Way out in the Desert

written by T.J. March and Jennifer Ward
illustrated by Kenneth J. Spengler

TJ March and Jennifer Ward's Way out in the Desert

Book review by Monica Friedman

Ages 3-7

A rhyming-counting book set in the desert

Whether you’re reading to a preschool or kindergarten kid who loves animals and is excited about learning to count to ten, or providing a simple text to an older student whose interest in desert creatures deserves a little extra encouragement, Way out in the Desert is a colorful delight. A local favorite in Tucson, Arizona, this book uses rollicking, repetitive rhyme, hidden details in the illustrations, and loving mother-child relationships among animals to create a perfect picture book.

The text follows the pattern of an old favorite children’s song, Over in the Meadow, replacing the scenery of the meadow with that of the Sonoran Desert, with its unique landscape and wildlife. Picture the scenery of the old, wild west, complete with towering saguaro cacti, yipping coyotes, and deadly rattlesnakes, and you’ve entered the captivating world of the American southwest.

The big, bold illustrations show unlikely creatures looking delightedly at their offspring, accompanied by easy-to-learn rhyming text:

Way out in the desert having fun in the sun
lived a mother horned toad and her little toady one.
“Scurry!” said the mother. “I scurry!” said the one,
so they scurried all morning having fun in the sun.

On the next page, a mother hummingbird encourages “her little hummers two” to sip from a profusion of blossoms, followed by a mother javelina suggesting “her little piggies three,” enjoy an afternoon snooze, and so on, with the mothers on each successive page overseeing the activities of increasing numbers of children. Jackrabbits, tarantulas, scorpions, and more practically burst forth from the covers.

For an extra treat, the number featured on each page is hidden within that page’s illustration: the number eight is an element of “the old corral gate” while the number five is concealed among the bumps of the Gila monster’s distinctive skin. Your early reader will most likely enjoy the challenge of finding the numbers, some of which are disguised quite cleverly.

The drawings are colorful and detailed, begging for intense scrutiny and bringing to life all the facets of the desert: day and night, micro and macro. Look closely, and you will see that javelinas, unlike their porcine cousins, have fur, as do the busy tarantulas. The baby roadrunners are depicted as befits their name, in motion, chasing a pack of lizards, which flee their pursuers with goofy, comic distress. And the Gila monsters, the only poisonous lizard in the region, are shown with big, beautiful smiles, as are the cozy baby jackrabbits, snuggled into their mother’s embrace. The colors are as warm as the desert itself.

For older and more curious readers, Way Out in the Desert contains a good glossary, defining the animals and plants featured in the book, along with a few other words. These four pages open a nice window into the world of the Sonoran desert, including fun facts about the creatures and their habits.

Note: In addition, budding musicians will enjoy the sheet music, also included, to play the tune for Way Out in the Desert on the piano.

Read more of Monica's reviews.

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