Laurie Lawlor.

 “Rachel Carson and Her Book That Changed the World,” by Evanston writer Laurie Lawlor and illustrated by Laura Beingessner, was just released on April 1, 2012. It is a lovely picture book for kids aged 6 through 10 years old that will also be meaningful for older children and adults.

The book came out in good time for Earth Day, April 22 – perfect timing for a young people’s biography of the visionary environmentalist and the book she wrote to bring attention to disturbing patterns she saw during her work as a marine biologist.

The book opens to a softly colorful, textured, tempera-and-ink two-page spread of 15-year-old Rachel in the woods, taking a photograph with an old-fashioned camera of four eggs in a nest. The text encourages the reader to feel at once on intimate terms with both the girl and her surroundings:

Early one morning in May 1922, young Rachel Carson discovered a secret place deep in the woods fragrant with pine needles.

“Witchity-witchety-witchity!” called a yellowthroat.

As the sounds and sights of the “secret place” are made accessible to the reader, so is Carson’s life, through Ms. Lawlor’s choices of big and small events that took place in the scientist-writer’s life. Ms. Lawlor writes that  “[a]ll her life, Rachel Carson was curious and determined,” showing young readers that these qualities are what made Carson – and can make the children themselves – knowledgeable and strong, and able to do something for the world.

The book depicts in words and pictures how Rachel Carson loved to write and read as a little girl as much as she loved nature, and how these loves stayed with her through adulthood and helped her find work in a time when not many women had jobs in the sciences.

The reader follows Ms. Carson to college and to Woods Hole, Mass., to study at a marine biology lab (where she saw the ocean for the first time); to graduate school; through hard times during the Depression, when she supported numerous family members; to writing successful radio scripts about sea life and writing for “The Atlantic,” and working for the Bureau of Fisheries.

In 1958, she decided she had to do something about the negative effects she perceived in the enormous power of the U.S. chemical industry post-World War II, and the fears she had for the future if the use of insecticides were not curtailed and thereafter kept under watch. The reader is privy to Ms. Carson’s four years of completing “Silent Spring” – the book she hoped “everyone – not just scientists – could understand” – despite her illness with breast cancer and the criticism her bestseller incurred.

In a well-controlled exposure to the realities of history, Ms. Lawlor refrains from sugarcoating or hiding the difficulties Rachel Carson confronted throughout her life. Instead she tells the reader: “Rachel did not live to see the many positive environmental changes created by so many ordinary people inspired by her brave book.” But while it is sad, it is also encouraging; that one’s work has moved “ordinary people” to insist on a change in the status quo is a real achievement. 

Ms. Carson’s death, too, is treated in a way that admits sadness but emphasizes the light in her life: “On April 14, 1964, just before an early spring sunset filled with birdsong, fifty-five-year-old Rachel died.” It is important for children to be exposed to the very real, very human, intertwining of sadness and gladness, as it is important
they be exposed to science, history, the arts and math. While this is not the main thrust of the book, it is a very positive concomitant.

Ms. Lawlor refers throughout to the historical events that were the backdrop against which Ms. Carson’s life unfolded, in particular the Depression and America’s involvement in World War II, and which affected the reception, especially of her earlier writing, by the public. Ms. Beingessner’s illustrations bring history, as well as biography, further to life through their detail – flora and fauna in nature, and clothing, cars, furnishings and the like where people are central.

It is considerate of the author and publisher to include an epilogue – “What Happened After the Publication of ‘Silent Spring’” – and a list of source notes. The 32-page book is written and illustrated beautifully and with what appears to be immaculate attention to detail while avoiding pedantry.

The Writer

Evanston resident Laurie Lawlor has received many awards for her nearly 40 books and for her writing overall, including the 2010 Prairie State Award for Excellence in Writing for Children. She has written biographies, history (among them two series of nine books each), and fiction for kids of different ages, from picture books for preschoolers to novels for young adults. She teaches writing for children at Columbia College, Chicago, in particular a YA (young adult) novel-writing class and an advanced YA class.

Though she was born in Oak Park and grew up primarily in LaGrange, Ill., parents and all six kids spent summers in tiny Grand Lake, Col., about three hours from Denver, Ms. Lawlor says. Her parents started a college repertory theatre there in 1967, of which her father, a Lyons Township high school teacher, acted as artistic director.

“It was a unique way to live,” Ms. Lawlor says. She was about 13 when this artistic double life began, and had known since about the third grade, she says, that she wanted to be a writer. Life with the theatre was a “very informing” influence, she says, and she has come to think of theatre as the “intersection between telling a story in a live performance and telling a story on the page.”

On top of the summer theatre, “another person who was key in my development was Shakespeare, “ Ms. Lawlor says. She regularly went with her father’s high school classes to Stratford, in Canada.

Voice became very important for Ms. Lawlor’s writing. “You have to hear how the character sounds,” she says. “Hearing the voices is really key – gestures [too], in thinking about how the characters interact.” She adds, “Understanding the landscape is important [as well].” And, too, she “loves doing research.”

The writer’s interest in Rachel Carson and “Silent Spring” relates to her commitment to ecological issues. She says, “I continue to be invested in ecological concerns in Wisconsin, where we have a second home.” This investment gave rise in 2005 to her book “This Tender Place: The Story of a Wetland Year (Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin-Madison), which won a Wisconsin Library Association Literary Award.

“I’ve always wanted to write an environmental book for children,” she says. “I’ve been very inspired by the work ‘Last Child in the Woods’ …  by Richard Louv, [who] directly links the lack of nature in the lives of today’s wired generation – he calls it ‘nature-deficit’ – to some of the most disturbing childhood trends, such as the rises in obesity, attention disorders, and depression.”

Ms. Lawlor discovered “Silent Spring” in high school, she says, and was affected a great deal by it. It is, she says, a book that “appeals to the artistic, visionary side, when reading it, but it’s scientific, too.”

For a book on “Silent Spring,” Ms. Lawlor says, “originally I conceived of a massive idea, a much bigger book; my editor wanted something short and smaller,“ and they agreed on a picture book. “It was a challenge to distill” what of a life should go into a kids’ biography, she says. She had “to find the main thread.” For Rachel Carson, what Ms. Lawlor distilled was her curiosity and stamina.  And in the book about her, Ms. Lawlor says, “On each page I wanted to tap into touchstones about her life.”

“I hated to exclude lots of things,” she says; she compromised with the informative afterword. “I had hoped to go into specific examples of birds [how they were affected by pesticides] and the ways in which the chemical industry assailed [Carson]. How she testified, her bravery while she was sick and did this anyhow.”

“Her courage was huge,” Ms. Lawlor says. “Her story is heroic, and this is something kids need. And all of us need. You don’t need to feel sad, especially if you can do something.”

And this is true. Doing something will fulfill Rachel Carson’s gentle demand in “Silent Spring.” Doing something will protect and nurture the potential of the world for future generations – of both humans and the other living things that share it.