November 2004

True-life tales make fantastic reading

By Phillip Hoose
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Recent children’s literature has been dominated by fantasies and magical quests, but there are many great nonfiction books out there, too. In one of the finest nonfiction works to appear in recent years, Phillip Hoose describes the fate of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a bird so beautiful and awe-inspiring it was called the Good God or Lord God bird after the exclamations of those who first saw its dramatic forest flights. In Hoose’s book, the Lord God bird is emblematic of how extinction happens and how people can come together to try to prevent it.

Scientists estimate that 99 percent of all species that have ever lived are now extinct. The Earth is now in the sixth wave of mass extinction, which began 12,000 years ago when mankind’s effect on the planet accelerated. But the fate of the Ivory-bill has been determined in just the last 100 years. From the enthusiasm of early collectors for shooting them down as specimens, to the ravages against habitats by loggers in the Deep South after the Civil War, to the Plume War of the late 18th and early 19th century, the forces at work to ensure the destruction of the Ivory-bill gathered. Hoose tells the story in dramatic fashion with descriptions of historical incidents, maps demonstrating the shrinking habitat, archival photographs and sidebars complementing the text. Most of all, it is the author’s passionate telling that carries the story and makes it a tale of conviction and not just a text. Hoose’s own journeys, his enthusiasm for the subject and the idea that, perhaps, the Ivory-bill still exists in some remote forest will enchant readers. Through the drama of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, readers will learn much about various forces in American history and how they converge to threaten an amazing creature and cause the "collapse of the wilderness."

Dean Schneider teaches middle school English in Nashville.

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