Prairie Days by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrated by Micha Archer (9781442441910)
The master of prairie-based books offers this picture book glimpse of life on the prairie. It is a land of huge skies that change color at dawn. It smells of “cattle and bluegrass and hyssop” with wild roses too. There are small towns with fascinating names, filling stations with cold drinks, and farm horses to ride. There are all sorts of prairie birds and creatures. There are farm dogs to cuddle and admire, rides on grain carts heading to the mill. There are trips to town and in the summer, swimming in the pond. Games at dusk and into the dark until you are called in to bed. As the huge sky changes colors once again.
Newbery medalist MacLachlan’s text captures the beauty of growing up on a working farm in the prairie states. Through a series of small moments, she shows the incredible beauty of the land and sky. She also shows how these small moments string together to form a day, a summer, a life. It is a quiet picture book, with glimpses of wildlife and time spent on horseback or snoozing on a porch.
Archer’s illustrations are deep and beautiful. They are done in collage with acrylics and inks combined with handmade papers. They fill the pages with the textures of grasses, the epic sight of sunrise and sunset, the golds and greens of summer, and the deep blues of the sky.
So many of us will recognize our own childhoods here on the page, whether we grew up on the prairie or in another sort of farming community. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy provided by Margaret K. McElderry Books.
The Old Truck by Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey (9781324005193)
This picture book celebrates the hard work on a farm, whether you are a human or a truck. The old truck worked hard on the farm hauling things. But it grew tired and unable to be fixed. So it rested near the barn, dreaming of being a boat, a blimp or even a space rover. It got older and older sitting there, weeds growing up around it. Until a new farmer, who had grown up on the farm, decided to try again to fix it. It took a lot of determination and trying, just like farming, but the old truck eventually came to life again, woke up and started working.
Told in the simplest of phrases, this picture book is really about the illustrations. Done with over 250 handcrafted stamps, the illustrations have a wonderful retro look with modern colors. They show an African-American family on a small family farm, working hard. The little girl goes from being born all the way through to owning the farm herself and having a child of her own. The time process is slow and steady, marked by the growing of the weeds as well.
Delightfully modern and retro, this picture book is very special. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from library copy.
Grandpa Cacao by Elizabeth Zunon (9781681196404)
A little girl and her Daddy are making her birthday cake, a chocolate one. As they bake the cake, her father tells her about Grandpa Cacao who lives in the Ivory Coast and has a cacao farm. The book looks at the importance of the right soil and weather to grow cacao as well as the skill to know when precisely to harvest the crop. The process of harvest and then scooping out the white beans, curing them in the ground, and then drying them is shown in detail. All the while, the girl and her father are baking together, the smell and taste of the chocolate bridging the two story lines. In the end, as the cake is finished, the little girl gets a special birthday treat.
Zunon’s picture book tells the important tale of where chocolate comes from and the fascinating process of going from farm to product that is not at all what one might expect. The framing of the chocolate farming process by a girl about to celebrate her birthday with a chocolate cake is lovely. It is strengthened even more by her family connection to the Ivory Coast and her grandfather’s farm. The treat at the end makes that even more firmly and tangible for readers.
The illustrations by the author are cleverly done. The little girl’s world is done in full color collages filled with rich touches of patterns and textures. The African farm is done in a more flat format with the people simply white outlines against the landscape. When the two worlds come together, they both become full color and lush.
Everyone loves chocolate and this book explains how it comes to our tables. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy provided by Bloomsbury Children’s Books.
Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin (9780062665867)
Della knows what it looks like when her mother gets worse, like when she had to be hospitalized four years ago and Della didn’t see her for months. So when she finds her mother digging every seed out of a watermelon to keep Della and her baby sister safe, Della knows that it’s up to her to help. She tries getting some healing honey from the magical Bee Lady, but the Bee Lady tells her that the fix may be more about Della than her mother’s brain. So Della decides to become the model daughter to give her mother’s brain a rest. That’s hard on their working produce farm where a drought is damaging the crops. Soon Della is struggling with the oppressive heat of the summer, trying to keep her baby sister under control, harvesting produce, manning the farm stall, and helping her mother too. When it all becomes too much, Della decides she has to leave to help her mother, which puts her on the path to realizing that she has to accept her mother and empathize before she can help at all.
