I have pretty high standards when it comes to children’s books. I don’t like them to be preachy or didactic or otherwise disrespectful of the reader, who may or may not be a child. Last night D., my eight-year-old daughter, and I read two children’s books by Kathryn O. Galbraith that I received as review copies, and they both passed muster. I have to concede that both books were trying to get a message across, which could have made them didactic, except that the message was integrated into the story well enough that you didn’t feel like the author was saying, “Learn this; it’s good for you.”
Of the two, I liked Planting the Wild Garden better. The illustrations in this book are marvelous: botanically accurate drawings of plants and seeds abound. The endpapers are illustrated with a fascinating array of seeds and seedheads, and D. and I spent several minutes poring over them and identifying as many as we could. I really hate it when I see children’s books illustrated with generic daisy and tulip flowers, as if the artist were no more capable of rendering plant forms than the children themselves, yet you wouldn’t find a similarly formulaic house or car in the same book. In contrast, the illustrations by Wendy Anderson Halperin were wonderfully detailed. A child could use this book as an impromptu field guide, but it also has a bibliography so the child (or the parent reading to the child) can learn more. I heartily approve.
D, on the other hand, liked Arbor Day Square better. It has more of a story line and more people (as opposed to plants and animals) doing things. You start to understand why trees are important to people for emotional reasons as well as practical ones. You see how hard they had to work to get them established. It wasn’t so easy to grow trees on the prairie; the reason it was the prairie, after all, is because grasses were better adapted to the climate than trees were. Yet after the initial hard work, every tree thrives in this fictitious town, which is kind of a fairy tale ending.
I couldn’t resist reminding D. that Laura Ingalls Wilder and her husband unsuccessfully attempted to establish a tree claim. As much as I like gardening, I don’t like to whitewash the fact that not everything you plant thrives. I sympathize with the main character, Katie, who isn’t sure the spindly trees will survive (after enduring a long train ride, no less). I wish her daddy didn’t just laugh her off. It would have been better to acknowledge that growing the trees was going to be a challenge, but worth it, even if not every tree made it to maturity.
But maybe that’s why I don’t write children’s picture books. I don’t want to pretend that things are that simplistic. I don’t think children are that simple-minded. And I don’t want to foster romantic myths about planting trees that will wind up discouraging some future gardener, who’s been led to believe that there’s nothing much to it, only to find an expensive tree dying on him for lack of proper care.
Do you think my standards are too high? Am I being too picky?
Update: Since I wrote this post, I discovered a list of books that have won the Growing Good Kids book award. Follow the link for a list of “the best of the best in children’s garden fiction.”
Would you like to win some easy-to-grow vegetable seeds? Check out the High Mowing Seeds Giveaway! Deadline is March 13, 2011