book list, nature, science

List: Our Friends in the Garden

Tokyo Digs A Garden (Groundwood Books)
Written by Jon-Erik Lappano
Illustrated by Kellen Hatanaka

For ages: 3-7
Tokyo lives in an urban center choked by pollution and concrete. There used to be forests, streams, and grass fields here, but the people ate it all up with their construction. One day a mysterious old woman bikes by and gives Tokyo some seeds telling him that if he plants them, they will grow into whatever he wishes. Tokyo does so in his backyard, hoping for a garden. The entire city is covered in plants, vines, trees, and flowers the following day. Rivers have busted through and flow where streets once were. A modern fairy tale in a world where the specter of climate change and the loss of the wild grows ever closer.

Just Ask: Be Different, Be Brave, Be You (Philomel Books)
Written by Sonia Sotomayor
Illustrated by Rafael Lopez

For ages: 4-7
This extraordinary book spends time with a group of children in a garden who share their identities often as disabled people with the reader. The author, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, encourages children to ask when they notice a child is different. The text models how to ask politely, and each child explains their challenges. For example, one girl has diabetes and explains how she has to check her blood sugar to stay healthy. One child has dyslexia, another speaks with a stutter, and there are two autistic children (one verbal and one non-verbal). It’s a book that gives you a genuinely good feeling, never patronizing its subjects or coloring their lives as sad because of their conditions. They are happy and play like any other child; they just have something else we should know about them. 

Stories From Bug Garden (Candlewick)
Written by Lisa Moser
Illustrated by Gwen Millward

For ages: 4-8
This book of prose poems highlights a different bug with each piece. Ladybug climbs up to the tip of a blade of grass to whistle. A horsefly imagines he’s his namesake, a bucking bronco in a rodeo. Bee loves lazily flying along, looking up at the clouds. By the end, all the bugs you’ve met gather to watch fireworks burst over the garden. The illustrations are in a perfect scribbly style, with loopy lines and doodles. It gives the garden that wild overgrown grass feel. Watercolors provide the drawings with the ideal muted, flowing colors that match the pen work. The poem’s structure resembles the bugs they talk about. For example, Worm’s poem takes on the shape of his body squirming through the dirt. Stories from the Bug Garden would make a great carpet read-aloud, one story a day during the spring. 

Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt (Knopf Books for Young Readers)
Written by Kate Messner
Illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal

For ages: 4-8
This narrative nonfiction book follows a little girl helping her grandmother in the garden throughout one season. Because we see this through the eyes of a child, she asks fundamental questions that, in turn, help the reader understand the cycles of life intersecting in nature. She asks, and grandmother answers, accompanied by beautiful yet simple illustrations showcasing the discussed concept. There isn’t a lot of personality in the book, but part of the charm is how calm & meditative a read this is. The book is not meant to over-excite kids but to bring them to a place of thoughtfulness and reflection. I didn’t like how the book focuses solely on plant life while never talking much about the animal life we can see in the illustrations. This feels like one of those books a child might sit with for a while, just taking in the visuals, a nice bedtime read.

The Curious Garden (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
Written & Illustrated by Peter Brown

For ages: 4-8
Liam is yet another city-dwelling, nature-deprived protagonist. One day he comes across a patch of life, struggling to keep growing. It’s just some weeds & wildflowers on an abandoned elevated train railway. Over time, Liam nurses and cultivates this patch. He discovers this a restless garden that refuses to stay in one spot. It wants to explore. Up until winter, it moves along the railway. The following spring, the garden emerges and goes all over the city. The illustrations make the book here. It’s a fantastic story, but these paintings evoke a sense of wonder. The curious garden is one of the best characters I’ve encountered in a picture book; it doesn’t need a name or a face to be an inspiring figure.

The Night Gardener (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)
Written & Illustrated by Terry & Eric Fan

For ages: 4-8
The children who live on Grimloch Lane wake up to a surprise. Overnight a mysterious child has trimmed one of the trees to resemble an owl. With each successive evening, more trees are shaped into creatures. As this happens, the illustrations, which started in drab, muted colors, begin to come alive with all sorts of shades and hues. The daylight remains reasonably plain and straightforward, while nighttime is when the world’s heart is beating. Eventually, the community members join in and make the sort of garden they want. The autumn causes the leaves to fall, but the magic that once was still remains. This is a text about the need to have people who inspire you and to be someone who inspires others.

Secrets of the Garden: Food Chains and the Food Web in Our Backyard (Chronicle Books)
Written by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld
Illustrated by Priscilla Lamont

For ages: 5-9
This nonfiction text is overflowing with informative bits about the life teeming in our backyards and gardens. Zoehfeld covers an expansive array of topics while still including a fictional storyline that acts as the skeleton for the book. Alice notices pieces of plants that have been nibbled away and becomes curious. She learns about the food chain of plants, insects, birds, and more in her garden. Some animals are shown to help the garden grow, while others act as pests and do harm. The seasonal changes in visitors to the garden is also showcased how pals & pests alike come and go. Priscilla Lamont’s watercolors provide a wonderfully classic feel, the style of drawing found in a lot of these dense nonfiction books for kids.

Humongous Fungus (Dorling Kindersley)
Written by Lynne Boddy
Illustrated by Wenjia Tang

For ages: 7-9
I adore mushrooms. A little bit plant, a little bit animal, something entirely unique. Like all Dorling-Kindersly books, this is a treasure trove of information and illustrations related to mushrooms. The text takes us from the tiniest microbes to the most gigantic toadstools while showing how mushrooms play a vital role in decomposition. We also learn about dangerous mushrooms, the poisonous ones we should not eat, and the nightmarish cordyceps that can turn an ant into a mindless zombie. There are sections on the medicinal properties of mushrooms and the destructive fungi that can wipe out crops. This book is overflowing with facts; your students will learn something new whenever they open it up. If I were to buy one of these books for my classroom, it would have to be this one. A book that can be read for hours.

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