Bees: To Fear or Not to Fear

April 2, 2020 § 2 Comments

Remember last week when I talked about returning our children to nature during this pandemic vis-á-vis secret gardens and long hikes in the woods? Well, there’s just one teeny tiny problem. While we were hiking a few days ago, my son spotted a bee.

Let me back up.

When JP was almost three, during a family reunion in rural Rhode Island, he climbed a ladder to reach an aged treehouse and stood up into a nest of wasps. He was stung twenty-seven times. I know this because the pediatrician, whom I panic dialed, asked me to count the stings. JP was just shy of the number where the poison level would have necessitated getting into the car and trying to find a hospital. Instead, we sat him on the second step of my uncle’s swimming pool, where, immersed in cold water, the screams and swelling eventually subsided.

Perhaps owing to this traumatic event or perhaps just because of the way he’s wired, JP has moved through the past nine years immensely fearful of stinging insects. His fear doesn’t differentiate between wasps and bees. He has read countless books on the subject; he has taken field trips to bee farms; he can rattle off the statistical improbabilities of being stung. No matter. If he hears buzzing, his body goes rigid; if he spots a bee, he flails and shrieks and spends the rest of his outdoor time willing it to be over. He is a hostage to this fear. While I know that with enough exposure and time, he will someday share the outdoors more easily with these creatures, I also know that right now, even more than being afraid of them, he is afraid he will never stop being afraid.

If I could go back in time, short of stopping JP from climbing that ladder, I would take this 2019 picture book with me. It’s what I wish I had read to him in the wake of the wasp event. It’s what I wish I had read to him a hundred times since. In The Thing About Bees: A Love Letter (Ages 3-7), author-illustrator Shabazz Larkin shares his steadfast love for his two young sons alongside an evolving love for bees (not to be confused with wasps), the great pollinators of everyone’s favorite fruits and vegetables. It’s a refreshingly original treatment of a popular subject—why bees matter—because it acknowledges front and center that bees are not easy to love. Indeed, this deeply personal book grew out of the author’s desire not to pass on his own fear of bees to his children. (Quick shout out to Capitol Choices, the children’s literary group of which I’m a part and where I learned of this book last year. Find other treasures on our 2020 list, published here.)

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Moving the Classroom to the Woods

March 27, 2020 § 2 Comments

(Friends, these are rough times. I feel you all. And I promise to keep showing up for you with book ideas for all ages. In addition to these weekly posts, I have (almost) daily recommendations on Instagram, so follow me there. We’ll get through this pandemic with the help of fictional worlds and gripping history and funny comics. Worst comes to worst, we can always use the pages to wipe our bottoms.)

It was only the second morning of #pandemicparenting, and the kids and I were already on the verge of strangling one another. My husband needed a quiet house for conference calls, so I threw out our daily schedule (just one day old) and drove the kids to the woods…where we stayed for four hours. It was cold and drizzly when we arrived, and I found myself willing it to be over. We walked and walked, saw no one, walked some more, and eventually settled into our own rhythms. My daughter ran off trail to climb on logs and rocks. My son stopped talking about his stress level and moved through the world quietly. We got lost, had to scramble up rocky ledges to find the trail again, discovered deserted outcroppings of beaches. The sun came out. I sat and listened to the water, while the kids skipped stones. Later, my son threw his arms around a tree, and I laughed out loud.

We’ve had our fair share of highs and lows these first two weeks of social distancing, but I am endlessly grateful that the trees still welcome our closeness. If there are silver linings amidst this collective heartbreak, one is an opportunity to return our children to nature. I never wanted to homeschool my kids; I knew I’d be rubbish at it. (I knew my kids would be equally rubbish at it.) Thankfully, they still have their wonderful teachers, even if they can only see them on a screen right now. I figure, for as long as we’re packed in together like sardines, I can give my kids two blessings: I can read them books; and I can gently push them towards the trees.

You know what social distancing is good for? Secret gardens. If your children need convincing to let nature step in as teacher, read them the extraordinary new picture book biography, The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver (Ages 7-10). My kids were riveted. Evocatively written by Gene Barretta and accented with richly expressive oil paintings by Frank Morrison, the story demonstrates how young George Washington Carver’s intimate relationship with nature as a child grew into a passionate career as a botanist, inventor, and activist.

