Book Review: ‘Begin with a Bee’ by Liza Ketchum, Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Phyllis Root; illustrations by Claudia McGehee

When I received the email that there was a new book forthcoming that featured the talents of Iowans Jacqueline Briggs Martin of Mount Vernon and Iowa City’s Claudia McGehee, I honestly got so excited. Their previous collaboration, Creekfinding, is a favorite of mine, and I leap at the chance to explore their work. Whenever I ask myself why, exactly, I live in Iowa, I only have to lose myself in McGehee’s love letter-like illustrations to be reminded of the ineffable beauty of the prairie.

McGehee turns those talents to bees (a subject I already have a soft spot for!) and their habitats in Begin with a Bee (University of Minnesota Press), out May 18. Each page is a universe to get lost in. McGehee works in scratchboard, which is at least partially how her work manages to be somehow both carefree and precise. Movement drives the eye across each page, infusing her scenes with life. But when stillness is warranted, she provides that, too, in equal measure.

Begin with a Bee traces the life cycle of a queen rusty-patched bumblebee, the first bee (the back text tells us) to be placed on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Endangered Species list. The plight of bees, we’re often told, is intricately tied to the survival of humanity. According to, one-third of the world’s food production depends on bees. (World Bee Day, incidentally, falls on May 20, just two days after this book’s release!)

With bee populations at risk, the value of teaching children about them at a young age is clear. And this book does that with charm and aplomb, weaving the styles of the three authors together to create a narrative that is straightforward and compelling. I often read the children’s books that I review to my daughter (now 3), and for this one she sat in hushed excitement for the entirety. It takes scientific concepts and processes and makes them not just accessible but enthralling.

The book ends with a slightly deeper dive into the science for older readers and a page titled “Ten things we can all do to help” that activates children to action. Many of them are, again, geared toward older kids — but my daughter was inspired and eager to share the book and the ideas with her grandmother, whose garden she plays in often.

Parents, be aware that this is a book that is tailor made to cause a case of the “Why?”s. If you don’t love exploring and learning with your child, then this isn’t the book for you. But if you are ready to dive down a rabbit hole (well, bee colony hole) of curiosity, then you’ll want to pick it up for every nature lover and nature lover-to-be(e) in your life.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 294.

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