This is Baldwin’s debut novel and it’s a great summer read. She has created quite a pressure cooker of a summer for Della where everything seems to be in crisis or falling apart and everything is entirely out of Della’s control. The high heat adds steam, the troublesome but lovable little sister adds humor but problems, and the drought adds financial pressures for the whole family to muddle through. Della throughout is clearly a child who takes responsibility for things, worries a lot and is trying to learn. She is entirely human, making mistakes along the way.
The focus of the book is on Della’s mother and her struggles with schizophrenia. Her refusal to take her medication any longer precipitates her more symptoms worsening. As her father tries to convince her mother to make different choices, Della gets angry with her father for his unwillingness to force her mother to do something. Her father demonstrates exactly what Della needs to learn, empathy and compassion for her mother and allowing her the space to make her own decisions about her life. This perspective is often lost in novels for young people about mental illness and it’s a pleasure to see it so clearly shown here.
A great book about mental health in families, this is a great pick for summer reading. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
(Reviewed from copy provided by HarperCollins.)
Preaching to the Chickens by Jabari Asim, illustrated by E. B. Lewis (InfoSoup)
John Lewis, renowned Civil Rights leader and Congressman, dreamed of becoming a preacher as a child. When he was put in charge of the family’s flock of chickens on their farm, he knew it was a great responsibility. John loved going to church on Sunday and took what he learned in church back to his flock. He would sermonize to them, the chickens mesmerized by his voice. He would also baptize them, speak up for them when they needed a voice and rescue them when they needed help. As he preached the words he learned in church, he put those words into action while tending his flock.
Asim beautifully ties together the lessons in church to actions in caring for others. There is a richness to the writing in this picture book biography, capturing both scripture and the beauty of life on a small farm filled with hard work. This is not a fantasy farm, but one where toil is what makes for a successful harvest. Still, it is a place that grew an activist like John Lewis, who learned about using his voice for a cause right there on the farm with his chickens.
The illustrations by Lewis are done in watercolor, capturing the chicken coop and John himself with just enough detail to convey their simplicity but also their stature. Lewis uses the play of light spectacularly in the book, deftly incorporating shadow and light into John’s childhood sermons.
A beautifully crafted picture book biography that speaks of the power of childhood dreams to create activism and a man with a voice to change generations. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Fly Away by Patricia MacLachlan
Every year Lucy and her family head to North Dakota to help Aunt Frankie on her farm. This year the farm is being threatened by a flood, and they are heading to the farm even though Frankie told them it was dangerous. On the way, Lucy’s family stops and camps, listens to opera, and sings. But Lucy can’t sing at all and she knows it. Her little brother is a different story, no one else believes Lucy but Teddy can sing perfectly and even talks a bit, though he refuses to do so except with Lucy. Though she can’t sing, Lucy loves to write and she is trying to create a poem to prove to her father that a poem can be just as nice as a cow. Her father had dreamed of being a poet himself, but became a farmer instead. As the family gets to North Dakota, they face a dangerous river and Lucy has to find her own strength to save her little brother.
Told in a strong and clear voice, this novel invites readers into a family that is pure joy to spend time with. All of the family members have their own specific gifts and quirks, they communicate effortlessly with one another, and the entire book feels like you have entered someone’s home and are spending time with them. MacLachlan creates dialogue that feels real, but even more so she has created characters that are alive and honest on the page.
Thanks to the larger font and short chapters, this book will be welcoming for newer readers who may be trying their first chapter book without pictures. The warmth of the characters, the riveting danger of the river, and the thrilling ending will keep young readers fascinated until the end. This is also a great pick for sharing aloud with an elementary class.
MacLachlan has created a simple book that contains bountiful riches in setting, character and voice. It is a stellar read. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from copy received from Margaret K. McElderry Books.
