An interview with author and illustrator, Lynne Cherry
“The Great Kapok Tree” was written by Lynne Cherry in response to the murder of Brazilian environmental activist Chico Mendes, who was assassinated by a rancher in 1988 in Brazil. Mendes’ murder was a significant international incident galvanizing support for environmental activists working to protect the Amazon forest.
In “The Great Kapok Tree,” a young person enters the Amazon forest to cut firewood. One young boy falls asleep. While asleep, the animals “talk” to him, explaining why forests are so important for our world. The young boy wakes up, considers the animals’ messages, puts down his ax, and decides to no longer cut down trees.
“The Great Kapok Tree” initially received a mixed reception by critics. Yet, within a couple of years of publication, it became one of the most influential conservation-themed children’s books of the last 40 years.
With hundreds of thousands of copies sold, translation into numerous languages, and incorporation into numerous elementary school science lessons plans, “The Great Kapok Tree” has inspired a generation of young people to open their eyes, feel the splendor of the natural world around them, and take action to protect our planet.
As Lynne Cherry stated in 1990 regarding “The Great Kapok Tree,” on the 20th Anniversary of Earth Day, “When kids grow up, in another 20 years, they’ll be the people making the decisions. If they’re raised with these ideas ingrained in them, it will affect national policy. We will have raised a whole generation of environmentalists.”
Mongabay: How has writing and illustrating “The Great Kapok Tree” influenced your career?
Cherry: Writing and illustrating “The Great Kapok Tree” completely transformed my career. Before 1990, when “The Great Kapok Tree” was published, although I had written and/or illustrated 10 children’s books, I was making a meager living. But “The Great Kapok Tree” was in a league all its own; it was widely acclaimed, reviewed in the major media including People Magazine, Time, and a front page illustrated review in the NY Times Book Review. That publicity made all the difference in the world.
Mongabay: How hard was it to manage the process of writing and illustrating a book, which at the time, you would never have known would become a work by which an industry is benchmarked?
Cherry: Each book requires a different level of research. I wrote “The Great Kapok Tree” on a train between New Haven (where I was a grad student in History at Yale) and Washington DC (where I had been working for an environmental group). I wrote the book in one day but then I needed to do research to make sure all the plants and animals were biologically accurate. I had originally titled the book “The Great Mahogany Tree” but the rain forest scientists I spoke all told me that that was a plantation tree and that, instead, I should feature the Kapok (or Silk Cotton) tree. They all agreed– it is “the quintessential rain forest tree”. When I went to talk to World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) president Dr. Tom Lovejoy, he told me that I needed to go to the rain forest to see it and experience it firsthand. He facilitated my trip to his research site in the Brazilian Amazon. That was my first trip to the Amazon. I took photographs of the plants and animals. Upon my return to the US, the WWF scientists who studied the rain forest, like Russ Mittermier and Rob Bierregaard, gave me access to their photographs, which I used as reference. Carlos Miller, who was then a WWF intern from Brazil, posed for the wood cutter.
WWF gave me an artist-in-residency and, so, I illustrated much of the book there with their scientists looking over my shoulder; I have them to thank for ensuring the book’s scientific accuracy. It usually takes me a year to illustrate a book, days, nights and weekends.
I have been fortunate to have had artist-in-residencies at other institutions while illustrating and/or researching my other books. For instance, I researched and wrote “How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate” with the help of scientists at the Princeton Center for Energy and Environmental Studies and the Woods Hole Research Center. Cornell Lab of Ornithology helped with “Flute’s Journey: the Life of a Wood Thrush.” And I wrote and illustrated “A River Ran Wild” and “How Groundhog’s Garden Grew” at the Smithsonian in DC and at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC).
Mongabay: How many drafts did each illustration have before you finalized upon the final illustration? What was this process like?
Cherry: Each illustration is composed of many separate elements, all researched. So, I draw pieces of the illustration and assemble them on tracing paper. After conceptualizing the illustration, I transfer the sketch onto good Strathmore drawing paper using a technical pen with a very thin black line called a rapidograph. Then I color in that b&w line art—like coloring in a coloring book– with watercolor, colored pencil and oil pastels.
Mongabay: And how did you link your inspiration from Chico Mendes to maintaining your “I can do” spirit?
