Over the past few years, we’ve enjoyed spotlighting the national awards for children’s literature created by the American Horticultural Society (AHS) and the Junior Master Gardener Program (JMG). This past November, AHS and JMG honored four children’s books with their Growing Good Kids-Excellence in Children’s Literature Awards for 2020. (A list of all winners over the past fifteen years is viewable on-line.)
American Farmland Trust’s (AFT) seasonal American Farmland newsletter for Winter 2021 includes a list of 13 books in its Guide to Winter and Spring Reading. The AFT list includes two picture books for children, which it recommends For Future Farmers. It was no surprise that one of the two was Right This Very Minute: A Table-to-Farm Book About Food and Farming by Lisl Detlefsen, which also was one of the four chosen for the 2020 Growing Good Kids-Excellence in Children’s Literature Awards for 2020.
The other book recommended by AFT For Future Farmers is a children’s picture book, published several years ago, that was unfamiliar: Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt by Kate Messner with art by Christopher Silas Neal (Chronicle Books, San Francisco, CA, 2015).
Told from the perspective of a young, observant girl, who gardens with her Nana, the intended audience for Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt is Ages 4-8 (K to grade 3). The several readings on You Tube of this wonderful book for young children includes a reading by Kate Messner.
Its continued popularity with young readers and recent inclusion in the AFT’s Guide To Winter & Spring Reading reflects how skillfully so much information on growing vegetables and fruits in rich soil is conveyed with detailed and artful illustrations. Some of the illustrations reminded this reader of the Waldo books, but instead of hunting for Waldo, the reader searches for the pill bugs down in the dirt in one artful illustration, for example. And what a neat way to help a young one learn to observe and count the fifteen pill bugs illustrated on the page, including one rolled “up tight…in a plated suit of armor, roly-poly round.”
The story starts Up in the garden, and then proceeds Down in the dirt, with this pattern repeating a dozen times through the four seasons. The equal importance placed on Down in the dirt is especially timely.
Users of our website are familiar with the importance we place on the earth’s soil, which is eroding faster than it is being replaced, threatening the survival of our planet and civilization. It’s been 10 years since we posted a review of David Montgomery’s Dirt, The Erosion of Civilization and Montgomery’s more recent book, Growing A Revolution, Bringing Our Soil Back To Life, spotlighted a couple years ago.
Kate Messner and Christopher Silas Neal in Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt succeed in artfully conveying the fact that “plants can’t thrive without the help of all those smaller gardeners down in the dirt.” At the end of the book, the three concluding pages, illustrate beautifully the 15 animals and insects “you met in this book which really do live, eat, and work in many vegetable gardens.” The authors gently point out that “Some are helpful. Others . . . not so much!” They rightfully point out the garden heroes, Earthworms:
Their tunnels bring air into the soil and make it easier for water to drain. Too much water is bad for plants because it can lead to mold and mildew and prevent roots from getting the oxygen they need. As earthworms burrow, they ingest soil and eat the decomposing roots and leaves. When the dirt comes out of the other end of the worm, as castings, it is finer and softer dirt, full of nutrients to help plants grow.
There’s little wonder why AFT included this popular children’s book in its latest Guide to Winter and Spring Reading. Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt is highly recommended as spring approaches, now only four weeks ahead.
(Frank W. Barrie, 2/29/21)