Review: In

If you have a little one in the house this summer you know that boredom might be the only limit to a young imagination. Author Nikki McClure shows us a boy who has no time for that in her engaging book, In.

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In is a simple story with a great deal to offer. It is short enough to capture toddlers and preschoolers, and boldly illustrated with McClure’s cheerful paper cuts in black, white, and bright yellows. Both text and pictures look spare at first but are thoughtfully detailed. It begins with a boy who simply wants to stay in: playing indoors, still “in” his pajamas. He goes on a mental adventure “in” a laundry basket and enjoys a leisurely breakfast, exploring the different meanings of “in” and keeping very busy with a variety of cozy “in” activities; until… could he be a bit bored? He goes out INto the rain, INto a puddle, and now he is decidedly “out”. He has a rambunctious play OUTside – looking “out” and staying “out” and running “out” of jam – until it is time to come back… “in”.

This book is such fun because it captures that moment when a child’s mind is changed and that dearest wish of the heart becomes something else. With a quick storyline and mild repetition it ponders the various implications of two common opposites: “out” and “in”. Children hear these words a lot, but what do they mean? And what good associations can they make with both of these basic words? What does it feel like to read a story “in” someone’s lap, or where can you go “in” your basket? What does it taste like to put milk “in” your tea?

“Out” is equally a word that can mean freedom and adventure, or enjoying something to its fullest, or gazing “out” from the safety of a hidden place. This little boy tries it all. He embraces a world full of adventure, but doesn’t neglect to soak up the comforts of a loving home. He studies and admires nature but always has someplace snug to go. (His outdoor play culminates in a tribute to the author’s fondness for owls, which is somewhat random but interesting all the same.)

In is a celebration of imagination and play, encouraging children to appreciate all that is familiar and to explore something new. It might inspire junior citizens (who could be getting weary of the long summer days?) to read a book, or to build a rocket ship, or to help make breakfast. Or maybe even to come over for a good cuddle. In or out, there is so much to do.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: The Journey Trilogy by Aaron Becker

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Review: Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt

I’m beginning to wonder if it will ever be spring in my corner of the world, but those of you who live in milder climes know that gardening season is upon us. Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, written by Kate Messner and illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal, is just the thing to get children ready to get their hands dirty.

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This book is part fact and part fiction. It unfolds the sweet story of a girl and her Nana as they tend their garden throughout the year. Combining the girl’s observations with her grandmother’s wisdom, the book vividly chronicles the activities that take place up in the garden (planting seeds, picking tomatoes) and down in the dirt (earthworms tunneling, roots spreading) over the course of a growing season. The descriptions capture not only the fun and loving relationship between the multi-generational gardeners, but also what really happens to make a garden grow.

There is so much to love about this book. Over the better part of a year we see an active grandmother investing lots of quality time into both a productive garden and her eager helper. She doesn’t just tell her granddaughter how to garden; she shows her. They dig and water and weed diligently through the different seasons, but always make time for those special moments: spraying each other with the hose or snuggling up for a story. And together they work with nature to cultivate their bountiful garden.

But the humans are not the only ones working in the garden. There are insects and arachnids, invertebrates and rodents, birds and reptiles all doing their part to care for the earth. Of course, sometimes that means eating one another or looking a bit weird as they burrow in the soil; but our narrator and her grandmother know that a garden is a living thing, and everyone has a role. The words and the text bring colorful insight to this lively interaction, and at the end is a detailed glossary of all the creatures that are mentioned.

This book is a fresh version of the yearly cycle of seasons and growth. The words are bursting with meaning and the pictures are simple but rich. If you hope to inspire a young gardener to grow their own food, or even just help them understand the balance of the natural world, this is an excellent choice. Smaller children will enjoy the detail of the words and pictures, and school-age kids will soak up facts without even knowing it. Happy gardening!

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: A Seed Is Sleepy by Dianna Aston

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Review: Tom’s Midnight Garden

Some stories are simply captivating, no matter how old you are when you first discover them. Tom’s Midnight Gardenby Philippa Pearce, is one of these.

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This British classic is perhaps less well known in the United States, but it deserves to be cherished. It begins with Tom Long, a basically decent boy who is understandably disgruntled because his brother has contracted the measles just at the beginning of summer vacation. Tom is sent away to stay with his aunt and uncle, and is immediately frustrated with their drab existence in an apartment of a subdivided old manor house. The only thing of interest to him is a peculiar grandfather clock in the hall, which never chimes the right time. He soon discovers that time is a tricky concept, as he finds the house transformed each night when the clock strikes thirteen.

Tom’s malaise begins to heal as he explores the magnificent garden that appears behind the house during that special hour, and finds there an unexpected friend. He steals away every night to visit this magical place, only gradually becoming aware of its secrets. The adventure that follows is a feast for independent readers of any age.

Young bookworms – perhaps beginning around the age of eight – will intuitively understand Tom’s fascination with the garden, and will devour the rich descriptions. It is a lavish place to play, to explore, to run and climb and be free. The joy he shares in the company of his peculiar playmate Hatty, and the mixture of feelings he faces as he struggles to understand who she is and how they meet, is very recognizable. His desire to enjoy the endless summer of youth with her will resonate with school-age children who eagerly anticipate the last day of school.

But time keeps marching on, and Tom can’t hold on to the garden forever. Mature readers will further appreciate the depth of Tom’s sensibilities as he becomes aware of such intangibles as time, mortality, relationships, memory, dreams, growth, change, and the march of history. The author handles these carefully and the intensity of the plot is exciting without being too spooky. The ending is deeply satisfying.

Tom’s Midnight Garden was first published in 1958 and the story crosses several generations prior to that, but it doesn’t feel old or outdated. Its references to cars and light switches sound perfectly familiar to modern ears (though Americans may never know why apartments are called “flats” in England). Yet ultimately this book is a refreshing pitch for an unplugged childhood. Whatever time and circumstances normally lie between them, Tom and Hatty are happiest when they are climbing trees and whittling arrows together, and I suspect that by the end many of their readers – regardless of age – will want to do the same.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

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