Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Walk Through Earth's History

Once upon a time there was a teenager growing up in the 1960s who played the music from West Side Story and the Grand Canyon Suite more than rock and roll.  Those two albums spun on her turntable over and over.  She was fortunate to see a production of West Side Story at a nearby university before she graduated from high school.  It was a full ten years later before she stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon.

Although the movements of the Grand Canyon Suite, Sunrise, Painted Desert, On The Trail, Sunset and Cloudburst, capture the majesty of this natural phenomenon as viewed by the composer, seeing it in person is beyond description.  It is grander than words can convey until you read Grand Canyon (A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook Press, February 21, 2017) written and illustrated by Jason Chin.  Jason Chin depicts the present-day splendor of this astonishing geological wonder in the context of its astonishing creation.

Rivers carve canyons.

This first of five sentences leads readers to the title page.  We already are privy to the basic concept behind the formation of canyons in general.  With a page turn our focus shifts to the magnificent Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon is one of the largest canyons in the world.  It is 277 miles long, as much as 18 miles wide, and more than a mile deep but it's much more than just a big hole in the ground.

Did you know it's hotter at the bottom of the Grand Canyon than at the top?  Did you know there are five ecological communities in the Grand Canyon?  The Inner Gorge at the bottom is home to many creeks which all run into the Colorado River.  This river has been cutting into the canyon for about five million years.  There are thirteen specific rock layers, from bottom to top, formed at approximate times; the youngest is 270 million years old.

As you walk from the lowest level, Basement Rocks, to the Grand Canyon Supergroup you might notice ripple marks.  These, like all the rocks, tell a story.  At one time this area was a tidal flat.  Layer by layer we wind our way through time.

We might see Trilobite fossils, inaccessible caves cut into cliffs, evidence of huge dragonflies with eight-inch wingspans and seed ferns, or first reptile footprints.  Along water a Lucy's warbler might sing to us, on the Bright Angel Shale a Black-tailed jackrabbit might hop in and out of view, if a Pinyon pine is growing among the rocks we have climbed to the Hermit Formation or an elk might move through the Ponderosa pine forest.  Replete with flora and fauna this resplendent formation is a living, ever-changing marvel, a testament to the adaptability of nature and the power within our planet.

Like the Grand Canyon Jason Chin layers his narrative.  Within framed visuals he invites us to travel with a father and daughter, conversational sentences revealing what they are seeing.  In areas either to the right, left or bottom of these elements he draws our attention to more specific details; the ecological communities, labeling the flora and fauna framing some of the illustrations, the rock layers, how layers are formed and fossils are deposited in those layers, examples of weathering, and the difference between cliffs and slopes.  A decidedly interesting take on the layers visited by the hikers is when Jason takes us with a page turn to what that area looked like billions and millions of years ago.  It might be under the sea with creatures developing shells, walking among those seed ferns with giant dragonflies hovering, battling wind and sand as tiny reptiles walk on land or swimming among forty species of sharks (gulp).  Here are several sample passages.

After climbing out of the Inner Gorge, you'll find yourself on a broad, sun-baked slope.  The plants and animals here are well adapted for life with little water.  Black-throated sparrows can go for long periods without taking a drink. ...

Above the red slopes of the Hermit are pale 350-foot cliffs.  Bighorn sheep easily navigate their narrow ledges with specially adapted hooves.  In the fall mating season, males compete for dominance by mashing into each other with their battering ram horns.

That moment when you first see the Grand Canyon spread before you as you stand high above the Colorado River winding through the rock walls is magnificently portrayed on the matching, opened dust jacket and book case.  We gain perspective as to the scale through the placement of birds soaring or resting on pines.  The body stance of the girl, standing on the ledge, traveling with her father certainly conveys the magic one feels.  On the opening endpapers Jason Chin has placed a large map of the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.  He shows us its position relative to other states around Arizona with an inset.  On the closing endpapers we see on the left the layers of rock on the South Rim going down to the Colorado River.  Moving up from the river are the various habitats up to the North Rim.  This is a different point-of-view from the previous images.

All of the illustrations rendered in

pen and ink, watercolor and gouache

are breathtaking in their realistic color palette, exquisite details and shifting perspectives.  The title page is a night scene spanning two pages.  A starry sky with a full moon lights up the expanse of the canyon as a mountain lion sits at the top.  Page turn after page turn we follow him as he descends to get a drink in the creek where the father and daughter have camped for the night.

Readers will want to pause looking at the framed visuals placed within the larger landscapes shown.  Jason alters the sizes of those framed pictures to create pacing.  When he starts to show us how certain layers might have looked eons ago, he uses cut-outs showing the past and present.  When we travel to the past, these illustrations are spread across two pages.  Every time you read this book, you will see something new.  At the close of the narrative a four-page gatefold will have you gasping at its beauty.  Careful readers will notice something special being carried by the daughter.

One of my favorite of many illustrations is at the beginning when the daughter notices the mountain lion paw prints in the mud by the creek as they are getting ready to break camp in the morning.  We are close to the creek and can see a red-spotted toad sitting on a rock watching her.  Off to the left her father is reading a map outside their tent.

Grand Canyon written and illustrated by Jason Chin is a masterpiece.  It's a guidebook, a geological and historical exploration and a tribute to all plants and animals making their home there.  At the close of the book Jason talks about the Grand Canyon, Human History, Grand Canyon Ecology, Grand Canyon Geology, How Canyons Are Carved, The Colorado River, the Grand Mystery and The Story In The Rocks.  In A Note From The Author he discusses his illustrative process.  You can view his meticulous research through the Acknowledgments, Selected Sources and suggestions for Further Reading.  Every bookshelf should have a copy of this book.

To learn more about Jason Chin and his other wonderful work, please visit his website by following the link attached to his name.  There is a curriculum guide for other titles by Jason.  There is a new, February 23, 2017, informative and interesting interview at Publishers Weekly.  There are several interior images at the publisher's website.

Just for fun here is a NPR All Things Considered episode on the Grand Canyon Suite.

Please take a few minutes to read the other posts by bloggers participating in the 2017 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by Alyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy.


  1. I didn't know about this Jason Chin book, and geology is fascinating for me, so that mixed with Chin's beautiful artwork makes this book quite intriguing to me (and you are the second person to blog about it this Wednesday!). Thank you for sharing :)

    1. If you find geology fascinating you are going to treasure this book Kellee. Jason has done a marvelous job of combining information, a narrative and gorgeous artwork.

  2. Margie, I reviewed this book today too, but not in the beautiful detail you shared. It's a lovely review, and even though I've read it, I loved reading what you had to say too. It is a marvelous book.

    1. I read your review too, Linda. Thank you for your kind words. It is indeed a marvelous book.

  3. I love how you unpeel the book's layers. I definitely need to read it when I have time to explore!

    1. Thank you Annette! You have to read it. You can read it a little bit at a time or all in one sitting.