Farmer Boy (Little House on the Prairie Series, Vol. 2)
Laura Ingalls Wilder in 1933
Read Aloud for Lower Elementary
Self-sufficiency, the importance of hard work, family values
Two months to finish, reading one chapter a day
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What I love about this book
I was truly surprised how much my students loved this book, because it has very little plot or dialogue. When I read the book on my own before reading it to the class, I found it interesting but dry. I didn’t find the characters to be very complex and I didn’t see particularly deep themes. I honestly wouldn’t have chosen it if it hadn’t come highly recommended by another teacher that I trust.
The book takes us through a year in young Almanzo’s life living on a large farm in upstate New York with his family. It shows us his everyday life of chores, meals and work. Set in 1866, the life and times of self-sufficient farmers bears very little resemblance to most suburban/urban life of today. Some of my students have visited farms, some have firsthand experience with gardens but overall, this could have been another planet for how remote the experiences were- which is what made it so rich!
The value of Farmer Boy comes from the discussions. Though it is a very charming book on it’s own, the pacing is very slow and there are long passages that are description and procedure heavy. To a young independent reader, this might be a turn off.
The majority of our discussions were comparing and contrasting personal experience. We talked about the time and effort required for Almanzo and his family to get their food, clothes and housing. The family cooks everything from scratch and makes nearly all of their ingredients from scratch too. They harvested ice from the lake, sugar from maple trees and candles from beef tallow!
This would naturally lead us into another theme that my class discusses throughout the Montessori Curriculum, that all the pieces of the modern world we live in had to be invented by someone and how we build interdependencies with others. Almanzo’s family had few intedependencies, they sold excess crops and butter to the city-folk and bought some goods like tin pots and shoes, but everything else they handmade. This in contrast to today where I can teach children about literature and get money to buy food, I’m highly interdependent on others for my survival.
The nature of being young is to not have a lot of worldly experience and to not know how things could be different; children take the world as it is concretely and can’t yet imagine it being another way. You’ve probably experienced this if you tell a child, “Cell phones hadn’t been invented when I was your age”, the shock on their faces! Whenever the Wilder family would light a candle instead of ‘flipping a switch’, or melt snow for bathwater instead of turning on the faucet, we would talk about it. “How would you do that? How is that similar or different from your life? Why didn’t they [do everyday modern experience]?” There definitely came a point during discussions where the default answer was, “That hadn’t been invented yet!”, which led more than once to a mini-research project.
Shoes! A chapter near the end of the book goes through the process of Almanzo’s family getting their one pair of shoes for the year. The cobbler comes to their house and lives there for two weeks before loading his bench and tools into his buggy and driving away to the next customer. This chapter had six (!) pages of description on how the cobbler made the shoes.
After the chapter I had each of my students go and get a pair of shoes and we talked about the different parts of the shoe. How did they think their shoes were made and how was that different from the wood and leather shoes made for Almanzo?. We talked about how many shoes they owned and how they purchased their shoes; were they custom made to fit them perfectly, or did they go to a store and try on a few pairs until they found just the right ones?
Honestly a pretty typical discussion, but as soon as read aloud was over, nearly the entire class wanted to make shoes! So we let them, strange as it was. They were focused and purposeful, older students wrote instructions, younger students tried a lot of different materials (bubble wrap, cardboard, paper, duct tape, felt). I later provided a video that showed closely how the shoes had been made in the book.
My personal favorite part
Almanzo’s father is a stern, quiet man who deeply values hard work and clearly loves his family immensely. At the Fourth of July celebration in town, some town boys tease Almanzo for not having a nickel to buy lemonade, they dare him to ask his father for the coin. Ashamed and embarrassed, Almanzo goes and asks.
Father looked at him a long time. Then he took out his wallet and opened it, and slowly he took out a round, big silver half-dollar. He asked:
“Almanzo, do you know what this is?”
“Half a dollar,” Almanzo answered.
“Yes. But do you know what half a dollar is?”
Almanzo didn’t know know it was anything but half a dollar.
“It’s work, son,” Father said. “That’s what money is; it’s hard work.”
The discussion goes on with Father asking Almanzo how much work it takes to grow potatoes and how much you can sell them for. Almanzo gets the fifty cents, shows the boys, and buys a pig instead of the lemonade.
I loved this part, but it was too abstract to really dig into with my lower elementary students, I hope one day they’ll think back on it when they’re ready.
Farmer Boy was excellent for read aloud and I think it has surprisingly relatable characters for children age 7-10. An older child will need less support than a younger one understanding the how and why of some chapters, but I think the most value a child can get is by having a discussion after each chapter.
The book is totally stand alone from the rest of the Little House on the Prairie series.
See other books I recommend for this age range on the book list page!
What do you think of this Farmer Boy book review? Does it match with your experience reading this book? Have you used it for read aloud? I’d love to hear about your experience with this book in the comments below.