As screens continue to dominate our lives — even those of children — it seems to me essential to uphold the power of nature to teach, to heal, to inspire, to rejuvenate the world-weary. I’m fortunate enough to have an old-growth forest behind my yard, where I can ramble, get ticks, follow a meandering stream, and clarify my thoughts. We all need a green space, perhaps more than ever. And that’s why our parks are pearls beyond price.
The recently published nonfiction picture book The Camping Trip That Changed America: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and our National Parks tells an engaging story of how two men with little in common experienced the wild beauty of our nation in a three-day trip that would result in protecting swaths of wilderness forever.
Barb Rosenstock has focused on an appealing angle that allows young readers to appreciate the thinking that went into the creation of our national parks. Her simple, kid-friendly language plays up the elegant symmetry of the plot. She opens and closes with the contrast between the privileged, urban background of Pres. Theodore Roosevelt (or “Teedie,” as his family called him) and that of naturalist John Muir, the Midwestern son of poor immigrant farmers.
What brought the two together was a love of the outdoors. Roosevelt, in planning a trip out West in 1903, asked Muir to take him camping in the Yosemites so he could see for himself if, as Muir had written, the wild forests were vanishing.
“I feel like a runaway schoolboy!” Teedie cries, as they gallop away. Next we see a double spread where the grandeur of ancient sequoias comes to life. Readers must flip the book vertically to gaze at the stunning ink and watercolor painting by acclaimed illustrator Mordicai Gerstein. Quivering with green and golden light, this image is both inspired and inspiring, exactly what the author must have hoped for.
On their last night together, Muir explains to Roosevelt how people were destroying nature to profit from it, and there was no one to stop them. In a sickly yellowish cloud floating above the heads of the two men huddled by the campfire, Gerstein masterfully shows the ruthless forest clearing, the mining, the haphazard building of hotels. The two men could imagine something better for America:
“What if everyone owned the wilderness?
What if both rich and poor could spend time out in the open?
What if we could save the forests for all the children to come?”
The author’s note provides additional background information sure to interest older readers and many of their parents or teachers. The quotes from both Muir and Roosevelt are powerful:
Muir: “God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches … but he cannot save them from fools — only Uncle Sam can do that!”
Roosevelt: “Lying out at night under those giant Sequoias was lying in … a temple grander than any human architect could by any possibility build, and I hope for the preservation of the groves of giant trees simply because it would be a shame for our civilization to let them disappear … We are not building this country of ours for a day. It is to last through the ages.”
Wow! This is exemplary nonfiction for children, cleverly created to enlighten and entertain ages 6 to 10. For more ideas on using the book, see the teaching guide by Jennifer Ward.
See also … my prior post on summer fun and these titles: