"Shanleya's Quest is a truly unique educational book that presents botanical concepts and plant identification skills in an easy and fun metaphorical format for children as well as for adults who are young at heart.
The book begins with a creation myth that parallels evolutionary concepts, where life begins as bubbles in a puddle of soup under the radiance of Father Sun and the gentle glow of Mother Moon. The evolutionary tree of life becomes a literal part of the story, buried up to its branch-tips (the "islands") in an ocean of Time that just keeps getting deeper and deeper. This is the world that Shanleya explores by canoe, learning the essential characteristics of closely related plants on each island she visits.
Readers young and old can join Shanleya's Quest, learning the patterns to correctly identify more than 45,000 species of plants to their proper families. The Quest will change the way you see the world, enabling you to experience nature in a new and magical way that you probably never imagined possible."
It's very rare for anyone with this depth of knowledge about his subject to be also able to weave such a complete and yet totally accessible story that transmits so much knowledge so perfectly.
This book works so well on so many different levels that I'm going to describe different aspects of it one at a time rather than try to sum up the whole thing at once.
Content and Story
I've never studied the art of story-telling, but I've always been fascinated with the way knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation carefully woven into stories and myths. And this is a perfect example of that art. Thomas Elpel has crafted a complete creation myth, presented as a myth not as fact to leave room for children to extend the ideas presented, and has woven it into a wonderfully memorable story which holds a wealth, and depth, of highly relevant information and wisdom.
The first island we visit with Shanleya is the mint island, and it's a perfect one to develop our identification skills. We learn to use all our senses and to look at the whole plant, not just the flowers.
"Look for square stems and opposite leaves...and be sure to smell the plants. Most of them have a spicy, minty aroma."
Shanleya identified several plants by smell alone, then checked that they did indeed also have the square stems and opposite leaves. The square-stemmed mint guardian is shown standing straight and square on the illustration, too, just to emphasise the message.
On other islands, more emphasis is put on examining the flowers. For instance the mustard family flower is very consistent and easy to remember. Shanleya is challenged to put together a model of a mustard flower to reinforce her lesson, and the completed model is prominently displayed in the accompanying illustration so that we can check that she's got it right.
Whilst on the mustard island, we learn that mustards thrive on barren soil, break the soil up for us, and have short life-cycles that are adapted to dry soil where the rain doesn't soak in. We also learn that there are 3,200 members of the family and that they are all edible. So this one page could, if the lessons are learned, potentially feed you wherever you find yourself in the world.
The information is so well written in to the story that it's absorbed casually. We are simply observing Shanleya's adventures, and our own learning happens passively, with no effort.
The art work on the front cover takes on a whole new meaning after you've read the book. Before you've read it, you see Shanleya paddling her canoe in sea of pretty flowers.
Afterwards you see a mustard flower, and an aster, a lily, a parsley, a pea, a rose, a mint and a grass flower welcoming her into their worlds, with some tempting islands in the background willing you to go back for a second look.
As I turned the pages, I noticed that the sun appeared to rise, move left across the page, and then sink as Shanleya's journey progressed. I wonder if she lived in the Southern hemisphere? Or maybe the Earth's rotation changed when the Great Tree fell. Maybe we'll never know...
The structure of the book amused me greatly as it appears to mimic the structure of a flower.
First, the hard covers act to protect the book, like the sepals protect the unopened flower.
When the book is opened, you find the highly attractive 'petals' of the introductory story, which guide you to the central parts where the real magic happens.
The next part, where Shanleya visits the islands and talks with the guardians, represents the stamens, which yield vast amounts of information packed into tiny, easily absorbed pieces, all capable of pollinating fertile young minds and triggering them to grow.
And then right in the centre of the book, like a pistil, the map of the whole plant world is introduced where the information gathered from the rest of the story can be taken and grown into a more complete understanding.
I found the comparison highly amusing, though I have no idea if the author intended the pattern to be so similar. But then maybe the similarity reflects something a little deeper about the way all living creatures can be guided to find what we need.
Depth of perception, dimensionality, and visualisation.
Generally when I find a children's book of this caliber, I regret not having found it sooner so that I could have read it with my son. This time, however, I was so convinced of the book's worth that I insisted on reading it to him, even though he's nearly twenty. He attempted to protest, but I know that he really loved every second of it, despite cries of
'Mum, mum - I found a plot hole. I refuse to believe that that radish thing really has an iron shovel to turn the soil!"
