down the colorado cover image2Down the Colorado: John Wesley Powell, the One-Armed Explorer, written and illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray
published in 2007 by Frances Foster Books

In 1869, John Wesley Powell and a small crew of men began a harrowing expedition on the Colorado River.

Starting from Green River City in Wyoming Territory, they planned on 10 months to shoot rapids, navigate boulder-strewn passages, hoist boats and equipment up canyon walls, endure scorching heat and bone-chilling down the colorado illustration deborah kogan raythunderstorms, map, explore, collect natural history specimens, and most importantly — survive this uncharted journey to the western end of the Grand Canyon.

down the colorado illustration3 deborah kogan rayPowell was a Civil War veteran who had lost his right arm in that conflict. He had fallen in love with nature as a young boy, and grew up hungering for time in the great outdoors, investigating, exploring, and learning. 

Deborah Kogan Ray’s account describes Powell’s early years which laid the groundwork for his leadership of this expedition, and then takes us on the breathless 1000-mile journey. Her warm, vivid illustrations plunge us right into the roiling waters and sunbaked desert down the colorado illustration2 deborah kogan raylandscapes. 

An Author’s Note tells more about Powell’s life after this expedition, and a chronology of his life and bibliography are included. It’s an exciting story that may inspire us to get out and experience wilderness areas ourselves. Written for ages 8 and up.

mount ranierIt’s time again to celebrate Planet Earth, this beautiful, intricate, astonishing home of ours.

Most of us care about what we know, and what affects us. It’s critically important, then, to introduce our painted buntingchildren to Nature, to help them fall in love with the plants and animals, rivers and oceans of our world, and to give them a big-picture view of how interconnected it all is.

 So, take your kids out-of-doors, most importantly, and then settle in with one of these excellent  books:

outside your window davies and hearld cover imageOutside Your Window: A First Book of Nature,  by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Mark Hearld
published in 2012 by Candlewick Press

The beauties of nature ought to be extolled in a beautiful book, and that’s just what this gorgeous book does for preschoolers and up. It’s simply stunning.

Nicola Davies, an author and zoologist,  has written short, free-verse poetry and meandering thoughts about everything from cherry blossoms to tide pools, spiderlings to the crisscross patterns of winter twigs against the gray sky. Childlike, naive, and keen. These are arranged by the four seasons.

Such a lovely, eclectic mix, with everything presented in poetic, arresting language.

And then the illustrations! Have I mentioned it’s a gorgeous book? The pages are awash in beauty — colors, textures, patterns, that are so lovely it aches,  drawing us in. I wish I could show you every page. You will want to buy two copies and frame a bunch of these, I think.

outside your window interior davies and hearld

I am so pleased that this book for very little people is so artistically sophisticated.  Don’t miss it.

big belching bog cover imageBig Belching Bog, by Phyllis Root, illustrated by Betsy Bowen
published in 2010 by University of Minnesota Press

I’m moving gradually up by age-group, and here is a handsome title from two Minnesota artists — one wordsmith, and one woodcut printmaker — for kindergarteners through adults.

“If you come to the Big Bog, you might think youbig belching bog illustration betsy bowen have come to the loneliest, quietest place on earth,” Root says, and then goes on to introduce us to the amazing plants and animals that do make their homes in a bog, including hungry sundew plants and wood frogs who literally freeze during the winter and unthaw the next spring.

It’s such an unusual habitat, full of exotic fascination, plus one deep mystery for you to discover.

Betsy Bowen’s woodcut prints are well known to us lucky Minnesotans. Her work is gorgeous, striking, evocative. The teals and spruces and mossy greens of these pages will usher you right into this watery world. Additional info about bogs and the residents of bogs is included for mid-elementary and up.

no monkeys no chocolate cover imageNo Monkeys, No Chocolate by Melissa Stewart and Allen Young, illustrated by Nicole Wong
published in 2013 by Charlesbridge

Chocolate is a great hook for a book, right?

This engaging book does a fantastic job of showing how cocoa trees depend on some creatures you would not suspect, to get you that Snickers bar.

Step by step, the authors clearly and briefly tell us what a cocoa tree needs to produce those all-important beans. Sunlight and water, yes, but also midges! And no monkeys no chocolate stewart and wonglizards! And monkeys!

