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Welcome to the Horn Book's Family Reading blog, a place devoted to offering children's book recommendations and advice about the whats and whens and whos and hows of sharing books in the home. Find us on Twitter @HornBook and on Facebook at

These boots are made for walking…into mucky water

What kid doesn’t love wading in mucky water and scooping up slimy eggs stuck to cattail reeds and rotting sticks? Oh, it’s just mine? Well, we live in Maine and exploring local ponds is a great excuse to get outside in June — after waiting all winter for the opportunity. The appearance of the gooey masses of eggs is a sign that life is finally emerging.

Every spring, we check for the first eggs in a small drainage ditch that becomes an impromptu vernal pool along the side of our road. It’s with great delight that we return with an old jar or vase to scoop up a few and see what develops (it isn’t always clear what laid the eggs at first). Every few days we dutifully walked up the road and retrieved fresh water for the eggs, and we watched as the hatchlings emerged and started to wiggle around. They grow fatter and fatter and their tails get progressively shorter, and then one day…they have legs! Watch out, though, because now they can hop out, which we discovered the first year we collected eggs. Now we keep a breathable cover on the container. The next year we grew them into pollywogs. We collected insects for them to eat, but after our first hatching died, we decided it was time to let them go.

Not being sure what the critters are is fun. Wood frog eggs are the earliest amphibian eggs to be laid each year, but spotted salamander eggs look similar. The one key difference between the species is that spotted salamander egg masses have an outer membrane that covers the clump of eggs and wood frog egg masses don’t (i.e., smooth = spotted salamander, bumpy = wood frog). Of course, you can wait until they hatch to see whether or not they have “frills” on the sides of their heads; if they do, you’ve got salamanders.

* * * * *

If your crew has ventured out and unearthed some critters and/or is tired of mucking about, there are some great books about your newfound friends. One of my current favorites is Over and Under the Pond written by Kate Messner and illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal (a companion to the duo’s Over and Under the Snow and Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt). The simple lyrical text features questions between a mother and child exploring a pond. There is so much imagination here — watching the shadows under water and the reflections on its surface. There’s a particularly lovely illustration of tadpoles changing along the bottom of one of the pages. The book includes extra material at the end about pond ecosystems and each of the pond animals as well as additional books and websites.

Kimberly Ridley’s The Secret Pool, illustrated by Rebekah Raye, is part of the Tilbury House Nature Book series, which also includes Ridley and Raye’s The Secret Bay. The Secret Pool has a simple story line, along with extra information tucked into sidebars on each page. Salamanders and dragonfly larvae appear as treasures to be discovered in the vernal pool Ridley describes. Raye’s naturalistic illustrations are both alluring and accurate.

So, get on your boots and go exploring this June, but leave yourself some time to read about the amazing emerging creatures of early summer.

Books mentioned

Over and Under the Pond (2017); Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt (2015); Over and Under the Snow (2011), all written by Kate Messner and illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal (Chronicle)

The Secret Pool (2013) and The Secret Bay (2015), both written by Kimberly Ridley and illustrated by Rebehah Raye (Tilbury House)

Visit Susan’s blog for more of her thoughts about these and other nature-themed picture books.

And for more on the topic from the Horn Book, check out Kathleen Isaac’s Horn Book Magazine article “Fostering Wonder” from the January/February 2017 issue and the accompanying annotated list of recommended books.


Susan Olcott About Susan Olcott

Susan Olcott lives in Maine with her husband and six-year old twin girls. She's played on lobster boats while getting her M.S. in Marine Science, designed and led snorkeling and kayaking tours in San Diego for the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and Birch Aquarium, taken kids on bike tours in Europe and the U.S., and taught biology to military personnel in Sardinia, Italy.

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