Reading Rockets, a reading website, has a great interview with Degen. He grew up in the city but spent summers in rural upstate New York where he picked wild berries with his grandparents. Later, as an adult, he and his wife took their two sons berry picking. He dedicates the book to “my special Berry Picker and the two Little Berries” which makes it even more special.
Degen describes the experience that inspired this book: “It was green. It was soft. You could walk around in bare feet, and we used to go out and pick lots of berries that grew wild. I always thought of the world as being particularly generous and joyful. And when I was searching my memories, trying to write a book for very young children about being joyful, that popped right up…So, I wrote this whole story about berries, and it turned out that I was writing too much. And a very good editor said to me, “Why don’t you just focus on the berries?” I took the names of the berries, and I just started making silly rhymes that go along with the name of the berries: oneberry, twoberry, hatberry, shoeberry, canoeberry. And I wrote this nonsense poem, which was a lot of fun. The writing comes first. Then I had to illustrate this nonsense poem, and the illustrations give it kind of a rationale. You take a nonsense poem and you illustrate it, and it seems like, “Oh, yeah. That could happen.”
Jamberry will make you want to grab a few containers and find the nearest place to go berry-picking. It is geared towards all ages and is available in board book, picture book, and audio formats. It’s rich in vocabulary (although some is made-up but there’s plenty here for the youngest of readers to absorb) and promotes phonological awareness with its wonderfully rhyming text.
Here are some ideas for extending this story to enhance those early literacy skills:
-act it out with using props around the house or flannel/paper cut-outs
-think of words that rhyme with berry, or make up your own silly “berry” language putting different names in front of berry (bathberry, momberry, etc)
-do this Jamberry activity to learn about compound words
-look closely at the illustrations and name the other food and types of hats found in the book
-tell and/or write a story about a favorite summer activity or your own berry adventure
-schedule a berry-picking outing or visit your grocery store and talk about the types of berries
-buy different flavored jams and do a “taste-testing”
-find a good recipe and bake a berry cobbler or pie
-form your own “Berry Band” with silly costumes and musical instruments
-read other stories: Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey, Sweet Strawberries by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry and the Big Hungry Bear by Don and Audrey Wood, The Giant Jam Sandwich by John Vernon Lord, The Berry Book by Gail Gibbons, Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban, and Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg