Thursday, October 19, 2017

Brainstorm 123: Excellent Vocabulary & Lyrical Writing

This week’s Brainstorm features books with excellent and challenging vocabulary for their target audience and lyrical writing that aren’t 100 years old.

Picture Books

Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor, ill. by Robin Preiss Glasser
A fun and brilliantly illustrated picture book about a little girl who decides to fancify her family.

Target Readers:

  • Family Fun Fans: I love how the family in this goes along with her antics and has fun together. 
  • Readers Working on Building Their Vocabulary: Throughout this whole picture book series, related early readers series, and lower grade chapter books the author weaves in big "fancy" words but explains them clearly enough for younger kids. 
  • Glitzy Readers: All the little wanna-be princesses out there will adore this book and the rest of the series. If ‘the more colors, the more glitter the better’ is their motto, they need this series.

Animalia by Graeme Base
An alphabet book featuring alliterative phrases, vibrant, intricately detailed illustrations with hidden items matching the letter of the alphabet on each page.

Target Readers:

  • Hidden Picture Fans: If you or a reader you know loves the thrill of the hidden picture hunt, this will provide hours and hours of entertainment. The author hid an illustration of himself in each letter’s illustration as well has dozens or hundreds of items for each letter. 
  • Alliteration Fans: The phrases for each letter feature some creative alliterative phrases employing the letter of the alphabet featured.
  • Readers Working on Building Their Vocabulary: The alliterative phrases feature some vocabulary-expanding terms like crimson and zeppelin, (not to mention hunting down the names for some of the items hidden in the pictures). 
  • Animal Fans: As you may have guessed, animals starting with each letter of the alphabet star on each page.
  • All Ages Picture Book: This is really a picture book good for any age. The illustrations will captivate toddlers and septuagenarians alike. 

Lower Grade Fiction

Louise Trapeze Is Totally 100% Fearless by Micol Ostow, ill. by Brigette Barrager
Louise Trapeze is super excited to be turning seven because seven is almost nine, and when she turns nine she'll get to go on the real flying trapeze instead of her little stationary bar for acts. She prides herself on being almost 100% fearless (98%). Her best friend Stella has more fears, but is still pretty amazing in her act with Clementine the elephant. But when Louise's parents surprise her by saying seven is old enough to go on the flying trapeze, Louise makes a horrifying realization. Could it be she has another fear?

Target Readers:

  • Contemporary Fiction Fans: Though the book is set in a circus, Louise and her friend Stella are totally relatable. Louise deals with smidgeons of jealousy. She and Stella have a disagreement, which they work out. Louise's pride gets in the way of admitting that she is afraid of heights and that leads to an even more embarrassing episode with a larger audience. But eventually things work out.
  • Life Lesson Fans: Louise learns to overcome her fear a teensy bit. She decides to trust her parents with her secret and apologizes to the rest of the circus troupe for her behavior (which probably takes more guts than getting on a flying trapeze). So wrapped up in the fun setting are good messages for normal kids. 
  • Circus Fans: There are some readers out there who’ve always wanted to run away and join the circus and the next best thing is reading about one. This is for them.
  • Readers Working on Building Their Vocabulary: There are little fancy vocabulary notes along the way, because Louise and Stella, much like Fancy Nancy, have a penchant for big, grown-up-sounding, fancy words but they explain them to the readers. Hand this to lower graders who have ventured into super easy chapter books and are ready for a teensy bit more of a challenge.

Biographical Picture Books

W is for Webster: Noah Webster and His American Dictionary by Tracey E. Fern, ill. by Boris Kulikov
A biographical picture book of Noah Webster that focuses on how his dictionary developed from Noah's personality and interests as a youngster to its evolution as he actually started to work on it, on to completion. Along the way some of the most important highlights of Webster's life outside of the dictionary writing are also mentioned but only in very broad terms.

Target Readers:

  • History of Language Fans: Though this definitely leaves a lot of gaps in Noah Webster's life to learn from other sources, it does what the subtitle proclaims. It is just as much a biography of the American dictionary as it is of Noah Webster. (There is some more info in the back of the book on Webster, but not a whole lot. It's an interesting book about the evolution of the English language in America, but only the most basic of introductions to Webster. 
  • Dictionary Users: Use this one when studying dictionaries so kids can better appreciate all the work that goes into making them.

