Zonia’s Rain Forest

I got an email from someone at Candlewick about Zonia’s Rain Forest (available March 30, also available in a Spanish edition) by Juana Martinez-Neal back in February, when it was cold and damp and cold and distinctly grey and unwarm and did I mention cold and dingy? I don’t actually mean that complainingly– February is supposed to be all of those things. I feel unnerved on years (such as this year) when it warms too quickly (probably climate change at work). But let’s just say when this email hit my inbox, the idea of a rain forest seemed even more remote than usual. And kind of appealing in its remoteness? And a Candlewick email is always a good email!

I read about the book with interest. I love Juana Martinez-Neal‘s work, so I trusted her, but part of me was wondering, “What’s going to be new here?” Not that every book has to do something altogether new– sometimes you can quite simply write a fun book, which is totally fine! But for me to review it, I usually need a hook to something special, something distinctive, especially in a book that’s addressing issues of ecology, sustainability, or otherwise focusing on the damage the human race has been inflicting on our home planet. Given the number of picture books (whether nonfiction or fiction) I’ve been reading in that wide arena (the Changeling is deeply invested in endangered species, so I end up with lots of these), I was wondering what the new angle would be, and then two points jumped out at me from the email: the illustrations were “created on paper made from banana bark” and the story and back matter are set among and provide background on the Asháninka community which lives in the Amazon and is at risk from changes imposed by, frankly, the rest of us.

The texture and luminous quality? The paper. I’m slightly obsessed.

This told me all I needed to know! I was in and wrote to say I’d love to see the book. The art and story were going to be rooted in a new and important arena in picture books: the rain forest in this story wasn’t just somehow disembodied as “the lungs of the planet,” though certainly that’s true– it’s also home. A kids’ book on saving one’s home? That’s personal in a way that “home planet” can feel remote. By making that “remoteness” I mention in my first paragraph “home,” the entire notion of the dangers faced by the Amazonian communities and, by extension, the rest of the planet, become precious to us.

One of the lovely things about this picture book is that it’s layered– much like the art, which uses the nuanced textures of paper made from banana bark to create art that’s both cozy and homey and deeply serious, the story is textured. I scanned the blurbs and reviews out there, curious about what’s popped out to others: Shelf Awareness gleefully jumps to the “super-cute critters” Zonia greets on her way through the rain forest; School Library Journal (starred review) talks about Zonia’s “determination to save her home”; and Booklist (starred review) emphasizes the layers, noting “at its simplest level” the book is about a child who loves her home, but her uncomplicated view is shaken by the swathe of clear-cut forest she discovers.

All of these are true (even if I have to grumble a little at Shelf Awareness‘s squealing over cuteness in a book that touched me deeply– I mean, ok, they are super cute critters, yes), and there’s more there, too. The book begins simply as a family story. “Zonia lives with those she loves in the rain forest.” The illustration shows her with her mother and her baby brother, a blue morpho butterfly flying by. Will the story be about the three of them? Yes– and more: about the four, and more…

“Every morning, the rain forest calls to Zonia. Every morning, Zonia answers.”

And, following the blue morpho, Zonia goes into the rain forest. She meets old friends and new ones. These friends include sloths, jaguars, water lilies, and the Arrau turtle, among others. We get to know them through Zonia as neighbours, friends, almost family (all helpfully named at the back of the book if you find yourself curious to look up more about them). We watch them be playful, beautiful, curious, serene, and chatty. Like most of us, Zonia knows who to visit when she feels like one type of interaction over another: “Zonia knows just who to visit when she wants to be quiet and still.” And then she heads home, eager to see her human family again…

And is frightened to encounter a devastated swathe of the rain forest which we now know, with Zonia, is her home, a special home, perhaps, but as much hers as our homes are ours, whether in cities, towns, or the countryside. How would we feel if we were walking home and saw the path to our front door was crushed rubble in place of stone slabs, we think?

Then there’s a brief dialogue: Zonia shows her mother the dead, broken sticks in her hands, saying the forest needs help. Zonia’s mother turns it around: “It is speaking to you.” Zonia doesn’t hesitate: “Then I will answer,” and, after a page turn, you see Zonia gazing over the rain forest, the blue morpho leading forward, “We all must answer.”

The startling drama of the conclusion is extraordinary after the quiet intimacy of the rest of the book.

The most appealing aspect is Zonia’s quick and upright response to the trauma of her home being invaded and destroyed: she, herself, rooted in the forest, will take up the action here. The story leaves it in her hands, but invites us to help.

There is backmatter, naturally, to help us with this process– but before that, we get something else. The text of the story is translated into Asháninka by Arlynder Sett Gaspar Paulino, a firm recognition that this is her story, the Asháninka story. The backmatter goes on to tell us more about Zonia’s home and community, such as the use of red plant-based paint to “signal strength and determination,” as Zonia does at the very end of the story (and is represented on the cover). Finally, we are given a list of threats to the Amazon, such as illegal logging and mining, and resources to learn more.

While all of the backmatter is useful and great– the part that sticks with me, writing here, is that this is a book about it not being your story, the reader’s story. This is incredibly unusual in picture books. Picture books very often talk to the reader about how this is your story: the feelings, the responsibilities, etc.– these are yours.

In Zonia’s Rain Forest, it’s in the title: her rain forest, her community. Would we please stand aside. We may be beside her as she does the answering, but, honestly, the best thing we can do is get out of the way.

What a lesson. What an important lesson, especially, to the adult reader– I think kids get it earlier and better. “Knock on my door if you want to come into my room!” they tell us.

Can we learn to listen?

Will we accept these boundaries, these limits?

Will we pass on these lessons to our children?

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