Monday, July 27, 2015

Non-Fiction Monday: Small Wonders: Jean-Henri Fabre & his world of insects by Matthew Clark Smith

Small Wonders: Jean-Henri Fabre & his world of insects by Matthew Clark Smith. Illustrated by Giuliano Ferri. unpgd. Two Lions/ Amazon Children's Publishing, May, 2015. 978147782624. (Borrowed from the public library)

The lovely cover was the first thing to catch my eye as I scanned the shelf of "new books" at my local public library. The next thing was the fact that it was about an entomologist. While I'm always on the lookout for quality biographies of scientists, I will admit that I thought of the young son of a colleague who is crazy about bugs. I'm not crazy about bugs but I am fascinated by them. I had never heard of Jean-Henri Fabre so I added the book to my stack.

The biography starts with Fabre as an eccentric old man living in a village in southern France. The inhabitants knew very little about him but gossiped about him, debating about whether he was a madman or a sorcerer. They were shocked and amazed when the President of France visited him. Turns out Jean-Henri Fabre had just won a Noble Prize in Literature. He was one of very few scientists to win the prize in literature for his life's work studying insects.

The story then rewinds to the early 1800s and relates how Fabre's youth on a mountainside in rural France shaped his love of nature and insects in particular. Once he started school, he would secrete all sorts of flora and fauna into his desk to study instead of his Latin. His teachers did not appreciate his lack of interest in academics. Eventually, he became a teacher. He married and had children, many of whom died. But he continued to study nature. 

He came down with pneumonia so severe he thought he would die. He made a last request of his son to retrieve some bees from their winter nest. When they stirred from their hibernation due to the warmth of the room, Jean-Henri found a reason to live. He recovered and began writing. And writing and writing. He felt that if his writing awakened an awe of nature in just one person, he had done his job. In his 90th year, he learned that his work earned him a Nobel Prize and a visit from the President of France. He died several years later.

The narrative is engaging and evocative as are the soft watercolor illustrations. They are colorful and energetic. Each contain tons of larger-than-life insects. The end-pages are gorgeous as well. While certainly recommended for elementary school libraries, this picture book biography should find a home in the middle school library thanks to an in-depth historical note; detailed timeline; author's note and sources. This unique and affectionate treatment of a scientist mostly unknown outside of his field should awaken a sense of wonder in young readers. It did for this old one.

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