When you discover a phenomenal artist who appears solely under the auspices of a single small publisher, it's like finding hidden treasure. I had that very feeling when I found the work of Jeanette Canyon a year ago. She had just finished work on "City Beats" by S. Kelly Rammell when I ran across the book and was entranced by her format. Working entirely in polymer clay, Ms. Canyon imbues her images with so much light, life, and motion that you'd swear her creations were animated stills rather than original sculptural art. Somehow, I had missed Ms. Canyon's previous collaboration with one Ms. Marianne Berkes when they came out with, "Over In the Ocean: In a Coral Reef," (which was the recipient of the Bank Street College of Education Best Children's Book of the Year, doncha know). As such, "Over In the Jungle: A Rainforest Rhyme," is very much the same deal. Having adapted that old song "Over In the Meadow" to different locales, Berkes takes a tried and true format and simply fills it to overflowing with a vast array of rainforest creatures. The result could easily have been a hashed do-over without any originality. Instead, the adaptation is smooth and seamless, the facts at the back of the book quickly correcting any misunderstandings. There are also tips on telling this book aloud for storytime, and even a step-by-step process of how Canyon creates her art. What could easily have degraded into a rote form emerges instead as lush and detailed as its tropical subject matter. Color me impressed.
The book opens as the mottled canopy of a rainforest, seen from high above, fills the interior cover. On the first two-page spread, two marmosets are swinging gaily across a soft rising sun. "Over in the jungle / Where the trees greet the sun / Lived a mother marmoset / And her marmoset one. / 'Swing,' said the mother. / 'I swing,' said the one. / So they swung and they hung / Where the trees greet the sun." Colors pop out at the viewer as animals tumble over and above one another in a haze of action and rhyme. We see the wide iridescent blue of the morpho butterflies fluttering above their now discarded chrysalises. We see sweet honey bears sipping nectar and howler monkeys, their mouths all agape, as they hoot and holler up a storm. By the end, the book rounds everything out with a huge double page spread of all the animals featured, hidden amongst the different striations of the rainforest, from the forest floor to the tops of the trees or "emergents." Kids are encouraged to locate and count all the creatures they saw before. "When you find all the creatures then this rhyme is done."
It's the little things that sometimes impress me the most. Sure, I could wax rhapsodic over the sheer range of colors and ethereal images that appear in this book. But you know what I really love about Canyon's work? She cares about details. For example, as the book counts up from one to ten, a single leaf on the left-hand page carries the imprint of each number. And sitting on that leaf is a glistening raindrop. You might not notice, in fact it would be easy to miss it, but the number of raindrops increase with every number. They do so with a great deal of subtlety, though, so you wouldn't necessarily notice the first few reads. But really, that's what I love about the book. Multiple readings yield incredible rewards. I'm definitely not alone in cooing over the marbleized orange/red leaf cutter ants as they chew through an enormous leaf. And look! A second reading shows that somehow or other Canyon found a way to throw shadows from behind her subject matter. How do you outline the shadow of an ant from the underside of a leaf made out of clay? Or convey a sense of motion when a poison dark frog throws itself up and backwards towards a sharp pink bromeliad? Talent, possums. Just sheer talent.
A couple extra facts wouldn't have been out of place, of course. I'd have loved a definition of a "bromeliad", though the explanation that a mother poison dart frog will put her babies in one helped a little when coupled with Canyon's pictures. Still, some source notes would not have been out of place. Every once in a while my library's clientele will suddenly start a rainforest project, and any and every book I have on the topic is desired. Had Ms. Berkes put a small tot-friendly Bibliography of a scant two or three books in the back it would have made this book a fabulous storytime AND non-fiction source. Ah well. You go with what you've got.
None of this is to say that the back matter in this book isn't welcome. There's a printed selection of sheet music which allows the more talented amongst us to sing this song in our story programs. An amusing section entitled "How Many Babies Do They Really Have?" also clarifies points like the fact that in spite of the delightful suggestion that sloths can have nine babies at once, this is not actually the case. One wonders why it was put in the book in the first place, but at least the author had the good grace to nip concerns on the factual matter of the text in the bud. A nice portion on "The Rainforest Community" covers the four layers of tropical rainforest and even gives some nice websites for further information (kudos there).
It's a surprising little book, giving far more to the reader than they'd expect to receive. It's clear from the get-go that Ms. Berkes is certainly a former librarian, knowing as she does how important it is to put something this storytime-friendly into publication. Though I've a quibble here or there, this is a strong effort and worth owning. It also happens to make a very nice complement to Graeme Base's The Water Hole. Two thumbs up.