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jennifer Fisher Bryant, ill. by Melissa Sweet
A picture book biography of Peter Mark Roget. The book starts with Roget's childhood and follows him through to successful publication of his thesaurus in adult life. A very nice timeline with further details of Roget's life is provided in the back of the book along with informative notes from the author and illustrator.

Target Readers:

  • Biography Fans/History of Language Fans: A fantastic picture book biography of an amazing man. I had no idea Roget had so many other accomplishments other than creating the thesaurus. He was also a successful doctor and recognized in other science fields for work too. 
  • Thesaurus Users: Like the dictionary, a thesaurus takes a bit of work to put together. This book definitely helps thesaurus users better appreciate the people who work hard to help us find a good synonym. 

Middle Grade Fiction

Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi
Alice Alexis Queensmeadow has never liked Oliver since the day he made fun of her lack of color at school. Words can hurt deeply, especially when they poke at the place you're most sensitive. Alice has always been self-conscious about her conspicuous lack of coloring in a world where color is a sign of magic build up. Alice has successfully avoided Oliver and most others for years. But then right as her 12th birthday approaches, Oliver has the gumption to talk to her and suggest that he knows where her father disappeared to...and that he needs her help to find him. Well, Alice may not like Oliver much at all, but she dearly loves her Father and misses him everyday. So she agrees to help Oliver on his quest. But Alice has no idea what she's getting herself into. Because Oliver takes her to a totally different magical world from Ferenwood; he takes her to Futhermore. Ferenwood may have its quirks, but it's nothing like the craziness of Furthermore. The strange new lands and customs would be confusing enough without Oliver being such a tight-lipped, confusing guide. Alice and Oliver must learn quite a lot more than the quirks of Furthermore if they want to survive and rescue Alice's father. Because if they don't learn to trust each other or themselves and work as a team, no one may survive Furthermore where they just might eat you for your magic.

Target Readers:

  • Fans of Beautiful Writing: Mafi can certainly put together words in wonderful ways. There were so many quips and quotes I wanted to savor and write down. The writing is beautiful. 
  • Fans of Personal Growth Stories/Self-Acceptance Stories: Oliver and Alice - before they deal with some of their hurts and hang ups - are another matter. They can be so annoyingly frustrating (both individually and together) that I wanted to put them both in time out till they could learn to lead us on a better adventure. Eventually, though, I did like the healing and growth that both experience as they learn some important things about themselves, lies they've believed, and get headed on the road to healthier emotional living. 
  • Fans of Imaginative Worlds: Both Ferenwood and Furthermore are zany, new worlds that will take your imagination on a healthy jaunt. Hand this to readers who like their magic with a healthy dose of whimsy and adventure in strange new lands.
  • Fans of Alice in Wonderland: Of course, there is more than a teensy bit of an ode to Alice in Wonderland going on too. It's hard to miss what with the main character's name being Alice and her wandering around in a world where the rules are quite different and just about anything may be around the next bend. Alice fans should be quite happy with this one too.

The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd
Before her Mama passed, she showed Emma the special Book of Days. In it are recorded all the women in their family, dubbed the Wildflowers, who have had the Destiny Dream. Emma will know the Destiny Dream when she has it because it always starts with the girl or woman standing in a field of blue flowers and then it will show them some symbol that will guide them to the path for the future. Some of the Wildflowers were Civil War heroes, some were musicians like Mama, some were suffragists, and others were journalists. When Emma finally has her dream, she thinks what she sees means she is supposed to find the legendary treasure of the Conductor to save her family’s home/café from the developmental dreams of Warren Steele. Legend says those of pure heart can hear the ghost of the Conductor, follow his song, and will be led to his treasure hidden somewhere in hills of Blackbird Hollow. But the legend also comes with a warning, those who seek the treasure without a pure heart often are driven mad by the search and eventually disappear, never to be heard from again. Emma has heard the song of the Conductor drifting out of the graveyard in her backyard. She knows her motives are pure, she just wants to save her family’s café so that she and Granny Blue and her brother Topher don’t have to leave. Yes, home is filled with sad memories of Mama’s illness, and Emma often wakes with the hard task of facing the Big Empty. But there are also so many good memories here. Memories of jamboree nights at the café when the entire town turns up to sample Boneyard Brew cocoa and dance away their troubles. Memories of adventures with her best friend Cody Belle, baking muffins with Topher, giving tours of the cemetery, and riding the hills on Granny Blue’s motorcycle. With the help of Cody Belle and newly returned Earl Chance - who doesn’t talk but is still a good friend - Emma is determined to face any ghosts in Blackbird Hollow necessary to hunt down the treasure.

