The Picture Book Buzz - Viewing the Same Topic Through Three Unique Books
Back in 2018, I interviewed three authors who all released a biography on the same person within a month of each other. I know there are many other examples, but I was curious about how multiple authors have recently created different books on the same topic, by exploring the part(s) that most spoke to them. I decided to look at two different topics that have each had three books recently published about them. The first is "wildlife crossings." The second is the "Callery pear tree that survived 9-11."
These amazing structures are creations by people all around the globe who care about animals and the harm that our roadways have created to the migration and species survival of numerous animals. Here are three recent books that looked at different elements/aspects of these crossings from the author's personal interests or point of view.
With any topic, an author has to decide if the book will focus on a narrow or broad aspect of the topic, what's the point of view, and with nonfiction, whether it will be narrative or expository. These decisions, in addition to word choice (lyrical, prose, rhyming, and refrains), are where we see the differences (and uniqueness) between the authors. For this book survey, I'm going to start with the book that took a very narrow look at the topic and then the different ways that authors broadly presented the same topic.
Last year, when Meeg Pincus released, Cougar Crossing, she'd mentioned that she had found so many types of animal crossings. However, knowing a picture book had been released the year before and being fascinated with this particular cougar's story, she decided to focus narrowly on the "case study" of Cougar P22 and the creation of the world's largest wildlife crossing in Hollywood, California. When I interviewed Meeg (here) for Cougar Crossing's release, she mentioned that she still wanted to write another book about the other amazing crossings she'd encountered during her research.
Cougar Crossing: How Hollywood's Celebrity Cougar Helped Build a Bridge for City Wildlife by Meeg Pincus, illustrated by Alexander Vidal (Beach Lane Books, February 2, 2021) [3-8 years] - With the image of Cougar P22 on the cover, one might assume that this is told from the cougar's point of view. While it is focused on the actions and needs of the "celebrity cougar" P22, it's also the story of the creativity, work, and persistence of the two wildlife biologist featured, ingeniously, as "cameo sidebars" throughout the book.
It's a fun combination of a close third person narration about P22, without anthropomorphizing him, and a first person commentary by the biologists who monitored him and fought for the wildlife crossing.
In the end, his exploits ("breaking into a home" and eating a koala at the L.A. Zoo) helped endear him to the community and created an upswelling of community support, which helped the biologists get the crossing created. Though he never saw it completed, he "will forever be a hero to city animals everywhere."
It's a beautifully designed and illustrated, engaging, personal account of the cougar and biologists who are responsible for the creation of this specific crossing which has since helped innumerable city dwellers and other wild animals avoid the mega L.A. highway and expand (or migrate to) their new territories. P22's plight and this particular crossing made an impression on Meeg and through her narrative on the reader.
A year earlier, Katy Duffield had released a more expansive book looking at numersous crossings found around the world.
Crossings: Extraordinary Structures for Extraordinary Animals by Katy S. Duffield, illustrated by Mike Orodán (Beach Lane Books, October 13, 2020) [3-8 years] - From the opening lines:
Over, under, across, through.
Around the world, construction crews build
overpasses, underpasses, bridges, and tunnels -
ways for people to get from one place to another.
it is evident that this is a different evaluation of this topic. The opening spread shows a bear staring up at a big, impressive looking bridge (for cars) under construction and asks what happens when humans keep moving into the animal's habitat. Subtly connecting the "overpasses, underpasses, bridges, and tunnels" we use for our cars, bikes, or even footbridges with the crossings being made for animals.
Weaving the prepositions, "Over, under, across, through," throughout - as both a refrain and a guiding structure of the book - Katy Duffeld examines animal's overpasses (over the Trans-Canada Highway), underpasses (under Kenya's major highway), rope bridges (across Australia's Hume Highway), and tunnels (through a tunnel to avoid New Zealand's roadways) built around the world that help keep animals safe from human construction and roadways. These are just four of the twelve examples (three examples for a type of crossing) she highlights in the book.
Using repetition, alliteration, and a short sentence for the primary text ("Spotted salamanders shimmy THROUGH peewee passages beneath a Massachusetts street.") and pairing that with a more detailed side note and back matter for each location and animal, makes this is a wonderful nonfiction text for a wide range of readers. In addition to the colorful, realistic illustrations of the animals and their surroundings, wonderful spot illustrations highlight the architects, scientists, engineers who built these structures and the kids who observe the animals using the crossings. Creating an engaging way to look at how we've created various crossings around the world for animals to move "over, under, across, through."
Interestingly, though both books are set in different locations Cougar Crossing (California) and Crossings (the closing scene is set in Florida), they both end with an image of a mother cougar (or Florida panther) and two cubs lying on a ledge with a wildlife overpass in the distance. But here as well, you see the different, personal connection of each illustrator. Crossings is a large realistic image of a mother panther and her cub, as cars speed by on a freeway with the overpass in the distance. While Cougar Crossing shows a cougar and her cubs, the image also includes the scientists, a bear and her cubs, and a deer with the overpass being the more central focal point.
