As a child, I used to run barefoot along the sand dunes that snaked in and out of the Mississippi River like a benign creature of habit. Later, when I was older, I often camped on those dunes, especially those located at the edge of big, swampy forests that pressed down close against the river.

One of the best things about camping on the dunes is that you never see other human footprints. It is a wild, secret place that seldom has human visitors. At night, it is a spectacular place to be alone. There is no light, except for the moon reflecting off the river, and you can run all night across the sand, chasing fireflies and stampeding the bats that swoop down to feed on them, without ever feeling foolish.

As wide as the Mississippi River is and as deep as it runs it is stone-cold silent on summer nights. There is no rushing of water, no swirling, gurgling currents that battle for supremacy. It is as quiet as a church and almost as spiritual.

I am the river, Deep and strong.

I sing an old, enduring song With rhythms wild and rhythms tame, And Mississippi is my name.

From ice and snow my life began As melting glacial waters ran In rising, frigid floods that found A thousand paths to lower ground.
Written as a long poem, this book tells the story of the Mississippi River from a time when giant mammoths roamed the continent, up to the present day. It is a story packed with Indians and riverboats, Civil War gunships and modern tugs, floods and bountiful harvests and, of course, a vivid assortment of alligators and snakes.

The quiet days had surely passed With changes coming hard and fast.

I heard the mighty gunboats roar Amid a bloody civil war, Then watched the country, torn in two, Be reunited, born anew.
Author Diane Siebert is no stranger to children's books that blend simple, one-word themes with allegory and fantasy. Her other children's books include Cave, Mojave and Train. To research this book, she says she "crossed just about every bridge across the Mississippi," and I believe her. The illustrations by Greg Harlin are nothing short of spectacular. The artwork alone is justification enough for owning this book. Richly textured and passionate, they tell stories that words alone cannot address. This is his first picture book, but his award-winning work has been featured in museums around the country and in exhibits for the National Park Service.

Mississippi is touted for children of all ages and that is probably true, insofar as the illustrations are concerned but the poetic format of the book may be too challenging for younger children. It is by no means too challenging to be heard. What children cannot see with their eyes, they often can hear in minute detail.

Naomi Branch reviews nature, health and children's books. She wrote this review while on a botanical expedition on the Tennessee River.

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