The Mess That We Made

Written by Michelle Lord
Illustrated by Julia Blattman

Join four children in a little boat as they discover the magnitude of The Mess That We Made. With rhythmic language and captivating art, this cumulative tale portrays the terrible impact of trash on the ocean and marine life, inspiring us to make changes to save our seas.

Includes a back section with facts about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, ocean pollution, and Calls to Action for kids and grown‑ups to share.
Click here for sources used in the back matter of The Mess That We Made.



From School Library Journal, Clara Hendricks
In an informational picture book about oceanic pollution, Lord and Blattman present a clear and realistic message to young readers in a surprisingly enjoyable package. The rhyming text is in the style of “The House That Jack Built,” with each of the stanzas ending with “the mess that we made.” This phrase refers to enormous garbage patches made up largely of plastics and caused entirely by human beings. The “we” in the text is important, as Lord does not shy away from our collective responsibility to the earth’s oceans and its animals. However, she ends on an uplifting note. Comprehensive back matter elaborates on each of the repeated phrases, describing how each animal is affected by pollution, why plastics are particularly problematic, and ways that children can make a difference. This includes individual acts such as using reusable bags, but also collective actions toward systemic change. Blattman’s digital illustrations bring beauty and brightness to an otherwise heavy topic, without making light of the severity of the situation. The pieces of plastic look like neon-colored confetti, clearly standing out against the swirling natural blues and greens of the sea. Through vibrant and immersive underwater views, readers can see a boat full of children observing the scenes below and, finally, working to clean up the waters.
VERDICT A successful addition in a growing genre of engaging picture books about pollution and environmentalism. Use to support an elementary science curriculum or pair with a book like Andrea Tsurumi’s Crab Cake for a read-aloud.

From Publishers Weekly
Riffing on “The House That Jack Built,” Lord crescendos cause and effect to show how human actions harm the ocean: “We are the people at work and at play/ that stuff the landfill, growing each day/ that spills the plastic thrown away,/ that traps the turtle, green and gray.” Blattman’s colorful, detailed illustrations show children peering into a swirling oceanic soup of plastic fragments where ghost nets and plastic bags entangle seals, whales, and turtles. Midway through, the narrative pivots: “BUT… we are the ones who can save the day.” Lord lists positive actions, using the same rhythms to build to a triumphant conclusion: “We protest the boat of welded steel,/ collect the nets/ and free the seal, that eats the fish…/ that swims in the ocean that WE save!” Though the illustrations move quickly from cataclysm to all-cleaned-up, many are realistically chilling. Substantial supplemental information explains landfills and oceanic pollution and suggests more ways to help. Ages 4–8. (Jan.)

The Picture Book Buzz, STEAM Team 2020 – Interview with Michelle Lord

From Kirkus
The cadences of a familiar nursery rhyme introduce concerns about ocean garbage and what we, who made the mess, can do to help clean it up.
With the rhyme and meter of “The House That Jack Built,” Lord builds the problem of plastic waste in the oceans from the fish that must swim through it to a netted seal, a trapped turtle, and overflowing landfills before turning to remedies: cleaning beaches and bays, reducing waste, and protesting the use of fishing nets. Two pages of backmatter describe problems in more detail, while a third elaborates potential solutions; suggestions for individual action are provided as well. Blattman’s images begin with a racially diverse group of youngsters in a small boat in the center of a plastic trash gyre. The children, shown at different angles, bob spread by spread over trash-filled waters. To accompany the words, “Look at the mess that we made,” she adds a polluted city skyline and a container ship belching smoke to the scene. Finally, the dismayed young boaters reach a beach where a clean-up is in process. From their little skiff they help scoop up trash, rescue the turtle, and wave protest signs.

From IPG’s Fall 2019 Staff Picks, Lauren Klouda, Director of Marketing
With lyrical and somber words from Michelle Lord paired with lush and vivid illustrations by Julia Blattman, who’s animated for Paramount, Disney, and Dreamworks TV, The Mess That We Made is a timely and all-too-important book that every kid should be reading right now. Somehow Blattman manages to make trash beautiful while highlighting the enormity of the plastic catastrophe humans have created. The story ends on a hopeful note though and I think that makes all the difference.

From Yohei Sasakawa, Chairman of The Nippon Foundation and founder of Change for the Blue
Our lives depend on the ocean. Fish consume our waste and then end up on our dinner plates. I hope that this beautifully illustrated book will serve as a tool to pass on the importance of the ocean to future generations and beyond.

