illustrator: Lynne Cherry
The world’s tropical rainforests are being destroyed at an alarming rate by multinational corporations, deforestation operations, road paving, cattle ranching, and, in Central and South America, the runaway eco-tourism industry.
All of this is implied in Cherry’s myth-like tale of a lone woodsman who is assigned to chop down a huge kapok tree in the forest. After a few whacks, he sits down to rest and is lulled to sleep by the “heat and hum of the forest.” While asleep, the woodsman is visited by creatures who live in the forest—a boa constrictor, a bee, a troop of monkeys, a toucan, a macaw, a tree frog, a jaguar, four tree porcupines, “several anteaters,” and a three-toed sloth—who each tells him how this tree and everything in the forest is intricately related to each other.
And finally, “a child from the Yanomamo tribe who lived in the rain forest” joins the creatures and whispers into the man’s ear, “Senhor, when you awake, please look upon us all with new eyes.”
The woodsman awakes with a start.
Before him stood the rain forest child, and all around him, staring, were the creatures who depended upon the great Kapok tree. What wondrous and rare animals they were!
He takes in everything: the “sun streaming through the canopy,” the “fragrant perfume” of the flowers, the “steamy mist rising from the forest floor,” and he knows he must make a decision.
The man stood and picked up his axe. He swung back his arm as though to strike the tree. Suddenly he stopped. He turned and looked at the animals and the child. He hesitated. Then he dropped the ax and walked out of the rainforest.
In The Great Kapok Tree, Cherry has produced an abundance of information about the flora and fauna of the rain forest, and about the necessity of preserving it. Her gorgeously rendered double-page spreads, in watercolors and colored pencils—on a palette of subdued earthy forest tones of mostly browns, greens and reds—aptly convey the beauty of the endangered rainforest ecosystems. And there’s a helpful world map that shows both the rainforests’ original extent and how much of them is left today.
However, two things trouble me about this story. One is that children might see the struggle to save the rainforests as merely about convincing individuals not to chop down trees—rather than about stopping the multinational corporations intent on chopping up the magnificent biospheres into marketable pieces. The second problem is that Cherry apparently drops in the “child from the Yanomamo tribe” to illustrate how the destruction of the rainforests affects humans as well as the forest creatures. But it’s unlikely—even in a myth—for a young child to be hanging around with a bunch of wild animals. It weakens, rather than strengthens, the story.
Lynne Cherry dedicated this book to Chico Mendes, a third-generation Brazilian rubber tapper, human rights activist and trade union leader who was assassinated by a rancher who would have profited from logging an area that had been planned as a reserve.
Rather than the tale of the rainforest’s being threatened by a single man with an ax who is then easily convinced to walk away, I would rather have seen a children’s version about how the Indigenous peoples of Brazil, together with local trade union activists and supporters around the world, are fighting to preserve the Amazon rainforest. Even the youngest children are capable of understanding the complexities of problems such as this one—and thinking about solutions.
So—but only as a jumping-off point for classroom discussions, research and activities about the struggle to save the world’s rainforests—The Great Kapok Tree is recommended.