I love museums, but I probably love books even more. Fortunately having a job in one gives me lots of excuses to dive into the other. I’m always on the lookout for great children’s literature to use in Story Trails and to stock the Art & Nature Center bookshelves. Being part of the team that researches and develops ANC exhibits means I encounter great “grown-up” reads as well.
Here are a few of my favorites related to our upcoming exhibition, Beyond Human: Artist-Animal Collaborations.
Elephants Can Paint Too, by Katya Arnold (good for ages 3-7)
Written by the wife of Beyond Human participating artist, Alex Melamid, this book draws connections between the artistry of elephants and children. The pre-school friendly main text compares the skills, activities, and likes of kids and animals, and is supported by higher level text for older kids (or read-alouds) with more information about Melamid’s work with Asian elephants and the animals’ behaviors and habitat. Full of joyful colors and playful photographs, it’s a fun read, and will be our featured story time book on opening day of the new Art & Nature Center almost exactly two months away on October 19.
Check out an abridged video read-aloud of Elephants Can Paint Too from PBS’s Between the Lions.
Wonton, A Cat Tale Told in Haiku by Lee Wardlaw (good for ages 5-10)
Told in the feline voice of a self-proclaimed ‘Oriental prince,’ Wonton is the story of a shelter cat with an attitude and his subsequent adoption and adjustment to life with humans. Each episode (“The Car Ride,” “The Naming,” “The Yard”) is a series of humorous haiku from the cat’s point of view accompanied by simple but expressive illustrations, as in the set below:
Great for simply reading aloud to younger children, discussing point of view and poetry forms with older children, or giving to a new cat owner, this book makes me grin every time I pick it up. “Meet” the author’s cats, get a recipe for “Kitty Litter Cake” and more on the author’s web page.
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate (middle-grade readers)
This Newbery Medal winner was the NPR Kids’ Book Club pick for June, and with good reason. Based on a true story, The One and Only Ivan is a thought-provoking, warm, funny and ultimately hopeful tale of a gorilla with an artistic soul kept in a drab concrete enclosure in a mall. Told in Ivan the gorilla’s voice, this story follows his friendship with a human girl, the elephants Stella and Ruby in the next-door enclosure, and a handful of other characters including a cynical stray dog. Applegate, through Ivan, makes some poignant observations about the habits of humanity:
“My visitors are often surprised when they see the TV Mack put in my domain. They seem to find it odd, the sight of a gorilla staring at tiny humans in a box. Sometimes I wonder, though: Isn’t the way they stare at me, sitting in my tiny box, just as strange?”
Ivan, who paints and colors to express himself and to break up the boredom and loneliness, is motivated to paint with a greater purpose when he makes a promise to Stella to help get baby Ruby to a better place.
“A good zoo,” Stella said, “is a large domain. A wild cage. A safe place to be. It has room to roam and humans who don’t hurt.” She pauses, considering her words. “A good zoo is how humans make amends.”
See the book trailer, find out more about the real “Ape at Exit 8″ and more at the author’s website.
Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America by Jon Mooallem (adult non-fiction)
If the non-fiction I read is longer than a National Geographic article, I like it to have a real sense of story, and fortunately Mooallem’s Wild Ones is high on the readability scale. (It is so accessible, in fact, that I started to read this book with a pile of post-its by my side to remember sections I wanted to quote, but then realized I was literally red-flagging a book about climate change and made myself stop.)
It does, however, live up to its subtitle. Much of this narrative is troubling, and it raises many more questions than it attempts to answer. Though Mooallem builds his story around conservation efforts surrounding polar bears, the Lange’s metalmark butterfly, and whooping cranes, most of the focus is actually on the people in each chain of stories. From the man who hand-carried endangered fish from one pool to another in buckets to the “last chance tourists” who visit the polar bears of Churchill, Manitoba, Mooallem holds each of their motivations and actions up to a sympathetic magnifying glass to discover what it is that continues to fascinate us about animals in a world where even the definition of ‘wild’ is under debate.
For me, the charm in this book was in its inspiration: Mooallem began this quest while trying to understand how to give a sense of natural wonder to his daughter, and in his rediscovering it through her eyes. It reaffirmed my belief in the value of what we do in the Art & Nature Center, seeking to not only display examples of artists who have been inspired by the natural world, but also to inspire new ways of seeing the world around us. As Mooallem says:
“Emotion matters. Imagination matters. The way we see a species can impact its standing on the planet more than anything covered in ecology textbooks.”