Reviews

Greening the next generation

The Green Planet by Leisa StewartSharpe and Kim Smith, 2022. Puffin Books (an imprint of the Penguin Random House group of companies).

The cover of The Green Planet for children book, featuring a water lily on the cover with a vine above it on which leafcutter ants carry leaves.

Not so long ago I appraised The Green Planet by Simon Barnes. Although I had positive things to say about that book; I had a major issue with the absence of any sources for the myriad facts it presented. That particularly critical view was prompted in part by the absence of a declared audience for the title, and in part by assessing it against the remit of the BBC, the broadcasting organisation that produced the landmark TV series – The Green Planet narrated by Sir David Attenborough – that the book supports. Another book that presents “astonishing stories from this groundbreaking new BBC TV series” [quoting from the book’s back cover] is The Green Planet – written by Leisa Stewart-Sharpe, and illustrated by Kim Smith. Similarly, proudly sporting the BBC logo on its spine and front cover, and badged with ‘BBC Earth’ on its back cover, this title is here appraised.

The Green Planet vs The Green Planet

Because we have two books of the same name – and which accompany the TV series of the same name – a good way to approach my appraisal of Stewart-Sharpe & Smith [S-S&S]’s tome is to compare it against Barnes’ book.

Both books are abundantly-illustrated, by photographs in Barnes and hand-drawn colour illustrations for S-S&S*. Although its pages are unnumbered, the publisher’s site tells me there are 64 of them for S-S&S; Barnes’ has a little over 300 pages. Page size for S-S&S is 300mm x 250mm, for Barnes it is 252mm x 183mm. Text in Barnes is continuous black on white pages, compared to S-S&S* which has small blocks of text with varying font sizes, arrangements, and text colours, liberally scattered over the full-colour pages. Neither book has any indications of sources for the statements it makes, and there is no Index in S-S&S.

Clearly, there are major differences between the two books. And the reason for that is down to the intended audience: For Barnes the expected readership was not stated, for S-S&S’s version, the book is intended for “young wildlife-lovers inspired by David Attenborough’s series”. And it’s that statement which makes such a difference to how one appraises The Green Planet by Stewart-Sharpe & Smith. The large page size that is awash with colour and with blocks of short text is designed to appeal to its target audience.

The view from an educationalist

In commenting upon The Green Planet I’m aware that I’m not a specialist in children’s education – which is surely the purpose of the book. Fortunately, I know somebody who is. In order to provide that perspective to my appraisal I sought the views of a retired Primary School Deputy Headteacher. This is what she had to say after reading the book: “The book would suit Upper Key Stage 2 children [i.e. 9 – 11 year-olds] for independent reading, although could be used as a teacher-led read-aloud/talk-about book for younger schoolchildren (children younger than 9 probably couldn’t read the book on their own). The book could also be of interest to older children/young adults. The book’s layout is child-friendly – there are no big chunks of text that could put off junior readers. But, correct scientific terms are used – and explained in-text [e.g. photosynthesis, cloning, germination, cross-pollination, rhizome, stolon, monoculture…], which is good. The book’s content supports the National Curriculum (“The national curriculum for England to be taught in all local-authority-maintained schools”). The numerous illustrations are clear – I particularly liked the fact that most are labelled so the reader could follow-up on them if they wanted to research a topic further. Overall, The Green Planet provides a clear message: People/plants need to live together.”

In conversation with my ‘on-call educationalist’, the following observations were also made. The book mentions – and explains – the phenomenon commonly known as ‘plant blindness’. Maybe its inclusion might help readers of the book to recognise this issue and be more plant-aware as a result – one would like to think so. With a picture of at least one plant and animal on almost every page, the book emphasises plant-animal interactions. With inclusion of fungi (and mention of the wood-wide web), another group of organisms is introduced to the mix. In other words, ecology is quite an important theme of The Green Planet. Although I don’t think the book mentions ecology by name, it provides an important – if a little subliminally? – message about interdependency within the natural world, and between humans and plants and other animals.

