Children's Books for Garden and Plant Lovers

A Notes from the Windowsill annotated bibliography by Wendy E. Betts. Copyright 2005, 2006, 2007

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Last Updated 03/13/07


Picture Books

(Click for books for older readers and nonfiction )

Home illustrated by Jeannie Baker. Greenwillow, 2004 (0-06-623935-4) $15.99

Many of us think of home as the place we go to to shut out the world. But as this wordless book demonstrates, "home" also includes the world that's outside our window--and we can help to make it a more beautiful place. Each two-page spread of this book shows a window in an urban home, looking out on a yard and neighborhood. It begins during a baby's earliest days, goes through her childhood, and ends with her and her own baby in the yard; events are marked by photos and other objects lying on the windowsill, as well as what we can see the girl doing inside and outside. But far more is going on than just a child growing up in a house: she is also growing up to love her yard, her plants and her neighborhood, which grows gradually more and more welcoming and appealing, because of the work she has helped put into it. Unusually realistic collage illustrations give an appropriately three-dimensional look to this exquisite, inspiring book. * (5 & up)

Little Green written and illustrated by Keith Baker. Harcourt, 2001; Red Wagon, 2005 (0-15-205308-5) $6.95 board

No, this isn't based on Joni Mitchell's song "Little Green," though I might like it better if it were. Like all of Baker's books, it's quite attractive, showing a hummingbird darting busily around all kinds of colorful flowers. Meanwhile, a little boy watches the hummingbird's amazing energy, revealing at the end a picture he has made of its vibrant pathways. The rhyming text is somehow a touch grating--too many rhymes of "you," I think--but the atmosphere of a fresh and alive Springtime is appealing. (1-4)

Jack's Garden written and illustrated by Henry Cole. Greenwillow, 1995 (0-688-13501-3); Mulberry, 1997 (0-688-15283-X) $4.95 pb

A pleasing mixture of fact and fancy, this book uses a house-that-Jack-built-style cumulative rhyme as the starting point for a look at the basic components that go into a garden. As each verse adds a new element--soil, seeds, rain--the accompanying illustrations show different aspects of that element: soil, for example, might contain slugs, earthworms and fly pupas. The meticulous, subtly colored pencil illustrations are intriguing and evocative, and readers may well be inspired to follow Jack's example and start their own gardens. (4-8)

My Zoo; My Farm; My Garden; My Family written and illustrated by Jane Conteh-Morgan. Bantam Rooster, 1995 (0-553-09733-7; 0-553-09732-0; 0-553-09731-3; 0-553-09730-6) $4.99 each

Although animals are an obvious subject for two of the books in this series, relationships between people and animals are actually a strong visual focus in all of them, providing plenty of fun detail for readers to spot; I especially liked My Garden, in which a girl does her simple gardening chores with the help of a friendly bird. These cheerful, mostly rhyming texts are pleasant to read and the interesting textures and childlike shapes of the collage illustrations work well with the theme, creating lively and expressive interactions.

Jody's Beans by Malachy Doyle. Illustrated by Judith Allibone. Candlewick, 1999 (0-7636-0687-1) $15.99

The basics of gardening are shown with effective simplicity in this story about a girl growing her first crop of runner beans. Jody's Granda brings her the seeds, and throughout the summer he tells her how to care for and enjoy the plants: watering, thinning, pinching them back, and finally eating their delicious produce. Although Jody does most of the work herself, her father and increasingly pregnant mother are often nearby enjoying the sights, and her cat and toy rabbit are also interested observers.

