Bears and bison and wolves, oh my!
A visit to Yellowstone National Park was one of June’s highlights for me. We spent most of that two day excursion gazing at the park’s many geological wonders—colorful crests and vivid mud pools as well as spouting geysers. But my husband and I also glimpsed some of the area’s wildlife—bison and coyotes, if not the bears and wolves one does not want to meet up close and personal! Today’s Gone Graphic is inspired by Yellowstone Park (these days endangered along with other national parks by the dubious decisions and policies of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and President Donald Trump). I focus on two graphic novels and two picture books for younger readers, but also touch on a chapter book for tweens and teens.
Ted Rechlin’s graphic novels are a safe, very satisfying way to discover Yellowstone’s dominant predators. Early readers (as well as we older folks) will enjoy Silvertip: A Year in the Life of a Yellowstone Grizzly (2011) and Epsilon: A Yellowstone Wolf Story (2013). I know I feel lucky to have found these artful books for sale at the Gallatin County Museum in nearby Bozeman, Montana, and now to have learned about this talented author/illustrator’s other works at his website . Both books with their simple text may also effectively be read aloud to pre-readers.
Told in the first person, Silvertip’s casual language works well with deftly-designed images to depict the sometimes humorous, sometimes serious and dangerous moments in the life of the adult bear Silvertip. For instance, his assertion that “I’m big and scary. . .Most of the time. . . . Some of the time. Okay, maybe once in a while.” comes alive when viewed alongside images of Silvertip, just awake after hibernation, stumbling and tumbling in the snow. Rechlin alters the grizzly’s facial expressions as well as body language throughout the book to match Silvertip’s experiences. Through this character’s recollections, we also witness Silvertip’s experiences as a bear cub, gradually discovering his abilities.
Full page, double-page, and overlapping images successfully convey both the passage of time and intense moments of conflict, such as Silvertip’s ultimate confrontation of the larger black bear who had been frightening Silvertip away from his food. Close-ups alternate with mid-distance and long views in the visual storytelling here. Rechlin wisely keeps some panels and pages wordless, while also smartly employing larger, colored fonts for the different roars creatures emit. Besides that larger bear, Silvertip encounters a wolf pack, the blonde grizzly who briefly becomes his mate, and ground squirrels too small to be his summertime prey. Along with these meetings, Rechlin points out the foolish, potentially dangerous behavior of some tourists when Silvertip meets a park ranger warning photo-eager folks to stay away from the grizzly bear. Even Silvertip is amazed at their behavior!
Epsilon: A Yellowstone Wolf Story is another full-color work filled with accurate scientific information, this time told in the third-person. It begins with Epsilon being the adult, 9 year-old leader of his pack in the park’s Lamar Valley. Most of this story, though, follows Epsilon from the time he is just a yearling, the survivor along with two siblings of an attack by another wolf pack. Individual and pack behavior is shown and told with great economy and verve. The years speed by as we see such highlights as the pack working together to bring down large game for food, playing with their pups, and confronting another adult wolf pack to reclaim their original home territory in Lamar Valley. Older as well as young readers will appreciate the savvy way in which Rechlin depicts the decisive conflict there: Epsilon’s fight with the other pack’s alpha (or head) wolf is shown through alternating panels showing only their fierce eyes and expressions, the loser finally seeming cowed just before a page shows him running away from Epsilon. Only one word is needed there as commentary: “Done!” The book’s final pages are a double page spread showing Epsilon and his pack howling triumphantly in Lamar Valley.
I also recommend two picture books related to the history of Yellowstone Park and the national park system. Yellowstone Moran: Painting the American West (2009), by award-winning author/illustrator Lita Judge, uses full water-color illustrations to depict the adventures of artist Tom Moran, who in 1871 bravely accompanied the first scientific expedition to what would later become Yellowstone Park. Moran was so eager to see and record its reported wonders that he fibbed about knowing how to ride a horse! He quickly, if painfully, learned how to ride.
Moran’s journals and those of expedition geologist Albert Peale are the basis for Judge’s storytelling, with some of their actual words appearing as “letters” inserted into the scenes she depicts. Moran’s own huge, magnificent oil painting of “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” now on display in Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Museum, influenced people’s attitudes about Yellowstone and its natural wonders. In part, Yellowstone was declared a national park because of Moran’s art. A reproduction of that painting is displayed on this book’s final pages. Also, I discovered that there is an online version of a 1990s museum exhibit of Moran’s Yellowstone sketches and his completed works about Yellowstone and other national parks here . Its images, if not all of its text, may interest young readers along with its intended older audience.
Readers of all ages will delight in the sprightly language of award-winning picture book Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans, and Helped Cook Up the National Park Service (2016). Author Annette Bay Pimentel uses tantalizing imagery to describe the skills of Chinese-American chef Tie Sing, who “baked sourdough rolls as light as the clouds drifting above the peaks” and spread linen tablecloths “brighter than white-water foam.” In 1915, millionaire naturalist Stephen Mather persuaded the already famous Sing to cook on an expedition through California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. Mather hoped this trip would convince the influential men he had invited to support a new law creating a national park service. Illustrator Rich Lo’s vivid, digitally-rendered pencil and water color images join with Pimentel’s words to show how Sing’s skill and ingenuity did indeed help Mather achieve this goal in 1916.
One way Sing brightened people’s spirits and held their attention as minor accidents overtook them was by creating fortune cookies with inspirational messages. These all referred to the natural wonders around them, with words such as “Long may you build paths through the mountains.” Pimentel’s introductory pages do not shy away from the discrimination Chinese-Americans experienced then, information expanded upon in four supplementary pages at the picture book’s conclusion. There, photographs also depict Tie Sing and the expedition’s most significant members, giving details about how they contributed in different ways to the 1916 creation of the national park system. I learned with pleasure there and elsewhere that Sing Peak in Yosemite National Park was named in honor of Tie Sing.
Moving on from picture books, tween and teen readers may also enjoy the more in-depth information about Yellowstone Park in Erin Peabody’s 15-chapter A Weird and Wild Beauty: The Story of Yellowstone, the World’s First National Park (2016). Its focus on the 1871 expedition, complete with judicious sidebars and many contemporaneous as well as current photographs, has led me from its well-crafted, suspenseful narrative to George Black’s more hefty, adult-oriented Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone (2012). I hope to be able to finish its 400-plus pages before this library copy is due back!
As I “park myself” for more reading, I also hope to look at some of Ted Rechlin’s other works, including Changing of the Guard: The Yellowstone Chronicles (2009), depicting the shift from dinosaurs to mammals in that region. His newest work, Jurassic (2017), an award-winning dino-centric graphic novel, will also now be on my radar. If you have dinosaur fans among your young readers, take note. If a visit to one of our other U.S. national parks is in your plans, you may already have some relevant books in mind and to suggest. I would be pleased to hear from you! If not, check out your library for further park-specific works. This 2016 list of 100 “must read” park books, including adult as well as younger reader works, may also be helpful.