Remembered 68 Years Later



I had a lovely note this week from Barb Langridge, M.Ed.  She’s the Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at the Howard County Central Library in (I believe) Columbia, Maryland.  She wrote to me asking to reprint a review of Minn of the Mississippi that I posted some time ago on Goodreads.  Equally (or more) important, she moderates a Web site called A Book and a Hug ( devoted to encouraging children’s reading. 

Of course she had my permission, and you can read my review at  Back in 2012, one of our followers here, Brad Fisher,  also posted his memories of Minn. And, you can read Ms. Langridge’s posting too at
If I can make a recommendation, Holling’s book, written in 1951, is still available at online booksellers and would be a wonderful gift to any child around the ages of 9 to 12.  Or to anyone who is young at heart and curious about the world.


Saturday, January 5, 2019

The World Comes to Your Livingroom

It’s curious that I continue to see references to and receive e-mails from people who use Holling’s works in home-schooling their children. Theirs is more than just a bucolic trip through a naturalistic world; they focus on the wealth of information Holling’s books that include: science, history, geography, writing, and more.  And their children are richer for the exposure.

Kim, a Chicago native and creator of the blogsite, 730 Sage Street (, says, “Holling C. Holling books are like a banana split of books: literature, geography, history, nature study, travelogue, and all topped with great illustrations. For homeschoolers, his books can be a spine for many subjects, or the basis for a unit study. Even if you do nothing else, you should read [Holling’s books], because your family will enjoy them.”  

Kim begins, “We started with Pagoo, the story of a hermit crab, because we had a bit of a hermit crab obsession going on.  I really didn’t have an idea of how good the book would be.  Pagoo follows the life of a hermit crab from birth through adulthood in a tide pool.  Readers will learn so much about marine life in this book.

“Similarly, Minn of the Mississippi follows the life of a snapping turtle as she travels down the entire length of the Mississippi River.  The book delves into the geology and history of the river as well as the animals that inhabit it.  He also explains how humans interact with and have changed the river.”

She continues that the next three books feature  inanimate objects as the main characters, “which is an interesting change in children’s literature:” Paddle-to-the-Sea, Seabird, and .Tree in the Trail.

.One of her resources is from the Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW), Geography Based Writing Lessons.  She hails it as a source for writing assignments. “We were very happy with it; it solidified the skills learned with IEW Level A, without being boring,” she reports.

Holling’s books can be a “launchpad for science and nature studies.”  They can also revive a world that’s becoming more distant as we thrash our way into the modern age.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Creating Shelf Appeal

I think many visitors to book sellers walk the aises and run their fingers over the covers before majking a selection.  Before Internet search engines, this was the accepted means of reachi9ng prospective customers.  When I worked at the parent company of Funk & Wagnalls, I learned that about 10 percent of the public visited book sellers.  But 100 percent shopped at supermarkets for food, which is why F&W sold its encyclopedia at supermarkets.

Platt & Munk, publishers of Holling’s 1936 book Cowboys, may have attempted similar “shelf attraction” by changing the cover of Cowboys at least three times!  It's not known whether the cover art was created by Holling or the advertising department.

Our able researcher. Joan Hoffman, discovered this curiosity.  She notes, “A visitor brought to the Museum a copy of Holling's Coyboys  to add to our collection.  It had a book jacket that was different from what we had.  The hard cover beneath the jacket is the same.  It looks like we have three different Cowboys books.  

It is similar situation as with the three Holling Indians books.”  Sure ‘nuff, this is what the Indians covers look like from 1935.

(Readers: Please excuse this horrible layout and formatting.  Google is unforgiving in terms of layout!)



Monday, February 22, 2016

Happy Anniversary, Paddle-to-the-Sea

Think back to the five major Holling books published by Houghton Mifflin — Paddle-to-the-Sea, Tree in the Trail, Seabird, Minn of the Mississippi, and Pagoo.  Chances are Paddle, a winner of the Caldecott Prize, tops the list as everyone’s favorite.  Published in 1941, the big book about a little canoe is now 75 years old.  To this, we can only say happy anniversary!  

Part of the book’s success lies in it being a classic “journey” or “road trip” genre of story as well as being a fountain of information on geography, culture, and humanity along the waters of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway.  It was also an uplifting story, published during bleak days as the world went to war.  Equally interesting is the back story of how Paddle came to be created.   

