Friday, March 29, 2024

If a Tree Falls...

One Day This Tree Will Fall     
By Leslie Barnard Booth; illus. by Stephanie Fizer Coleman 
40 pages; ages 4-8 
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2024

theme: trees, ecology, life

Look at it. Wounded, worn, twisted, torn. One day this tree will fall and this story will end.

But before that day, we should know how this tree began as a tiny seed, folded inside a cone. Using lyrical language, Leslie Barnard Booth shows how this tree grew, surviving the challenges of storm and wildfire. And she shows how, even as it dies, it provides life for the forest.

What I like about this book: I love how Leslie shows a Douglas fir tree as more than just a tree; it is a habitat for hummingbirds and squirrels, spiders and insects. Even after it falls it continues to provide a place for moss and fungi to grow, a home for ants and salamanders, and hollow spaces for larger animals to curl up and nap. This is a perfect life cycle story, accompanied with lovely art. You’ll never look at a tree the same way after this. And there is Back Matter! So if you want to learn more about life, death, and life after death in the world of the Douglas fir, Leslie’s got you covered.

I’ve got an oak trunk lying beyond my garden that I’ve been watching for the past handful of years. It was struck by lightning and threatened to fall, so we had to cut it. Most went to firewood, but the trunk was so big that we decided to leave it to nature. It’s one of my favorite places to explore (currently at the lichen, moss, fungi stage). So I knew I just had to ask Leslie a Couple Questions:

Me: How did you come to this structure, this way of telling the story? 

Leslie: The seed of this story came from a few places. At the preschool my children attended and where I worked for a time, a group of kids in another class were doing this amazing study of a rotting stump. They were dissecting it and learning about all the little critters that lived inside it. At the same time, I was reading Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees. This book made me think of trees differently—as responsive organisms with dramatic life histories. The incredible drama of a tree’s life is often hidden from us because it occurs on a timescale too long for us to observe and appreciate. But in a book, we have all the time we want! We can spend 1,000 years watching a single tree! So, I knew I wanted this book to cover a tree’s whole life, and to be dramatic—to show the tree’s active struggle to live. I decided I wanted the reader to care about the tree, to love the tree, to identify with it, so that the idea of the tree eventually falling and dying is sad. But then, I wanted to prove to the reader that trees live on, even after they die. Which is true! A dead tree, as those preschoolers discovered, is absolutely chock full of life. So, knowing that’s what I wanted to accomplish, it occurred to me to set up the story of the tree almost like a cradle to grave biography, but one where the concept of “grave” is upended. Because, in the context of a forest ecosystem, a tree’s story has no end. 

Me: Did you explore other ways of telling the story?

Leslie: The initial version of the book was called GROW and it included more emphasis on the way the tree reacts and responds to its environment. My editor wanted to really focus in on the tree’s death and decay as the heart of the story, and she was so right! Which is all to say that the basic structure stayed the same, but that I had to chisel away some major pieces to make space for the book's central theme to really come through. 

Thank you, Leslie. And now, let’s do some activities that take us…

Beyond the Books:

Go log-looking. When you find a downed trunk or a stump, take some time to really look at it. Draw a picture of moss, lichens, fungi and other things growing on your log.

If you find a small log, look around it. Are there nooks and crannies for animals? If you can roll it a little bit, see what’s hiding under it – just remember to roll it back.

Collect tree seeds and plant them. Acorns, pine seeds, maple seeds, sycamore, buckeye … put a couple seeds in an old yogurt cup with some soil and see what grows! Just be mindful of where you plant it once it starts growing. 

Leslie is a member of #STEAMTeam2024. You can find out more about her at her website.

Today we’re joining Perfect Picture Book Friday. It’s a wonderful gathering where bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's website. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Explore Outdoors ~ appreciating the other side of a flower

  This shaggy yellow flower is not a dandelion! It's a coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) and is the first flower to push up through the soil in mud season - at least in our area of upstate NY. One way you can tell it's a coltsfoot is that there are flowers, but no leaves. Dandelions shoot up leaves first, then bloom.

