Another Fun Title by Janet Halfmann

Who Is Singing? By Janet Halfmann, Illustrated by Chrissy Chabot. Pen It! Publications, LLC, U.S.A 2021

“Cheer-o-lee, cheer up! Who is singing? Take a Bow, Robin, hopping on the ground hunting earthworms. Cheer-o-lee, cheer-up!”

The first page of Who is Singing, depicts a robin singing on a branch and then pulling an earthworm out of the ground. Each full-page spread is another familiar – and not so familiar – bird. Young children may see cardinals, blue Jays, goldfinches, and chickadees in their yard or a nearby park, but catbirds, killdeer, and ovenbirds may be new to them.

The vibrant colors of the illustrations are sure to attract young children. One enthusiastic five-year-old said, “I like the pictures!”

Who is Singing is a delightful first bird guidebook for the little ones. The  colorful pictures are sure to attract preschoolers and the simple text with bird sounds will add to the fun of reading. Notes at the end of the book are educational for adults and children alike. Did you know that some scientists think birds dream about singing and may even silently practice while sleeping? A final note points out that the sounds in the book may not be the way the reader hears birds. Halfmann suggests, “This book uses fun words and sounds for bird songs to make them easier to recognize. But not everyone hears bird songs the same. Try coming up with your own words and sounds for the bird songs you hear.”

Janet Halfmann has been prolific in writing books that are perfect for the youngest children. She has also written non-fiction picture books for older kids that showcase little known or overlooked heroes of history. Small business Saturday is comig up November 27th. Look for her books at your favorite independant bookstore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Is It Over?

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Is It Over? by Sandy Brehl, illustrated by Rebecca S. Hirsch. Pen It! Publications, LLC, USA, 2021.

Is It Over by Sandy Brehl is a quiet little gem of a book. “Clouds tower! Waves crash!” A storm is coming up and a little girl runs to daddy, “Make it stop!” Daddy responds, “I wish I could.” What the reader will notice is that Daddy is missing a leg. The storm goes on, gets louder and one blast of thunder shows both parent and child frightened. The little girl realizes her daddy is scared too. He tells her when he was little, he liked storms because he would look at the clouds and imagine all sorts of things in their shapes. “Skies were stages for my imagination.” Here we see a collection of clouds looking like members of a marching band. She asks him to tell her a story. He replies that his stories won’t help because they changed when he was a soldier. Here, his feelings are depicted by angry looking, beast-like clouds.

This sensitive portrayal of a frightened child and a father with his own fears depicts how a child overcomes her fears by comforting her father. When the storm is finally over, she says, “Already?”

I love so-called “quiet” books and I believe they don’t get enough attention. Editors tell us action has to be on the first page, and there is here, but that is not the most important aspect of this book.  Is It Over ? explores important feelings–emotions of both the parent and the child. Children can understand more than we give them credit for and especially now, we need good books where complicated feelings are shown, so the adult reading can have a discussion with the child who is listening.

I haven’t posted here since July as my back has been acting up all summer and I can only sit at my computer for thirty minutes a day. I’m hoping to catch up on my book reviews, but it will be a slow process. Stay tuned!

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Calling Cobber a Sensitive Portrayal of Grief

Sheri Sinykin PhotoI recently interviewed Sheri Sinykin by email. We talked about her latest middle grade novel, Calling Cobber.

S.L.: Hi Sheri, it’s so nice to talk to you again. When we last spoke in this space, in 2013, you had just won the Elizabeth Burr/Worzalla Award from the Wisconsin Library Association For Zayde Comes to Live. At that time, you said you really weren’t writing anymore. How did Calling Cobber come about?

calling-cobblerSheri: I wrote Calling Cobber more than twenty years ago and tried to market it traditionally.  Publishers’ consensus was that my book was too Jewish and too quiet.  I put it away until I saw a notice in a March 2017 SCBWI listserv that PJ OUR WAY was looking for Jewish novels for middle grade boys.   So, I dug out my computer file and submitted it.  The editor there and I worked on the manuscript over a two-year period until their acquisitions committee finally approved it.  The next hurdle–unbeknownst to me at the start of the process–was that I needed to find a trade publisher FIRST before PJ OUR WAY could buy sub rights.  Amazingly, the editor was able to place the book in short order with a London publisher, Green Bean Books.  To my surprise, PJ OUR WAY released in May 2020 to their book club–well ahead of Green Bean Book’s release in December 2020– with kids able to select it from their website but only for a ten-day period. I didn’t even know it had been published until my grandson Elon said he’d seen it in the PJ OUR WAY catalog and ordered his copy!

