Frigid temperatures and heavy snowfall have ensured much of America has spent a great deal of time indoors since the New Year. In between board games, baking cookies and muffins, and eating soups, chilis and stews, G and I have been snuggling up with a good book. This time of year I like to reach for Tomie dePaola. Though they may not always admit it, A and S have not fully outgrown the Italian-Irish American author and his picture books. G will always happily sit for a Tomie dePaola story. He has many wonderful Christmas-time tales like Tony’s Bread, Merry Christmas, Strega Nona, and The Night of Las Posadas. Yet now that the holidays have passed us by, and we are simply left with the icy winds, salty, slushy stains in our entry way, and mittens thrown here and there, I take comfort in The Days of the Blackbird: A Tale of Northern Italy.
According to dePaola, northern Italy refers to the final three days of January as the days of the blackbird. The author spins a sweet story of kindness, love and miraculous hope. In the northern mountains of Italy, possibly in the late Middle Ages, the Duca Gennaro falls ill and daughter Gemma desperately struggles to nurse him back to health. The Duke’s sole comforts are his daughter and the beautiful song of the birds in his courtyard, particularly that of La Colomba, the all-white dove. Gemma sets out plates of seed and suet for her bird friends. She creates baskets for them stuffed with wool in hopes of persuading them to stay through the winter. Gemma believes her father will recover with bird song and the arrival of spring. The miracle of the story is when La Colomba (the white dove) remains all winter, finding warmth on the coldest final days in January at the top of the duke’s chimney. She is transformed by the soot into La Merla (a blackbird). Of course, the Duke is restored to health, and the birds return in the spring. La Merla is forever black, and Duca Gennaro honors her by naming the last three days in January as the days of the blackbird.
Our first activity with this book was basic geography. We looked at many maps and talked about Italy. This is not an unknown country to G. We have read many stories which take place in Italy, and his father spent several of his growing-up years there. We learned the basics: Italy is in Europe, mostly surrounded by water, and is shaped like a boot. Northern Italy is in the mountains and can get cold in the winter. Fortunately, dePaola sprinkles his book with Italian vocabulary and expressions. Not only does this give a more authentic feel to the tale, but has given G the opportunity to take ownership of the story. He knows the white bird, for example, is La Colomba. He is also excited when Natale arrives, because the villagers get to eat panettone.
Our next activity drew our attention to the birds. G realized we had not filled up the bird feeder in awhile, so we trudged out in the deep, crispy snow to do that. This book focuses on kindness – the kindness of the duke to the villagers, and then Gemma modeling this kindness to the birds and the children.
We peeked in our family room fireplace to talk about ashes and soot. La Colomba was miraculously transformed into La Merla after sitting at the top of the chimney. I printed out a basic bird color page. I lit a couple of matches and let G hold his hand a good distance above the flame to feel the warmth. After blowing out the match, I showed him how to use the burnt end as a “crayon,” and we colored or painted the bird a sooty black. PLEASE be careful when doing this activity with little ones. Obviously, you want to make sure they are supervised at all times. In fact, S warned me when we started that he thought this was NOT a good idea. He is always the concerned brother.
After a couple of days we made a warm basket for our bird, just like Gemma did with a couple of handfuls of cotton balls stuffed into a basket I had on hand. Secretly, I think G was a little disappointed. I think he thought we were going to make a basket for the real birds.
For those of you in wintry climes, may you stay warm with great bowls of soup. May you ALL enjoy health and the warmth of family. Curl up with a good story; hug your children; plan some kindness. May you find and create beauty in these days of the blackbird, the coldest days of the year.