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Science Picture Books-Love Affair with the World


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Picture books are like art galleries to a child that open them to a connection with the world through beauty. Recent studies suggest there has been a decline in wild nature imagery in picture books, perhaps because we live in increasingly built environments. In addition, here is also a trend to graduate kids earlier from pictures into reading chapter books. Yet, as important as reading is, it is crucial for kids to spend time with quality content contained in images as their minds develop. Images, especially of animals and nature, are powerful, appealing to the emotions and the deep nonverbal processing of the right brain. Science picture books do more than offer facts and information--that's for later. Pictures can provide a basis for a world-view, a sense of intimacy with the environment and the human presence in it that stays in the mind throughout later life.

–Presented at the Tucson Festival of Books, MArch 10, 2012

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Science Picture Books-Love Affair with the World

  1. 1. Science Picture Books A Love Affair with the Natural World Artwork by Paul Mirocha (Except for the Van Gogh and a couple others)When I met people for the first time and they asked me what I do, I used to say, “I’m an artist.” Thatseemed to cover it all, and leave room for all kinds of exotic things for them to imagine that I do. Now Isay, “I’m an illustrator.” I think it says what I actually do. I feel that art is work, and more than personalself-expression. It is meant to add something to people’s everyday life, even if it’s how they see things.Illustrators make images like a shoemaker makes shoes, or a carpenter builds a house. Illustrators filla need within a culture for images of quality and honesty that reflect and challenge thecommunal thinking of the time.
  2. 2. Scattered through this talk, I’m going to show some images that have influenced methroughout my life. These cave paintings from Lascaux actually saved me in some ways. Iused to go to the campus library and just sit and look at these paintings in books when I wasa confused, rudderless freshman in college. Without a mentor or much of a clue what to dowith myself. I didn’t read much of the text. These images became touchstones for me,remaining latent in memory, it comes back to me when I need it for reference.It still has an effect on all of us after 17,500 years regardless of the media.Why is this image so engaging? It’s not the medium, but the content. In the 60s MarshalMcLuhan said the medium is the message. Yet, in library books, these cave paintings stillcame through. They even look great on my iPhone. The message is the message.The Aurochs was the most powerful and terrifying animal of paleolithic times and thesuccessful hunt would have been something like winning the Superbowl. This bull became agod in many ancient cultures and symbol of great power and strength. I don’t know for sure,but I can see that the artist had first-hand experience with this animal and had probably beenon a hunt.
  3. 3. Contrast this with a 19th century engraving of an already extinct aurochs. It is technicallyaccurate, but fails to motivate me. No color, no wildness, no interaction. It’s just a boring,factual science illustration.
  4. 4. Aurochs. (Bos primigenius), the ancestor of domestic cattle, was a type of large wild cattle which inhabited Europe, Asia and North Africa, but which is now extinct; it survived in Europe until the last recorded aurochs, a female, died in the Jaktorów Forest, Poland in 1627. Her skull is now the property of the Livrustkammaren ("Royal Armory") museum in Stockholm, Sweden.Even more boring...You can look it up in the dictionary or encyclopedia, but you will get onlythe verbal part of the reality, just one facet of the whole gem. That’s why we have bothbrains--reality can not be understood with only one side of the mind. It requires both. That’swhy we have them.
  5. 5. • Feeling and emotion • Relationship with the subject • Lasts in memory • Nature images seem to be primalI have identified what elements these cave paintings have. What makes them so alive andmotivating to the Homo sapiens mind, regardless of culture and technology?
  6. 6. Sociological Inquiry, February 2012, J. Allen Williams, et alThis study with came out in February 2012 by a group of sociologists from differentuniversities wanted to study trends in the depiction of the environment in children’s picturebooks, just as similar studies had done for other major issues of our time, such as race andgender.They looked at 296 Caldecott award winners over 70 years since the award for bestillustrated children’s books first was created in 1938.Their assumption was that the books read to children at a formative age reflect the valuesand beliefs that adults want to pass on to them. So these book would reflect those values inthe culture as a whole.One can see that the setting of picture books in a wild natural environment has steadilydeclined in favor of a built environment.
