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An illustration from “Up In the Garden and Down In the Dirt,” a March Staff Pick.
“The mountains are calling and I must go.” -John Muir.
On days we can’t muddy our boots or turn over logs to peer at what’s there, we’re glad we can grab a book or check out a great film to satisfy our curiosity about the great outdoors. In celebration of Maine winging back into warm and light-filled days, these March staff picks focus on favorite spring and nature-related library materials.
One of the most wonderful picture books I have encountered is Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt by Kate Messner with art by Christopher Silas Neal. It is the perfect companion to this Real and True Spring we are currently enjoying (none of the usual Mud Season nonsense, thank goodness). It reminds me of some marvelous advice I received while taking the Portland History Docents class a few years ago: when you stop at a corner or a traffic light, look up! The tops of old buildings are beautiful and fascinating but rarely enjoyed by anyone but the birds. This book reminds us to also look down and all around us. The world is so full of beauty and intricacy, awaiting discovery, if only we know where and when to look. Though this book starts in spring, it guides you through the rest of the seasons of the year with gentle words, great sounds and continually gorgeous art. It is also excellent preparation for our upcoming Summer Reading theme: Time of Wonder, all about exploring and observing the natural world around us. The back of the book contains descriptions and illustrations that could easily be used as a guide or textbook about all the participants in the ecosystem of our gardens. Enjoy and don’t forget to look up, down and all around you!
Spring is a time for getting outside, digging in the dirt, watching for butterflies and birds return, and looking forward to Summer! Citizen Scientists not only watch what is happening around them, they also record what they see and share their findings so we can all have a better understanding of our changing world.
Loree Griffin Burns’ book, Citizen Scientists: Be A Part of Scientific Discovery From Your Own Backyard, explains what a Citizen Scientist is and then shows you how you can be one yourself!
Using a seasonal approach, with detailed photography by Ellen Harasimowicz, the book moves you through the year with four Citizen Science projects that families can engage in in their own backyards and neighborhoods. Simple, straightforward, colorful, and accessible, this book is a great primer for any family looking to take their daily adventures and observations a step further.
Spring is here, so get out and explore! And why not share what you see and become a Citizen Scientist?
Absolutely beautiful illustrations go along with a simple story about waiting for spring. A young boy and his dog (and a few animals all around them) decide that they’ve had it with all that brown and decide to plant a garden. Then they wait and wait and wait. They all start off wearing red knit caps and scarfs, including the turtle, and by the end they are barefoot and swinging.
I will read anything that Erin Stead illustrates. In all of her books she adds tiny details in her quiet way that requires several reads to notice (the birds that are drunk on seeds, the milk container that becomes a bird house). I wanted to cut the images from the book and hang them on the wall…alas, it was a library book.
In this new collection of fantasy stories inspired by Shakespeare, we are given a special glimpse at the nature of the world through the eyes of some of the bard’s favorite characters: fairies. One of my personal favorites, the mischievous Puck, makes this observation about the mutable nature of humanity that we often resist: “I see no reason why anyone should define themselves by a single flesh alone, when such seemings are always subject to alteration. As well to say a grown man is unnatural for cultivating the beard he lacked at birth as to call you anything ruder than your name for desiring what you weren’t born with. Why should one change be called natural, and the other not? Crowns and shoes don’t grow on trees, and yet we alter ourselves with the wearing of them.” To believe in our own changeability in this way is an inspiring thought, especially in spring when we can see the rest of the world beginning to change around us.
This is an older book which was forced on me by my mother when I was 17…I would like it, she said… well, she was wrong. I loved it. And I continue to love it, visiting with the Robbins family every couple of years since then. In the words of the author, this is “the story of the founding of a small Maine town, by ordinary people, in what was then an ordinary way.” It is the tale of Sterlingtown, now known as Union, Maine, in the 1700’s. It is the story of the land and its peoples, of births and deaths, of hunger and feasts, of plantings and wars, of love and strength. It is a book that speaks to you and stays with you and lets you know that “We’ll be fine, come spring.”
David Attenborough loves life on Earth.
I would recommend any dvd that features David Attenborough. He’ll go anywhere, do anything to uncover the most interesting facts about life on this planet.
Favorite Attenborough quote, from The Secret Life of Birds: “I’m standing in a cave in Venezuela…”
A book I’ve borrowed time and again from the library is Anna Botsford Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study. PPL owns the twenty –third edition, published in 1935. It is still in print – the most recent edition being 2010!
Ann Botsford Comstock was a pioneer in nature education. She was the first female professor at Cornell University (1899) and wrote this book in 1911 to promote & inform teachers about the outdoors. An advocate teaching children the skills of observation and making the outdoors fun, her book is certainly of value (and beauty) 105 years later!