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What Our Heart Needs, Today and Everyday

January 24, 2019 § 4 Comments

On the morning of Christmas Eve, I drove down to the river to watch the sun rise. I hadn’t been able to sleep, my heart bruised from the words of a loved one the night before. As an adult, I have found the holidays to be such an intermingling of joy and sadness: a time of excitement and celebration, but also a time when the losses in my life assert themselves and leave me vulnerable.

I stood alone in the brisk-but-not-intolerable air, at the same spot along the Potomac where my son had taken me this past summer. A place he had picnicked with his sailing camp. A place he told me, while we were walking there, had “a bench perfect for you to sit on.” I wanted a place where I would feel love. « Read the rest of this entry »

Poetry Outside Our Window

April 7, 2016 § 2 Comments

"When Green Becomes Tomatoes" by Julie Fogliano & Julie MorstadNational Poetry Month always comes as a nudging reminder that I should incorporate poetry into my read-aloud time with my children. Even beyond all the compelling research, which reveals that poetry helps younger kids hone reading skills and older kids develop stronger comprehension, one could easily argue that there’s no greater medium to seduce children into falling in love with language. Lifetime readers are born out of love like this.

Still, it’s easier said than done. When I’m tired at the end of a day, when the dishes are piled in the sink and I’m yearning for a little veg time on the couch, it’s hard to summon up the energy for a poem while tucking in the kids. A chapter from a novel we’re already hooked on? Always. A picture book with a straightforward narrative? No hesitation. A poem that may require multiple readings, clarification, and discussion? Oh, will you look at the time… « Read the rest of this entry »

Waking Up the Garden (Ushering in Spring with a Classic)

March 10, 2016 § 3 Comments

"The Secret Garden" by Frances Hodgson Burnett & Inga MooreThe setting in which a book is read can create magic beyond the words on the page. I began reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 classic, The Secret Garden, to my children on a long weekend last month. We were nestled beside a roaring fire in the lobby of a grand, historic inn in the mountains, while the snow that would strand us for an extra day of vacation came down in big, soft flakes outside the tall arched windows. With my children pressed against me in rapt attention, it didn’t seem like life could get much better.

Little did I know that even more magic would come in the weeks ahead, when we brought the book back home and continued reading it while the first hints of spring began to transform the earth outside our front door. And that’s when it hit me: The Secret Garden (Ages 9-13, younger if reading aloud)—and, in particular, artist Inga Moore’s enchantingly illustrated unabridged gift edition—may be the BEST WAY EVER to usher in spring. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Magic of Fall

October 23, 2014 § 5 Comments

"Fall Leaves" by Loretta Holland & Elly MacKayThe other evening, after cleaning up from dinner, I walked into the living room to find JP sticking his nose out the mail slot of our front door. “Mommy, I can smell winter coming! I forgot how delicious it smells! I thought I wanted summer to stay, but now I want winter to come!”

Perhaps because of my children’s innate excitement around seasonal transformations, or perhaps because of wanting to sway my own ambivalence about the onset of winter towards something more positive—either way, I have always had a special place in my heart for stories about fall (remember Fletcher and the Falling Leaves?). This year, I have discovered my most favorite presentation to date. It’s not a story. There are no frantic animals preparing for hibernation (see Bear Has a Story to Tell), or children frolicking in pumpkin patches (although you should still read Otis and the Scarecrow). Rather, there is a simple phrase on each page, accompanied by a stunning picture, and the meaning lies in the intersection between the two.

Fall Leaves (Ages 4-8), by Loretta Holland, with illustrations by Elly MacKay, is one of those picture books that can be enjoyed on multiple levels. At its simplest, it reads as a kind of lyrical, free verse poem, with one line per page. But each phrase is also a kind of headline, with a smaller-print paragraph below, containing detailed and carefully chosen information about a unique aspect of fall, like the migration of birds, the hibernation of perennials, or the heavy downpours (am I the only one who is consistently blind-sided by these rainy days, assuming every morning is going to bring a bright cloudless sky against which to pick apples and pumpkins?). « Read the rest of this entry »

What This July Needs

July 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

Firefly July by Paul B. Janeczko & Melissa SweetFor all the reading that we intend to do with our children in the summer, many of the days pass instead in a sweaty haze of shifting feet, slamming doors, and long afternoons at the pool. By the time our little ones are ready for bed, their eyelids (and mine, if I’m being honest) are too heavy to sustain more than a few pages.