Target Readers:

  • Fans of Beautiful Writing: Natalie Lloyd is a magician with words. I love the way her sentences lure you in and feel like music. They encapsulate that storyteller rocking chair magical rhythm that sings of anticipation, the warm blanket-feeling of a loving home, the bittersweet memories of days gone by, the creepiness of a cemetery at night, and the restfulness a cozy mountain town where just touches of magic are possible. It transports you up and down with the story, and refuses to let you go until Emma’s tale is done. 
  • Mystery Fans: Much of this book is focused on figuring out where the treasure is and that’s tied to the “ghost” of the Conductor. (And if you don’t like ghost stories, don’t worry, the ghostly part of the book had a not so spooky explanation and went in a direction I was very excited about. It was a stroke of brilliance. We’ll just say the treasure was the kind that you can’t put a monetary value on.) There’s also the mystery of how they’ll save the café and stop the land developers to keep things hopping.
  • Tender Grief Story Fans: On top of the mystery elements, Lloyd wove in several stories about kids needing healing in one form or another. Lloyd did a fantastic job in the way she portrayed Emma’s grief over her mom’s death. The way she describes the Big Empty so encapsulates what it is like after a close loved one dies, but she doesn’t let Emma wallow in grief. Emma is having fun, going on adventures and excited about the future. Her memories of her Mama are bittersweet; just as often likely to make her smile as to make her cry. Lloyd gets how to handle the ebb and flow of grief in Emma’s character, while not making it the central part of the story. And Emma is handling the grief in healthy ways. It’s the most authentic and respectful portrayal of a kid handling grief well I’ve come across. 
  • Self-Acceptance Story Fans: Another thing I liked was having Emma deal with some insecurities about a scar on her lip. Eventually it comes out that she was born with a cleft palate and had surgeries to repair it. I have never read a book about a kid born with a cleft palate, and yet it isn’t all that uncommon. 
  • Selective Mutism Character Fans: Earl Chance was another fantastic addition I applauded. He has been severely traumatized by surviving a tornado and has been mute since that storm. His lack of speaking doesn’t make one lick of difference to Emma or Cody Belle, they swoop in and make him their friend without batting an eye. And they don’t try to fix him. I love their acceptance and unconditional friendship. Those two are some stellar role models for readers. 
  • Light Fantasy Fans: There’s lots more to love in this story, from the various magical flowers in Blackbird Hollow to Penny Lane the crow, but I don’t want to spoil it. The fantasy elements are light so it feels like this one spot in the Appalachians is just a teensy bit magical.
  • Foodie Fans: With the main character helping run a café, this read requires hot cocoa and muffins. They’re always enjoying the hot cocoa in the café accompanied by Topher’s special peach lavender muffins.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente, ill. by Ana Juan
September is taken into Fairyland by the Green Wind, who just might possibly have some ulterior motives (such as getting her to help depose the wicked Marquess). So as soon as September steps out of 1940s Omaha and lands on the shore of Fairyland she is off on an adventure that is entirely unpredictable and imaginative such as you have never quite experienced before.

Target Readers:

  • Beautiful Writing Fans: Valente's writing is beautiful, lyrical, and has a hint of poignant barbs and witty points scattered throughout. There were several quotes I wanted to savor from this book. Valente has such a way with words. Here, I think it’s best to just let you experience some of it yourself. "Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. This is why we must close them up into thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble" from Ch.3
  • Fans of Imaginative Worlds & Adventures: Septembers adventures are apt to remind you of a hint of Oz, with a dash of Wonderland, and a pinch of a Willy Wonka-run-enterprise. Even if you think you've read enough Fairyland adventures, you should still pick this one up because few Fairyland romps have been written quite this exquisitely.

