Friends with the Animals

J has been very interested in jobs lately, shuffling between the idea of being a scientist or a librarian or, as he told his Grammy this week, a crocodile conservationist. As a three year old he swings back and forth between being loving and tender with animals and wanting to chase the chickens or stomp the bugs. I try to continually encourage him to protect and care for the creatures around us, because I think it is such an important part of his developing relationship with the world. Also, I hate to see a little creature mishandled or frightened by my little creature. I keep a look out for books that emphasize a healthy relationship with animals and their world, so I bring you three of the good ones.

Each Living Thing by Joanne Ryder and illustrated by Ashley Wolff is one of my favorite books period.  It has just about everything I want a children’s book to have: a lovely poem, beautiful pictures, a message of gentleness toward all life, and as an added bonus a cycle of seasons as the book progresses. I am a sucker for a book about seasonal changes, anyway, but when it is built into the illustrations without being ham-fisted about it, I love it. The part of the poem that gets me a bit misty-eyed at the end says, “Watch out for every living thing, for all beasts fine and free, who grace the earth and ride the skies and glide within the sea.”  The pastel drawings are colorful and intricate, with hidden ladybugs and small fish. Each poetic stanza has a different child watching and being gentle with some creatures in their own habitat, adding to the depth and thoughtfulness that went into the creation of this book.

This week we got the book The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps by Jeanette Winter from the library. It has sweet drawings to accompany the simplified life story of one of my all-time favorite scientists. Jeanette Winter has written a number of biographies that are appealing to a three year old and his mama, but this one inspired him to spend a few days wanting to be a watcher like Jane Goodall when he grows up. I appreciate the way the author uses words from the actual person the biography is about blended seamlessly into the rest of the story.  This book is especially fun since there are pictures with chimps hiding in the trees, just out of sight of Jane, but easy enough for the reader to pick out. Even though I have been trying to avoid too many heavy-handed environmentalist propaganda books (not that I am opposed to environmentalist propaganda, I just want to make sure J grows up with a sense of hope for the future) this book balances the realities of the dangers to Gombe forest and the drive Goodall has to protect the Chimp’s habitat without creating a desperate feeling of hopeless destruction.

The last of the three is the classic The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer, Illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. Written in 1991, it was in heavy rotation around our house when my brother was little and interested in catching a keeping an array of tiny animals. It is the conversation between a mother and her son as he tries to explain how he will change his room in order to provide a good home for the salamander he wants to keep. He, charmingly, sees no problem whatsoever in bringing in rocks and trees and taking off the roof to let the birds and the light and the rain in. I love the beautiful descriptions and illustrations of the starry moss and the stones with holes for water for the salamander to play in. I also really appreciate that even though he is clearly describing lengths that would be impossible to go to in order to keep his salamander, the book ends with him asleep in a bed in a forest room with the salamander asleep nearby.

Winter, J. (2011) The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s life with the chimps. New York: Schwartz & Wade Books.

Ryder, J. (2000) Each living thing. San Diego: Gulliver Books.

Mazer, A. (1991) The salamander room.  New York: Alfred A Knopf.


In the Garden

Husband and I met in a horticulture class and have both longed for a garden space in our lives. Our current home in San Rafael has finally given us the chance to grow some green things and eat fresh from the garden. Even though we both enjoy growing plants and digging dirt, our current garden is his in its entirety. He has done the planting, the watering, and the building of amazing woven twig structures that keep out the deer. I wander in sometimes with the three year old and enjoy the dirt and the bugs and the fruits of his impressive labor. It is the garden season of relaxing now, all that needs doing is occasional watering and to watch the flowers turn into fruit. Because it is so lush and full right now I go to the library and gather up books about the way the seasons change in different gardens.

Mystery Vine by Cathryn Falwell is J’s favorite of these three books, and sometimes his favorite book altogether for a couple of days on end. It is illustrated with collaged paper cutouts of a family planting and playing in their garden. The colors are bright and the children happy and sweet with each other. The “mystery vine” is the unidentifiable plant on the edge of the well organized garden the children have been observing while doing the garden chores of watering and weeding and playing until finally in autumn the vine is revealed to be a pumpkin vine. The writing has a lyrical rhyming and a pleasant flow and rhythm. The back of the book has some pumpkin recipes and gardening crafts, which is a nice bonus, but nothing we have never used, so I cannot attest to the tastiness of the pumpkin apple bread. I can however attest to this being a delightful summer garden book.