S.L.: You say in the Author’s Note that this novel began with a haiku you wrote after  “…a conference speaker’s challenge to write ‘about your own culture.’” Tell me a little about that.

Sheri: The conference was on the university campus in Madison, WI.  The speakers’ discussion about writing out of culture prompted a lot of audience response.  I myself scribbled a quick haiku in my notebook, basically wondering what my own culture was and how I could write about it.  That haiku survived pretty much intact through several final edits of Calling Cobber.  My character, Cobber, is assigned by a guest author to write about who he is, what makes him special, and he comes up as blank as I did.

S.L.: As someone who lost a parent, when I was a child, I appreciate how you handle the subject in your books.  I’ve found in your writing that you understand what the child is going through when trying to process grief. You have written three books that deal with death: Giving Up the Ghost, Zayde Comes to Live, and now Calling Cobber. Why do you think you keep coming back to this subject? Have you studied the subject, or have you experienced death as a child? What informed your writing?

Sheri: I didn’t experience death as a child, although I do have a memory of my parents asking me to sit with our next-door neighbor after her husband died following his Thanksgiving dinner.  I was maybe ten at the time, and somehow, I intuitively knew how to BE with her.  Later, when my mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 endometrial cancer, I trained and served as a hospice volunteer for several years.  I wanted to make sure I was emotionally equipped to support her during the most significant loss of my life.  My beloved maternal grandmother died when I was at a nearby college, and I was totally unprepared for her death.  I remember being inconsolable and people wanting to medicate me to “calm me down.”  No one talked about my feelings, and I had no outlet for my grief.  Recalling those emotions has perhaps made me sensitive to children’s needs, which I believe are very much the same as an adults’.

When I was studying for my MFA in Writing for Children at Vermont College, I read many children’s novels that explored death and grief.  They formed the basis for my critical thesis, Good Grief: Making Death and Bereavement Authentic for Middle Grade Characters and Readers. To my surprise, one of the most lauded children’s novels, A Bridge To Tarabithia in my view,  in terms of authentically portraying grief and bereavement, in children, fell short. My experiences as a hospice volunteer directly inspired my novel Giving Up The Ghost, and my only picture book, Zayde Comes To Live.

S.L.: Cobber’s father works a lot and when he is home, he’s emotionally unavailable.  Cobber comes up with rituals to make him feel safe. I did the same thing after my father died. What inspired you to give Cobber rituals, such as lining up his pencils, so they came out even?

Sheri: Children handle their anxiety in various ways–overeating, compulsive video game playing, acting out, withdrawing.  With all Cobber’s worries, it seemed natural that he would have some obsessive-compulsive behavior.  When I was writing a classroom scene, Cobber just started sharpening and lining up his pencils.  The kids made fun of him, and the behavior felt authentic.  I needed to go back and infuse it in earlier scenes.

S.L.: Cobber doesn’t tell his dad that Papa Ben is getting forgetful because Papa Ben makes Cobber promise not to tell. Cobber doesn’t want to break a promise because his best friend Boolkie had promised not to become a bar mitzvah and now he has broken that promise. He’s carrying a lot of worry. When he visits his rabbi, he suggests that Cobber is taking on too much responsibility. Could you elaborate on the idea that kids can carry a lot of worry and grief just as adults do?

Sheri: I believe that our emotions from childhood to adulthood never really change.  We just get more sophisticated–or not–in hiding or expressing them. Anger is anger; fear is fear.  It just seems natural to me that kids can carry a lot of worry and grief.  The hope is that they have perceptive parents or other adults who can pick up on that and support them.  Unfortunately, Cobber did not have that in his father.  Papa-Ben, the rabbi, and Boolkie’s mother do provide some counterbalance, though. 

S.L.: You said your inspiration for Papa Ben was your paternal grandfather. Was he an immigrant? Immigrants are in the news a lot today, but we forget that the vast majority of us have immigrant ancestors.

