How does your garden grow?

Spring blooms eternal in this selection of children's books about flowers and fairies.

Published April 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Any toddler worth his teddy bear can tell you that lions roar, doggies wag their tails and wolves like to dine on little pigs and Red Riding Hood. When kids develop a specific interest in a subject, whether it's earth science or the solar system, their knowledge becomes even more succinct. You'd be surprised how many 6-year-olds know a backhoe from a dump truck or Uranus from Neptune. If one day your preschooler lectures you on the fine points of the metriacanthosaurus and the brontosaurus ("That's apatosaurus, mom. Brontosaurus is the old name!"), don't run out and have her tested for idiot savant syndrome. Such an impressive command of data is common among youthful enthusiasts.

But how many kids do you know who can tell an azalea from a zinnia? In this season when tiny, perfect leaves poke through the ends of rural twigs like the fingers of newborns, when suburban lawns start to bloom bright, and shaggy weeds assert themselves even along the edges of city cement, shouldn't those ravenous young minds be scarfing up plant facts?

Maybe they need a little encouragement. Anne Rockwell's "Bumblebee, Bumblebee, Do You Know Me?" is a good place to start. Subtitled "A Garden Guessing Game," the book presents short, riddling descriptions alongside stylized pictures of flowers. "You'll find me at breakfast, when my blue trumpet greets the day," chants the morning glory, for example. The illustrations -- silk-screens painted with watercolors and gouache -- stand stiff and geometric between broad outlines. Each flower becomes a character.

But "Bumblebee, Bumblebee" suffers somewhat from an excess of sweetness that often afflicts picture books, particularly those about flowers. When plants come into the picture, the sap seems to rise. Just as wolves and lions find themselves reduced to puppies and kittens, the wilderness of the imagination becomes a predictable garden, as frou-frou as chintz.

It needn't be that way. Nothing's more powerful than agriculture. When our hunter-gatherer ancestors realized they could control plants, they changed the face of the earth. "The Tree Suitcase," by David Suzuki, captures some of that magic. In this story, it's time for Peter to go home to the city, but he doesn't want to stop climbing his grandmother's spruce tree. So she suggests he take it with him in a suitcase. When he asks how a tree could possibly fit in a suitcase, she gives him an entertaining lecture on natural history.

"'Violent winds, downpours of rain, and bitter frosts helped break the rocks up ... Then rivers and streams washed bits of rock, gravel and sand down from the mountains and hills -- right into my yard!'" she explains. "Peter poked at the soil again. 'This isn't just ground-up rocks. There are bits of leaf and a weird bug and -- look at this -- half a dead worm!'"

Yvonne Cathcart illustrates the conversation with energetic, pleasantly goofy fantasies: Peter and his grandmother at the foot of an erupting volcano, a cob of corn lecturing to an audience of seeds and nuts. In the end, Peter goes home with a fir seed in a dirt-filled coffee can. The text and illustrations are delightfully nerdy, as though they'd been created by a pair of enthusiastic amateurs. Best of all, the book comes with a packet of fir seeds and a tiny pot.

There's less evidence of the heroic power of plants in books like "Gardening: I Can Do It" or "This Is Your Garden." "Gardening" addresses questions such as what color flowers to plant and what type of pot to use. Plenty of bright photos of outdoor scenes and colorful tools silhouetted against white space make this chipper how-to easy to follow. "This Is Your Garden" walks youngsters through the bare essentials of planting and growing, emphasizing the most necessary nutrient: patience. "There will be days when it's dark and rainy and you can't tend to your garden," warns the author. "You can stay inside with your favorite book and know that your garden is getting a good soaking." She shows her button-nosed, button-cute gardener girl kissing a flower.

The best treatment for gardeners' impatience is still "The Garden," a story from Arnold Lobel's 1972 classic "Frog and Toad Together," reprinted this year. When Toad admires his friend Frog's flowers, Frog gives him some seeds of his own. "Toad ran home. He planted the flower seeds. 'Now, seeds,' said Toad, 'start growing.' Toad walked up and down a few times. The seeds did not start to grow ... Toad put his head very close to the ground and shouted 'NOW SEEDS, START GROWING!'" Frog tells Toad to stop yelling -- he's scaring the seeds. Instead, Toad tries to encourage them by reading and singing to them. When they finally start to grow, Frog compliments Toad. "'Yes,' said Toad, 'but you were right, Frog. It was very hard work.'"

Frogs and toads, as the how-to books point out, are often a gardener's best friends since it's in their nature to eat the pests that eat the plants. Children's books often betray a sentimental attachment to garden pests, particularly the pretty, fuzzy ones. In "Two Days in May," a family of deer show up in an urban garden to munch on lettuce. When the animal control office proposes to shoot them, a rainbow coalition of neighbors camp out to protect them. In the end, an animal rescue organization saves the day by carting Bambi and friends off to "a wooded area northwest of the city." But how well will they survive in an area so crowded with deer that even the city looks green to them?

In the poem "Butterfly House," the heroine saves a butterfly larva "from a greedy jay/who wanted it/for lunch." Old time oil paintings show her grandfather helping her make a house for the caterpillar as it transforms itself into a Crysalis and then a Painted Lady butterfly. Later, when our heroine's an old lady herself, Painted Ladies favor her garden, slighting the flowerbeds of the neighbors, who wonder why. "I smile./It's not a mystery at all./I think my Painted Ladies/talk among themselves/of how their great-great-grandma,/too far back to say,/was saved/from being eaten by a jay."

A smidge less goopy, oddly enough, are Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Fairy Poems," collected from the 1915 issues of the "San Francisco Bulletin." Wilder, the author of the Little House books, was the premier agriculturalist of American juvenile letters. In this poem, "The Fairies in the Sunshine," the title creatures are artists:

They paint the flower faces,

The leaves of forest trees,

And tint the little grasses

All waving in the breeze.

(One painting tiger lilies,

Who runs away and goes

To play awhile with baby,

Puts speckles on his nose!!)

Did I say this stuff was less goopy? All right, maybe not. But Richard Hull's slightly creepy illustrations add a welcome note of grotesquerie. A dollop of black here and there rescues his palette from the pastels, and the glaring or concerned expressions of the fairies, raindrops, insects and so on place his work in the drugged-out tradition of Bosch's Victorian followers. If he would only illustrate a botanical bestiary -- then maybe plants could start giving dinosaurs a run for their money.

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Bumblebee, Bumblebee, Do You Know Me? A Garden Guessing Game. By Anne Rockwell. HarperCollins, 22 pages

The Tree Suitcase. By David Suzuki. Illustrated by Yvonne Cathcart. Somerville House, 32 pages

Gardening: I Can Do It! By Ivan Bullock & Diane James. Photography by Daniel Pangborne. Illustrations by Emily Hare. World Book, 32 pages

This Is Your Garden. By Maggie Smith. Crown, 32 pages

Frog and Toad Together. By Arnold Lobel. HarperFestival, 64 pages

Two Days in May. By Harriet Peck Taylor. Pictures by Leyla Torres. Farrar Straus Giroux, 32 pages

Butterfly House. By Eve Bunting. Illustrated by Gred Shed. Scholastic, 32 pages

Laura Ingalls Wilder's Fairy Poems. Introduced and compiled by Stephen W. Hines. Illustrated by Richard Hull. Doubleday, 39 pages

By Polly Shulman

Polly Shulman edits news articles for the journal Science.

MORE FROM Polly Shulman

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