This year, Meeg Pincus released her take on the numerous animal crossings found around the world.
Make Way for Animals!: A World of Wildlife Crossings by Meeg Pincus, illustrated by Bao Luu (Millbrook Press, April 5, 2022) [5-9 years] - Meeg begins with four animals European badgers (Netherlands), little blue fairy penguins (New Zealand), red crabs (Christmas Island), and African elephants (Kenya) who have made treks and wandered their habitats for thousands of years until "[t]he roads came blocking their way." Now, how will they find food, make nests, lay eggs, and find mates now? How can we help them?
The book dives straight into the isolation, damage, and yearly deaths which have occurred as a result of our roads. Then it highlights what people on six continents and in forty-three U.S. states have been done for these animals.
Using a similar, though much simpler, alliterated main text ("In the Netherlands, bridges for badgers...") and a bit of information in a sidebar, this book also appeals to a range of readers. The softly toned, gentle, digital illustrations do a great job of showing the animals plight and the successful functioning of the various crossings. This books also uses spot illustrations to show the people involved, but notes that more than just the scientists, architects, and engineers are involved in creating these structures - it expands to individuals such as activists, politicians, and fund raisers who've played a role, too.
While she does talk about a few of the same animals and their crossings as Katy S. Duffield does in the previous book, Meeg highlights additional animals and types of crossings - overpasses for badgers in the Netherlands, a "detour for deer" in Banff, Canada, suspension ways for ringtail possums in Australia and squirrels in Washington State, a fish ladder in Japan, and a "bee highway" in Norway. It is less of a comparison of animal and human movement, as a look at ways to save animals. The book beautifully ends with the four initial animals using crossings to successfully "find food, make nests, release eggs, and meet mates." Rather than focusing on the "type" of crossing [over, under, across through], Meeg Pincus focuses on how animals benefit from the crossings
When planning new roads, people must say: make way for animals!
And then, we must create the way.
The back matter details not only the types of crossings, but how communities created entire systems of crossings, like Banff (forty-four crossings), Montana (forty three crossings "over and under the new highway"), and the Netherlands (six hundred crossings!). It also encourages investigation and perhaps action for new crossings in each of the readers' areas.
Conclusion: Though, at their cores, all three books focus on how we can save animals through the creation of crossings, they each find a unique way to use the same facts. Through a personal account of scientists determined to save a particularly adored L.A. cougar and other wildlife needing to pass around the mega freeway to survive. A look at how the crossings resemble "overpasses, underpasses, bridges, and tunnels" that we use sometimes daily, with a repetitive focus on using these concrete prepositions. Or an environmental focus on how various crossings have helped and saved animals - after we intruded and put them at risk. Yet all three end with a plea, or call to action, for the reader to help create ways to minimize our impacts on animals. It's a great trio of books to read as mentor texts, but also as a way to get kids excited about designing ways to lessen our impacts and help animals.
The Pear Tree that Survived 9-11
A lot of people know about the special tree that, though battered and broken, survived the terrorist attack on 9-11. There are three picture books which released in 2011, in commemoration of the attacks anniversary, which all take a slightly different angle on telling the story. And, like the books on Irving Berlin, they were released within a couple of months of each other.
This Very Tree: A Story of 9/11, Resilience, and Regrowth by Sean Rubin (Henry Holt and Co. (BYR), May 11, 2021) [4-8 years] - The first one released, is told in the first person from the point of view of the tree itself. "My leaves gave people shade. My branches gave birds a place to rest."
Sean ingeniously shows the attack and community reaction, as well as the tree's bare branches, in a mosaic of glass shards against a grey and fiery red background. Surrounded, buried by rubble the tree wonders "Did the sun even exist anymore?"
This book follows the tree's rescue and relocation to a nursery. With a very delicate and subtle touch, Sean Rubin uses the personification of the tree to address PTSD, adapting to change, and the benefit of friends (other big trees) and others who care (nursery workers). The tree expresses fears of returning, of something bad happening again, and its delight in seeing the new spire, plaza, and forest of trees. Growing into its new role, the tree offers solace and hope to all who need it - reminding them "that Spring will come."
It's a deeply personal story about the extraordinary resilience and determination to survive, despite the scars and breaks, of New Yorkers - both human and tree. It's written in a very relatable and emotionally resonant way to allow kids to identify with the Survivor Tree. In the back matter, Sean explains his personal connection, textural and illustrative choices, and offers more depth on the events of 9-11.
The second picture book on 9-11 and the survivor tree released just days later.
Branches of Hope: The 9/11 Survivor Tree by Ann Magee, illustrated by Nicole Wong (Charlesbridge, May 18, 2021) [4-7 years] - Written from a third person point of view, the book alternates in a dual narrative between the tree and the city as they both recover from "something unthinkable."
Concise, lyrical text - "Fire rained down, down, down. Sidewalks rumbled. Buildings crumbled." - and a vivid image of the smoking twin towers with the wordless inset of the girl and her family's reaction to the news explores a much more concrete look at the 9-11 attack. With a more condensed time frame, in this book "the tree reached up, longing for the light," is discovered in the rubble, and then, with a page turn, digs it's roots into soil. Shifting back to the city, "day after day, month after month," the cleanup of Ground Zero and the world's reaction are explored.
