Most of us will never see firsthand the precious Arctic habitat of polar bears, or the ocean depths that are home to the blue whale. Our adult connection to the wildness of these extreme environments may be described as tenuous. But for children, wildness is the stuff of favorite story books and imaginative play. The child’s eyes are always open with curiosity and excitement to the wildness of our planet.
Author/illustrator, Jenni Desmond, aims to nurture the child’s connection to wildness in two outstanding works of creative non-fiction, The Polar Bear and The Blue Whale. In each, she invites the reader to explore these distant worlds with a child protagonist who curiously wears a crown (bringing to mind Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wilds Things Are). Using a book-within-a-book approach,* the subject matter is revealed through the eyes of the child protagonist who is reading the very same book. I like that both of these books highlight an active reader as a central character.
The Polar Bear (Ages 6 – 9) Desmond begins with a well-written author’s note about the plight of the polar bear as a threatened species. Placed at the beginning of the book rather than the back, it speaks to the urgency of preserving the wildness for these intelligent creatures.
The story begins as a young girl pulls this very book from the shelf. She is immediately immersed in the fascinating world of the polar bear, and becomes both an observer and a companion to the very bear she’s reading about. Desmond displays her in-depth knowledge of the subject matter with accurate facts poetically delivered regarding the polar bear’s habitat, physical characteristics, adaptations, feeding and hunting habits. The illustrations are stunning with broad washes of color defined with textural details. Panoramic views of the unforgiving Arctic landscape are balanced by renderings of the bear that bring this magnificent creature closer to us, making its wildness more precious.
Desmond’s work goes deep for fact-hungry elementary children; but equally powerful and engaging is the story-telling which reflects the sensitive curiosity of a child.
The Blue Whale (Ages 6 -9) “Once upon a time, a child took a book from a shelf and started to read.” This time, the child is a boy wearing a red crown reading this very book. He is immediately absorbed into the story, pictured in the next scene in a dinghy next to a mighty blue whale, staring down in wonder.
How impossibly wild would it be to be this close to our planet’s largest animal! Desmond uses concrete comparisons to real-world objects to describe the size – as long as a truck, digger, boat, car, bicycle, motorcycle, van, and tractor all lined up! Together with the boy, we learn that baby calves drink nearly 50 gallons of their mother’s milk every day. A single blue whale breath could inflate 2,000 balloons. The whale’s “heart is as big as a small car,” its average weight of 160 tons is “about the same as a heap of 55 hippopotami.” Desmond’s vivid infographics, often amusing, create visual comparisons that drive home well-researched facts. (In fact, the author’s note at the beginning of the book recognizes the involvement of Diane Gendron, a consulting blue whale expert.)
The gracefully bowed whale is shown throughout in double-page spreads; but the illustration that pulled me right into the ocean depths was the life-size image of the blue whale’s eye – only 6 inches wide. It is a breathtaking image that awakens the soul as you look into the eye of the largest-hearted creature on the planet, and know that we need wildness.
The Polar Bear and The Blue Whale are published by Enchanted Lion Books, a Brooklyn-based, independent picture-book publisher.
Keep a watch for Jenni Desmond’s next book on Asian and African Elephants.
*The book-within-a-book approach is used in “Redwoods” and “Coral Reefs” by Jason Chin