In the late 1930s, Holling and his wife Lucille were road tripping the country.  While in Galveston, they received a letter from Lovell Thompson, editor of children’s books at Houghton Mifflin, a publisher founded in Boston in 1832.  Having seen Holling’s Quaker Oats pioneer series, Thompson asked what kind of books Holling might do for Houghton.  The couple eventually had a quick luncheon meeting with Thompson in Boston, and Holling suggested a story about the Missouri River.  Then, the Hollings returned to the road.  Some weeks later, they were in Ontario and met a Chippewa woman selling birch bark baskets.  Seeing a carving of an Indian figure kneeling in a canoe, he learned it had been made by an 11-year-old boy.  Holling and Lucille were given the carving, or makak, for having taught the woman original designs of her people, those she had forgotten.

The story of a carved Indian boy in a canoe began to come together while the couple ambled back to California.  Months were spent researching  the route through the lakes (some of which Holling knew from working on the water), drawing with watercolor and pen, laying out the pages.  The work then was sent to Boston, Paddle-to-the-Sea was published in 1941, and Holling’s name was established.   
The following year, Holling Clancy Holling was honored for his Paddle-to-the-Sea.  The Caldecott is awarded by the Association of Library Service to Children to a winner and with honorable mentions for the most distinguished contribution by artists who are American citizens or residents.  The ALSC is a division of the American Library Association and a true assurance of excellence in illustration.
And the rest, as they say, is history.  Except that this remarkable book continues to be celebrated 75 years later.
I’m indebted to Hazel Gibb Hinman’s [1910-2004] thesis dissertation that was published by the University of Redlands in 1958, titled The Lives and Works of Holling Clancy Holling.  The Houghton Mifflin illustration is reproduced from Harmen Hielkema’s blog site at

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

I Was Wrong: Holling Art Does “Just Turn Up”

This post should probably be headlined “Found Art, Part Two.”  A very thoughtful note from  loyal reader Lisa in November 2015 revived a magazine cover Holling painted for Successful Farming magazine in 1932. 
The editors of Country Life invite readers to “Step back in time and see Thanksgiving through the eyes of subscribers to our sister publication, Successful Farming, with these classic covers from the early 1900s.”

Sorry this post is a bit late for Thanksgiving.  Holling’s delightful wildlife scene can be viewed at  This cover is number 11 in the slide show.

Like many artists beginning to establish themselves—and later to bring in money—Holling was also a commercial illustrator.  Among his contributions were magazine covers for Junior Home (March 1928- Aug. 1929), Child Life (Sept. 1932-1933), American Junior Red Cross News (various from 1952-1960), and American History Illustrated (Nov. 1974, “Climax of the Whale Hunt” from Seabird).

He was an innovative artist, and produced cutouts and dioramas for children, many sponsored by Quaker Oats and Colgate-Palmolive Peet.  And then there were a few murals and a series of postcards, produced in collaboration with his wife Lucille, featuring the art of Southwest native Americans.

Monday, January 4, 2016

What Would Holling Say, Write and Paint Now?

Holling Clancy Holling wrote Paddle-to-the-Sea at least two decades too soon.  While he was an outstanding artist, storyteller, and educator, he wrote this book in 1941.  The insect-killing properties of DDT had been discovered only two years earlier.  The world was embroiled in a war that concentrated all efforts on industrialization — not nature.  We as Americans seemed to simply accept nature as being unchanging and immutable.

It would be 1962 before Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring with its clear warning of a looming ecological disaster.  It would be another year before Stewart Udall wrote The Quiet Crisis, warning, as Richard Telford reports, that “we live in a land of vanishing beauty, of increasing ugliness, of shrinking open space, and of an overall environment that is diminished daily by pollution and noise and blight.”

I just ran across Richard Telford's well-written commentary on Paddle-to-the-Sea and the environmental questions we now have: “The Things We Carry: Revisiting Holling Clancy Holling’s Paddle-to-the-Sea” (online at  His comments bear reading and considering why this book from 1941 still resonates among readers of all ages.  We wonder what the carved canoe’s adventures might have involved if there had been pollution for it to contend with.  Would Minn have recognized its Mississippi home where aquatic life is dying?

Telford writes graphically in the Ecotone Exchange blog about Holling’s description of the Nipigon country, “All this time the world was changing.  The air grew warmer, the birch twigs swelled with new buds.  A moose pawed the snow beside a log, uncovering green moss and arbutus like tiny stars.  And then, one morning, the gray clouds drifted from the sky.  The sun burst out warm and bright above the hills, and under its glare the snow blankets drooped on the fir trees.”

One reason parents of home-schooled children often turn to Holling’s works is for their depiction of nature, which is disappearing from the children’s lives.  Indeed, nature seems to be disappearing to a greater or lesser degree from all of our lives.  What would Holling have written about sites requiring environmental cleanup, about waterways covered with a sheen of oil, about forests in a parched land threatened by fire?

 Will Holling’s books someday be looked at as a memory of nature in the past tense?  And can he still serve as the voice of conservation of a land that holds so much wonder and meaning?  We hope so.