Milk in the Stars and on the Ground

Ernestine’s Milky Way – written by Kerry Madden-Lunsford, illustrated by Emily Sutton
Schwartz & Wade Books, 2019

I first encountered Emily Sutton’s work at the Society of Illustrator’s annual show of original picture book art, which I used to attend in person, before the pandemic temporarily converted it to an online event.  The book exhibited was One Christmas Wish and I fell in love with her pictures—beautiful, evocative, resonating with classical illustration styles, but not imitative.  When I found Ernestine’s Milky Way, I was not disappointed. Kerry Madden-Lunsford’s story, set in a poor community in the Great Smoky Mountains during World War II, is an absolutely perfect match for Sutton’s art.  Everything about this book deserves attention.  The story is nostalgic, but does not romanticize the past.  The little girl at the center, Ernestine, is brave, persistent, and good at conquering her fears, but not unrealistically so.  The composition and use of color is gorgeous and the text matches the pictures with appealing symmetry.  In fact, symmetry is the core metaphor, since the celestial Milky Way has an earthly counterpart in the scarce and precious milk available on Ernestine’s farm.  Her mother is even expecting twins, keeping the metaphor operating on every level.

Life is not easy for Ernestine and her mother. Ernestine’s father is “off in the war,” and she and her mom are responsible for keeping the farm running.  (The “Author’s Note” explains that the story takes place in 1942.) Ernestine’s lovely, strong mother assures her that they are a team: “I’m the Big Dipper and you’re the Little Dipper, and way over in Germany, Daddy sees the same stars we do up there in the Milky Way.” This. matter-of-fact poetry characterizes their closeness and warmth, as do the pictures of mother and daughter under a quilt with star motifs, and the two embracing after Ernestine has completed her special mission.  A neighboring family with many children needs milk as much as they do, and Ernestine is given the challenging task of delivering two mason jars full of the liquid to their friends.

Her odyssey is truly daunting, with obstacles both real and imagined.  Ernestine fortifies herself by repeating “I’m five years old and a big girl.” Children will easily relate to her tenuous feeling of confidence, as well as to the rhythmic descriptions of nature: “Soon Ernestine found herself in the valley of green doghobble and devil’s walking stick, where she heard a mighty big something scratcha-scratcha-scratchin’ up a tree.”  Madden-Lunsford’s combination of fairy tale repetition and realistic plot works flawlessly. Ernestine’s trip down the slippery path is tenuous. When one “runaway jar of milk” escapes her grasp, she tries to recover it, to no avail: “But it vanished without a trace.”  Each segment of the mishap is accompanied by Sutton’s picture of Ernestine in motion, as she walks, trips, and tries to regain her balance.  When she arrives at the home of Mrs. Mattie Ramsey and her family, their Aunt Birdy pours the one jug of milk over each one of twelve bowls of oatmeal carefully set out on the table. Again, the characters, from strong matriarchs to needy children, are both real-life people and archetypes.

Sutton’s ink and watercolor drawings are glorious.  She uses earth colors and jewel tones, includes many homely details of rural life, and allows even minor characters to claim their own personalities. One two-page spread of the Ramsey family enjoying their meal of both oatmeal with milk and cornbread with butter features each person responding somewhat differently to the fortunate occasion. The mother feeds the baby in her lap, one boy reaches for seconds while another closes his eyes as he bites into the bread.  Colorful flowers decorate the table, while pots and pans on hooks and wooden shelves signal the everyday work involved in sustaining a family.  The book ends with a lovely “Author’s Note” about the story’s origin, and a recipe for traditional corn bread.  Ernestine is five years old and a big girl, but her adventure resonates with anyone faced with a task, motivation, and the support of a loving community.

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