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Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt

Spring is a perfect time to read Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt by Kate Messner and illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal (Chronicle Books, 2015). In it a child and her grandmother care for a garden from early spring until the fall harvest, allowing us to see all the changes. But we are treated to changes below ground too, not just to what we typically notice, thereby portraying the importance of healthy soils and insect communities. The illustrations are mixed media and in a style that pulls the reader in whether we are looking above ground or below ground. What’s it like under a tomato plant? I especially like the split view illustrations that show both settings at the same time.

If you’ve wanted to get your child interested in gardening (or if you’re both new to it) this book can be a fun introduction. I like how undesirable insects are never called ‘bad’ nor killed, but they are removed. Gardening can be a springboard for discussions on diversity and the need for all the insects for a healthy food web.

I have one question about what I read. There is an illustration showing insects that live underground and it includes ladybugs. I have tried looking up if this is so and I cannot find anything that says ladybugs will go underground. However, I found an amazing photo of the larva, which are always fun to find. And this incredible (and slightly gruesome) time-lapse video of a ladybug life cycle. So, I’m pretty sure (but open to data that says otherwise) that ladybugs do not burrow underground for winter hibernation or to feed or lay eggs. However, through this book I was treated to a sweet story of gardening and engaging glimpses underground. And it spurred a little research and further discovery because of a question. That’s the power of a picture book, especially when shared with your young reader.

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The Bees are Back

Painted with guidance from an online tutorial by Anna Mason Art

Bees have returned with the spring and the airways are filled with their buzzing and my office is filled with the bumblebees hitting my window. I am not sure why they do that, but it seems like it would hurt. I haven’t been able to weed a large patch of dead nettle in my garden because every time I go, it is covered with honey bees. I figure they need the nourishment more than I need to weed just yet.

Bees are in the news and on social media often these days because people are concerned about their decline. Two books I got at the library recently are great introductions for young readers about kinds of bees, their life cycle, and their importance. If Bees Disappeared by Lily Williams (Roaring Brook Press, 2021) is narrative nonfiction (even though the characters are not real people) with a glossary and back matter. The illustrations are vivid and captivating for a young reader, but the text varies from simple to scientific making this book best for mid-to-late elementary school.

The Bee Book by Charlotte Milner (DK Penguin Random House, 2018) is almost as busy as a bee. It’s packed with information in typical DK fashion, but not illustrated with photographs. The illustrations are a mix of simple and complex child-friendly drawings, and include diagrams and charts. There’s no need for back matter as it covers it all in its engaging nonfiction format.

With two different styles, one of these books is likely to appeal to your young reader. I suggest checking them both out, talking about comparisons between the information and styles and even digging deeper. What could you plant in your yard to help the bees?

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It’s April Again

A year can bring so much, and I think we are acutely aware of that as time seemed to drag over this past year. Last March as we were experiencing changes unfamiliar to us, I decided to illustrate one of my manuscripts for my Teachers Pay Teachers site. I needed a focus and having a deadline of being ready for National Poetry Month helped to counter all the uncertainty around me. The manuscript I chose – If I Were a Whale: Ecology Poems for Children – was one that had been shopped around and revised many times, one that is useful for classroom teachers, but also a fun read at home, and one I felt that I could tackle as far as the art is concerned. Ironically, since then I have taken watercolor classes in the photorealistic style and find that I love the process and the outcome. If I had known this I might have waited, and If I Were a Whale could be so much better illustrated than it is. But is that really true?

I believe that life itself is a process as much as any specific task we focus on. There is no outcome we reach at a certain age and then we are finished. We have the capacity to grow continuously, but that means there will be mistakes along the way. If we wait for everything we do to be ‘perfect’ (whatever that means) then it is likely we will not grow as fully as we can. My putting out my art in the last few manuscripts I have self-published are these kind of stepping stones for me. If I just dream of how perfect something will be someday, but never actually do and show what I am learning, then I am not sure I can get from A to B ever. There’s needed vulnerability involved.

I have to remind myself of this every time I want to start a new project. The first stage is always agonizing. After I decide what to work on and the initial inspiration wears off, I am left with How can I do this? The only way to answer that question is to start, but it is scary. And many days or weeks can pass before I actually do start. I’m in that stage right now.

