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Continued: Kids' books: Farms, livestock and worm poop

  • Article by: LAURA BILLINGS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Last update: May 28, 2010 - 8:16 PM
Farms have always been a favorite destination for children's books, but rarely do they capture the mucky smells or the miracle of spring quite like they do in Elisha Cooper's "Farm" (Orchard Books/Scholastic, $17.99). Taking a page from Margaret Wise Brown's classic "Big Red Barn," and several more from Michael Pollan, Cooper's watercolors and careful observations capture a year in the life of a real working Midwestern family farm where the roosters have names, and the hens do not.

The charm of this book is in the small details Cooper finds in the everyday -- the farmer who sips his coffee in the tractor and listens to the weather while his tiller makes "the fields change from the color of milk chocolate to the color of dark chocolate." The cattle that lie down even before the thunderheads gather, and the way the "corn all bends in one direction as if to say, The storm went that way."

"Farm" is the pick of a bumper crop of new picture books introducing young readers to the wonders of gardens and growing things.

"Yucky Worms" by Vivian French, illustrated by Jessica Ahlberg (Candlewick, $16.99) The slimy, unsung heroes of the soil get their due in this fact-packed story in which a gardening grandmother teachers her grandson why we should all love worms a little more for loosening the soil and leaving nutrient-rich poop in their wake. Most back yards contain about 15 worms in every square foot of soil; the back pages offer several experiments for kids to test this fact for themselves.

"Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature's Survivors," by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beckie Prange (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, $17) Young readers will see dandelions, ants and beetles in a whole new light, thanks to this inventive collection of poems by Wayzata's Joyce Sidman that celebrates "nature's survivors." As the book points out, 99 percent of all life forms that ever existed are now extinct, which makes the 5 million-year-old dandelion seem far more worthy of respect. Pairing science fact with poems, Sidman suggests that the pleasure squirrels take in "treetop living with a free fur coat and the ability to crack any safe known to man" may be the secret to their 36-million-year run on Earth.

"My Garden" written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow Press, $17.99) In this pleasing picture book, Madison's Kevin Henkes captures the high hopes we all have for our gardens this time of year. While a mother gardens, her daughter imagines a blooming dreamscape where flowers never fade, strawberries glow like lanterns, and the only rabbits to nibble the edges are made of chocolate. If only Miracle-Gro worked like that.

"Insect Detective" by Steve Voake, illustrated by Charlotte Voake (Candlewick, $16.99) Insects outnumber humans 200 million to 1, and this clever book reveals many interesting secrets about the world's six-legged creatures. (Who knew dragonflies could fly backwards?) Best of all, the back of the book offers excellent advice about collecting beetles, attracting moths and making an energy drink for weary bees.

"Our Farm: By the Animals of Farm Sanctuary," by Maya Gottfried, illustrated by Robert Rahway Zakanitch (Alfred A. Knopf, $17.99) Each poem in this illustrated series is "written" by the animals of Farm Sanctuary, a New York nonprofit that provides refuge to abused farm animals. But don't worry -- this is not a PETA manifesto for preschoolers. Instead, poet Maya Gottfried cleverly captures the creative writing styles of various livestock ("Yummy pants leg, can I try some?" ask two baby goats), while charming watercolors from Robert Rahway Zakanitch capture the fretful face of a calf named Whitaker, or the defiance in the eye of a duck named Diego.

"Arbor Day Square," by Kathryn O. Galbraith, illustrated by Cyd Moore (Peachtree, $16.95) Young readers not quite ready for the "Little House" series may enjoy this gentle story about Katie and her papa, prairie pioneers who send away for saplings to start the village square. As the trees give shape to the town, generations of growing families pass under their branches.

"Sneaky Sheep," written and illustrated by Chris Monroe (Carolrhoda Books, $16.95) Duluth's Chris Monroe, creator of the hilarious "Monkey With a Tool Belt" books, is back again with this wild and woolly tale about Rocky and Blossom, two sheep who "had been known to make some bad decisions over the years." Kids will love Monroe's comic illustrations of all the mischief the sneaky sheep get into; parents may identify more with Murphy, the long-suffering border collie who comes to their rescue.

"Creak! Said the Bed," by Phyllis Root, illustrated by Regan Dunnick, Candlewick $15.99 Minneapolis writer Phyllis Root explores what happens to a queen-size bed when a family of five (and the dog) cram into it one dark night in this funny and rhythmic read-along book.

"Back to Bed, Ed!" written and illustrated by Sebastien Braun, (Peachtree, $15.95) A mouse named Ed loves going to bed -- he just doesn't like staying there -- in this classic tale repeated most every night in the homes of all preschoolers. Ed's parents have a solution that might work for you, too.

"Scare a Bear," by Kathy-jo Wargin, illustrated by John Bendall-Brunello (Sleeping Bear Press, $15.95) How do you scare away a bear, if the bear doesn't scare? Minnetonka writer Kathy-jo Wargin comes up with some increasingly absurd suggestions ("What if that bear starts to beg for some dinner? Would you share your peas? Do you think he'll say please?") for young readers on high alert during bear season.

"Where the Sunrise Begins," by Douglas Wood, illustrated by K. Wendy Popp (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, $16.99) Minnesota writer Douglas Wood, author of the international bestseller "Old Turtle," asks where the sunrise begins in this beautifully illustrated answer that will take young readers on a journey around the world.

"A Very Big Bunny," by Marisabina Russo (Schwartz & Wade, $17.99) Amelia is big for a bunny -- Susannah is very small. Together, they learn that standing out with a good friend is much better than fitting in.

"Henry in Love," by Peter McCarty (Balzer + Bray; $16.99) Love means never getting to eat your snack in this gentle preschool romance about a boy's first crush on a classmate.

"The Gentleman Bug," by Julian Hector (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, $16.99) A beautifully illustrated bug-meets-ladybug story, in which a love of literature and a library card attract the most honey.

"Paris in the Spring With Picasso," by Joan Yolleck, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman (Schwartz & Wade, $17.99) An ambitious picture book that imagines all the characters that will converge one Paris night in the home of Gertrude Stein, with fantastic illustrations that capture Picasso sketching "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." Art history minors may enjoy this more than will the book's intended audience. "Too much Gertrude Stein," my 8-year-old concluded, "not enough Picasso."

Laura Billings is a writer in St. Paul.

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