For this Reading Deficit Disorder that hits right about July, I have just the prescription, which you will want to dish out to your own family, as well as wrap up for all those summer birthday parties. I’m talking about POETRY! Poems are the answer! Allow me to introduce the delightful and timely-titled anthology, Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems (Ages 5-11), with poems selected by Paul B. Janeczko and spectacular mixed-media illustrations by Melissa Sweet (yes, I’ll say it again: I adore everything that Sweet puts her hands on). « Read the rest of this entry »

Taking Cues from Mother Nature

June 30, 2014 § 4 Comments

"The Dandelion's Tale" by Kevin Sheehan & Rob DunlaveyJP has decorated his summer journal and is ready to record our adventures (here’s hoping his motivation extends past the first week). Many of these adventures will take us into nature, where there are always metaphors to be discovered about life. Take, for example, our vegetable garden: each morning we wake to budding strawberries, and each evening we return to discover that they have been devoured by the squirrels and cardinals (how dare the latter betray me after I sung their praises right here?!). There’s a lesson somewhere in there about patience and not expecting to get things right the first time. And so we return to bed with renewed hope.

The Dandelion’s Tale (Ages 4-8), a new picture book by Kevin Sheehan and Rob Dunlavey, offers us another metaphor, this one about the fleeting, cyclical nature of life. This gem of a book takes what can be a heavy subject and delivers it in such a subtle, eloquent, kind, and accessible way, that children won’t realize they’re being taught a Great Lesson. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it stars a dandelion. You’d be hard pressed to find a child that isn’t obsessed with dandelions. A yellow flower that I can pick with no adult getting mad (not to mention wind into chains, tuck behind my ear, or proudly proffer to whatever grown-up happens to be standing near)? A billowy white flower with such delicate seeds that the tiniest puff of breath sends them sailing across the grass? Yes, a child’s love for dandelions runs deep. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Story Behind the Gift (In Honor of Mother’s Day)

May 8, 2014 § 1 Comment

A Gift for Mama by Alison JayLast year, at about this time, JP came home from school proudly toting a plastic grocery bag filled with the contents of his “work drawer.” I was nearly giddy with excitement at the prospect of getting a glimpse into his work over the past few months, endeavors in addition and subtraction, story writing, and cursive practice, about which I had heard only mumblings in response to my daily inquisition, “What did you do at school?” After we ate snack together and his sister had lost herself in a project, I sat down, folded my hands on the dining room table, and watched eagerly as JP began to unpack the bag’s contents. Not many “oohs” and “ahhs” had gone by, before I realized that most of papers bore the signatures of other children. Daphne. Josh. Helena. “But, honey, where’s the work that you did?” I finally asked. And, as if that was the silliest question in the world (duh), JP informed me: “I gave it away to my friends!”

It wasn’t but a few days later that I casually mentioned this exchange to JP’s teacher. I know Montessori is more about the process than the end result, I told her, but wouldn’t it be nice to see some tangible results of my tuition, ha ha ha? “It is ironic, isn’t it,” she replied. “We spend years hoping, pleading, begging our children to share. Then we complain when they want to give everything away.” How true! « Read the rest of this entry »

Seasonal Inspiration from a Zen Master

March 7, 2014 § 3 Comments

Hi, Koo: A Year of Seasons by Jon J. MuthNormally, I’m all for aspiring to live in the moment. But not right now. Not this week. Because, it’s March, people, and the ground is once again covered in snow; we’ve lost another two days of school; it’s grey and cold and, frankly, there’s nothing to be gained from living in this moment.