From Briggette Dusart, Cleaner Ocean Foundation
This outstanding story superbly visualizes pollution problems with art that hits the spot….It is sure to inspire our young conservationists-in the-making to work toward a sustainable ocean environment.

From Anthony Saner, Director of ReefCI (Reef Conservation International)
Great book! Inspires a love for stewardship of the ocean in today’s youth so that the next generation will not repeat The Mess That We Made. There is always hope in the next generation, a hope that they will create a healthier, more sustainable ocean.

From Imagination Soup, Melissa Taylor
Children’s Books About Pollution. Don’t miss this beautiful cumulative story about ocean pollution beginning by first showing us all the problems we’ve made polluting the ocean, then focusing on how we can clean up the mess. Lyrical and rhythmic with vibrant, painty blue-hued illustrations, this will be a helpful addition to classrooms and home studies of the ocean and pollution. “But…we are the ones who can save the day, reduce our waste at work and at play, recycle the plastic thrown away, to shrink the landfill without delay,…

From Susanna Hill, Perfect Picture Book Friday
In the cumulative tale tradition of This Is The House That Jack Built, this rhythmic, sometimes rhyming story shows kids in an age-appropriate way how human behavior is affecting the ocean ecosystem. The vibrant art shows what is happening to the ocean water and the creatures who live there without being so explicit that it would be upsetting. As the story progresses, the illustrations show more and more garbage in the water, building to a full page spread with the very simple text: “Look at the mess that we made.”
This spread invites readers to pause and really look at and think about what we, as humans, are doing to the world. But the story does not end on that distressing note. Instead, it turns a corner and begins to show all the things we can do to make things better, until it ends on a positive note.
The book has an important message, handled deftly, so that young readers understand the necessity of change and feel empowered to make it. The back matter includes additional interesting and educational material. A wonderful choice for every library!

From Edwards Book Club, Christa McGrath
In a world full of beauty and such promise, Lord sends a gentle message to a young audience about the damage taking place in the ocean – caused when trash is dumped in the waters by us humans.
The Mess That We Made is an educational children’s book. The first half of the book explores what happens to marine life when the waters are polluted and the devastating ripple effect it causes in the world. But the second half of the book shows how meaningful changes can still save the day and how we can all do our part to create a clean and healthy place for everyone.
This message will not scare children as the author chooses her words wisely and creates a rhythmic and fun pace. And the colorful images will captivate readers with the turn of every page. The bright and tasteful artwork will educate little ones (and big ones too) and inspire young minds so that when they grow up they can help lead the way to protect and preserve our waters. It is a brilliant way to help start a conversation about ocean pollution and encourage such needed change in the world.
This book deserves a spot on every library, classroom, and home shelf. It teaches children important facts about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and about calls to action.  It will hopefully shape the minds of our future leaders. If you are considering a new book for your children or your classroom in the new year, please consider getting a copy of this powerful picture book.

From The Corner on Character, Barbara Gruener
Set to release as we kick off a new decade, this sobering story about the perilous impact of ocean trash employs a sing-songy, repetitious rhyme to rock the boat that our children are in, the boat that we, as a society, have inadvertently put them in, the boat that they, as our future, will need to navigate as they work with purpose to save our planet. Our kids are in for a rough ride over trashy waters. Be warned: This isn’t a warm and fuzzy picture book. The illustrations of the yucky ocean pollution give the reader a realistic, up-close look at the effect of our carelessness. It’s at once a wake-up call and a call to action
But there’s also a message of hope, so that we don’t get swallowed up in the current of catastrophe. With one turn of the page, that heavy feeling of deep-sea despair quickly becomes a promise for a healthier, happier tomorrow when the boat reaches the shore and the kids join the Beach Clean Up Day in progress, one small way in which our young leaders can have a big impact.
In real life, we know that our waste issue isn’t going to go away with the turn of a page and that changing our habits won’t happen by default. It’s going to be a long, arduous, and intentional process that won’t be for the faint of heart. But the health of our Earth depends upon our perseverance, endurance, and grit.
Use this ocean gem to springboard not only a discussion but also to ignite goals for actionable ways to reduce our landfills and conserve our resourcesCheck out this timely treasure for your budding environmentalists; I think it’ll especially open the eyes, hearts and minds of our upper Elementary students who will certainly connect with the Call To Action pages with more ideas about what they can do to help fix The Mess That We Made. Here’s to working together to give Mother Earth the gift of health and happiness in 2020 and beyond.