In September I started doing watercolor tutorials with the Anna Mason Art School. Anna often talks about the Ugly Duckling stage of a painting, where the student is inclined to give up. But she guides us to keep going, adding more layers and adjustments to tone. These changes seem so magical to me that I have started taking photos of the process. I even share these ‘ugly ducklings’ on Instagram sometimes. This process also seems to be a metaphor for life. Mistakes and ‘ugly ducklings’ are part of the package, necessary steps to our goals and our life’s work.

And so, as April is National Poetry Month, I am happy to promote If I Were A Whale, which is available for 5.00 in my Teachers Pay Teachers Store. In it I introduce ecological concepts via poem forms often used in the elementary classroom. The back section details the type of poem with some basic instructions for the reader to write their own. It can be printed out as a pdf or displayed on a white board for the whole class to read together. As often is the case, this is a book I would have wanted to use in the classroom and as a parent. Please share this information with any teachers and parents of elementary students who may be interested.

And April 6 and 7th I am joining Teachers Pay Teachers for their spring sale. So you can get If I Were a Whale, or all of my products and many other sellers for 25% off! See my store for the code.

Meanwhile, I shall keep practicing and producing. Happy Spring!

Ugly ducklings on the way to becoming a fig:

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Being Frog

I thoroughly enjoyed everything about Being Frog by April Pulley Sayre (Beach Lane Books, 2020). With sparse, lyrical words and stunning, up-close photographs, Sayre portrays not just the life of a frog, but how a frog is an individual being – a concept we see in the title, which is NOT Being A Frog, but Being Frog.  She leaves us to ponder some essential questions: does a frog remember being a tadpole? Why does it have favorite spots to rest or hunt? It is at once a simple book and a profound book.

There is a lovely Author’s Note at the end about her close personal connection to the frogs in a local pond. How’s she’s observed them so often that she can recognize individuals and has been able to name them. This is wonderful information to share with a curious young reader. It conveys how close and repeated observations, while anecdotal evidence, lead to a deeper understanding of the world around us, even if the focus is on studying one species. I think deeper understanding of other species is necessary for a fully-lived human life, and therefore, a behavior that should be nourished. A behavior that could start by reading Being Frog together. I hope you’ll check it out.

By the way, if you follow me on Instagram you’ve been seeing my watercolor painting progress via the online school, Anna Mason Art. But if you don’t, I have placed most of the paintings on a new page on this website. It’s fun to see them all in once place!

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World Water Day

World Water Day is March 22 and their website is both educational and a call to action. What does water mean to you? How can you protect it? I encourage you to check it out and find a way to partake. To me water is life. At least on our planet all life that exists is able to do so because of water. So in that way we take it for granted. What of all the other species we share the planet with and who are living ecologically in their habitats (unlike us)? I think of them a lot; I am concerned about their welfare and the cascading effects that poor quality water has on them and the species that are part of their food webs. That is why I write what I write – to help others know and appreciate these connections. Three of my books are directly tied to water: Salmon Matters: How a Fish Feeds a Forest, Oyster Matters: A Keystone Species Story and The Hidden Life in Streams. A great way to help young readers with big topics is to start with a picture book. Then let their curiosity quide what they will want to do with their new information. You’ll end up learning new things too!

I’m eagerly awaiting the redbud bloom.
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It’s Time for the Salamander Dance

Every March I am reminded of a magical night a few years ago when a friend called to tell me, “It’s time. Come tonight.” Chris and I drove over to her house around 9 pm to catch our first ever glimpse of the spotted salamander’s annual courtship – a treat she has been privy to many times. It really does look like a dance. It was a delightful evening.

Salamander Dance by David FitzSimmons and illustrated by Michael DiGiorgio (Wild Iris Publishing, 2016) is also delightful, almost as much so as viewing this annual event in person – though instead you could be snuggling under the covers instead of wandering a dark property in a chilly evening.

The story focuses on the salamanders’ habitat and life cycle. But the illustrations add various other creatures of the habitat, which are fun to spot – a dragonfly larva, a caddisfly larva, and predacious diving beetles are examples from just one page. These illustrations add to the discovery that’s available in this book beginning with the magic of the spotted salamander courtship, and expanding to the other animals that live in both the aquatic and terrestrial habitats of the salamander’s life cycle. There is also nice back matter explaining vernal pools, salamander migration and life cycle and a glossary.

Salamander Dance is full of magic whether you experience it snuggled under your covers or with a young reader on your lap, or even better, after a night excursion to find some in person. I hope you’ll experience the magic.