Handle with Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey by Loree Griffin Burns, illustrated by Ellen Harasimowicz
When I started this book, I expected a beautiful book about the life cycle of butterflies, but then discovered this was so much more! In Costa Rica there is a farm that raises butterflies. The book begins by showing what a container received in the mail that is full of butterfly pupae looks like. The life cycle of butterflies is explained as is the pupa stage in particular. Then we head to Costa Rica and the farm itself and here is where the book turns into an amazing tour of sustainable butterfly farming. Readers get to see inside the greenhouses where the butterflies live and lay their eggs. The roles of the farmers are shown in detail as is the beauty of the natural world around the farm. Food for the butterflies, their transformation from egg to caterpillar to pupa, and the harvesting process are all detailed out for the reader. This book takes a familiar yet captivating transformation and turns it into a trip to Costa Rica and back again.
Burns text is very engaging. She describes the processes in detail but also throws in words that show how she too is excited by what is happening. Cabinets are described as “crawling with caterpillars” and the pupae are “sturdy and tightly sealed…ingenious packages ready to travel.” Her own delight at what is being described is evident and makes for very pleasurable reading.
The photography by Harasimowicz is simply beautiful. All of her work is not only clear and crisp but also demonstrates the various steps in the process. She uses different perspectives and different levels of distance to create a dynamic feel throughout the book.
A wonderful and lovely surprise of a butterfly nonfiction book, this one is a superb pick for butterfly fans and library collections. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Netgalley and Millbrook Press.
Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Eric-Shabazz Larkin
Will Allen is a farmer who can see the potential where others can’t. When he sees a vacant lot, he sees a farm with enough to feed everyone. When he was a boy, he grew up helping care for a large garden that kept their family fed. But Allen did not want to spend his life weeding and digging in the dirt, so he decided to become a basketball player, and he did. But then living in Milwaukee, he saw empty greenhouses standing vacant and realized that he could feed people who had never eaten a fresh vegetable. First though, he had to clear the land and then figure out how to improve his soil so that something could grow there. That was the first time that the neighborhood kids helped out, bringing compost items to feed the worms. Slowly and steadily, a community garden emerged and Will Allen taught others to be farmers too. His Milwaukee farm now gets 20,000 visitors a year so that others can learn to grow gardens where there had only been concrete.
I had seen the documentary, Fresh that includes Will Allen as part of the film about new thinking about food. So I was eager to see a picture book about this inspiring figure. It did not disappoint. Martin captures the natural progression of Allen’s life from child eating from the garden to farmer giving other children that same experience and spreading the word about what is possible in an urban setting. Martin’s tone throughout has a sense of celebration of Allen and his accomplishments. She captures his own inherent enthusiasm on the page.
Larkin’s illustrations are striking. Each could be a poster for farming and urban gardens on their own. Combined into a book, they become a celebration of this large man with an even larger dream. The colors are bright, the textures interesting and the image backgrounds evoke farming and nature.
This picture book biography is a visual feast that invites everyone to its community table. Librarians and teachers in Wisconsin should be particularly interested in adding this to their collection, but it will hold interest in urban and farming areas across the country. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Readers to Eaters.
Who Put the Cookies in the Cookie Jar? by George Shannon, illustrated by Julie Paschkis
Lots of hands can take the cookie from the cookie jar, but even more are involved in getting the cookies there in the first place. There are the hands that mix the dough and put it on the cookie sheet. Then there are the ones that made the cookie sheet and oven mitts too. Hands feed and milk the cow that makes the milk. Hands churn the butter. Hands plant and harvest the wheat. Hands feed and gather the eggs. Many hands doing important work, make that cookie arrive in the cookie jar.
This is a great spin on a traditional song. I’d pair it with the more traditional version in a program to get kids to see it from both sides. Shannon celebrates all of the hard work that goes into things that we take for granted. He focuses on their efforts but also on all of us being part of a larger global community that really matters.
Paschkis’ illustrations have a warm feel to them. They hearken back to more traditional images yet depict a modern and multicultural world. Their bright colors really make the book pop and will work well with a large group.
Perfect for a cookie story time, I’d advise having some cookies to share when reading this and other cookie books. Yum! Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt & Company.