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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, written by Kate Messner with art by Christopher Silas Neal. Chronicle Books, Raincoast. 2015. $22.99 ages 4 and up

"Up in the garden, we snap brittle stalks, scoop rustly armfuls, and wheel away weeds for the chickens. While they squabble and scratch, we spread compost over the soil.

Down in the dirt, pill bugs chew through last year's leaves. I give a gentle poke. They roll up tight and hide in plated suits of armor, roly-poly round."

It's getting closer to garden planting time here. After a weekend rain, wind and even snowstorm, we are experiencing warm sunshine today, and a promise of normal May temperatures for the rest of the week. I can just see how quickly people are going to get to the yardwork that they so love at this time of year. That is, after they get out and walk and watch their kids play soccer in the park across the street.

My granddaughter is not likely to experience the joy that the little one in Kate Messner's lovely and informative book about gardening has with her grandmother. A gardener I am not ...

This is a book about a garden, both above the ground and below the soil. A young girl stands beside her Nana in very early spring dreaming of what their garden and raised beds might soon offer. The sun is shining, helping to melt the remaining snow, and the muddy ground sticks to their boots. It is not yet time to plant. As they let the warming dirt slide through their fingers, the little one wonders what is under the ground. Nana patiently explains what is happening below to help their garden flourish.

We watch as they tend to their garden in each season, always aware of what is happening in both places:

"Up in the garden, carrot plants sprout. Pea blossoms
bloom. Wasps are on the prowl, and honeybees visit,
legs loaded with pollen.
I wilt and weed in sun so strong even
Nana looks for shade.
Down in the dirt earthworms tunnel deep.
I'm jealous of their cool, damp, dark."

There is always work to do, discussions to have, growth to appreciate, a bounty of fresh food to nurture. It is a wonderful journey of discovery for a young girl and her grandmother as they experience the circle of life in a natural space. Each creature mentioned plays an important role in maintaining the joy to be found in their garden.

The mixed media images created to accompany the inventive text are detailed and lovely. They almost made me want to get my hands in the dirt in my own flower beds. The artist uses cross sections that  match the gentle cadence of the text, showing readers roots, bugs, constant activity as the garden moves from early spring to the return of winter.  Endpapers are awash with labelled
vegetables and flowers, while also including a few essential tools.

In final pages, Ms. Messner adds an author's note, a list for further reading and a closer look at the animals mentioned in the text.

"The tomato earthworm is the colorful larva of an insect called the five-spotted hawk moth, and it's a dreaded garden pest. Adult moths lay their eggs on tomato leaves, where the larvae emerge to eat. When it's fully grown, a caterpillar burrows into the soil to pupate, and an adult moth emerges about two weeks later to start the process over again."

This book is a celebration of family, of the joy found in the outdoors, of the satisfaction that comes with learning and a job well done, of lovely language, of elegant, textured artwork, of brilliant design.
Read it for yourself, and then share it with anyone willing to listen ... and learn.


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