From Bookworm for Kids, Tonja Drecker
The Mess That We Made explores the environmental impact of trash and plastic on the ocean and marine life, and it inspires kids to do their part to combat pollution. Simple, rhythmic wording builds to a crescendo (“This is the mess that we made. These are the fish that swim in the mess that we made.”) and the vibrant digital artwork captures the disaster that is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Children can imagine themselves as one of the four multi-ethnic occupants of the little boat surrounded by swirling plastic in the middle of the ocean, witnessing the cycle of destruction and the harm it causes to plants, animals, and humans. The first half of the book portrays the growing magnitude of the issue, and the second half rallies children and adults to make the necessary changes to save our oceans. Facts about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, ocean pollution, and how kids can help are included in the back matter.
Through rhyme and beautiful artwork of the sea, awareness of the problem trash has caused hits a clear note before gliding in with several solutions.
This is a book with a purpose: to raise awareness of the large trash problem currently ruining our oceans and seas. The author uses a repetitive (and very familiar) rhyming to bring the point home. It’s not only easy and catchy for young listeners to join in on, but cleverly builds…much like the garbage situation. But simply showing a problem doesn’t round things off. This book also ends with hope and offers solutions along the way.
The illustrations are beautiful…if not bitter-sweet, since they do clear drive the point of ocean pollution home. While the rhyme makes each moment clear, the illustrations really touch the heart. Especially the sea life is wonderfully depicted and invites for gazing, among the garbage, of course. It’s a well-balanced mix, which makes sure the message hits with full strength.
Not only do the last pages of the book show a light at the end of the tunnel and illustrate that it’s not a lost situation, but there are extra pages at the end, which give more detail. Each scene (or poem line) is give more information on how it affects the environment. Then, a suggestion is offered as to how each specific problem can be helped. 
For anyone wanting to raise awareness concerning ocean pollution, this is a wonderful book to grab up and use

From Archimedes Notebook, Sue Heavenrich
The book opens with an illustration of kids in a  boat, surrounded by a spiral of plastic debris and sea life. Then, page by page, introduces the sea animals affected by the mess of plastic floating in the ocean: the fish, seals, turtles…From the ocean to the landfill that spills plastic into the water, we see tons of plastic: bottles, fishing nets, plastic bags that trap the sea life … a very big mess.
What I like about this book: That Michelle gives us hope. Because “we are the ones who can save the day…” she writes. We can reduce the plastic we use, recycle it, and clean up the beaches and bays. I like the cumulative “House that Jack Built” structure – it’s perfect for a book where the mess grows and grows. Plus there’s Back Matter – and you know how much I love books with back matter! Three pages at the end of the book highlight the problems of plastic in the oceans and landfills, and also provide specific actions readers can take to reduce the amount of plastic trash they produce.

From Children’s Lit Love, Mary Costello
Do you know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? More importantly, do your kids know about it? Children are so refreshing in their approach to pretty serious world problems, as they often genuinely believe that they can help (And, in the case of Greta Thunburg, sometimes children are indeed working to make worldwide headway on these problems!). When they learn that smoking is bad or that bees are important, they’re likely to tell anyone who will listen or make fliers to hang up around school or town. Teach them about pollution and just watch as they go crazy picking up trash! So what does this have to do with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
Written in the pattern of “The House That Jack Built,” The Mess That We Made tells the story of trash in our ocean, starting with the fish that “swim in the mess that we made” and working down to the “landfill, growing each day” and the “people at work and at play.” Young readers learn about the chain reaction that one piece of trash can cause in the ocean’s food chain, as well as the impact that our everyday actions have on the ocean habitat. The Mess That We Made isn’t all dark and dismal, though, as it ends with a community coming together for a Beach Clean Up Day and showing the positive impact that we can have on our ocean and its resources.
Almost more than the words, Blattman’s illustrations tell an incredibly powerful story. We see fish eating trash, seals caught in nets, turtles trapped in plastic 6-pack rings, landfills spilling into the bay, and so much more. These images struck my children in a way that words can’t. Every single time we read it, we notice another way Blattman has shown that our trash affects sea life.
Our four-year-old has been requesting this book on repeat for the last few weeks, which shows you just how appealing this is to little ears and eyes. And, she’s both intrigued and inspired by the content, asking all sorts of questions about pollution, trash, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Be sure to check out the special section at the back includes facts about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, ocean pollution, and calls-to-action. I’ll definitely be adding The Mess That We Made to my list of “Earth Day Books to Read Year-Round.”

