Kid's Stuff -- Books About Gardens and Gardening
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"Sunflower House"
Written by Eve Bunting
Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt
(Harcourt Brace & Co., 1996)

An excellent nature appreciation/gardening book, taking us full-circle through a season of sunflowers. A boy and his parents plant the flowers in a circle rather than in rows and when they plants grow tall, they provide a fun, mysterious playhouse for the boy and his friends. Of course, after the flowers mature and the plants start to fall over, the children grow sad and have to accept that there are changes that they can't control. The cycle of life makes it all okay, though: the kids decide to harvest the seeds, saving some for next year and scatter others around outside for the birds. The message is simple, the story is compelling, the realistic artwork is very nice and visually well composed. There are many books with similar themes, and this is certainly one of the best. (B+)

"Grandpa's Garden Lunch"
Written by Judith Casely
Illustrated by Judith Casely
(Greenwillow, 1990)

Grandpa takes his granddaughter out to the garden to sow seeds, raise plants and them they have a meal with the food they raised and the flowers they grew.... This book's a little clunky, but with its heart in the right place. (B-)

"Miss Rumphius"
Written by Barbara Cooney
Illustrated by Barbara Cooney
(Penguin-Puffin, 1982)

A beautifully illustrated, life-affirming, fairy tail-ish story about an eccentric old woman who is known for having planted countless lupine flowers in and around her quiet coastal town. The narrative deftly skips through her life, back to her youth, when she promised her kindly grandfather that she would first go out and see the world, then do something in her life to make the world more beautiful. The mature Miss Rumphius emerges as one of the most serene and self-confident female characters in modern children's fiction... This is an elegantly crafted story, with fine art and a firm moral core and an appreciation for the natural world that is integral to the story but not so overstated that it will drive away modern kids with well-honed BS detectors. Definitely worth checking out! (B+)

"Jody's Beans"
Written by Malachy Doyle
Illustrated by Judith Allibone
(Candlewick, 1999)

A nice book about gardening, with simple, explicit descriptions of how a young girl and her grandfather plant and care for a bean patch, and how they enjoy the veggies they grow all summer long. Nice artwork, with a no-nonsense evocation of the joy and wonder of growing one's own food. Recommended!

"Muncha Muncha Muncha!"
Written by Candace Fleming
Illustrated by Brian Karas
(Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, 2002)

A deservedly popular book that pits an Elmer Fuddian farmer against three resourceful, rapacious rabbits. The plot will appeal to little kids: no matter what Mr. McGreely does to protect his veggies -- building a wall, digging a moat, erecting a fortress -- the "flop-ears" always manage to lift his lettuce and kipe his carrots. The real fun of this book lies in the sound effects, which build up and repeat with each new turn of the page... It's a great book for adult readers to ham it up for their audience, digging into each goofy stanza as if they were Ian McKellen on steroids. Plus, who can resist a story where the bunnies steal the carrots...?? Whyyyy, you wascawwy wabbits...! (A-)

Written by Miela Ford
Illustrated by Sally Noll
(Greenwillow, 1995)

A girl plants a sunflower seed, waters it and watches is grow. Soon it towers over her head and the birds and butterflies come to share in the bounty. A few seeds are saved to plant next year, and the story cycles around again... The text and pictures are clear and read well; there is no mistaking what the story is about, and the celebration of life, growth and nurturing comes through loud and clear. My little girl loved this book, and wanted to plant some seeds right away... Too bad I read it to her in November! Recommended. (A)

"Oliver's Vegetables"
Written by Vivian French
Illustrated by Allison Bartlett
(Orchard Books, 1995)

A nutritionally-challenged city kid goes for a weeklong visit to his grandparents' farm in the country, where they teach him to explore more veggies than just his daily dose of french fries. Spinach, carrots, rutabaga, beets, peas and cabbage are introduced to his diet, all of which he loves, much to his own surprise. That's all very well and fine, although there are some problematic aspects to the book, both in structure and tone. To start with, Oliver is kind of bratty -- he's a stand-in for all the petulant veggie-haters of the world, which is okay if you do have a kid you want to coax into a healthier diet, but if you're just looking for a book that will reinforce good eating habits, you may have to modify the text so that the anti-produce ideology doesn't seep into your household. Overall, Oliver isn't as irritating in this first book as in its sequel, Oliver's Fruit Salad, (reviewed below) -- so that his behavior doesn't overshadow the pro-veggie message , which comes through loud and clear, albeit it comes with some baggage. The other odd aspect of this book is the choppy writing, particularly the abrupt beginning, where the first sentence is Mom rushing Oliver to catch the bus to Grandpa's house, with no preface or explanation. Feels like an editor told French "soemthings got to go," and when they shortened the text, they just lopped off a few pages, without really rewriting the text. (Also, why is it "Grandpa's house," when Gram is also standing there the whole time? Hmmmm.) Anyway, if you're on the prowl for pro-produce propaganda, this book's a fine choice. It has some shortcomings, but they are mild in comparison to more positive aspects.