We have a lot of water sources here at Halcyon: a stream, a pond and a few springs. But except for the one spring, which does not keep water long enough for larvae to mature, all areas have fish which eat salamander and frog eggs. We have green frogs and bull frogs at the pond. Peepers and tree frogs along the stream. I have seen a wood frog once (far from the water) and a pickerel frog once (in the stream). I have even seen a spotted salamander once when planting lilies in the mud. But I have never seen wood frog eggs or witnessed the salamander dance here. I’ve been trying, but need to try harder. In other words, no more snuggling under the covers on rainy March nights; I need to get outside.

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A Silly Introduction to the Scientific Method

I have a manuscript I have been working with off and on since 2014 that reworks a classic fairy tale in order to explain the scientific method. So, I was interested when I heard about My Brother the Duck by Pat Zietlow Miller and illustrated by Daniel Wiseman (Chronicle Books, 2020), a book that introduces young readers to the scientific method.

My Brother the Duck is much sillier than my manuscript. It’s a nice introduction to the need to observe, ask questions and do research, using words like scientist, notice, research, hypothesis, and evidence. It’s not a complete portrayal of the scientific method and there’s no back matter, but it is fun, silly and helpful. The inside jacket flap says “This sweet and silly book is just ducky for new siblings, fledgling scientists, and anyone who loves a good laugh.” If my manuscript were published it would be a nice complement to My Brother the Duck for readers between ages 5 and 10, where My Brother the Duck is great for ages 3-5. But alas, my manuscript is not published. It has been submitted 8 times over the years and has not yet found a home. Hopefully it will one day soon.

My Brother the Duck is a gem however in how it is a funny story overall and also targets siblings and fledgling scientists, which I argue all young children are. So, I hope you check it out and that it makes you quack up. 😊

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Picture Books Matter – Strengthening your Visual Literacy

I was a fan of picture books long before I entertained writing them. While I don’t remember my mother investing much time in them, I spent one to two hours a day reading with my children when they were young. We would read at some point during the day and always before bed. It was a special time in my life, and I assume and hope theirs. I still love reading to children.

As a picture book writer, it was with interest I read the recent article in the New York Times by Pamela Paul – Your Kids Aren’t Too Old for Picture Books, and Neither Are You. It is a shout out to the benefits of reading to and with children, and how picture books are useful for struggling readers and non-struggling readers alike who enjoy reading through pictures. All of my conferences in the kidlit world stress how the picture book is a dance between words and illustrations where either one of these two story forms may have more importance on any one page. I get this, though I think there is a case to make that the more esoteric the visual dance becomes, the more the book is intended for adult readers than for young readers.

Paul stresses that picture books are pushed out of children’s lives too early, and that the targeted age range is too narrow. I agree. I used picture books in my fourth-grade classroom often to introduce units or concepts in all subjects.  Now, I love to include back matter in my narrative nonfiction that stretches the books’ reach and readability to older siblings and parents.

I have written about my desire to illustrate my own picture books in previous posts. Paul’s article made me realize how much I have to learn still about this dance – about illustrating. Sure, I know kids are supposed to be getting some of the story from the illustrations, but as a hugely (skewed) textual learner, I still struggle with this. I can get pages into a book before I realize something seems off. Once I go back and slowly look at the illustrations, I have my ‘aha’ moment. And actually, while writing this, I realize I am much better at seeing the whole picture when reading aloud to a child or using a book in the classroom – another reason to slow down in our days and our moments.

Paul uses a term, vistual literacy, that I was not exposed to in my Masters in Teaching and which itself was an ‘aha’ moment about my hopeful role as an illustrator: “Educators call this “visual literacy,” and while it refers most directly to the creation and reading of images, it extends more broadly to understanding communication and interaction. We live in a highly visual culture, and if inculcating “21st-century skills” — teaching your child to communicate through a Google slide show, write code or create a video presentation — is what you’re after, then encouraging the reading of picture books serves the purpose.”

I need to strengthen my deep-reading ability, my visual literacy.  I remember having a discussion about graphic novels with Chris Gavaler, a friend and writer at Washington and Lee University, about how I read text quickly and find myself several panels ahead having not really seen the illustrations. He recommended some graphic novels, which I enjoyed, but I did not keep up the practice of reading through the pictures. I didn’t fully realize how important this strengthening might be in my picture book journey until I read Paul’s article this weekend and a book I’d ordered came in the mail – Creating Comics: A Writer’s and Artist’s Guide and Anthology by Chris Gavaler and Leigh Ann Beavers (Bloomsbury Academic, 2021).  I’d ordered it to support the authors because both are my friends, and I’d heard about its creation over the past few years. But after skimming through it, I realize I actually need to read it carefully to help me in my goals to illustrate – to create that story behind the story in my own books. Who knows, maybe I will even go wordless (gasp) someday, like the picture book Found that I loved and wrote about.