  7. 7. You can see here the rise of the environmental movement in the 60s, and it’s unexplaineddownturn as reflected in kid’s books. The yellow area represents the 25 years where I workedon at least one science and nature picture book per year. This, which once was a bread andbutter business, has now dropped off almost entirely.The authors conclude that isolation from the natural environment and the use of electronicmedia were major factors in this trend. Out of sight is out of mind. Urban dwellers are up to80% of the population. In addition, one study cited stated that ”America’s young peoplespend more time using media than engaging in any other activity except sleeping.”Studies do suggest that the book medium is better for young children. They relate better tothe physical object like a book and do not learn well from electronic images.Other studies show that visitation to national and state parks is down; parents are more likelyto bring children to a “safer”, more controlled place like a manicured park if they go outsideat all. There is a decline in “everyday encounters with nature”. Even school textbooks haveshown a decline in attention to the environment.The paper’s conclusions: “...the current generation of young children listening to thesestories and looking at the images in childrens books are not being socialized... towardsgreater understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the place of humans withinit.”
  8. 8. Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children “Parents have begun pressing their kindergartners and first graders to leave the picture book behind and move on to more text-heavy chapter books. Publishers cite pressures from parents who are mindful of increasingly rigorous standardized testing in schools.” –The New York Times, front page, Oct. 7, 2010One more item: As the article states, according to interviews with bookstore workers, children’s picture books arelanguishing on the shelves of bookstores. Why? First we might blame the economic recession, and publisher’sweekly reports the sales of picture books down 10-15% in 2011. Or flat, depending on who you talk to. Or rising...I’m not going to try to analyze the state of the publishing industry here. Clearly, it’s complex and there are manyfactors operating. It could also be that there has been a glut of picture books and the decline is not significant interms of quality, just an adjustment to the market.But the second trend: parental pressure to early graduation into chapter books for kindergarteners and firstgraders, reflects the verbal and logical bias of our left-brained educational system.To quote the article: “Parents are saying, ‘My kid doesn’t need books with pictures anymore,’ ” said Justin Chanda,the publisher of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. “There’s a real push with parents and schools to havekids start reading big-kid books earlier. We’ve accelerated the graduation rate out of picture books.”
  9. 9. I had to include this image from the Tucson Festival of Books guide. Would Harvard reallyaccept this kid when he grows up? Or would they want someone more balanced and human,perhaps?
  10. 10. Aa everyone has seen before, the brain is divided into two separate minds that work as one.Like the pictures and words in a good picture book. They work like our minds do. Peoplehave been born with only one hemisphere and still live close to normal lives--the hemispherethat is there tries to take on the two functions of the normally two brains.Split brain experiments garnered a nobel prize in 1981, and the startling results still bearremembering. Show a fork to only the right brain: it knows what it is for, but can’t name it.The left brain can name it, but doesn’t know what it is for. The left brain can set updefinitions, names, and hierarchies, but it can’t quite get at the meaning of things, which maygo beyond words.
  11. 11. Pictures contain a complex depth of information. Looking at them develops a part of the mind that is equallyimportant as reading. Images are powerful--they also engage and motivate us. Our brains are wired forpictures, like a sponge is designed for water, or a plant for sunlight. I’ve seen the work of illustrators asproducing these magical and motivating pictures to feed the image-hungry mind.Picture books are the art gallery for children. It’s where they get the images that may stay with themthroughout life. It’s the raw material their dreams come from.I think this one would look good on a cave wall, maybe with a digital pigment ink-jet printer of some kind.
  12. 12. More recently, I’ve come to see that rather than capturing our minds and involving us with the picture, theillustrations might become more like windows into the subject matter: which could be anything in the world.They can be windows to reality. Rather than getting wrapped up in the image, we would be inspired to gopast it, explore the real world, maybe put the iPad down and walk out barefoot into the backyard mud duringa monsoon.At a recent open-house up at the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill, I watched as a scientist held a gilamonster for people to see up close, even pet it, if they dared. How many times in a life would one even seea gila monster, much less touch one? People did. Yet I saw one kid 3 feet from the lizard, taking pictures ofhis friend on his electronic game, warping them, and laughing, Ignoring the lizard.That boy was being captured by the media and was not seeing what was in front of him.
