Good Morning, River! by Lisa Westberg Peters

Good Morning, River! by Lisa Westberg Peters

Inspired by her childhood memories of a river in Maine, Lisa Westberg Peters wrote Good Morning, River. It was the beautiful St. Croix River, and the book’s flap says that because of her fondness, she’d “wanted to write a story that would make rivers seem less scary to children.” Her book traces the river’s appearance through milestones in the life of a little girl. It’s a simple story with beautiful illustrations that were drawn – of course – with watercolors.

The drawings capture the seasons around the river, whether it’s autumn leaves in the misty forest, or green springtime leaves when the ice thaws. Deborah Kogan Ray teaches the art of children’s book illustration, and she’s created an impressive suite of pictures. The book’s cover shows a peaceful snow along the river’s edge, but there’s a hazy yellow-green when it’s mid-summer and “the river sparkled in hot white sunlight…” And when the book takes a somber turn, the river even turns a dismal grey, matching the sky and dark leaves of the forest against the silhouette of a dreary brown mountain.

The book opens with a strange mystery: will the river ever talk to the little girl? An old man named Carl says the river will tell him when it’s safe to walk on its ice.

In the springtime, Carl and Katherine take a canoe ride, and pretend they’re boating through a steamy jungle stream filled with alligators and snakes. “Shimmery heat” rises from the riverbank’s sand in summer – and the little girl takes her first swim in the river’s water. But it’s when she’s relaxing against a log, singing songs to herself, that the river “answered with its own music – a steady slap…slap…slap of the evening ripples.”

One morning Carl isn’t there, on a grey autumn day when the wind whips the river into waves. The book hints that he has a health problem, and the little girl watches as “the car disappeared in the dust of the gravel road,” in a beautiful orange illustration. It’s the real message of the book: how the river seems to magically reflect the girl’s moods. “All that fall, the cold drizzle chilled the chickadees into silence…” The text savors each season’s changes with its own kind of poetry. (“The river was swollen with snow melt and rain. Floodwater rose to the limbs of the trees, and everywhere was the sweet smell of rotting leaves.”)

And at the end of the book, the little girl hears the river’s voice after all.

Step Into the Night, by Joanne Ryder

Step Into the Night, by Joanne Ryder

The book’s jacket describes the text as “haunting,” and it captures some real-world wonders. Step Into the Night pulls the reader up close to small animals lurking in a forest, but it’s more intimate than a simple description. The author actually invites the reader to become each animal, using a writing trick that visits their life in the darkness. The book’s manuscript was even reviewed by the American Museum of Natural History!

The sun “hides behind dark rooftops,” and grayness creeps, darkening everything – the fences, the bushes, the trees. But the night is alive, writes author Joanne Ryder, and “All around you, others are hiding.” A little girl stands against a tree, waiting for night and pretending to be part of the tree. But soon the “you” is addressed to the animals she sees.

“Under the vines you creep, your nose twitching, leading you to something wonderful…” A mouse spies berries, described as “soft” and “eat-me red.” And honoring the mouse’s perspective, Ryder writes that “The first berries seem always the sweetest, the best.”

There’s a moon over the forest, but another light flickers in the trees – and now the perspective is that of a firefly.

“Will she see your tiny light? Will she answer?” Soon a pattern develops – before each animal’s page, there’s another page describing hints of its presence in the night. The scent of flowers suggest opening buds, but then another scent suggests a skunk! “Let the striped one have the right of way. Let it walk where it wishes. Let it be alone.” The moon escapes a cloud, revealing a spider’s web. “Spider time is slow waiting for meals to fly to you…”

The little girl and a passing dog both hear a high-pitched sound up high – a bat. (“As you fly, you call and listen to the echoes of your cries…”) Was there something moving in the ground? The narrator knows it’s a mole, “swimming through the soil, diving deeper into the safe earth.” There’s frogs, “a singer floating in the darkness.” But soon there’s one final voice – the little girl’s mother, calling her home.

