Quote of the Month

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

Saturday, August 11, 2018

A Saint Among Serpents And Their Kin

A lack of rain this summer in northern Michigan has kept the sightings of snakes in our area down to a minimum.  Which for some, if not many, people are perfectly fine.  They tend to startle you more than present danger if you're not expecting them.  (Believe it or not, I've had a garter snake wrapped around my wrist.  When you're at camp with your students, you need to set aside personal fears to put your children at ease.  Surprisingly enough the snake felt unexpectedly dry and textured.)

Many people have an affinity for at least one kind of animal.  They feel a connection to them.  Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles (Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, March 13, 2018) written by Patricia Valdez with illustrations by Felicita Sala is a captivating chronicle of a unique and surprising woman.

Back in the days of long skirts and afternoon teas, a little girl named Joan Procter entertained the most unusual party guests.

These party guests were one (or more) of a collection of lizards and snakes she kept in her bedroom.  Like special friends, she was eager to learn everything she could about them.  They were her quiet companions on those many days when her chronic illness kept her from school.

When she turned sixteen, as a birthday present, she was given a crocodile.  It was not an appropriate visitor in her math class at school.  Joan sought solace at the Natural History Museum.  The curator saw a kindred spirit in Joan.

The outbreak of war left vacant positions.  Joan was hired as an assistant to the curator.  At his retirement she became the one in charge. Her work at the museum lead to the London Zoo hiring her to create a new house for their reptiles.  When this new space was open to the public, they were treated to the first ever viewing of two male Komodo dragons.

Joan's reputation and skill in working with reptiles grew, bringing her international attention.  So, too, did her bond with one of the Komodo dragons, Sumbawa.  They were frequently seen together, at presentations, at the zoo and . . . tea parties. 

Each time this book is read admiration for Joan Procter is guaranteed to grow.  Patricia Valdez's extensive research and conversational writing allow us to feel as if we personally knew this extraordinary woman who dedicated her life to reptiles, especially her beloved Komodo dragon, Sumbawa.  Each portion of her years, including specific details as depicted by Patricia, builds toward her unparalleled accomplishments bringing us full circle. Here is a passage. 

The Zoological Society of London invited Joan to present her
Komodo dragon research at a scientific meeting.  As Joan took
the stage, she wheeled out Sumbawa, sitting freely atop a large
table.  The audience squirmed in their seats.

Joan stroked Sumbawa's head and fed him a pigeon.  He ate it
in one gulp.

The ease this woman felt with reptiles, her love of working with them, is fascinatingly portrayed on the matching dust jacket and book case.  Notice how two smaller lizards are entwined in the title text. As our eyes travel across the spine to the left, on the back, we are given a hint of her achievements at the London Zoo.  A portion of a larger interior illustration is collaged on a darker shade of green.

On the opening and closing endpapers illustrator Felicita Sala provides a close-up view of Joan Procter's work space.  An open book, and Manual of Herpetology, a sketch of scales and a snake's nose, a rock, several plants, specimens, a snake, and pencils are seen.  Joan's hand is holding a magnifying glass over the snake.  Between the texts on the title page a specimen jar with a lizard curled around it is placed in the center. 

Each image, some on single pages and others spanning two pages, in full color, show us first a girl determined to pursue those things she loves regardless of the status quo.  As Joan Procter grows older we can see her attachment to her reptiles increase.  Felicita takes great care in taking us to the place and time through the clothing and architecture of the time period.

Another important aspect of her pictures is the perspective.  Altering it allows us to participate in the narrative.  We see a woman surrounded in a circle of reporters, looking down at her Komodo dragon, wishing they would focus on him.  We are in the audience as Sambawa wanders through the feet of the attendees.  We are a bird looking down at Joan with Sambawa beside her as she moves through the zoo in her wheel chair.

One of my many favorite illustrations is when people are first seeing the Komodo dragons.  Joan notices Sambawa appears ill.  On the left side of the picture her feet and hand are extended to him.  The people behind the glass cannot believe she has entered the enclosure.  To the right of the gutter the rest of his body, his head and neck and one foot are laying on an examination table.  Now in a white coat she is tending to his sore mouth with one hand on his head and a swab in the other hand.

For a unit on memorable women, reptiles or must-read picture book biographies Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles written by Patricia Valdez with illustrations by Felicita Sala is a title needed in both your professional and personal collections.  Every time I read this book, I am moved by the sheer commitment of this woman.  In a two page author's note we learn more about Joan and Komodo dragons.  A lengthy bibliography is included.

To learn more about Patricia Valdez and Felicita Sala, please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  At the publisher's website you can view interior images.  Both Patricia and Felicita maintain Twitter accounts.  Felicita has an Instagram account and a blog.  Patricia wrote a guest post on author Beth Anderson's website.  KitLit411 highlights Patricia Valdez.

Make sure you visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to view the titles selected by other participants in the 2018 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

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