Happy Birthday, Trees!, written by Karen Rostoker-Gruber and illustrated by Holly Sterling, is a 12-page board book that just exudes joy and one I can easily recommend for the annual holiday of Tu B’Shevat, a Jewish Arbor Day. Tu B’Shevat or Tu BiShevat has, over the years, grown to become a celebration of nature and the environment and a time to reflect on the importance of trees since we are their only caretakers. This year, the holiday begins on the evening of January 27 and ends the following night.
In this charming rhyming board book, three diverse children go through all the steps of planting a tree with a soothing repetition that reinforces the progression of the actions. First, they dig a hole. Then they carefully place the tree in the hole and, after a few other important steps, the youngsters watch the tree as it grows and changes through the seasons.
I love how Rostoker-Gruber, in such a short story, has managed to convey not only the pleasure of the planting process but the complete cycle a tree experiences. Sterling’s cheerful illustrations full of movement and expression show readers how, in the year following the initial planting, the tree ultimately blossoms, spreading its perfume for all to enjoy. Happy Birthday, Trees! is truly a Tu B’Shevat treet!
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Clickherefor a Happy Birthday, Trees! Teaching Guide.
Click here to read a review of another Jewish holiday book.
Wednesday, April 22, is the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day which will be celebrated around the globe. Read below about some new picture books, both fiction and nonfiction, that Christine Van Zandt recommends to help your children understand the significance of this holiday.
One of my favorite things about Henry Cole’s gorgeous, wordless picture book, One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey, is the prologue. I was hooked from the first image: a forest where one tree—colored brown—stands out. Cole’s amazingly detailed black-ink drawings are juxtaposed by brown-colored items: the tree, first made into paper, becomes an unassuming lunch bag.
In the Author’s Note, Cole shares how, in 1970 for the first Earth Day, he decided to not throw out has lunch bag that day. Or the next one. Eventually, he used that bag about 700 times! Then, when he went to college, he passed the velvet-soft bag to his younger friend who used it for another year. Wow! This really hit home with me. I’m conscientious about noncompostables, but will now consider the possibilities of paper products.
Using a humble brown bag as its central element, the story follows the bag’s journey from creation to conclusion. We are emotionally engaged with the little boy as he grows to adulthood and the family members we meet along the way. This story drives home the messages that even seemingly insignificant choices matter and that kids have the power to change things. These workhorse lunch bags are relatively inexpensive and typically don’t garner a second thought. Cole’s true-life story brings this simple item to the front page of his book and the forefront of our attention. Bravo! ★Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews
When I think of the mischievously adorable Peter Rabbit, of course his creator, Beatrix Potter, comes to mind. But, who was the woman behind this famous character? Linda Elovitz Marshall’s picture book, Saving the Countryside: The Story of Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbitfills in the blanks.
Potter was a bright artistic girl who lived in the city but cherished the family’s summers in the country. Too soon, it was back to the constraints of being a Victorian-era girl. Focusing on her drawings, Potter, later, was able to land a job—but only because the publisher thought she was a man. Throughout the story, we see Potter pushing against and past the bonds of what a woman was “supposed to do.” While these actions were commendable, Potter also took on the role of conservationist, buying up more than 4,000 acres of beloved land to keep it peacefully undeveloped; her donation to the UK’s National Trust allowed the area’s preservation.
The illustrator, Ilaria Urbinati, enlivens Potter’s story in a muted old-fashioned style complementary to the text. Be sure to check beneath the cover for a clever second image: a before-and-after of Potter in her cherished landscape.
This behind-the-scenes look at Potter’s life will engage kids because it’s relatable and inspirational—showing you can make a career doing what you love, break through societal limits, and care for our planet. What Potter managed in her 77 years was exceptional. ★Starred Review– Foreward Reviews
Land Wilson’s rhyming picture book, The Girl Who Spoke to the Moon: A Story About Friendship and Loving Our Planet, is a gentle story packing a powerful message. Little Sofia befriends the Moon and, one night when he’s blue, she imagines herself up there, seeing the Earth from a new perspective. The Moon sadly tells her, “With dirty waters, land, and air, it looks as though she’s in despair. Her people seem so unaware that what Earth needs is better care.”
Sue Cornelison’s soothing images are in the muted tones of a bedtime book, yet, the swoops of sparkles throughout give the story movement and feeling. Once Sofia realizes she must share her findings, we’re shown glimpses of children from around the world doing their part to help our planet.
The end matter provides explanations of how the Earth’s air, land, and water are polluted, followed by simple suggestions such as creating less trash and eating less meat. In the Author’s Note, Wilson shares how astronauts love looking back at our planet, but how that distance also brings an understanding of Earth’s vulnerability and precious importance. Wilson urges us to make the Earth’s well-being a priority: “When people work together, our power grows. But we need to work faster, harder, and smarter”—a message that should be taken to heart as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. I like how Wilson’s commentary is both realistic and optimistic, hopefully inciting readers to action.