  13. 13. Increasingly, I see the issue of science education as one of instilling a “world-view.” Besideslearning concepts and information, learning to do the needed calculations, we instill a certainworld-view in our young people.There is a familiar belief about ourselves that comes from school, supposedly based onscience, but actually not supported by evidence. We grow up believing that we live in ourheads, our bodies are its servant, and everything outside of our skin is either dead, or if alive,it’s dumb. We walk around in the world, but are not connected to it. That whole universe thatstarts 1 mm from our outer skin is so vast, and probably as unknown as the surface of...Pluto. It might as well be that far away for the attention we give it.In some ways we are becoming, as a society, as human-centered, or anthropocentric, as themedieval scholars that showed the earth as the center of the universe.That’s because we don’t really see it, nor identify with being part of the world. We have noreal relationship with it. Yet we are part of it and it is part of us. There is a continual flow intous from the environment and out toward it. When does that become us or not us? If youcontemplate that, the boundary can become quite arbitrary.
  14. 14. Another old image that comes to mind. About 35 years ago a teacher of mine mentioned theOld Greek idea of the cosmos being like an onion. That image has stayed with me and comesup when I need it, like the cave paintings. We no longer view the cosmos as a series of earth-concentric spheres. But I still use the image as a way to understand almost anything. It’s mytheory of knowledge. I also like how small things we don’t think of as significant can becomesymbols of the whole. That’s another idea of the ancients.The metaphor has still been used by scientists like Richard Feynman: understanding theworld in terms of successive layers.Each layer is a limited concept we have. As you go deeper, there is more imaginationrequired as layers will contradict each other. As you go to a deeper layer, your world-view willbe challenged. Something might look like a wave, then a particle--usually mutually exclusivethings. On a deeper layer they may be reconciled. Feynman once commented that there maybe millions of layers... I think it’s infinite.
  15. 15. Right brain thinks with imagesThe functions of the right brain are to process incredibly complex amounts of informationinto a unified whole that can’t always be explained. Like a picture.Images give meaning, even though we do this processing so fast and so effortlessly that wedo not realize we are doing it. It’s what motivates us, not logic, statistics and words, butthings that appeal to the right brain have their own intrinsic validity.Marketing researchers have found that people actually make purchases based on emotion,but use logic later to explain it. Hence the preponderance of highly sophisticated imagery inadvertising.
  16. 16. So drawing is a kind of thinking. An investigation of its own.The act of drawing is hidden, maybe, but is the heartbeat of the book. It’s a process thatconnects one to the world in a profound and inexplicable way. It’s like love, hidden in thelayers beneath the book one picks up from the shelf.
  17. 17. A strange effect many artists will admit: Sketches more compelling than final work. Why isthat? Drawing may take place deeper inside the onion.This example is from a cookbook for kids using wild plants. I recently brought out all thesketches I used when I was researching and composing the paintings. The pencil drawings,not meant to be seen, still felt more alive to me. The final paintings seemed overdone,although the book was well received. In a sense the secret behind this book was brilliant. Justlike I did to find my reference material, kids who wanted to make these recipes would becrawling around in the wood looking for these plants. While they are doing that, they can’thelp but notice lots of other things.
  18. 18. Drawing is like the theatrical designer and playwright that places the characters in a sceneand sets a stage up. They are still very fluid and unfinished, but so interesting to watch.
  19. 19. But there is still more to a sketch than working out the final art. More than putting the detailstogether and understanding them.Drawing is a simple thing, almost nothing to it at first glance. Not remarkable, not frameableperhaps, or even worth saving (though I always do) but it is decisive, makes all the difference.Starting a drawing can be very challenging and may defy your own world-view. In college, Icausally picked a fern leaf and tried to draw it. I was discovering more than just fractalgeometry--it was so complex and challenging that I was filled with admiration. I changed mymajor to an interdepartmental “Art/Biology” degree.
