Patience is a virtue. Riiiiiight. Actually it is, but tell that to anyone under the age of fifteen (to pick an arbitrary age). Though it varies from child to child, immediate satisfaction is something our day and age strives to give us in everything from grocery shopping to movie selection. When kids can just hop on the internet and within less than a minute be connected to the sites they want and need then the idea of something taking not just days but weeks is capable of blowing their furry little minds. I know that in the past teachers have done assignments that involve raising seeds with the idea of teaching children about how plants grow, but it seems to me that there's just as much to be said for teaching kids that under normal circumstances all good things come to those that wait. And Then It's Spring does a rather good job at drilling this idea home. An understated little beauty with enough tiny details to ensnare squirmy children worldwide, author Fogliano and illustrator Stead have pooled their considerable talents to bring us a great example of what happens when you stop to grow the flowers.
A boy, his dog, his turtle, a rabbit, and various assorted birds go out on a day that wavers between blue and gray skies. Says the book, "First you have brown, all around you have brown." Armed with a wagon of seeds the boy sets about planting each one systematically, burying them under little mounds of dirt. The sun and the rain come but there is no green to be seen. A week passes and the boy worries about the seeds and whether or not they've been eaten by birds or crushed by bears. Another week passes and another until one day the brown is all gone, "and now you have green, all around you have green." And there, pushing through the earth, the seedlings make their debut.
When we think of books that talk about the sheer torture of waiting for a seed to emerge from the good brown earth the very first thing that comes to mind is the story "The Garden" from Frog and Toad Together. In that story Frog is wise and patient with Toad's seeds while Toad becomes the child reader's avatar and insists on knowing how soon they will be up. It's a great tale but part of what I like about And Then It's Spring is that Ms. Fogliano does a great job of making it even clearer than Lobel just how long it takes for a seed to sprout. She is ecumenical in her wordplay too. There's no phrase or sentence out of place here. What's more, Ms. Fogliano taps into just the right sense of what the world is like when it's too warm to snow and too cold to enjoy. Spring is all about "brown, but a hopeful, very possible sort of brown," and "that sunny day that happens right after that rainy day." Without becomes precious or twee, Fogliano knows how to make simple concepts not only understandable but meaningful as well.
On the bookflap of this title the biography of illustrator Erin E. Stead states that "Today she lives in a 100-year-old barn in Ann Arbor, Michigan..." That sounds about right. Part of what works for me in this book is the Michiganess of it all. Oh I'm sure that there are all kinds of areas in the country where this could take place, but I grew up in Kalamazoo. I know all too well the state's remarkably drawn out springs. The ones that just seems to dwell in dirt and gray skies for weeks at a time until, as this book says, "all around you have green." Stead's previous illustrated picture book was the Caldecott Award winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee. In that title her world was an urban one. Buses and zoos and small city homes. Now with Ms. Fogliano's words she is given a little space to stretch out and breathe. There's room here for those vast blue and gray skies with the white clouds that go all the way down to the horizon. There's room too for tree swings and striated fields. With an Erin Stead book you feel you could almost smell that earth and that air.
Stead also does sneaky things in her images to allay the impatience of the readers. While the text is about waiting and waiting and waiting, there is at least one image where kids have an advantage over their bespectacled protagonist. A fine cutaway of the earth beneath the boy shows the various holes and tunnels of the critters under the dirt. You might be so taken with the image of the mouse listening to the dirt as a worm approaches or the ants hoarding their seed pile that you'd miss the seeds themselves, their roots pushing far down, as their green tips head up. It's like a little glimpse into the future right there.
The nice thing about Ms. Stead's woodblock printing and pencil technique is that parents who reread this story to their kids will find lots of little details they've never seen before (many of them, I dare say, pointed out to them by their own children). For me, there were tiny details that took several reads, and big details so obvious I passed them entirely the first time around. The little things included the antics of the birds on nearly every page or the ways in which the boy spruces up his garden. One page might show a blue birdhouse sitting in a red wagon. Later in another you can see that same birdhouse hanging with an occupant inside. The big details were worth finding as well. For example, how long was it before I realized that you never see the boy's eyes? He's like a young Bunsen Honeydew, ever observant but, aside from his body language, expressionless. Similarly, it took me a little while before I realized that the scene that takes place on the cover of the book happens AFTER the action inside. Sneaky.
Quiet picture books do not demand attend like their bolder, brassier counterparts. An Erin E. Stead book isn't going to try to blind you with glitter or shock the page with colors that throb and burn. In this book you have to discover and appreciate the merit of Ms. Fogliano's words and fall for Ms. Stead's art. As odd as it sounds, the book I would most like to pair this with is not necessarily the aforementioned Frog and Toad Together but rather the equally countryside-loving book Farm by Elisha Cooper. Both books understand the growing season and both understand that sometimes it takes the overwhelming vastness of a big blue sky to appreciate the tiny lives that dwell beneath your feet. This is a gem of a book, bound to be pulled out every spring yet also bound to be read throughout the year in spite of its seasonal theme. Worth it.