Finding Magic in the Bayou

Maddy’s big sisters have warned her about going to Grandmère’s home deep in the Louisiana bayou. It’s boring, they say; there’s no TV, no mall, no microwave, and no indoor plumbing. Not only that, Grandmère’s a witch. Ten-year-old Maddy has a mind of her own, though, and anticipates adventures far from the glass and concrete world of New Orleans.  Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes
The magic begins on the car ride to the bayou. When a firefly perches on the rim of the car door, Maddy’s imagination is fired; surely it’s some kind of sign.
Grandmère doesn’t look like much of a sage. She’s tiny, “bird-boned,” with “bright-white curly hair, luminous like the moon.”  Maddy and her grandmother settle into a cozy routine of humming together, collecting eggs from the hen, doing dishes, and sitting on the porch. As the days pass, Grandmère tells Maddy stories about her ancestors and teaches her important principles such as … respect yourself … pay attention … and leave space for imagination. Under Grandmère’s guidance, she will, over the course of the summer, discover her own power, her place in a long line of Lavaliers, and an enchanted land replete with helpful fireflies and mermaids.
Maddy gets to know the neighbors and makes herself at home in Bayou Bon Temps. “Folks, all colors, live in the bayou,” she muses. “Some are red-haired, some blond or brunette. A stew. They all feel like kin to me. Like a family I didn’t know I had.”
Perhaps best of all, she meets a wiry, energetic boy called Bear, and the two form a strong bond as they run around, get dirty, and explore the bayou together. Her adventure, or at least her imagination, takes off the day she sees a mermaid rise from the dark waters.
At first, Maddy reveals her secret to no one but Grandmère, who believes the girl has encountered the legendary Mami Wata, who followed imprisoned Africans forced to cross to North America in the dank holds of slave ships. Later, as an environmental disaster endangers the Bayou Bon Temps, Maddy calls upon her own powers, as well as help from fireflies and mermaids, to rescue the community she cherishes.
Middle-school girls with a fanciful flair will snap up this novel imbued with magical mystery and a young heroine’s hopeful imagination.

Reprinted with permission from New York Journal of Books.

Don’t miss Jewell Parker Rhodes’s thoughtful comments on diversity in children’s literature.
And see my previous post on Sugar, winner of the Jane Adams Peace Association book award, and check out the author’s Coretta Scott King honor book, Ninth Ward.Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes


Planting Seeds of Peace

After celebrating two strong fictional females in recent posts, I’d like to focus on a visually striking biography by Jen Cullerton Johnson today. Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace  quivers with sensual details and a sense of hope and respect for all living things. We see young Wangari Maathai and her mother eating sweet figs, just as the monkeys and an eleSeedsofChangephant are doing. The Kikuyu people of Kenya, we learn, believe their ancestors rest in the tree’s shade, so Wangari promises never to cut down the tree.

While few girls in her village learn to read, Wangari’s parents respond to their daughter’s desire to learn, and arrange for her to go to the local school. At age 11, however, she can advance no more. To continue, she must move to the big city of Nairobi. From there, she goes the U.S. to major in biology.

When Wangari returns to her beloved home, she finds a world out of balance. Because the government has sold much land to big foreign companies, the forest habitat has dwindled, and native cedar and acacia trees have vanished. The people of her village have abandoned their custom of not cutting down the mugumo (spreading fig trees). Erosion has caused soil to stream into the rivers. Crops are drying out, and people are hungry. Wangari’s seed of an idea will bring the community together and restore the ecology of the land. Lush oil and scratchboard illustrations by Sonia Lynn Sadler show the belts of green saplings planted by the women.

After being arrested by corrupt police officers, Wangari gets out and takes her case to the world. The woman called Mama Miti, mother of trees, helped get 30 million trees planted, making for cleaner rivers, abundant fruit, and healthy crops. She won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, the first African to do so. Seeds of Change, aimed at upper-elementary students, is a vibrant story to include in units on ecology, peacemakers, Kenya, or outstanding women. A brief biographical note and sources are included.

And don’t miss the fabulous 2014 KidLit celebration of Women’s History Month!

A Fine Day for a Walk

Make room on your bookshelves for one more duckling book this spring. Eva Moore’s Lucky DuckliLucky Ducklings by Eva Moorengs: A True Rescue Story has the feel and look of a modern classic. At the same time, the plot derives from events that occurred in Montauk, NY, in 2000, when the community came together to save some hapless little ducks.

As this charming picture book relates, nature does not exist solely in the country. “The Duck family lived in a pretty pond in a green, green park, in a sunlit little town at the end of a long, long island.” The illustrator Nancy Carpenter beautifully evokes the setting with her muted, watery palette, achieved with charcoal and digital media.