Cherry: Chico Mendes was a role model for me. He made the ultimate sacrifice—his own life—to protect the rainforest as a sustainable reserve for rubber tappers. Tapping the trees for rubber doesn’t harm the trees and it protects the forest. My battles were nothing compared to Chico’s; His determination made me realize that I could take much bigger risks and speak out. At that time I had already worked on a successful campaign to stop the transport of nuclear waste through our Connecticut towns on dangerous curvy icy roads. And I had learned about Karen Silkswood who also gave her life to fight a polluting corporation. So I felt that my risks were negligible compared to theirs. What did I risk? Being called strident or unrealistic? Making people uncomfortable in their complacency? These were small discomforts compared to what Chico Mendes endured. We are still fighting battles to save rainforest. But now people are realizing that cutting down the forests impacts not just the people and animals in those forests but everyone in the world who depend upon the rainforests to keep our climate livable.
Mongabay: Given that “The Great Kapok Tree” is now celebrating its 25th anniversary, are there any components of the book that you would have changed in hindsight?
No, none. I actually didn’t realize the power of the book until I went to a musical performance of it. It was like hearing the story for the first time. It made me cry at the end—as if I had not written the story myself. And everyone else in the auditorium was sniffling. The woodcutter goes into the forest to do whet he has done all his life—to cut a tree. But he falls to sleep and the animals visit him and explain to him the importance of saving the tree. He awakes and has an epiphany. He sees the forest as he has never seen it before “with new eyes.”He then has a choice: to continue doing what he has always done or, with this new knowledge, to stop it. Does he do what is expedient or does he do what he feels in his heart is right? This is a book about ethics, integrity and having the strength to do what is right.
Mongabay: How have you carried your message to influence young people to become environmentalists since the release of “The Great Kapok Tree”?
Cherry: I have published ten more books since then and I often give talks at schools, universities, institutions (such as at NASA Goddard) and conferences (such as National Science Teachers Association and the Association of Science and Technology Centers). “The Great Kapok Tree” was published by Harcourt but it, and many of my other books, are included in textbooks and teacher guides published by many other publishers—so the books are introduced to thousands of teachers who have played the most important role in carrying the messages of environmental stewardship to students; They read the books in their classrooms and discuss them as part of their science curriculum. My books are ideal for teaching subjects that are required by the science standards: Rainforest, mangroves, rivers, Earth sciences.
What makes young people environmentalists is their having a first-hand relationship to nature. Richard Louv writes about “nature deficit disorder” in his book “Last Child in the Woods”. My book “A River Ran Wild” is the story of how rivers were once pristine, then got polluted and then were cleaned up. It discusses the values of the Native Americans and how they thought of themselves as part of nature and the colonists who though of nature as something to conquer, and how those different value systems predicted how they treated the Earth. This book is a staple in 4th grade classrooms. It also tells about the importance of laws to protect rivers. But the best thing about “A River Ran Wild” is that it spawns school projects to visit and study local streams and rivers, to become personally invested in them and to work to clean them up. Developing kids’ love and understanding for nature coupled with giving them the tools to protect nature is a great way to foster environmental sensibilities.
“How Groundhog’s Garden Grew” introduces younger kids (K-3) to gardening through two very adorable characters: a squirrel and a little groundhog. After they grow a garden, there is more than they can eat themselves so they share—at a big Thanksgiving feast. This book excites youngsters about planting a garden and growing their own food for themselves and their friends. Like my other books, this book is value-infused.
All the environmental issues I write about are important but climate change trumps them all. It is the greatest threat to humanity. It is beginning to affect the entire planet. To introduce kids to climate change, photojournalist Gary Braasch and I wrote “How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids explore Global Warming.” This book won 15 major awards including “Best Science book for Middle Schoolers” by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). From educators using the book in their classrooms, we discovered that they found the climate solutions most useful. These youth success stories helped educators dispel the fear that young people had about climate change. This realization led Gary and I to create the non-profit organization Young Voices on Climate Change and to produce films about youth solutions to the climate crisis. My experience as a story-teller transitioned nicely to filmmaking.
Mongabay: With the internet, the ways to communicate with people and society regarding environmental conservation and protecting our planet have changed. How is engaging with the environmental movement in 2014 different than 1990? How is it the same? What tools do you use now that are the same or are different than previously?
Cherry: Today people get their environmental information from different sources. In 1990 pre-internet days, most people got their information from the printed media and TV. Today most people get information from TV, the internet and from materials their kids bring home from school. But what remains the same is that people enjoy inspirational and authentic stories. With both the books and the films, the key is telling a good story
For the past five years I have been producing a film series “Young Voices for the Planet” about young people who are concerned about climate change but have found solutions that can be replicated.
