Sharing Wonder: April Pulley Sayre

We have been think­ing about won­der — about the fas­ci­na­tion we have for the beau­ty, the intri­ca­cy, the mys­tery of the work­ings of the nat­ur­al world. If there is one thing we would like to pass on to our read­ers these days it would be an abid­ing sense of won­der at the world around them.

Rachel Car­son wrote in the book she was work­ing on when she died,  A Sense of Won­der:

If I had influ­ence with the good fairy who is sup­posed to pre­side over the chris­ten­ing of all chil­dren, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of won­der so inde­struc­tible that it would last through­out life, as an unfail­ing anti­dote against the bore­dom and dis­en­chant­ments of lat­er years, the ster­ile pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with things that are arti­fi­cial, the alien­ation from the sources of our strength.

If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of won­der with­out any such gift from the fairies, he needs the com­pan­ion­ship of at least one adult who can share it, redis­cov­er­ing with him the joy, excite­ment and mys­tery of the world we live in.

We want it to be our job as writ­ers to be adults who accom­pa­ny chil­dren in books to share the “joy, excite­ment and mys­tery of the world we live in.”  And so did non-fic­tion writer for chil­dren, April Pul­ley Sayre.

My life goal is to share won­der,” she said in an inter­view, “ — espe­cial­ly about nature and sci­ence.” Sayre delight­ed in “lit­tle crit­ters and astound­ing sci­en­tif­ic facts and lyri­cal lan­guage and goofi­ness. A frog’s face or a field of wild­flow­ers or a cloud that looks like a snail can make my day.”

And share won­der she did, from frogs to fog to dust under the bed to vul­tures din­ing and spade­foot toads wait­ing for rain. In her more than 80 books for young chil­dren Sayre employs close obser­va­tion, lyri­cal lan­guage, page turn­ing sus­pense, and fas­ci­nat­ing facts to inspire her read­ers with curios­i­ty.  She won many awards, among them an NCTE Orbis Pic­tus Hon­or Award, a Theodor “Seuss” Geisel Hon­or, the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excel­lence in Sci­ence, and a John Bur­roughs award for excel­lent nat­ur­al his­to­ry writing. 

Trout Are Made of TreesTrout are Made of Trees (Charles­bridge, 2008), illus­trat­ed by Kate Endle, is just one of the many con­nec­tions she wrote about that inspire curios­i­ty and delight. “In fall trees let go of leaves that swirl and twirl and slip into streams,” the book begins. “They ride in the rush above rocks and over rapids. They sag and set­tle sog­gi­ly down.”  The ener­gy of allit­er­a­tion, the quick snap zap of rhymes, the rhythm of her sen­tences take read­ers along for on the rush­ing ride.  As the leaves set­tle into the stream, they are bro­ken down by algae, and the “shred­ders — cad­dis­flies, stone­flies, cad­dis­flies, shrimp and crane flies.” Unspec­i­fied preda­tors eat the shred­ders who have eat­en the leaves and are them­selves eat­en by trout in swift rhyming action: “Swim and snap.  Fins slip. Rush zap.” Final­ly, peo­ple (and bears) who eat the trout become part­ly made of trees as well — a won­drous interconnection.

Stars Beneath Your Bed

In Stars Beneath Your Bed:  The Sur­pris­ing Sto­ry of Dust (Green­wil­low, 2005), illus­trat­ed by Ann Jonas, Pul­ley instills some­thing as mun­dane as dust with won­der.  “Dust is lit­tle bits of things,” Pul­ley writes, and in clear engag­ing lan­guage she lists some of the dust’s ori­gins: but­ter­fly scales, a seal’s eye­lash­es, salt from a break­ing ocean wave, the smoke from burn­ing toast, the ash from an erupt­ing vol­cano. Some dust might be hun­dreds of years old. “Dust that made King Tut sneeze is still on earth.”  Dust might even be from out­er space. “Cos­mic dust has prob­a­bly land­ed on your head with­out you even know­ing it.”

From sun­rise to sun­set whose col­ors come from “the dust of our days”) Pul­ley shows us dust as some­thing wonderful.

Wind spreads dust,




bits of you and me

and soil

and stars.