Another way you can tell is by the stem. Dandelions have smooth stems that leak sticky white sap when you break them These stems look rather scaly with all those bract-like leaves on the stem. And when their leaves do finally emerge, they are roundish - like a colt's foot, not spear-shaped like dandelion leaves.

What do you notice when you look at the back sides of flowers growing near you?

Friday, March 22, 2024

Celebrating Seeds and a book anniversary

 I missed this book by a fellow Sleeping Bear Press author when it released last year, so I’m celebrating its One Year Anniversary! Full disclosure: I am a gardener and seed-saver… so yeah, I may be a bit biased.

Every Little Seed  
by Cynthia Schumerth; illus. by Elisa Paganelli 
32 pages; ages 5-8
Sleeping Bear Press, 2023

theme: gardening, rhyme, family

 Grandpa told Mom, and Mom told me: The secret of a plant lives in every little seed.

When spring finally arrives, it’s time to plant seeds. This story follows a girl, her grandpa, and her mom as they plant and tend their garden over a season, We are introduced to a variety of garden tools – a wonderful illustration shows all the different things you might use, from claw-cultivator to trowel! The story brings us full circle, by collecting seeds for planting the next year.

What I like about this book: There are so many things to notice, from the differences in seeds to the small creatures that call the garden home. Some of them help pollinate the flowers; some of them are nibblers, chewing on plants we don’t want them to eat! So I appreciate that non-chemical solutions are shown for dealing with unwanted hungry garden guests.

There’s back matter, too (which you know I love!) with information about what’s inside seeds, invasive plants and animals, and some seed-related activities. And the illustrations are lovely. Here's a sample from Elisa Paganelli's gallery

Since I am a gardener, I knew I just had to ask Cynthia Schumerth a question or three…

Me: Hi Cynthia. I save seeds from the beans and pumpkins in my garden, and from flowers growing in my garden and around my yard. I’ve been known to collect seeds from flowers along roadsides and even from other people’s gardens! With their permission, of course. Do you save seeds? And what do you like to save?

Cynthia: I do save seeds.  Most of the seeds I save are from my annual flowering plants. My favorite are my Cosmos flowers.  When they dry on the stem, their seeds form a star.  You just have to slide your fingers over them and they release like magic. I always save my zinnia and marigold seeds too.  I even planted a lemon seed I saved and it grew into a lemon tree. I live where it’s cold in the winter, so I have to keep the tree inside from October to May. If you pinch the leaves they smell like lemon, it’s pretty neat.  But I’ve never gotten any actual fruit. I’ve also collected milkweed seeds and spread them out in open fields and along the roadside. It’s my way of helping the monarchs who need milkweed to lay their eggs on.

Me: Yes – dried cosmos seedheads are like asterisks in the garden! Did your own gardening experiences inspire your book? 

Cynthia: I grew up in a gardening family.  I had country grandparents who grew mostly vegetables and berries and of course fields of wheat and corn. I spent many hours in the garden with my Grandma picking peas and strawberries and red currants. And my sister and I helped Grandpa collect the corn seeds from the dried field corn. In the city my grandparents had a vegetable garden, and they grew beautiful flowers.  I learned a lot about flowers from them.  In parts of their garden they didn’t collect seeds, they’d just flatten the dried up plants down and let them reseed for next year. My parents had a large vegetable garden and several large flower beds.  They were always working out in the garden and of course we all helped.  I think we ate more than we picked! I guess you could say my grandparents and my parents helped me write this story by teaching me all about gardening and love as I grew up. 

Me:  Do you have favorite seeds and flowers?

Cynthia: While cosmos is my favorite seed to collect, my favorite flower is the violet. My second favorite is the forget-me-not. In our first house I grew forget-me-knots along our fence line and for some reason the birds would come along and cut the stem just under the flower head and all the pretty blue flower heads would fall to the ground. I often wonder why. I think Hollyhock seeds are interesting. It’s just really fun to take a closer look at dried up flowers in the fall and see all the different ways you can find their seeds hiding on the plant. It’s also interesting to see all the different shapes that seeds come in even if you don’t collect them.

