We Planted a Tree. By Diane Muldrow. Illustrated by Bob Staake. Golden Books. $17.99.
Sunday Is for God. By Michael McGowan. Pictures by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
Spirituality is all about connectedness – an experience that can be found through organized religion, through individualized seeking, or through any sense of belonging to and being a part of something greater than oneself. We Planted a Tree is a small, elegant story of connection between people who do not know each other and do not see their lives or their world the same way, but who are nevertheless part of something larger: the entire planet. Diane Muldrow’s simple text offers parallel stories of tree planting, one involving a light-skinned urban family in the developed world and the other a dark-skinned rural family in a developing country. The families’ paths never cross, and their ideas about a tree’s importance are quite different. On the one hand, “The tree’s leaves helped clean the air,/ And we breathed better.” On the other, “The tree kept the soil from blowing away—/ Now rainwater could stay in the earth.” On the one hand, “The tree fed us—/ Apples and oranges/ And lemons/ And sap for our syrup.” On the other, “The soil became healthier/ Because the tree was there,/ So we planted…/ We could grow our own food,/ And we ate better.” The book’s message, though, applies equally to both families: “We planted a tree,/ And that one tree/ Helped heal the earth.” Bob Staake’s illustrations, more sensitive and less whimsical than his usual ones, make the contrasts of the text clear while emphasizing the underlying one-world thinking. The result is a non-dogmatic but nevertheless quite clearly stated book about environmental impact and the ways in which all people are connected to each other and to the world on which all of us live. It provides an effective spiritual journey for children ages 4-8.
Sunday Is for God is for the same age group, but its perspective is more limited, its narrative more straightforward and its underlying message inclusive for those it addresses but exclusionary for others. Michael McGowan writes specifically about Christian spirituality in a Southern town – only within the context of an organized church, and only for African-Americans, whose families are lovingly and sensitively shown in the illustrations by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. “Sunday is the Lord’s day. Sunday is for God.” And “church has a special smell – kind of like up in the attic at home, but with flowers in it.” And “there’s prayers and readings from the Bible. …Brother fusses with his hair some more and Daddy tells him, ‘Stop that. The Lord don’t mind how your hair looks.’ I want to ask Daddy why the Lord wants us to get dressed up, then. But I know better.” This is a book about meeting expectations, about doing what is right because it is traditional and many earlier generations have done the same thing. It is a book about post-church celebration with “fried chicken and gravy and mashed potatoes and greens and corn bread.” It is a book about setting aside a day that is different from all the rest – specifically Sunday, although of course that is not the one all religions choose. Families who want to instill respect for this book’s specific religion and its expression will find the book gentle, moving, well observed and well written. Families whose beliefs or practices deviate in any significant way from the specific ones shown here will feel left out – and probably will have no interest in the book, in any case. This gives the book a (+++) rating, which will be higher for those who feel included in its message and lower for those who feel excluded.