Leaves to My Knees
Hojas hasta las rodillas/Leaves to My Knees
Written by Ellen Mayer | Illustrated by Nicole Tadgell
Camille is determined to rake her own pile of leaves―all the way up to her knees! She swishes leaves to and fro, watching her pile grow bigger alongside the piles made by Daddy and her little brother, Jayden. WHOOSH! After raking leaves to the top of her boots, a giant breeze blows the pile back down to her ankles. But Camille won’t be stopped until she gets the job done––a knee-high pile, the perfect size for… jumping in!
Leaves to My Knees and Spanish/English bilingual Hojas hasta las rodillas/Leaves to My Knees are playful introductions to the early math concepts of size comparison and measurement. A note by researcher and mathematics learning expert Marlene Kliman explains how parents and caregivers can use the book to help young children explore different sizes and measurement in everyday environments.
I’m thrilled to be talking with Ellen Mayer and Nicole Tadgell today about this gorgeous cover and their adorable—and educational—book that will be available this fall, just in time for leaf-raking season!
Meet Ellen Mayer
Ellen Mayer is an award-winning author who writes picture books for babies and young children and the grown-ups who read to them. Leaves to My Knees is her ninth book for children. Her other math story books include Banana for Two and Clean Up, Up, Up!, two board books in her Small Talk Books® series with Star Bright Books.
For many years Ellen was an education researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, studying how families are engaged in their children’s learning. She also worked as an early literacy home visitor with young children and their parents in a local affiliate of the ParentChild+ program. Now, Ellen volunteers as a visiting children’s book author with public schools and city-run playgroups in her local Cambridge and Somerville, MA, communities. Long ago she earned an M.Phil. in Sociology from Columbia University.
Ellen often collaborates with her musician husband in “Books + Banjo” reading and sing-along programs for young children. Ellen loves to rake leaves in the fall—especially when she has help from her grandchildren.
I have so many great memories of raking leaves with my kids when they were small. You really capture the fun and challenges of this favorite fall activity in your story. Were you inspired by your own family’s experiences in any way while writing it?
Very much so! Since the time our kids were very little they’ve joined us in the backyard for all sorts of yardwork. My daughter wanted to hold the rake from a young age, even as I did the less exciting early springtime rake of the lawn.
At first our trees didn’t yield much in the way of fall foliage, so we would haul a big bag of fallen leaves in from the tree out on the city sidewalk to have as leaves for play. The piles that resulted were often rather puny, only up to the ankles, as protagonist Camille would tell us.
But as the backyard trees matured, raking and jumping took off, much like in the story! I should add, too, that the sibling dynamic between our older daughter and younger son was also a source of story inspiration, influencing how I wrote the sister-brother characters here. Older sister was always the more determined and focused raker of the two, with younger brother taking it upon himself to annoy and distract her as much as possible, and generally try to steal the show, as was his lovable wont in those early years.
Marlene Kliman, an early math expert who is a Senior Scientist at nonprofit STEM education organization TERC in Cambridge, MA, has contributed a back matter note for parents and caregivers. In it she writes that Camille uses the math of measurement as she works at raking a knee-high pile of leaves and as she describes the sizes of things around her. Can you tell us how Camille and other young children approach measurement?
Preschoolers and toddlers, before they are ready to understand and engage in measuring with standardized units like inches and feet, try out measuring in their own ways. For instance, they compare the thing to be measured with an object or their body. Here, Camille measures the changing height of her leaf pile as it moves up her leg to her knees—first reaching up to her ankles, then up to her boots, but then back down to her ankles after a big breeze, then finally after some serious raking all the way up to her knees—where it’s the perfect size for jumping in. Young children naturally love to consider their world in terms of the different sizes of things. Throughout the story, Camille actively references the sizes of things all around her, whether it’s that big breeze or the size of her jacket, rake, and leaf pile in comparison with the smaller jacket, rake, and leaf pile that belong to her little brother, Jayden.
Today’s post celebrates this beautiful and exuberant cover! What was your first reaction to seeing the final cover art?
When I first saw the final cover I gasped! I love cover art that is inviting and also contains a little mystery to it. Here, Nicole created the most glorious, radiant, luminescent fall day, and I immediately wanted to join in the play. And what was that cute little dragon/dinosaur up to in the background? Definitely intriguing. Then, also, there are hints of the size-comparison math to come in the story in the form of the differently sized two rakes and three birds. The idea of “leaves to my knees” is there too, center stage. The joy and energy in this cover scene is palpable as the leaves float from the tree and Camille almost seems to be dancing in her leaf pile. Thank you so much for introducing this gorgeous cover into the world, Kathy!