Sheri: Yes, my paternal grandfather, Harry Cooper, was a Russian immigrant, from an area now known as the Ukraine.  He came with his father as a young boy soon after the Statue of Liberty was completed near Ellis Island, the New York immigration port. Though Pop learned to speak English, he never learned to read or write it.  All his life he worked in the garment district and did piece work.  On a recent PBS ancestry show, I learned that Dustin Hoffman’s family came from the same little Ukrainian town, Bila Tserkva, in the Kyiv region.  We celebrated Pop’s 100th birthday in 1996,  and he died two months later.

S.L.  He sounds like a wonderful source of inspiration. I understand you are painting now. Tell me how that came about.

Sheri: When I stopped writing following the deaths of my parents and the birth of my first grandchild, I became curious about watercolor painting. I didn’t think I’d have any talent for it, but my amazing teacher has been great at handholding and inspiring confidence.

In 2020, I entered an art contest sponsored by the Renal Support Network on the theme of hope. To my surprise, I won first place in the kidney patient category for my painting COVID 2020. It was inspired by a photo I saw on Facebook. My goal is to become a more independent painter instead of relying so heavily on my teacher.

S.L.: It sounds like you’re on a grand new adventure.  It’s been great talking with you, and finally, where can people purchase your book?

Sheri: Calling Cobber is available on Amazon, as well as on the Barnes and Noble website.

My Take: I highly recommend Calling Cobber. It’s authentic portrayal of a child’s grief, years after his mother’s death would be enough to recommend it, but Cobber also has so much humour. His best friend Boolkie talks Cobber into signing up for the school talent show. Cobber is afraid he will literally “lose his lunch” like he did in third grade when he had to do a class presentation. But Boolkie is peristent. When he and Cobber decide to make Shabbos it is a comedy of errors and maybe the most interesting challah ever is prepared.

My review of Zayde Comes to Live can be found here: https://golowd.com/2014/01/

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Fry Bread A Native American Family Story  by Kevin Noble Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal. Roaring Brook Press, New York, NY, 2019.42642044._SX318_

Kevin Noble Maillard’s debut children’s book is a joyful romp that uses the making of fry bread to represent the culture of Indigenous America. Juana Martinez-Neal’s illustrations in acrylics, colored pencils and graphite, bring to life a kitchen filled with children and adults. Each page has a heading, followed by a short poetic description of the page. “Fry Bread is Food” headlines the first page:

“Flour, salt, water

Cornmeal, baking powder

Perhaps milk, maybe sugar

All mixed together in a big bowl.”

In the extensive author’s note in the back of the book, each page of the book is explained in detail. For “Fry Bread is Food,” the author explains how he makes fry bread and how “Fry bread is a food of inheritance and family.” Different tribes make it different ways. Families pass down recipes. He uses cornmeal which many will think strange. “If there is one thing that all Natives can agree upon about fry bread, it’s that everybody else’s version is wrong.”

“Fry Bread is Shape” points out that fry bread comes in all different shapes. In the author’s note, he says: “Just like people, there is no one shape, body type, or shoe size that makes anyone better than anyone else.”

Because of the extensive author’s note, which includes a recipe, this book could definitely be used with older children who want to dig deeper into Native American culture. Kids will learn that “…there are some Natives who strongly oppose fry bread because it exacerbates existing health problems.” But there is a larger problem here. Natives were “…forced to deviate from a traditional Indigenous diet.” Living in food deserts, many have no access to healthy foods. He tries to make his fry bread a little healthier by using unrefined coconut oil but admits there really is no healthy fry bread. “…fry bread is like birthday cake or Halloween candy: a special treat to be cherished and savored.” It is not meant to be a daily part of a diet.

Elementary teachers need this delightful book on their shelf. The illustrations will appeal to the youngest child because they are just so adorable. I know that last word is overused, but it perfectly describes the illustrations, particularly the red-haired baby that gets passed among family members. The different skin and hair color (and styles) of the family members portray the diversity of Native People. From the author’s note: “Most people think Native Americans always have brown skin and black hair. But there is an enormous range of hair textures and skin colors.”

