By Jeannie Baker
Reviewed by Barbara Braxton
Despite being surrounded by mountains of rock and cacti, the boy prefers to sit inside and experience the world through the screen of his tablet. He fears going far from his home because he has heard the coyotes howling at night and the village dogs barking.
But then he goes to stay with his grandpa in a place far away, much more isolated than even his tiny village, but it still has internet coverage and so his tablet remains his friend. Until the night a coyote steals the bag with it inside, and in his search for it Chico’s life changes in ways he will never imagine…
Set in the Valle de los Sirios in the Sonoran Desert in Baja California, Mexico, Jeannie Baker’s magnificent and magical collage artwork brings to life an environment that shows that the desert is not necessarily the barren, desolate, lifeless place we envisage but one which is rich in flora and fauna and history. While the landscape she portrays is a specific part of the Mexican desert, nevertheless she raises the possibility that this could be a desert anywhere, just as rich in biodiversity if only we took the time to look and appreciate.
In her notes, she refers to “nature-deficit disorder,” where children are indifferent to their natural surroundings because they are isolated from it and ignorant about it, and thus they are likely to fear what they don’t know, and what they fear, they will destroy. so this book has a much wider application than just introducing the reader to the wonders of a particular piece of this planet. Even the juxtaposition of the words in the title is significant as it evokes two totally different images in the mind at the same time, neither necessarily as compatible as the title suggests, and those who are familiar with the author’s work know that there will be many layers to explore in both text and illustration. For while it is the story of the boy’s individual growth as he learns to love the environment and those feelings of wonder and protectiveness follow him home – the lizard unseen on the rock at the beginning becomes a thing of fascination at the end – it could also be the stories of many who are given the chance to experience Nature at her best in the raw and in the wild first-hand. How many city kids have never seen a dark sky glistening with stars because the city lights keep them in permanent twilight? How many country kids have never felt the sea foam tickle their toes or been in awe of the power of the waves crashing on the rocks?
There are so many books for young readers that focus on sustainability and the need to protect the environment, but this is a masterpiece that shows them just what it is they are protecting. And if not here, then where?
It is nearly seven years since we were given Circle, and the wonder and beauty of Desert Jungle has been worth the wait.
Walker Books, 2023
Reprinted with permission The Bottom Shelf