In honor of Maine’s bicentennial-plus-one anniversary (March 15), we’re checking out some Maine-themed picture books this week.

Cover courtesy of Down East Books

Happy Birthday, Maine!
By Lynn Plourde
Illustrated by Mark Scott Ricketts
Down East Books, 2020

Lynn Plourde’s “Happy Birthday, Maine!” is a bicentennial gift to the state from one of Maine’s most prolific children’s authors. When Paul Bunyan and his sidekick Moose decide to throw a huge party for everyone in, or in love with, the state, the result is a book stuffed like a pinata with Maine staples, icons and fascinating factoids, from Chester Greenwood (inventor of earmuffs) to tourtiere pie to Bean boots. It is sure to appeal to librarians and teachers, as well as kids. While purists might regret that the state bird pictured here looks nothing like a chickadee, the illustrations overall are goofy-cute, and the text ropes in enough historic figures and facts to be deemed both nutritional as well as delicious, like the perfect birthday confection.

Cover courtesy of Amazon

The Maine Birthday Book
By Tonya Shevenell
Illustrated by Laura Winslow
Home Ice Productions, 2019
52 pages

Portland author Tonya Shevenell’s first picture book also features a chickadee (this one slightly more recognizable), lots of Maine animals, places and trivia (there’s Chester Greenwood again), and a birthday theme. But this book is longer and more ambitious.

Shevenell’s chickadee, aptly named Dirigo, sets the stage by announcing it’s his birthday, and wondering what he should wish for. Seventeen of his animal friends – one from each county, plus the Wabanaki lands – respond by sharing their own birthday wishes.

This device permits Shevenell to parade a wealth of Maine lore and wildlife before us in a happy, free-flowing, sometimes disjointed ramble through the state. The animals include everything from puffins and loons to fishers and dragonflies. And their birthday wishes range from being very apt (black bears wishing for “sweet wild blueberries” or eagles from the easternmost county, Washington, wishing for “sunrises that make you feel like every day is your birthday”) to others that are wildly incongruous (hula-hooping alewives who want the world to join in, and a coon cat who wishes to become the “best space-ship builder in the world”).

Winslow’s watercolors of the landscapes are lush and luscious. In the same way that the writing is strongest when it’s more grounded in reality, the illustrations are at their best when they’re not trying to anthropomorphize the animals. Like most self-published books, it could use some judicious editing. But still, it is a fun birthday gift for anyone who loves, or misses, Maine.

Cover courtesy of Islandport Press

Chowder Rules! The True Story of an Epic Food Fight
By Anna Crowley Redding
Illustrated by Vita Lane
Islandport Press, 2020

A little-known piece of Maine lore is at the center of “Chowder Rules,” by Cape Elizabeth resident Anna Crowley Redding. Any New Englander who has ever ordered clam chowder at a restaurant and been served an outrageous red concoction – Manhattan chowder – can understand why Maine state senator Cleveland Sleeper, Jr., proposed a law in 1939 to make adding tomatoes to chowder a crime.

“Any man worth his weight in salt, cream, clams and potatoes ” would have done the same, explains Redding, tongue firmly in cheek. Defending Maine’s chowder was “as serious as rooting for the Red Sox.” The penalty for the crime, Sleeper proposed, was to be “forced to dig a barrel of clams at high tide.” Which, as every clammer anywhere knows, is impossible.

The “epic food fight” between the two types of chowder garnered national headlines and culminated in, not a law, but a highly publicized “chowder duel.” I won’t spoil the ending, but one newspaper noted that Sleeper’s chef “could have made a soup of old boots and still won.”

Supported by Lane’s vivacious illustrations, Redding has good fun with the story, especially in her loving descriptions of the soup in question: It is “steamy, dreamy, creamy perfection,” the “taste of comfort,” and “the entire state of Maine in a single bite: sea clams, potatoes, and salt pork, all swimming in a creamy broth.” It’s enough to make any reader clamor for a bowlful (recipe fortunately included.)

Amy MacDonald is a children’s book author and freelance writer. She may be reached at [email protected]

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