Featured Series: Up and Down / Over and Under

I don’t know if two books can be said to constitute a series. I doubt it. But I wanted to talk about these books together and I feel like “Featured Pair” sounds weird. So here we have a featured series of two.

Over and Under the Snow  Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt

All around us and under our feet, a hidden world of animals and insects buzzes and thrums with activity and is transformed with the changing of each season. Over and Under the Snow brought the wintertime version of this world vividly to life through the writing of Kate Messner and illustrations by Christopher Silas Neal. A father and daughter cross-country-ski together through the deep forest and as they glide over the snow, the book reveals all the creatures who are making their lives under the snow.

Under the snow, a chipmunk wakes for a meal. Bedroom, kitchen, hallway—his house under my feet.

Under the snow, a queen bumblebee drowses away December, all alone. She’ll rule a new colony in spring.

Under the snow, fat bullfrogs snooze. They dream of sun-warmed days, back when they had tails.

Over the snow, the skiing pair spot the deep hoof prints of a deer, the frozen reeds of a marsh, a fox. We loved this book from the first read, the cozy pictures of the hibernating and snacking creatures, the child’s gliding progress through the woods to a campfire meal and a warm bed. The book has become a bedtime favourite, since it ends with snuggling under warm covers and the beauty of the night sky.

Four years later, Messner and Neal have teamed up again for Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, featuring a girl (I like to presume it’s the same girl) and her Nana, growing a food garden. The book begins in early spring and brings us through all the stages of a vegetable patch, from planting seeds to harvesting the fruits of their labours and the taste of a sun-warmed tomato.

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.

Down in the dirt, water soaks deep. Roots drink it in, and a long-legged spider stilt-walks over the streams.

Down in the dirt, frantic ants gather what we leave behind. They’re storing food for cooler days ahead.

The carrots poke out from the earth, the dirt and deep roots drink the water the girl and her Nana provide, the sunflowers are tied into a house for reading. The book takes us into autumn, and a night that smells of snow. The girl goes in for her Grandpa’s soup, and the garden goes to sleep for another winter.

The two books follow the same format, telling parallel stories about what’s going on above in the world of humans and aboveground plants and animals while following along with all the critters living below. The intricately detailed illustrations bring both worlds to life, and the writing is lively and expressive as well as genuinely enlightening (maybe you already know that ladybugs eat aphids, but I didn’t!). An author’s note and an “About the Animals” section at the back of each book gives further information about all the animals you meet in the pages.*

These books make great reads either on their own or together, especially for an aspiring naturalist. Over and Under the Snow brings to life the magic of a trip through the forest on cross-country skis, and Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt captures the wonder of a vegetable garden coming to life through the seasons…and makes me ache for the first sprouts of green to poke out of the cold earth at last (spring is late to the party here).

 

*Fun fact: pill bugs (we always called them potato bugs) are actually crustaceans.

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Featured Series: The Bear Books by Karma Wilson

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Children’s book series can be tricky things. An author who has captured her audience with a loveable character(s) will, naturally, be inclined to write more adventures for said loveable character(s). These can be hit or miss, and before long the loveable, and beloved, character(s) might be lost in a land of listless prose, uninspired illustrations, and — worst of all — merchandising and/or heavy-handed preachiness, with CuteBunny™ being licensed as a board game, a dress-up doll, and the star of a book about hand-washing.

So far, though, Karma Wilson‘s sweet Bear books have avoided the children’s book equivalent of jumping the shark.

In the series’ first book, Bear Snores On, a hibernating bear snoozing through the winter is oblivious to the varied crew of smaller animals who take refuge in his cave, and, having found themselves all together, take the opportunity to throw a midwinter party. Bear wakes up with a snarl and a roar and the cast of forest critters trembles — before realizing that bear is just disappointed to have slept through the fun. The party resumes with bear at its epicentre and the new friends enjoy the shelter of the warm, cozy cave together.

The rhymes are not always spot on (Dear Ms. Wilson, should you be reading, the following word pairs do not, in fact, rhyme: “den” and “thin” or “grin” and “friends,” but I know I’m nitpicking here). Overall the metre is very good, the characters appealing, and the storylines well paced. Jane Chapman’s illustrations are wonderful: each woodland creature is just anthropomorphized enough to possess a distinct personality, but is still utterly realistic and recognizable. Too often animals lose all of their “animal-ness” in children’s books, but Chapman’s pictures, Badger is recognizably a badger, Mole a mole, and Bear a sweetly guileless, lumbering bruin. Preschoolers will find the situations in which Bear finds himself familiar: afraid while lost (Bear Feels Scared), losing a tooth (Bear’s Loose Tooth), feeling uncertain at a party (Bear Says Thanks), suffering from the flu (Bear Feels Sick), and will enjoy the small surprises and happy resolution contained within the covers of each story. The characters are wholesome, modelling positive behaviour such as caring for a friend, without being saccharine. Reading these stories aloud is great fun, since each creature seems to cry out for its own voice, and the words are simple enough that a beginning reader will be able to sound them out on her own. There is a sameness to the stories that means that grownups might find them fairly predictable, but older toddlers and preschoolers are likely to love having an idea of what happens next in a new story.

All in all, a highly recommended series. I suggest starting with the “prequel,” Bear Snores On, but soon you’ll find you’re reading the whole set.

Books in this series include:

  • Bear Snores On
  • Bear Wants More
  • Bear Stays Up for Christmas
  • Bear Feels Sick
  • Bear Feels Scared
  • Bear’s New Friend
  • Bear’s Loose Tooth
  • Bear Says Thanks