Is it easier to write an excellent work of fiction than an excellent work of non-fiction? It’s sort of a trick question. Still, I’d argue that a poor work of fiction is going to appeal to a child more immediately than a poor work of non-fiction. Hand a kid a terrible picture book and they’re going to at least give it a glance. But hand them a poor work of non-fiction and what’s their reaction? “Boooooring!” So superior informational books for kids not only have to be interesting and well written but they also have to fight against the intended audience’s learned prejudices. That’s where Jason Chin comes in. In this debut non-fiction picture book from Roaring Brook, Chin takes a page from the Magic School Bus school of writing for kids. You want facts? Fine. We’ll give you facts. And on top of that we’ll also give you a fun story, great visuals, and small furry creature evident on almost every single page. You have kids that think non-fiction is dull as dishwater? Meet the cure.
A boy finds a book sitting on a seat in a subway platform. He picks it up, possibly drawn to the cover, which shows himself standing in a redwood forest looking up. As he reads facts about redwood trees, we read the same thing. We learn how old the trees are, the kinds of ecosystems they prefer, their resistance to forest fires, how tall they can grow, etc. As we learn, so too does the boy, and soon enough he finds himself in his own forest, scaling the trees, escaping fires, and meeting the creatures that rely on the plants. By the end he has found himself on a park bench and, in a rush, leaves the book behind where a girl will find it and have adventures of her own.
About four pages into this book I had to flip back to the cover. I was worried. Did the illustrator of this book inform the author of what he was up to when he decided to give the story a narrative? Of course I quickly saw that Jason Chin not only wrote the book but illustrated it as well. Aaahhh. It’s interesting that on the surface the facts about redwoods inform the pictures but don’t describe them. While we’re hearing about a redwood tree’s natural ability to withstand forest fires, there runs our hero willy-nilly away from a magnificent blaze. And while we hear about the different forest residents that live in redwood forests, our hero is scaling a tree looking at them firsthand. Though the book doesn’t contain so much as a thought bubble, I began to think about graphic novels when considering Chin’s interaction between text and image. Though the text doesn’t rely on the pictures, the images do make significantly more sense when paired with the text.
As for those pictures themselves, they’re great. Full of action, adventure, and daring do (or is it "derring do"?). Young children, the pre-literacy crowd, may be drawn to the images at first and then enjoy the words later. Even better are the millions of tiny details peppered throughout this story. Kids will like noting that what the boy reads on the page is the same as what we are reading. I was particularly impressed that Chin managed to work the cover of this book into the art so many times. After all, covers of children’s books aren’t usually written in stone and can be prone to change. He must have established what the cover image would be right from the start before he even began. Kids will also love spotting the flying squirrel that attaches itself to the boy once he finds himself in redwood country (look closely and you’ll even spot it on the inside front bookflap). Third and fourth readings of the book reveal that the trash on the floor of the subway station consists of strange items with titles like “Polar Bear’s Last Stand”, possibly drilling home the book’s environmental message. Or maybe a future Chin project. And in a very interesting move, the title page of the book is from the boy’s p.o.v. You see his hands holding the book before you. But if you look a little closer at the page itself, the picture presented there isn’t of the boy, but of the girl who will come to pick up the book at the end of this tale.
I wouldn’t have thought it right off the bat, but I’ve seen Chin’s work before, and maybe you have too. Simon Winchester’s children’s version of adult book on Krakatoa was published as The Day the World Exploded. In that title there were the usual photographs, timelines, and documents. A little less common, however, were some illustrated portions. An elephant running rampant in a hotel room. People fleeing for their lives. That kind of thing. Turns out that Jason Chin was behind those shots. Like this book they didn’t necessarily interact directly with the text, but they added to the overall reading experience. I’m pleased to see him doing the same thing here.
Books where kids read books about themselves are not unheard of. I’m thinking of The Red Book by Barbara Lehmann, or any story the pokes a hole or two in the fourth wall. What I like so much about this book, however, is Chin’s easygoing dance between fiction and non-fiction. He seems at home in this format, and the result is an eclectic and exciting book. Kids who might never voluntarily pick up a book about trees can find themselves drawn into the “story” from page one. Trick ‘em into learning, that’s what I say. Though it would have been nice to find a small Bibliography or list of sources at the end, Redwoods is bound to become a fine, fun purchase. More memorable than your average tree fare, no question.
On shelves now.
Other Blog Reviews:
- It’s Non-Fiction Monday and Jean Little Library has the round-up. Please to note.
- A kind of freaky-good website is dedicated to the book. You can see the interiors there.
- Or page through it on Google Books here.
- There is some additional information about the book at Color Magazine.
- And an interview with Mr. Chin about the process on The Green Guide for Kids Blog.