From the creators of You are Stardust comes Wild Ideas, the latest picture book by environmental educator Dr. Elin Kelsey and mixed-media artist Soyeon Kim. Smaller in scope but more personal than Stardust, Wild Ideas employs a blend of language, art, and science to highlight humanity’s kinship with the animal world while showcasing nature as an inspirational force.
Disclaimer: Owlkids Books provided me with a review copy of Wild Ideas. The following thoughts are my own.
Wild Ideas begins with an apt description of problems – that they are constantly with us, often sticky and annoying. But problems, Kelsey notes, also represent opportunities for generating new and exciting ways of thinking and doing. Over the course of the book, she reveals intriguing ways in which animals large and small tackle everyday problems. Squirrels learn to cross roads by watching people. Stumped orangutans take their time to puzzle tasks through. Humpback whales collaborate to craft bubble nets to trap fish. Baboons and orcas glean wisdom from their parents. Even dung beetles take time to gaze at the heavens for guidance. The book concludes with the reminder that while there will always be problems that need solving, the natural world is a wellspring of insight and innovation.
Art + Word + Narrative
Like You Are Stardust before it, Kelsey and Kim work in concert to create a work that engages the artistic and poetic imagination. Each of Kim’s single and double-paged spreads features a diorama crafted with ink and watercolour drawings, accented by coloured strings and held together with fishing wire. Kelsey’s short and lyrical sentences complement these intricately composed scenes by grounding them in science. Everything in Wild Ideas helps construct a story that speaks of nature as a place filled with both wonders and unexpected solutions, if only we are open to it. The book strives to convey that nature matters, for community, for everyday trifles and large happenings, for animals and for us.
Teaching without Preaching
What I enjoy about both Stardust and Wild Ideas is that they inform and delight without coming across as being overtly educational or shallow entertainment. This is not an easy line to walk. Kelsey expresses her approach to writing in an interview:
“When I first started writing non-fiction books, I wrote a lot of explanations. How different plants and animals do things is fascinating to me. But a very wise editor, Marybeth Leatherdale, encouraged me to think more about writing in a way that encouraged exploration, rather than settling for explanation. I have found that this opens up lots more opportunities for readers and for me to ponder and wonder and appreciate. It is a more powerful way to connect with the unique ways we each see the world.”
Kelsey understands that story serves as a key for unlocking doors. She trusts in the power of her words and the wonder of her subject matter to persuade readers to seek the answers themselves, and in the process discover new ideas and possibilities.
The Animal/Human Spectrum
For me, Wild Ideas urges me to contemplate humanity’s connection with the animal world. Beyond the lush textures and vibrant language, children and animals are shown interacting in every scene, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I appreciate this. All too often in modern culture we depict the animal realm as wholly separate from us, primal and inferior, static and primitive; creatures as mere foodstuff, as tourist attractions, as unfeeling, unthinking inert stock, objects without agency, to be used and used up.
This is of course the furthest thing from the truth, and children in their ignorance and innocence see things as they are. I’m reminded of a passage in Cheek by Jowl, an essay collection that explores the role of animals stories play in a child’s imagination:
“Why do most children respond both to real animals and to stories about them, fascinated by and identifying with creatures that our dominant religions and ethics consider mere objects for human use – raw material for our food, subjects of scientific experiments to benefit us, amusing curiosities of the zoo and the TV nature program, pets to improve our psychological health?
It appears that we give animal stories to children and encourage them to be interested in animals because we see children as inferior, mentally “primitive,” not yet fully human: so pets and zoos and animal stories are “natural” steps on the child’s way up to adult, exclusive humanity – rungs on the ladder from mindless, helpless babyhood to the full flory of intellectual maturity and mastery. Ontology recapitulating phylogeny in terms of the Great Chain of Being.
But what is it the kid is after – the baby wild with excitement at the sight of a kitten, the six-year-old spelling out Peter Rabbit, the twelve-year-old weeping as she reads Black Beauty? What is it the child perceives that her whole culture denies?”
– Cheek by Jowl, location 500/1495
There is something elemental and foundational at play there – the intuitive acceptance that the reality of the animal world is also our own; the recognition of a dynamic, fluid kinship, always adapting and changing. With her claims rooted in the latest science in animal research, Kelsey reinforces what children already know, reminds adults who may have forgotten, that many animals experience joys and troubles much as we do – anthropomorphism be damned. As naturalist Sy Montgomery writes, the notion of projecting human thoughts and emotions onto animals implies that such “thoughts and feelings belong to humans alone.” We can no longer make this claim of uniqueness. There exists no unbridgeable gulf between us and the other denizens of this earth. Rather we all belong on a spectrum and community, sharing much more in common with those around us than modern life would have us believe.
In Case of Fire,
Break Glass Seek Nature
“Lots of problems require you to hold tight. But not all of them. Sometimes you just need to… LEAP! Make like a gibbon and throw yourself into a new situation.”
– Wild Ideas
Within this lighthearted book I also sense the urgency of Kelsey’s other message that exists as an undercurrent pushing towards weightier matters. To me, the problems Wild Ideas speak of connects me to the global ecological crisis: Ecosystem degradation, biodiversity loss, climate change, the mass disconnect from the world and community that sustains us.
Sometimes, these matters seem so overwhelming that many of us push away and shut down. We deny and wall ourselves off with denial and apathy because we cannot see any solutions. I am certainly guilty of this in many occasions. But this is precisely why a book like Wild Ideas, simple and accessible, is so refreshing and necessary. In asking us to consider the wild, the non-human, the Other, it helps us open up and invite answers beyond our limited perceptions, to go down new lines of thoughts, and towards other modes of being.
Lest one thinks that turning to nature for solutions is overly fanciful and a luxury for the privileged, this approach has already produced concrete and profound implications. Biomimicry, a discipline that draws inspiration from elements of nature for the purposes of solving complex problems, is a growing field and has yielded significant advances in engineering, design and architecture:
Another big concept derived from observing nature is the circular economy. By noticing that there is no such thing as waste in ecosystems, many organizations, businesses, and even nations are currently redesigning systems that enable a restorative economy with closed nutrient loops that makes zero waste possible. Dame Ellen Macarthur, founder of a leading organization that seeks to inspire a generation to re-think, re-design and build a positive future through the framework of a circular economy, speaks about her learnings from nature during a recent TED Talk:
Beyond these grand concepts and epiphanies, turning to nature also yields smaller yet equally important rewards. I’ve written about these things previously on Ekostories, but once again science is confirming what we intuit, that being out in natural settings yields measurable mental benefits and may reduce the risk for depression. With more people living in cities than ever and the rising rates of mental health disorders, a simple walk in the woods or a hike up the hill may prove to be the easiest and most necessary fix for us all. Wild Ideas reminds us that solutions abound, sometimes in the heart of the wild, sometimes just outside our front door, if we take heed of its concluding statement:
“Untame your imagination. A world of wild ideas await.”
– Wild Ideas
- The Art of Connection: You are Stardust
- A Boy and His Plants: The Curious Garden
- Children and Nature: My Neighbour Totoro
Kelsey, Elin. (2015) Wild Ideas: Let Nature Inspire Your Thinking. Owlkids Books Inc., Toronto.
Le Guin, Ursula K. (2009) Cheek by Jowl. E-book edition. Aquaduct Press, Seattle WA.
Featured Image from Wild Ideas by Soyeon Kim.