“Fry Bread is Color

Golden brown, tan or yellow

Deep like coffee, sienna, or earth

Light like snow and cream

Warm like rays of sun.”

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“Water Protectors” is the Perfect Book for Earth Day

We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade. Roaring Brook Press, New York, NY, 2020.

First, let me say the illustrations in We Are Water Protectors are breathtaking and well worth the purchase price of the book, but that makes sense as it won the 2021 Caldecott Award for best illustration of a children’s book. The book tells of a story told long ago:

“My people talk of a black snake that will destroy the land…They foretold that it wouldn’t come for many, many years.”

Grandmother tells the young girl that water is the first medicine. It surrounded her before she was born. All life depends on water. Clean water. But the black snake is going to come and poison the waters. Indeed, the black snake is here now. As depicted by Michaela Goade, the black snake is an oil pipeline with the head of a terrifying snake. It winds its way through tiny plants and animals.

The illustrations, in watercolor and mixed media, are simply gorgeous. Butterflies and hummingbirds, deer, bear, and a majestic white bird all are shown as dependent on the flowing, sparkling river.

The young girl shouts, as she rallies her people: “Take courage! I must keep the black snake away from my village’s water.”

The final page depicts a protest rally of many indigenous people holding signs proclaiming, “Water is Life.” Michaela Goade says she was “deeply inspired by the solidarity”  at Standing Rock and she “…wanted the illustrations to convey kinship and unity, while also representing a diverse group of Indigenous Nations and allies.” Lindstrom is Anishinaabe/Metis and Goade is of Tlingit descent.

This book would be an important addition to a teacher’s environmental/outdoor education collection. I, personally, could sit and look at the illustrations over and over, but more importantly, it can be used as a call to action. A running theme and poem that is repeated throughout the book says it all:

“We stand

With our songs

And our drums.

We are still here.”

But without action, not only plants and animals could disappear, but people as well.

If the environmental crisis facing us today seems all too overwhelming, here’s a site that suggests simple things we all can do. Pick one. Each small gesture can make a difference.

10 Ways To Keep Plastic Out of the Ocean | Turtle Island Restoration Network (seaturtles.org)

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Woodland Creatures Will Delight Little Ones

Follow Me Into the Woods by Amy Laundrie, illustrated by Abira Das. Published by Pen It! Publications, LLC in the U.S.A, 2020.

Paris is hesitant when Oliver suggests they hike into the woods. She’s afraid of snakes and wonders if there could be a mountain lion nearby. But Oliver reassures her that it’s safe: “Granddaddy knows where we’re hiking, and it won’t get dark for a couple hours yet. I’ll grab a picnic supper and the binoculars. We’ll need them for the surprise.”

Encouraged by the promise of a picnic, Paris consents to the adventure. When they discover a garter snake, Oliver reassures her there are no rattlers. Paris also worries about possible hunters and jumps when she hears a woodpecker. But Oliver is patient and explains what every noise is. She is pleasantly surprised when a chickadee nearly brushes her shoulder.


In the end, Paris spots something she wants to share with Oliver and now she is the one saying, “Follow me.”


Into the Woods is a sweet introduction to nature for the young child. The illustrations are kid friendly and will undoubtedly encourage little ones to point out details in the pictures. Amy, a retired teacher, has created a final page, Fun Facts About Woodland Creatures which has some simple facts about the animals mentioned. She also has a rich assortment of activities and several different author visit opportunities for all ages, including adults at her website. It is definitely worth a visit whether you’re a parent or a teacher.

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Another “Hidden History” Title from Janet Halfmann

The Clothesline Code by Janet Halfmann, illustrated by Trisha Mason.  Brandylane Publishing Inc., Richmond, VA, 2021.

“Dabney stared up the hill, captivated by the Union soldiers waving red-and-white flags. Two soldiers took turns holding a long flagpole and waving the flag to the right and left, over and over again, with dash and flourish.”