Do you have another favorite spread in the book? Why is this one special to you?
Nicole creates this wonderful dance here in her art, from cover to close, with captivating facial expressions on each page. It’s hard to single out a favorite spread—there is something that takes my breath away on each page! But I keep returning to the one near the end where all is right with the leaf pile, the jump, and the siblings. Here, Camille and Jayden have flopped onto her pile and are luxuriating side-by-side on the big crackly bed of leaves, enormous matching grins on their faces. Maybe I was worried that Camille wouldn’t let the little mischief-maker into her pile? But she’s not shooing him anyway anymore—they are just celebrating together the joys of a fall leaf pile.
What would you like for kids and adults to take away from the story?
I hope they will come away with a warm feeling inside after spending time with this playful and loving family, a family that’s engaged in a fall chore, but one that is also enjoying a lot of fun and learning together. I hope they take away that math is everywhere around us, and that young children—all young children—love to measure and compare as they go about their day. I hope they take away the powerful image of a child of color, and a girl, as an active mathematician. There still aren’t nearly enough Camilles in the pages of picture books, and everyone—kids of all backgrounds listening to this story and all their reading adults too—need to see and normalize children of color and girls doing math.
Meet Nicole Tadgell
Nicole Tadgell is an award-winning watercolor artist of more than 30 luminous picture books. Her books have received numerous honors, including the Christopher Award and the Children’s Africana Book Award. They have been included on the Smithsonian Notable Books for Children, the New York Public Library’s Best 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing, and many more notable lists. Born in Detroit, Michigan, frequent moves weren’t easy for Nicole, especially to new schools where she was the only Black kid in class. Art has always been both an escape and a labor of love for Nicole. Today, she brings stories to life while advocating for diversity in children’s literature. Nicole lives in Chesapeake, Virginia.
Can you share what attracted you to Ellen’s story from an illustrator’s point of view?
Because I often illustrate older children, I saw the opportunity to showcase two young children playing in autumn leaves. (My favorite season!)
Camille shows so much personality and determination on this cover image. Can you describe your process of designing and finalizing the cover?
Covers can be a challenge, to be sure. There’s a compromise to paint what’s fun . . .
. . . versus showing the audience what the book is about!
Were you inspired by personal memories of raking leaves as you worked on this cover image and interior spreads? Do you have a story about raking leaves you’d like to share?
I admit I had grown-up thoughts about there being spiders in the leaves! I don’t have a clear childhood memory of that happening, but I’ve seen plenty of spiders in leaves as an adult. A fun story is about the models for this book! My sister’s friend has two kids the right age. Their Dad was wonderful—instead of taking pictures of the kids playing in leaves, he shot video so I could pause and sketch. They were perfect! Original down to Camille’s double pom-poms and Jayden’s dinosaur coat.
The soft colors of your illustrations in Leaves to My Knees are really lovely. Can you talk about how you choose a color palette for your work in general and for this cover in particular?
Endless choices! It’s hard to decide. Knowing the season, I began with fall colors: reds, oranges, yellows. I felt that contrast would help our family stand out, so I chose cool colors for Camille and Jayden. I chose earth tones for Dad to make the kids stand out even more.
Interestingly, in the images I used for reference the real leaves had lost their color, so I just painted them colorful. I did make our Jayden a bit younger than the model’s age. For the backyard fence, I found a place nearby that had an interesting fence and small leaf-filled yard. I watched as cardinals flit between branches and squirrels chased each other, and inspiration came for the animal antics in the background!
And finally, my partner Anthony was kind enough to pose as the dad in the book!
Now that picture book creators are more free to interact with readers, what are you most looking forward to in promoting Leaves to My Knees?
Fun! I love signing books for kids & personalizing.
In addition to celebrating a fun (and necessary) fall activity, Leaves to My Knees incorporates early math concepts of size and measurement. Can you give an example of how you depicted these ideas in your illustrations?
By using different sizes of the rakes and making sure the leaf piles matched the text (up to ankles, then knees).
I can almost feel the chill in the air and hear that crisp crunch of leaves underfoot that means it’s leaf-raking time!
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