The fact that nature has been declared the Children’s Book Week theme this year had to happen at some point. In addition to the climate apocalypse happening more or less before our eyes, the world of children’s books has been flooded for years with books about insects, birds, mushrooms, flowers, trees, you name it. One visually even more attractive than the other and often admirably accurate in terms of information. Much of this non-fiction seems to be written with a morally educative intent: Before it’s too late, the youngest generation must realize how special and indispensable nature is. A nice bonus, most children feel a strong connection with everything that grows and blooms.
It’s a shame that these books usually ignore the underlying question of why this is so. Of course, there is no easy one-size-fits-all answer. Is the ‘memory of millions of years ago’, when everyone still lived in nature, deeply rooted in our genes and are we actually animals, as Yuval Noah Harari states in his first children’s book How we became the most powerful animal on earth? Are children drawn to Mother Nature by an unconscious longing for the Garden of Eden, a romantic idea that Sophie’s world-author Jostein Gaarder seems to refer in his new book we are the world, when he describes how as a teenager he has contact on a ‘primary level’ with ‘a deeper layer’ in nature and himself? Or are children driven by their curiosity? Is it their innate urge to discover that they are entering the Forbidden Forest? Harry Potterbooks, and she encourages them to unravel the secrets of Tonke Dragt’s Wilde Woud? It should not be forgotten that nature can also turn against the child: trees can fall, wild plants can be poisonous and hungry animals are ominously unpredictable.
With the wild animals
Writing a genuine children’s book about this ambiguous relationship between man and nature is therefore no mean feat. The best books are actually those where this, wrapped up in an exciting adventure, is touched between the lines. It is not for nothing that classics like Nils Holgersson’s wonderful journey (1906) by Selma Lagerlöf and Rudyard Kipling jungle books (1894) legendary status. Not only do these fictional stories revolve around children who, by staying with wild animals, are confronted with the beauty, cruelty and freedom of living in nature and the question of what it means to be human, they also celebrate the mystery of the cycle of life. This encourages you to see beyond the eye and stimulates the imagination.
Still, there is one book in the pile of non-fiction about nature that stands out. It is Behind the trees stood a lion, not coincidentally written by Daan Remmerts de Vries: The recent winner of the Theo Thijssen prize has had a deep love for nature all his life and travels the world to find animals in the wild. Those encounters return in his work, in his youth novel Tiger Island (2013) for example and i The Jungle Book (2020), his sparkling free adaptation of Kipling’s books. But in Behind the trees stood a lion he tells for the first time what the meetings were really like, sincere in tone and as if they happened yesterday. And above all, he tells what they meant to him as a person.
Also read a portrait of Daan Remmerts de Vries, who earlier this year was awarded the Theo Thijssen prize
He wonders through observations of ‘vagrants’, ‘the wanderers among the birds’ who randomly appear in a place where they do not belong: how free are we? Equally relevant is his thought about the similarity between humans and animals and mammals after a visit to a Parisian zoo without pens. Their achieved freedom of movement means that the animals hide from the visitors. Due to the shy demeanor, Remmerts de Vries suddenly realizes how much animals love space, their own sleeping place and food of their choice, and that ‘just like humans, they have feelings about what is pleasant and what is not’. Also telling: his musing that animals, unlike humans, “can never disappoint you because they’re always themselves.”
Also read the review of two retranslated children’s book classics: To which Mowgli and Nils Holgersson owe their immortal status
But what appeals most to the imagination in this nature diary, illustrated with his own photos, are the chapters in which Remmerts de Vries wanders through the Indian jungle. Mysteriously and poetically described is the moment when the forest closes in on him like ‘a cathedral of trunks, with a roof of leaves’. Remmerts de Vries believes that there is something ‘adventurous’ about tigers hiding somewhere. The word perfectly fits the idea that he was already convinced as a child: ‘that there was a world hidden behind everything that [hij] saw’ and that one day he would be able to perceive these ‘miracles’. That’s why, he says, he started looking for animals: ‘They’re actually kind of messengers – they indicate where the hidden life is.’
For example, the longing for the hidden life of nature seems to be a longing for stories: a fantastic result of a Children’s Book Week where nature is central.