Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog for the Environment

It's Blog Action Day and today's focus is the environment. So in that spirit, today's entry Tree of Life: The Incredible Biodiversity of Life on Earth by Rochelle Strauss (Kids Can Press, 2004). This large format book uses the tree as a metaphor -- the family tree of life on earth if you will. Strauss opens by speaking directly to the reader and comparing a family tree to the "Tree of Life" for all living things. From there, she introduces the five kingdoms of life: Monera, Fungi, Protoctista, Plants and Animals. Each of the first four kingdoms gets its own spread before we get a more detailed break-down of the Animal Kingdom, with its approximately 1 318 000 species. (Or, as Strauss relates the information, animals give 1 318 000 leaves to the tree of life.) Given that animals are ultimately more interesting to young readers than, say, cyanobacteria (although cyanobacteria are pretty cool, and we probably wouldn't be living on this planet without them), this was probably a good move. Each of the larger categories of animals gets its own spread (reptiles, fish, mammals, etc.).

The book is visually very beautiful, with lovely illustrations by Margot Thompson. The images of the organisms are bright and engaging and she's chosen some great species to illustrate, such as the Jamaican leaf-nosed bat, the tardigrade, and the panther chameleon. On each spread, Strauss gives a general introduction to the topic at hand and then gives us the numbers. (On the page for vertebrates, for instance, we learn there are 25 100 fish, 9800 birds, 8000 reptiles, 4960 amphibians, and 4640 mammals, totalling 52 500 leaves on the Tree of Life.) After this introductory sections, Strauss narrows in on a few organisms in detail. (For example, on page 15 we learn: "High up in tropical rainforests, the bromeliad grows into a "bowl" of leaves attached to a tree. This bowl catches water and becomes a habitat for many species of frogs, insects, spiders and worms. The largest bromeliad is just a bit smaller than a backpack. It can hold nearly 7.5L (2 US gal.) of water.")

The last page in the overview of the Tree of Life, finds us with 1 species: humans. This is an important page as children will learn that we are just 1 of the 1 750 000 leaves on the Tree of Life. As Strauss says: "Yet, with a population of over six billion, humans have the greatest impact on the Tree of Life." From there, readers learn about habitat loss and endangered species as well as some ways to help preserve habitats and our earth's biodiversity.

Children hear enough about global warming and recycling and turning off the lights to help "save the world." I'm not a fan of telling kids they can save the world, frankly. They've got enough to worry about without that weight on their shoulders, yet, I think it is very important they know where they fit in the scheme of things on our planet. And, hopefully, if they become more aware of the incredible diversity of life and habitats and cultures and religions and music and food and books ... well, just the diversity of life on our planet, they will learn to respect and care for all life. To that end, The Tree of Life is a wonderful tool -- it's not preachy, but it fuels the wonderful childhood quality: curiosity. Share the book with a child (or 30) and then get out there and discover the incredible diversity in your neighbourhood (even a yard or a ditch or a vacant woodlot can usually yield some treasures if one's willing to slow down and look).

The final spread in the book is an excellent Note to Parents, Teachers and Guardians, with more detailed information on the classification of living things as well as some more suggestions are exploring biodiversity with young people.

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