Karl, Get Out of the Garden!

Dear friends and devoted followers, I have thrilling news to share with you: my absences from the blog are evidence that writing is occurring elsewhere, to wit, on my dissertation.  That might not be so thrilling for you, but to me it means that whatever my duties may be, they involve writing, and writing is good.  So it’s quite a thrilling place to be: whatever I’m doing, I’m writing.

I do lament that I have less time for the blog than before, mostly because I’m up to my ears in fantastic books I want to share with you, but which have to wait for a break in my schedule so that I can write about them.  Today’s book is perfect for spring and for a spirit of dedicated work.  Also, it’s from Charlesbridge, and Charlesbridge is, quite simply, one of the best places out there for good children’s books.  The book?  Karl, Get Out of the Garden! Carolus Linnaeus and the Naming of Everything, by Anita Sanchez and illustrated by Catherine Stock.

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Carolus Linnaeus.  What a crush I had on him when I was going through my botanist stage in high school!  I bought a copy of John Gerard’s Herball, I recall, still one of my treasured books.  Interesting as the Herball is, though, it left me a little cold.  I wanted to know more about the plant families and how they came to be grouped and, frankly, I was fascinated by the names, and John Gerard didn’t go into that.  Enter Linnaeus!  Well, sort of.  The problem was that, fascinating as Linnaeus was, his works are somewhat impenetrable to the average Canadian 16-year-old.  I didn’t even try.  And there was a dearth of accessible biography about Linnaeus, too.  I was fascinated by him, but I didn’t stand a chance of finding out more without persuading one of my high school teachers to give a course on Linnaeus.  That… wouldn’t have worked.

I say all this for one reason: Anita Sanchez wrote the book I wish I’d had when I was in high school.  Don’t go telling me this is for ages 7-10 (which it is, it absolutely is), I would have snapped it up in an instant at age 16, especially given the excellent list of resources and bibliography at the back.  She does your research for you.

All right, now let’s talk about the book itself.  The book tells the story of Karl Linné (Carolus Linnaeus) from his childhood spent browsing gardens, through his medical studies, and on to his famous work as a naturalist.  It tells the story simply and clearly, without dumbing anything down.  Anita Sanchez explains that his parents had hoped he’d grow to be a scholar, but were disappointed in his lack of dedication to his studies.  Instead, young Karl always wanted to browse gardens and watch insects.  These qualities were useful in medicine, as doctors of those days used lots of plants in their preparations.  The problem was: which plants?  Without a unified system for naming plants, it was impossible to be sure which plant you were expected to use in a given preparation.  Karl decided to solve that problem.  And the rest of the book is given over to demonstrating precisely how one young man, Karl, was able to revolutionize the nomenclature system for plants and the animal kingdom, inventing a system we continue to utilize to this day.  (Sorry, I still have a bit of a crush on him.)

Does this sound a bit heavy for a kids’ book?  Dry, even?  If so, blame me, not Anita Sanchez and especially not Catherine Stock.  Between the two of them, they render the subject matter engaging and each page a visual treat.  Anita Sanchez’s text is simple and straightforward without ever committing what I consider the cardinal sin: patronizing the reader.  Take this sample of text:

“People were confused about animals, too.  Was a bat a type of bird?  Was a whale the same as a fish?  Scientists argued bitterly.

Karl decided to get things organized.  He planned to bring order to the chaos and give everything a clear and simple name.”

Clear and simple text, saying exactly what’s necessary and hooking you to know what’s next: how is Karl going to go about organizing the animal kingdom?  Flip the page to find out!

While Anita Sanchez’s admirably direct prose is decidedly engaging, much credit has to go to Catherine Stock’s gorgeous watercolour artwork for making this a book to cherish.  Her use of colour makes every page positively glow, and I love how she switches between drab greys and browns for the people’s clothing and bright swathes of rose and green for the gardens.  However, it is her line work which I truly admire.  There’s something in her use of line which recalls Shirley Hughes’s Alfie stories: the apparently loose, nonchalant lines which nevertheless produce a clear and vigorous personality jumping off of the page.  She is as skillful at drawing such vivid insects and animals as at drawing the people or the flowers, and all interact with the text in a fashion beautiful to see and read.

Particularly lovely, perhaps, are the pages where the illustration illuminates the text, and then a quote embedded in the illustration draws the whole page together.  For example, as the text tells us that “he called a beautiful golden flower Rudbeckia hirta, after a favourite teacher, Olof Rudbeck,” we see Karl standing in a garden holding up a golden spray of flowers.  A quote runs overhead in a lovely, flowing font: “So long as the earth shall survive, and each spring shall see it covered with flowers, the Rudbeckia will preserve your glorious name.”  What a page!

Altogether, this is a lovely book for any young reader.  I think that those devoted to fiction would easily fall in love with the story and illustrations, while those who already are dedicated to nonfiction will have a lot to chew on here, but will also enjoy the liveliness of the story and the pictures.  And everyone, young and old, will appreciate the message that if you truly dedicate yourself to what you love, even if it seems to just be a humble garden, you will find work worth doing and can dedicate yourself to doing it well and thoroughly.

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