Written by Jilanne Hoffmann
Illustrated by Eugenia Mello
(Chronicle Books; $18.99, Ages 5-10)
★Starred Review – Publishers Weekly
A Junior Library Guild Selection
An ALA 2024 Notable Picture Book
Before even opening up A River of Dust written by Jilanne Hoffmann and illustrated by Eugenia Mello, I was dazzled by the dusting of gold on the title that I hadn’t noticed in photos.
Told from an engaging personified point of view, this picture book’s narrator introduces itself in the third spread. “I am dust, the dust of North Africa.” Readers are told that this dust connects continents and I, for one, was eager to find out how. The concept fascinated me; dust describing what an important role it plays in the ecosystem as it makes its way from “a ribbon of land spread between the Sahara Desert, to the north, and tropical savanna, to the south. Land that stretches from the Red Sea, in the east, to the Atlantic Ocean, in the west.” Wow! I never thought about dust this way before.
The flow of Hoffmann’s lyrical prose shares just the right amount of information for young readers to absorb. The warm muted desert tones of Mello’s illustrations rendered digitally and filled with flora and fauna, combine with the text to convey the importance of dust in our world. Each spread shows movement as the dust is carried across the pages. Older kids will pick up details that may not necessarily resonate with Kindergartners yet there is still so much for them to glean.
While all readers learn that much of the dust disappears in myriad ways along the journey from North Africa to the Amazon, they’ll also find out how crucial the remaining dust is. Its cargo, precious phosphorus, is vital for the “rain-washed, depleted soil.” It will nourish the trees and help maintain the ecosystem.
I wanted to know more about this layered, lush, and poetic picture book because of the wide age range. I asked Hoffmann how she feels the book can meet the differing needs and interests of the youngest to oldest audience members. What she told me would be helpful for parents, caregivers, teachers, and librarians to incorporate into any reading. Its broad reach is what makes the book so appealing.
“I think that kindergarten through 5th grade can get things out of the book, at different levels of comprehension. When I read it to younger kids, I focus on how we’re all connected, and how two continents maintain their connections, despite being separated for a LONG time, something that littles understand, because they miss people in their lives who may live far away, or they remember what it was like to be left by a parent on their first day of school. And how they stay connected through phone calls, or letters, or even Zoom calls. I also talk simply about phosphorus, and how dust carries it, and how it’s a mineral like calcium and iron, things that their bodies need to grow and be healthy (and how every living thing on this planet requires those things).”
Info-packed pages of backmatter complete A River of Dust with facts for the oldest and most curious of readers. Even if you’re not scientifically minded, there is something in these six pages for everyone. Hoffmann explained this to me.
“The older kids get more info about how scientists figured this out through satellites, info about plate tectonics, how scientific understanding continues to change/evolve, etc. So the book can be understood simply or in a more complex way. My educator guide provides a ton of different activities across the curriculum for K-5, including a PE game.”
Be sure to check out the helpful and detailed learning resources available on Hoffman’s website to access the impressive educator’s guides, activities, and more. Pick up a copy today and let your kids be armchair travelers on this illuminating journey alongside dust that never ceases to amaze as it educates.
- Reviewed by Ronna Mandel