Delicate pen & ink and watercolor illustrations, scattered imaginatively amongst the pages in small scenes and ever changing motifs, make the most of this gentle story. The perennial themes evoked by gardening--the satisfactions of continuity, natural rhythms, nurturance, and connection with the earth--are all expressed in the tranquil scenes, without need for complicated words; warm family affection and the pleasures of independent work are also implicit. It's an idealized portrait, of course--no bugs or diseases in this Eden, only a few beans picked too late--but as a beginning introduction to both the hows and the whys of gardening, it's a modest treat. (4-8)

Growing Vegetable Soup written and illustrated by Lois Ehlert. Harcourt Brace, 1987 (0-15-232575-1); 1990 (0-15-232580-8) $6.00 pb

Although I've always enjoyed this book and it's companion, Planting a Rainbow, I don't think I ever fully appreciated it in its small board book edition. Now as a lap-size board book, it is bolder, brighter and more beautiful than ever.

This story offers basic information on gardening with a lovely touch of imagination. The unseen narrator describes the whole process of how he and his dad "grow vegetable soup," starting with their tools, going on to planting the seeds and sprouts, and ending with picking or digging up the vegetables and cooking them. The simple, direct text is accompanied by labelled illustrations of everything that's used, from the soil to the soup bowl. Ehlert's signature collage illustrations make each item colorful and distinctive, and give the little seedlings and growing plants their full measure of charm. If you've only seen the small board book edition, do yourself a favor and check out this edition, or the original picture book. (2-6)

Also now available: A Sembrar Sopa De Verduras written and illustrated by Lois Ehlert. Harcourt, 2005 (0-15-205608-4) $6.95 board

Planting a Rainbow written and illustrated by Lois Ehlert. Harcourt Brace, 1988 (0-15-262609-3) $16.00; Red Wagon, 2003 (0-15-204633-X) $6.95 board

What Growing Vegetable Soup did for a food garden, Planting a Rainbow does for a flower garden, with the addition of a color lessen. Another very attractive book, with brighter and more vivid illustrations. (2-6)

Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! by Candace Fleming. Illustrated by G. Brian Karas. Atheneum, 2002 (0-689-83152-8) $16.00

Reminiscent of The Tale of Peter Rabbit--if it had been written from McGregor's point of view--this tale of Man vs. Bunny is equally delightful in its own right. Mr. McGreely has dreamed for years of planting a garden, and finally one Spring he hoes and sows and watches his garden grow. But his dreams of crisp, fresh veggies are ruined by three hungry bunnies. As Mr. McGreely gets angrier and angrier at the devastation of his garden, he builds more and bigger structures around it--but the bunnies always find a way through. Until one day he builds such a huge, enormous thing around his garden, the bunnies can't possibly get in. Or can they?

Fleming uses a combination of repetitive and cumulative prose that makes the story simply sing when read aloud, and Karas' lively illustrations give it great expression and charm--especially the last page, which shows Mr. McGreely sitting on the grass and moodily gnawing a carrot along with the three happy gnawing bunnies. Adults who choose to can find lots of lessons here about the futility of escalation, the benefits of sharing, and the drawbacks of trying to overcontrol nature... or they can simply share a terrific story. * (2-8)

The Ugly Vegetables written and illustrated by Grace Lin. Charlesbridge, 1999 (0-88106-336-3) $16.95

As a little girl helps her mother work on their garden, she wonders why they're doing things differently than their neighbors. Then the plants start to grow and she's saddened by how ugly their garden is, compared to the others: a garden of black-purple-green vines, fuzzy wrinkled leaves, prickly stems... "These are better than flowers" says Mommy, but the little girl doesn't agree--until her mom takes those ugly vegetables and turns them into fabulous soup. A happy ending has the neighbors joining in growing Chinese vegetables for soup, while the little girl and her mother add some flowers to their plot. Lin's illustrations are less sophisticated than those of her later titles, but offer another colorful glimpse into the world of a Chinese-American family. An appendix gives both the "Ugly Vegetable Soup" recipe, and a guide to the Chinese vegetables used. (4-8)

Alison's Zinnia written and illustrated by Anita Lobel. Greenwillow, 1990; Mulberry, 1996 (0-688-14737-2) $4.95 pb

