Desert Daze: 7 Picture Books Celebrating Deserts

Kadie Seitz, Librarian, Youth Services,
Tourists viewing Badwater in Death Valley from their car
Tourists viewing Badwater in Death Valley from their car, [ca 1939]. Studio Frashers Inc., Works Progress Administration Collection

California Nouns: People, Places, and Things

Did you know that deserts make up about 25% of the total surface area of the state of California? Although some consider them barren wastelands, if you look a little closer, you’ll see that California deserts are home to many plants, animals, and people. With all three of California’s deserts (the Mojave, Colorado, and Great Basin) within driving distance from Los Angeles, visiting the desert with a little one makes for a wonderful experience. Of course, you can always visit a desert through the pages of a book. So lace up your hiking boots, and get ready to explore the wonders of deserts with these picture books.

Book cover for I'm a Hare, So There!
I'm a Hare, So There!
Rowan-Zoch, Julie

Rabbit? Did you say...rabbit? Hare sets the story straight when “Chipmunk” (really Ground Squirrel) calls them a rabbit, not a hare. This silly tale will delight fans of the Pigeon and Elephant and Piggy series, while teaching readers that while some animals may seem a lot alike, they’re actually quite different. The end of the book even features a guide on how to tell commonly confused animals apart. So next time you find yourself in the desert, think twice about calling something a rabbit! Recommended for ages 3+

Fun fact: Hares (often called Jackrabbits) live throughout nearly the entire state of California, not just the desert.

Book cover for Over on a Desert: Somewhere in the World
Over on a Desert: Somewhere in the World
Berkes, Marianne

Of course, you can find deserts all over the world, not just California. Over On A Desert takes readers on a counting journey through deserts on nearly every continent. Each page features an animal parent and their desert babies, with illustrations containing some fun hidden surprises. The back pages include facts, activity ideas, and even a musical version of the story. Recommended for ages 3+.

Fun fact: While deserts can be found on all continents, Antarctica is considered the only desert continent.

Book cover for Nobody Hugs a Cactus
Nobody Hugs a Cactus
Goodrich, Carter

Hank the cactus lives alone and wants to stay that way. As desert plants, animals, and even a cowboy pass by, he remains prickly to everyone. But when he gets in a bit of trouble, Rosie the tumbleweed is happy to help. How will he thank her? And will he learn the value of a friend? Readers will spot some familiar desert critters in this fun read. Recommended for ages 4+.

Fun fact: The oldest cactus on record was Granddaddy, who lived in Saguaro National Monument East for about 300 years, twice as long as the average saguaro lives.

Book cover for The Night Flower
The Night Flower
Hawthorne, Lara

The National Parks Service often advertises that “half the park is after dark”, and this holds especially true for deserts. As the sun sets and temperatures drop, the Sonoran Desert wakes up in anticipation of the night bloom of the saguaro cactus. The flowers attract all kinds of creatures, from bats to bobcats. Readers will have a fun time trying to spot all the different animals hidden in the illustrations and can learn more about them and the lifecycle of the saguaro in the book’s back pages. Recommended for ages 4+.

Fun fact: California’s Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks (both deserts), are International Dark Sky Parks. An International Dark Sky Park is a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.

Book cover for Saguaro's Gifts
Saguaro's Gifts
Cyrus, Kurt

It’s a very special birthday for one important desert plant: this saguaro cactus is turning 100 years old! Throughout the day, various birds, insects and mammals stop by to wish the saguaro a happy birthday and demonstrate how vital one cactus can be to many living creatures in the desert. Inventive yet informative rhymes, coupled with gorgeous illustrations that capture the changes in desert light throughout the day will leave readers in awe of all that one cactus does. Recommended for ages 5+.

Fun fact: Saguaros only grow in parts of the Sonoran Desert, and are mostly found in Arizona and Mexico, although they can be found in a small sliver of California near the Arizona border.

Book cover for The Water Lady: How Darlene Arviso Helps a Thirsty Navajo Nation
The Water Lady: How Darlene Arviso Helps a Thirsty Navajo Nation
McGinty, Alice B.

The deserts of the southwestern United States have long been home to indigenous/Native American peoples. The Diné (also known as Navajo) people of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico deeply understand the importance of water when living in a desert environment - around 40 percent of residents of the Navajo Reservation don’t have access to running water in their homes. This book tells the story of Darlene Arviso, who trucks water to over 200 homes in the Navajo Nation. Beautiful watercolor illustrations show the subtle beauty of a challenging environment, and the last pages detail the true story behind the book. Recommended for ages 5+.

Fun fact: More than 500 Native American tribes call California home. The Gabrieleño, Gabrielino, Tongva, and Kizh peoples inhabited the Los Angeles area.

Book cover for Over and Under the Canyon
Over and Under the Canyon
Messner, Kate

Explore the wonders of a desert canyon on a family camping trip to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in this lyrical picture book. From the scorching hot sun above the canyon to the shady crevices beneath, desert canyons are host to a variety of creatures big and small. Inspired by a camping trip to Anza-Borrego, this book encourages you to slow down and look closer - you’ll be surprised by what you find! Recommended for ages 5+.

Fun fact: While most think of deserts as exceedingly hot, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has recorded temperatures as low as -4°F (in 1949). The record high for the park was 122°F in 1990.