The green revolution has produced a bumper crop of children’s books about nature. Every publisher’s list now bulges with ecologically conscious picture books; picking your way through their colorful catalogs, abloom with stories about vegetables, gardens, rain forests, and the food chain, is a bit like strolling through a county fair.
The blue-ribbon champ from among these offerings is The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer, illustrated by Steve Johnson, a radiant, funny, poetic fantasy spun from a small boy’s daydream about making a home for the salamander he has found in the woods. Mazer’s nature lessons are subtly embedded in the story, and Johnson’s pictures shimmer with clear, intense colors that seem to reflect a child’s delighted response to summer’s beauty.
The boy, Brian, wants to make a pet of the little orange salamander. ”Where will he sleep?” his mother asks. Brian is undaunted. ”I will make him a salamander bed,…cover him with leaves that are fresh and green, and bring moss that looks like little stars to be a pillow for his head,” he answers.
”And when he wakes up, where will he play?” asks Mother. Her question is not at all the sort of dreary objection adults customarily raise when a child dreams of keeping a creature. Instead, the dialogue between Brian and his mother is gentle, playful, and open. In a refreshing call-and-response kind of narrative, his mother’s questions enable Brian to keep elaborating on his vision.
He’ll bring bugs to feed the salamander, birds to eat the surplus bugs, trees to shelter the birds. He’ll lift off the ceiling to let in the sun and rain. By the time he’s finished, Brian has imagined the whole intricate life cycle of plants and animals and transformed his bedroom into an elaborate ecosystem. Without any preaching, the mother has helped her son see and respect the interconnectedness of all living things.
Johnson’s beautiful, light-filled paintings grow larger and more lush with each step of Brian’s expanding daydream. Trees spread across the page; leaves and moonlight surround Brian’s bed; a frog pond laps at the furniture’s legs. While all this exuberant growth is going on, Johnson’s dramatic use of light keeps the focus on the boy’s wondering expression. Even the salamander has personality: It seems wistful, friendly, and vulnerable.
The last picture shrinks down to a small square, a close-up of the tranquilly sleeping Brian and his snoozing salamander in their imagined forest bedroom. It’s a delightful wish fulfillment to round out a glorious — and illuminating — flight of fancy. A+