Silly Alan - of course the mustard family break the soil up. And how else would they do it if they didn't secretly have shovels?
He also found the strawberry buns on the rose guardian highly amusing, but hopefully younger kids wouldn't be so distracted by them.
One thing that struck me was the dimensionality of the book. The way that water has been used to get us to imagine time passing was highly reminiscent of an exercise my son and I did when he was much, much younger studying the chapter on Pancake World in Penrose the Mathematical Cat, which in turn is a simplified version of that classic in the study of dimensions, Flatland. The way the history of the plants forms a great tree, with only the very tips showing as islands is an astonishing piece of visualisation that belies the complexity of the subject, and my son and I both enjoyed remembering how we once produced a series of drawings of how flatlanders would view a green soup-dragon if it passed feet-first through their world, presumably in much the same way that a map of the islands in Shanleya's world would change over time as the great tree grows and the water rises with time.
The only book I have come across which compares to this, though the subject matter is completely different, is The Way Things Work by David Macaulay. They share the same passion and depth of knowledge and understanding of their subject matter, combined with an innate story-telling ability.
Using the book
I think book is best used read out loud to a younger audience, visiting just one island/plant family at a time then going outside to hunt together for examples of plants from that family. For best results, I think the adult should prepare well, choose an appropriate time of year when there are likely to be appropriate plants growing in abundance, and preferably in flower. Maybe even cheat a little by spending some time outside yourself and find as many different plants of that family in advance to make sure the youngsters find them all. The prep involved in getting everything ready for them will help all the information in the book to be thoroughly absorbed, and you'll probably begin to understand how well the book is really written and how much information is packed in to the pages.
I think this book has a place in the education of all children. I'd highly recommend all parents, grandparents and educators to ensure have access to a copy, and to spend some carefully planned quality time with the children in their care bringing the stories to life by studying them together and then going on their own journeys of exploration to find real life examples from the plant families showcased in this book.
Post by:Thomas Elpel
(3 likes, 1 apple)
Thanks for the great reviews!
My newest video tutorial (46 minutes) shows the easy way to learn plant identification using Botany in a Day with Shanleya's Quest book and card game:
thomas just let me know that he's going to offer 4 free copies to people who will review the book - the offer is for people who are already on the book review grid, and who can commit to writing a review within two weeks of getting the book!
Post by:Burra Maluca
, Mother Tree
Cassie Langstraat wrote:t he's going to offer 4 free copies to people who will review the book
That's a wonderful offer!
the offer is for people who are already on the book review grid, and who can commit to writing a review within two weeks of getting the book!
I know there are a few people who have written reviews that aren't showing up on the grid yet. If you've written one and it's not showing, please send me a PM so we can sort it out.
Oh hey, I'm in the book review grid! I'd love to review Shanleya's Quest - in fact, I'm moving into a new house next week and I want to ID all the plants as I do my initial site assessment. Since I'm not great with plant ID, I can use the book as I'm working through the site and give an on the ground review.
Post by:D. Logan
This book seems perfect for reading with my daughter who is an adamant nature girl. I would love to receive a copy and would be more than happy to do a review!
Post by:Cassie Langstraat
Okie dokie! D. and Kirsten, you two will be receiving a copy! Please send me your snail mail addresses to cassie AT richsoil DOT com
There are still TWO copies up for grabs. Who wants 'em?
Post by:Sue Rine
A friend and I garden with a group of 9-10 year olds at a local school so, we too, could test it "on the ground", so to speak. Being on the far side of the planet from you, if you decide we'd qualify, I guess by ebook would be the best way.
Post by:Jon Stoski
I can do a review, I have a niece and nephew that would benefit from this, and me included!
Post by:Burra Maluca
, Mother Tree
Sue Rine wrote:A friend and I garden with a group of 9-10 year olds at a local school so, we too, could test it "on the ground", so to speak. Being on the far side of the planet from you, if you decide we'd qualify, I guess by ebook would be the best way.
Doh! I just reread the initial offer and see that it's for people already on the grid! Sorry! Anyway, it made me suss out the whole grid thing.....lame smile.
