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3 children’s books perfect for Earth Day

★ The Garden We Share

Zoë Tucker and Julianna Swaney’s The Garden We Share is superb and subtle, full of beautiful writing and illustrations that perfectly convey its deep themes. Initially, it appears to be a simple story about community gardening, but soon reveals itself to be much more.

One early spring day, a girl and an older woman—perhaps her grandmother—join two other women and a watchful cat to plant seeds in a garden nestled between apartment buildings. “We scatter them on the ground like stars in the sky,” the young narrator says, “and quickly cover them with a blanket of sweet soil.”

As expected, the weather warms, and the seeds sprout. Swaney, who also illustrated HGTV star Joanna Gaines’ We Are the Gardeners, deploys her signature palette of muted pastels to depict the garden’s gradual blossoming. In one spread, warm-toned flowers cover the entire right-hand page and spill over onto the left-hand page, where the narrator and her older friend sunbathe side by side on a blanket, and the other two women read and snooze on nearby lounge chairs. It’s a marvelous vision of summertime bliss. Soon, as vegetables ripen and everyone gathers at a picnic table to share the bountiful harvest, The Garden We Share becomes a meditation on the changing seasons.

But wait—there’s more. On the page opposite the harvest feast, we see the narrator’s older friend is bed bound, though still vibrant as the pair collect and preserve seeds from their garden. In the next spread, deep winter has set in and the narrator visits the garden without her friend. “Petals fall, and colors fade—and you are gone,” she says. Observant readers may have noticed previous clues to the woman’s declining health, though early indications are easy to miss on a first read: In summer, she starts using a cane, and she appears in a headscarf at the feast.

Words and pictures work together seamlessly to connect the ending of the older woman’s life to the natural progressions of the world, such as the passing of the seasons. It’s handled with such sensitivity that younger readers will be able to take in exactly as much of this message as they are ready for. While many children’s books address the loss of a grandparent, the fact that the narrator’s relationship to her older friend is never specified allows for more points of identification, enabling The Garden We Share to guide young readers through a wider range of losses.

The next spring, the narrator returns to the garden to plant the seeds she and her friend collected the previous year. “And as the morning air warms my heart, little shoots emerge like magic,” the narrator says, “And you are with me again.” The Garden We Share is a gentle book overflowing with big lessons about life and death, the importance of experiences shared and the multitude of ways that the earth sustains us, even through great loss.

All From a Walnut

Ammi-Joan Paquette and Felicita Sala’s All From a Walnut explores themes similar to those in The Garden We Share, but sounds different notes along the way.

Emilia wakes up one morning to find a walnut on her bedside table. “It must be walnut season,” her mother observes. Then Grandpa, who lives with them, relates the story of how he immigrated to America from Italy when he was a boy (“a little nut like you”). One of the only belongings he brought was a walnut he had plucked from a tree outside his window. He planted it and tended to its growth, and now a mighty walnut tree grows in Emilia’s yard. When Emilia’s mother was a girl, she planted her own tree next to her father’s, and now it’s Emila’s turn.

As Grandpa tells his story, Sala’s art brings it to life, using sepia tones to differentiate these remembered scenes from the present day and enlivening the old country through the textures of rock walls, stone buildings and leafy vegetation. She expresses the enormity of Grandpa’s journey and his family’s challenges, depicting a huge ship docked in America as a long line of passengers emerge. Sala’s paintings of Grandpa’s walnut trees are majestic and convey the wonder of this gift from nature—and straight from Grandpa’s heart.

All From a Walnut is a story of heritage, generations past and future, and the gifts we each pass on. As Grandpa shows Emilia how to plant her walnut and care for it, he moves “slowly, like he was running out of batteries.” Text and pictures quietly relay both the plant’s growth and Grandpa’s slow but steady decline. “All the best things grow with time. Even when you can’t see them, still they grow,” he tells Emilia in their final scene together.

In the seasons and years that follow, Emilia’s tree comforts her and reminds her of her grandfather, and she looks forward to continuing his tradition with her own child. All From a Walnut beautifully depicts life’s cycles and highlights not only the sadness of saying goodbye but also the wonder of new beginnings.

Emile and the Field

In his first book for children, Kevin Young, poetry editor of The New Yorker and the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, explores what it means to quietly enjoy and commune with nature. Young begins Emile and the Field with gentle simplicity. “There was a boy named Emile who fell in love with a field,” he writes, and we see Emile and his little black dog frolicking in a vast meadow full of wildflowers.

Chioma Ebinama’s evocative illustrations transport readers right to the meadow. Soft-toned, impressionistic flowers completely envelop Emile, offering soothing beauty and opportunities for contemplation and exploration. Not a lot happens, and that’s the point: “The bumblebees would sing to him—never sting—their worlds were honey, and led him to wander.” Spot illustrations and full-page spreads give readers close-up views as well as wide-angled, telescopic glimpses at Emile’s musings and meanderings. When autumn comes, Emile plays in the leaves, observing that “his favorite maple is as tall as his mother.”

Emile is a solitary soul and a big thinker who considers the field his best friend and sounding board. Once winter arrives, however, he feels as though his friend has disappeared, and he doesn’t like having to share his space with “other, loud kids” who sled there. Emile’s father provides a helpful perspective that changes Emile’s outlook and restores his well-being.

Emile and the Field is a love letter to nature that highlights the importance of having a special place to relax, roam and just be yourself as you wonder about your place in this wide world.

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