What happens when a simple but engaging ecological tale, stunningly creative mixed-media artwork, and dramatic science story-telling combine? Why not find out?
Here's the story in its essence: A giant oak tree, the unsung center of a living community of organisms, big and small, topples one day during a storm and breaks apart. It becomes a giant log sprawled on the forest floor, and yet, maintains a central role. Finally, it decomposes and ultimately becomes the soil in which an acorn sprouts and grows into another massive oak tree. Sounds simple. But it is HOW that basic "circle-of-life" storyline is communicated and represented to children that makes this book tower above others, much like the oak tree it chronicles.
Read "A Log's Life" to a child tonight, and both of you will crave a re-viewing and rereading. To be sure, there are lots of interesting new children's science picture books on the market today, but many tend to inundate children with a plethora of science facts, or distract them with a dizzying array of brightly colored images. Such books also "jump around like a grasshopper," with disjointed storyline and ostentatious artwork vying for attention. In addition, their narratives lack character development and emotional impact. Such books are often read once or twice, and shelved in the playroom for future yard sales.
This book is different. The first thing you will notice is the artwork. It simply amazes, because each page subtly captures soft forest colors and layered complexity with the realism of a nature photograph. Yet each is much better than a photograph, because of its artistic thematics and focused vision. And it's almost impossible to believe that every illustration is made almost entirely of paper! Each represents an incredible amount of work. Illustrator Robin Brickman confides, "I made the illustrations by cutting, painting, sculpting, and then gluing together pieces of watercolor paper. There are no found objects or real or preserved specimens in the artwork. With the exception of an occasional use of human hair, the illustrations consist only of painted paper and glue. The original art is three-dimensional and it was photographed to produce the book." It's such fun to search for the natural "characters" in Robin's illustrations as the story first introduces them, and then to keep an eye out for them on successive pages--camouflaged as these organismal characters are.
Unexplicitly woven into the fabric of this book are such important scientific ideas as: food web, life cycle of an oak tree, seed germination, animal identification, ecological community, niche and niche exploitation, disturbance ecology, camouflage and mimicry, common and technical terms (dirt, soil), and decomposition.
A botanist might quibble with one sentence of the text in that mosses do not truly have "roots," as the text claims, but instead have simpler, root-like structures that botanists call "rhizoids." However, some unlearning is always necessary as one's scientific understanding advances to higher and higher levels--and one can argue that using the term "root" communicates better to readers at this age level than the scientifically correct word would. The strength of this book lies in its essential simplicity, visual clarity, and lucidness.
The book's two collaborators blend their talents seamlessly. Author Wendy Pfeffer's carefully crafted text line is underscored and advanced by the quiet, but masterful images Brickman has created. And Pfeffer's words are impeccably chosen to convey the tale with as few words as necessary. She uses alliteration, powerful verbs, and the concept of recurrence to engrave the story into children's memories, to arouse caring emotions--to teach undetectably and without pedantics. And while many children's science picture books "read like a school book," this one is a true storybook--to be read purely for the joy and pleasure it provides--with science learning as an unexpected premium.
Even the book's little title rewards rereading. It suggests two different but complementary meanings--for it can mean the story of a single log's life, or the story of all the life [forms] within a log. Extraordinary books are like that.