My kids have great books on their bookshelf. We’re blessed to know and love librarians and teachers and readers of all kinds who give books to celebrate any occasion, and sometimes for no reason at all.
The under-8 set at my house loves farm books. They’re pretty easy to come by, and mostly harmless. Farm animal sounds, farm animal textures, farm animal feeding time, farm animal ABCs. These books are cute tools for teaching valuable language skills to children whose every waking moment is dedicated to learning something new.
The drawback is that children’s farm books often bear little resemblance to actual farming. Beyond reading and recognition skills, it is essential to consider what else we are teaching our children when we sit down with a storybook, whether farm themed or otherwise. The reader must be alert to issues of fact, quality and impression.
We recently borrowed a library book about a chicken that learned to read. Intriguing premise, but I was dismayed to discover partway through that the farmer was portrayed as an evil-intentioned killer. It stinks to learn that one book can undermine the compassion, respect, self-respect and good stewardship that the kids’ own parents put into making a living.
The children’s book format has its limitations. It’s not easy, or desirable, to be strictly factual and realistic all the time. In my opinion, a distorted timeframe, limited or expanded scope, or humanized animals and equipment is no reason to disregard a book’s value — as long as the book does have value.
Good farm books teach real facts about farming. Good farm books don’t confuse hay (food for animals) with straw (bedding or mulch); call a bull (male) a cow (female); have a corn ear at the top of a stalk, where a tassel should be; or show a combine harvesting green wheat. Good farm books can teach from a modern perspective or a historical perspective. Good farm books don’t teach or reinforce hurtful stereotypes. Last but not least, good farm books must be captivating. Few things are worse than a boring book, no matter what the topic is.
State and national Ag in the Classroom websites have marvelous resources for parents and teachers. Illinois’ site has great recommended reading lists. Closer to home, here are three good books that my kids have enjoyed over and over again:
“Farmer Brown Shears His Sheep” by Teri Sloat. Published in 2000, this book follows wool from sheep to sweater. It’s one farmer and his neighbors who process the wool — and all of the processes are done by hand — so it is not a realistic series of events, but it does accurately convey the main concepts of wool production. Plus, it has a rollicking, rhyming rhythm that makes it fun to read aloud, even the 110th time. This book is available at Kearney Public Library.
“My First Farm: Let’s Get Working!” from DK Publishing. Good quality photos of all facets of a farm are arranged in tabs by category — baby animals, cattle, goats, chickens, equipment, crops and more. It’s a board book but is good for children up to about age 4 because of its comprehensive content and unusual format. It has photos of modern equipment (although some is European) and does not have any photos of a farmer in overalls chewing on a straw, which is a very tired stereotype. Published in 2013, it’s readily available from online booksellers.
“Corny Cornpicker Finds a Home” by Lois Zortman Hobbs and Roy Bostrom. Written in 1959 as a marketing piece for John Deere, the story follows a tractor and a cornpicker from the dealer to their respective homes. It contrasts the care taken by one farmer for his equipment and property with the neglect of the other. The tractor and cornpicker are finally reunited on the conscientious farmer’s place, while the neglectful farmer sells out and moves away. The storyline follows a happily-ever-after arc, while the underlying moral tale illustrates the need to be a good steward. Reprints of this book and three other John Deere children’s books are available through John Deere dealers.
This Soils and Streams column first appeared in the June 13, 2015, issue of the Kearney Hub.