Gary Braasch, my co-author of “How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Planet: Scientist and Kids Explore Global Warming,” had followed climate scientists around the world. In our book we explained how they came to understand about climate change. This information is very important. We wanted to reach millions of youth and so we realized we would have to make films that could be posted on YouTube and shown in upper elementary, middle school and high school classrooms. These films are great teaching tools that augment the books.
Mongabay: How do we communicate that “there is hope” when so much environmental news conveys a message of fear? What are the signs of hope that you would like the Mongabay community to be aware of?
Cherry: The consequences of climate change are frequently overwhelming and alarming, causing people to become resistant to hearing more about what’s happening rather than being motivated to take action. An article in the “Journal of Behavior and Social Psychology” described “motivated avoidance” – how people are motivated to avoid hearing any more about a problem that seems so intractable and troubling. They psychologically can’t handle it so they shut down. However, positive messages can act as an antidote to “motivated avoidance.” When people feel they have the power to do something about it, they are then able to hear the problem, or, in the case of climate change, be open to learning the science.
Young Voices on Climate Change has, for years, promoted the importance of positive messaging when teaching about climate change. Our short documentary films can transform young people from feeling hopeless to hopeful, from apathetic to engaged. The logic for taking a positive approach is gaining currency among foundations and educators who had, in the past, unwittingly focused on tactics that alarmed, discouraged and fundamentally turned people off.
Many studies are now affirming our positive approach; a study by Tony Leiserowitz at Yale confirmed that negative messages are the least effective. Our Young Voices for the Planet films are actually changing the pedagogy of climate change communication. It is encouraging that more and more institutions and educators are now questioning traditional climate change messaging and are using the YVFP films in their programs.
Professor Albert Bandura at Stanford University writes about “self-efficacy”—a person’s belief in their effectiveness to create change in their own life and in the world at large. Success stories of youth who have taken on the status quo and are fighting for their future are ideal for developing young peoples’ critical thinking skills and their belief in themselves to be change-makers.
Mongabay: What are things you would suggest that young people do today to “make a difference”?
Cherry: The Young Voices for the Planet (YVFP) films document, champion and publicize what young people have been doing to make a difference. These youth-led models of success show examples of ways to reduce CO2 through creative win-win solutions that save money while engaging school administrators, local government, parents and the public.
I would certainly suggest emulating these projects! Like the middle school girls in “Dreaming in Green”, young people today could do energy audits of their schools and save thousands on their electric bills. Like 11-year-old Felix Finkbeiner from Germany, they can plant trees that soak up carbon dioxide. Like Olivia in “Olivia’s Birds and the Oil Spill” they can raise funds to do good and they can visit their elected officials to demand a tax on carbon so that renewable energy can compete on a level playing field. Young people can sing out in concerts about all these things and inspire others to make changes as the Rivertown Kids in our upcoming film “We Sing Out!” do.
Young people can share these positive stories to show others that change is possible and that kids have power!
The YVFP films take a fundamentally different approach than other climate education efforts by documenting and communicating the role youth are playing in helping solve the climate crisis. The young people documented in these films earnestly discuss the effects that climate change will have upon their lives and upon future generations, yet they see the possibilities of moving to a more sustainable future where there is the political will to address climate change. As well as motivating and encouraging other young people to become engaged, these youth push their parents, peers and elected officials to make the necessary changes for a better world. Their initiatives are spilling over into communities
Mongabay: If Chico Mendes had not been murdered and he was still alive today, what message would he give to young people today?
Cherry: Chico’s message to young people would be to be courageous, to speak out, to stand up for oneself and to safeguard your future—and to not believe anyone who tries to make you think that you are powerless. You DO have the power to change the world.
Mongabay: How has the inspiration you felt from Chico Mendes’ life, which resulted in “The Great Kapok Tree”, then been translated into scientific teaching curricula for students?
Cherry: The animals in “The Great Kapok Tree” explain basic scientific principles: ecosystems, interdependence, symbiosis, pollination, ecosystem services. Harcourt and the other publishers who have licensed The Great Kapok and my other books have created textbooks to go with many of my books. I recently co-authored a book with Suzanne Lyons and Julianna Texley, the president of National Science Teachers Association, to go with the Young Voices for the Planet films. Entitled “Empowering Young Voices for the Planet,” this book is aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards so teachers can teach the science they are required to teach while also teaching self-efficacy. And when students are invested in a real-world issue that makes their learning relevant, they retain that knowledge as life-time learning, not just until the next test.