“It’s a fine day for a walk!” Mama Duck proclaims. With simple, rhythmic language, Ms. Moore takes us along with Pippin, Bippin, Tippin, Dippin, and Little Joe as they make their way past overflowing trash cans, head off the curb, and follow Mama over the storm grate. Mama steps across easily, but, oh, my, the ducklings fall through! That could have been the end of the story, the author notes, but, thankfully, it didn’t stop there.

Plenty of folks pitch in to help the little ones; an observant bystander notices what happened and calls for help. Firemen and a tow-truck driver are able to save the ducklings and reunite them with their mama.

The afterward, too, shows how the community prevented other small animals from the same predicament: they replaced the storm drain grate with a new one with smaller openings.

Evocative, simple, and memorable, Lucky Ducklings makes for a fine read-aloud for ages 5 to 7.

Also see …

Make Way for DucklingsJust Ducks by Nicola Davies Ugly Duckling retold and illus by Jerry Pinkney

At the Intersection of Poetry and Nature

Poetry, with its eye-opening images, compressed language, and supple forms, provides pleasing ways to teach children about the natural world. Science teachers and others can use a number of fine collections to enrich their curriculum.

Hummingbird Nest

In Hummingbird Nest: A Journal of Poems, the poet Kristine O’Connell George has captured a range of perceptions she and her family experienced the year a hummingbird came calling. On a warm day in February a hummingbird dive-bombed near the poet’s face. That’s when they discovered the tiny bird had built a nest in the ficus tree on the patio of their home in California. For the next eight weeks, the acclaimed children’s poet kept a journal, recording her observations and musings on the mother hummingbird and her growing family. With naturalistic watercolor paintings, Barry Moser delineates the show taking place outside. His illustration for “Nest Check” shows a daughter leaning toward the tree to see “Two promises made–/two eggs newly laid.” In “Just Hatched,” the poem is enclosed in an oval shape, accompanied by Moser’s simple, delicate watercolor showing a cracked egg. Readers will linger upon the next image, an aerial shot looking straight down into the “woven walls” of the nest, with one baby bird lying next to an egg just cracking. In time, flying lessons will lead to fledglings taking off, and a mother’s job well done. Author’s note and hummingbird facts included, as well as suggested books about hummingbirds.
This is a lovely book to hold, to share, and to read aloud.

Song of the Water BoatmanSidman, Joyce. Song of the Water Boatman & Other Pond Poems. illus. by Beckie Prange. Houghton Mifflin, 2005. Spend some time with the interesting inhabitants of a pond, from spring’s peepers to the painted turtles that burrow in the mud for the winter. Original, accessible poems are accompanied by facts about the habitat’s animals, insects, and plants. Glossary included. Prange’s amazing woodcuts won the 2006 Caldecott Honor award. For ages 7 to 12.

Paolilli, Paul. Silver Seeds: A Book of Nature Poems. Viking, 2001. Simple enough for young children, these gentle poems begin with daybreak and end with night, with lovely images of sun, fog, and rain along the way.

Toad by the Road by Joanne Ryder

Ryder, Joanne. Toad by the Road: A Year in the Life of These Amazing Amphibians. Holt, 2007. Ryder’s engaging poems describe the life cycle of toads, from spring’s tadpoles to adult frogs hibernating in the winter. Henry Bergh Children’s Book Award Winner: Poetry Award (2007)

Singer, Marilyn. Footprints on the Roof: Poems about the Earth. illus. by Meilo So. Knopf, 2002. Older children (ages 9-12) will enjoy Singer’s remarkable poems about Earth’s seasons, weather, land forms, and animals. Use this poetry to foster environmental awareness and to complement the science curriculum. In “Burrows,” for instance, note how she ponders life “under the earth/where rabbits hide from foxes/foxes hide from dogs/full-bellied snakes sleep snugly/worms work uncomplaining. … I try to tread softly:/ a quiet giant/ leaving only footprints on the roof.” Also see her other collections, especially How to Cross a Pond: Poems about Water.

Circles of Hope for Earth Day

Make Earth Day a hopeful one with rousing outdoor and indoor activities, complemented by a colorful mix of fiction and nonfiction. One of my favorite picture books for ages 6 to 8 is Karen Lynn Williams’s Circles of Hope, set in Haiti. Williams, the author of many acclaimed multicultural picture books (Four Feet, Two Sandals, 2007; and Beatrice’s Dream, 2011), situates her simple tale of a  boy’s struggle to keep a tree alive within the larger context of his homeland’s economic struggles. Facile decides to plant a mango tree for baby sister Lucia, but it turns out to be a difficult task. Goats eat the first sapling he plants … rain washes away the second … and a fire destroys the third. Then the observant boy realizes he can use stones to protect the tree, and hope blossoms. The illustrator, Saport, adeptly uses pastels of orange and yellow to depict Haiti’s sunny, dry hillsides and creates charming fat circles for the green trees, the rounded hills, and the stones surrounding more and more trees on the island.  Williams closes her gentle story with “One year at a time, little circles of hope began to grow on the mountainsides of Haiti, and inside each circle grew a tree.” She supplies a fine teacher’s guide, as well, for her sensitive, positive story. Pair this with the nonfiction book This Tree Counts! to instill in children a greater appreciation for the importance of trees.

