March 01, 2012


Peas on Earth. By “Todd H. Doodler.” Robin Corey Books. $6.99.

Secrets of the Garden: Food Chains and the Food Web in Our Backyard. By Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld. Illustrated by Priscilla Lamont. Knopf. $16.99.

Out of This World: Poems and Facts about Space. By Amy E. Sklansky. Illustrated by Stacey Schuett. Knopf. $17.99.

     From the small things of the garden to grand views of galaxies, these books give young readers some specific ideas while helping their imaginations soar – or, as the case may be, burrow. Peas on Earth is an adorable board book for children up to age three, a utopian view of peace (a deliberately obvious pun) put forth by super-cute, smiling peas and a lot of equally silly and delightful animals. Todd H. Doodler (pen name of pop artist Todd H. Goldman) has his peas, and therefore his readers (or more likely their parents), imagine a world “where everyone and everything got along,” in which the only fights are pillow fights, mice share cheese with elephants, “ants say bless you when anteaters sneeze,” and “fruits and vegetables taste just like candy” (although the illustration does not show anyone eating, ahem, peas). The book deliberately overdoes things, imagining “snowmen that never melt” and a perpetual time “when the skies are blue and the trees are always green!” It may be tough for parents to connect this hyper-optimism with everyday life, but the final plea to “give peas a chance” will surely resonate with families looking for an overdose of playfulness.

     And speaking of vegetables, Secrets of the Garden deals with peas – and zucchini, carrots, beets and other produce – in a more, shall we say, down-to-earth manner. A straightforward informational book for ages 5-9, Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld’s work is narrated by a young girl who, with her parents and brother, plants a vegetable garden. The book is pleasantly illustrated by Priscilla Lamont, who brings touches of humor to a subject that could otherwise be on the dry side: for example, the explanation of how plants sprout is narrated by a wide-eyed chicken. The book’s inside front and back covers show an earth-friendly exurban or rural yard, including everything from a chicken run and tree house to a rain barrel, compost bin and garden shed. The pictures here really help get the message across – a chart labeled “The Parts We Eat,” for example, shows the specific plants that provide food from leaves, roots, fruit, stems and seeds. Everything in the book is designed to be as eco-friendly as possible: the girl thinks happily about mice and worries that a hawk might catch them (the bird, not very realistically, catches a grasshopper instead, and it “glides down silently” instead of plunging dramatically). The two chicken co-narrators enliven the pages, flying a plane that pulls a chart called “A Longer Food Chain” at one point, displaying pictures of herbivores and carnivores at another, and eventually showing the tremendous interconnectedness of plants, insects and animals in a food web. One page is made more interesting because text about worms runs “underground” through multiple tunnels, beneath a paragraph in ordinary type with comments such as, “We use our cultivators to loosen up the soil around the plants so water can get down to the roots.” Secrets of the Garden is a pleasant book for families with a serious interest in backyard projects and in ecology: the scenes do not fit an urban environment or an ordinary suburban one where keeping chickens is not allowed. But parents hoping for homegrown produce or wanting to teach children the basics of how things grow and where the plants we eat come from will find it a fine teaching tool.

     Parents wanting to teach kids in the same 5-9 age range about some larger things will enjoy the mixture of poetry and facts in Out of This World – and young readers themselves will enjoy the book, too. Amy E. Sklansky creates simple poems, often arranged typographically to reflect their subject matter (some upside-down lines in one about zero gravity, for instance). The poems, with Stacey Schuett’s apt illustrations, take up most of each page, but a section called “Fact” that runs down the side of the page is much denser – and packed with information. Thus, at one point, the poem “Space Suit” begins, “No astronaut/ is ever caught/ without a suit in space./ The temperatures,/ extreme for sure,/ make it a hostile place.” The illustration, which takes up most of a two-page spread, shows a wrench-carrying tethered astronaut apparently about to start repairing something. The “Fact” section explains, among other things, that “a space suit provides protection from the extreme temperatures in space, which range from hundreds of degrees above zero in sunlight to hundreds of degrees below zero in shadow.” This is not to say that the poems themselves always lack facts: some of them contain intriguing information, such as a list of things taken to the moon by several astronauts (Buzz Aldrin carried, among other things, four gold olive branches and his mother’s lucky charm bracelets). Some poems are elegant in their simplicity, such as “Left Behind,” a haiku: “Astronaut footprints/ mark the Moon’s dusty surface,/ lasting mementoes.” Others are more elaborate and even amusing, such as “Vacation Destination,” which imagines visiting the other planets of the solar system. Out of This World does a fine job of communicating information, but it does an even better one of soliciting and encouraging young readers in a sense of exploration and wonder about what discoveries have been made beyond our planet, and what fascinating things still remain to be found.

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