Petronella Saves Nearly Everyone by Dene Low, ill. by Jen Corace
Petronella’s 16th birthday and coming out party is an epic disaster. Her uncle and guardian has developed a sudden and strange compulsion to eat bugs. Party guests are disappearing and being replaced with ransom notes at an alarming rate, and it seems it is us to Petronella and some of her loyal friends to figure out what is going on and save the day. Even if that may not be exactly the thing for a Regency period young lady to do.

Target Readers:

  • Readers Working on Building Their Vocabulary: The vocabulary in here is quite something. There’s some words in here that make an appearance and probably were only last seen in a Dickens novel or the old SAT vocabulary words list. Keep a dictionary or dictionary app handy.
  • Regency Fans: For those who like quirky Regency romps, snatch this one up. 
  • Humor Fans: The antics of Petronella’s Uncle make for some delightfully hilarious scenes.
  • Mystery Fans: This mystery stands no chance against Petronella and her loyal friends, though it does give them an exciting challenge.

Middle Grade Poetry

Alpha Beta Chowder by Jeanne Steig, ill. by William Steig
An A-Z book of poetry with a different poem devoted to and fully saturated with each letter.
Note: Every once in a while a poem has a slightly darker humor (like the one for R about a Western gun duel or the shipwreck one, both result in deaths) so you might want to screen these before reading them to little kids. I think the whole thing is best suited to a middle grade audience.

Target Readers:

  • Readers Working on Building Their Vocabulary: The vocabulary used in this poetry collection is quite high. Have a dictionary on hand when reading it with kids. Even those with the highest reading levels will probably run into a new word (dirndl) or five. (How about cadenza, credenza, brigand, ipecac, or irascibility? And there's more where those came from.) 
  • Poetry Fans: All of the poems are rhyming, but they do take different forms. And if you're covering alliteration or consonance, you could definitely use this for examples. Jeanne Steig packed as many appearances of the letter emphasized in each poem as possible (so some of them also end up being tongue twisters). 

Stardines Swim High across the Sky: and Other Poems by Jack Perlutsky, ill. by Carin Berger
Perlutsky takes the names of common animals, changes or adds one letter, and writes a poem about the new creature imagined. The poems are accompanied by unique and eye-catching collages and dioramas. My favorites of these cleverly created poetic creatures were: the Fountain Lion, who is a great party addition; Plandas, who do so much planning they never get anything done; the SoBCat, who is rather morose; and the Bardvarks, uninspired poets. A very fun poetry collection which incorporates some rather excellent vocabulary.

Target Readers:

  • Poetry Writers & Fans: A very clever poetry collection. This could be used to inspire similar new animal poems (and accompanying artwork). 
  • Mind Puzzle Fans: For readers who like a little mental exercise have one person before reading the next poem just give a hint of the next real animal. Tell the readers they can change or add one letter and see if they can come up with the same imagined creature Perlutsky did.
  • Readers Working on Building Their Vocabulary: It is also a good resource for vocabulary in usage for Secondary school. Just about every poem has at least one superb vocab word. Some words Perlutsky managed to use were slovenly, aqueous, cavort, copious, cacophonic, and benign.

Young Adult Fiction

Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan
Josie loves languages. She's very good at them. She's so good at them she's actually already taking college classes even though she hasn't technically graduated from high school yet. But beyond the normal French, Italian and German, Josie has also found she has become quite adept at translating all the different sub-culture languages she goes between. There's the language of her college classmates, and then the language of her high school peers, there's the language of the older neighbor lady, and of course her home language which only her family and the Wagemaker's across the street speak fluently. Josie is confident there is nothing in this world she can't figure out with her wits and language skills. But as Josie's sister Kate brings home Geoff and announces she is going to marry him. Josie is immediately convinced Geoff is all wrong for Kate, and starts on a campaign to end the relationship even though Kate persists in saying she loves Geoff (for inexplicable reasons that completely evade Josie). As summer turns to fall and Josie and her friends meander relationships of their own, Josie assurance that she can figure out any language starts to crumble. She starts to realize there is a baffling language that seems to defy equations and all her language skills. Love. It's illogical and confusing, and it just might drive this gifted girl batty.
Note: There is some bad language.

