Capturing sights, sounds of rain forest


April 16, 1993|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

Jane Yolen wasn't a natural when it came to writing about nature.

"I grew up in New York City, where if you can find nature it's probably hiding someone who's waiting to attack you," she said. "We moved to Connecticut when I was a teen-ager, and I loved to go on walks in the countryside. But I was just sitting outside, enjoying the peacefulness. I wasn't observing."

Her powers of observation, though late in coming, are what make Ms. Yolen's latest book such a sensual sensation. "Welcome to the Green House," illustrated by Laura Regan (Putnam, $14.95, all ages) has been released just in time for Earth Day, which will be next Thursday.

Instead of hammering home a didactic message about the destruction of rain forests, Ms. Yolen takes readers on a guided tour and lets the beauty of the tropics seep into our pores. The words screech and flash and glint and glimmer, enveloping the reader in a humid cloud of heat and color and sound.

She waits until the afterword to say that humans are wiping out 50 acres of rain forest every minute. She gives the address of the Earth Island Institute for readers who want to learn more about how to help save the rain forest.

At a time when publishers are printing any excuse of a story as long as it has an environmental theme, "Welcome to the Green House" is a welcome addition to the list of quality books that foster an appreciation of the natural world. They include "The Great Kapok Tree," by Lynne Cherry, and any books by Jean Craighead George, Miriam Schlein, Jim Arnosky, Robert McClung and Bianca Lavies, to name a few favorites.

Ms. Yolen, whose first children's book was published in 1962, has written more than 130 books and has another 50 already under contract. She has scores of awards, she has an imprint in her own name with Harcourt Brace & Co., and she is one of the founding members of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

So she knows a thing or two about how to write for kids. And she has a clear idea about how to write a book about the environment.

"First, you have to be a careful observer," she said by telephone from her home in Hatfield, Mass. "Second, you have to be a careful selector of detail. You can't include all of the details you observe.

"And third, never neglect the story. 'Green House' isn't a story, but it has story elements. You're moving through the day and following the rhythms of life in the rain forest. If you don't have a story, you need lyricism and rhythm."

Ms. Yolen credits her husband, David, with helping her to become an observer. He grew up in West Virginia and is an avid naturalist and bird-watcher.

"He can see out of the corners of his eyes better than I can see looking forward," she said. "It's from his time growing up in West Virginia, fishing and just spending time with nature."

They raised their three children in Hatfield, on what used to be a working tobacco farm. It was a far cry from Ms. Yolen's childhood in New York City.

"We brought up our children learning that there's much to see and observe in nature," she said. "I came at it late, but I think learning about the woods has helped sharpen my writing."

Her first book to celebrate nature was "Owl Moon," illustrated by John Schoenherr and winner of the 1988 Caldecott Medal. It's a lyrical tale of a little girl who goes out owling with her father for the first time. They leave their farmhouse late one snowy night and walk quietly through the woods, hoping to catch a glimpse of a great horned owl.

Taken by the beauty of "Owl Moon," an environmental group called the Rainforest Alliance asked Ms. Yolen to write a similar book about the rain forest. She didn't want to duplicate the father-daughter theme, but she had visited rain forests in Australia and Brazil, and decided to write a poem with occasional rhyme, which became "Welcome to the Green House."

The Rainforest Alliance also lined up Ms. Regan as the illustrator. It is her first book, but her wildlife paintings have been acclaimed and reproduced on greeting cards and calendars.

She studied graphic design at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

When she sat down to write the book, Ms. Yolen surrounded herself with Ms. Regan's earlier work. And she listened to audio tapes her husband uses when he goes birding.

"When you go into a rain forest you're assaulted by the sounds and colors, and I wanted to have that sensation," Ms. Yolen said.

And her readers get to share it. Here is a sample:

"With the a-hoo, a-hoo, a-hoo

of the howler troop

welcoming the dawn;

with the crinch-crunch

of long-horned beetles

chewing through wood;

with the pick-buzz-hum-buzz

of a thousand thousand bees

droning over flowers."

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