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Thematic Reading List: The Desert

 

The Desert Is Theirs
Written by Byrd Baylor
Illustrated by Peter Parnall
Aladdin, 1997
32 pages

It's hard to write a thematic reading list about the desert without including a handful of Byrd Baylor books. And who better than Byrd Baylor--a resident of both Tucson and Arivaca--to describe firsthand the sights and sounds of the desert. The Desert Is Theirs is the perfect book to get this reading list started. The book opens with poetic text, describing what the desert is not:

 

 

 

"This is no place
for anyone
who wants
soft hills
and meadows
and everything
green
green
green..."

Baylor goes on to write who the desert is for:

"And it's for
strong brown Desert People
who call the earth
their mother.

They have to see
mountains
and have to see
deserts
every day...
or they don't feel right."

This is the kind of book that can make one fall in love with the desert, even if they're never set foot in one. This is the kind of book that seres as a desert dwelling affirmation for those who live in dry land. And this is the kind of book that can rekindle a love for the desert, for those dwellers who often forget.

 

 

 

The Desert is my Mother: El Desierto es mi Madre
Written by Pat Mora
Illustrated by Daniel Lechon
Pinata Books, 2008
32 pages

 

The narrator in this book, a young girl, makes a beautiful metaphor when she says, "The desert is my mother." Through a variety of examples like how she says "feed me" and mother earth "serves red prickly pear on a spiked cactus" and she says "caress me" and mother earth "strokes my skin with her warm breath," the girl shows through a myriad of ways how the desert is like her mother. And not just like her mother, but "the desert is my mother: el desierto es mi madre." The text is actually a poem, written by Mora, that's separated in segements throughout the book. You can read the whole, lovely poem in its entirity--in both English and Spanish--at the end of the book.

 

 

 

Desert Voices
Written by Byrd Baylor
Illustrated by Peter Parnall
Aladdin, 1993
32 pages

As the title implies, Baylor's poems in this book give voice to a range of desert speakers,  from a pack rat to a jack rabbit, and from a cactus wren to a rattlesnake. These poems dig deep into the mind and soul of each animal, and we leave each poem knowing each animal's perspective a bit better than we did before. For example, who would think that the life and mind of a pack rat could be so curious, so thoughtful, so adorable and sweet:

 

 

"I am a gatherer of treasure...
of leaves
and berries and roots,
mesquite beans,
sweet red summer cactus fruit,
and a piece of a clear glass bottle
turned purple by the sun...

I go home at sunrise,
pushing
and pulling
and rolling
all the good things
back to my nest,
my pile of sticks and dirt
and cholla cactus thorns.

It holds me safe.
It hides my shining secrets
in the dust."

 

 

 

Mojave
Written by Diane Siebert
Illustrated by Wendell Minor
HarperCollins, 1992
32 pages

This long and lovely poem, from the perspective of the Mojave desert, creates swifty, drifty rhythms and rhymes that make you feel like you're traversing the desert landscape. The poem opens and closes with this wise refrain:

"I am the desert.
I am free.
Come walk the sweeping face of me."

And I love how the poem personifies the desert, and how it has the desert take on human traits:

"I feel the windstorm's violent thrust;
I feel the sting of sand and dust
As bit by bit, and year by year,
New features on my face appear."

 

 

 

The Way to Start a Day
Written by Byrd Baylor
Illustrated by Peter Parnall

Aladdin, 1986
32 pages

Baylor reminds us to start our day by singing to the sun. It's something that's so simple, but often so forgotten in today's society. She reminds us, too, that this act isn't anything particularly new or free-spirited or original. Instead, millions of people from a variety of cultures have been singing and creating songs for the sun for centuries. From the pharaohs singing in Egypt to the drums and songs of the Congo, and from Aztec flutes in Mexico to the chanting in sun temples in Peru, every culture and country has traditions of singing to the sun.

In addition to singing to the sun, Baylor reminds us that people from other cultures and traditions in the past even gave gifts to the sun:

"In some places
they gave
gold.
In some places
they gave
flowers.
In some places,
sacred smoke
blown to the four
directions.
Some places,
feathers
and good thoughts.
Some places,
fire."

Baylor's poetry reminds me, who's not an early rise by any means, to start my days better. Instead of starting my days rushed and frantic, why not start a morning singing to the sun?
 

 

Allie Leach is the Poetry Center's Education Programs Assistant and co-editor of the Wordplay blog.

Created on: 
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Arizona Board of Regents