Twenty-six beautiful flowers and twenty-six generous little girls are the stars of this very attractive alphabet book. Each two-part page not only shows a carefully detailed drawing of a flower, but includes part of an illustrated story-in-the-round, in which Alison acquires an Amaryllis for Beryl, who buys a Begonia for Crystal, and so on. The text therefore gracefully emphasizes both the individual letters and their progression in the alphabet, while the pictures of the winsome little girls give quite a feel for the pleasures of gardening. * (3-8)

Patch in the Garden written and illustrated by Jo Lodge. Red Wagon/Harcourt Brace, 1996 (0-15-201373-3) $5.95

This nicely designed "touch and feel" book offers toddlers several enjoyable tactile sensations, as an amiable dog named Patch invites them to feel various objects. His tour of the garden includes feeling the fur on a big black spider, the prickles on a hedgehog and the roughness of tree bark. As well as the touch-and-feel elements, there are also a few pop-ups and pull-tabs. Made with pages of folded cardboard, this are actually somewhat less sturdy than standard board books, but the pages will probably outlast the interactive elements in any case. (1-3)

Inch By Inch: The Garden Song by David Mallett. Illustrated by Ora Eitan. HarperCollins, 1995 (0-06-024303-1); HarperTrophy, 1997 (0-06443481-8) $5.95 pb

A small but stalwart gardener delightfully personifies the themes of this homage to gardening, taken from Mallet's classic folk song. With a little attention to the rhythm, it's almost as much fun to read as it is to sing (although I prefer the slightly altered version Arlo Guthrie performs); the music is also included. Boldly splashed with color, Eitan's pictures interpret the intimate, uplifting lyrics with imagination and verve, illustrating "Mother Earth will make you strong if you give her love and care," with a picture of the boy tugging a radish six times his size out of the ground; "In my garden I'm as free as that feathered thief up there" shows him and his faithful dog sliding down a rainbow. Gardeners of every age will love this. (3 & up)

What Does Bunny See? by Linda Sue Park. Illustrated by Maggie Smith. Clarion, 2005 (0-618-23485-3) $15.00

As a bunny hops through a cottage garden, she sees beautiful flowers in all kinds of colors. A rhyming text encourages young listeners to guess what color the bunny will see next; although the rhymes aren't perfect, they have a good rhythm and a slightly unusual scheme which is a nice change for readers. Watercolor illustrations show a sweet, big-eyed bunny and a lovely garden with many recognizable flowers. (2-4)

Wildflower ABC written and illustrated by Diana Pomeroy. Harcourt Brace, 1997 (0-15-201041-6) $15.00; Voyager, 2001 (0-15-202455-7) $6.00 pb

Adults who remember clumsy potato print pictures from their childhood will be astonished by this artistic tour-de-force, which combines potato prints and watercolor-like acrylic paints to create amazingly delicate and beautiful depictions of wildflowers. It's a gorgeous alphabet for plant-lovers, although the elegant, muted shades fail to convey the vibrance of flowers like nasturtiums and poppies. Notes at the end tell some of the facts and legends relating to the wildflowers (2 & up)

Busy in the Garden by George Shannon. Illustrated by Sam Williams.

Dig a little.
Dig a lot.
Dig a brand-new garden spot.

Plant a little.
Plant a lot.
Plant the seeds and bulbs you bought.

Wait a little.
Wait a lot.
Wait much longer than you thought.

Pick a little.
Pick a lot.
Share the best bouquet you've got!