Target Readers:

  • Contemporary Fiction Fans: Those who like stories of mostly typical teens navigating school and family should enjoy this. Josie is a brilliant but flawed girl who is comfortable in her own unique skin. She has 2 living parents who give her wise advice, do know better than her frequently, and are also witty and loving. And she has two older sisters she loves and who love her. In other words, a solid, loving, supportive family. Yes, Josie and her sister Kate have their squabbles, but they work them out for the most part. And more than romantic love, that family love comes through as the strongest kind in this book
  • Clean Romance Fans: The entire book focuses on Josie trying to figure out what love is. She learns some important things, especially about the difference between love and infatuation. And she eventually figures out who the right guy for her really is. 
  • Fans of Books that Explore Language & Cultures’ Relationship: This book is a fantastic exploration of the ways we all have to learn to operate in somewhat foreign environments and do "translation" every day, even when it isn't as obvious as going from Thai to English. We all run into people who don't quite talk in the same patterns or use words the same way and have to learn how to “translate.” 
  • Readers Working on Building Their Vocabulary: With her penchant for languages, Josie's vocabulary as the narrator is quite excellent and may send teens scrambling for a dictionary.

The Wolf of Tebron by C.S. Lakin
A young man, Joran, thinks he has caught his wife cheating on him so he packs her off to go stay with her parents. Rumors start getting back to him 1-2 days later that she never made it to her parents’ village, and there is no other village on the carriage route. She has mysteriously disappeared. Meanwhile, he’s been having nightmares about her being trapped in a sandcastle that is falling apart high on a seaside cliff and he tries every night to rescue her but can’t. Thanks to some riddle-like information from the village’s crazy goose lady, he finds out that the Moon has captured his love and he must go on a journey to find the house of the Moon and rescue her. On the very first leg of his journey he comes across a wolf in a trap and rescues it. Joran is different from most people in that he is able to communicate with animals, and has found that frequently after he rescues or helps them they feel obligated to give him their names, a serious matter that is a commitment to come help whenever he calls on them. The wolf insists on giving Joran his name, Ruyah. Ruyah decides to accompany Joran on his journey -- much to Joran’s chagrin, at least at first (who would be comfortable with a strange, big, wild wolf following them around?). The journey, as the goose lady told him, is so long he wears through three pairs of shoes. We follow him as he visits first the Moon, then the Sun, the South Wind, and eventually arrives at the sea in his quest to rescue his wife. Along the path Joran and Ruyah must wrestle with personal issues and encounter several dangers but also meet several interesting friends.

Target Readers:

  • Fans of Allusions & Christian Allegory: There are several allegories/metaphors going on but most of them feel unique, subtle and well done so as not to come off heavy-handed...more like promptings to think further on these philosophical matters.  For a sample, as Joran journeys he must wrestle with different problems in his own heart that are spilling over into his dreams, like anger, bitterness, lack of trust, loneliness, shame and despair. Ruyah becomes a good friend, protector and travelling companion who offers Joran excellent advice often in the form of “It is said among the wolves…”. Sometimes Joran will discuss these with Ruyah and ask questions, but at other times he mocks the wolves’ sayings or will ask Ruyah, “What! No wolf platitude for this?” I've read books where the wise advice comes off like preaching. That is not the case here. It felt like natural conversation between friends about what was going on, and as is often the case when one is older and more experienced, the younger can respond with curiosity and a heart to learn or scoffing and disinterest. (Many of Ruyah's pithy wolf sayings are quotes from G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and others who Lakin acknowledges in the back of the book.) 
  • Fairy Tale Rewrite Fans: The story is loosely based on “The Enchangted Pig” fairy tale by the Grimms with some "East of the Sun and West of the Moon" in there too. 
  • Fans of Dreamy High Fantasy: The theme of dreams is prevalent throughout the story and affects the writing style. Many times Joran has difficulty telling if he is dreaming or awake, (but as long as you are ready for the dreamlike flow (scenes can suddenly shift as they so often do in dreams, but these are not jolting shifts, you are given hints they are coming) it does not hinder the story, and actually is a testament to the excellent writing of Lakin that she can make the theme flow through the writing style without making the story downright strange (doesn't stoop to following white rabbits). That said, if you prefer more black and white, cut and dry, logical plotlines, this book may not be for you -- or fantasy in general, for that matter. 
  • Fans of Beautiful Writing: Lakin employs excellent lyrical writing that weaves themes and good lessons, but doesn’t bash people over the head with them. 