You will be astonished to learn the roles played by each of these creatures and others, too. It’s a super introduction to the complexities of nature and the importance of the tiniest members, for early elementary and up.

Two goofy bookworms pop up on each page as well, with commentary to tickle kids’ funny bones.  An added word tells more about cocoa production and rain forests.

the camping trip that changed america cover imageThe Camping Trip that Changed America: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and our National Parks, by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein
published in 2012 by Dial Books for Young Readers

Teddy Roosevelt was a booming, energetic fellow, while John Muir was a quiet, enduring man. Both of them had one thing in common, though: an enormous love for wilderness.

Barb Rosenstock takes us back to 1903, whenthe camping trip that changed america illus gerstein 001 Roosevelt asked Muir to take him camping in the Yosemite wilderness. Muir had been championing the area, calling for its giant redwoods and granite domes to be saved from tacky trinket shops and ranchers. If he could reach Roosevelt, he might stand a chance.

“Any fool can destroy trees,” Muir wrote in 1901. Roosevelt heeded his call and became passionate about protecting our wilderness areas. If you ever hike Yosemite’s waterfall trails or stare across the mysterious depths of the Grand Canyon, you’ve got these men to thank. 

Terrific story, told with a light hand, and illustrated in Mordicai Gerstein’s amiable, optimistic, energetic paintings. It’s a great read for 7 and up, with an Author’s Note teasing out what’s factual here and what’s her best guess.

planet art cover imagePlanet Ark: Preserving Earth’s Biodiversity, by Adrienne Mason, illustrated by Margot Thompson
published 2013 by Kids Can Press

Biodiversity — the abundant, varied kinds of life on Earth, from bacteria to gray whales — is critical to Earth’s health, and ours.

This book does a brilliant job of clearly teaching us about the amazing diversity that exists, the complex interdependence of living creatures, and why diversity matters. Kids ages 9 and up, and most of us adults, will tremendously benefit from these respectful explanations.

In succinct, engaging, level-headed paragraphs, Mason explains how healthy habitats and soil maintain diversity, the problems of invasive species, overharvesting, climate change, and industrial farming, as well as ways people are working to safeguard diversity around the world. 

Throughout the book, she clearly connects us to why this matters.

planet ark mason and thompson

Taxol, for example, a chemotherapy drug, was discovered in the bark of the Pacific yew tree, a tree that for many years “was discarded as a scrub tree that had no value to people.” Mason tells us that one reason for preserving biodiversity is that it’s impossible for us to know what we are currently “throwing away when we lose species and damage habitats.”

Excellent book from the Citizen Kids series I mentioned some weeks back.

marit at winterhaven farm 001My sister had, for many years, a farm in the idyllic greenness of Kentucky, where she raised sheep. Visiting her in springtime meant enjoying lambing season –hearing the low, urgent bleating of the ewes; watching those wobbly, spindly lambs with their tails twiddling furiously as they suckled. Marvelous.

Lambs are all of a piece with springtime, as well as central to the Passover and Easter stories. These two sweet stories from the UK will please you anytime, but I thought they were especially suited for this season.

smudge the little lost lamb cover imageSmudge, the Little Lost Lamb, by James Herriot, illustrated by Ruth Brown
published in 1991 by St. Martin’s Press

The sweeping vistas of Yorkshire with its green fields stretching out in undulating folds, and ancient stone walls meandering endlessly, is the setting for this story.

Smudge is one of a pair of twin lambs born onto young Harry Cobb’s father’s farm and given to Harry by his smudge the little lost lamb illustration ruth brown 001father. 

Smudge is a restless lamb, determined to squirm out of the fences meant to protect him, as so many sheep are prone to do. Not so smart, sheep.

When Smudge succeeds, his triumph is short-lived. Hunger, a fierce dog, a massive bull, speedy cars, and a sudden Yorkshire snowstorm  frighten, harrass and endanger the forlorn lamb. Is there any chance for Smudge to survive and return to his mama? 

