Books Picture Book Challenge 2011 Picture Books Reading Themes When Words are Not Enough

Flowers in the Desert: Ezra Jack Keats’ Clementina’s Cactus

Clementina’s Cactus, as far as my research can tell is the only wordless picture book published by Ezra Jack Keats, a prolific book author and illustrator who has published more than 80 children’s books in his lifetime. It’s a lovely 6 x 4 book that shows a child’s fascination with a cactus in the desert, and a father’s fascination with his strong-willed daughter.

The Desert and Unexpected Rainshowers. One of the book reviews I’ve read on Clementina’s Cactus (Puss Reboots, A Book Review a Day) indicate that the setting could possibly be in the New Mexico desert. I particularly enjoyed the play of colors: (1) the pristine white and yellow background to depict the heat; (2) the dark blues and purples with jagged white-scar lightning to depict the sudden rainshowers;

Note the splashes of purple and blues to depict the rain

(3) the multicolored rainbow after the rain; (4) and the pastel-peach hues to highlight what I believe must be early-morning before the sun rises. The play of colors alone suggest a multitude of things making words totally unnecessary. Truly another perfect book for our Bimonthly feature this March-April on Wordless Picture Books: “When Words are not Enough.”

Our Wordless Picture Book Special for March and April 2011

Papa’s Little Girl and Clementina’s Little Plant. Most children’s books highlight this beautiful bond between mother and child. Yes, there are books that occasionally show father-and-daughter kinship but .. well, not as much as I would wish (do give me suggestions if you find any).

I like how the little girl seems absolutely enamored with this little green prickly plant, as her father looks on, fascinated by his little daughter

I find that Keats’ wordless book on Clementina highlight that beauty. The father in the story is also shown to be like some kind of hippie, long-haired, extremely thin man with a beret. Definitely not your usual doting, father-type with the continual absent-mindedness, eyeglasses, and balding hair – with the perennial newspaper in front of him at the breakfast table (read: Gaiman’s The Day I swapped my Dad for two goldfish).

More than anything, the father in Clementine’s Cactus reminded me of Angela Montenegro’s rockstar bad-ass Dad in Bones the series.

Angela Montenegro in Bones and her "father" - lead guitar and vocalist of rock band ZZ Top. Click on the image to be taken to the websource
I also like this image of Angie and her rockstar dad. Click on the image to be taken to websource.

Clementina’s Surprise. Our rockstar father had to take her kicking and possibly-screaming little daughter indoors when he sensed that it was about to rain. Not without a great deal of resistance though seeing how “into” the cactus this little girl was, as could be seen below.

Our hippie dad carrying our struggling strong-willed baby out of the desert as the first signs of rain appear in the skies

As the rain raged on outside, the little girl looks out her moon-lit window wondering about her plant.

Our willful red-haired girl staring out the window, wondering about her green plant in the desert

It warms the heart knowing how the rain, the little girl’s imposed-exile, and the father’s patience were rewarded with a little surprise from the skies. You would have to flip through the water-colored pages yourself to find out exactly what that ‘surprise’ is.

I also discovered that this picture book is quite known for one of Ezra Jack Keats’ illustrations entitled Moon in the Desert as could be seen below:

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Teacher Resources. There are quite a number of classroom activities that teachers can use to introduce this book to their students (or parents to their own children). This Southwest Literature post demonstrates how Clementina’s Cactus can be used with students from Grade 6th to 8th and how students can write a story based on the illustrations. Student outcomes, class preparation, materials needed, and a step-by-step account of how the book can be used in the classroom are enumerated.

Scholastic Printables also shares a 4-paged detailed lesson plan on how concepts and themes could be introduced as well as Extension Activities that can be done in class including Sand Painting and What Makes a Rainbow. You would have to register though in order for you to print the materials.

In this website, you would also be able to find Preschool Cactus activities and quite a number of possible art activities that you can initiate with children including a 3d Cactus, a Desert Scene, and Textured Cactus.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Ezra Jack Keats, born to impoverished Polish immigrants in March 11, 1916 was said to be the first American picture-book author to give the African-American child a central place in children’s literature even before multicultural themes and characters became in vogue. He has written and illustrated twenty-four children’s classics including The Giant Turnip, a beloved folk tale. Click here to be taken to his official website.

PictureBook Challenge Update: 31 of 72

Clementina’s Cactus, by Ezra Jack Keats. The Viking Press, New York, 1982. Book borrowed from the NIE Library.

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

7 comments on “Flowers in the Desert: Ezra Jack Keats’ Clementina’s Cactus

  1. Oh it’s nice that the father allowed her daughter to get close to the cactus (under his watchful eye of course), instead of perhaps keeping her away because of the possibility of hurting herself with plant. The daughter reminds me of Little Orphan Annie. 🙂 And about the father and daughter kinship, I heard before that the country singer Tim McGraw with co-author Tom Douglas has a children’s book entitled My Little Girl. I haven’t read it though.:)


    • myragarcesbacsal

      Oh yeah, she does look a bit like Orphan Annie with the cute red curls. And her being quite willful too – what a combination, curls AND red hair.

      Thank you for the recommendations, I love the books that you make mention of – it widens our reading choices considerably – and I like hunting for hard-to-find books, and those I have not heard of. I wonder if there’s a musical quality to Tim McGraw’s book, him being a singer and all. 😉 Would let you know if and when I find the book. =)


  2. I love the insertion of a Bones reference. 🙂
    I can see the resemblance. I also liked how this being a father-daughter focused book the child isn’t prim and proper. She has a patched up night gown and she’s getting introduced to a cactus. There’s a feel of eclectic in it. The little girl has the same feel as the girl in Tove Jansson’s Summer Book, stubborn and all.


    • myragarcesbacsal

      Hi Mary. Good eye. I didn’t even notice the patched-up quality of the night gown.

      And we do have to make use of our series-addiction and bring them into our book addiction – might as well marry the things we love doing best. Haha. I have yet to read the Tove Jansson book I received for the NYRB Photo challenge. Maybe I should revisit that.


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