Adult Fiction

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
"All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages." This quote from As You Like It by Shakespeare seems to best summarize this story. And fittingly so, as Shakespeare figures prominently in several parts and there are numerous characters. It all starts with actor Arthur Leander's final moments, and his heart attack in the middle of portraying King Lear on stage during a live performance. The actor's death would have drawn more attention in the press, but for the spread of the Georgian flu that quickly gets the entire world's attention. The story moves away from Arthur to follow one of the men who tried to resuscitate him, Jeevan. And from there the story goes back and forth and forth and back. Sometimes in the present, watching people as they deal with the pandemic changing the world forever. Sometimes in the past learning people's stories, and sometimes in the future, watching how things play out and how people struggle to survive in a world without electricity, gasoline, or modern medicine.
Note: Some language, violence/death (though none gory), and substance abuse (though not condoned).

Target Readers:

  • Artfully Crafted Story Fans/Lyrical Writing Fans: This story actually reminds me a bit of Dickens (a good thing, I love Dickens), in that at first there seem to be numerous disparate characters and objects, but as the book unfolds you get to see how they are all woven together by places and objects and interactions. And like in Dickens, you'll eventually see that the reason there are so many characters is that you really can't get the full story without seeing it from so many perspectives. This story could easily have been a disaster (no pun intended). Moving backwards and forewords in time between so many characters, it would have been extremely easy to lose readers in a mass of confusion and lack of cohesion. But I didn't feel lost. In fact, I loved the way it was laid out. It was different, extremely artful and let the reader see if they could figure out connections before they were revealed. Speaking of art, there were some passages of writing in here that were stunning pieces of wordsmithing. One of my favorites was, "The forest had crept up to the edges of the school parking lot and sent an advance party out toward the building, small trees growing through cracks in the pavement" (p.128). Emily St. John Mandel knows how to make things come alive on the page. 
  • Fans of Themes in Literature: In addition to her spectacular descriptions, she employed four items that wove through multiple stories and helped further glue things together. And I bet you'd never guess what they are: Shakespeare, Star Trek, a paper weight, and a comic book (the comic book is where the book's title comes from). Yes, it sounds incredibly eclectic and odd, and yet they worked very well. In fact, I'm sure there's enough thematic stuff from those four things in this book for an English masters thesis. 
  • Contemporary Fiction/Dystopia Fans: I recently had a high school student who read this, loved it, and then asked for something similar. That proved to be a huge challenge. See, there's nothing else out there quite like this book. It's technically dystopian, yes, but the thing that struck me as strangest about this dystopian tale as I read it is how it feels incredibly plausible and realistic. That's probably because much of the book happens in the present or recent past (which I didn't expect), and the feel of getting to know people in their normal, everyday situations carries over even into the somewhat crazier future. It is more of a human interest story than a dystopian story in that sense. The focus is not on how crazy everything gets after the flu, it's on the stories of people and how they affect each other. If you're expecting a more adult Divergent you'll probably be extremely disappointed. This story has more subtle themes and things to ponder than violent conflicts. And be prepared to ponder. The characters will provide you with quite a number of things to chew on well after you turn the last page.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Brainstorm 122: Topiary gardens in kids' lit

Topiary doesn’t make its way into kids’ lit very often, but when it does people seem to love it. Why would I say that? Well, of the three picture books below which feature topiary gardens, two received a Caldecott Honor and the third was seriously tossed around as a contender for a Caldecott last year. Evidently the whimsically trimmed plants appeal to our eyes in both print and in real life. I know one of the highlights for me personally when visiting the old royal palace at Ayutthaya here in Thailand are the topiaries on the grounds, like the herd of elephants.
One of my photos of a topiary elephant at Ayutthaya. Hmm, has Lane Smith been to Ayutthaya by any chance???
What's not to like about art that is living? I think I also admire the skill of people who can trim and train plants into such amazing shapes because I know if I tried to do that without any guidance, my bush would like like it got attacked by a vicious animal...not like an animal. If you're one of those people who like living art and can't get to some real topiary at the moment, here’s some recommendations for virtual trips to topiary gardens. (And future picture book artists, if you’ve really got your heart set on a Caldecott, it seems a story involving topiary would be a very strategic plan. 😉) And in case you want to try your own hand at some topiary making, I'm including the last book.