There's so much freshness and playfulness in this collection of gardening related poems, it's easy to understand why the illustrator chose to fill the pictures with images of toddlers. That may limit its appeal to older children... but no matter, some of these clever poems are clearly destined to be anthologized later. Meanwhile, younger children can enjoy the bouncy rhymes and word play, even if they're too young to appreciate many of the jokes. ("...the scarecrow--what a stuffed shirt!") The busy toddlers, happy animals and even smiling vegetables all add to the friendly air of the book, with light pen & ink pictures that never crowd out the words. (2 & up)

This is Your Garden written and illustrated by Maggie Smith. Crown; Sagebrush, 2001 (0-613-35475-3) $15.60 library binding

The joy of gardening shines out of this small books, which describes how a flower garden is made and tended, with some extra loving touches. Pastel crayons against a plain white background show a young girl as she carefully plants a bed, determinedly shoos away predators, sings "a song of encouragement" for her tender new seedlings, and even kisses a favorite plant goodbye. The pictures become more and more vivid and colorful as the garden grows, ending with the girl skipping barefoot through a riot of blooms. An utterly unpretentious delight. (3-8)

First Tomato written and illustrated by Rosemary Wells. Dial, 1992 (0-8037-1175-1) Note: this book is out of print, but is still available as part of the three volume set, Voyage to the Bunny Planet. Dial, 2003 (0-6700-3663-3) $16.99

This is my favorite of the three "Bunny Planet" books, a series of gentle fantasies for anyone who's ever had a bad day. Rabbit-girl Claire has had a very bad day. Her shoes filled with snow on the way to school, math went on for two hours, and once again the bus was late. Claire needs a visit to the Bunny Planet. So in her thoughts she goes: "Far beyond the moon and stars, Twenty light-years south of Mars, Spins the gentle Bunny Planet/And the Bunny Queen is Janet."

Janet, a large, motherly rabbit, shows her the day that should have been, in which Claire describes, changing to a first-person, rhyming narrative, picking vegetables for her mother and finding the very first ripe tomato. She is tempted by its "fat, red smell," but unselfishly saves it for her mother. And she is rewarded: "I hear my mother calling when the summer winds blow, 'I've made you First Tomato soup because I love you so."

After her visit to the Bunny Planet, Claire's warm bus comes at last, and she goes happily home, seeing the Bunny Planet, "near the evening star in the snowy sky."

The change in narrative structure makes each visit to the Bunny Planet a special little story. I love this one for its affectionate glimpse of the richness and wonder of a garden, shown in words and in the bliss on Claire's face as she breathes in the smell of "rain and steamy earth and hot June sun." * (2 & up)


Older Readers

The Secret Garden by Frances Hogdson Burnett. Illustrated by Tasha Tudor. 1911; 1962; 1998 (0-397-32165-1) $16.95

I remember once begging my mom to buy me a second copy of The Secret Garden because its illustrations were so much nicer than those in the edition I had. Of course it was the Tasha Tudor version, which I eventually did get in paperback, then in hardcover, and am now replacing again with this lovely deluxe edition. It's not particularly fancy, just beautifully made: the print is large and crisp, the color plates are glowing, and the illustrations are as expressive and intimate as always. This story about a spoiled, lonely girl who finds a mysterious hidden garden has always been a wonderful read-aloud, and now is more inviting than ever. * (7 & up/8 & up)

Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman. Illustrated by Judy Pedersen. HarperCollins, 1997 (0-06-027471-9) $13.95; HarperTrophy, 1999 (0-06-447207-8) $ $4.95 pb

"The ancient Egyptians prescribed walking through a garden as a cure for the mad. It was a mind-altering drug we took daily."

The Gibb Street neighborhood has always been like a cheap hotel: "you stay until you've got enough money to leave." No one in the neighborhood really feels like they belong there, and divided as they are by barriers of race and language, they certainly don't feel like they belong together.

Then a girl named Kim, seeking a way to connect with the father who died before she was born, plants lima bean seeds in a deserted, trash-filled lot: "All his life in Vietnam my father had been a farmer... I would show him that I could raise plants, as he had. I would show him that I was his daughter." Those first seeds are the beginning of something magical, as one by one, the residents of Gibb Street come together to find what they need in a garden.