Back­mat­ter gives more infor­ma­tion about dust, its sources, its impacts, how rain­drops need dust to form, how dust can cir­cum­nav­i­gate the earth. Who knew dust was so end­less­ly fas­ci­nat­ing? Sayre did, and she shares that won­der with us.

Dig Wait Lis­ten: A Desert Toad’s Tale (Green­wil­low, 2001), illus­trat­ed by Bar­bara Bash, takes us

Deep in the desert, 

under the sand, [where] the spadefoot

toad waits…for the sound of rain

Skit­ter skit­ter scratch. Is it rain?

Dig Wait ListenNo, only a scor­pi­on crawl­ing over­head. Thunk thunk thunk clink clunk clink clunk pop pop—sound after sound the toad wait. Is it rain? No, it’s a herd of pec­ca­ries, a leap­ing rat, a tap­ping Gila wood­peck­er, a park ranger’s boot, a rat­tlesnake warn­ing STAY AWAY, a dis­tant storm rum­bling … until plip plop plip plop. Rain at last.

Hear­ing it, the toad digs out of the sand. Now she hears bleat bleat bleat—male toads call­ing. In a pud­dle left by the rain the toad lays her eggs “like beads of glass” which hatch in two days and race the dry­ing pud­dle to devel­op from tad­poles into toads. The sto­ry ends with the new toads, safe­ly meta­mor­phosed, dig­ging down into the sand to wait for — the sound of rain.

Warbler WaveWar­bler Wave (Beach Lane Books; 2018) asks us as writ­ers and read­ers to home in on Sayre’s ear for lan­guage.  She says of war­blers: “Tiny, strong/pushed along/by rivers of wind.” There’s so much here to please the ear — allit­er­a­tion, asso­nance, rhyme — all in only sev­en words.  But that’s not all, the book goes on, “They share the air/with buildings/bats, tur­bines, and tow­ers.” Like all good poet­ry, when we read it we can­not imag­ine any oth­er arrange­ment of words that would work as well. She trans­lates her love of nature into delight in sound that sub­tly brings read­ers into the sto­ry. If we had lap sit­ter lis­ten­ers we would always have War­bler Wave on the sto­ry pile because it has such won­der­ful lan­guage: birds she calls “fly­ing flow­ers” “search, stalk/wag, walk,/ “look, lean, grab, glean” as they try to feed them­selves. Sayre calls them “crush­ers of cater­pil­lars,” “slurpers of spi­ders.” Who would not want to repeat “slurpers of spiders?”

A Sandpiper AlightsAuthor and crit­ic Chris­tine Hep­per­man has described Sayre as a poet who hap­pens to write nat­ur­al his­to­ry.  In A Sand­piper Alights Hep­per­man writes, “April Pul­ley Sayre excels at show­ing chil­dren the world through a field biologist’s eyes.”  Sayre actu­al­ly stud­ied biol­o­gy and anthro­pol­o­gy, but when she went to Mada­gas­car to study its rain forests she found she loved writ­ing about them even more. Her eye for the small details of the nat­ur­al world and her abil­i­ty to con­vey them through her writ­ing enchant chil­dren and adults alike. 

Who knows what oth­er won­ders she might have shared with us had she had more time? Most of all she taught us to look close­ly, to lis­ten, to learn about the world we inhab­it and in which we are all connected.

And isn’t that a wonder?

A few more of our favorites by April Pulley Sayre:

If You Should Hear a Hon­ey Guide (illus­trat­ed by S.D. Schindler, Houghton Mif­flin, 2000)

Vul­ture View (illus­trat­ed by Steve Jenk­ins, Hen­ry Holt, 2007)

Wood­peck­er Wham (illus­trat­ed by Steve Jenk­ins, Hen­ry Holt, 2015)

Being Frog (Beach Lane, 2020)

Thank You Earth (Green­wil­low, 2021)

Hap­py Sloth Day (with Jeff Sayre, Beach Lane, 2022)

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1 year ago

Every­thing about this shar­ing is peace­ful, play­ful & per­haps most impor­tant full of Spot-on titles to seek & savor. Appreciations.