And if you'd like more books on gardens and gardening, check out Brainstorm 35 and Brainstorm 66.

Picture Books

The Night Gardener by the Fan Brothers
In a downtrodden neighborhood a mysterious gardener's actions help brighten the days of many people, including one little orphan boy.

Target Readers:

  • Difference Makers: This is short and sweet, but the more I think about it the more I like it. The night gardener forms trees into animal shapes, which seem to help bring the community together. It first off brightens the days of a little orphan boy, and then inspires the little boy to help spread that joy. Reading this with a group of kids could easily segue a great discussion about simple ways to brighten others' days and/or how to improve the community in your neighborhood with gardening or something. 
  • Art Fans: The illustrations in this are amazing and you’re 100% justified in picking this up just to look at the pictures.
  • Compare/Contrast Activity Fans: Read this and Grandpa Green for a good compare/contrast activity. 

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith
A boy goes through the garden his great-grandfather created, and eventually realizes the topiaries tell the story of his great-grandfather's life.

Target Readers:

  • Fans of Grandparent Stories/Family Memory Stories: Due to the time gap between great-grandchildren and their great-grandparents, most connections are forged through family memories passed down. This is such a story. And though most of us don't have grandparents who make topiaries to memorialize important events, they may have other things. Ask kids what objects carry memories and stories in their families, or if you're reading at home perhaps it's a good time to share a family story tied to a certain object or photo.
  • Historical Fiction Fans: Through the topiaries, different stories of the past are brought up, taking readers back in time.
  • Art Fans: This is one of the books that won a Caldecott Honor for it’s beautiful artwork.

The Garden of Abdul Gasazi by Chris Van Allsburg
Alan takes Miss Hester's dog, Fritz, for a walk, only to have naughty Fritz break away and go into the off-limits garden of magician Abdul Gasazi. Alan is quite concerned what will happen, and he tries to catch Fritz before the magician finds out. But Fritz gets caught and the magician turns him into a duck. Alan starts to carry the bad dog/duck home, when it flies away and snatches his hat. He returns to tell Miss Hester what has happened, only to find Fritz back in dog form. Miss Hester tells Alan it was just a trick of the magician's, but Alan isn't too sure when he finds his hat is at her house too.

Target Readers:

  • Mystery Fans/Very Light Creepy Story Fans: Readers get to decide what they think really happened. Did Fritz get turned into a duck for real, or was it just a magician’s trick? Every year around this time we get kids who say they want spooky stories but aren't actually ready for spooky stories. This may be just enough to satisfy them without scarring them. The magician is a little bit frightening as in that-grumpy-neighbor-everyone-avoids-because-they-don’t-want-to-get-scowled-at frightening…as a kid I found the magician slightly creepy, and with the whole possible ability to change you into a duck ability he is a bit intimidating. As an adult I view him more as a grump who just wants kids to stop trespassing and may have a few tricks up his sleeve to fool them into not coming back. But that's up to you to decide.
  • Dog Fans: Dog lovers will be quick to understand and forgive Fritz the bull terrier’s trouble-inducing curiosity.
  • Van Allsburg Fans: Fun fact for Van Allsburg fans, this was his very first picture book for kids. He now is well-known for a whole plethora of kid’s books, with Polar Express and Jumanji being the most famous.
  • Art Fans: This is the other book that was awarded a Caldecott Honor for the art. Full confession time, I read this one for the art because I can take or leave the story. Also, I’d be tempted to explore Abdul Gasazi’s garden too. It looks very enticing.

Nonfiction How-to

DIY Succulents: from Placecards to Wreaths, 35+ Ideas for Creative Projects with Succulents by Tawni Daigle
A step-by-step photographic guide for decorating and art projects with living plants.

Target Readers:

  • Indoor Garden Fans: This has lots of relatively easy ideas for bringing plants into the house (or leaving them outside) and using them as decoration.
  • Would-be Topiary Artists: Creating a topiary ball is one of the projects in here. Start with the ball and then maybe someday you can move your way on up to topiary moose or rabbit.
  • Busy Gardeners/Gardeners with Absolutely No Green in Their Thumbs: The step-by-step guides include instructions on how to care for the living artwork, and good news for those of you with no green thumb or no time for gardening, most of these are very low maintenance (aka hard to kill).