Title: Blueberries for Sal
Author: Robert McCloskey
Grade Level: PreK-1
Extension Objectives: Students will discover how animals use different strategies to survive challenging environmental conditions. They will also learn about and practice different food preservation techniques.
How the story grows
The deep blueberry ink of this book sets the tone for a day of berry-picking on Blueberry Hill. Little Sal and her mother travel to the blueberry shrubs to collect berries for making preserves to eat during the winter. In a parallel hike, Mother Bear and Little Bear are eating their way up the hill to “store up food for the long cold winter.” Robert McCloskey, the Caldecott Award- winning author/illustrator builds child-scale tension as the mother/child pairs are separated but ultimately reunited. Though the story was first published in 1948, the experience of temporary separation is universal and will resonate with current readers.
At the beginning of the day, the two pairs collect blueberries on opposite sides of the mountain; both Little Sal and Little Bear get tired and decide to take a break. When they resume their berry picking/eating adventure they inadvertently match up with the wrong mother-- Little Sal follows the mother bear while the cub follows Little Sal’s. Readers will be amused by the role played by crows and partridges in a case of mistaken identity as Little Sal and Little Bear search for their own parents. Each pair is eventually reunited as both human and ursine mothers recognize the unique berry picking style of each offspring. Sal’s style makes a distinct onomatopoeic “kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk” as she fills her bucket, while Little Bear makes his presence known by spilling the berries from Sal’s mother’s bucket. The double-page spread illustrations convey the openness of the Maine hills and are large enough to share this book aloud with a group. Astute readers will enjoy learning about this slice of rural life in the 1940’s, and glean information about the process of canning berries from the illustrations in the detailed endpapers.
The biological backstory
As the title implies, the blueberry gets equal billing, and is unquestionably the main botanical character of this story. The blueberry, a native perennial shrub, is found widely throughout North America and is consumed by humans and wildlife alike. The wild variety, pictured in the book, grows as a small shrub and is often called by the name “low bush” while domesticated varieties are bigger plants with larger berries and called “high bush.” The blueberry has been termed a “superfood” for its high antioxidant levels (substances which protect cells from harmful chemical reactions) and for its low glycemic index (measure of a food’s impact on blood sugar levels when consumed).
In this book, the parallel between Little Sal and her mother’s adventure on Blueberry Hill and the bears’ extends to the biological realm as well. Both pairs of mother and offspring are foraging for winter food but in different ways; the bears consume large quantities of blueberries and store the calories as fat to prepare for hibernation while the McCloskey family preserves the blueberries in jars as shown in the delightfully blue endpage illustrations. The time-honored tradition of foraging is still practiced in many places in the U.S. with such foods as blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries. Persons more in touch with their inner hunter-gatherer may want to try their hand at fiddleheads and ramps while expert foragers and naturalists are often found feasting on the likes of pokeberry, dandelion, nettles, acorns and mushrooms. This last category is not for the uninformed since consuming the wrong species or processing them in the wrong way can be dangerous.
Our next column will feature Pumpkin Circle: The story of a garden, by George Levenson (Tricycle Press, ISBN: 1-582460043, 1-58246078). Pumpkin Circle is a stunningly visual, poetic, and informative ride through the life cycle of a pumpkin.