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Winter Secrets

Winter can seem like a time when there isn’t much going on outside; in fact, the season offers opportunities to see things that are otherwise obscured by the growth and busyness of the other seasons. At our house in winter, for example, we can see through the skeletons of trees out back to the Christmas lights on the town green. When the foliage is thick, lots of life and activity in the trees is hidden. During winter, we can watch birds in our yard with perfect clarity as they flit from branch to branch and give us glimpses of their bodies unobscured by those pesky leaves. The trees themselves are in rare form, revealing their underlying structures, which usually remain hidden. This season is a chance to learn which trees are which without the obvious clues of leaf shape or color.

You can become an expert in identification with a bit of guidance. Winter Trees, written by Carole Gerber and illustrated by Leslie Evans, is a simple, elegant picture book about identifying trees in the dormant season. Evans’s silhouette illustrations help readers easily differentiate among seven types of trees; Gerber’s rhyming text provides some information and makes the book a playful read-aloud. There’s an invaluable “cheat sheet” at book’s end, which I’ve photocopied and keep near our back door for easy reference.

My other favorite winter sleuthing activity is looking for animal tracks. The snow is like a fingerprint machine. It tells a story of what is happening in crisp detail. Tracks in a line could be a fox; two little tracks between two big could be a fat squirrel or perhaps a bunny. Follow the tracks and you might discover they disappear beneath a shed. Or leading up to your shed roof as we found when we followed turkey tracks one December. This is storytelling by nature and sparks all kinds of imaginative ideas for those of all ages.

One of my favorite tracking books doesn’t discuss the identification of tracks but aptly captures the magic of discovering winter’s animal activities. Wong Herbert Yee’s Tracks in the Snow details the discoveries of a little girl on a snowy day. She leaves her snug bed to find all kinds of unexpected stories in the snow-covered woods. The unexpected ending is sweetly satisfying.

While my girls and I are pretty hardy and will head out in most conditions if armed with good snow pants and a mug of something hot, winter outings sometimes have to be brief. Fortunately, many of these backyard observations can be made in short forays or even from a sunny window. The point is that there is much to be discovered and, with assistance from a few good books, winter may share some of its secrets with you.

Books mentioned


Winter Trees, written by Carole Gerber and illus. by Leslie Evans (Charlesbridge, 2008)

Tracks in the Snow, written and illus. by Wong Herbert Yee (Holt, 2003)

Check out Susan's previous winter-themed posts, Winter Art and Winter Seeds, and visit Susan’s blog for more of her thoughts about these and other nature-themed picture books.
Susan Olcott
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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