The book sides with the night creatures, and the return home is a disappointment. The magic of the night must be left behind, and “Now the moon follows you up the path to your door, and you leave the nigh behind…” The little girl blinks at the shock of the house’s bright lights, and she won’t enter without first acknowledging all the other creatures. (“Good night! Good night, everyone!”)

She really has stepped into the night, and though she ultimately returns home – it’s with the memories of every one of the other animals that she’s seen and been.

Hide and Seek Fog, by Alvin Tresselt and Roger Duvoisin

Hide and Seek Fog, by Alvin Tresselt and Roger Duvoisin

Alvin Tresselt wrote beautifully about natural subjects – like snow and heat – and the way they influence the world around them. (“A Gift of the Tree” described the entire life cycle of a dying oak tree, and the way it nourishes the ground around it.) “White Snow, Bright Snow” won a Caldecott Medal for its illustrations in 1948. Sixteen years later, Tresselt tried a similar formula. But this time, his book was about fog.

“The lobsterman first saw the fog as it rolled in from the sea,” the book opens “He watched it turn off the sun-sparkle and the waves, and he saw the water turn gray.” Tresselt writes poetically about the gradually creeping cloud, describing how it turned the water gray and made the boats bob like corks. But he also writes about the people it affects, and the book lists out every reaction.

“The dampness touched the crisp white sails of the racing sailboats, and suddenly the wind left them in the middle of the race.” Seagulls, too, respond to the fog, return to nests on the craggy rocks. Vanishing into a fog bank, even the sun becomes “a pale daytime moon.” And families on the beach hurry to gather up their picnic baskets.

The illustrations are beautiful, with a bright gray that makes everything seem soft and abstract. It’s the same illustrator Tresselt used 16 years earlier on “White Snow, Bright Snow,” and those illustrations won a Caldecott medal. Roger Duvoisin uses an entirely different style for this book, and most scenes are shown through a gentle blanket of fog. But in other drawings, the colors of the city are visible, like when the lobsterman hurries his catch off the fishing wharf. And there’s a cheerful red floor when the children make scrapbooks by a warm driftwood fire.

The lobsterman hears “the mournful lost voices of the foghorns,” but he’s stuck at shore working on his lobster traps. The fathers complain that their vacations will be spent in a foggy cloud. On the streets, people with bundles accidentally bump into each other. And the children play hide-and-seek among the foggy rocks.

It’s surprising how this simple story can become so intriguing. It’s the worst fog in 20 years, and it lasts three days. But then there’s a sudden warmth in the fog, and the sun finally pierces the veil. The water sparkles again, and the islands in the bay are lit by gold. Then everything returns to normal – the lobsterman fishes, and the children play on the beach.

Giving Thanks, by Jonathan London

Giving Thanks, by Jonathan London

“Of course my young friends call me a tree hugger,” says author Jonathan London. “But they’re right. I am.” And he celebrates nature in his 2003 book, Giving Thanks. London teamed up with Gregory Manchess, a self-taught illustrator who also lives on the west coast, who calls their book “a timeless expression of love for nature and of understanding our place in the realm of life.” And according to the book’s jacket, author London admits that just like the characters in his story, “I give thanks to the things of nature every day.”

In the story, the father says a thank-you for the day every day, to Mother Earth and to Father Sky. “Like his Indian friends – singers and storytellers – Dad believes that the things of nature a gift,” London writes. While he explains his philosophy, they stroll through some amazing scenery. A raccoon scurries as they walk under purple clouds. And as the sky turns blue, a tiny frog hides in the tall grass.

It’s the illustrations that really give the story its visual impact. (On the book’s jacket Manchess is identified as a “self-taught illustrator,” and I found myself wondering if that gave his pictures an extra wildness.) Gregory Manchess is like an impressionist Edward Hopper, capturing the light and shadows on the house and the trees around it, while using soft edges to suggest the shapes. He contributes a gorgeous watercolor for the title page – with swatches of yellow-white representing the clouds at sunset, covering a purple sky. The color scheme continues on the next page, where those colors are now covered by the dark-green silhouettes of a pine tree’s leaf, and the amber horizon of a hill is visible in the background, and at its base is a row of distant trees.