If there’s a book you should read now, it’s If We Were Giantsby Dave Matthewsand Clete Barrett Smith. You may recognize the first author’s name as that of the world-renowned musician, environmentalist, and humanitarian. He’s teamed up with children’s book author Smith to write this timely middle-grade novel. Its underlying messages are about pulling together as a community, remembering the past, and taking care of nature. Kids will root for Kirra to find her way, and love the fun elements (such as living in trees and using their collective skills to become gigantic).
Hidden inside the walls of a dormant volcano, ten-year-old Kirra’s life is idyllic. Her people, the Zedu, respect nature and collaborate with one another, having assigned tasks. Kirra’s father is the Storyteller, the only Zedu who goes Outside—until recently, when Kirra begins to travel with him and learn this vocation. Her curiosity, however, leads her to make a grave mistake instigating the demise of her village by a violent new group called the Takers who seek only to conquer and destroy.
Jump forward four years and fourteen-year-old Kirra now lives aloft with the Tree People, taken in when she was in dire circumstances and treated with kindness ever since. To get by, Kirra must suppress memories of the past—until those memories become a reality.
The images by Antonio Javier Caparoprovide glimpses into Kirra’s world. Framed by intertwining branches, the natural colors underscore the importance of working harmoniously with nature.
I appreciate how the book engages the reader with quick-moving, interesting scenes yet also tackles big issues affecting us today. This story delves into what family means and how you fit in. For Kirra, it’s also a coming-of-age tale as she finally faces her demons and finds her way. e
EXTINCT: An Illustrated Exploration of Animals That Have Disappeared Written by Lucas Riera Illustrated by Jack Tite (Phaidon; $19.95, Ages 7-10)
Most kids know that dinosaurs aren’t around anymore, but they may be surprised by the animals listed in Lucas Riera’sExtinct: An Illustrated Exploration of Animals That Have Disappeared. This oversized, full-color picture book focuses on 80+ animals extinct from the twentieth century to present day. Animals are arranged in like groups (birds, primates, reptiles, and so forth). Each two-page spread has fascinating stories that lend themselves to repeated reference. In the felines section, “It was Tibbles” tells of a pet cat who killed off an entire population of birds. Tibbles belonged to the lighthouse guard on an island near New Zealand; the Stephens Island wrens, unfamiliar with cats, soon perished.
Jack Tite’sgorgeous art is delightful and surprising. For example, the amphibians pages have animals both familiar and unusual, such as the picture of a baby inside a mother frog’s mouth. (Because the gastric brooding frog swallows it eggs, the young frogs emerge when fully formed.) Bears, wolves, pigeons, rhinos—kids will excitedly recognize these animals. The reason many no longer exist is due to human behavior.
I appreciate the “How Can I Help?” section at the end which provides simple things kids can do: thinking about whether they really need that new item and always bringing reusable shopping bags to the store. Adults can read labels to ensure that products don’t contain palm oil (a major cause of deforestation) and avoid buying items made from single-use plastic or ones with non-compostable packaging. Extinct gently encourages environmental stewardship with kid-friendly images and descriptions.
Greta is a little girl who lives in a beautiful forest threatened by Giants. When the Giants first came to the forest, they chopped down trees to make houses. Then they chopped down more trees and made even bigger homes. The houses grew into towns and the towns grew into cities, until now there is hardly any forest left. Greta knows she has to help the animals, but how? Luckily Greta has an idea that will lead to the Giants and the animals working together in harmony. An additional section at the back explains that in reality the fight against the giants isn’t over and Greta needs the reader’s help.
This book has been printed sustainably in the UK on 100% recycled paper. By buying a copy of this book, you are making a donation of 3% of the cover price to Greenpeace UK
INTERVIEW WITH ZOE PERSICO
Please tell us how you came to be a picture book illustrator?
Growing up I had many artistic influences that led me to go into what I do today, especially in books. I struggled with reading, but the illustrations always kept me eagerly invested and inspired. I originally wanted to be an animator, but quickly figured out that illustrating was my passion and wanted to figure out how I could achieve it as my career. I returned to my love for children’s books and knew I wanted to create works of art that would help others like they did for me. With family, friends, my partner, and educators who always supported me every step of the way I signed onto my current agency, got an early jump start into my career, and graduated college. I’ve been working as a freelance illustrator for over five years now and happily receiving great projects such as Greta and the Giants.
What medium/technique did you use to create the illustrations in GRETA AND THE GIANTS and how did the metaphor of the giants as symbols of corporate greed influence your choices?
I use Photoshop CS6 and a Wacom Cintiq Pro 24 to create my illustrations, though I am heavily influenced by traditional materials and try to capture the magic of them through digital means. I use custom brushes that emulate watercolor, gouache, colored pencils, and so on. Before starting the final art for Greta and the Giants I knew that I really wanted to push some new painting techniques, so I practiced using traditional materials beforehand to figure out how I can capture them digitally.