Thirteen short narratives make up the story, each told by a different person with a different perspective on what a garden means. A pregnant teen named Maricela is forced to work in the garden as a form of therapy, and finds herself unwillingly captivated by the beautiful efficiency of the cycle of nature. Curtis abandons his bodybuilding for tomato growing to show the woman he loves that there's more to him than muscles. Sam, a long-time peace activist, is troubled when he realizes that the gardeners are planting their plots with "the blacks on one side, the whites on another, The Central Americans and Asians toward the back... From Paradise, the garden was turning back into Cleveland." But no group of people can work together in a garden and stay segregated for long; as they join together to share advice, tasks and harvests, the members of the Gibb Street community garden discover that they actually are a community. "We, like our seeds, were now planted in the garden."

Tender and authentic, Seedfolks is a beautifully realized story about the power all people have to turn ugliness and despair into beauty and hope. Fleischman's language is evocative and individual, making the feelings and dreams of each diverse character equally real and valid. Only towards the end does he fall prey to the hazard of telling too much instead of showing, a small flaw in an otherwise exceptional, richly life-affirming work. * (10 & up)

The Half-Brothers by Ann Lawrence. Walck, 1973 (0-8098-2425-6)

This lovely book isn't easy to find these days, but it's well worth spending a little money at bookfinders.com to own it. Set in a mythological kingdom, it starts off like a fairy tale, in which a King with three sons and a stepson is unable to decide which of the four brothers should rule the kingdom after he does. But then the story shifts to a nearby Duchy, in which a young girl named Ambra--who happens to be the Duchesses' heir--is rather awkwardly growing up.

When Ambra becomes Duchess at seventeen, she also becomes a matter of great interest to the four young princes, all of whom could use her wealth and power to become sole heir of their father's lands. Rather lonely, Ambra is easily influenced by the abiding passions of the young princes: one for music, one intellectual pursuits, one for politics. But amidst all these new interests, her soul still longs for something all her own, and she finds it... and true love... in her garden.

The Half-Brothers retains the bones of a fairy-tale plot, which gives it a pleasing symmetry. But in many ways it's a very down-to-earth story... as you might expect from a book peppered with first names like Bay, Basil, and Clovis and last names like Barberry, Fennygreek, and Lavendene. Along with Ambra's attempts to find herself, it is also about her people's attempts to keep their kingdom running smoothly, despite her inexperience and constant new enthusiasms. There is much quiet wisdom, delicate romance, and a deep running vein of love for homey pursuits and the goodness of things grown in the earth. * (9 & up)

Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley. Greenwillow, 1997 (0-688-15439-5); Ace, 1998 (0-4410-0583-7) $6.50 pb

In McKinley's contemporary fantasy Sunshine, the narrator confesses that her favorite fairy tale is "Beauty and the Beast." It was probably irresistible for McKinley to include that little in-joke: she's rewritten the fairy tale twice now, and Sunshine itself is definitely in the "Beauty and the Beast genre if not an actual retelling. Rose Daughter is the second of McKinley's retellings, written almost twenty years after Beauty

Both versions stick closely to the outline of the original story, stamping originality not through plot changes, ala Disney, but through richly embroidered details. Roses, as a source of beauty and magic, even life-giving, are the theme of this book. "Roses are for love. Not forget-me-not, honeysuckle, silly sweethearts' love but the love that makes you and keeps you whole, love that gets you through the worst your life'll give you and that pours out of you when you're given the best instead."