Thanks for dropping by to talk about seeds and gardening, Cynthia. And now for one of my favorite parts of writing reviews – doing things that go…

Beyond the Books:

Plant some seeds and watch them grow. Beans, sunflowers, and other flowers are fun to grow – and you can even grow them in pots on your balcony, porch, or roof if you don’t have a garden.

Watch flowers you plant – or that you find growing in your neighborhood – throughout the season. Can you tell when they are producing seeds? Collect seeds from different flowers to examine. Cosmos, calendula, bee balm, and yucca are interesting to look at. What do you notice about these seeds? Plant some to see how they grow.

How do seeds get from a parent plant to a new place to grow? Look for milkweed or dandelion seeds, burdock seeds, and seeds in berries. What do you notice about these seeds? How do you think they end up in a new place?

Today we’re joining Perfect Picture Book Friday. It’s a wonderful gathering where bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's website. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Explore Outdoors ~ Spring Trees

The Vernal Equinox occurred an hour before midnight. So (despite the snow) it's officially Spring! And for the last couple weeks, some of the trees in my yard have been getting ready to flower. Here are two of them: a red maple and a birch.

What are the trees doing in your neighborhood?

Friday, March 15, 2024

The Hole Truth and Nothing But...


This Book Is Full of Holes: From Underground to Outer Space and Everywhere In Between 
by Nora Nickum; illus. by Robert Meganck 
40 pages; ages 6-9
Peachtree, 2024

theme: emptiness, science, art

What is a hole? A hollow place. An empty space. A part of something where there’s nothing at all.

But wait, says author, Nora Nickum. There is something to these holes – and so many places to find holes. From indentations in your waffles to nesting cavities in trees, there are holes all around us. Think about holes in the ground, or in a wiffle ball. Holes in a sprinkler or holes in the ozone layer. Sock holes, worm holes, animal burrows, Swiss cheese … this book is filled with holes!

What I like about this book: It’s fun! Nora provides great examples of holes we can find in our everyday life, from man-made stuff to nature. For each example she provides a layer of explanatory text. The back matter is just as fun. There’s an entire section called “English is full of holes,” where Nora focused on idioms and phrases we commonly use: loophole; down the rabbit hole… And there’s a section about black holes which are not holes at all.

I reached out to Nora with a few questions…

Me: How did you come to the idea of writing about holes?

Nora: The first holes I found myself wondering about were the teeny tiny holes in airplane windows and big, beautiful blue holes in the ocean. As I wrote, it turned into a book about all different kinds of holes, and what makes a hole a hole. Then I went down a lot of rabbit holes doing research about all different kinds of holes, and picking my favorites to include in the book.

Me: Are donut holes really holes?

Nora: It depends. Some donuts do have holes, of course. Bakers probably first made a hole in donuts because the gooey dough in the middle wouldn't fully cook in the frier. Dough would be punched out of the center when the donut was made. But larger bakeries now have machines that shape donuts to be rings so there's nothing left over. The term "donut hole" these days is often used for a spherical mini donut which is not a hole--and which, fortunately, is much tastier than a hole would be. 

Me: Are you telling the hole truth here?

Nora: Well, this is a nonfiction book, so yes, the hole truth and nothing but the truth. There are no holes in my research, and you can't poke any holes in my arguments. Putting fictional things in this nonfiction picture book would be like trying to put a square peg in a round hole, so none of that. Just pure, not-silly-in-the-least nonfiction. Okay, maybe I found some room for some silliness.

Hole-some Beyond the Books activities:

Go on a hole-finding expedition through your house. You might find some clothes with holes, pots, a guitar, faucets, and more… How many holes can you find?

Look for holes in nature around you. Check for holes in trees, logs, in the ground, in leaves and flower petals. 