Instead, our family is busy making plans for the future—and living in the delicious anticipation of those plans. My kids are dreaming up the giant sandcastles they intend to make on our upcoming trip to Florida (I am dreaming up the cocktails I intend to make). We are gazing out the window at the trees we planted last fall, wondering what they are going to look like with new, green leaves. JP is plotting how much money he might make selling freshly-squeezed lemonade on the hottest of summer days. And, because September is only six months away, both kids are beginning the daily debate about what their birthday parties should entail. Normally, I might interject a dismissive, “well, we’ll have lots of time to discuss that when it’s closer to the date”; but, right now, what else do I have to do? Sure, let’s talk about how the cake needs to have your name on it (“so everyone knows it’s my birthday”) and how the balloons need to be tied down just right so that they don’t blow away (“like that one time”). Bring it.

I’m betting that others are in the same boat. And that’s why I’m betting that Jon J. Muth’s brand new Hi, Koo!: A Year of Seasons (Ages 3-8) will be a sure bet for anyone in need of some assurance that spring (and summer) are just around the corner. « Read the rest of this entry »

Friends Make Everything Better (Two Picks for Valentine’s Day)

February 10, 2014 § 2 Comments

Paul Meets BernadetteMy family spent this past weekend holed up in the snowy hills of West Virginia with three other families. Once we adults began to block out the chatter and squeals of nine (mostly) happy children running circles around us, we were able to entertain some blissful grown-up time. And as I watched my children mature and transform across three full days of kid-on-kid time, I found myself feeling immensely grateful for friendships of both the tall and short kind. In this winter that has gone on too long, it is our friends that have put smiles on our faces, ideas in our head, and glasses of wine in our (adult) hands.

With Valentine’s Day shortly upon us, I’ve once again chosen a bit of a non-traditional path for my children’s gifts (and, gasp, I’ve even cheated and given the gifts early!). These two new picture books—both by first time author-illustrators—rise above the saccharine-sweet-mushy-gushy-dime-a-dozen stories out there by celebrating friendship in unique, quirky, and unforgettable ways. In Rosy Lamb’s Paul Meets Bernadette (Ages 4-7), we are reminded of how good friends can change the way we see the world. « Read the rest of this entry »

“Our Trees are Coming!” “Our Trees are Coming!”

November 21, 2013 Comments Off on “Our Trees are Coming!” “Our Trees are Coming!”

The Tree LadyI’m completely obsessed with trees right now. I know what you’re thinking: this is not news. And, you’re right, I’ve written about my love for trees (and stories featuring trees) here, here, here and here. But I’m really, really obsessed with trees right now—and that’s because I have recently been tree shopping. When my kids were baptized last spring, their grandmother offered to buy each of them a tree to grow up alongside. So, earlier this fall, the kids and I did what we do best: we walked, we scooted, and we drove around our neighborhood looking at trees. How had we missed so many of these beauties before? “How about we get one of each?” my son ventured.

Eventually, we narrowed down our choices, but then there was the question of how and where to buy the trees. I initially thought, I’ll look for a deal on the Internet. But then my gardening friend reproached me: you need to see a tree before you buy it, need to study its form, need to find one that speaks to you. This is why, one crystal clear November morning, I found myself standing in a wholesale nursery an hour away in Maryland, surrounded by 600 different varieties of trees. I was walking up and down rows of trees, examining curves of trunks and canopy shapes, paying way too many people to follow me around offering their opinions, and starting to feel like I was going to have a hard time explaining to my husband how this simple decision to buy two trees had gotten totally out of hand. Did I mention how much fun I was having? « Read the rest of this entry »

A Story to Grow Up On

May 7, 2013 Comments Off on A Story to Grow Up On

Miss Maple's SeedsIf you’re big into symbolism (or if you, like me, tear up when inscribing books for gifts), then you’re going to want to give Miss Maple’s Seeds to all the young seedlings celebrating birthdays this spring. There are lots of wonderful picture books about seeds (Jean Richards’ A Fruit is a Suitcase for Seeds and Bonnie Christensen’s Plant a Little Seed are two favorites), but none have the magical realism of Miss Maple’s Seeds (Ages 3-7), written and illustrated by newcomer Eliza Wheeler.

Miss Maple is an eccentric, not-quite-of-this-world sort (a bit like my neighbor, who converses with chipmunks in her backyard). Out of her home inside a hundred-year-old Maple tree, she runs a kind of orphanage for lost seeds, dividing her time between searching for “seeds that got lost during the spring planting” and caring for those seeds until they’re strong enough to lay down roots of their own. “‘Take care, my little ones…for the world is big and you are small,’” she continually reminds her seeds—all the while bathing them, taking them on educational outings to learn about different soil types, reading to them “by firefly light,” and giving them chances to practice “burrowing down into the muddy ground” during thunderstorms. “She’s taking care of them like they’re her babies!” my son was quick to point out, an observation that quickly captured the attention of his younger, doll-obsessed sister.

