"There is always something to miss, no matter where you are."
Sarah, Plain and Tall is a short novel about a father and his two children after the death of the children's mother, as told by her daughter Anna. Anna misses her mother greatly, but younger brother Caleb doesn't even remember her; she died giving birth to him. Their father Jacob has become overwhelmed with taking care of them and their Kansas farm, so he writes away for a mail-order bride (though this specific term is never used in the book) to help him with his work.
A woman named Sarah answer's Jacob's letter, and travels to Kansas from Maine to meet him and his children. Anna initially is wary of Sarah, but as the story progresses, the girl and the woman come to understand and care for each other. However, Sarah misses the ocean and the beach that she had in Maine, and much of the story's conflict comes from a central question: will Sarah stay? Will she become the childrens' new mother?
This is easily the shortest book we have ever read in the Read-Aloud Corner, but also among the saddest. However, it might only be sad for me as the resident adult; much of the sorrow is understated or implied, with the reader left to fill in the gaps on how Anna and Caleb (and to a lesser extent Jacob) miss their mother and wife.
Being so short, we were able to read this book in four nights (about two chapters each night). That made it a nice interlude before our next planned book, the much longer and scarier Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
No sex, no violence, no language, no adult dialogue. This is a children's book through-and-through.
However, it is also relentlessly sad, especially for the first three and last two chapters, and so you may need to help you kids understand what loss is and point how each character (Anna, Caleb, Jacob) are dealing with that pain.
As a specific example, there is a sequence near the end of the book where it appears that Sarah has decided to return to Maine, and Anna and Caleb are wondering what they did wrong to make her go away (as children often do when something bad happens, they assume it's their fault). My kids (even the normally stoic B) were struck by how dejected Anna and Caleb were, and A even asked me "Is it their fault?". I explained to him that, no, if Sarah decided not to stay, it was certainly not Anna and Caleb's fault, and that Jacob would tell them the same.
"Was the author trying to make us sad?"
Yes, B. Yes, she was.
"I didn't like it. I mean, I'm glad Sarah stayed, but the book was short and sad and there weren't any real funny parts."
"I liked the horse."
Sarah, Plain and Tall is a short, punchy, sad story about a grieving family and the brave woman who comes to help them. It illustrates ideas such as loss, sorrow, and persistence in a way that even young children can easily understand them. Though it is truly sad, it is also something of a triumph that such a short book could make me and my kids feel something true, something real, in only 9 chapters. If you need a break from the action and fantasy books, check out Sarah, Plain and Tall.
Recommended Age: 5 and up