My second favorite in the garden through the year book is And the Good Brown Earth by Kathy Henderson. This is a story of a grandmother and grandson who journey out to the garden every month or so to plant or weed or water as the season demands. I love the sweet watercolor/colored pencil/collage illustrations in this book. I also love a story about grandma gardeners.  This book starts in the mud stomping spring and ends at harvest time with one neat and tidy grandma garden right next to  one wild garden all “tangly fantastic” garden that belongs to the little boy.  The book does not rhyme, but it does use the repeating refrain “And the good brown earth got doing what the good brown earth does best”, which gives it a lovely rhythm.

While most garden books make the journey from spring through harvest, Isabella’s Garden by Glenda Millard and Illustrated by Rebecca Cool starts at the planting of the seeds and finishes its year with the cold winter and the planting of the seeds left over from the previous year’s harvest. This book follows a traditional style of poem building on itself like the rhyme of “The House That Jack Built”.  Here is a little bit, “This is the sun that kisses the clouds that cries the rain that soaked the seeds that slept in the soil, all dark and deep, in Isabella’s garden” (p.5) I find this style compelling to begin with and so much more so when telling a story of seeds and rain and birds. The illustrations are bold and mural-like, which suit the poem well, filling the pages with wide eyed children working together in sun and rain to plant and care for the garden.

Falwell, Cathryn (2009) Mystery Vine.  New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Henderson, Kathy (2003) And the Good Brown Earth. Cambridge, Mass: Candlewick Press

Millard, Glenda (2009)Isabella’s Garden. Somerville, Mass: Candlewick Pres


Since it was the husband’s birthday and school was starting imminently, this week we went camping. We did not take a long journey, but got out of town enough to see the stars shine and the meteors fall in an elegant display. J loved camping, was sufficiently covered in dirt, and played with friends big and small including his Grammy. Being out in the woods does not mean we would neglect to bring along some reading. Sure enough we found plenty of time to swing in the hammock and read. I have assembled three excellent nature related books, only one of which we actually had with us in the woods. The book I wish I had and am still looking for is an animal poop book. That’s right, poop. Because I have a three year old and three year olds are pretty loud and scare off the animals, only their poop is left to identify them. Actually, we heard plenty of animals in the distance: a fox, an array of hawks, and plenty of frogs and crickets. We did find creek creatures during the various creek mucking adventures, the most exciting one for me being the newt. This is one of the main reasons to bring the scientist husband along, not only does he make excellent fires using only one match, he knows what kind of rocks to look under to find the exciting creatures.

America’s Mountains Guide to Plants and Animals by Marianne D. Wallace was the book we had with us. It has lovey scenes of the various mountain ecosystems in colored pictures. J liked the pictures, but could not stand very much listening as the writing is pretty dry and follows no story. It is, however, a nice way to talk about finding the different animals and plants we found while adventuring. I like to have the knowledge in my head so when my son asks about how a newt survives living in the creek or why the trees look the way they do I will have the answer on the tip of my tounge, so books like this are good for me to read so I can name all the trees in the campground or all the bugs in the creek. Even I get bored with an adult animal guide sometimes, making the simpler children’s version more appealing to me too.

In the Small, Small Pond by Denise Fleming.  This book is irresistible. The author explores the way the animals that live in a pond splash and play about by using descriptive, simple lines that flow like a lovely poem:  “Wiggle, jiggle, tadpoles wriggle. Waddle, wade, geese parade.”  Though the language and words are simple, Fleming combines them in a way that perfectly sets the feeling of the animals and the pond.  This book won a Caldecott Honor, which is an award I trust (mostly) for excellence in art for children’s literature. There is a little frog that peeks its way into each scene and observes the animals. The raccoon washing his meal is my favorite, mostly because I love a furry creature, and also because I love that raccoons wash their dinner, so polite.  I always enjoy this book whenever J brings it to me to read, and I find it a perfect complement to a camping trip with creek adventures.

Finally the nature book I got from the library, Even an Ostrich Needs a Nest by Irene Kelly.  This book has lovely illustrations and information about how different birds build their nests. While I have watched all of David Attenborough’s The Life of Birds, I really had not ever considered the variety of nests birds build to suit their needs. It is astonishing for both spectacular variety and creativity. For example “A female tailorbird sews a leaf together to make a tiny pouch.” She uses spider silk to hold it together. The Australian Bush Turkey uses the heat created by a huge compost pile to keep the eggs warm and the chicks have to dig themselves out after hatching.  Because each bird gets just one little paragraph the book isn’t dry reading but J could not sit through the whole thing. He was being constantly diverted by the sun and the climbing and all the things three year olds need to get done in a day.

The books we really read in the woods were Curious George and Blueberries for Sal, both of which set the mood perfectly, I thought, but will have to be classified elsewhere some other time.