The story’s prose is unquestionably beautiful: lyrical, concise, and easy to connect back to our own children and the figures (parents, relatives, teachers) who so lovingly and carefully nurture their growth. But it is Wheeler’s ink-and-watercolor illustrations, light and airy and with just a touch of whimsy, which make this gem soar. Sporting a willow weed hat, pointed nose, and delicate slit eyes, Miss Maple epitomizes tenderness in all that she does, whether sweeping her hearth to welcome new seeds or bidding each one farewell as she sends them down the river in lantern-lit leaf boats to find new homes.

One of our favorite illustrations looks like something out of a naturalist’s guide, depicting twenty seeds with their species’ names captioned below in cursive writing (presumably from the hand of Miss Maple). From the fat acorn to the oval pumpkin seed to the single grain of wild rice, the page exhibits not only the visual diversity of nature’s seeds but also the magic which seems to lie within (a giant sunflower grows out of THAT minuscule thing?).

We could all use some of Miss Maple’s tenderness in our own relationship with the Earth, just like our own children need the reassurance that “even the grandest of trees once had to grow up from the smallest of seeds.” I dare you not to tear up when you copy that quote inside the cover of this book for your next gift.

January’s Birthday Pick

January 8, 2013 § 1 Comment

I Took the Moon for a WalkFor this month’s birthday pick, I’m doing something a little different: 1) I’m focusing on the youngest ages for a change; 2) I’ve chosen not one but two books (which make a perfect pairing); and 3) I’m encouraging you to throw caution to the wind and take a chance on books that aren’t brand new but are commonly unknown.

In short, the next time you are headed to a birthday party for a one or two year old, you’re in luck. I Took the Moon for a Walk (Ages 1-4) and Listen, Listen (Ages 1-4) are both illustrated by the supremely talented Alison Jay, whose praises I have sung here before. With their over-sized 9” by 9” format, these hefty board books mirror another favorite by Jay, her ABC: A Child’s First Alphabet Book (which tends to be well known and for good reason: it may just be the best alphabet book ever illustrated).

Alison Jay’s books are the ultimate gift. Packed with hidden surprises, layered with detail, and shimmering in vivid colors underneath a “crackle” finish, Jay’s paintings beg to be poured over again and again.

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The Year That Lies Ahead

January 3, 2013 § 2 Comments

A Child's CalendarOn the morning of January 1, my five year old crawled into our bed and asked with great solemnity, “Is the year of Christmas over?” I’m not entirely sure what he was getting at; did he mean to say month? or season? or was he actually inquiring as to whether the Year of the Great Christmas of 2012 had ended? I’ll never know exactly what was ruminating in his little head, but it was a sweet reminder of how bewildering the concept of time is to children—even to a five year old who has plenty of memories of past years.

We as adults take for granted our assurance about the cyclical nature of time: that all seasons, all holidays, all of nature’s dramatic transformations, will occur again and again with each passing year. It will probably come as no surprise that my instinctual reaction to JP’s question on New Year’s morning was to send him downstairs to fetch some relevant reading material. One of my all-time favorite children’s books (a book so precious to me that it actually resides on the “adult” shelves of our living room library) is A Child’s Calendar (Ages 5-10), a 1965 treasure of poems by John Updike that was later given a ’90s makeover with the addition of award-winning illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman.

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Advanced Apple Picking: Part Two of Two

September 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

In addition to making little botanists out of your children (see my previous post), apple picking can inspire some fascinating historical and cultural discussions, especially for the older set. As a quintessentially American pastime dating back to frontier life, apple picking speaks to some of our country’s core values.

Enter Johnny Appleseed, that larger-than-life figure who was allegedly responsible for planting and distributing the seeds for many of our country’s apple trees (that’s right, boys and girls, that apple you’re eating might have descended from a seed this guy planted!). September 26 marks the birth of Johnny Appleseed (whose real name was John Chapman). Last year at this time, I searched the libraries for a book about Chapman to bring to JP’s school; but while there are no shortage of kids books written on this topic, most struck me as inaccessible—a portrait of an historical figure presented without any meaningful context.

