If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson

The official first day of spring is this week, my kindergartener is bringing a pack of seeds to school to share and plant with her class, and we’ll hopefully work on our vegetable garden at our house this weekend… And, with the task of hopefully raising kind, generous children, we always love books with strong social-emotional lessons about selfishness and giving around here. So, If You Plant a Seedwritten and illustrated by Kadir Nelson, seemed like a perfect book to share now!

On his website, Nelson says that art is “most effective when it calls the viewer to remember one’s highest self.” And Nelson does this incredibly well with his books, both as an illustrator (such as Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom and Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya) and as an author/illustrator (such as We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, Nelson Mandelaand Baby Bear)If You Plant a Seed holds readers to that same high standard, calling us to think about the effective magnitude of behaviors, whether selfish or selfless, that seem small by themselves.

In If You Plant a SeedNelson relates planting physical seeds that grow into plants to our behaviors that grow into either something greatly negative or greatly positive. We watch a rabbit and a mouse work together to plant seeds and wait “with love and care” for them to grow into a vegetable garden. While the friends enjoy their feast, a flock of 5 birds appears. On a series of wordless double-spreads, we see the birds ask for some carrots and tomatoes, and the rabbit and the mouse meanly keep the food to themselves. This one selfish act spirals quickly into a huge mess of poor choices and mean behaviors… Until the mouse decides to share what appears to be the last edible fruit with the birds. In the end, that one kind and selfless gesture grows into something beautiful, a bounteous feast for all of the animals to enjoy.

The message about sowing seeds of selfishness versus seeds of generosity here is obvious, yet never reads as preachy. The connection to planting seeds and caring for them as they grow makes the lesson even more tangible for the youngest audiences. Our 3.5-year-old grasped the concept quickly, and we’ve continued to use the teaching point of connecting expected behaviors (generosity and kindness) to positive returns and the unexpected behaviors (selfishness) to negative returns.

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And, as always, Kadir Nelson’s illustrations are breathtaking. He uses richly colored oil paintings to tell this story; his paintings not only to add to the story but tell it, especially when you consider that many of the pages are wordless double-page spreads. He manages to capture inquisitiveness, love, concern, elation, defensiveness, selfishness, anger, remorse, surprise, and so much more, in the faces and eyes of his animals. In one short book, his illustrations both pull at your heart and make you laugh– just check out the spread of those 5 birds waiting to see if they can have any carrots or tomatoes!

Publishers recommend this for ages 4-8. It can definitely go younger, and can be a powerful discussion starter with older children.

If you liked this, check out:

What books do you love to read with your children to help them develop and understand generosity and selflessness?

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