Inch by Inch, Row by Row: Read-Alouds for Gardens

For Middle Elementary

Brown, PeterThe Curious Garden.   ISBN: 978-0-316-01547-9.  Lexile: AD840.
Liam is a young boy living in a drab and dreary city. One day while exploring an abandoned, overhead railway he finds a few flowers and some grass that clearly could use some nurturing. Liam makes it his mission to bring these plants back to life, and life back to the city. The mosses and weeds begin spreading out to explore. The garden expands, eventually attracting more gardener types who continue Liam's mission. Bit by bit, the once dreary city is transformed. The message here about making a difference and taking care of the environment isn't heavy-handed in its delivery. Students will enjoy finding the redheaded Liam on every page, along with evidence from the illustrations that add meaning to the text. Pair this with Stewart’s book below and challenge students to find the common themes about urban gardens, and making a difference. 

Cooney, BarbaraMiss Rumphius.  ISBN: 9780670479580.  Lexile: 680.
This gem of a book celebrates the beauty that flowering plants add to the landscape. It also provides a wonderful character study. Follow the major events in Alice Rumphius’s life as she grows up and becomes a world traveler, settles down in a house by the sea, and seeks to make the world more beautiful.  Read it after an informational passage about the many ways seeds travel and are dispersed.

Grigsby, SusanFirst Peas to the Table:  how Thomas Jefferson inspired a School Garden. ISBN: 0-8075-2452-2. Lexile: AD 780.
The students in Ms. Garcia’s class are excited to find out what kind of garden they will plant with their teacher this year. Maya and some of her friends are less than thrilled to learn that they will plant one modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s-- until they hear about the first-peas-to-the-table contest. Each student receives a small plot of the garden in which to grow peas; the first to fill a bowl with peas will wear the winner’s crown. Grigsby manages to weave lots of information about Jefferson, his Garden Book, the experiments he conducted, the life cycle of the pea plant, types of plants, the scientific method, and composting into the narrative. The events are realistic, and the way Maya handles her disappointment provides a good model for students. The illustrations include the pea’s life cycle and Maya’s notes in her science journal, offering a great model for science writing. The book’s afterword will give students a fuller picture of the significance of the story. An extensive bibliography and source notes are provided.  A downloadable teacher’s guide with text-dependent questions, vocabulary work, and writing prompts is available from the publisher, as is a seperate guide for conducting your own pea experiments and first peas contest.  Teachers will find supplemental materials at the house and gardens page for Jefferson's Monticello estate. Students can play a colonial gardener game as a tie-in to Colonial Williamsburg.

Koontz, RobinComposting:  Nature’s Recyclers.  ISBN: 978-1-40482194-1   Lexile: IG 740.
Koontz's text is simply written, with each double page spread dealing with one aspect of composting.  Headings such as “Mini-munchers” and “Heap Needs” are followed by one or two short paragraphs with short, declarative sentences, making it a good choice for students who struggle. Consider it as part of a text set that you assemble on the subject, with a variety of reading levels to accommodate all the learners in your room. (See also Glaser's book on the list for lower elementary students.)  The book's back matter includes a glossary, extra facts about garbage, directions for creating compost-in-a-bag, and using worm bins as an alternative to a compost heap.  Other teacher-tested activities related to composting can be found here.

Pfeffer, WendyWiggling Worms at Work.  ISBN:  978-1-415-50658-5.  Lexile: AD740.
Who knew that worms could be so fascinating? With matter-of-fact prose, Steve Jenkins's signature collage illustrations, and just enough of an “Ewwww!” factor, Pfeffer's book is sure to keep middle elementary students engaged. She introduces domain-specific vocabulary (segments, castings, midden, burrow, gizzard) in context, and her text provides students with a model for supporting a claim (“Worms are hard at work in the soil,” or “Worms help plants to grow better”) with details. Teachers can follow up with soil-related activities and projects here.

Poole, Amy LowryThe Pea Blossom.  ISBN:  0-8234-1864-2.  Lexile: not available.
This lovely text is a retelling of a story of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen. Set in China, it is a tale of hope and promise. Only one of the five peas in a fattening pod is content to go where he is meant to go. He finds himself in a crevice, covered with leaves and moss, on the windowsill of a poor woman's house. The woman's sickly daughter takes delight in the spring as the pea has taken root and begins to spread its tendrils. This becomes her own garden, and as the pea blossoms thrive and bloom, so does she once more. This is an excellent choice for working with character traits and with the theme of a story. Use it as an introduction to other tales by Andersen, which may be unfamiliar to today's students.

Stewart, SarahThe Gardener.  ISBN:  0-374-32517-0. Lexile: AD 570.
Lydia Grace is sent to the city during the Depression to live with her uncle, a man who owns a bakery and never smiles. In a series of letters written to her family back home during her time away, we learn how this determined girl brings beauty to her city dwelling and a smile to her uncle's face. The story reinforces the idea that you don't need a lot to start a garden, even in an urban setting. Use this with The Pea Blossom and discuss the healing properties of caring for plants, and with The Curious Garden for another story of a youngster whose urban garden transforms the cityscape. Students may enjoy looking at unusual containers and reading about container gardening in unusual places here, which is part of the My First Garden site.   

Watterson, Carol.  An Edible Alphabet:  26 Reasons to Love the Farm.  ISBN:  Lexile: 741.
Do not pass this book over for middle elementary, because it is not your average alphabet book! In fact, the alphabet is simply a device for celebrating over two dozen benefits of farms and farming.  Collage illustrations from hand-painted papers will draw middle level students in immediately. They will understand the alliterative phrase or sentence given at the top of each spread, and enjoy ferreting out the information in the text that follows. Related poems, trivia, and jokes are scattered throughout the book, inviting another look. This colorful, cheery book takes on small and large scale farming on land and water with topics such as insects, vegetables, fruit, sheep, cattle, and salmon.  Use it over the course of your unit of study in small doses, making the most of all the information provided for each letter of the alphabet.


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