Hidden Gems on my Son’s Bookshelf


Sprout has a lot of books – a consequence of being part of a family of avid readers and a grandchild of a retired teacher. While some are classics, some make us question our mental health, and others are just plain weird, there are a few that are both not particularly well-known and absolutely wonderful. They made their way onto his bookshelf in a variety of ways: received as gifts, picked up second-hand, and discovered at book festivals. They have both beautiful illustrations and lyrical text.

Cover to Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt; has title of the book, flowers and a robin in a garden
Up in the Garden, Down in the Dirt – written by Kate Messner, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal: This book walks the reader through the seasons from the perspective of a gardening little girl. With her Nana, she plants seeds, pulls weeds, waters plants, and harvests vegetables. To complement what the girl sees “up in the garden,” her Nana describes what is going on in the world below their feet, from a garter snake eating a grasshopper to a tomato hornworm larvae waiting to emerge from the soil. With lines like “Pumpkins blush orange and sunflowers bow to September,” the text evokes the seasons with rich imagery. The illustrations capture the bright mess of gardening while also being scientifically accurate. As a bonus, the end of the book features a glossary of the insects and other animals mentioned in the story.

Cover of Me, Jane; has a cartoon of young Jane Goodall holding her stuffed chimpanzee, surrounded by jungle
Me, Jane, Patrick McDonnell: From receiving her beloved stuffed chimpanzee Jubilee to watching her grandmother’s chickens lay eggs, Jane is enamored with the natural world. McDonnell perfectly captures her wonder as she feels her own heart beating in time with the water flowing through the xylem of a tree. But Jane isn’t any storybook heroine – as she grows up, we discover she’s actually Jane Goodall, the world-renowned naturalist and advocate. While the reader only finds out at the end about the adult Jane’s work, the transition seems natural and earned. The illustrations of young Jane are interspersed with both drawings that Jane Goodall did as a child and scientific illustrations from the time, giving it a retro look while still being appealing to contemporary kids. I also like that although it’s a biography, that’s not necessarily clear from the beginning. Children are drawn into Jane’s life without being hit over the head with the idea that this is “someone they should know about.” (Looking it up, this was a Caldecott Honor Book when it came out, but I had never heard of it before.)

Cover of Counting on the Woods, with photographs of the woods and the title
Counting on the Woods – written by George Ella Lyon, photographs by Ann W. Olson: While a simple counting book at heart, the photographs in this book lift it to the level of truly lovely. From footprints of geese to swaying birch trees, the pictures capture the simple beauty of exploring the Appalachian Mountains. Although there is a little boy in one of the photos, he’s not the narrator, but more like an accompanying friend or part of the scenery himself. The text is simple, but by paying close attention to rhythm and structure, it doesn’t sacrificing meter for rhyme. The result is the feeling of just finishing an easy, wandering walk in the woods. Unfortunately, this book appears out of print and is only available used.

Cover of Penguin and Pinecone, with a penguin in a scarf looking at a pinecone
Penguin and Pinecone – Salina Yoon: This book makes me cry in a good way. Unlike most of the other books and songs that do that, this book has nothing to do with a parent-child relationship and everything to do with friendship. Penguin is a curious little bird that one day finds a pinecone. Although they become good friends, Penguin’s grandpa tells him that he must return Pinecone to the forest. To help his friend, Penguin knits him a beautiful scarf and makes a long journey to bring him back home. After he returns to the ice, Penguin wonders what happened to Pinecone. What he finds on his trip back to the forest reminds me both of how much I love and miss my friends who are far away. The simple, adorable illustrations make even a pinecone seem cuddly.

Cover of Leaves, with an illustration of a bear, looking at a fallen leaf
Leaves – David Ezra Stein: This book has probably the least text of all of the ones on this list, but makes the most of every word. Starting with the line, “It was his first year,” it follows a young bear experiencing fall, winter and spring for the first time. His joy at the beauty of being outside turns to frustrated confusion when the leaves start falling, followed by acceptance as he goes into hibernation for winter. As he emerges from his cave, his surprise at the new green buds awaiting him is contagious. The watercolors in the book give it a soft feeling, like looking through the bear’s eyes, while his detailed expressions help the reader understand exactly what he’s experiencing.

Cover of The Illuminated Desert, with a raccoon and fox in blue
The Illuminated Desert – written by Terry Tempest Williams, illustrated by Chloe Hedden: This isn’t actually a children’s book, although it’s on my son’s bookshelf and is easy to mistake it for one. While it’s a picture book, it’s more in the tradition of the Book of Kells than Mother Goose. In fact, the introduction states that even though it’s an “alphabet book,” it’s much more about celebrating the desert in a semi-religious manner than teaching letters. As a result, it’s absolutely gorgeous. The illustrations are painted, with an incredible amount of detail that combines scientific accuracy with deep colors and brushstrokes. The text is written like a poem, not attempting to be simple enough for children to read at all. It references all sorts things that aren’t well-known in mainstream American culture, like kashinas (spiritually significant dolls given to girls in the Hopi tribe), with zero explanation in-text. (Although there is a glossary in the back.) But despite all of this, my two-year-old son loves it anyway. He frequently requests it by name, making him one of the few toddlers that regularly uses the word “illuminated.”

What are your favorite but not very well-known children’s books?

3 thoughts on “Hidden Gems on my Son’s Bookshelf

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