March 19, 2015


Flowers Are Calling. By Rita Gray. Pictures by Kenard Pak. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.

Just a Dream. By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.

     Fact and fiction often merge, sometimes seamlessly and sometimes less so, in nature-focused picture books. Despite some awkwardness in Rita Gray’s writing, Flowers Are Calling is a fine example of mixing the real and unreal – thanks in large part to the lovely watercolor-and-digital-media illustrations by Kenard Pak. Gray’s basic rhyming text works well, and takes an unusual approach toward involving children in a fact-focused book by deliberately saying something incorrect and then providing the correction. “Flowers are calling a little black bear./ No, not a bear! He doesn’t care./ They’re calling a butterfly to dip from the air.” So far, so good, and in succeeding pages, flowers call a frog – no, a bumblebee; a porcupine – no, a hummingbird; and so on. True, the rhythm of the poetry is frequently off by a syllable or so, but young readers will probably not mind and may not even notice. However, a number of the rhymes are off as well: “porcupine” and “time,” “raccoon,” “bloom” and “perfume.” Readers likely will notice this; but again, it may not significantly interrupt the book’s flow for its target audience of children ages 4-8. But what is sure to interrupt things is the way Gray, after each batch of three rhymes, presents two pages identifying specific flowers and explaining, in prose, what they are and how they attract and interact with pollinators. Then she returns to the rhyming sequence, then the non-rhyming factual pages, and so on. The result is considerable choppiness in presentation. However, the excellent illustrations, as noted, do a lot to preserve continuity as well as visual interest – and the material that Gray discusses is highly interesting and offered in age-appropriate fashion, which means that the book’s message about the importance of insects, birds and other creatures involved in pollination comes through clearly despite the book’s somewhat unwieldy structure. The last pages introduce children to flowers in ways they may not have considered, relating to the importance for pollination of color, pattern, shape, smell and time of opening. And then Gray presents a strictly didactic page, at the very end of the book, with more facts about flowers and their pollinators and even some things that children can do to help nature take its course. The educational elements of Flowers Are Calling are so well done that they and Pak’s pictures raise the book to a very high level, more than overcoming some structural elements that make Gray’s work less natural in flow and less pleasant to follow than it could have been. This is nevertheless, despite its ungainly elements, a book of considerable value, and a lovely one at which to look and from which to learn.

     It is possible, though, to lay things on too thickly, albeit with the best of intentions, in trying to teach nature-related things to young children. And this is the flaw of Just a Dream, now available in a 25th-anniversary edition that includes a downloadable audio version read by the author. Chris Van Allsburg’s book is partly a victim of its age: when it first came out, in 1990, young people’s (and adults’) awareness of ecological matters was far less than it is now. For example, it is noteworthy that the film Wall-E, which had a significant impact on many young viewers, dates only to 2008. However, there was certainly some ecological awareness in 1990 and for many years before: Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax was published back in 1971. There is something instructive in comparing elements of that book with those of Just a Dream. Dr. Seuss tremendously simplified matters of ecology and knowingly created a title character whose grumpiness and hectoring actually troubled some in the environmental movement, who thought The Lorax unnecessarily heavy-handed and humorless (at least by Seussian standards). Van Allsburg, though, uses a far bigger sledge hammer than Seuss did: his story is about a boy named Walter who throws trash onto the street and refuses to sort recyclables from garbage, but is converted to the cause of ecological right-thinking by an experience right out of A Christmas Carol. That is, he falls asleep and dreams himself in various highly unpleasant future scenarios: in a huge dump where his street and home used to be; in a giant tree that is about to be cut down to make toothpicks; atop a smokestack belching fumes for a company that makes medicine to counteract the “burning throats and itchy eyes” caused by its smokestacks themselves; and so on. The future here is not only unremittingly bleak but also so absurdly unrealistic that Just a Dream seems a lot more like an advocacy pamphlet than a concerned educational work intended to show children the possible consequences of inattention to the environment. Van Allsburg’s illustrations of the awful future scenes are very well done, but his writing is so thin and obvious that it vitiates rather than reinforces what ought to be a highly important message. And the conclusion, in which Walter is converted to the correct way of thinking as surely as Scrooge was, is entirely predictable, laying on the message even more thickly than the rest of the book does. Just a Dream is a (+++) book thanks to the underlying seriousness of its message and the very fine illustrations with which Van Allsburg tries to put that message across. But unlike The Lorax, Van Allsburg’s book has not worn very well, because from start to finish it is more a jeremiad than an involving story.

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