  20. 20. Another subject that confounded and challenged me only a few weeks ago. Drawing a rattler.The scientists I asked for help did not understand the problem. I had to explain to them howhumbling this was once you tried to draw it. There are three axes, the scales are arranged inthis impossible geometry of intersecting spirals that one finds throughout nature, in pinecones, fish scales, leaves on a stem, prickly pear pads.One sees details that are not noticed when just merely looking and identifying something.Once you try to draw it, you really see it.
  21. 21. I have hundreds of pages of sketchbooks that have never made it into paintings. They existjust as investigations deeper into the world onion. Once I spent an hour watching water bugs.Ny doing this, I felt I had developed a relationship with them.It’s one of the deepest mysteries: the relationship between us and what we are viewing. Wheredo we end and the world begins? There is no one answer, of course.One artist I was sketching with recently told me: “You know, drawing is an act of affection.When you pay that much attention to something, and spend that time with it, it’s love.”I don’t think a lot of scientists would say that in public. There is the principle of objectivity toconsider. But I am inspired by the careful attention I see biologists pay to their subjects. Ihave been photographing that with scientists on Tumamoc. That dedication even puts usartists to shame.Ultimately, we are talking about love. Maybe we can relate to the natural world as we would toanother human being, with all the give and take that implies.
  22. 22. Drawing is also a visual and verbal record of an experience. Sitting down one day by the trailand sketching, I can look at this page now, 8 years later, and still see the scene again, theweather, what I was thinking about, what was happening at the time. It’s all in one multi-layered package compacted into a kind of symbol that can be unfolded again when I look atthe page.
  23. 23. Another set of images that have helped me throughout life: Van Gogh’s nature studies. Theycombine attention to detail with such an emotional connection. I think that’s what has madehis work so popular.The healing power of images. A current show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art features ofVan Gogh’s plant paintings. As the reviewer for the New York Yimes wrote, VIncent“consciously spent time focusing on the minute details of the natural world... to settle hisunstable mind.
  24. 24. In fact, an image does not need a medium at all to affect the mind. It’s created in the mindand can work purely internally, in our imaginations.The real power of imagery was not apparent until some courageous people suffering frompowerful negative images went for help. Over the decades, a new definition was createdthrough evidence from therapists working with Post Traumatic Stress. Talk therapy was notworking. They found that internal images were the only thing that worked to heal or calm theeffects of extremely negative memories.Sometimes a spontaneous positive image would come to a person’s mind that would turnthings around for them, healing them.• Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, while forced by abusive guards to walkfor miles between work sites and a Nazi concentration camp in freezing darkness writes,“ mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with uncanny acuteness. I heard heranswering me; saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was thenmore luminous than he sun, which was beginning to rise.”• A Vietnam Vet: 20 years later, talking about it still did not help. He lived in an abandonedbuilding, made primitive weapons to keep people away, but found a discarded record playerand a John Coltrane record.“The music was so pure and lovely, but so edgy and real. It sent right through my body. Istarted to see beauty again... For a long time, the only thing I could stand to do was listen tothat music, over and over again. 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. That was my healing.”As the research progressed on defining and treating PTSD, therapists began to intentionallyencourage suffering people to evoke a positive image or memory in their imagination. These
  25. 25. Beauty will save the world. – F. Dostoevski, The IdiotIn another Nobel prize speech, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn quoted Dostoyevski’s mysterious andoften quoted phrase. His understanding was that Beauty, which is based on an honestexperience, could stand in even when Truth and Goodness are lost. Truth becomes beauty.Logic can form a sequence that can convince for a while, but the opposite conclusion can alsobe reached through the same logic. “A work of art bears within itself its own verification.” I’lltake his word for it.Statistics can lie, logic can be contradicted by another logic, but art and literature can haveit’s own internal validity which can be ignored, but not be easily refuted.In other words, beauty largely is found rather than created. The original source andinspiration is nature. It’s where we originally experience beauty as a child and understand theconcept, even when created within a built environment. This is what I use as my guidingthought in illustration.John Keats. Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is allYe know on earth, and all ye need to know.