Post by:Jay Angler
This may not be the right place to post this message as it relates to the earlier book, Botany in a Day. After ordering and reading it through inter-library loan, I was convinced our regional library system *really* needed a copy of it. Being an older book, I had to do a fair bit of convincing with our local manager, but we now own two copies that are pretty much continuously out on loan. In fact, currently there are 4 reserves waiting in line for it. Maybe if you guys post some really good reviews of Shanleya's Quest, I can convince them to buy a couple copies of it too! Our regional library system covers many small communities on Vancouver Isl, and many small Gulf Islands like Galiano and Hornby. When our system owns good books like Thomas Elpel writes, it make them available to many people who otherwise would not likely have access. I thank him very much for writing and educating!
Post by:Jon Stoski
I would still like to do a review of this book! I am on the book review list now, there was a bit of a technological misconnection there but it's alright now. Still available?
Post by:Jon Stoski
My first impression is "awesome!" This is a hard cover book with 34 pages of full color illustrations. When I say full color, I mean full color as a rainbow of colors coming blazing off the page! As you open the book, the author's introductory comments greet you, giving a brief and thought-provoking discussion of why botany is much better taught as a game, or couched in a children's book as a subversive attempt to entice readers to stop ignoring, and to start exploring, Nature.
I found the beginning of the the story a little hard to decipher. It starts with the beginning of time and the evolution of life on earth. Father Sun and Mother Moon love their little Earth child, and watch as it evolves. The process of evolution is described as a bubbling soup, out of which come all sorts of animals and complexity of life. Then, time becomes rain, and all life becomes a Great Tree which is submerged in the growing ocean of time, and only the tips of the branches of the Great Tree are above water, which are islands which represent the different families of plants. So you have to use your imagination. It is an interesting blend of the figurative and the factual for us to enjoy.
Once the stage is set, we meet Shanleya, and the story really begins. Shanleya is a young girl sent on a coming-of-age journey by her grandfather, to learn the secrets of the plants that provide food and medicine. It is easy to become immersed in Shanleya's world, following her canoe-paddling adventures though the eight different plant family "islands" which are presented in this book. I was surprised how easily the story flowed from one page to the next, full of little memory tricks to recognize and remember the different plants with which we come into contact with daily: herbs, vegetables, spices, flowers, bulbs, grasses, fruits, and seeds!
The science-y terms used in the book are few; even monocot and dicot are not that intimidating when they are used as the names for oceans on Shanleya's map, ie: the Dicotyledon Sea and the Monocotyledon Sea. In this way, facts are cunningly placed in the memory and, reinforced through repetition, create a learning experience without being tedious or boring. This is an inspired way to learn, especially in the field of botany where there are so many plants, and more discovered all the time.
Overall a very enjoyable book, a little treasure of tricks and techniques to recognize and remember eight of the largest plant families, presented in a manner that is roaring not snoring, AND with lots of very colorful and imaginative illustrations to reinforce the story. I give it 9.7 acorns out of ten.
Post by:Kirsten Simmons
(0 likes, 1 apple)
Rating: 9 out of 10 acorns
I got a copy of Shanleya's Quest in exchange for my review, and I used it to attempt to identify the plants growing in and around my new house. I know what the average person would pick up about plants from a PDC and several years of growing - no specific training in botany. I have no children and didn't have access to any during my review period, but I have worked with elementary aged students in a garden setting in the past.
On first impression, the book is gorgeous. The illustrations and colors jump off the page, and there are so many details tucked into each page that I suspect I'll continue to notice new details each time I pass through.
The book opens with Grandmother telling her grandchildren a creation story, complete with a kind but absent Father Sun and Mother Moon, and an analogy of The Great Tree to introduce the idea of phylogenetic trees. Water rises on Earth as The Great Tree grows, creating islands in which families of plants thrive. Then the story turns to Shanleya and her quest to find and gather plants from each of the island families. On each island she remembers the identifying information her grandfather has told her, relating it on the page and in her conversations with the Guardian of each island.
I found myself wishing for more details on each family, and for more families to be described - though in the context of the story I think it would have gotten tedious. Shanleya gathers plants from the mint, parsley, mustard, pea, lily, grass, rose and aster families. As a children's book, I think that's as much as you'd want to realistically tackle. The story wouldn't work well if you tried to include more.