It's almost impossible not to mentally compare McKinley's two versions-- she herself, perhaps unconsciously, resued a few phrases of dialogue--and I must confess to finding Beauty a livelier, more vividly characterized story. But the more muted charm of Rose Daughter will find admirers among those who feel the magic of roses. (12 & up) HR WIDTH="100%">

Nonfiction

Young Gardener written and photographed by Stefan and Beverley Buczacki. Other Photographs by Anthea Sieveking. Illustrations by Peter Luback. Frances Lincoln, 2007 (978-1-84507-295-7) $19.95

Almost everything a young gardener could want to know can be found in this aptly named book, and as an added bonus, it's also attractively designed and easy to use. Thoughtfully broken down by season--and breaking even those down to Early, Mid and Late--each chapter includes sections on "What's going on in the garden?" (Late Spring: birds are feeding their babies, a good time to add food to feeders), "What's happening to the plants" (Early Summer: perennial plants are in flower, annuals are starting to appear, lawns need to be mowed and weeded), "What can I do in the garden?" (Early Autumn: store fruits and vegetables, dig up potatoes), and a garden-related craft project. Each seasonal chapter also includes a checklist of preparations for the upcoming season.

Full-color photographs of gardens and kid gardeners of all ages brighten just about every page of the book; the carefully detailed instructions for the activities are accompanied by lively pen & ink drawings, making them easy to follow. Pesticides are not mentioned and safety is always emphasized. Unfortunately, alternatives to pesticides aren't mentioned much either: the inevitable issue of how to deal with pests and diseases is conspicuous by its absence, and that may cause disappointment for readers who expect to easily replicate the gorgeous results displayed here.

Young Gardener also shares an issue with many gardening books for adults: it was originally published in Great Britain and some of the gardening terms are different. This isn't a serious problem, just something to be aware of when shopping; a glossary at the end is helpful. The plants suggested are common and easy to find in the U.S., and the crafts, such as making a bird table or pressed flower pictures, use familiar supplies (unlike many English gardening books for adults, which all seem to assume old sinks can be found are lying around every corner.) Recipes are given both metric and U.S. measurements, but children may need help converting centigrade to Fahrenheit.

Other than that, just about everything about Young Gardener is easy to use: I particularly appreciate how simple it makes the question of what-to-do-when, which I always found the most confusing aspect of gardening. Because it's so thick and juicy, it still might be intimidating for young readers who just want to dabble a bit in gardening, not fling themselves wholeheartedly into it. But for those ready for a fling, this will get them off to a great start. (6-12)

Fly Traps! Plants That Bite Back by Martin Jenkins. Illustrated by David Parkins. Candlewick, 1996 (1-56402-896-8) $15.99

The line between scientific curiosity and bloodthirstiness is often a very fine one, and sometimes a little encouragement is all that's needed to bring out the hunger for answers that underlies a taste for grossness. This lively appreciation of carnivorous plants offers just the right encouragement: the author freely admits to a fascination with watching plants that eat animals, while explaining the scientific processes that make the plants so unusual and interesting. His first person narrative is easy to follow, showing a likeable, nonchalant pleasure in his subject: "Whenever a water flea or other bug touched a hair, the trap door swung back and in the bug went... Wow, that's neat, I thought." The crisp watercolor illustrations also combine scientific accuracy in the carefully detailed drawings of the plants with an understanding of the gruesomely humorous side of the subject, showing wide-eyed, terrified bugs at the mercy of the plants. Yet there's no feeling that the pictures had to be made especially entertaining because the information couldn't stand on its own; it's all interesting and therefore enjoyable. (6-10)

My Backyard Garden written and illustrated by Carol Lerner. Morrow, 1998 (0-688-14755-0) $16.00

It looks like a picture book, but this is actually quite a comprehensive, nuts and bolts guide for creating a small vegetable garden. The instructions cover all the basics: choosing what to plant, tools, invaders, simple testing for soil texture, etc.; a month-by-month guide covering April to September describes what to do at each stage of the gardening process. Like most gardening books for adults, My Backyard Garden occasionally uses some of those confusing, specialized terms that gardeners take for granted, but on the whole it's easy to follow and will be of use to any beginner who's grown past sticking carrot tops in water and is seriously interested in creating a garden. Bright, descriptive watercolors illustrations enliven a somewhat text-heavy design. (8 & up)

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