  26. 26. A few examples from my science picture books.The Exxon Valdez oil spill was the ecological equivalent of 911 for the environment. I washesitant at first to take it on. I used images of beauty with mostly just hints of thethreatening oil.
  27. 27. Kids at book signings would focus on the beauty. Kids would always say to me, “I love SeaOtters” or “Orcas are my favorite animal.”
  28. 28. When it came to this scene, I painted this clean-up worker close- up with the oil-soaked bird,to show the emotional experience it was.
  29. 29. This was the final result. The editor, maybe rightly, maybe wrongly, edited out the emotionalscene.I was using opaque watercolor, so I actually painted over the first painting. (After taking aphoto)
  30. 30. Where possible, I try to insert emotion into a technical illustration, contrary to the usualattitude in science textbooks. There is always a way.A scientific illustration of a saguaro flower: I could say the hand is for scale, and the faces ofthe animals on the right. But also I was trying to add a tactile, and emotional connection. Theexperience of holding a saguaro flower in one’s hand, if you’ve even done it, is very sensual;it’s delicate, yet strong, and has an intoxicating subtle scent, aimed at bats. When you slice itopen, it reveals it’s secrets, just like the onion.
  31. 31. Working on this book influenced my thinking more than any other project. Goethe’s thinkingis encapsulated here for children. This book is about Goethe’s philosophy of science, actuallyhis poem called “The Metamorphisis of Plants” made into a picture book. Wonderful idea: towrite botany in poem form.
  32. 32. Nature’s Dance: “The rosebud is nature breathing in, just like your hand in a fist...”
  33. 33. And the blossom is like your fingers stretched wide.
  34. 34. Then it contracts into the seeds. Yes, and when the seeds find their new home in the soil, thewhole cycle begins over again.
  35. 35. So in these afternoons drawing in the garden, Goethe’s theory of knowledge is explained insimple, concrete down-to-earth form, like the right brain likes it.Goethe: His brand of science uses right-brain processing--the eye itself is the starting point.what you see after spending time in contemplating reflection on an object. He is using theright brain’s holistic mode: seeing the whole first, then moving down to all the parts“Mr. Goethe, how did you ever learn to paint these plants so they look so alive?”
  36. 36. Mr. Goethe turned his kind face to me. “First, he said, I listen with my eyes. I give each plantmy full attention, as I do you. Like friends, plants tell you their secrets only when they knowyou care.”
  37. 37. I went to Weimar with Diana Cohn, the author, to research this book on site at Goethe’shouse, now a museum. To make sure everything was authentic, we sat in Goethe’s gardenand drew plants to get the full experience.
  38. 38. The other book I’m featuring here is The Bee Tree. We, my co-authors and I, traveled toMalaysia six times over a 10-year period to research the book first hand.This is the actual clearing where this particular Bee Tree stands. It’s a focal point in thesurrounding rainforest. Also a place I sometimes go to in my imagination when I need to findcalm and peace or abundance.
  39. 39. Again I filled several sketchbooks with drawings and quick, on-site watercolors.The book was done with digital painting, but I still used the sketches as the main basis forthe final art.
  40. 40. Greeting the unseen owner of the forest. When the honey hunters entered the forest thetouched their hearts and said, “Assalamu alaikum.” just as they would when enteringsomeone’s house as a guest. No one defined who the “Unseen Owner” was, but they shouldrespect the place as guests.
  41. 41. The story from folklore encodes a relationship with nature in an oral tradition that comesfrom the Vedas at least 1000 years BC.In the book, the story of Hitam Manis is told around an oil lamp in the camp. When harvestingthe honey, they are aware that they are dealing with the spirit of the bees, a woman wronged.That’s why they are polite, and refer to the bees with polite terms of endearment. When theyare stung, they laugh. They leave enough honey behind fr teh migratory bees to carry off sothey will return every year to the same tree.
  42. 42. Long ago, a beautiful servant girl named Hitam Manis worked in the Sultan’s palace. Sheand the Sultan’s son fell in love. He called her ‘Sweet Dark One’. But it was forbidden for aprinceto marry any other than a princess. When they were found out, the furious Sultan ordered hissoldiers to chase her from his kingdom.Hitam Manis fled with her loyal friends. As they ran, a metal spear struck Hitam Manis. TheSweet Dark One fell, but she did not die. A miracle happened. Hitam Manis and the otherservantgirls turned into a swarm of bees and disappeared into the forest.