While being slightly removed in its narration, a gorgeous addition by Nicole Wong is the wordless illustrated narrative of a small girl and her family as they experience 9-11. Filling in the gap from the tree's discovery to its digging in roots at the nursery - the illustration shows the tree wrapped, lying on a flatbed truck and the girl wrapped in blankets lying in bed. Lightly tying the tree's experience with that of the girl. This joint journey begins on the front endpapers where the girl and the tree first meet and ends on the back endpapers with the girl (now a young woman) returning to greet the tree as a firefighter. I particularly love the spread of the tree and the girl changing and growing together through the seasons.
Unlike the previous book, this one condenses time, "a decade had passes," and focuses more on the big changes which the tree and the city undergo. With wonderful images of the creation of the 9-11 museum, memorial monument, and dedication ceremony. Ending with the city and the tree, "...growing stronger every day." The tree's journey and the author's immediate, personal connection are related in the back matter, as well as the line that perhaps shows the difference in the focus of these two books - "Hope lets the light in." While not sugar-coating the events, the book focuses more on the recovery and continuation of life after 9-11.
The third book released three months later.
Survivor Tree, by Marcie Colleen, illustrated by Aaron Becker (Little Brown Books for Young Readers, August 31, 2021) [4-8 years] - This book also is written in the third-person, but the focus is entirely on the tree and it's experiences, as demonstrated in the opening lines:
A TREE STOOD STEEL-STRAIGHT AND PROUD
at the foot of the towers that filled its sky.
It grew, mostly unnoticed,
silently marking the seasons.
The themes of seasons, colors, and growth run through the book both in the images of the tree and in Aaron Becker's visual narrative of a family interacting with the tree - starting on this opening spread with a fall leaf-stomping photo op of a brother and sister. The only people shown noticing the tree over the years. We follow the tree as its bare limbs soon sprouted white flowers, then glossy green leaves, and finally blazing red hearts.
Coordinating with the beautifully lyrical, succint text, "Winter, spring, summer, fall/Bare, white, green, red." the illustrations follow the tree and the children as they grow, until .... the sister's gone off to work and a smoke trail leads to the solitary word "Fall" suspended in the blue sky.
Almost as cryptic as the first book, but totally within the perspective of the tree, "the perfect blue sky exploded." The actual impact is shown looking toward a patch of sky as a swirling mass of smoke, dust, and photos (including one of the two kids). It continues to follow the tree's injury, discovery, rescue, and rehabilitation under "a different sky." As the tree recovers, the text and illustrations again follow the seasons and the tree's colors. Until one winter, ten years later, it returned "home." This very powerful word is accompanied by an equally poignant image of the tree with vague shadows of the towers on either side. As others now notice "Our Survivor Tree," the boy (now a father) brings his family to remember his sister and introduce them to "his" tree.
It is a very touching story of the tree and the hope that its survival and rejuvenation brings to us all. Although it skirts any actual discussion of 9-11, the back matter beautifully describes a bit further the journey of this remarkable tree and how the author's memories of a sudden absence of color, in an ash laden sky on 9-11 , led to a connection with the beautiful range of colors of the Callery pear tree throughout the seasons and the eventual guiding theme of the book. And how the hope found at the nursery that helped heal the tree, now full of it's seedlings, influenced the illustrations and the message that - "that even in the darkest times, life will find its way."
Conclusion: Again, one event yielded three distinct stories, which together serve as great mentors for authors and illustrators in finding their own personal way into a story and creating awesome back matter. Whether as an exploration of looking for light amidst the darkness and physical and emotional trauma of an event. A look at the way hope helped both the city and a ree bloom again. Or a look at how even in the darkest times, life and color continues to exist and eventually thrive. All three end with hope and healing. They are wonderful complementary texts for classes and families learning about 9-11, exploring a range of emotions from this and other tragedies, and celebrating the healing power of hope and nature. A tribute to one special tree still offering solace, hope, and color to help heal anyone willing to notice.
Also, for another, slightly older, example which highlights the way three different individuals put their own spin on a topic, see my joint interview post with Nancy Churnin (Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing, illustrated by James Rey Sanchez, 5/1/2018), Leslie Kimmelman (Write On, Irving Berlin!, illustrated by David C. Gardner, 5/15/2018), and Adah Nuchi (God Bless America: The Story of an Immigrant Named Irving Berlin, illustrated by Rob Polivka, 6/4/2018) about their picture biographies on Irving Berlin (here).
I hope you all take the time to check out each of these three sets of books and dive into their similarities, differences, and amazing ways that a circumstance, event, or person's life can influence each of us in our unique ways. You'll likely find even more ways that they are similar and strikingly different. And then, as there are numerous other instances of multiple books written on a topic or person, have fun comparing them and discovering the nuances that mattered to each individual author and illustrator. 😊