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Tulips by Jay O'Callahan Children's Picture Book Critique and Activities for Lesson Plans

O'Callahan, Jay.  Tulips.  Ill. Debrah Santini.  Atlanta Peachtree, 1996 (1992)

Category: European/multicultural story, picture book, plants and gardening, critical thinking, art

Age group: early/middle elementary

Transient

Summary, Critique & Analysis followed by Activities: 

On the back cover of this book, smack dab in the middle, under a gorgeously plump, dangling cat, reads, "Don't  you just love surprises?"  The answer is yes, especially when it comes to a witty and charming book such as this. 

O'Callahan's storyteller background comes to life through a rich blend of colorful and humorous narration and dialogue.  She draws the reader/listener into the action from the very first sentence,

"Someone had dropped the cat onto old Regis sleeping in his bed by the stove."

That someone was mischievous Pierre, who had come for another one of his twice-a-year visits to Grand Ma Mere's opulent Parisian estate (much to the disgruntlement of the staff).  Pierre loves to play tricks, and so far, he has played them on almost anyone and everyone.  The gardener finds a toad in his boots.  The chambermaid finds her bloomers up the flagpole.  However there is one person who has not yet been blessed by Pierre's shenanigans, and that is Grand Ma Mere. 

One summer, Pierre decides that it is about time he plays a trick on Grand Ma Mere (and her tulips.)  Grand Ma Mere has one of the largest and most beautiful gardens in all of Paris, sporting four hundred blazing red tulips.  That fall, Pierre bought a black tulip bulb and planted it right in the very middle of her garden. 

Pierre chuckled to himself all winter long.

The following spring, on the day of the unveiling of the tulips, Pierre makes a bet with Grand Ma Mere that this year the tulips are not all the same.  this time it is Pierre that is outsmarted.

Pierre ran to the edge of the terrace and stared, his mouth wide open.  Every single tulip was black.

The next morning he finds ...a wet sponge in his shoe (from the butler) and a few more surprises from the rest of the staff. 

Not only is this story engaging throughout, but it is also suspenseful at just the right moments.  While this story starts out being about trickery and antics, we see, in its denouement, the love and mutual respect that can bridge both personality and generation gaps. 

From beginning to end, this lively picture book is truly a work of art.  Santini did an exquisite job of portraying the 1920's, pastel, Parisian-garden mood so fitting for this story.  Her ink-and-watercolor double-page spreads are also befitting of Grand Ma Mere's fashionable and tempered character, with dabs of Pierre's trickster personality.

The wonderment of Santini's double-page spreads does not end there.  The text also plays an integral role in the layout, in that its appearance and placement provides for a smooth and graceful continuity to the soft-hued illustrations.  Together they make cover to cover aesthetically pleasing in every respect.  There is a wonderful double-spread surprise added to the front and back endpapers and flyleaf.  In the front, the gorgeous, plump, orange cat is in a parcel on the floor, everything fairly neat and tidy.  On the back, the cat is leaving the parcel behind, this time everything is in a bit of a tussle.

Although this book is recommended for ages 8-12, probably because of the more complex plot line and underlying messages, a younger audience would find this thoroughly enjoyable as a read-aloud.

Activities:

  • This would be a great precursor to learning about plants. 
  • Have the children plant some seeds in milk cartons. 
  • Take a field trip to the Botanical Gardens, or visit some gardens in the neighborhood. 
  • If it is close to Arbor day, plant a donated tree and have an unveiling of your own. 
  • This is also a great book to use if studying different types of art. 
  • Have the children dabble in some watercolors (media used for the illustrations of Tulips).