Picture Books for the Wild at Heart
This past summer bees were voted the most important living beings on earth. While I agree wholeheartedly, I also enjoy imagining this vote, conducted by scientists at the Royal Geographic Society of London, democratically including all living species. Imagine the mushrooms at the polls. Imagine the snakes and the sequoias casting their ballots.
Are humans part of the wilderness, or do we exist outside it? Above it? Below it? Against it? Climate change has made clear that the old notion of humans as the stewards of nature is a terrible, toxic, untrustworthy arrangement. Not only are we bad at the job, and greedy, we also come to it by fiat. As with the bee vote, no one ever asked the rocks who should be in charge of our planet’s wilderness. No one queried the flowers or the gulf stream.
Which is to say, as self-appointed rulers, we are shams. The earth muddles through its marvels in spite of us, and it is past time to rethink our relationship with what’s wild. Often, we are too loud or righteous to hear what nature’s saying. Similarly, we are deaf to the wisdom of children. I find it interesting, then, that children usually know how to live peacefully with nature.
These picture books — each an invitation to reside in or with the wilderness — could give a child confidence enough to know that adults are often confused, and that children needn’t make similar bad decisions. Right, Greta?
Eliza Wheeler’s (“Miss Maple’s Seeds”) gorgeous HOME IN THE WOODS (Nancy Paulsen/Penguin, 40 pp., $17.99; ages 4 to 8) tells the true story of Wheeler’s Grandma Marvel who, at age 6, survived the Great Depression and her father’s untimely death by sheltering in a small shack in the forests of northern Wisconsin with her mother and seven siblings. What at first seems dingy — say, the ground covered in rotting leaves — turns out to hide a deep richness, soil perfect for growing robust vegetables. Wonders, Wheeler teaches, are not always obvious.
As the family comes to know the woods, a quiet beauty is revealed: deer and berries and stars. A visit to the town’s general store, for the barest of supplies, overwhelms the family with material desires. The children cleverly respond by building their own general store in the woods, stocked with mud pies and jewelry made from autumn leaves. Truly these woods are the poor man’s, or in this case, poor family’s overcoat.
Wheeler confronts humans’ real fear of the wilderness, acknowledging that, in the woods, the family’s relationship to the dead, and to death itself, is a close one. Wheeler brings us to the heart of something unspoken and complex: Our flawed desire to control nature comes out of a fear of death. In these woods, Marvel’s mother whispers to the stars through the frigid winter nights, relying on something sturdier than human control, something closer to the eternal nature of matter in the universe. She is not above the wilderness. She is a part of it.
Come spring, the sisters call out the flowers’ names as exultations, or at least they call the names humans have given the flowers: Lady slipper, pitcher plant. They find beauty and — in one of our best human gestures — they love what they find by giving language to it.
Like those sisters’ floral familiarities, Alison Farrell’s (“Cycle City”) joyful THE HIKE (Chronicle, 56 pp., $17.99; ages 4 to 8) is concerned with identification. Here, to know the words is a way to know the woods. Language is study, language is adoration. In these pages we forget that the right whale got its name because it was the right whale to kill. Yes, yikes. Three young friends set out on an exploration up Buck Mountain. Wren is an artist, El is a writer and Hattie, the tiniest, is the way finder.
As they hike with no adults in sight (farewell, helicopter parents!) each treasure of the natural world is sketched, labeled and identified. Burdock and turkey tail mushrooms, stellar jays and golden fleabane. These young explorers demonstrate the best principles of time spent in the woods: observing, admiring and learning. And, through their delightfully illustrated adventure, so do we.
THE SHORTEST DAY (Candlewick, 32 pp., $17.99; ages 4 to 8), a poem written by the Newberry Medal winner Susan Cooper and illustrated by the Caldecott Honor-winning artist Carson Ellis, is meant to be read as part of a winter solstice revel. But Ellis’s illustrations are so evocative and powerful, this book could easily be enjoyed any time of year. It is a celebration of the dark, the joy found in the bare months.
“The Shortest Day,” like “Home in the Woods,” rejects the too-simple binary of death equals bad, life equals good. Its focus is on the glorious cycle inherent to a planet that orbits a sun. There’s so much we don’t fully understand about the workings of our planet. So we make the mystery human-scale with story, ritual and myth. The sun in “The Shortest Day” gets a body, tired and stooped, just like many other bodies in winter. And here, a bonfire, a wild dance, a small glowing candle or glass of champagne all celebrate the natural world, each one saying the same thing: Here comes the light! Here comes the sun!
Seasonal cycles get a playful spin in Gary D. Schmidt, Elizabeth Stickney and G. Brian Karas’s ALMOST TIME (Clarion, 32 pp., $17.99; ages 4 to 8). A young boy hungrily anticipates the sap flow and maple sugaring season. Father serves cornbread, applesauce or eggs for breakfast. No pancakes. Syrup supplies have dwindled.
Our protagonist is also waiting on a loose tooth to pop out. His impatience is compounded. “Now Ethan had two things to wait for.” “Almost Time” reminds us that a child’s development, like the sugar maples, is on nature’s schedule, not ours. Maybe we are wilder than we think.
Melissa Castrillõn’s THE BALCONY (Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster, 48 pp., $17.99; ages 4 to 8) lushly illustrates the power of a tiny seed to carry what’s wild into a new house. A young girl, new to city life, creates a garden that affects an entire community. It makes friends, it makes a home. It makes peace. Reminiscent of Peter Brown’s “The Curious Garden,” Castrillõn’s illustrations are gorgeously detailed, rich with vibrant texture and color. Like our protagonist’s garden, these pages teem with life. They nearly seem to grow.
The wilderness, for now, continues to welcome those quiet enough, kind enough to coexist. These books are made for them, young and old: humans who don’t necessarily want to inherit the earth, as that suggests some crazy idea of ownership, but rather those who are happiest to simply observe the wildness as it is, as it wants to be.
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