Make a pinhole eclipse-viewer. All you need are two index cards (or ½ sheets of cardstock) and a pushpin or very sharp pencil. Instructions in this very short video.

Nora is a member of #STEAMTeam2024. You can find out more about her at her website. Today we’re joining Perfect Picture Book Friday. It’s a wonderful gathering where bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's website. Review f&g provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Explore Outdoors ~ Who's hanging out in the Crocuses?


Last week I noticed crocuses popping up in yards down in town. Lots of crocuses. So I wandered over to see whether any insects might be checking them out. I expected bees - maybe early bumble bees, though to tell the truth, March 10 is very early for anyone to be waking up and heading outside.

I didn't see any bees, but I did notice flies. Some were tiny and dainty; others were like this stout fellow.

What flowers are blooming in your neighborhood?
And what insects are visiting them?

Friday, March 8, 2024

It's Raining, It's Pouring ...

A Place for Rain   
by Michelle Schaub; illus. by Blanca G√≥mez 
32 pages; ages 4-8
‎Norton Young Readers, 2024

theme: rain, problem-solving, environment

We watch the raindrops drop.

Children, warm and dry inside, watch the rain pour down, puddle, pool, and fill the playground and parking lot, flood sidewalks, and run off into the road where it mixes with grit and grease. From there, the stream of water runs into storm drains and eventually into creeks, groundwater, or the ocean. 

The kids begin to wonder if they could collect some of that rain for a droughty day. And maybe they could keep it from pooling on the playground. Their solution: build a rain garden.

What I like about this book: I love the language, the onomatopoeia of plink, plop, pitter-patter, splutter-splatter. I like how Michelle Schaub highlights an important environmental issue by showing one solution –  a solution many cities are embracing as they focus on mitigating stormwater damage. And I really like that the Back Matter shows how people of all ages can Make Room for Rain with step-by-step instructions on how to build a rain garden.

A couple weeks ago, I caught up with Michelle (via the wonders of email) and asked her a couple questions.

Me: What inspired you to write a picture book about building a rain garden?

Michelle: I’ve always been passionate about using water and land sustainably, and I planted my first rain garden over ten years ago to help solve the problem of stormwater flooding my driveway. As I worked on the garden with my own children, I thought that the process would be fun to explain in a picture book.

Me: Why do you think this is an important story to share with children?

Michelle: In the face of doom and gloom news about climate change, A Place for Rain provides children with positive, attainable actions they can take to make a difference, whether it’s planting a full rain garden, or simply adding a rain barrel to a downspout to catch and reuse water.

Me: I agree, Michelle! Now for my favorite part of my Friday picture book reviews …

Beyond the Books:

Next time it rains, observe how and where the rain collects. What do you notice?

How much rain falls in a rainstorm? You can measure your rainfall if you have a big bucket and a ruler. Put the bucket in an open spot in your yard or driveway – not under roof eaves or trees. Then, after the storm measure how much rain fell.

Collect rainwater that comes off your roof by putting buckets under the eaves or a rain spout. How much collects? What could you use collected rainwater for? (water flowers, wash your bike, flush toilets…)

Michelle has written many books for kids, including Dream Big, Little Scientists. You can check out my review here on this blog

Michelle is a member of #STEAMTeam2024. You can find out more about her at her website.

Today we’re joining Perfect Picture Book Friday. It’s a wonderful gathering where bloggers share great picture books at Susanna Leonard Hill's website. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Explore Outdoors ~ A Wee Pine Tree

This past year was a huge pine cone year! There are cones covering my yard, the road to the hayfield, and edges of the fields. Stepping on soggy white pine cones isn't nearly as dicey as treading on roly-poly acorns, and for the time being I have left them alone. Partly because, on one of my walks, I discovered a few white pine younglings sprouting up.

