My friend Bonnie served fresh strawberry pie last week, and I am still thinking about it. These ripe, red treats from the fields of Florida can't be beat.
As Plant City warms up for its annual Florida Strawberry Festival (Feb. 28-March 10), it's a great time to remember a classic children's book about our strawberry country in the early 1900s.
Lois Lenski's "Strawberry Girl" won the American Library Association's prestigious Newbery Medal in 1946; decades later, it remains in print and on library shelves.
As some online reviews suggest, the book is not all sweetness and light; "I was anticipating Strawberry Shortcake," one Amazon.com reviewer writes. "What I got was 'Tobacco Road' for kids. An oddly shocking delight."
An adopted Floridian
The favorite Florida-related book of my youth was Rob White's "The Lion's Paw"; I learned about "Strawberry Girl" a few years ago in the pages of "Making Waves: Female Activists in 20th-Century Florida," an essay collection from the University Press of Florida.
Lenski was a pathfinder who followed her youthful passion for art. Born in 1893 to a Lutheran minister and his wife in Springfield, Ohio, she studied education at Ohio State University and also took as many art courses as she could manage.
After college, instead of taking a job as a teacher as her father expected, Lenski ventured to New York City to study at the Art Students' League and went on to London in 1920, where she began illustrating children's books.
Returning to New York, she married one of her former teachers, artist Arthur Covey. The couple and their growing family lived in Connecticut while Lenski continued to carve a career as a children's-book author and illustrator. Many of her books focused on historical themes.
In 1942, the family traveled south to Lakeland to spend the winter, and Florida became Lenski's home for at least part of every year until her death at her Tarpon Springs residence in 1974.
Student of the 'strawberry schools'
Sketchpad in hand, Lenski would venture into the fields to draw the pickers at work. She was especially interested in the children who worked in the berry harvest during their three-month winter break from Polk County's "strawberry schools."
In her early 1940s research, Lenski also interviewed older Lakeland residents about growing up in rural Florida to create her story of the fictional Boyer and Slater families and their piney-woods rivalry.
"Like their antecedents in the Carolina mountains, the Florida Crackers have preserved a flavorsome speech, rich in fine old English idiom — word, phrase and rhythm," Lenski wrote in the foreword to Strawberry Girl.
That flavorsome speech may at first sound a little forced from today's perspective. Dialogue such as "You git outen here!" or "I don't want no possum. Hit don't appeal to my notion" (referring to a possum to eat) may take a little getting used to.
The idioms are especially interesting. Angry that one of the neighbors' cow horses has ruined some of her strawberry plants, the book's heroine, Birdie Boyer, tells her father, "We belong to build us a fence. We belong to fence in the grove and all the fields, Pa."
And we belong to remember "Strawberry Girl" and its author, Lois Lenski.
Spotlight on 'The Cracker Kitchen'
Here's a coincidence: "Strawberry Girl" won the Newbery medal, and author Janis Owens, who is speaking in Orlando this week, lives in Newberry, Florida. The spelling is different, but Owens and Lois Lensky's classic have a lot in common. They're both steeped in the Cracker culture of old Florida.
Owens, an author of award-winning fiction, has also written "The Cracker Kitchen: A Cookbook in Celebration of Cornbread Fed, Down-Home Family Stories and Cuisine." She'll be at the Orange County Regional History Center in Orlando on Saturday, Feb. 23, for a 1 p.m. program that includes food sampling. The cost for members is $10 (nonmembers $20). Call 407-836-7010 for details or to register.
Joy Wallace Dickinson can be reached at email@example.com or by good old-fashioned letter at the Sentinel, 633 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, FL 32801.