A Botany Adventure for Kids Ages 9 to 99
This is a work of pure genius. It's very rare for anyone with this depth of knowledge about his subject to be also able to weave such a complete and yet totally accessible story that transmits so much knowledge so perfectly. This book works so well on so many different levels that I'm going to describe different aspects of it one at a time rather than try to sum up the whole thing at once.
Content and Story
I've never studied the art of story-telling, but I've always been fascinated with the way knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation carefully woven into stories and myths. And this is a perfect example of that art. Thomas Elpel has crafted a complete creation myth, presented as a myth not as fact to leave room for children to extend the ideas presented, and has woven it into a wonderfully memorable story which holds a wealth, and depth, of highly relevant information and wisdom.
The first island we visit with Shanleya is the mint island, and it's a perfect one to develop our identification skills. We learn to use all our senses and to look at the whole plant, not just the flowers. "Look for square stems and opposite leaves...and be sure to smell the plants. Most of them have a spicy, minty aroma."
Shanleya identified several plants by smell alone, then checked that they did indeed also have the square stems and opposite leaves. The square-stemmed mint guardian is shown standing straight and square on the illustration, too, just to emphasise the message.
On other islands, more emphasis is put on examining the flowers. For instance the mustard family flower is very consistent and easy to remember. Shanleya is challenged to put together a model of a mustard flower to reinforce her lesson, and the completed model is prominently displayed in the accompanying illustration so that we can check that she's got it right.
Whilst on the mustard island, we learn that mustards thrive on barren soil, break the soil up for us, and have short life-cycles that are adapted to dry soil where the rain doesn't soak in. We also learn that there are 3,200 members of the family and that they are all edible. So this one page could, if the lessons are learned, potentially feed you wherever you find yourself in the world.
The information is so well written in to the story that it's absorbed casually. We are simply observing Shanleya's adventures, and our own learning happens passively, with no effort.
The art work on the front cover takes on a whole new meaning after you've read the book. Before you've read it, you see Shanleya paddling her canoe in sea of pretty flowers. Afterwards you see a mustard flower, and an aster, a lily, a parsley, a pea, a rose, a mint and a grass flower welcoming her into their worlds, with some tempting islands in the background willing you to go back for a second look.
As I turned the pages, I noticed that the sun appeared to rise, move left across the page, and then sink as Shanleya's journey progressed. I wonder if she lived in the Southern hemisphere? Or maybe the Earth's rotation changed when the Great Tree fell. Maybe we'll never know...
The structure of the book amused me greatly as it appears to mimic the structure of a flower. First, the hard covers act to protect the book, like the sepals protect the unopened flower. When the book is opened, you find the highly attractive 'petals' of the introductory story, which guide you to the central parts where the real magic happens. The next part, where Shanleya visits the islands and talks with the guardians, represents the stamens, which yield vast amounts of information packed into tiny, easily absorbed pieces, all capable of pollinating fertile young minds and triggering them to grow. And then right in the centre of the book, like a pistil, the map of the whole plant world is introduced where the information gathered from the rest of the story can be taken and grown into a more complete understanding.
I found the comparison highly amusing, though I have no idea if the author intended the pattern to be so similar. But then maybe the similarity reflects something a little deeper about the way all living creatures can be guided to find what we need.
Depth of perception, dimensionality, and visualisation
Generally when I find a children's book of this caliber, I regret not having found it sooner so that I could have read it with my son. This time, however, I was so convinced of the book's worth that I insisted on reading it to him, even though he's nearly twenty. He attempted to protest, but I know that he really loved every second of it, despite cries of "Mum, mum - I found a plot hole. I refuse to believe that that radish thing really has an iron shovel to turn the soil!"
Silly Alan - of course the mustard family break the soil up. And how else would they do it if they didn't secretly have shovels?
He also found the strawberry buns on the rose guardian highly amusing, but hopefully younger kids wouldn't be so distracted by them.
