What Is a River? – Perfect Picture Book Friday

Here’s another exquisitely beautiful book in translation from 2021 that nearly missed my radar. Of course it’s published by Enchanted Lion.

You might think you know what a river is: a strip of water that flows from a source(s) to a delta, whether the mouth of the delta is on the ocean like the Mighty Mississippi or inland like the Okavango. But a river is so much more.

The book opens with a child and grandmother busy on the banks of a river. The child is collecting flowers to make a wreath, and the grandmother is embroidering a tablecloth. (Take a peek under the book jacket for a little surprise.)

The child asks, “River, who are you? Grandma, what is a river?”

The question leads to many answers, the first being, “The river is a thread…”

Text/Illustration ©Monika Vaicenavičienė

“It embroiders our world with beautiful patterns.

It connects people and places, past and present.

It stitches stories together.”

Each spread contains either two or three layers of text. The first is a direct answer. The river is a thread, a journey, a home, refreshment, a name, a meeting place, a mystery, history, a smell, depth, energy, a reflection, a connection, and a flow.

The second layer is often a poetic response, as shown above, or combined with a third layer that expands on the direct answer with expository details, most written lyrically, with illustrations highlighting details and additional callouts.

This structure appeals to a broad age range of children, allowing for information to be absorbed visually and/or through the text.

Text/Illustration ©Monika Vaicenavičienė

Some spreads contain quite a bit of information, in addition to the lyrical text and gorgeous, intricate illustrations.

Text/Illustration ©Monika Vaicenavičienė

The book ends with a final question: Is the story of a river ever finished?

What do you think the answer is?

And then the answer is illustrated metaphorically when the child releases the wreath on the river and lets the current carry it away.

This meditation on rivers gives a child a chance to think deeply about that strip of running water they may pass by ever day. It may lead to questions: Where does the river come from and where does it go? What’s around the next bend? Where does its name come from? What animals may drink from the river, live on the river, find food in the river? How has the river been used in the past and today? Is there a river festival nearby? Children’s curiosity can be endless. And that’s a very good thing. Because books like this one feed that curiosity while offering up a few answers as well.


Find out the names of your local rivers, if you don’t already know them. What is the origin of the name? Where does the river originate? Where is its delta or mouth? Draw a map of local rivers in relation to where you live. Trace from a printed map, if needed. Find pictures of animals that live in or near the rivers, and add them to your map. Find out about the history of your river(s). What is it known or used for? In what ways does your community enjoy the river?

Write haiku poems about a river, using your five senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, sound. Here’s a short Youtube tutorial on writing haiku with examples. Here are some examples of haiku poems about rivers.

Listen to songs about rivers: Shenandoah , Green River (Credence), Proud Mary (Credence) Old Man River What words/themes do these songs have in common?

Title: What Is a River?

Author/Illustrator: Monika Vaicenavičienė

Publisher: Enchanted Lion, 2021

Ages: Elementary school

Themes: rivers, history, nature

For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s website.

22 thoughts on “What Is a River? – Perfect Picture Book Friday

  1. Janine Kovac says:

    I LOVE Picture Book Fridays, even if I haven’t read a picture book in years! I enjoy your commentary and analysis and the levels to which we can examine literature, esp kid’s literature. Question: what language is this book translated from?

    thanks and see you around the lit world someday!

    On Fri, Mar 18, 2022 at 12:02 AM Jilanne Hoffmann wrote:

    > Jilanne Hoffmann posted: ” Here’s another exquisitely beautiful book in > translation from 2021 that nearly missed my radar. Of course it’s published > by Enchanted Lion. You might think you know what a river is: a strip of > water that flows from a source(s) to a delta, whether” >

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Hello, Janine! It was originally published in 2019 in Swedish under the title: Vad Är En Flod? No translator is specified, although they provide the name of the English language editor, Lawrence Kim. I had two separate conversations yesterday about how picture books are not just for children. One was with authors in our local SCBWI picture book craft discussion group, and the other was with my niece who is a teacher of teachers. She’s on a mission to show all of her students how picture books (especially nonfiction or those with a philosophical bent) can be used not only to teach concepts but also ART and SOCIAL STUDIES (since testing now overwhelmingly focuses on math and science) at all age levels. She’s going to be writing my teacher’s guide for my forthcoming STEM picture book, River of Dust. You can bet that there will be plenty of art activities woven into the lesson plans. Thanks for stopping by and saying hello!

  2. Mona Voelkel says:

    I absolutely love that you are sharing translations of picture books from other countries!!! What a lovely gift and something, sadly, that I hadn’t thought about. From your post, it would seem that I need to visit Enchanted Lion! This review was so beautiful and I so appreciate your discussion of the layers of meaning. I am swooning over the text and illustration that you highlighted in your review, and love your activities, and am off to find this book and bring it home! This is my first week exploring Perfect Picture Book Friday and I am so excited about how wonderful it all is! Thank you for sharing such a special book!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Welcome, Mona! Thanks for stopping by! I’m so glad you fell in love with this book, too! It’s marvelous! Enchanted Lion tends to take risks in the translation arena that many larger publishers avoid. Smaller publishers tend to offer a bit more in translation, but I wish there were many many more. In addition, books printed in English from publishers outside the U.S. also add a richness to the standard picture book landscape offered by those published in the U.S. I hope to add more reviews of books in translation here in the future. Stay tuned!

  3. Joanna says:

    I am always up for picture books from Europe. And Enchanted Lion is one of my favorite publishers. Thank you for this superb find. How beautiful and instructional.

  4. Andrea Mack says:

    I love how this story features different ways to think about rivers – just in time for World Water Day (Mar 22). I love all your great ideas! This might be interesting to pair with A River by Marc Martin (Chronicle).

  5. Patricia Tilton says:

    Another contemplative share today! I enjoyed how you focused on the many ways we think about rivers and your discussion of the how the story is presented in layers. So beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing. It is perfect for World Water Day.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Thanks, Maria! If they don’t carry it, please request that they add it to their inventory. There’s so much amazingness between the covers. And the undie was inspired. If you get a library copy, you won’t be able to see the case, so I’ll tell you that it’s the image of the embroidered tablecloth that the grandmother is working on throughout the book.

  6. Sue Heavenrich says:

    I love rivers. We walk down to the river running through town at least a couple times a week – just to listen to the water and the birds (now very full of bird activity along shore). Great activities, too!

  7. Mona Voelkel says:

    I ordered this book and I am so in love with the words and illustrations!!! Thank you so much for your review that led me to WHAT IS A RIVER!!! Also, you also led me to the gorgeous Enchanted Lion imprint (which is also dangerous because I want all their books)!

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