The giants were quite a challenge! I needed to figure out how to portray the giants in a fantastical, but realistic way. It would have been too easy to use stereotypes as a crutch for their design and using certain physical traits to show how “ugly” they are is harmful because that’s telling readers having those traits are negative. I thought that illustrating them mostly from perspectives of Greta and the citizens of the forest, such as them looking up and only seeing their shoes and pants as well as not being able to see their faces as clearly due to the massive distance between them, was a perfect and simple way to achieve that the giants “have their heads in the clouds” more than anything else. They realize that they are causing harm and want to do better and I wanted to make sure their designs were an easy transition to the last spreads of the book as well. They have always worn normal clothes just like everyone else and their size doesn’t change. They are still giants! The change comes into how the new compositions show a better connection and understanding between them and the forest dwellers.
I was taken immediately by the gorgeous jewel tones in your palette. Please explain the decision behind that.
Thank you! I had a lot of fun with this palette for this book. When the design team told me they really wanted to a painterly look and using light for color and mood contrast I was immediately excited. I’ve always tried to push these elements in my personal work and I knew I wanted to push myself even more for this project. Since I have been painting traditionally on the side more, I’ve found new color palettes that I wanted to emulate in Greta and the Giants. I used warm tones for heavily lit areas and went with cool tones for shadows. I mixed colors on top of each other like I would with watercolors to keep interest and connection in each area. I have been in love with using a very bright candy red lately and knew it would be the perfect accent color in a sea of multiple shades of green. For the last spread I wanted to go with a sunset palette to help end the book on a warm and uplifting note. Overall, I would say the goal for this book was to have a mostly nature-inspired palette (greens, browns, oranges) with accents of fantasy-inspired colors (pinks and blues).
What inspired you about this particular story?
Throughout the years I’ve been finding ways to alleviate my carbon footprint on the planet as best as I can and having the chance to work on this project was right up my alley. I was inspired on now only how I can help show others on what we can do to help fight climate change, but to come together and speak up against “giants” by the power of your voice. I hope the illustrations in Greta and the Giants inspire children to ask questions. I hope it inspires parents and guardians to teach them about what is happening. I hope it inspires adults to speak out and vote.
Do you have a favorite illustration in the book?
Yes! Funny enough my favorite illustrations are the spreads that include the city. I rarely paint urban subjects and it was a fun challenge to depict what the giant city could look like from a distance. I’m proud of how it turned out!
I also enjoy illustrating animals as well. Any time I got to paint the fox was always fun for me!
What was the biggest challenge of creating the art for this picture book that’s dealing with a serious topic aimed at younger readers?
I would say finding the right visual balance of fantastical and visually showing a depiction of a real life issue. I wouldn’t be doing the message justice if I went a super happy and bright route for the illustrations. I want to show the dark sides of what’s happening to our home and make it easy to readers to understand that. I also wanted to show signs of hope and warmth as well. I use bright and inviting colors and character designs that young readers can gravitate towards. I paint light shining down on characters such as Greta to show that she is a beacon of hope. It’s little things like this that I add in my illustrations to help readers understand that things are serious, but we don’t have to be kept in the dark. It’s amazing how color and light and design choices can naturally click in your brain to know when something is “relaxing” or “melancholic” or “frustrating”. Illustrations are so important and I love that I get to create them.
As the giants learn about the negative impact of all their building and polluting, they begin to take on less fierce qualities. Was this intentional?
Absolutely. As I mentioned in the previous question regarding the giants, I really wanted to portray the giants in a way that they aren’t so different from the rest of the forest dwellers. Earlier spreads of the book emphasize how tall they are, how hard it is to see their faces from far away, and so on. There’s a disconnect and the giants aren’t aware of the damage they are causing. Towards the last spreads you can see their faces better and their postures and expressions are much more approachable. They are still giants, but there is now a more positive relationship between them and the folks living below them. I am hoping our real life “giants” can listen and start a positive dialogue with us to a better and healthier future.
Which illustrators have most influenced you as an artist?
I have so many! Some illustrators that have influenced me include Amélie Fléchais, Elena and Olivia Ceballos, Yvan Duque, Matthew Forsythe, Rebecca Green, Robin James, and many many more.
Thank you Zoe for your thoughtful answers. I hope everyone picks up a copy of Greta and the Giants to appreciate the beautiful artwork you’ve described in the interview and to see how wonderfully it complements the story.
• FIND OUT MORE ABOUT ZOE ON HER WEBSITE. • PUBLICATION DATE IS NOVEMBER 19 BUT YOU CAN PRE-ORDER A COPY HERE TODAY. • CLICK HERE FOR A HELPFUL DISCUSSION GUIDE.
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