The father says a thank you to “the wild mushrooms that smell like pumpkins.” He thanks the trees, with their spectacular red and yellow autumn foliage. There’s an exciting drawing of a fox leaping off over a yellow field. There’s tracks of a deer, and a flock of scattering quails – and the father thanks them all.

Though it’s a simple story, it keeps getting more and more interesting, thanks to Machess’s imaginative illustrations. When London mentions a hawk, “high in the sky,” Manchess switches to a panoramic aerial view, with the hawk’s wings in the foreground and a yellow forest beneath. In the next illustration, it’s just the yellow of the sunset, and the hawk is disappearing among the last clouds. But then there’s a spectacular moonrise over an ancient and twisted tree.

And then the father gives thanks to the moon.

A Tree is Nice by Janice May Udry

A Tree is Nice, by Janice May Udry

It won the Caldecott Medal in 1956 – but the pictures are timeless. Marc Simont illustrated two of James Thurber’s books, according to the book’s jacket, and had also written and illustrated several books of his own. For A Tree is Nice, he teamed up with Janice May Udry, who grew up in “a city famous for its elm trees.” After leaving Jacksonville, Illinois, she’d moved to the south, where she searched for a beautiful tree that could grow quickly – and for Simont’s next project, she wrote about trees.

“Trees are very nice,” the book begins. “They fill up the sky.” But it’s not a story as much as an open-ended meditation. Simont draws a boy fishing in a stream, as Udry writes that trees are found by rivers, and also on hills. “Trees make the woods,” she writes simply, and feels compelled add a personal response. “They make everything beautiful.”

There’s a sketch of a child in the crook of a tree’s branch, and a title page illustration that looks like a cartoon. Throughout the book, Simont switches between color and black-and-white white illustrations, which makes each drawing a little more surprising. There’s a horse in the shadow of a tree, with the white page representing a bright field. And the next page shows brilliant autumn colors, with reds and yellows in the leaves of the trees.

Udry lists out the things you can do with a tree. You can play in a pile of leaves, or rake them into a bonfire. You can climb it, or pretend it’s a ship, and if it’s an apple tree, pick it’s fruit! “Cats get away from dogs by going up the tree,” Udry adds “Birds build nests in trees and live there.” They’re all facts that we’ve heard before, but it’s strangely ompelling to see them collected together.

“Sticks come off the trees too. We draw in the sand with the sticks.” The book has a simplicity that’s almost zen-like, as Udry simply continues listing out the uses for a tree. “A tree is nice to hang a swing in… It is a good place to lean your hoe while you rest.” It’s a fond book, and enthusiastic – and Udry resists the pressure to dream up a story. It takes a certain amount of integrity to simply share all the details, and let the trees speak for themselves.

There’s three pages about shade – with trees sheltering cows, houses, and even people on a picnic. “The tree holds of the wind and keeps the wind from blowing the roof off the house…” But the secret agenda of the book lies in its final pages, saying that a tree is nice…to plant.

Udry ultimately says that planting a tree makes other people want to plant one themselves.

The Good-Night Kiss, by Jim Aylesworth

The Good-Night Kiss, by Jim Aylesworth

“On the night of the good-night kiss, a small green frog peeks out from under a lily pad.” The illustrations by Walter Lyon Krudop are beautiful – and they walk the reader through a series of animals watching the setting sun. The green frog sees an old raccoon, “sniffing along the pond bank, looking for something to eat.” And the ripples on the pond are a shimmering orange – while a dark red flower leans in the foreground.

The story travels to a new creature on nearly every page, and the book offers a breath-taking glimpse into the world of nature. “I have always had a dream of living the country,” the illustrator reveals on the book’s jacket, “and I think that’s where the inspiration for these paintings comes from.” In the light of the rising moon, there’s the silvery outline of a deer drinking from the pond. And Krudop’s next illustration shows that same deer – as seen from an owl flying across a field overhead.

