I first read this amazing little gem by Karen Cushman during my final year in college, when it was new and my interest in children’s literature first began to emerge. For me, this book is nearly perfect, and not just because it brings together my love of midwives and children’s books. It’s also just an amazing work of literature that introduced us to Karen Cushman, who has since written a number of other great works.
We’ll be doing the Middle Ages this year for history and I wanted to start the year with a medieval book for our first read aloud, to get into the medieval mood. However, I hesitated before using this one. It’s such a “girl” book in many ways. Not only is the protagonist female, but the subject of midwifery is obviously female-centric. Not to say that boys and men shouldn’t also take an interest, but it did make me pause. The book is short, but I also worried that the plot and the language might be a tad sophisticated for my kids. Alyce’s voice is a complex and compelling one. It’s amazing to me that Cushman managed to capture this sense of self-pity and angst without it seeming whiny or boring like it can in many young female narrators.
It took us a couple mornings to get into it, but as Brat transformed into Beetle and finally into Alyce, the kids cheered to see her successes with delivering babies and calves. But most importantly, the message of the story has become a mantra for us around here that I hope is sinking in with the kids. At the end of the story, Alyce has run away after a disastrous delivery. She realizes that her place is back with the midwife where she can learn her craft. She returns, only be turned away. She walks off despondently, but then realizes that the midwife has told her what she must do to stay. Alyce turns around and bangs on the midwife’s door and tells her she refuses to go away. She’s realized that it’s okay to fail as long as you try again. Once she’s learned that, the midwife lets her back in.
For me, this is one of the central ideas of learning. Things shouldn’t come easy all the time. Learning is hard. It’s failure after failure before the triumph of knowledge and skill. To learn, you have to be willing to fail and try again. I don’t want to be too harsh with the kids. I think learning should also be fun, experiential, interesting and joyful. But I want to gently push my kids and know that they can take that. Occasionally we get tears when I say a first try at something new isn’t right. Now, we’ve started referencing Alyce when that happens. She tried and failed and tried again.