With each successive generation we become less and less connected to where our food comes from. The concept of gardening seems foreign to a massive number city-raised kids, and with cities spreading out at such an accelerated rate, that disconnected numbers grows and grows and grows.
Kate Messner’s Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt works to rectify this, at least a little bit, by bringing kids a taste of the garden, presenting it not simply as the place from where veggies come, but as its own world filled with living things.
The book is framed with the story of a young girl helping her grandmother in the garden over the course of a season. They spread soil, plant seeds, harvest their crops, and generally just are around the garden. The girl acts as our window into the world of gardening, asking questions of her Nana, prompting descriptions and driving the narrative.
Ironically, the girl turns out to be the book’s biggest weakness. With the focus on teaching about the garden, the people in the book haven’t much in the way of personality, nor anything on which we can hang our hats. There’s no character to draw us in, no hook; unless, of course, your child is preturnaturally drawn to bugs, in which case you are golden.
The text, like gardening itself, is meditative, with a certain sing-song rhythm; it never comes off as a lesson, but is fun and light. It’s the kind of book you instinctively whisper-read. The trade-off is that most of the creatures who live in the garden are presented with little to no explanation of why they’re there; this is fixed after the story ends with a sort of glossary of animals which goes in depth on all of the creatures from the book, laying out who they are and what the do, and how they interact with each other. (This section feels a bit encyclopedic at the moment, and I wonder how many kids or parents will make it through the entire list; a little flair could have gone a long way… A spoonful of sugar, after all.)
Christopher Silas Neal’s illustrations are gorgeous, vintage-inspired things. He fills the pages with earth-tones and well-chosen splashes of color; they aren’t always pretty, but they are always beautiful. Every picture in the book is perfectly and interestingly composed and filled with textures. There is lots to look at here, and our daughter’s favorite part of reading this book was looking for all of the hidden creatures in the drawings.
There is lots –LOTS– to love in Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, which is why the shortcomings feel so disappointing. In Hollywood terms, this is what would be referred to as a prestige property: I can’t imagine Chronicle expects it to blow up on an Olivia level, but it will probably win them some hardware come awards season, and those who do discover it, will most likely find something to cherish here, and to return to again and again.
Kinderlit requested and received a copy of Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt in exchange for an honest review. Read about our review policy here.