From Sallie Lowenstein, Lion Stone Books
The art in The Mess We Made carries the book away. The sense of the vastness of the ocean and the number of creatures that are both dependent on it and affected by man’s mistreatment of it is made all the clearer by the art. Written for little ones in a This-Is-the-House-That-Jack-Built style each addition, like a food chain diagram, builds to expose the problems the ocean faces due to man. Midway through the pages, like a trumpet announcing a change in a symphony, the book switches gears linguistically, rhythmically, and visually to show kids what can be done to recover the ocean. Considering the readership age, the color palette and the sense of motion and momentum of the art helps soften the scary parts for young children. In contrast, printed in grey, the facts at the end of the book are dire, as well as elucidating. Altogether, an important addition to environmental awareness for the very young, striking a good balance between current reality and hope the future.

From, Carolyn Howard-Johnson
A Book of Poetry for Today’s Kids and the Future of the Planet
. Even children from about four to eight will be familiar with the essence of this lovely book by Michelle Lord. They will feel in their bones a rhythm they already know. They will sense and expect what is to come—perhaps because they remember it from an earlier book of nursery rhymes—as they recur with ever more expectation and power in The Mess That We Made. They will be surprised at the twists this author brings to this structure they are already conversant with. And though the theme is one they hear every day even at their tender ages, they will feel comfortable with the impression-influenced illustrations coming from the studio of Julia Blattman.
These talents—author, illustrator, and publisher—manage to put together a tough theme about the state of our planet and its oceans and a positive future. Yes, it is both a warning and empowering. Everyone knows we have some control over our own middens or—in today’s terms—our own garbage patches. But who could have guessed they would become the monsters we must fight, and we the heroes we long to become.
And who but a publisher dedicated to do right by its promise to bring an author’s work to life could combine excellent storytelling using the often-mundane tools of teacher/parent guides and endpapers and better than this. Adults will want to turn to backmatter to see what is in store before they sit down for a reading experience with their child. Or maybe not. Enjoy the story first. Then dig into the great stuff at the back of the book you thought you knew but didn’t, the stuff that will delight your teaching instincts and perhaps produce the next generation’s environmental scientist.

From The Story Monsters Ink Shelf, Darleen Wohlfeil
This fun tale for children carries the flow of old British nursery rhymes. Children will love the cumulative momentum that builds with each page, as well as become aware of the serious issues our world is facing. Issues they may very likely be handed to resolve. (Ages 5-7)

From Anniebirdd
I just finished the book. I sit here in tears, giving thanks that there is a book for children that not only uses a familiar rhyme/song perfectly to show cause and effect, but also has real, solid activities and actions that kids can take on easily to become stewards of the Earth. Well researched, full of interesting facts mixed with crucial ones… So glad the book took a bad topic and continued to write hope into it. The illustrations by Julia Blattman are outstanding and make you as invested in the situations, as Author Michelle Lord does with her lyrics. I am inspired by this book… I highly recommend this book for every school and library. It should be mandatory reading. Thank you for this gift to the Earth. 

From The Missourian, April Book Buzz Picks
Using the sing-song tempo and style of “This Is the House That Jack Built,” author Michelle Lord sets her new book, “The Mess That We Made,” on the water, as four children float around in a pint-sized boat, debris bobbing about them, a seal, turtle and fish swimming by.
The effects of pollution come into play when a net is dropped from a “boat of welded steel,” trapping the seal “ . . . that eats the fish that swim in the mess that we made.” Then the unassuming turtle, “green and gray,” is caught in “plastic, thrown away. . . ” that originates in a nearby “ . . . landfill, growing each day . . . .” The source of the polluted water is “ . . . people at work and at play, that stuff the landfill, growing each day.” Take heart — all is not lost in this message-driven book with lush illustrations by Julia Blattman. Humans step up to the plate, or rather onto the sand, lending a hand, to right the wrongs in this crowd pleaser.

From Children’s Books Heal, Patricia Tilton
Michelle Lord doesn’t shy away from showing children a realistic view of what is occurring in our oceans, particularly the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But it also is an inspiring call to action for readers that is hopeful and empowering. Julia Blattman’s colorful and beautiful illustrations will capture children’s imaginations.
The snappy text is set to the familiar nursery rhyme The House That Jack Built, with each of the stanzas ending with “the mess that we made.”  First half of the book sets the scene about what is happening to the marine life that are being hurt by the plastics and trash that humans dump into the ocean. The second half encourages readers to take action, beginning with a beach clean-up day.
Lord’s has done an exceptional amount research for her educational book. Make sure you check out the back matter where she elaborates on each of the repeated phrases, describing how each animal is affected by pollution, and why plastics are particularly problematic.  At the bottom of each topic she suggests ways children can begin to make a difference: using reusable bags, disposing trash in proper recycling bins, using recyclable straws, and drinking from reusable water bottles. A third page focuses on solutions and activities. And check out the back end pages for a map of the Ocean Garbage Patches.
This may seem like a heavy topic, but it is one that children will want to get involved in. They will see the way that they can be helpful.  It deserves a place in every school library/classroom.
Resources: This is a perfect classroom book where kids can talk about the problem, take action at school and home to make sure they are helping to reduce pollution. And there are many clean-ups that take place to remove trash from beaches, rivers, lakes and  neighborhoods. 