James Herriot, the famous Yorkshire vet and storyteller, wrote a number of books especially for children. They james herriot's treasury for children cover imageare rich, authentic stories, and Herriot does not talk down to his audience whatsoever. In fact, for a picture book, they are fairly lengthy stories, best for ages 5 or older. We have loved sharing them with our children over the years. Ruth Brown’s gorgeous paintings capture the landscapes, bulky animals,  old-fashioned farms and schoolhouses of the era, in rich, warm splendor.

I think the individual books are out of print, but the James Herriot Treasury for Children is in print and contains all of them.

little baa cover image kim lewisLittle Baa, written and illustrated by Kim Lewis
published in the U.S. in 2001 by Candlewick Press

Little Baa loves cavorting and frisking about the field with his fellow lambs. Even when the rest grow tired and rejoin the flock, Little Baa keeps running.

Eventually he settles down for a nap, but he’s so little baa illustration kim lewisfar off, that when his Ma begins to call for him, she gets no reply.

A mother ewe knows her lamb’s voice and smell.  Ma searches and sniffs and bleats and bleats, but to no avail. It’s up to the shepherd and his trusty border collie, Floss, to find Little Baa and reunite him with Ma.

Swaledale sheep

Swaledale sheep

Kim Lewis has written a number of really lovely stories set in rural England where she lives on a sheep farm. I like them because they are true-to-life, and sweet, and full of the quiet pleasures of the outdoors. This one captures the behavior of sheep and the life of a shepherd beautifully.

Her colored pencil artwork glows with the soft light and pastoral scenes of the wild hills and dales of England’s sheep country, as well as the gamboling lambs and curling-horned Swaledale sheep. It’s an enchanting read for ages 2 and up.

I don’t feel qualified to assess stories about the Jewish faith, yet this year I did want to include some books for Passover. These two seemed excellent to me. If there are other titles you particularly enjoy, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

passover celebrating now remembering then cover imagePassover: Celebrating Now, Remembering Then, by Harriet Ziefert, paintings by Karla Gudeon
published in 2010 by Blue Apple Books

This gorgeous book begins by telling the story of the Ancient Israelites’ sojourn in Egypt which is remembered in the symbolism of the Passover celebrations.

Page by page, Ziefert highlights the preparations and elements of the seder, one at a time. Each part of the seder is tied to its historical counterpart. This is what we do — because of what the Israelites experienced then. Her explanations are succinct, clear, and full of solemn respect.

The pages are dominated by Gudeon’s beautiful paintings. Her rich, vibrant colors pop against the handmade, wheat-colored paper. Each page shows the present-day seder elements, then by unfolding a flap, a large scene from the Old Testament story is revealed showing the historical context.

passover illustration karla gudeon

As I said, it’s a gorgeous book, with folk art borders, caligraphy, paintings, and narrative all contributing to a warm, celebratory, yet bittersweet understanding of Passover. Ages 5 and up.

the passover lamb cover imageThe Passover Lamb, by Linda Elovitz Marshall, illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss
published in 2013 by Random House

Miriam lives with her family on a small farm. Today is an exciting day because it’s time to celebrate the Passover seder at her grandparents’ home, and for the first time, Miriam will be the one to sing the Four Questions.

When one of the family’s ewes unexpectedly delivers triplet lambs in the morning, though, travel plans need to be called off. The ewe has rejected one lamb, and it needs round-the-clock care to survive.the passover lamb illustration tatjana mai-wyss

Miriam is initially heartbroken, but her clever thinking makes it possible to care for the lamb and attend the seder.

Inspired by a true story in the author’s family, this gentle story will not help an unfamiliar person understand Passover, but it sheds a nice light on the significance of the seder tradition from a child’s point of view. The use of names relevant to the Passover account, and a story revolving around a lamb, also tie things together well. Ages 3 and up.

I’ve posted a few Easter titles in past years which you can locate at these links — both religious and egg-y titles.

I don’t find many Easter-themed books compelling, honestly, but I have gathered five more, ranging from religious  to whimsical, that stand out from the crowd. 

jesus by brian wildsmith cover imageJesus, written and illustrated by Brian Wildsmith
published in 2000 by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

Brian Wildsmith is a brilliant illustrator, whose kaleidoscopic color,  exuberant lines and spattering and detail,  have won him prestigious jesus illustration by brian wildsmithawards as well as the affection and admiration of so many of us. You should visit his website to see more of his titles to explore.

