The Wonder of Trees is another exquisite nonfiction title from Nicola Davies.
Wonder is a big word to use in a book title.
Wonder: a feeling of amazement and admiration, caused by something beautiful, remarkable.
There has been a flurry of publishing about trees in recent years. I was fascinated by Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees and entranced by Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest. These books filled me with wonder, and that is precisely what Nicola Davies and Lorna Scobie do in this outstanding nonfiction title for children, which reveals the marvel of trees. Some of the amazing facts that Davies includes are:
- Trees can communicate with each other and even warn trees in the same family when there are threats from predators and disease.
- The flower of the fig is INSIDE the fruit. A burrowing wasp pollinates it,
- Tiny caterpillars called leaf miners live inside oak leaves and make little tunnels between the lower and upper layers of the leader when they eat.
- Trees in the Taiga forest can withstand temperatures of -50C; that’s twice as cold as a domestic freezer.
Each turn of the page will have you exclaiming,’ Wow! I didn’t know that.’
Nicola Davies has a tremendous writing range. I love her lyrical narrative nonfiction and her modern fable The Promise is used again and again in schools, but in this book, we see just how skilled she is with exposition. The writing is sharp and clear. Where needed child-friendly analogies help; leaves are ‘food factories’, and bark is like ‘bubble-wrap’. The writing is economical so that complex ideas don’t get obscured by too much ponderous explanation. For example, consider the word choice ‘musty pong’ for describing the night-time bat pollinating trees. How much is conveyed by the lexical choice ‘pong’ instead of scent or smell? Further description is redundant.
It is important to note that making scientific material accessible does not mean over-simplifying. Correct scientific terminology is used and Latin names for species too (and how to understand them). Here are a couple of examples demonstrating how terminology is introduced and explained.
Trees need to breathe through their bark, so it has tiny breathing holes called LENTICELS. These are grouped together on some trees, such as the TIBETAN CHERRY, in raised spongy patches.
Water and nutrients in rainforests are often at the surface, so tree roots aren’t deep enough to keep the tree from being blown over. In this case the tree grows above-ground roots, called buttress roots, like scaffolding to prop it up.
The role of the illustration in communicating meaning is essential. Lorna Scobie is a fine illustrator and observer of the natural world. She has worked with Nicola Davies on a previous project, The Variety of Life. Scobie’s watercolour and pencil images, capture the texture of bark and the fine details of leaves and wood grain. Her palette shows a full range of realistic greens, reds, oranges and yellows.
The design also plays a part. Introductory paragraphs in a clear sans-serif font lead the eye into the page, and the reader is then free to roam around the spread looking at what takes their interest. The handwritten style font accords the page a friendly feel, and there is plenty of white space around the text in this large-format book which makes it a comfortable reading experience.
The organisation of the book starts with the classification of trees. Taxonomies are tricky; classification systems are designed to put nature into neat boxes. However, the natural world often resists being marshalled in this way. One way of thinking about classification is to think about what is not included. So it’s an interesting point for discussion, that Davies starts by talking about plants that look like trees and are often called trees but are not true trees. A fascinating section about tree physiology follows. Then onto the relationship between trees, other plants and animals. The next section looks at different types of forests: taiga, temperate woodlands, dry gum forest, cloud forest and tropical rainforest. Then a final part about human impact on forests and action we can take to preserve, protect and plant forests for the future. It’s very comprehensive and detailed.
A glossary at the end is a useful addition, and I was pleased to see pronunciation support for the word ‘species’. It seems that in a lot of nonfiction currently being published, pronunciation support is ignored but it is essential for developing readers.
I was surprised by the omission on a contents page and an index. A coloured stripe on verso does denote a section but this is not made explicit. I’m not a pedant who thinks every nonfiction book needs these features. However, in this instance, I felt there was enough material that readers might want to access in different ways. Yes, reading cover to cover and browsing the book for pleasure, but I think some readers will want to return to the book to find specific information and structural guides would help.
I’ll end with an anecdote. Years ago, when I was a child, I spent a lot of time in woodlands and forest, building dens, playing hide and search games, making pieces of words into decorative objects. One day I found the perfect ‘wizard staff’; a long stick that could be used to support walking or for casting spells. I started hitting the trunks of the trees, listening for the sounds it made. It seemed like a harmless activity until the forest warden admonished me for hurting the trees and making them bleed. I was shocked. Can trees bleed? Can they feel pain? Since that encounter in the forest, I have always felt uncomfortable seeing trees damaged even in play – broken and bent branches, ripped bark. I had learnt a lesson about respecting a tree as a living thing. So for me, the joy in this book is that it conveys a critical truth: Trees ARE wonderful. Let’s wonder at their beauty, appreciate how they benefit us and respect them.
The Wonder of Trees is a super book for the classroom or library and would make a gorgeous gift for a child – or adult. There are lots of very good books about trees, but if you can only buy one, I suggest you consider this one.
You may also be interested to look at the review of A First Book of the Sea, another title about the ‘wonder’ of nature.
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