Teamwork and the Online School Challenge

O the teamwork challenge. I always used to dread a team project for school, working with others was my least favorite thing. I preferred to sit in the back, do my homework quietly and interact as little as possible.  Yet here I am embarking on an online schooling adventure that will require me to do just what I used to hate. I am not as afraid of it as I used to be. Part of this fearlessness comes from working for five years in a cooperative grocery store with no managers and a lot of committee and department and membership meetings. While listening to Ken Haycock’s lecture “Working in Teams”, I was feeling more and more confident recognizing the different challenges and phases of teamwork that I encounter daily in the workplace and which have become second nature to the way I communicate and learn. I mostly relate to the role of the team leader, since I take that role on at work quite a bit. I am bossy maybe, but I also value organization and clear ground rules and trust building between team members.  I am looking forward to bringing my new perspectives into the school environment, to being a full participant in a team, not neither the bossy pants nor the hanger on.

I am also very excited about how much better we as students retain the information if we engage with other students and try teaching it. It is challenging to me because I hate to stand out, to put myself and my thoughts into an arena where they can be judged.  I think I am more at ease in the online environment with all the practice Facebook brings us to put ourselves out into the world where people can vote on how clever or interesting or intelligent we are with the push of a button. My confidence in my computer and internet skills has increased dramatically in the 5 or so years since I was last in school. I doubt, however, that Library School will be as easy as Facebook.

Here is what I need to succeed (hints from Enid Irwin, who says successful teamwork is attitude plus planning.)

1. A calendar above my desk and one I can carry with me so I don’t double schedule myself. (I’ve already done that since I am both working on the 22nd and supposed to be present for an online conference – oops)

2. Taking the time to make a place daily to give to schoolwork, challenging with my other responsibilities, but necessary if I am going to succeed (6am here we come? Painful maybe, but it is usually quiet around here until 7:30)

3. Putting myself into the conversational mix outside my comfort zone. Talking to strangers is a little scary, but can be done.

So here I go, living the dream of online education, sitting in my living room in pajamas and writing a blog about children’s literature and teamwork.


The goal here is to put together the books my family loves into bunches, like flowers.  I love to do this, but have never found any application for it before until now. Forced to blog for librarian school I will venture forth into books reviews and thematic book groupings, and am finding even the initial notes I am making for future entries entirely satisfying.

While the three year old could care less, I cannot help but peruse sections of the library and find them lacking. I want to be able to find books organized together by subject, but most the picture books are organized by author’s last name: entirely unhelpful. When I first started asking librarians for thematic suggestions (I think I was looking for books about colors for J at 2 years old) she went immediately to the computer. I will admit I wanted instinctual recommendations. So I am starting my own logbook, that way when a young mom comes to me looking for comic books or farm books or books about grandparents, I will have an answer at my fingertips.

So here as a first entry have compiled a list of three of J’s (really mostly my) favorite comic books (leaving out the totally inappropriate Futurama  comic book which is his first love because, even though he can’t read, I am sure it will give him ideas. Bender is a terrible role model.)


1. Nursery Rhyme Comics Edited by Chris Duffy. J loves this book. It is a collection of nursery rhymes each illustrated by a different artist in comic book style. J is naturally drawn to nursery rhymes and this combines them with the art he finds so appealing. I love it to, although not entirely. In “This Little Piggy” by Cyril Pedrosa the pigs that go to market are eaten by a family of scary looking wolves and “Solomon Grundy” by Mike Mignola is just creepy. But the majority of them are delightful and interesting. I love to see the diversity of artistic style represented. I especially like the illustration for “Hickory, Dickory, Dock” by Stephanie Yue and “Hush Little Baby” by Mo Oh if J’s especial favorite.  Last week I was too exhausted to read bedtime stories so J spent 45 minutes quietly reading this book by nightlight while I tried to sleep next to him. I think he would have stayed up longer but by 10:45 he was still awake and I had to wake up enough to lay down the bedtime law.

2. Sticky Burr by John Lechner.  In all honesty, J is so obsessed with Nursery Rhyme Comics that he has not even noticed the antics and amusements of Sticky Burr. Sticky is a forest burr who does not fit in with the prickly crowd and is harassed by a burr bully. The writing and dialog is not the most intelligent, but I like the pictures of the burr village and the descriptive side notes Sticky gives us about his home. Also, there is a song.

3. Super Dragon by Steven Kroll and Doug Holgate. We liked the vivid pictures and bright movement, but this early reader comic book was not quite what I was hoping for. I love a dragon book and gathered this up in the hopes that it might be a good dragon introduction, but it was not really. The youngest dragon in a family must learn to fly secretly with the help of a bird while his family gets ready for a dragon competition they feel he is too small for. Of course he wins the day, but the story feels forced.

Of the three we would only choose to own (or check out from the library again and again)is the Nursery Rhyme Comics.  I am still on the lookout for engaging and intelligent comic books that have more cute animals and fewer boobs than most the comic books that I have seen so far.