Here he traces the life of Jesus — his birth, his visit to Jerusalem at age 12, his baptism and temptation, a number of his miracles, the transfiguration, his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, his trial, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost. 

Each of these is narrated quite briefly, and illustrated in those exquisite bursts of color Wildsmith is known for. He’s set each scene in a golden window frame, as though they are stained glass windows in a cathedral. Gorgeous work, with the story of Jesus’ life presented plainly, without commentary.

chicken sunday cover image polaccoChicken Sunday, written and illustrated by Patricia Polacco
published in 1992 by Philomel Books

Drawing on a childhood memory, master storyteller Patricia Polacco wrote this warm story, full of generosity, kindness, a love that chicken sunday illustration patricia polacco 001reaches across all kinds of divides… and fried chicken.

Miss Eula is neighbor and surrogate gramma to Patricia, and oh how Patricia loves her. Loves Miss Eula’s singing voice “like slow thunder and sweet rain” and loves her mouth-watering Sunday dinners — a banquet of fried chicken, greens, spoon bread and more.

Easter is coming, and Miss Eula has been powerfully admiring the beautiful hats in Mr. Kodinski’s shop. How can Patricia, Winston, and Stewart earn enough money to buy one for her? And how can they convince old Mr. Kodinski that they are not the mean kids who threw eggs at his door? 

Pysanky eggs and chutzpah — that’s the solution. And tenderness and understanding. All of it comes together just in time for Miss Eula’s Easter Sunday solo. This is a very sweet story. Polacco’s rich, human figures and faces add immensely to the beauty of it.

i wonder as i wander cover imageI Wonder as I Wander, by Gwenyth Swain, illustrated by Ronald Himler
published in 2003 by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

The Appalachian folk song, “I Wonder as I Wander” is sung as a Christmas carol, and that makes sense given that one of the verses is about Jesus’ birth.

The song begins and ends, though, with a wondering about how Jesus, the King, would come to die for “poor orn’ry people like you i wonder as i wander illustration ronald himler 001and like I” and that seems to me to be an invitation to make use of this in our Easter celebrations as well.

The song was brought to us through the work of John Jacob Niles who traveled Appalachia transcribing these traditional melodies. He heard it sung by a young girl named Annie Morgan.

This fictitious story pleasantly, poignantly imagines the origins of Annie’s song and her encounter with Mr. Niles. It’s a beautiful slice of Americana, and a dear story of a young girl, the daughter of an itinerant preacher, whose mother has recently died. Her questions and wonderings about God, death, grief, and poverty, and her father’s measured answers, find their way into this haunting song. 

I just came across this book, and I really like it. Himmler’s handsome, evocative watercolors are a perfect complement. Ages 5 and up.

peter's first easter cover imagePeter’s First Easter, by Walter Wangerin, Jr. illustrated by Timothy Ladwig
published in 2000 by Zondervan

Here’s a first: I’ve never put a book on Orange Marmalade that I’ve not read cover to cover. But I haven’t even seen this one!

It’s a title that my friend Haley highly recommends, though, and she’s blogged about it over at Aslan’s Library, where she covers “theological books for kids.” 

It’s the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection as told by his disciple Peter. The one who brashly said he would not turn his back on Jesus come what may, then flatly denied knowing him three times in one swift evening. Haley calls it “a book about the power of God’s forgiveness” and I’ll just link you to her review of it over at her blog.

easter parade cover image chalmersEaster Parade, written and illustrated by Mary Chalmers
published in 1988 by Harper & Row

Mary Chalmers is the illustrator of many charming little animal stories for preschoolers. 

This is a sweet little romp of a parade, with Easter Chickens coming over the mountains in a golden, sort of hot-air-balloon-carriage, and Easter Bunnies pouring from the easter parade illustration mary chalmers 001springtime woods, and Easter Ducks sailing across the lake in pastel boats, all convening at the Easter Farm where they load up the farm wagons with jolly, beribboned baskets of colored eggs and deliver them to happy bunnies and kittens and mice and skunks.

So darling! When they’re done, and every little cute child has a basket, they discover there’s one basket left over. Who did they miss? They will not rest until they find this person, no matter how tiny she may be! How nice.