Lucy Ann and Dabney Walker, along with their teenage daughter, Sarah, had escaped from slavery about a year earlier and were living and working in a Union camp in Virginia. Dabney had just been assigned to the intelligence unit of the camp and he was eager to learn how best to help the Union army. He asked the soldier with the flag what he was doing. The soldier showed him how the troops sent messages over long distances by using flags—waving them certain ways to represent letters of the alphabet that ultimately spelled words.  Dabney and Lucy Ann got an idea. They could send messages using laundry on a wash line—if they could get inside the enemy camp. Lucy Ann was the laundress of the Union camp, so they thought she could infiltrate the Confederate camp that was just across the river, pose as an enslaved person and use the wash line over there to send messages back to the Union camp. But Dabney hesitated. It was a dangerous plan and Lucy Ann would be in the most danger. She could be hanged if she were caught. But the couple had already endured hardship and danger when they escaped to freedom and Lucy Ann would not listen to Dabney’s objections.

Lucey Ann and Dabney had been forbidden to learn to read and write when they were enslaved, so they had to develop a system not based on the spelling of words. So, they came up with a different system. They chose a different colored shirt for each Confederate leader: Gray for General Longstreet, white for General Hill and red for Stonewall Jackson.  “Lucy Ann and Dabney plotted how they would move each general’s shirt to show a movement of his forces. Removing the gray Longstreet shirt from the line would signal that his troops had moved nearer to Richmond, Virginia. Moving Hill’s white shirt up the clothesline would mean his unit had moved upstream…and on and on.”

In order to get across the river, Lucy Ann posed as an enslaved person belonging to a Confederate woman going across to visit friends. She was successful. Once in the Confederate camp she blended in with the other enslaved men and women and used her skills as a laundress to accomplish her goal as a spy. The Walker’s plan worked like clockwork, until one day when Dabney did not hear from her. Several days went by. Had she been caught? Or worse, hanged?

This non-fiction picture book for older readers will fascinate any child interested in codes. But more importantly, Janet Halfmann is dogged in her pursuit of finding stories about real people who have been overlooked by history (she calls them her “Hidden History” stories) and making them accessible to children. This book, along with her books about Robert Smalls, reviewed here and Lilly Ann Granderson reviewed here do just that and are perfect selections for Black History Month.

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Snowflake Bentley a Perfect Book for this Snowy Season

Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Mary Azarian. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1998.

I wasn’t going to make any resolutions this year. Staying healthy amidst a pandemic seemed like enough of a challenge. But I’ve decided to post a review once a month, around the first of the month. I guess I missed that deadline, but at least I’m writing something. My creative writing has really taken a dive during this past year. So, here’s my post for January, 2021.

Many readers will already be familiar with Snowflake Bentley. For those of you who are not this is the perfect time of year to read it. “In the days when farmers worked with ox and sled and cut the dark with lantern light, there lived a boy who loved snow more than anything else in the world.”

Wilson Bentley was born in 1865 in Vermont where the annual snowfall is about 120 inches. “Willie Bentley’s happiest days were snowstorm days. He watched snowflakes fall on his mittens, on the dried grass of Vermont farm fields, on the dark metal handle of the barn door. He said snow was as beautiful as butterflies, or apple blossoms.” The first double spread woodcut illustration, tinted with lots of blue and white watercolor, evokes a serene winter evening. A young Willie spreads out his arms as if trying to collect snowflakes as they fall. A large farmhouse is in the background, tucked into the hills.

The story goes on to say that Willie could net butterflies, and pick apple blossoms, “But he could not share snowflakes because he could not save them.” His mother gave him a microscope and he used it to look at all manner of things, but mostly he used it to study snow crystals. Willie wanted to figure out a way to save their unique beauty. He tried drawing them, but they melted too fast. Even so, “Starting at age fifteen he drew a hundred snow crystals each winter for three winters.” When he was seventeen his parents bought him a camera with a microscope.

Sidebars explain Willie’s failures and successes, the process he used to take the photos and how he “edited” them using a sharp knife to cut away the dark parts of the negative. This is the perfect book to begin a lesson on crystals.

Snow Crystals by W.A. Bentley and W. J. Humphreys is the book Wilson Bentley wrote and contains 2,453 of his snow crystal photos. The plates are black and white and quite stunning. The edition pictured is a paperback, but it is an exact copy of the original. It was published by Dover, Mineola, NY, 1962. The book was originally published by McGraw-Hill in 1931.

I’m going to have fun exploring snow and ice crystals with two little girls this week. I hope you have someone to share such a lesson with also.












