Monday, March 22, 2010

The Great Kapok Tree

the great kapok tree amazon rainforest tale lynn cherry book review for Saffron Tree

The Great Kapok Tree: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest
by Lynne Cherry

I picked up this book from the library recently, not knowing much about it. Reading it has turned out to be quite a beautiful experience for me and Ana.

The story opens with the lively sounds of howler monkeys and macaws in the Amazon Rain Forest suddenly hushed by the appearance of two men. One of them points to a tree and walks away, leaving the other man striding purposefully, axe in hand, towards the indicated tree. A Kapok Tree. An ancient, enormous Kapok Tree.

Feeling a little tired after the first few whacks with his axe, the man lays down to rest under this very same Kapok tree he is trying to chop down, and is lulled into sleep by the heat and hum of the rain forest.

One by one, the amazing animals of the rain forest pay him a visit and whisper their plea in his ear, becoming a spokesperson for the tree, and in turn their forest.

A boa slithers down and hisses in his ear: Senhor*... this is my home... generations of my ancestors have lived here... do not chop it down.

Similarly a bee, a toucan, a macaw, a cock-of-the-rock, a green tree frog, a troupe of monkeys, tree porcupines, anteaters, three-toed sloth, even a jaguar, all take their turn to urge the man to look at the kapok tree with a fresh perspective.

The unstriped anteater asks: Senhor... surely you know that what you do today changes what happens tomorrow... children of tomorrow would have to live in a world without trees.

Tree porcupines reminds him: Senhor, what do we all need in order to live? Oxygen. And, Senhor, what do trees produce? Oxygen! Would you chop down and destroy that which gives us all life.

The three-toed sloth asks: Senhor, what is life without beauty? If the beauty of the rain forest is gone, what would you feast your eyes on?

Finally, a Yanomamo child of the rain forest pleads: When you wake up, please look upon us with new eyes.

The man wakes up with a start to see these marvelous animals staring at him. Animals that depend on this Kapok tree, an integral part of the rain forest. And what wondrous and rare animals they were!

Needless to say, he drops his axe and walks away, leaving the animals safe in their habitat.

The illustrations by Lynne Cherry are superbly lush, colorful and magical. They capture the verdant beauty of the rain forest - dense and luxurious, teeming with wildlife big and small. Each page shows an array of indigenous animals in their habitat - being where they need to be, doing what they are designed to do.

For the last one week, Ana has requested this book once every night. She listens to the plea/warning from each animal, telling me in her own way, why it would be sad if the man cut the tree down. She excitedly identifies the rain forest animals in each page, from the gorgeous and elusive blue Morpho butterflies she encountered in Over In The Jungle to the slow-and-sluggish sloths. I didn't know a toucan from macaw from cock-of-the-rock at her age, but, am glad she does, thanks to the wonderful book. Best part of the book according to this soon-to-be-five-year-old? When the man throws his axe down and walks away without cutting the tree!

The text is very direct yet simple. And, thanks to The Magic Tree House #6 Afternoon At The Amazon that we read a while back, we learnt about the layers of the rain forest - forest floor, understory, canopy and the emergent layer. And, it was interesting to note the order in which the animals stopped by to talk to the slumbering man, starting from the bottom-most layer to the top.

There are many things to talk about in this book, and as the kids grow, I hope to revisit this book periodically and see what we can add to our experience. There are always two sides to every issue and it would be interesting to see if they can understand why trees get cut and what we do with them... non-replenishable resources vs. renewable and alternative solutions... Lots to talk about. In good time.

The map at the front and back shows the rain forest regions of the world, indicating original extent and the depletion when this book was published in 1990. This gave a great perspective for Ana. She wondered how long it took for the rain forest to become smaller as shown, and how did they know how big it was in the first place, and did the rain forest shrink only because the trees were cut down? Also, she was able to see rain forests lined up along the Equator (middle, as she put it) and that led to a whole different set of topics to introduce and discuss. Plus, on the border of these maps are pictures of the rain forest animals with their names that makes it interesting to look back and spot them in the other pages.

As a fledgling parent, I try to temper my passion to create awareness about issues with age-appropriateness. I want to take my kids to exotic places, show them what a beautiful world we live in. And, at the same time, help them realize what it takes to preserve, protect, and promote what we have. Lynne Cherry's classic book makes it easy for me to present at least a few of these issues in a child-friendly way, with irresistible visual appeal that is sure to catch their attention and maybe even make an impression.

The book is dedicated to Chico Mendes, who gave his life to preserve a part of the rain forest.

*Brazilian spelling senhor has been used in this book as this story is about the Amazon rain forest. Also, the text from the book is paraphrased here to preserve copyright. The original text in the book is superbly crisp and evocative.


sathish said...

"it was interesting to note the order in which the animals stopped by to talk to the slumbering man, starting from the bottom-most layer to the top"

That is a very interesting observation. Looks like lot of thought has gone into this book.

Thanks for the review.

sathish said...

sheela, an interesting factoid that I came across from your links is that the largest known kapok tree is in Bangalore!! oh! my! it is next door and I do not know.

Kapok in Bangalore

Choxbox said...

Sheels, there is an awesome tree in the Good Shepherd's Convent in Bangalore - thanks to you i've realized its a kapok tree!

Sounds like a lovely book - one you'd go to again and again over the years, as you said.

Deepa said...

Hi, Could you tell me where this book is available? My son is learning about rain forests in school and i would love for him to have this book. Thanks!

Praba Ram said...

A beautiful one, Sheela. The environmental themed stories are soul-stirring. Thanks for this! (knowing we both share our love for The Lorax, can't be without checking this one out! :))Thanks!

utbtkids said...

We visited the Rainforest exhibit in The California Academy of Science.

So we checked out The Great Kapok Tree and re-read it.

There is no hidden message, it is to the point, precise and mesmerizing.

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