This fall, however, the topic has gotten a facelift by Esme Raji Codell and Lynne Rae Perkins, in their newly published and utterly captivating Seed by Seed: The Legend and Legacy of John “Appleseed” Chapman (Ages 5-10). What Seed by Seed does that no one has thought to do before is to set the stage by giving kids an up-close-and-personal account of the sights, smells, and sounds of early frontier life.

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Apple Picking for Beginners: Part One of Two

September 11, 2012 § 3 Comments

In our family—more than back-to-school, more than lightweight jackets, even more than colorful leaves—fall means apple picking! I’ve already established my obsession with using farms as a classroom for my children. Now add to that curriculum some apple picking (complete with wagon rides, ladders, and pie), and you’ve got a hands-on opportunity for kids to participate in the selection of their own food—while at the same time learning where that food comes from.

When JP turned one, we had his birthday party at an apple orchard outside Chicago. I can still envision him gripping the top of our full basket on his wobbly little legs, removing one apple at a time, taking a bite, returning it to the basket with a single set of teeth marks, and then picking up another and another—until he’d put his teeth on nearly every apple he could reach. We lost a lot of apples that year, but it seemed a small price to pay for a love of apples that has stayed with him since.

For the youngest apple pickers, my favorite introduction to the topic is One Red Apple (Ages 2-4), by Harriet Ziefert, with evocative paintings by Karla Gudeon. The book begins with a single red apple, ripe on the branch of the fall apple tree; it goes on to trace its life cycle, as it’s picked, eaten, dropped, and released back into the earth to sprout a new tree. Children are drawn into the action, as each of the single sentences comprising each page begins with an active verb: “Pick a red apple from a tree.” “Leave an apple core for the birds to eat.” “Watch tiny apple seeds scatter in the wind.” “See small sprouts peek out from the earth.”

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The Lure of the Balloon

June 3, 2012 Comments Off on The Lure of the Balloon

At 20 months, my daughter is starting to move away from board books and into short, simple picture books; consequently, she (and I) have fallen in love with Emily’s Balloon (Ages 18 mos-3 yrs), by Japanese author-artist Komako Sakai. I know, I know, you’re thinking that we’re partial to this book because my daughter’s name also happens to be Emily. But before I even had kids, I used to sell gobs of this book when it first came out in 2006; customers would only have to page through the gorgeous charcoal-and-wash pages to fall in love.

Some of my favorite children’s books have been imported from Japan; their illustrative style so beautifully transports us back to the carefree days of our own youth, when making dandelion crowns for a balloon might easily occupy an afternoon. What is it with toddlers and balloons? Balloons have a buoyancy that seems fascinating in its unpredictability, yet non-threatening in its softness; but, most significantly, its perfect sphere-like shape is just the right size for little eyes to track.

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Your Budding Naturalist

April 28, 2012 Comments Off on Your Budding Naturalist

Right now in preschools across the country, little eyes are glued to screened containers perched on shelves, waiting to behold one of nature’s most wondrous life cycles: the caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly. (“Mommy, when the chrysalis shakes, that’s how you know there’s a lot of action going on inside!”)

I grew up reading Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar (and really, who doesn’t love a book with holes for sticking tiny fingers through?); but in my opinion, Ten Little Caterpillars (Ages 2-6), written by Bill Martin Jr. and illustrated by the great collage artist Lois Ehlert, has topped this subject matter.

Apart from its stunning visual feast for the eyes, the book speaks to children on a multitude of levels. First, there’s the simple rhyme, each double-page spread focusing on a single caterpillar’s unique journey: “The first little caterpillar crawled into a bower./ The second little caterpillar wriggled up a flower.” A few of the caterpillars don’t fare so well (it’s a dog-eat-dog world, after all): one meets with a “hungry wren,” another is “frightened by a hen.” It’s the tenth caterpillar that we get to watch hang patiently among the apple blossoms for three pages, until her chrysalis hatches to reveal a stunning orange-and-black “tiger swallowtail.”

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