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Prairie Lotus a “Re-Write” of the “Little House” Books

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park. Clarion Books Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY, 2020.

In her author’s note, Linda Sue Park, an avid Little House on the Prairie fan, writes, “I wrote Hanna’s story as an attempt at a painful reconciliation… As a child, I would lie in bed night after night, imagining that I, too, lived in De Smet in the 1880s, and that I was Laura’s best friend…Even at the height of my passion for those books, there were parts that I found puzzling and distressing…Ma hated Native Americans…Pa takes part in a blackface minstrel show.”

Park, of Korean American heritage, goes on to say that in 1880  there were no Koreans in America. They emigrated later, in the early 1900s and landed in Hawaii, not the mainland. There were, however, Chinese laborers here building the railroad. Many resided in California. So, when deciding to re-imagine the “Little House” books, she created a completely unique character, a girl of mixed Korean/Chinese/White ancestry. Her mother has died, and her white father has decided to move from California to the plains of South Dakota.

While her father is busy building a store in town, Hanna is trying to get along in a new school. Her mother wanted Hanna to finish school and Hanna insists on it, even when her father has doubts. Her real dream, though, is to become a dressmaker, like her mother. Soon after enrolling in school, most of the students are pulled out by parents suspicious of this new, “Chinese girl.” With only three children left in the school, Hanna manages to make friends with one girl, Bess. Bess eventually helps Hanna sew a dress to be displayed in the window for the grand opening of her father’s shop. But when Hanna is blamed for an incident with a drunken man, her friend’s mother forbids her to help Hanna any longer and people are determined to boycott the store.

“Little House” fans will appreciate Prairie Lotus. It is not only a lovely homage to the positive aspects of those books, but also a much-needed reality check on their troubling racism. Park traveled to South Dakota (LaForge is modeled on De Smet, with houses and businesses in the same locations) and Missouri to research her story, as well as the Pine Ridge Reservation. By respectfully portraying Native Americans and Hanna, a mixed-race character, as well as showing the obstacles those groups faced, Park has added an important work of fiction on the subject of the settlement of the American West.  

 

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Stunning Picture Book Tells Story of One Boy’s Committment to Save the Environment

The Boy Who Grew a Forest, the True Story of Jadav Payeng by Sophia Gholz, Illustrated by Kayla Harren. Sleeping Bear Press, Ann Arbor MI, 2019.

The Boy Who Grew A Forest is a gorgeous book with an important message: No matter how small or insignificant you may think you are, one person can accomplish great things. Even grow a forest.

The story begins simply with a boy who loved trees. “In India, on a large river island, among farms and families hard at work, there lived a boy who loved trees…But each rainy season, floodwaters swallowed more and more of the beautiful tree-covered land.”

When Jadav Payeng was a young teen, he witnessed the death of hundreds of snakes that had become stranded on a sandbar near the island where he lived, and he became determined to do something about it. He knew what the island needed was trees: trees would lead to other growing things and the animals would be able to thrive again. The elders of his village gave him twenty bamboo saplings. And from those humble beginnings, Jadav Payeng grew a forest, which in turn grew other plants and eventually welcomed a whole variety of animals.

The illustrations, in muted earth tones, perfectly depict the landscape of a flooded sandbar and its eventual transformation.  The boy transports cow dung, earthworms, termites, and even red ants to create a rich soil. As pages turn, the reader watches as each new addition slowly turns a barren sandbar into a vibrant forest.

Some additions, however, are not welcomed by the villagers. “Fear swept over the villages when tigers arrived. So, the man planted more grasses to attract small animals that would keep the tigers happy in the forest.” When elephants began to feast on farmers crops, he planted fruit trees to feed the elephants.

The Boy Who Grew a Forest is a testament to the perseverance and ingenuity of the human spirit. In 1979, a young boy saw a problem and through his persistence, and many years of toil, he solved the problem. The “Molai Forest” is now over 1300 acres.

This book was brought to my attention this past April when it won the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award  (SONWA) from Northland College. On Sigurd Olson’s birthday, April 4, Northland College announces its choices for the best in nature writing for the previous year. SONWA categories include adult nonfiction and children’s literature.  (See  https://www.northland.edu/sustain/soei/sonwa/ for a list of all past award winners.)

 

 

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