March 11, 2010

(++++) ECO-LOGIC

The Smash! Smash! Truck. By Aidan Potts. David Fickling Books. $16.99.

Here Comes the Garbage Barge! By Jonah Winter. Illustrated by Red Nose Studio. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

     Here are two great ways to show kids ages 4-8 about the pluses of recycling and the minuses of failing to reuse as much as possible. Yes, the books are overly simplified, avoiding the tough questions that have adults constantly debating what to do about all the trash the world creates; but as introductions to some of the basics, both books are well written and visually very effective. The Smash! Smash! Truck is told largely from the perspective of glass jars and bottles that are being recycled – some of them fearing being smashed to bits, others enjoying the experience because they know it will bring them back in a new, equally useful form. Aidan Potts (who calls himself Professor Potts in his science books) makes the accurate but infrequently articulated point that since the Earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago, “very little has been added and almost nothing taken away.” That is, the entire planet exists in a state of recycling at the atomic level: the surface crust recycles very slowly, the sun causes water to change form and move, “plants grow by using atoms from the air and ground,” and as for living creatures, all “are made by recycling the Earth’s atoms.” And that leads to a comment by one bottle that is being broken up for reuse: “Be nice to glass – you don’t know who it has been.” This is a very clever way to show kids that they are part of the recycling process even when they do not actively do anything about it. And that is just one aspect of this book – because Potts makes the point that “we can make atoms useless for a very long time” by putting trash in plastic bags and having it end up in dumps, where glass “will take hundreds of thousands of years to smash up.” So smashing it deliberately, then reusing it, makes perfect sense. And it does make sense – the recycling of glass, which has been going on for a long, long time, is one of the easiest and most economically justifiable forms of reuse of materials, and is widely embraced by companies that use glass for packaging and communities everywhere that do any form of recycling at all. Potts’ clever illustrations, which often include the word “smash,” are a visual feast, clearly underlining his message, which he eventually states outright: “Old glass is all you need to make new glass. Recycling means we don’t need to dig up any new materials.” That may be a slight overstatement, but no matter – the point is made effectively as well as entertainingly. The difficulty, of course, is what Potts does not say in the book: other forms of recycling are far less efficient and far more expensive than the recycling of glass, which is why they are not embraced as universally as glass recycling is. But as an introduction to what recycling can do and why it is important, The Smash! Smash! Truck is smashingly convincing.

     At the other end of the spectrum of disposal is the true story that forms the basis of Here Comes the Garbage Barge! Back in 1987, a barge laden with 3,168 tons of trash from the town of Islip, near New York City, was towed for dumping to North Carolina – which refused to accept it. And thus began an odyssey that eventually took the barge – and the tugboat Break of Dawn, which was pulling it – 6,000 miles around the United States and beyond, to New Orleans and Mexico and Belize and Texas and Florida, before it eventually returned to New York, where a judge ordered the trash burned in a Brooklyn incinerator and the residue given back to Islip for landfill burial. There are all sorts of social and political complications of this story, none of which Jonah Winter mentions. Instead, his whole focus – appropriately for the age group for which he is writing – is on the barge itself, the tugboat pulling it, and tugboat captain “Cap’m Duffy St. Pierre, a crusty old sailor.” The story becomes Cap’m Duffy’s above all, as he seeks a place to discharge his ever-smellier cargo, periodically reporting back to his boss about the latest location that refuses to allow him and the barge to dock. What makes this book exceptional is only in part the story itself. Red Nose Studio has created amazing illustrations for it, made largely out of – yes – trash. In fact, if you remove the book jacket, there is a whole story inside the jacket itself about just how the models and pictures were created. But don’t read that until you have finished the story if you want to preserve the sheer wonder of the book’s appearance. The heaped-high garbage barge itself changes its look as the tale goes on and the stuff starts to stink more and more. Cap’m Duffy looks sometimes determined, sometimes angry, sometimes downright fed up (as when he is shown with a clothespin on his nose to block out the garbage’s smell). The other characters are wonderfully modeled, too, from the soldiers in Belize (one with a toucan atop his helmet), to the crown-wearing mayor of New Orleans, to the angry senior citizens floating in the water off Florida’s beaches, to the Statue of Liberty that is holding its nose as the garbage barge moves by. The moral of the story, given on the inside back cover, is obvious: “Don’t make so much garbage!” But, of course, how to do that is the difficult issue that the book dodges. Here Comes the Garbage Barge! could well serve as the basis for having the first of a series of complicated reuse-and-recycling talks with a child who has just been fascinated by this tale and captivated by its marvelous illustrations.

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