The story begins in spring, with the trees greening, but the talk is all of pumpkins.
It’s too soon to plant pumpkins, Grandpa says, because they need real heat. “And bees. Pumpkins need bees.”
For many young readers, this will be new — and startling — information.
“We’ll need bees to make the pumpkins grow,” Matthew says.
His younger sister, Sophie, is not surprised by this; their grandfather has obviously explained all of this to them. It’s second-nature.
Instead, Sophie, in typical younger sibling fashion, is indignant, loudly insisting that the bees will come.
But privately both children are worried that the bees will not come, will not find their tiny corner of the community garden plot in the city.
It is a quiet worry, but later that spring they discover that there are, in fact, bees in the city. There is a rooftop garden, for instance, in which there are four hives, and the children meet the beekeeper.
“The beekeeper rushes from the hotel, clutching an empty box. High on a ladder, he taps the branch from which the bees hang. Dozens dart about him, angry and uncertain, but most plummet into their new home, like water falling.”
The largest segment of the book is yet to come, however; it is devoted to summer, when Matthew and Sophie and their Grandpa finally plant their pumpkin seeds.
Finally, there are bees, and in the garden too, although it’s still too early for the bees to get to work on the pumpkin plants.
It’s as though Renné Benoit, the artist, is as excited as Matthew and Sophie are to see the bees. The most detailed and precisely drawn elements of the story are the winged creatures.
There are a lot of details for the observant reader to take in, throughout the book, however, even beyond the bees.
(For instance, there is some graffiti on a building which reads “Buzz”, in the autumn segment, Sophie is dressed up as a bee, and the bird’s-eye-view image of the city from above contains a clue as to where the children’s garden is below — although the reader won’t get recognize the clue.)
What is truly remarkable about the story, however, is the part that neither Maggie de Vries or Renné Benoit created: it’s the science of the bees themselves, the naturally occurring miracle of pollination.
And that, too, is what makes this book an important one at this time, for Matthew and Sophie’s worry about their pumpkins, a personal concern that they will not be able to grow their own pumpkins, is actually a global concern on another scale.
All those people who understand that bees are disappearing, the very creatures that are responsible for pollinating one third of the plants we depend upon for food are under threat, will read another layer of meaning into this simple story of two children, their Grandpa and some pumpkins.
In two final pages of bee facts at the end of the book, this reality is simply explained for young readers as well, and it is accompanied by a list of suggestions.
I rather wish that some of the suggestions had been on a broader scale, linking the idea of protecting the bees’ environment with changing daily habits to lessen the human footprint on the Earth.
For instance, simple suggestions could be made like opting to walk rather than ride in a car and choosing to eat food grown by farmers who would rather work harder to grow food without pesticides than rely on chemical treatments.
(These would fit with the story as is: you don’t see the children riding in a car, but neither do you see them actually eating anything, let alone any of the other food that was grown in the garden.)
Nonetheless, Maggie de Vries tells an important story in Big City Bees and Renné Benoit’s vibrant and welcoming illustrations will inherently appeal to young children.