Celebrate the Sugaring Season

At The Children’s School we try to give children a strong sense of place and community, and what better way to participate in local traditions than by exploring delicious things to eat? If you enjoyed the photos from our visit to the sugarhouse on Heckscher Farm, we recommend two picture books that will deepen your child’s understanding of maple sugaring, a staple of New England foodways.

Sugar Snow is an adaptation of a story in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods. Doris Ellinger’s colorful illustrations evoke the original drawings by Garth Williams and give a sense of what life was like in 1871 for a little girl living in a log cabin in the Wisconsin woods. When a soft, wet snow falls, Pa tells 4-year-old Laura that it’s “sugar snow.” She tastes a few flakes on his sleeve and is disappointed until Pa explains that it’s the kind of snow that makes maple trees produce sap. After Pa visits Laura’s grandparents to help harvest the sap, he comes back with a bucket of maple syrup and maple sugar cakes, and the Ingalls family has a celebration that helps them forget the cold. The details of pioneer life, as Laura remembers them, are sure to inspire fascination and questions; luckily there’s a whole series of these picture books to delve into.

Sugarbush Spring, by Marsha Wilson Chall, is a richly illustrated account of an old-fashioned sugaring season in Minnesota, when horses pulled the wagon full of sap pails and a little girl could help her grandfather pick which trees were mature enough to be tapped by measuring their trunks with her arms. Even the horses understand what the expedition is about and nuzzle the girl’s hands for a taste of sugar. After the trees have been tapped, the whole family settles into the sugarhouse to help cook down and bottle the sap. They stay up late into the night, passing the hours by making popcorn, roasting marshmallows and playing board games. There’s plenty of nostalgia in Chall’s description of the sugarhouse, with its “maple steam” and the “cotton-candy sweet” smell, but she makes clear that the sugaring process involved hard work, precision and an element of suspense: the bottles must be perfectly clean, the sap boils at exactly 219 degrees, and the quality—determined by color—will vary every year depending on the weather. The grandfather’s attunement to seasonal changes comes through in his evocative descriptions: a Maple Sugar Moon, “snow that’s too wet for angel making” and “sugarbush spring.” On the last page, his grandchildren, sticky with sugar, look forward to the next sugaring season, “when once again we can fill our arms with trees.”

These two delightful books depict a pre-industrial version of maple sugaring that is sure to fascinate children. The best part is that they can visit our neighbors at Heckscher Farm to experience the process in real life; the SMNC is even throwing a maple sugar festival this weekend to celebrate this year’s harvest.

Here’s to adding a little sweetness to your bedtime reading!