Saturday, August 15, 2015

Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt 
by Kate Messner
Illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal

I loved this gardening book, Kate Messner!  We love gardening at our house and have tried to promote ‘garden-based learning’ at every school at which we have taught.  This book would definitely help the students understand the busy-ness and the wonderfulness of the garden. A must-have for the school library or classroom library!

As a mentor text—we have another hybrid text…Messner does a wonderful job of weaving the narrative of a young girl and her grandmother as they work in their garden through the seasons, peppered with factual information about the plants and animals ‘up in the garden’ and insects and animals ‘down in the dirt’.

I would use Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt in different ways at different grade levels.  For grades K-3, I would use it as a read-aloud to be savored and enjoyed.  I would use it to support curriculum studies of plants, gardens and/ or insects. (My current school has a school garden with ‘Garden Time’ worked into each class’s schedule. This book would definitely support the learning done during Garden Time.)

For grades 4th  and 5th, I would use Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt as a mentor for the sophisticated writing that is needed to write a narrative hybrid text.  The sequence that Messner uses (‘Up in the garden’ at the paragraph at the top of the page and a ‘Down in the dirt’ to start the paragraph at the bottom-or next- of the page) is an excellent pattern that students can imitate to write their own narrative nonfiction, if they so choose.

Book Talk 
Readers meet a young girl and her Nana in their garden.  As they start to prepare the top of the ground for their spring garden, Nana advises the girl that even though the soil on top is not quite ready, down in the dirt the insects and earthworms are busy turning the soil to make it ready for the two of them to work their garden magic.

When the insects have the soil ready, the two get to work planting large garden boxes. Soon readers see that the plants are sprouting, then thriving, under the constant care and nurturing from the girl and Nana.

For everything that they do up in the garden, something is happening down in the dirt. When the girl and Nana get so hot from working and sit in the shade, the worms under the ground dig deeper to get cool.  When the girl and Nana pick cucumbers and zucchini into the evening, a skunk comes into the garden that evening to pick up and gobble insects to eat. When a praying mantis catches mosquitos up in the garden, a snack slithers and pokes underground to catch a tasty grasshopper.

Some favorite lines:
“Up in the garden, there’s so much to eat! Ladybugs feast on aphids. Nana crunches green beans. I bite a ripe tomato, warm from the sun. Juice dribbles down my chin.
Down in the dirt, a robin’s beak finds a cricket, a beetle, a grub. Slugs are scrumptious, too."

The story continues through the planting seasoning as readers learn what the girl and Nana do during the heat of the summer, in the evening with fireflies, and as they finally get ready for winter.  Readers also learn what is happening down in the dirt during this same timeframe.

All through the book, readers witness the connection (or cycle) in a garden between what happens above the ground surface and how it often effects what happens below…and vise versa.

To note: At the end of the book, Messner gives detailed factual information on the all the animals and insects mentioned in the story.  Inside the front and back cover are pictures of all the plants in the books.

Beautiful illustrations and interesting ‘down in the dirt’ cut-aways by artist Christopher Silas Neal.

Suggested Uses as a Mentor Text:
Book Genre: Hybrid test- narrative non-fiction
Reading Workshop strategies: Search for and Use Information; Maintaining fluency, Connecting, Inferring, Questioning
Writing Workshop genre and strategies: Narrative Writing, Elaboration, Sentence Fluency, Hybrid Text, Inspiring Writers
Curricular Themes: Plants, Insects, Gardening

Kate Messner website:
Chris Silas Neal website:

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