  43. 43. Years later, while hunting, the prince noticed honey combs draping off a tree limb. Heclimbed up with a pail and cut a chunk of the comb with his knife. When the pail was loweredto theground, the other hunters were horrified to see their prince cut in little pieces. From thetreetops,came the voice of Hitam Manis. Because she had been hit by a metal spear, she ruled, “Nometalmust touch our honey, ever! This man has broken our law!” But when Hitam Manis realizedtheman was the prince she once loved, her tears fell into the bucket and the Prince was restoredtohis whole self.“And that is why,” Grandfather said, “we always hunt without metal, anduse only a bone knife, a wooden ladder, and a cowhide pail.”
  44. 44. An illustration from a poster series on native American plant folklore. This illustrates a YaquiDeer song about the mescal agave. It illustrates a world-view alien to the anglo culture, butessential to the Yaqui, who are part of our Tucson community.Deer singer Felipe Molina, whom I worked with on this project says that the Wilderness Worldof Yaqui language means a very specific place, partly in the mind of humans and partly thewild desert areas outside of the village. It’s not translatable, but it’s a little like our concept of“Heaven.” Their sense of the sacred is not in the sky, but over in the mountains, the wildlands. We found this dying mescal agave, and important plant to the Yaqui, which I drew, inthe mountains near Yaqui country in Sonora.Yaqui poet Refugio Savala says, “The deer songs are sacred because they come from thewilds. “ When you dream (ie. have visions) you go to a place in nature. Nature is the source ofinspiration and prayer.”This sort of connection to the world is deep within the onion, hard for Anglos to understand.But it would be worth our while to do so.
  45. 45. Tumamoc HillTransition to Tumamoc Hill. It’s an island of wild lands surrounded by Tucson, almost indowntown. Originally protected as an ecological study plots by scientists at the CarnegieDesert Botanical Lab est. in 1903, it has study plots that have been monitored closely for over100 years.It’s managed by the UA College of Science.
  46. 46. It is revered by hikers and health enthusiasts who stay to the one road to the summit, leavingthe rest of the 860 acres untouched, in its natural state.
  47. 47. This is a cultural value--leaving a place wild, protecting its natural state. A lot of parentsbring their kids, even babies up there. It’s one of those missing wild places that the Caldecottstudy mentioned and it’s a wilderness area right in our own backyard.
  48. 48. More recently, artists have been meeting on Tumamoc to do, guess what? Yes. Drawing onsite.The scientists working on the Hill understand that drawing and painting from life on the Hilladds meaning to the place without intruding upon it. Not just because drawing does no harmto the environment. We are accumulating images of attachment to a place. It builds culturalvalues about attachment to a particular place, a landmark. Like: maybe we want a wild landmountain in the middle of our downtown because it’s good for us.
  49. 49. It’s not so much about creating artwork as it is about observing and spending quality timewith plants, listening with your eyes for their secrets.
  50. 50. Is like a bank account full of images about this one place. Fromthis blog, the pictures could go into a book or any kind of media. The media is not thatimportant.I have searched, but not found another similar blog that is devoted to one small place. But Ifeel that is one of the aspects of love: it is singular. Before you say you love mankind, tryloving an individual person first. Before one can love the whole earth, one must love one area,like the Sonoran Desert. To love that area, one must first love one small part of it. Because theparts contain the whole.
  51. 51. In conclusion, there is an often-quoted Native American saying that we borrow the world fromour descendants. Perhaps the best thing we can will to them for when we are gone is not a setof silverware or a piece of furniture. The best thing might be a bank of positive internalimages of connection and love for the world, hooked into their right brain memory, lyinglatent in their subconscious, ready to be brought up when needed as motivation as they makethe thousands of tiny decisions that will create their own world.Maybe they will save the world and by so doing, save themselves.
  52. 52. The post card handout. “Walkers” by Paul Mirocha