Mongabay: Of the many translations of “The Great Kapok Tree” into other languages, which translations do you enjoy the most?
Cherry: I visually enjoy the Korean and Japanese translations; I can’t read them but they are graphically beautiful. I just love the variety of titles and the cadence of the different languages: “Der Grosse Kapokbaum” (German Version) or “Le Geant de L’Amazonie” (French).
Mongabay: Over the past 25 years since “The Great Kapok Tree” was published, what stories by readers of the book who were influenced by the book are most memorable?
Cherry: The most memorable and heart-warming story was told to me by a young man –about 14 years old—who had come to the Peruvian rainforest to a workshop where I was teaching rainforest ecology. He was the son of one of the teachers attending, a strapping young man. I was sitting at a table. He knelt down so he could look straight into my eyes. He told me how, six years before when he was eight years old, his teacher had read his class “The Great Kapok Tree.” Before that, he had never thought about how animals had feelings or needs. He never considered how human actions could affect the natural world. But, he said that the book transformed him and that from then on, he thought about how his own actions could affect animals and other living things. “The Great Kapok Tree,” he said, had taught him empathy.
The many stories that young people have shared with me about how reading the book completely changed the way they thought of themselves in relation to nature, have been very fulfilling. Many have told me that the reading of the book was a turning point in their lives where they realized the importance of their own actions. Many told me that the book was the first step in a life devoted to educating others about respect for the earth and environmental stewardship. Young people play a vital role in catalyzing change and they give me hope.
Lynne Cherry is the founder of the non-profit organization Young Voices on Climate Change, producer/director of the Young Voices for the Planet film series, children’s book author and illustrator, and a lecturer on climate change messaging and environmental issues. Lynne has written and/or illustrated 30 award-winning children’s books, many of them appearing on Reading Rainbow, including the best-sellers “The Great Kapok Tree” and A “River Ran Wild.” She received a BA from Tyler School of Art and a Masters in History at Yale University. She has had artist-in-residencies at Princeton University, the Smithsonian Institution and Cornell University and science-writing fellowships from the Marine Biological Lab and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She is the Winner of a Metcalf Fellowship, the Brandwein Prize and the Walter Cronkite Award. Lynne’s adult writings include magazine articles, a chapter in Written in Water published by National Geographic books, and a chapter entitled Kids Can Save Forests in the scholarly book on rainforest canopy science Treetops At Risk edited by Dr. Margaret Lowman and published by Springer.
As a filmmaker, Lynne has produced and directed 10 short films in the Young Voices for the Planet film series that have been licensed by National Geographic, PBS, the United Nations Foundation and many other institutions. The films are used in many university education programs since they focus on climate solutions and can overcome the inclination of people to avoid hearing climate change science. Lynne has spoken at such institutions as NASA Goddard and the Woods Hole Research Center about the importance of hopeful messages in motivating people to take action on climate change. She wrote about “motivated avoidance” a New York Times blog, dot.Earth, as guest editor for Andrew Revkin.
Links to Lynne’s many awards and radio and TV interviews can be found at LynneCherry.com. The films can be viewed and a Media Kit downloaded at YoungVoicesonClimateChange.com.
Lynne Cherry’s Booklist
• How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming (ISBN: 1584691301)
• How Groundhog’s Garden Grew (ISBN: 0439323711)
• The Sea, The Storm and the Mangrove Tangle (ISBN: 0374364826)
• El Mar, La Tormenta y El Manglar, Spanish version of The Sea, The Storm and the Mangrove Tree
• Making a Difference in the World, autobiography (ISBN: 1572743735)
• The Shaman’s Apprentice, 1998: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest by Lynne Cherry and Mark J. Plotkin (ISBN: 0152012818).
• Flute’s Journey (ISBN: 0152928537).
• The Armadillo from Amarillo (ISBN: 0152003592).
• A River Ran Wild (ISBN: 0152005420).
• “The Great Kapok Tree”: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest (ISBN: 0152026142).
• El Gran Capoquero, “The Great Kapok Tree” in Spanish
Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, is a Sr. Sustainability Analyst at Calvert Investments and a frequent contributor to Mongabay.com.
- Cherry, L. (2000). The great kapok tree: A tale of the Amazon rain forest. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
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