Saturday, October 25, 2014

We Gather Together

Most years here in Montana, autumn is short.  Usually by now, we've had snow multiple times.  The fall leaves have all blown away in storms where the wind whips through the streets.  This year, though, we've had a surprising season - yes, we've already had snow, but only twice. Our fall leaves are still in piles on the ground, and I was wearing flip flops until last week!  Now the Montana weather is very changeable, and all our Halloween costumes still have warm clothes underneath.  But we're enjoying the actual fall right now!

And that's why we've been loving  We Gather Together: Celebrating the Harvest Season this year too.  I requested the new paperback version of this 2006 title through my new relationship with Penguin Books for Young Readers, and it came at the perfect time.  The fall equinox was on September 23rd this year, and, a month later, we are waiting impatiently for daylight savings time to fall back.  It's dark until after 7am each morning, and only light in the evenings until about 7pm.  Frances and Gloria have a hard time getting up in the mornings (although it is easier to get them to go to sleep!).
So it's helpful to have a book like this to help us really investigate fall.  It's often blink-and-you-miss-it here, and the nearest corn maze is more than 90 minutes away.  We move from being sad about summer ending, with our farm and garden crops being put to bed, to being immersed in winter.  In this title, Pfeffer does an amazing job of helping kindergarten through 3rd graders learn all about the harvest season.
She begins by describing how animals use fall to prepare for the winter, including foxes burying rodent leftovers to eat later (gross!) and beavers storing twigs and sticks underwater for when their ponds are iced over.  Pfeffer explains  how humans don't need to store so much food anymore, because our grocery stores transport perishable items from the other side of the world when they are out of season here.  The text then discusses the fall equinox and defines it for readers (that the nights equal the days and then become longer than the days as we become closer to winter).  This also signals the time to harvest all over the world.
As the days begin to cool off, and the summer sun no longer shines, crops can't make the food they need.  Those crops must also be harvested before the first true freeze of the winter.  The text then considers peoples throughout history - cavemen, Ancient Egyptians, the Wampanoags - and how they harvested.  Pfeffer tells readers "Over the centuries, people celebrated plentiful harvests and passed down traditions, at different times in different places, and in different ways. All over the world, harvest celebrations from the past are still being carried on today."  The text goes on to talk about harvesting and harvest celebrations around the world, including in India, Japan, Jewish culture and others.
One of the things that I like the most about We Gather Together is how well Pfeffer handles the diversity of information that's contained within this book.  There's science, social studies and environmentalism all contained within its pages.  These could be overwhelming, particularly to a young reader.  But the text is general and fairly brief.  It gives interesting information and helps children imagine themselves in the many cultures and time periods.  While each page has five to seven lines of text, the vocabulary is fairly simple for children to digest and comprehend.
Another thing that makes the book easy to use is the large scale illustrations.  The colors are vibrant, yet autumnal in tone throughout most of the book.  They are mostly double page spreads, and the text blocks vary throughout the book.  It really allows readers to balance the longer text with looking at the detailed illustrations.  It gives them a sense of a variety of cultural styles and details.  Bleck's illustrations help give life to the traditions and harvests of many cultures.
Finally, I love the back matter in this title.  There is a huge amount of back matter for a picture book nonfiction title.  There are facts about the equinox, science experiments, a recipe, a list of harvest festivals, a bibliography and websites.  It is all well-done, and the science experiments include additional questions for reflection.  I think this makes this title incredibly useful in classrooms and at home.  It has already spurred some great conversations here.  It's helping us enjoy this season before it too quickly disappears.
We Gather Together: Celebrating the Harvest Season.  Wendy Pfeffer; illustrated by Linda Bleck.  Puffin Books, 2006.
sent by the publisher.

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