A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Life by Newbery winner Cynthia Rylant (Little Penguins), gorgeously illustrated by Caldecott Honor-winning author-illustrator Brendan Wenzel (They All Saw a Cat), is a dreamy meditation on life's trials and pleasures. The abstract ideas are illustrated concretely with pictures of animals in the natural world, and the clear message is that we can look to nature to guide us on our journeys.
What's the story?
LIFE opens with a picture of life in water at the beginning of time, and moves to a small plant sprouting in a field. "Life begins small. Even for elephants. Then it grows." The text follows animals in their natural habitat and shows that animals, too, encounter difficulties, illustrated by a bird flying through a dark stretch of violent storm. But, it advises, "wilderness eventually ends. And there is always a new road to take." And it encourages readers to "Remember this: in every corner of the world, there is something to love. And something to protect."
Is it any good?
This inspirational reverie, unusual for a picture book, is a nice introduction for kids to the calming balm of the spiritual world. Author Cynthia Rylant has never been afraid to tackle the deeper questions, and in Life, she talks about life's joys and challenges. The text is at its best when it deals concretely with animals and their experience; for instance, talking about what they love about life: "The hawk will say sky. The camel will say sand." She also addresses readers directly, offering advice: "There will probably be a stretch of wilderness now and then. But wilderness eventually ends. And there is always a new road to take." These passages feel like helpful mantras kids can repeat to themselves when they need comfort or direction. But where the text gets more abstract, kids may find it slippery. "And if, one day, it seems nothing beautiful will ever come your way again, trust the rabbit in the field and the deer who crosses your path."
Brendan Wenzel’s art brings the abstract text solidly down to earth. The illustrations are populated with animals, with nary a human in sight. The animals all have deeply expressive eyes, and, just as Rylant speaks directly to the reader, some gaze directly at us, as if speaking to us, too. The rhythms and wonder of the natural world are the inspiration here, and in one captivating spread, birds take flight before a moon while a deer stares up from a silvery field. In another, a baby whale gazes upward, knowing "it is worth waking up in the morning to see what might happen" -- hopeful advice to offer young humans, too.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the experience of the animals in Life. Do you experience life as they do? Do you ever feel like the bird flying through the long, dark storm? Or the turtle with rain on its back?
If "the hawk will say sky" and "the camel will say sand," what would you say that you love about life?
What do you think the author means by "trust the wolf and the wild geese who find their way back home"? How does it help to look to animals if "it seems nothing beautiful will ever come your way again?"
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