From Imagination Soup, Melissa Taylor
46 New Picture Books, Fall 2020. A cumulative story about ocean pollution, this begins by first showing us all the problems we’ve made with pollution in the ocean, then focuses on how we can clean up the mess. Lyrical and rhythmic with vibrant, painty blue-hued illustrations, this will be a helpful addition to classrooms and home studies of the ocean and pollution.

From YOGA+life, Sandy Ferguson Fuller
…an effective, educational and engaging call to action for all ages.
Anyone who hasn’t heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or ghost nets or microplastics should seek out this simple and informative book. It’s perfect for adults and kids to share as a read-aloud with its rhythmic, repetitive storyline. The final three pages detail easy, urgent efforts that everyone can adopt to make a difference and reduce ocean pollution….I learned…fascinating and disturbing facts in this picture book. Look at the mess that we made — and that we are still making!
But we can seize the day! Take action. Share the important facts and ideas in this book with kids and adults. Reduce. Reuse. Repurpose. Recycle.
Hopefully, soon we’ll be able to say, “Look at our mess that has gone away.”

From The Banner, Jenny Degroot
A first step in making things right is admitting wrong. The Mess that We Made is a confession of responsibility for the environmental crisis that we are facing. It is modeled after the literary structure that children will recognize: “This is the house that Jack built.” The text and illustrations construct the layers for the environmental challenges that face planet earth and its oceans, from “these are the fish that live in the mess” to ‘this is the landfill that is growing each day.” 
Four children, from different ethnic backgrounds, spend the entire book in a small boat, bobbing along in waters and landscapes that match the text. They peer over the edge of the boat, witness to all the garbage and plastic floating by, and to the creatures that are forced to live in the pollution. In contrast to the serious content, the illustrations are beautifully translucent and whimsical
The solution offered in the text is somewhat simplistic as the children eventually come out of the boat after cleaning up the garbage to “swim in the water we saved.” However, at the end of the book there are pages that offer a call to serious action with regard to ocean pollution. It includes excellent information about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the tracking details of Lego washed ashore decades later from a shipping container that went overboard in the Atlantic in 1997. And there are hopeful stories of reclaimed beaches and landfills turned into parks.
The dedication invites the reader to “seas” the day. This educational picture book is an invitation to do just that as we collectively take responsibility  for “the mess that we made.”



About the Creators

Michelle Lord is the author of several books for children including Paterson Prize Honor Book A Song For Cambodia, Nature Recycles, and Animal School: What Class Are You? She lives with her family in New Braunfels, TX.
You can find out more about Michelle and her work on her website




Julia Blattman works as a visual development artist for Paramount Animation, and has created art for Disney and for Dreamworks TV.  Julia loves bringing stories to life with her artwork. She lives in Los Angeles, CA, and this is her first picture book.
You can find out more about Julia and her work on her website

ISBN: HC 9781947277144  ePDF 9781947277151  EPUB 9781947277168  KF8 9781947277175  Audiobook 9781947277601  Read-along Audio 9781947277557
Print Length: 32 Full Color Pages
Publication Date: Jan 2020 
Lexile Display: AD710L

Word Count: 378
Age Group: 4-8
Library of Congress Control Number: 2019917623

Activity Guides

Leveling Information

Lexile Measurements provided by Metametrics. Guided Reading Levels provided by Marla Conn using Fountas and Pinnel Guided Reading Text Characteristics.

Lexile Display: AD710L

Word Count: 378

MSL: 19.895

MLF: 3.706

Guided Reading Level: M

Grade Level Equivalent: 2

Interest Level by Grade: K-5

Educational Description: Picture book, Life science context: Earth and human activity, pollution, ocean and marine life, cumulative & lyrical text, rhythm and rhyme

Story Elements: setting: boat on the sea, plot and character development; four young children, problem and solution, figurative language, detailed illustrations enhance meaning and tone, tone: sad, dark

Comprehension Strategies: identify cause and effect relationships, central message, and changes from beginning to end of the story, make text-to-text, text-to-world and text-to-self connections

Back Matter: Informational text on Ocean Pollution Calls to Action

Themes: pollution, stewardship, our natural world, conservation