Do you remember the episode of Sherlock where Mycroft and Sherlock made deductions about a hat? Sherlock says that alpaca fiber and Icelandic sheep wool are very similar. Guess what? He’s wrong.*
Full of passion for the wide variety of magical creatures who turn grass into fiber, Parkes’ amazing book is both delightful and accessible for artists of all fibrous persuasions. If you’ve ever felt like a kid looking from the outside in to a candy store when terms like “Icelandic,” “BFL,” or “Corregidale” come up, or had the desire to prove Sherlock wrong about the marvelous (but very different) alpaca fiber and Icelandic wool, this is the book for you. Parkes will hold your hand through the hairiest of fiber festivals this Spring, explaining the nuances of kink, microns, and why a particular skein might be perfect for that one pattern you’ve saved and coveted….
And hey, who doesn’t love showing up a megalomaniac before breakfast while also helping protect nature by saving rare artisanal sheep with our discerning purchasing power?
*While your intrepid writer is underwhelmed by his knowledge of fiber, she is quite impressed by Cumberbatch’s learning to play the violin for this role.
A compilation of columns Katherine White wrote during her years as Fiction Editor of the New Yorker. One of the best stories White shares is when she compares the style of different seed catalogs—many of which I still get today.
Spring and nature obviously bring to mind themes of sustainability. This month I would like to recommend Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities(Urban and Industrial Environments) by Duncan McLaren and Julian Agyeman, a title from the Library’s Choose Civility collection. This title is a deep and thoughtful guide to how the principles of the sharing economy (think AirBnB or Uber) will affect the spaces in which we live, work, and play. It was named one of the “Top 20 for 2015” by Nature magazine’s “Books and Arts” blog: “In Sharing Cities, environmental consultant Duncan McLaren and urban-policy scholar Julian Agyeman lay out, with impressive depth, clarity and wisdom, a comprehensive prescription for a sharing paradigm….bottom-up ventures that are digital or based in communities, rather than commercial.”
Strict science is tough for me. As a student, gently confounded by textbooks, equations, and formulas, I felt at home and happy in the writing of nature’s free-wheeling investigative reporters: Annie Dillard, Gretel Ehrlich, or Terry Tempest Williams. Now I’m apt to pick up any book with any thoughtful human mulling over any bird, bud, bug, beast, or melting ‘berg, and this winter I was glad to get a galley copy of Lab Girl.
Geochemist and geobiologist Hope Jahren’s tales of her work with trees, flowers, seeds, and soil (and her adventures with lab partner and dear friend, Bill Hagopian) cheerily greened up my winter world. Jahren’s writing is frank, humorous, and smart. She’s honest about the challenges that she’s faced as a female scientist, and she continues to write about those challenges in her field in other venues, most recently in The New York Times.
The arc of Jahren’s own story is woven through with brief, meditative chapters that explore specific ideas about plant life. A curiosity-provoker, the book made me search for photographs of a tree at a specific intersection of two roads in Hawaii, reflect on the chemicals that flood our brains, wonder over a millions-of-years-old fossil forest buried in Canada (how did the forest, every year, survive three months of darkness?), and muse on how symbiotic relationships between trees and fungi may be like…my own relationships. Along the way, we also get a proper exploding beaker, the mystery of an opal at the center of a hackberry seed, and a love of science that is honed by years of Hope Jahren’s tenacity, individuality, wisdom, and profound care.
Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire remains THE book on the experience of living in the American Southwestern desert (in my opinion). If I’m suffering the midwinter new England blahs, I can always count on Desert Solitaire to take me virtually there.
I always think Ravens in Winter was the book that got people to take a closer look at this clever, funny bird. All of Bernd Heinrich’s books are wonderfully written; you can have a tendency to forget he’s feeding you science.
My book for Nature month is The Stars, A New Way to See Them by Curious George author H.A. Rey, and, naturally (pun intended) comes with an anecdote. When I was a wee lad, I was obsessed with the stars and constellations. I had a glow-in-the-dark star chart on the ceiling over my bed; I had myriad books and movies about astronomy, and I had this book: a wonderfully illustrated guide to the heavens.
However, the first night I stayed up late enough for my father to take me outside into the winter night to see the stars for real, I fell to my knees terrified. It was all just so big, Orion’s Belt and the other star shapes, when taken off the page, and it was dizzying and horrifying to a boy of barely five. I looked, truly looked, at the stars solely in books for months thereafter.
