Monday, April 16, 2012


By Denise Fleming

(Henry Holt and Company, 1996)

This book is a recommendation for Earth Day.

One of the song lyrics that I think of most is “They paved paradise, put up a parking lot” from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”. Where Once There Was a Wood is a variation on that lyric, with a wood, meadow and creek turning into a housing development. Yes, we all live in homes of one sort or another, but Denise Fleming’s lovely rhyming book gives one pause to consider what nature sacrificed to provide us comfort.

With the artwork originally created using cotton rag fiber, I kept running my hands across the pages, disappointed to feel the smoothness of the acid-free paper instead of the texture of the fibers. Still, the effect is beautiful to see. The writing creates an equally strong impact as Fleming highlights how the natural environment housed its own glorious ecosystem.

...where once the brown snake
slithered and slipped out of sight
where once the raccoons rambled
and rummaged in the night..

When the illustrations combine with Fleming’s poetic phrasing, love for the environment breathes on each page.

The last four pages of the book constitute a nonfiction addendum, advising readers about what they can do to “Welcome Wildlife to Your Backyard Habitat”. It’s well-intentioned, but it highlights the flaws of how factual information so often gets presented to young readers. Whereas the poetry portion of the book allows no more than two lines per double page spread, the nonfiction section crams facts into dense paragraphs. It will come across as information overload and many interested readers will skip over the section after reading a sentence or two at most. Moreover, the illustrations are few and one—a small drawing of purple cornflowers—does not even appear beside either of the references to this flower, mentioned on the following page. It’s all an unfortunate afterthought. If only the publisher suggested that Fleming create a nonfiction picture book entitled Welcome Wildlife as a companion to Where Once There Was a Wood...

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