The Green Planet has PLENTY of animal pictures. Maybe that’s a device to draw-in the young readership – who may be assumed to be more zoo-centric or animal-curious in their interests. But, once inside the book – and having entered the GREEN planet – one hopes that the amazing activities of the plants will convert them to botanophiles (and again help to cure them of any plant awareness problems). Even so, in an attempt to maintain readers’ interest, there’s plenty of animal-based plant information that should appeal to the young mind. For example, there is mention of shrews using pitcher plant pitchers as toilets, and wild tobacco plants that give the poo of the tobacco hawk moth caterpillar a “special smell”. Incidentally, the word ‘poo’, or ‘pooed’, is mentioned at least 7 times within The Green Planet (and is also included on the back cover…). There’s nothing like the scatological to capture the imagination and get a young mind engaged with a topic (e.g. also Nicola Davies & Neal Layton’s Poop: A Natural History of the Unmentionable). And if it takes animal-related information to smuggle in a plant message, then why not? All attempts at ‘guerrilla botany’ should be embraced – and encouraged.

Coloured backgrounds for text help the book to be more inclusive, e.g. that combination is particularly useful for readers with dyslexia – rather than the more usual black text on a white page in adult books, such as Barnes’ The Green Planet.

Because of the way it’s written, the text is accessible to both adults [who probably also never lose their interest in the bodily-functional…] and children. And, because of what is written, it is particularly useful to and informative for adults (e.g. class teachers or parents) who aren’t subject specialists. Overall, The Green Planet by Stewart-Sharpe & Smith is a very good book to have in Primary School classrooms as a plant/ecology resource.

Words and … music…

If adults are reading this book with children, there is something for the grown-ups as well [quite apart from all the plant facts and feats!] e.g. the phrase ‘Humans we ploughed paradise’ section, is – presumably – an allusion to Canadian-born singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell’s song Big Yellow Taxi which features the lyric, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”. Not only should that raise a smile of recognition, but it also provides the opportunity to chat with the youngsters about whether it’s a good idea to smother the natural world with car parks or damage it in other ways. And there are plenty of other instances in the book where young and old can discuss how plants are treated by humans, and the need for humans to respect and work with the natural world and cherish it. The book has a strong planet-preservation message – and you can never start with too young an audience to get that important notion over.

The sub-heading ‘They like to move it, move it’ – in connection with heliotropism [yes, that term is mentioned] by daisies – is presumably another musical reference that will probably be picked up by readers. In this case it appears to allude to lyrics from the song I like to move it, from the film Madagascar.

These cultural references are nice touches and make for witty writing, adding both interest and enjoyment for all its readers. Along with the abundant alliteration in sub-headings such as: Dazzling dens; Deceitful dung; Fussy flytrap; Leafy loopholes; and Cactus companions, The Green Planet is delightfully written,** and a joy to read.

Being picky…

I suspect that no book is perfect. And there are a few matters – in no particular order – that I feel I should point out from The green planet. The phrase in the Tropical Worlds section: “trees growing as high as Big Ben is tall” needs to be challenged. In the context of the UK’s Houses of Parliament – which is surely intended here? – Big Ben is the name of the tower clock – or, more strictly-speaking, the hour bell within that clock (Jonathan Betts) – that is housed within Elizabeth Tower. Although using the name of the bell for the tower is commonplace (M@), why not use this book as an opportunity to give correct information to its impressionable readers? In that way, they may at least have a chance to grow up with some degree of architectural/campanological (James Bryant) appreciation in this regard – in addition to a much greater botanical awareness from the rest of the book. And a tropical tree “more than 96 m tall” – the height of that tower above the ground – is much more impressive than one that is a mere 2.29 m tall (the height of the real Big Ben, the bell…).

Nowhere could I find mention of scientific names – neither for plants nor animals, which raises the question: How old must readers be before they are introduced to scientific names? I don’t know the answer, I just raise it as a discussion point. Instead, common names are used throughout. Which is fine – providing they are properly understood. An instance where there might be an issue is use of ‘bulrush’ for the plant that’s illustrated as ‘an inhabitant of the water worlds’ but which is clearly a species of Typha. In the UK the proper common name for that plant is reedmace; in America it’s better-known as a cattail. Bulrush usually refers to a quite different plant, Scirpus lacustris. Which potential for confusion highlights one of the main issues with use of common names – and is an argument in favour of use of scientific names…