So here’s to spring, to stars, to Orion, and to H.A. Rey, for reminding us all that, while we all have so much to offer and learn and teach and love and give and lose, we are oh, so very, very small.
Welcome back, dear reader, to Capes Optional, PPL’s Grade-A, cage-free graphic novel blogorama for your eyeballs. Everyone knows that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is out in movie theaters in just a few weeks, but much like Lex Luthor taking over the Justice League Watchtower, ye olde William Shakespeare has conquered the hearts, minds, (and indeed, gallery space) of the Portland Public Library — and he hath not spared mine lowly publication! Thus, I bring you five Shakespeare graphic novels that you can find right on the shelves of PPL to satisfy both your love of graphic novels as well as your craving for the immortal works of the Bard.
Manga Shakespeare’s Julius Caesarillustrated by Mustashrik
Our first graphic novel comes from a series called “Manga Shakespeare,” which takes the original texts of the works and pairs them with art inspired by modern Japanese illustrators, often re-imagining the settings of the plays in fantastical ways. In this instance, ancient Rome is transformed into a steampunk-style desert world, with the conspirators against Caesar wearing visors and flying helicopters, and the warriors of the Roman Empire fighting with semi-automatic weapons on motorcycle-back. The artwork is all black-and-white and can end up looking a little repetitive eventually, but any lover of manga or anime will be right at home in this interesting retelling of the classic tragedy.
The Tempest adapted by John McDonald and illustrated by Jon Haward
Ahh, The Tempest. This play by Shakespeare is closest to my heart as I played a role in a production at the University of Southern Maine. The incredible imagery of it – the magics of Ariel, the conjured storm, the monstrous Caliban – is a joy to enact on stage, and this graphic novel, part of a series from Classical Comics, is equally beautiful. Classical Comics actually releases three versions of its Shakespeare graphic novels: one in the original Old English; one in “plain text” easy to understand; and one in “quick text,” which omits everything but the central plot from the story. PPL has the “plain text” version, which makes for an easy read without losing all of the nuance and tangential plotlines that Shakespeare is famous for. The artwork is colorful and fun, and the characters pop right out of the page. Can you guess what my role in the play was?
Romeo & Juliet illustrated by Will Volley
This is another one of Classical Comics’ graphic novels. We have the “original text” version on our shelves, so it remains a tough read for those not versed in or used to the Old English. Romeo and Juliet, for its credit, is one of the more grokkable of the Bard’s plays, but still, for every one of its “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”s (which actually means “Why is your name Romeo?”), there is a “to-night she is mew’d up to her heaviness” (which I’ve got nothing for). Volley’s art is quite a bit different from Haward’s – think Prince Valiant compared to Ninja Turtles – but it helps make the story easier to follow, and certainly to differentiate between similar sounding characters (Benvolio, Mercutio, and Tybalt could all have the same voice, as far as I’m concerned.)
Macbeth adapted and illustrated by Gareth Hinds
This graphic novel is a masterpiece. Hinds keeps most of the original text and adds to it a distinctive art style that brings to life the tragic tale of hubris and comeuppance. This particular graphic novel is certainly not for the faint of heart (Hinds shows no quarrel with depicting blood and bone in his paintings), but leaves lasting impressions. The eerie depiction of the ghost of Banquo staring down Macbeth at his banquet table in Act 3 Scene 4 is spine-chilling, and the final showdown with Macduff is pure comic-book action (with no capes required!). Not for the kids, but perfect for comic readers looking for superheroes saving Scotland, and not Metropolis.
King Lear illustrated by Gareth Hinds
Another of Hinds’ works, the art of King Lear is markedly different from that of Macbeth. King Lear, in our children’s section and meant to be an introduction to Shakespeare, has the artwork and the story literally intertwined, the winds of the art carrying the words from characters’ mouths to ears, letters spelled out in lightning cascading towards the wretched king, and color schemes that permeate the entire piece. The letter work is a little hard to read at times, and certainly parents will want to show some discretion before showing some of the artwork or reading some of the plot to younger children (speaking of eyeballs), but this is a beautiful way to read through one of Shakespeare’s more tragic plays.
There are more graphic novels based on Shakespeare’s works within the PPL collection, including different retellings of the same plays (four each of Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth!), and you can discover those here. Also look for references – both subtle and overt – to the Bard in works such as Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.
I love reading graphic novel versions of literature, and I hope that this blog will inspire you to go beyond the Bard and into other genres as well. Next time, we’ll look at some of my favorite Batman and Superman graphic novels just in time to enjoy the new movie. So keep reading, dear reader, and remember: “gentle breath of yours my sails must fill, or else my project fails!”