Picture Book Review
About the Holiday
For children, picture books provide one of the best ways to interact with facts and feelings. Stories that speak to their experiences, both common and new, alongside illustrations that bring the story to life let them discover the world around them. Today’s stunning nonfiction books are loaded with illustrations or photographs that let kids see exciting details about science, history, biographies, nature, and so much more. This month, take a look for fiction and nonfiction picture books about your child’s passions to add to your home library. And be sure to check out today’s book that incorporates both!
Thanks to Star Bright Books for sharing a digital copy of Leaves to My Knees with me for review consideration. All opinions on the book are my own.
Leaves to My Knees
Hojas hasta las rodillas/Leaves to My Knees
Written by Ellen Mayer | Illustrated by Nicole Tadgell
Daddy has a surprise for Camille and her little brother Jayden. They get dressed in their coats—big for Camille and little jacket with a stegosaurus hood for Jayden—and head into the backyard. There, Camille discovers her dad has gotten her a rake of her own. It’s not as big as Dad’s, but it’s bigger than Jayden’s little rake. It’s the perfect size for Camille.
Camille marches right off to rake a pile of leaves. But not just any pile—she has a goal. “‘I’ll rake leave all the way up to my knees!’” she tells her dad. The three get working on the yard. Camille concentrates on gathering leaves, listening to the different sounds that the various sized rakes make: “The leaves go swush when Daddy rakes. They go swish when I rake. They go sweeeee when Jayden tries to rake.”
Lurking under the leaves are twigs and acorns that clog up Camille’s rake. She worries that she’ll never be able to rake leaves to her knees. She calls for Daddy’s help, and together they clear Camille’s rake. “‘You’re good to go now, Camille,’” Daddy tells her. Back at it, Camille rakes and rakes. Then she steps into the pile she’s accumulated to measure it. Her pile only comes up to her ankles. Camille grabs her rake harder and with determination she collects more leaves. But wait! Jayden is stealing leaves from her pile to add to his! Camille guards her pile with her rake, and sends her little brother over to Daddy’s bigger pile. Camille checks her measurements again. Her pile has grown, but only up to the top of her boots.
Camille rakes ‘bunches of leaves,” and her pile gets taller, until “‘Oh no! A BIG BREEZE!!’” sends lots and lots of leaves swirling “Whoosh!” into the air and scattered to the ground. “I will never rake leaves to my knees!” Camille thinks. And when she measures again, her pile is back to her ankles. Daddy encourages her to keep going, and Camille is committed to achieving her goal. She throws off her coat, grabs her rake, and works on gathering up all the leaves she had, plus more. At last, too tired to rake anymore, Camille wonders. Has she done it? “‘Time for measuring!’ says Daddy.”
Camille relinquishes her rake to her dad then, holding her breath, steps into her pile. “‘TA-DA!’” Camille raises her arms in victory. She steps out, positions herself a good ways away, and winds up for the run and jump. “‘GO!’ yells Daddy. ‘GO!’ Jayden yells too.” Camille flies through the air and lands, laughing, into her pile. Then Jayden jumps in. And Daddy? He gives Camille “really big squeeze” for raking “leaves all the way up to [her] knees.”
A note for parents, teachers, and other caregivers written by Marlene Kliman, a mathematics learning expert and senior scientist at TERC, describes how the story incorporates the math of measurement and sizes and how adults can extend the lesson by pointing out elements in the book’s illustrations and while going about their day or doing common chores, such as cleaning up and sorting laundry.
Ellen Mayer’s Leaves to My Knees has everything that makes a story a young reader’s favorite—a spunky main character that kids will identify with, an achievable goal, successes and setbacks, suspense, humor, and a child-propelled victory. And it all revolves around an early math concept that comes naturally to children and which invites playful learning not only during the fall, but any time of the year. Shoveling snow and making snowballs in winter, yard cleanup and gardening in spring, and building sandcastles and raking grass clippings in summer as well as in-home fun with laundry piles, toys, and other objects are all ways to extend the story.
Told from Camille’s point of view, the story also engages children’s emotions as they join in to cheer Camille on as her leaf pile grows and commiserate with her when it shrinks. The close relationships among Camille and her dad and little brother ring true with dialogue-rich storytelling that is always encouraging. Strong themes of determination and persistence will also appeal to parents and teachers, who can point to how many times Camille has to start over before accomplishing her goal and her positive, resolute attitude.
Nicole Tadgell’s exuberant illustrations shine with personality, and kids will immediately become invested in each character as Dad gets working on a big job that needs doing, Jayden runs, jumps, and copies his big sister, and Camille unwaveringly works on her pile of leaves. Camille’s setbacks are clearly depicted, along with her and her father’s facial expressions that give adults and kids an opportunity to talk about disappointment, frustration, perseverance, and feelings of accomplishment. Each image also demonstrates the math component of measurement and sizes in the story with various-sized rakes, the growing and diminishing leaf pile, big and little jackets, and other objects that invite comparison.
Tadgell’s soft-hued pages are infused with the feeling of fall and hum with activity as cardinals, blue jays, chickadees gather at the bird feeder, squirrels scamper up and along the fence, and leaves continue to float to the ground. Readers will love following little Jayden’s antics and be inspired by Camille’s wide smile as she enjoys the reward of all her hard work.
Leaves to My Knees is a multilayered read aloud infused with the enthusiasm and rhythms of childhood that kids will want to hear again and again. Its mathematics base and themes of determination and perseverance rewarded will appeal to parents, teachers, and other educators as a way to engage children in active, hands-on learning. The book is a must for home, classroom, school, and public library collections.
Ages 4 – 8
Star Bright Books, 2022 | ISBN 978-1595729590 (Leaves to My Knees) | ISBN 978-1595729613 (Hojas hasta las rodillas/Leaves to My Knees
Picture Book Month Activities
Coloring Pages and Teaching Guides
You can extend the fun and learning in Leaves to My Knees with these activities, which include three fun coloring pages from the story, a hands-on play-dough art and discovery activity, and a detailed educator’s guide for teachers, homeschoolers, parents, and other caregivers that offers multiple ways to use Leaves to My Knees to explore math, mathematical thinking, and reading comprehension through the story and beyond at home, school, and elsewhere.
- Fun Coloring Pages
- Tall as a Leaf Pile Activity from the California Early Math Project
- Teaching Guide from the California Early Math Project
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!
You can find Leaves to My Knees on Amazon
Hojas hasta las rodillas / Leaves to My Knees: Paperback
You can also order from Star Bright Books
Hojas hasta las rodillas / Leaves to My Knees: Paperback
Picture Book Review