Apr 14, 2014

A Gift from the Past: Galapagos George

Just about a year ago I wrote about some picture books by Jean Craighead George and Wendell Minor: THE WOLVES ARE BACK ,  THE BUFFALO ARE BACK, and  THE EAGLES ARE BACK.
Dial Books, March 2013

Dutton Juvenile, 2010

Dutton Juvenile, 2008
Recently this pair of kindred spirits released another title portraying threatened and endangered species,  

Despite its luminous content, in text and illustrations, there's a melancholy note to this  title in the series. This is in part due to the fact that this is a posthumous release for Jean Craighead George, who, together with her long-time illustration partner, Wendell Minor, proposed this project more than fifteen years ago. At the time publishers hesitated due to its discussions of evolution. Sadly, JCGeorge died before its release, although she was able to see a draft version of the book before her death. 

Harper Collins Books, April, 2014
This week I enjoyed the privilege of a lengthy conversation with the illustrator, Wendell Minor, who, like JCGeorge, is a force of nature himself. I'm preparing several posts to share his thoughts on these titles and his long career as an illustrator. This post, though, will focus on GALAPAGOS GEORGE. 
The earlier titles portrayed the tragic near-extinction of wolves, buffalo, and bald eagles from North America due to the predation and contamination of humans on the animals and their habitat. Eventually, with positive intervention from humans, these species regained enough ground to make modest comebacks. With careful monitoring and cautious conservation they may continue to survive the ever-encroaching and damaging effects of civilization.

This last title, however, chronicles the actual extinction of a species. Predictably, the reason for that loss isn't microbes or meteorites, but the destructive activities of humans. It begins with the story of prehistoric, desert-dwelling giant tortoise, Giantess George, whose fossil records indicate she lived long after the extinction of dinosaurs when furry creatures shared her desert, living in a land of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. She survived a massive storm that washed her and other tortoises from the continental coast into the ocean. 
Long neck allowed eating leaves when ground plants were no longer available.
Note the typical shape to the shell, before offspring  gradually adapted (below).

Tides and currents carried them on to the west, eventually reaching what we now call the Galapagos Islands. JCGeorge's text, as always, achieves an inspired balance of science and poetry, effectively describing the adaptation of the descendants of Giantess George and other long-necked tortoises on one of the islands. Fourteen tortoise varieties adapted with different characteristics on each isolated island in the archipelago.
Interior, showing the stages of adaptation.
 After millennia of adaptation and survival in nature, humans discovered and inhabited the island. The changes they brought with them destroyed habits, altered food chains, and eventually reduced the populations of each island species. Only in recent decades did scientists intervene to attempt to rescue the last of this Giant Tortoise species, dubbed Lonesome George. The sad truth was, though, that it was too late. When only one member of a species remains, population restoration is impossible.

I've already shared a spoiler in that this story is not one of recovery, and yet it is one of hope. I will leave it to readers, though, to discover the content of  final pages offering details about Lonesome George, as well as the illustrator notes and a note from Twig George, Jean's daughter. The back matter offers key terms, a timeline, and other excellent annotated resources. It meets Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts/Science and Technical Subjects. 

Images were used with permission of Wendell Minor. In future posts I'll explore his many collaborations with Jean Craighead George and his career in illustration. That gives you time to do a little exploration yourself and use a search engine (including a library!) to see just how many of your favorite picture books have been created by this prolific and legendary artist.


  1. Sandy-
    So happy to find you blog — and this post in particular. Many thanks. Found my way here via "Nerdy Book Club" today; congrats on the new book!

    1. Anna,
      Lovely to meet you- and I just popped over and followed your blog, too! (Bless that Nerdy Book Club). I've slowed a tad on my posts here, but I can't resist sharing titles, thoughts, and interviews from the remarkably rich world of picture books.
      Thank you for your congrats, and I hope you'll browse around a bit while yorur're here and find some prior posts, especially from the first year, in which I address directly the double edged sword of "theme months" and circulation of titles featuring diverse populations. The most popularly viewed post (top right bar here) does just that.
      Great to meet you.


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