For my purposes - identifying plants around my house - the book was useful for about 2/3 of the plants I've found. I've identified items from the grass, pea and rose families, but haven't been able to narrow down further unless it was a plant that I knew specifically already. The book relies heavily on flowers for identification, and that's not particularly useful in December (even if we have had the warmest fall on record). I also have a lot of trees, bushes and ferns, none of which appear to be in any of the families in the book.
The book also came with a card game, and like the book, the design and quality are beautiful. The cards are a nice weight, and there are gorgeous photos on each card. Elpel has designed five games that can be played with anywhere from 2 to 8 players. You do need to know the basics of each family before playing the game, but there's a quick 8-10 word description of each family for quick reference if you're playing with people who aren't familiar with the families in the game. I brought this with me when I traveled to my parent's place for Christmas and recruited my family to help me test the game.
One thing to know about my family and this particular Christmas - my sister-in-law’s parents are visiting from Bulgaria, and they speak very little English. Dori acted as translator, and we played the memory matching version of the game. It says a lot about the design of the cards and game that Dori’s mother was able to beat all of us, despite claiming that she would play much better at 6 or 7 am instead of pm!
In summary - a great book for what it is - a primer and game to make learning the characteristics of the largest plant families fun and easy. Even my father and brother were making correct guesses at plant families by the end of the game. This isn’t a comprehensive guide to plant identification; it’s a way to move people from completely ignorant to somewhat knowledgeable and interested. It’s probably easiest to engage children in the book, but I had little difficulty pulling my adult family into the game. The book would be a great student curriculum paired with an actual garden or semi-wild green space - if I ever find myself in the position to teach in the garden again, I'll definitely reach for it. Until then, for my own continuing education, I think it's time to order myself a copy of "Botany in a Day"
Post by:D. Logan
(0 likes, 1 apple)
8.5 out of 10 acorns.
Let me start off by saying that the printing of this book seems to be of a high quality. Given how rough my children can be on paper products, I appreciated that it came with a hard cover. The paper quality seemed good as well, with pages being thick enough to be felt between the fingers and limiting the risk of a torn page through simple reading. This may not sound like much, but over the last couple years, there have been a lot of books where my son managed to rip a page in an attempt to read/look.
Visually, it is in line with many other children's books, though for me I didn't care for the images as much as some others have. The people seemed awkward to me and one of the very first images (that of the sun) looked ugly compared to the other aspects within that same picture. Art is a matter of taste, however, so I am not really going to judge based on that. Children's books are known for having unusual art.
What did matter to me in the art was recognizing the plants the book was referencing. On that count, it covered its bases well. I was able to recognize most of the plants at a glance based on the pictures. I count that as a relative win for the book. Without recognizable plants, it would be less than effective as a teaching aid.
On the matter of readability, It suffers slightly from a sense of large blocks of text. I don't think they could have added spaces between paragraphs without cutting out some of the story. It is minor, but part of me wanted to double the book's length by splitting pages and just allowing for more space and pictures. Given the age listing being 9+, 31 pages is pretty short. Since half of those are pictures, it is really more like 15 pages. Doubling it wouldn't have anyone batting an eye and would go a long way to breaking up the block-text feeling.
And now I must come to the core of what matters about this book: the content. I took the time to read this to my children though they are below the age listed. My daughter, in particular, is very nature-centric and a problem solver. She listened to me reading and asked questions when something caught her as needing expanded
Post by:Destiny Hagest
Paul and Jocelyn talk about this book in their latest podcast - I think this would be such an adorable Christmas gift for young curious minds!
Post by:Shauns Webbers
Destiny Hagest wrote:Paul and Jocelyn talk about this book in their latest podcast - I think this would be such an adorable Christmas gift for young curious minds!
I was just recently lucky enough to sift through the cards and the book with Jocelyn and Kai ... This really would be an epic gift for many many great minds out there ..
Post by:Burra Maluca
, Mother Tree
My husband bought me a new ring recently, of a five petaled flower, and I was immediately reminded of Shanleya's Quest. And as I walked around the garden this afternoon I was reminded how many of my favourite fruit trees share the same five petal, five sepal, many stamen pattern of the rose family
Here is a pear blossom.
And an almond blossom.
And here's the page from the book where Shanleya meets the rose guardian and is surrounded by other delicious gifts from the rose family.
Spring is in full swing in Portugal and is getting under way in many other places too. I think now would be a lovely time to start using this book with any children in your life to explore the wonders of the spring flowers and learn the roles they play in our lives.