The owls wings are spread in a spectacular array of feathers – matching the lines of the furrows in the field below. And in the next drawing, the owl’s landed in a dark window at the very top of a tall, red barn. Looking down into the shadows, it can just make out the dim colors on the shirt of a farmer. And the farmer’s climbing down from the seat of his tractor – where he glimpses a man in pickup truck driving down a dusty road…

It’s a beautiful book, and I love the illustrations, but there’s also something zen-like about the story by Jim Aylesworth. The man’s pickup truck pulls into a gas station – where it sees an enormous 18-wheeler that’s lit up in the moonlight. The 18-wheeler travels under a railroad bridge, and the truck’s driver spots the man in the lighted window of a freight train’s caboose. There’s moody night-time drawings for every scene, but Aylesworth keeps adding more and more new people to his mysterious chain of omniscience….

Aylesworth dedicates the book to “those who tuck them in, with love!” and it’s a hint about how he’ll ultimately end the story. I was expecting the series to end with one creature finally catching a glimpse of the small green frog that’s peeking out from under a lily pad. But instead Aylesworth ends his story with a tiny white moth, catching a gentle glimpse of a parent who’s giving their child a good-night kiss. And the book ends with two sweet, simple words.

“Good night!”

Peepers, by Eve Bunting

Peepers, by Eve Bunting

“Sparkle it up, boys… The Leaf Peepers are coming.” A little boy’s father drives a green bus for tourists to see the autumn colors around New England. His sons have to help wash the bus and conduct the tours. They’re reluctant passengers — but gradually discover that the bright-colored trees still look spectacular.

Eve Bunting wrote the text for The Leaf Peepers, and even the names of the trees sound attractive. There’s bright red sugar maples and shagbark hickory trees. Aspens shower gold in the water of a pond. It’s surrounded by speckled alder and red-feathered sumac. A beaver pops up, making a circle of ripples, which even impresses the boys, “because beavers don’t pop up that often…”

The tour visits an old cemetery, with headstones from 1772. (“Beeches and quaking aspens bend above the gravestones…”) The boys play leapfrog over the headstone markers. Their father scolds them, and says show some respect. And the tour rambles along, along with the boys’ own adventure…

James Ransome drew some great illustrations of the fall colors. There’s bright orange pumpkins on the title page – matching the orange of the autumn leaves. On the next page there’s more colorful trees around an orange covered bridge. He always seems to find the perfect pallet for his illustrations, using rich maize yellows and a bright orange-red.

Bunting dedicates the book to her son Sloan, “who loves nature,” and she does a good job of making the little boys seem believable. They see a pile of leaves on the water which they playfully call “Leaf Island ,” but they know that you can’t stand on it. “We’ve tried.” Yet the leaves still look pretty in the corner of Ransome’s illustration – which show the two looking down into the water. At one point, one of the boys even pretends to be a moose.

My favorite illustration shows an overhead view of a field where pumpkins grow. “They’re the color of leaves,” says one of the tourists. “Or else the leaves are the color of the pumpkins.” But the words appear in the sky over a tree-covered mountain. At its base are the houses of town, surrounded by trees, and an old-fashioned steeple.

And there’s another breath-taking illustration of the family’s house in the white autumn sky. It looks like an Edward Hopper painting, with rich angles and a stark light with shadows. Most of the leaves have fallen from its trees. On the doorstep, there’s a tiny pumpkin, and their mother has put up some dried corn stalks.

And by the end of the book the boys have realized that the night sky…is very beautiful.

The Sun’s Asleep Behind the Hill, by Mirra Ginsburg

The Sun's Asleep Behind the Hill, by Mirra Ginsburg

In 1982 Mirra Ginsburg adapted an Armenian song into a beautiful bedtime picture book. “The Sun’s Asleep Behind the Hill” reads like a lullaby, describing the arrival of a peaceful evening as it’s greeted by the creatures around the world. Simple words are written in bold letters – it could easily be a child’s very first book. But best of all, all the sentences rhyme!

