Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Outside And Up Close To Mother Earth

For several months now they've been arriving in my mail; tantalizing in their promise of spring.  Filled with full color photographs of fruits, vegetables, flowers, shrubs and trees, they offer a sharp contrast to bare branches and ground covered with snow.  Turning page after page in each of these catalogs marks the arrival of the awakening. The pause is nearly over.

Keepers of gardens are already looking for buds on bushes and shoots poking through ground thawing in the warmer temperatures and sunny days.  Added voices are joining the daily birdsong chorus.  Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt (Chronicle Books, March 3, 2015) written by Kate Messner with illustrations by Christopher Silas Neal, a companion to their Over and Under the Snow, explores our natural world in the realm of a garden for three seasons of the year.

Up in the garden, I stand and plan---
my hands full of seeds and my head full of dreams.

A girl and her grandmother kneel in the dirt. When Nana says they need for the underneath to become drier and warmer, her granddaughter is curious about things below the surface.  In all shapes and sizes

earthworms and insects

are scurrying around sifting and shifting through the soil.

While unseen workers go about their business, the gardeners clear away the remnants of a previous year, reusing every dried piece and adding nutrients.  Little critters stir in their residences.  Soon the dirt is ready; seeds are planted, and watered.  Beneath their carefully tended rows, a special bug waits.

As summer replaces spring tiny bits of green poke through the top, growing bigger and bigger.  Above insects fly about completing their tasks as below others keep cool and busy.  A sudden shower thanks to a mischievous Nana cools down the girl and quenches thirsty roots.

In the garden, from the garden and below the garden all find an abundance of food.  Even when most of the world sleeps, another eats.  Sometimes an unexpected visitor strikes taking a treat.

As the months pass the air and breezes cool.  Colors change in the garden.  Early sunshine illuminates the work of an artist using frost as a medium.

It's time for the gardening duo to work gathering all the goodness grown.  It's time for

earthworms and insects 

to scuttle, squirm, burrow and slumber.  It's time for thoughts to be filled with another garden in another spring.

With her marvelous command of language Kate Messner leads us from the inside of winter to the outside of spring.  She wraps us in each of the seasons with her vivid descriptions.  Through a blend of conversation between the grandmother and granddaughter, the voice of the girl and an unseen narrator we move gracefully from the work in the garden and the joy shared by two, at play and rest, to the world of animals above and beneath the dirt.  It's as if Messner has captured the rhythm of the natural world and placed it on the pages of this book.  Here are two sample selections.

Spring sun shines down to melt the sleepy snow.
Wind whistles through last year's plants, and mud
sucks at my rain boots.

Down in the dirt earthworms tunnel deep.
I'm jealous of their cook, damp, dark.

Upon opening the dust jacket you can see Christopher Silas Neal's piece of art spanning flap edge to flap edge.  The view of the top layer, up and down, on the front expands to show a raised garden box with the tops of vegetables, the roots beneath and the tiny creatures around them.  The book case is an identical image.  On the opening endpapers vegetables and herbs along with a garden trowel are outlined in a pattern.  Flowers along with a watering can and clippers are highlighted on the closing endpapers.  In both sets the images are labeled as if handwritten. The verso and title page feature a close-up of the trowel stuck in the dirt.

All of the illustrations rendered in mixed media extend across two pages with the exception of eight single pages.  Not only do they enhance the narrative but beautifully depict the changing seasons.  A realistic but softened color palette allows you to join the gardeners in their activities.  Neal may take us close to a particular portion of the garden then give us a larger encompassing view.  He has a knack for knowing exactly when to do this.  We become the rabbit, the earthworms, the robin, the granddaughter and Nana.  His attention to details in the portrayal of all the creatures is exceptional.

I really have many favorite illustrations.  The single page with the dusky background, the girl standing, scarf blowing in the wind, arms wrapped around her as milkweed seeds fly from the pods is gorgeous in its limited color selections.  Another peaceful representation is of Nana and her granddaughter reading in the garden.  Their backs are to us, the book page showing s is for sunflower.  The two are seated on the ground among the sunflowers, several tied together to make a house.  Orange pumpkins are growing in the foreground.  Leaves float on a gentle breeze.  You want to join them.

Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt written by Kate Messner with illustrations by Christopher Silas Neal is a lovely tribute to the beauty we can add to the natural world.  Two artists, one with words and the other using mixed media, have combined their talents to create a garden you can carry with you everywhere.  All you have to do is open the pages.  This book speaks to the companionship of generations, gardening, the seasons and being aware of the creatures living on and beneath the dirt.

Please visit Kate Messner's and Christopher Silas Neal's websites by following the links attached to their names.  InkyGoodness conducted an interview of Christopher Silas Neal, Interview: Chris Silas Neal. One of the illustrations from this title is pictured there.  This book is one of three featured at author Julie Danielson's blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.  Here is a link to a drawing based upon this book at Christopher Silas Neal's Tumblr.  Here is a post Christopher Silas Neal did for the Chronicle Books Blog, Down In The Dirt.  Kate Messner is a guest on teacher librarian Matthew C. Winner's Let's Get Busy Podcast.  

Please be sure to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to discover other titles listed by bloggers participating in the 2015 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.


  1. Hi Margie! We just enjoyed a Skype session with Kate, and what I will remember most is how she told us that for research for this book she got down - actually went all the way on the ground, and pressed the side of her face into the dirt, and just listened. It's a great visual!

    1. Wow Michele! Thank you for sharing this portion of the Skype. Kate has consistently impressed me with the extent of her research. She is an amazing author.

  2. I want to pick this up. I have read any of these books but the illustrations are so beautiful!

    1. I hope you are able to get a copy of both the books. Kate has a wonderful way with words. And you are right. Christopher Silas Neal's artwork is a beautiful blend of detail, color and perspective.

  3. That sounds like just the kind of book I'd stock if I had an open bookstore. Your review certainly makes me hope my library has it.

    1. I know you are going to like it Barbara. I hope you are able to get a look at their first collaboration too.