a list of…five books for nature lovers…from the orange marmalade archives

Originally published August 2010

Clarice Bean: What Planet are You From?, story and pictures by Lauren Child

Clarice Bean is an 8-year-old girl with a hilarious, blunt manner of narrating her quirky observations of life.  In this episode, her teacher, Mrs. Wilberton, assigns the class a project called “The Environment.”  Coincidentally, her big brother Kurt hears about a fine, old tree in their neighborhood which is marked for removal.  Kurt is aghast at the plan and determines to “become an ecowarrior”, pitching a tent by the tree and making a “plan of action to stop all the destruction.”  The Bean family all meander their way into this project, making Free the Tree posters, cooking up bowls of spaghetti for the tree-dwellers’ dinner, and getting their pictures in the local paper. Throughout the whole story we hear Clarice’s wry comments on everything from the quantity of hair spray used by her sister, to her ketchup-on-toast concoctions (which create almost no dishes to wash!)

This is a laugh-out-loud account of a loving, off-beat family who band together for the sake of a tree.  It is a happy way of elevating concern for the environment and the small things we can do to make a difference, while not sounding like a PBS documentary.  Child’s illustrations are genius, with the loose, eccentric Bean family front-and-center, and mixed-media ingredients collected from recycled things — magazines, photographs, fabric and newspaper — flooding the pages with loud colors and textures.  Fantastic!

Frogs, words and photographs by Nic Bishop

I really, really love this book about frogs!!

Why the enthusiasm? 

First, Bishop’s photographs are fabulous, from the brilliant-red strawberry dart poison frog, to the teeny-tiny glass frog with its transparent skin, to the broad, comical face of a jumbo-sized African bullfrog.  We are captivated by a crazy pink tongue darting out to capture a caterpillar,  stunned by a mossy-looking camouflaged wonder, and delighted by some truly adorable red-eyed tree frogs.  These full-page photos are bursting with the colorful, awesome splendor of frogs.

Then, the text is…well…perfect.  Not an overwhelming amount of information, yet chock full of  “you’ve got to hear this!” tidbits.  We learn about the massive appetites of horned frogs, the tremendous air-travel of gliding frogs, the uncanny mothering care of the strawberry dart poison frog, and much, much  more.  All of it is written in a friendly, approachable tone which even a 5-year-old could readily understand but which does not talk down for even a moment.  This is an excellent choice for communicating the wonders of the animal world to your kids.  I am very impressed with Bishop’s work and am eager to find more of his books and collaborations in my library.

Planting the Trees of Kenya:  The Story of Wangari Maathai, written and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola

Wangari Maathai is a Kenyan woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work as founder of the Green Belt Movement.  This organization encourages poor rural women in Kenya to plant trees in order to combat the terrible effects of deforestation including erosion, disruption to the water cycle, loss of cooking fuel and income, malnutrition — the domino effect seems to go on and on.  This book tells the story of her life; of growing up in the fruitful highlands of Kenya back in the 1940s, of her education in the U.S., and of her dismay upon returning to Kenya at the environmental damage occuring there.  It tells of her beginning to teach the women to collect seeds from native trees, to plant and nurture those seedlings, and to expand this movement until over 30 million trees have been planted across Kenya.

The watercolor pictures Nivola has done for her book are very pleasing, full of the beautiful, varied greens of hills covered with vegetation, the golden browns of parched, thirsty land, and the colorful, flowing clothing of the African women and children dotting the countryside and villages.  The text itself is clear and uncluttered, full of hope rather than pessimism, even when speaking of the sad subject of deforestation.  A lengthy Author’s Note tells much more about Ms. Maathai’s life and work including her livestock loan programs, political activism, and numerous conflicts with the Kenyan government.  A worthy book about a woman doing hard, worthwhile, highly-beneficial work.

An Egg is Quiet, text by Dianna Aston, illustrations by Sylvia Long

This is a gorgeous book. 

Sylvia Long’s watercolors of dozens and dozens of different eggs are definitely the stars of the show.  She gives us beautiful blue robin eggs, round, garnet-red salmon eggs, artistically-speckled scarlet tanager eggs, eggs streaked with black, eggs tiny as peas, yellow eggs, orangey-bronze eggs, lobster eggs, shark eggs… all beautfully rendered in sweet color on creamy white pages. The limited text is hand-lettered in brown ink, adding to the loveliness of the entire work of art.

Textually, it is a very simple book.  The wonders of eggs are grouped together loosely on pages captioned, “An egg is colorful” or “An egg is shapely” or “An egg is textured.”  Small yet very interesting bits of information are given about the eggs featured on that page.  For example, we learn that an ostrich egg can weigh up to 8 pounds, while it would take 2,000 hummingbird eggs to equal that — this  on the page titled “Eggs come in different sizes.”  In the end, we find that, although eggs are generally quiet, they do suddenly become quite noisy when their dwellers hatch out!  The final pages in the book feature small, brilliant drawings of the many birds, insects, and other creatures which get their start in eggs.

This is a lovely book to gaze at with a child, to marvel over; it inspires us to see beauty in the small wonders around us, and perhaps even to try our hand at a watercolor painting of that magical treasure chest called an egg.

When the Wolves Returned — Restoring Nature’s Balance in Yellowstone, by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, with photographs by Dan and Cassie Hartman

In the earliest years of Yellowstone National Park, the chief purpose of the park was to protect its geological fancies — mighty geysers, bubbling mud pots, and colorful layers of rock —  for tourists to enjoy.  The park’s wildlife was considered a side attraction. Hunting trips for elk were a main draw.  Park officials believed that ridding the area of wolves would save more elk for the tourist-hunters, so they issued a bounty on the wolves.  By  1926, the wolves were completely gone.

Over time, the absence of this predator wreaked havoc in the Yellowstone ecosystem, with elk herds growing out of control, coyote populations posing problems for smaller mammals, pronghorn antelope severely threatened, trees damaged by over-grazing, which thus eliminated songbirds, and so on and so on.  Gradually, scientists understood what had caused this imbalance, and a program was begun to re-introduce wolves in the Yellowstone area.  This book tells the fascinating story of all the troubles resulting from removing an actor in an ecosystem, and then the hopeful story of the  repair-work done when that actor is returned.  For, in just about 10 years since the wolves were returned, the ripple effects on various animal and plant populations in Yellowstone has been quite amazing. 

This is a compelling story with a great deal of excellent information accompanied by terrific photographs.   Dan Hartman and 16-year-old Cassie are a father-daughter photography team; Cassie was just 10 years old when she had her first photo published in an outdoors magazine!  Great encouragement for a budding nature photographer!