“The sun shone in the sky all day,
the sun grew tired and went away…”

The breeze notes that the sun sleeps behind a hill, signaling “It’s time that I was still.” The leaves notice the sleeping breeze, and decide they’ll also take a rest. Soon the birds notice the resting leaves and also relax, and a nut-gathering squirrel notices the relaxing birds, and curls up in its hollow branch. Then a mother with her child notes the sleeping squirrel, and then carries home her own sleeping child.

“It’s time for you to rest.”

But the story holds one last surprise – one creature that discovers that all the world’s asleep. An orange moon creeps into the sky, and declares “I am alone!” The sun is asleep, the breeze is still, the bird is quiet, and the leaves sleep over the lake. Even the child is at rest, and the moon survey’s the empty landscape in a grand, silvery drawing.

“I am alone. And I will shine with a silver light
in the wide, silent sky all night.”

Paul O. Zelinsky contributed illustrations that are colorful and detailed. As the sun sets, there’s a cat on a fence, picnickers leaving the grass, and a man rowing a boat across a shadowy lake. Zelinsky uses pastel colors, and his colorful impressionism gives the book a friendly tone – even as the colors turn darker to show sleepers on a quiet night. Drawings of nature suggest a calm dusk, as a pink sunset reflects in the grey-blue of a lake. And sometimes Zelinsky’s careful illustrations seem to capture the magic of life, like the drawing where leaves of several trees are lit by the sun as their branches bend in the wind…

“The leaves grew tired, they do not shake,
they are asleep over the lake.”

The real purpose of a bedtime story is to lull a child to sleep. And this book seems like it could accomplish that with both relaxing pictures and a simple story that repeats the same words – all about how it’s time to rest. The book’s cover calls it a “just-right bedtime book.” And I’d have to agree.

The Gift of the Tree by Alvin R. Tresselt

Gift of the Tree - A Dead Tree by Alvin R. Tresselt

Breathtaking watercolors by Henri Sorensen help to tell the haunting story of a dead tree. “It stood tall in the forest,” writes Alvin Tresselt. “For a hundred years or more…” The tree grew and spread its shade, and birds and other animals nested in its branches. “Squirrels made their homes in ragged bundles of sticks and leaves held high in the branches.”

The tree is impossibly old – and it’s accompanied by animals – but nature holds more surprises. “Life gnawed at its heart,” Tresselt explains, describing in turn the ants, termites, woodpeckers, and even rot-causing spores that weakened the tree. Its branches “turned grey with death” – while baby woodpeckers hatch inside. “In winter storms, one by one, the great branches broke and crashed…” Soon only the trunk is left – but it’s a “proud” trunk, reaching to the sky with “its broken arms.”

It’s a story told through beautiful illustrations by Charles Robinson which give the magic old tree an almost fanciful feeling. The purple tree trunk spreads to leaf-shaped clusters of faded blue, yellow, and green. An owl spreads the points of its wings over snowy trees and a field of greys, whites, and blues. One painting even shows a cross section of the tree’s inside, where termites “ate out passageways in wondrous patterns.”

It’s surprising how compelling this story becomes. After a fierce wind, the tree falls, leaving only “a jagged stump to mark where it had stood for so long.” It’s followed by “the cruel days of winter,” where something special happens. In its hollow stump, a rabbit finds shelter. A family of mice settle into its fallen trunk. Even the ants and grubs can hide from winter in its bark and wood. Soon the sunshine of spring returns, and young acorns began to sprout.

Now it’s chipmunks that nest in the old woodpecker holes, and raccoons in its hollow trunk. But the book also mentions the carpenter ants and the termites that will play a crucial role. Soon there’s mosses, ferns, mushrooms and lichen, and eventually centipedes, snails, slugs, and earthworms. “The years passed, and the oak-hard wood grew soft and punky.” A family of skunks appears to feed on the insects in the bark, and birds also scavenge its bark, while “the melting winter snows and soft spring rains hastened the rotting of the wood.”

On the final page, there’s a new tree growing from the soil, “And in this way…the great oak returned to the earth.” It’s not clear if that’s meant literally – decomposing into the earth itself – or reappearing among the living. But the illustration seems to supply an answer.

There’s golden yellow sunshine filling the background as the young tree sprouts its new acorns and broad green leaves.