One thing that struck me was the dimensionality of the book. The way that water has been used to get us to imagine time passing was highly reminiscent of an exercise my son and I did when he was much, much younger studying the chapter on Pancake World inPenrose the Mathematical Cat, which in turn is a simplified version of that classic in the study of dimensions, Flatland. The way the history of the plants forms a great tree, with only the very tips showing as islands is an astonishing piece of visualisation that belies the complexity of the subject, and my son and I both enjoyed remembering how we once produced a series of drawings of how flatlanders would view a green soup-dragon if it passed feet-first through their world, presumably in much the same way that a map of the islands in Shanleya's world would change over time as the great tree grows and the water rises with time.
The only book I have come across which compares to this, though the subject matter is completely different, is The Way Things Work by David Macaulay. They share the same passion and depth of knowledge and understanding of their subject matter, combined with an innate story-telling ability.
Using the book
I think book is best used read out loud to a younger audience, visiting just one island/plant family at a time then going outside to hunt together for examples of plants from that family. For best results, I think the adult should prepare well, choose an appropriate time of year when there are likely to be appropriate plants growing in abundance, and preferably in flower. Maybe even cheat a little by spending some time outside yourself and find as many different plants of that family in advance to make sure the youngsters find them all. The prep involved in getting everything ready for them will help all the information in the book to be thoroughly absorbed, and you'll probably begin to understand how well the book is really written and how much information is packed in to the pages.
I think this book has a place in the education of all children. I'd highly recommend all parents, grandparents and educators to ensure have access to a copy, and to spend some carefully planned quality time with the children in their care bringing the stories to life by studying them together and then going on their own journeys of exploration to find real life examples from the plant families showcased in this book.
--Review by Burra Maluca, Portugal
Originally published at Permies.com.
From Green Teacher Magazine:
Thomas Elpel's Shanleya's Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids Ages 9 to 99 stems from the idea that we keep each other alive with our stories. Elpel turns the potentially drab topic of plant taxonomy as it relates to food and medicinals into a story of adventure and discovery. Each plant family receives a page of text accompanied by a whimsical, full-page illustration by Gloria Brown.
On her voyage, Shanleya encounters eight islands where each of the plant families (mint, parsley, mustard, pea, rose, aster, lily and grass) reside. With the help of a mysterious Guardian, Shanleya learns about each family (cosmology, evolution, key characteristics, what foods or medicines are contained therein, and if any members are poisonous).
A set of playing cards and instructions for five different games reinforce the learnings, and a related lesson plan is free online. Looking past the story's metaphors, this book may be a useful way to introduce students to plant patterns and the reasons to know them. Teachers with younger students may to explain the odd concept or metaphor. This is a companion piece to the author's , which was reviewed in the fall 2014 edition of Green Teacher.
--Green Teacher Magazine Spring 2015.
Botany Books for All Ages
What shape is the stem of plants in the Mint Family? What is the pattern of parts in flowers from the Mustard Family? How many petals do flowers from the Lily Family really have, or are they tepals?
The answers to these and more questions can be found in a fun book called Shanleya's Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids Ages 9 to 99 by Calypso Chapter member Thomas J. Elpel and illustrated by Gloria Brown. The book tells the story of a girl sent on a mission to collect samples from a number of plant "islands" and thereby learn the keys to identifying major botanical families. The book is a great way to spark or extend an interest in the plant world. There also is an accompanying card game to further practice plant pattern recognition.
Shanleya's Quest grew out of another book by Elpel, Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification. This larger, more scientific text contains a primer on plant evolution, keys to learning plants by families, and keys to figuring out specific types of plants within many groups. The majority of the book is a field guide with numerous illustrations.
Check out these resources at www.hopspress.com or www.wildflowers-and-weeds.com.
--Montana Native Plant Society Newsletter. Volume 24. No. 1. Fall 2010.
Go to Shanleya's Quest