Such a happy story, so full of springtime beauty and thoughtfulness and Easter celebration. 

Still to come this week, I’ve got some lamb-y stories and a couple of Passover titles to consider for your Holy Week collections.

baseball is cover imageBaseball Is…by Louise Borden, illustrated by Raúl Colón
published in 2014 by Margaret K. McElderry Books

From the first cry, “Play ball!” and the opening pitch. Through the crack of the bat, the line drive, a runner sliding into home plate, the umpire’s arms flashing “Safe!”  

From vendors hawking peanuts to the seventh-inning stretch. Pennants and popcorn. Dugouts baseball is4 borden and colonand double plays.

Baseball is our American pastime, and Louise Borden has written what has to be the quintessential homage to it in this book.

She loves this game. That breathes through her entire, free-verse text. This is  a romance, an ode. 

She knows this game, and she knows what you love about it, too. It’s all, baseball is2 borden and colonremarkably, here. History and atmosphere, stats and stadiums, the sounds, the sights, the tangibles and intangibles, everything you adore about baseball.

Raúl Colón’s always-stunning illustrations capture the nostalgia, the personalities, the feel of being a fan in the stadium, perfectly. 

I must say, I haven’t been much of a baseball fan since the 60s when we’d hang over the wall of the old Met Stadium in baseball is3 borden and colonBloomington to get some Twins’ autographs — and still — this book worked its magic on me.

I know plenty of folk who are mad about baseball, and for any of you — this is a gem you don’t want to miss. Ages 5 to 100! I’m hoping this one will get some awards this year.


what we found in the sofa and how it saved the world cover imageWhat We Found in the Sofa and How it Saved the World, by Henry Clark, illustrated by Jeremy Holmes
published in 2013 by Little, Brown and Company

“I have news,” Fiona announced, and sat down between us. “It turns out,” she said, “there are people out there who collect crayons.”

“Yeah,” said Freak. “They’re called five-year-olds.”

“No, they’re called adults, and some of them might pay good money for the zucchini crayon we found…I looked up zucchini crayon on the Internet. It’s one of over two dozen colors the crayon company doesn’t what we found in the sofa illustration jeremy holmesmake anymore. It’s very hard to find. There were only five hundred made, for a special limited-edition box of crayons called Victory Garden…But the new machine…left out the zucchini crayon and put in two rutabagas instead…Most of the zucchini crayons wound up in a tray, and the tray got left on a radiator, and most of them melted.”

“So,” I said, “any zucchini crayon that survived the meltdown would be worth something? We could sell it through an Internet auction site.”

“That’s what I was thinking,” agreed Fiona.

what we found in the sofa illustration2 jeremy holmesFiona, Freak, and River are an unlikely trio of middle-schoolers. 

One day, quite out-of-the-blue, the three come upon an old sofa sitting alongside the road at their school bus stop. In its green cushions, they find an odd assortment of rubbish, including one crayon labeled zucchini green.

Little do they know that crayon marks the beginning of an extraordinary liason with an eccentric loner named Alf in an all-out race to save the planet from the diabolical plans of a guy named Edward Disin.

They’ll need the aid of a Double Six domino, Compulsive Completist Disorder, a jump rope, a cat named Mucus, and more wits and bravery than they realize they possess to outsmart, outrun, and outmaneuver Disin and his treacherous armies. In the end, it’s the ability to think for themselves, to creatively problem solve, that makes all the difference.what we found in the sofa illustration3 jeremy holmes

This sci-fi adventure is a crazy, compelling read for ages 11 and up. In addition to portals and other worlds, nanotechnology, creepy spies and almost certain death, there are nice underlying  themes of friendship, and the power of individuals who think for themselves. A large helping of humor and three vivid personalities make us care about these kids from the opening pages.

I really enjoyed this novel. It’s fast-paced, entertaining, full of weird gizmos and off-beat solutions from an author who has written for MAD magazine if that gives you any hints. Lovely nods to A Wrinkle in Time are incorporated. There are sad backstories, glimpses of an alcoholic, abusive father, and gobs of danger, so consider these elements …yet predominantly it’s a thrilling, fun ride. 


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