The Green Planet does a very good job in sharing insights into plant biology with a young audience, and in a way that should be accessible to, and understandable by, them. But, it still leaves some questions. E.g. in one of the ‘stories from the desert world’, what is the significance of the attraction of lizards to the wild tobacco plant? Are they to be presumed to eat the caterpillars that survive the attempts of big-eyed bugs to ‘dispatch’** them? Sadly, we are not told.*** And it is doubtful that the adult quizzed by the young reader will know the answer either. Whilst they may make an educated guess, that’s no substitute for a factual reply borne of evidence-based knowledge. So, although Stewart-Sharpe & Smith do a pretty good job at conveying a lot of important plant biology to their young audience, it could do with tidying-up a few of the obvious loose ends such as that one.

Recognising that there are many plants in parts of the world that may seem exotic to those in Europe – and using examples from around the globe is important in giving a planet-wide dimension to the book and its plant inhabitants – it is worth mentioning that bladderworts aren’t only found on Venezuela’s Devil Mountain. However exciting-sounding a location that no doubt is, they can be found closer to home – at least for readers in the UK. Reading about interesting plants – insectivorous (John Bradford et al.) ones in this instance – is one thing, but surely being able to find them and see them in their natural habitat for oneself can only make an ever bigger impact and impression upon a plant-curious individual (and without having to increase one’s carbon footprint (Noelle Eckley Selin) by traipsing half-way across the planet to do so). However, it is fair to say that UK bladderworts don’t have an “unsuspecting bromeliad ‘best friend’” in the wild…

Whilst The Green Planet does take a few liberties with scientific accuracy – e.g. water lettuce roots don’t really ‘suck’ nutrients from the water – it contains a lot of really good (plant) science. In places the language used is quite anthropomorphic (Gabriella Airenti (2018), Front. Psychol. 9:2136.). Which is fine if it is recognised as such, but it could give a misleading impression of what the plants and animals are doing. Nevertheless, the more important thing – in view of its intended young readership – is that the science is presented in an accessible way. Surely, a few half-truths (included amongst the greater number of solid facts), or use of language that’s a little-less-than-emotionless-objective is a small price to pay to get youngsters interested in – and learning about – the many and varied wonderful and exciting things that plants do?

Sources?

The source of statements and facts in The Green Planet is not explicitly stated in the book. However, from my recollection of the TV series, all of what’s presented seems to come from that source, rather than from Barnes’ The Green Planet [certainly, there’s no repetition of Barnes’ faux-pas re ‘nocturnal photosynthesis’]. Absence of stated sources has been mentioned above, in comparing S-S&S’s book to Barnes’ – in which regard they are similar. Whilst one wouldn’t (necessarily) expect any indications of sources in a children’s book, suggestions of further reading – to take the now-enthused reader’s interest further – could have been usefully added to the book. Even if the young readers don’t use that resource, it should prove useful to the adults who might have their own questions, or to enable them to answer their youngsters questions.

The views from the celebrities

Securing the services of Chris Packham, well-known UK broadcaster and supporter of the natural world, to write the Foreword was a smart move. He will be known to many of the book’s intended readers – young and older alike – and such a celebrity ‘endorsement’ should encourage take up of the book. Plus, the final words in The Green Planet go to Sir David Attenborough, British doyen of natural history presenters and all-round advocate for looking after the planet. That additional endorsement – and by one of the UK’s ‘National Treasures’ (Chris Greer & Eugene McLaughlin, European Journal of Cultural Studies 23: 71–88, 2020😉 (who recently received his second knighthood for services to television and conservation, and who narrated The Green Planet TV series) – will not do the book any harm at all, and helps to underscore the book’s green aspirations and credentials.

What next for the book’s young readers?

I sincerely hope youngsters reading S-S&S’s The Green Planet will have questions, and want to know more about our wonderful green planet. But where, or to whom, can they turn for the answers? The publisher states that the book is “perfect for families”. If the book is read in that way the youngster with a question is likely to ask the grown-up(s) present for answers. However, depending upon the particular question, the correct answer may require an adult who is botanically-literate to provide the necessary extra information and assurance about what the youngster has read. How knowledgeable about plant biology is the parent/relative/schoolteacher whose help is sought likely to be?