Older children (ages 8 to 10) adore the exciting and true story John Muir and Stickeen: An Icy Adventure with a No-Good DogJohn Muir initially feels a dog has no business on a treacherous expedition in Alaska. He changes his mind, though, when he and Stickeen become lost on a glacier during a storm, and the dog behaves courageously.  Farnsworth’s splendid, realistic oil paintings heighten the reader’s awareness of the perilous, frozen landscape. This adventure tale provides children with a fabulous introduction to the remarkable American conservationist and founder of the Sierra Club.

For another aspect of John Muir, try Emily Arnold McCully’s Squirrel and John Muir, featuring the possible relationship between the real-life rebellious Floy Hutchings, nicknamed Squirrel, and John Muir, who inspired her love of nature.

Looking for middle-school novels relating to respect for the Earth? See my post on One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street, as well as novels by Carl Hiassen, such as Hoot.

Simms Taback and His Bright Creations

Without Simms Taback’s books, the land of children’s literature would look less colorful, less lively, less creative. One of my favorite stories to tell young ones is the old Yiddish tale of “Something from Nothing,” in which a tailor takes his worn-out coat and makes a smaller garment out of it, and on and on until there’s nothing left (in my version) but a story, which can last forever!

After telling that story, I’d read the group Taback’s cheerful Caldecott-winning Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, holding up each page with its fun die-cut hole so the children could guess what Joseph would make next. This lively picture book, illustrated with watercolors, gouache, pencil, ink and collage, provides a banquet of buttons, bright scraps of fabric, petite photos of flowers, all popping out from the pages’ dark background. Listeners get to peep through smaller and smaller holes, as the items — a vest, a tie, etc. — diminish in size.

Based on the Yiddish song “Hob Ich Mir a Mantl,” or “I Had a Little Overcoat,” which Taback loved as a boy, this book belongs in EVERY child’s school or home library. Not only does it make for a rousing read-aloud, its evocation of Eastern European shtetls provides a link to a rich culture. And the message of making the most of whatever you have is a timely and important one for us all. Educators or parents can tap this little treasure for lessons in recycling, music, social studies, art, and reading, especially in teaching the skill of prediction. Taback includes the lyrics to the song that inspired the story.

Sadly, Simms Taback died of pancreatic cancer last Sunday. He has bequeathed us his bright, unforgettable books to share with children:


One Orange Tree That Binds a Community

Children crave a safe spot where they can gather to daydream, to share secrets, to savor summer’s sweet, long days. In her richly textured new novel One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street, Joanne Rocklin takes readers to an empty lot in California, where a large Valencia orange tree provides the perfect meeting place for four friends who live on the same street.

Ali, Robert, Bunny, and Leandra love the tree, with its strong climbing branches, its cool shade, and its juicy oranges — the best in the world. They’ve been hanging out there for as long as they can remember. What they don’t realize is that their beloved orange tree is under threat. “It was a hot summer day on Orange Street, one of those days that seem ordinary until you look back on it,” begins the novel. This was the day the orange traffic cone arrived at the curb. It’s also the day a stranger arrived, with a mystery harking back decades and touching the whole community.

Rocklin captures the goofy imagination of ten year olds, with their fanciful clubs and their farfetched conjectures. She draws a lifelike portrait of each of the four, who share a deep need for friendship. Told from alternating perspectives of the children and their elderly neighbor Ms. Snoops, the novel reveals each character’s hopes and fears. Ali, for instance, has a little brother who has recently had brain tumor surgery. Bunny, whose mother travels frequently, tries to keep her anxiety and obsessiveness to herself. Leandra feels grumpy at the prospect of a new sibling, and Robert aspires to be a magician. Ms. Snoops (whose actual name is Ethel Finneymaker) is over 80 and remembers Orange Street when it was part of a grove of trees. When her memories fade — as they are doing — who will be left to share the neighborhood’s history?

In just a day and a half, these engaging folks come together in a confrontation that resolves both a new and an old mystery. Strengthened by friendship and love of nature, they manage to save the fragrant heart of their community. One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street is a refreshing and soul-nourishing novel for ages 8 to 12.

For younger children:
Try Molly Bang’s When Sophie Gets Angry, Really, Really Angry and James Howe’s Horace and Morris But Mostly Dolores.

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