 I got to wondering who, if any of my wild neighbors, might snack on white pine seeds and cones - or even tender needles. Turns out there are a bunch of local mammals and birds who might, including:
black bears
gray squirrels
red squirrels
eastern cottontails
white-footed mice
eastern chipmunks
white-tailed deer
yellow-bellied sapsucker
black-capped chickadee
white-breasted nuthatch
pine warbler
pine grosbeak
red crossbill
white-winged crossbill
evening grosbeak
pine siskin.

In addition to food, White pines provide nesting sites. Here are a few birds who make their homes in the white pines:
sharp-shinned hawks and cooper's hawks (nests on large branches next to the trunk)
broad-winged hawks (nests in a crotch near the top of the tree)
barred owls (nest in trunk cavities and use the tree as a roost)
least flycatchers
blue jays
common ravens
American crows
common grackles
mourning doves
olive-sided flycatchers
yellow-rumped warblers (and other warblers)
evening grosbeaks
purple finches

Even more birds use white pine needles as nesting materials. So I'll be leaving my cones scattered around my yard for a bit longer... 

You can find out more about White pines and how they fit into our ecology here.

Friday, March 1, 2024

In this corner ... Climate Change

Animal Climate Heroes
by Alison Pearce Stevens; illus. by Jason Ford 
104 pages; ages 8-12
‎Godwin Books, 2024

Just as every story needs a hero, every hero needs a supervillain. In this book that supervillain is Climate Change. “It’s not a living, breathing supervillain,” writes Alison Pearce Stevens, “but it acts like one just the same.” Every year the effects of climate change worsen: record-breaking disasters; wilder wildfires; more severe storms bringing floods – or no rain at all.

It’s time to call in the superheroes! And just who might these heroes be? You could be one. Your voice and actions are your superpowers. But you – and your human friends – are not alone. There are already superheroes out in the wild working to help keep our climate in check. They are the great whales, sea otters, forest elephants, and echidnas, each a hero in their own way. 

They aren’t the only climate heroes in nature. Indeed, there’s a whole bunch of unsung climate-fighters, from algae to trees. But these four are the ones Alison focuses on because of the impact they have on maintaining carbon balance on our planet. Each animal superhero gets its own chapter that details how it captures carbon through its life cycle. There’s also a section in each chapter that shows how we humans can help these animal heroes.

At the end there’s a section on how you can be a climate hero, with practical actions kids – and other humans – can take. They range from the simple (turning off lights and electronics not in use) to those that take more planning, such as planting gardens and trees. The book is illustrated throughout with cartoon drawings, which help keep the Superhero Vibe going.

I wanted to know more about how Alison came up with her idea, so I asked her a question:

photos: Images for a Lifetime
Me: How did you come to the idea of casting climate change as the supervillain instead of, say, fossil fuel corporations? And by doing that, how did it structure the story you wanted to tell?

Alison: Interesting question. No one has asked that before! I honestly never considered casting the fossil fuel empire as the villain, so your question really made me stop to consider why not. It comes down to the spark behind the idea for the book—I heard someone say their favorite fact was that sea otters help fight climate change. Right off the bat, that set up the clash as it’s described in Animal Climate Heroes—animals taking on climate change, itself. As for structure, I initially set it up like a boxing match, with the opponents in opposite corners of the ring, but it morphed into a superhero book during the writing process.

I really don’t know that I could have recast the supervillain as anything else, because animals can’t fight the fossil fuel empire. There simply isn’t a direct interaction there, at least not in a way that animals can have any kind of impact. They can and do, however, help to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which helps us fight climate change. These animals (and others) really are superheroes, and we need to protect them—and other natural spaces—if we want to keep our planet from warming too much.

Thanks, Alison. Alison is a science writer and award-winning children’s author who is also a member of STEAMTeam2024. You can find out more about her at her website.

Thanks for dropping by today. On Monday we'll be hanging out at Marvelous Middle Grade Monday with other  bloggers. It's over at Greg Pattridge's blog, Always in the Middle, so hop over to see what other people are reading. Review copies provided by the publishers.