"The Apple Pie Tree"
Written by Zoe Hall
Illustrated by Shari Halpern
(Scholastic Books/Blue Sky Press, 1996)

With her trademark collage style, Shari Halpern provides cheerful, clear illustrations for Zoe Hall's simple tale of two sisters living near an apple tree. They watch it grow new leaves and buds in the Spring, with the leaves turning into flowers, which eventually mature into ripe red apples. Then the family harvests the fruit and makes a yummy apple pie (with a recipie provided in the back of the book...) There's also a parallel story of a pair of robins that live in the tree who hatch and raise their fledglings during the same seasons-long time frame... Although I don't think I'm likely to return to this book the same way I have with the Hall-Halpern seasons books, it's still nice. I like the artwork and general vibe. (B)

"The Surprise Garden"
Written by Zoe Hall
Illustrated by Shari Halpern
(Blue Sky Books, 1998)

A mother gives her children several different kinds of seeds to plant, but doesn't tell them what kind of plants each seed will become. As the seeds sprout and grow, they mature into beans, peas, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, lettuce, radishes and one really big, juicy watermelon. The payoff is a gigantic salad at the end of the season -- as well as the lively collage artwork by Shari Halpern, and the well-communicated sense of fun that the kids can have growing their own food. Good, clear narrative -- if you're thinking about planting a garden, this book might be a nice companion activity. (B+)

"Miss Emma's Wild Garden"
Written by Anna Grossnickle Hines
Illustrated by Anna Grossnickle Hines
(Greenwillow, 1997)

A young girl named Chloe visits her neighbor's garden, which is seemingly overrun and chaotic... Miss Emma, a kindly older woman, readily agrees that the garden is "wild," but shows Chloe what she loves about the wildness -- the various flowers, insects and animals that enjoy the space. Like many nature and gardening books, there's a slightly forced feel to this one, as well as a sense that it tries to capture an intangible feeling, the exaltation of nature and the green world around us. Still, this is one of the nicer books of its kind -- the artwork is nice, as well as the text, and the underlying warmth between the two human characters helps draw readers in... Certainly worth checking out. (B)

"Bumpety Bump!"
Written by Pat Hutchins
Illustrated by Pat Hutchins
(Greenwillow, 2006)

A nice farming/gardening book, primarily notable for the vivid, illustrative artwork, which gives very clear, easily understood looks at all sorts of crops -- peas, root vegetables, fruit trees, etc. The text also imparts the thrill of growing one's own food, but it's plagued by an uneven and inconsistent rhyme scheme, and is needlessly choppy and disjointed. A teensy bit of editorial tinkering and this would have been perfect. (B-)

"Cecil's Garden"
Written by Holly Keller
Illustrated by Holly Keller
(Greenwillow, 2002)

Three little rabbits -- Cecil, Jake and Posey -- set out to plant a new garden but run into trouble when they can't decide which vegetables to plant. While they take a break, Cecil goes to visit other friends (a mouse family and some moles) and finds them enmeshed in arguments, too. The point of the book is to encourage compromise and creative problem solving. The trouble is that the writing is dull and the plot slides off the rails almost instantly. A little more graceful, engaging (and concise) storytelling and this could have been a lot better. As it is, I can't imagine most kids sitting still for the whole thing -- it's just too much of a grind. (C-)

"Ugly Vegetables"
Written by Grace Lin
Illustrated by Grace Lin
(Charlesbridge, 2001)


"Inch By Inch - The Garden Song"
Written by David Mallet
Illustrated by Ora Eitan
(Harper Collins, 1995)

A colorful picturebook adaptation of David Mallet's sweet folk song about the spiritual joys of gardening (popularized by Pete Seeger)... The song, and the book, may be a little too goopy for the non-folkie among us, but as a keepsake of the song, this is dandy. Includes sheet music in the back, for all the pickers and piano plunkers out there... Nice! (B+)

"The Wind's Garden"
Written by Bethany Roberts
Illustrated by Melanie Hope Greenberg
(Henry Holt & Co., 2001)

A woman clears and plants her flower garden within the confines of her house's fenceline, while outside the wind and nature plant theirs. Wildflowers and "weeds" dwarf the domesticated flora, but each has its place. I wouldn't say this is the best-written or best-illustrated kid's book ever, but the sentiment hits home, and if you are delving into either gardening and farming or the wonder of nature, this should fit in quite nicely. Recommended. (B)

"Scarlette Beane"
Written by Karen Wallace
Illustrated by Jon Berkeley
(Penguin/Dial, 1999)

Hmmm. I really wanted to like this one. Gardening. A little girl. Wacky family. Didn't like it, though. Little Scarlette plants some seeds in her own little patch of ground, and because she has a super-duper, magical green thumb (her fingers glow green at night!) all her veggies grow twenty feet tall overnight! They're so big, bulldozers have to be used to harvest them! Exclamation points are called for!!!! All the neighbors come over and eat soup that Scarlette's mom made in (yuck!) a concrete mixer... It all works so well that Scarlette plants a second crop, and those seeds grow into a big plant-mansion that her poor, humble family gratefully moves into, fulfilling the mother's prophecy that Scarlette will "do something wonderful." I'm not entirely sure why, but I really hated this story. It's cutesy -- it promises magical results for very little work -- it posits super-specialness not only as a possibility, but as an expectation ("I always knew you'd do something special") and an obligation. And, besides, who'd want to live in a house made of turnips? What happens when it goes to seed or starts to rot? Yes, I am Mr. Literalistic Killjoy, but I just didn't like this one... rubbed me the wrong way on several different levels. (C-)

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