To every publishing house (turn turn turn), there is a season. And in children’s literature, we’re approaching the spring season, during which we see a lot of new picture books about Ms. Mother Nature, her delightful bounty, and the four seasons here on our planet as it spins on its axis. I’m going to round up a few of those books today, ones that grabbed my attention in one way or another.
I’ll start with my favorite of the lot, Alice Schertle’s Such a Little Mouse, illustrated by Stephanie Yue. There’s no shortage of picture books about a) mice and b) the seasons, but boy howdy is this book a little beauty. (I say “little,” because it’s a smaller offering—a square-ish 8 x 9 inches.) This isn’t a picture book breaking any new ground, but what it does, it does very well.
Readers get to spend a year with a mouse, who lives “way out in the wide world” under a clump of dandelions in a meadow. He’s “such a little mouse,” and when we start the book, it is spring. Yue’s spreads, which occasionally and consistently use panels to good effect and are filled with precise lines, are filled with warm, vivid colors. The mouse explores the wood and then brings home food to his storeroom. He pops out of his hole during summer and autumn, too—exploring again and collecting for winter. “ ‘Winter is coming,’ whispers the wind” to him—not to mention the geese and the ants. He does, indeed, pop his head out of his hole for winter, but he heads right back in. (Many of us know how that feels right about now.) And he’s all set, for he has acorns for a loaf of bread, seeds for soup, and moss for a blanket. “Such a little mouse,” the book closes, “all snug and warm, deep down in his hole, until spring.” And here we come full-circle.
This is an endearing tale. Schertle is such a talented picture-book author, and Yue’s compositions are spot-on. Both create such a cozy world; one wants to immediately re-read and soak it all in again. This is one of the best books about seasons I’ve seen in a while, but it’s much more: It’s also a story about making do with what you have—and finding happiness therein. This one will be on shelves in late March. Don’t miss it.
Coming in mid-March from Canadians Charis Wahl and Luc Melanson is Rosario’s Fig Tree, the story of a girl who wonders at her neighbor Rosario’s gardening skills. Rosario, she tells us right off the bat, is a magician—a “garden magician.” She assists him in planting and is filled with curiosity when, one day, he brings out a fig tree. They enjoy figs and share them with friends, but he then buries the tree in the fall, due to the approaching cold. This saddens the girl, who assumes Rosario is merely hiding his own grief. In one striking spread, she stares at the snow-covered burial site for the tree and wonders if dead things get lonely. No commentary afterward from the author. No solution formulated by the girl. Just a crunchy, thought-provoking moment of pondering there. I love this moment of silence in the story.
Later, she sees that the tree survives. It was all part of Rosario’s plan to nurture the plant. He tells the girl there’s no magic involved. “You just learn, and then you know.” I love this sage advice too, even if on the last page she continues to look at her neighbor with astonishment, still calling him a magician.
Finally, there’s the follow-up to Kate Messner’s and Christopher Silas Neal’s Over and Under the Snow, their beautiful 2011 collaboration. Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, on shelves in early March, is also about the changing seasons, yet it’s ever-so-subtle about this. Readers follow a girl and her Nana as they garden. The book starts at the tail end of winter, as “spring shines down to melt the sleepy snow.” The transition to spring is seamless, as we see a flower sprout here and the girl wearing shorts there. Before we know it, the sun is bearing down, the girl running in the hose and her Nana wearing her big, floppy hat to keep the sun off her face. Then, the wind turns colder and—in just one example of many of Messner’s lyrical prose—we read that sunflowers “bow to September.” An autumn moon rises, and the very wind “smells like winter.”
During all of this, Nana describes to her granddaughter the busy world under the soil, as they stop in their garden-toiling to crunch on green beans and sink their teeth into warm tomatoes. Messner alternates between what happens in the garden and what happens below, exposing the world of living things—from insects to reptiles to mammals—that help plants thrive and make gardens their homes. She closes with a note about each animal and a list for further reading. Neal’s textured illustrations are elegant and pop with splashes of color. He also captures moments of great drama, such as with the garter snake down in the dirt who is featured with jaws wide open, about to snack on a grasshopper trying to flee.
Such good books to share with children—and maybe even to warm ourselves as many of us, like little mouse, do our best to get “all snug and warm” in the face of winter winds.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.