Although it’s impossible for me to know, given the degree of global concern there is about the public’s general lack of appreciation of plants – so-called ‘plant blindness’ (Sarah Jose et al., Plants People Planet 1: 169-172, 2019; Sandra Knapp, Plants People Planet 1: 164-168, 2019; Kathryn Parsley, Plants People Planet 2: 598-601, 2020😉 – I suspect that the appropriate degree of botanical information may be hard to find’. If the adult recognises that s/he doesn’t have the necessary knowledge to answer the question, one trusts that s/he will help the youngster to find the answer(s) by appropriate research and interrogation of sources. But, knowing what sources to use is often a bit of a lottery – there can be misleading, incorrect or even false information on the internet for example (Michela Del Vicario et al., PNAS 113: 554-559, 2016; Max Read). And knowing which sources to trust probably requires some degree of botanical acumen in order to ‘separate the wheat from the chaff’ amongst the ‘facts’ that may be tracked-down.

What we need is greater botanical literacy amongst members of the public – of all ages. Ideally, to know the answers based on their education, but equally to be able to distinguish reliable information from the alternative if it is necessary to search for the answers. S-S&S’s The green planet can go a long way towards beginning that process of educating the young about plants. But, that needs to be reinforced by either guidance to the sources to use for more information (or to fact-check what’s been stated in books or similar), or from trusted plant-literate adults.

As acknowledged above [see Sources? section], this children’s version of The Green Planet doesn’t have – and is not really expected to have – stated sources for the facts presented. The onus therefore is upon the children’s mentors to help them to access the necessary information. But where can we expect those adults to get their facts and other botanical information? They can’t always access source-stated plant biology books – absence of sources is the deficiency I was so critical of in Barnes’ The Green Planet (which is effectively the adult version of Stewart-Sharpe & Smith’s book). Whilst we wait for more source-stated plant biology books for an adult readership, those who produce plant books for a younger audience could do their readers (and the adults of whom the reader request information) a great service by suggesting resources that could be consulted for more information.

On a more practical level, The Green Planet includes suggestions of ways in which its readers can “join our green revolution”, e.g. planting a garden or window-box, encouraging chemical-free gardening at home and/or in school, and joining projects to replant forests. All of which ‘sowing the seeds’ can only help to develop a more plant-aware population. Anything that helps to remove plant underappreciation is to be welcomed. After all, as Sebastian Stroud reminds us, we won’t be able to protect the natural world, if we’re not training the next generation of botanists with the necessary skills.

Summary

The Green Planet by Leisa Stewart-Sharpe & Kim Smith is a beautiful illustrated, fact-filled book about plants – and their interactions with animals and other lifeforms on planet Earth. It should appeal to youngsters of many ages, and the adults who have responsibility for their education. It’s a great opportunity to begin – continue? – the green education of the next generation and the author and illustrator should be congratulated for what they have produced. Clearly, a lot of thought has gone into the production of this lovely book. [And, yes, I do realise that my appraisal is now probably longer than the text in the book…]


* For an insight into the book’s content (for both examples of text and artwork) – e.g. to check before you buy? – the publisher has pulled together “10 amazing plant facts from The Green Planet”.

** Although, in some places what I would consider to be rather ‘grown-up words’ are used. For example, in connection with herbivory of the wild tobacco plant, we have the phrase “The bugs fly to the rescue, dispatching the caterpillars and the unhatched moth eggs”. Dispatching here presumably means ‘killing’, although my further researches suggest that it is considered a rather old-fashioned usage in the 21st century. Would unaccompanied readers understand what the word means? But, taken further, and from an information point of view, are the caterpillars just killed/dispatched by the bugs? Or are they eaten also? We aren’t told. Nevertheless, the wild tobacco herbivory story is a good introduction to the concept of tritrophic interactions in plant defence (Martin Heil, New Phytologist 178: 41-61, 2008😉 – although that rather technical term was not used in the book. For more on the wild tobacco herbivory story, see Helen Fields’ commentary, and the article by Silke Allmann & Ian Baldwin (Science 329: 1075-1078, 2010;).

*** A bit of research on this question suggests that the lizards do eat the caterpillars. See more in William Stork et al’s intriguing-titled research paper “Trichomes as dangerous lollipops” (Plant Signal Behav. 6: 1893–1896, 2011;).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

English
%d bloggers like this: