Woodland settings have fueled the imaginations of storytellers for as long as anyone remembers. And the reason why is easy to see. Forests promise surprises and wonder and mystery, and perhaps a bit of danger. A beguiling brew for readers of fiction and nonfiction alike.
Polish-based author/illustrator Maria Dek portrays the woods as a place of discovery and endless possibility in her picture book A Walk in the Forest. With Dek as our guide, we grow to understand that the woods are not something you can take in all at once. It requires time and patience. Dek immerses us in the experience of being in the woods and listening and waiting.
Each page turn reveals something new. Animals soaring high above the tree canopy or peeking at us from behind fronds. A hidden pond to dip bare toes into. A lone acorn destined for towering heights.
Dek’s illustrations encourage us to marvel at the endless variety that the woodlands can offer. She explores the changing light as daytime softens into dusk and then night. Her painterly illustrations and creative spreads combine closeups, wide shots and unusual POVs. A particular standout is a sudden and startling closeup of a shy red fox.
Dek carefully positions her transparent and opaque watercolor shapes against biscuit white paper, skillfully deploying white space and lots of pattern motifs. The overall effect is full and rich – a celebration of nature both big and small.
How many creatures make their home in a majestic redwood? In Tall, Tall Tree, we drop in on ten lively inhabitants with author Anthony D. Fredericks and illustrator Chad Wallace. This counting book teems with rich visuals as we climb from one colorful and highly textured realm to the next.
Wallace treats us to a child’s eye point of view in closeups. Everything gets equal attention to detail, from the woodpeckers busily nestling acorns in aerial niches to a hovering bumblebee to mosses clutching a branch. Then he pulls back for long views of the forest floor or gaps in the canopy above. Many pages suggest a shallow depth of field, with a thin scrim of focus surrounded by a distant, softened background. Wallace’s spreads show an effortless mastery of atmospheric perspective.
As we explore the microclimates of the redwood, we feel the dampness, the breeze, and the sunlit warmth of the upper reaches. And once we’ve counted our tenth ladybug, the fun is far from over. Fredericks and Wallace invite us back to find ten more hidden animals on the pages, and also share additional information for tree lovers young and old.
In Out of the Woods, author/illustrator Rebecca Bond relates a dramatic and true family tale about her grandfather, Antonio Willie Giroux. When Antonio was a child, he lived in the hotel his mother ran in Gowganda, a heavily forested lakeside town in Ontario, Canada. The hotel held endless fascinations for a young boy, from rowdy trappers, lumberjacks, and silver miners, to the thick woods beyond the inn’s windows where wolves, foxes, bears, and countless other animals dwelled.
Bond communicates great authenticity in her depiction of the logging camp and hotel. Her interiors are very persuasive down to the wood grain of the floorboards, the period clothing and implements, as well as the furniture and the food on the plates.
Both inside and out, the hotel seems a product of the woods from which it sprang. Each spread richly layers on the details and textures in a slow, sensory build acclimating us to this remote woodland world. Bond’s intense, delicate illustrations tinted with watercolor washes evoke 19th Century photographs and etchings, a style perfectly suited to this historic story. When a forest fire later threatens Antonio’s world, the animals so seldom glimpsed in the woods join the townspeople and lodgers taking refuge in the waters of Gowganda Lake. Rarely has history felt so magical and awe-inspiring.
Our final story, Zonia’s Rain Forest, by Caldecott honoree Juana Martinez Neal, draws us far into the southern hemisphere to explore the Peruvian rain forest. Arizona-based Martinez Neal is the Peruvian-born daughter and granddaughter of painters. Her main character, Zonia, hails from the Asháninka, the largest Indigenous group living in the Peruvian Amazon.
Martinez Neal crafts her lush and verdant nature scenes with acrylic, colored pencil, pastel, ink, linocuts, and woodcuts on handmade banana bark paper. The effect is layered and textured and rich with color and patterns.
Zonia and her mother and baby brother are so appealing. We don’t hesitate to join Zonia in her daily wanderings when the forest and its many animals call out to her to come play. Scene after scene celebrates Zonia’s intimate and appreciative relationship with the rain forest. But the blissful mood shifts abruptly when Zonia encounters a desolate, colorless deforested area. From this sobering moment, however, comes a note of true hope, as Zonia’s mother encourages her to join other native people in her homeland fighting to protect the precious rain forest. By the time we finish this cautionary tale, the forest is speaking to us as well.