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Black History Month

Back in 2014 when I was still very new to the craft and marketing of picture books, I wrote a post about Black History Month, my sincere purpose being to spread the idea that we need to see children of color in books regularly, not just once a month and not just from past events, famous or not. You can read that post here.

So, when the editor for my first book contract (two years later) asked if I had any criteria for the character (to relay to the illustrator), I said no, I did not care what skin color or gender was chosen because I believe that most children enjoy visiting aquariums and could see themselves wanting to do what Oliver does in the story. I was very happy that the illustrator decided that Oliver would be biracial hoping that the book would both empower some readers and instill tolerance to others. Later I was a little surprised that the Kirkus review needed to point this out.  I still was under the misguided notion that part of not judging another by the color of their skin was to not see the color of their skin. That we would not need to describe someone by the color of their skin whether introducing a friend or writing a book review. This is called color blindness and is considered harmful in that it allows discrimination to continue. I have learned a lot about such issues like this and white fragility through readings this past summer. I still have a lot to learn.

However, I also still believe that all kinds of children need to see themselves in books. I was happy to see in a recent SCBWI article, an interview about two imprints. “We live in times when the publishing industry has been challenged to meet creator and consumer demands.  This includes a strong call to action to employ professionals and publish writers and illustrators with more diverse backgrounds and stories. Imprints are one way to address this need. Andrea and Brian Pinkney’s Bright Brown Baby imprint through Scholastic and the eponymous Denene Millner Books, a Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers imprint, are publishing companies lighting a bright pathway for the future of children’s books for young readers.” These imprints and their books are needed.

Later in the article Denene Millner says, “But I’m a firm believer that our children also deserve to read plenty of stories about everyday things like going to school, making friends, overcoming fears, loving and being loved by family–all the things that are specific to humans, but told in a way that directly recognizes culture, heritage and race. Our children need to see themselves in the now, as their full, colorful, beautiful selves. Not as a trope. Not as a stereotype or overcoming one. Not as downtrodden and fighting to be seen. They deserve to just… be. Full stop. That comes through in the words but also in the gorgeous illustrations. I’m a HUGE art lover and I love to see gorgeous art reflected on the page–lots of color, texture, fine art. Just lots and lots of pretty and Blackness on the page.”

Oliver’s Otter Phase is just one book. It is not a book about black experience. It is a book about a loving family, a boy who loves sea otters, and parents who allow him to explore his feelings. The characters could be any of us. It is not a book that directly recognizes culture, heritage and race because I wrote it to recognize animal adaptations and the joy of childhood imaginations. Still, I hope it continues to find a place in young reader’s hearts, no matter their skin color or gender or identity.

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slow down is a perfect book for February

While some of us perhaps feel life has been forcibly slowed down due to the pandemic, and can’t wait to get out and embrace the 24/7 lifestyle, I feel that society would fare better overall if we normally slowed down a bit in winter. Or at least I feel I fare better that way and wonder if we all would feel a little saner if we weren’t going all the time. I love to reflect and do less through January and February – my version of hibernating – in order to recharge. So, I was pleased and intrigued to see the book slow down: 50 Mindful Moments in Nature by Rachel Williams and illustrated by Freya Hartas (Magic Cat Publishing, 2020. I was especially taken by the cover and ordered a copy.

This book is perfect for now, while we have time to snuggle with our young readers, because the pages are ones to pour over. Each spread has an event in nature that readers can learn about, making this a perfect pre-adventure preparation so that when such moments are discovered later on a walk, readers can slow down and truly appreciate what is happening. I believe a little prior knowledge builds anticipation and enhances the actual learning on site. And there’s a lot of learning in this book. 50 events ranging from how dew forms to how a kingfisher catches a fish, the moon phases or snail trails. There is also a page on practicing mindfulness when outside embracing a new day and a selected bibliography. Overall slow down is a wonderful introduction to nature for young readers and an important call for us to notice and show gratitude for nature’s splendor. And for adults, it is a wonderful primer to help make you a nature expert when you take those walks. 😊