Thomas F. Yezerski is the author/illustrator of several children’s books, including Mrs. Muddle’s Holidays, by Laura Nielson, which received a starred review in Kirkus. An avid outdoors person, Yezerski lived on the edge of the Meadowlands for 12 years, 10 of which he spent working on the project that became his latest book, Meadowlands, which he discusses here.
See all the books in our 2011 Kids' Earth Day Roundup.
What was the seed of the idea for this project?
“Seed” is the perfect word for a book about the Meadowlands estuary, because so many plants and other living things begin there. I recall moving to North Jersey from suburban Pennsylvania and feeling overwhelmed by the weird landscape, with its mishmash of highways, railroads, industry and a wild swamp in the middle of it. After living here for five years, my confusion turned to curiosity, then fascination, appreciation and pride. I always suggest that young authors write about what they know, but I started writing Meadowlands out of not knowing it and trying to make sense of it.
Do you recall your first visit to Meadowlands and what your thoughts were?
I doubt if anyone remembers their first visit to the Meadowlands, because one’s first impression is that it’s not an actual place. It’s just sort of in the middle of everywhere else. That’s literally true; 14 municipalities share the region commonly defined as the Meadowlands. I would guess a million people travel through the region every day without realizing it, whether by flying into Newark Airport, riding the train to Manhattan or driving up the New Jersey Turnpike…One visit was a boat tour of the marsh less than a week after the 9/11 disaster. We could still see wisps of smoke rising from Ground Zero, but the cormorants and herons were oblivious, and the river was silent and as smooth as glass.
How did you get the idea of framing each central illustration on the page with little vignettes of the Meadowland’s inhabitants?
I love how the framed illustrations look as if they were part of a scientific journal or a quilt or a piece of folk art, but my motivation for designing the book that way was entirely pragmatic. When I started learning about the Meadowlands, I was struck by the thousands of elements that made up the urban wetlands—everything from manufactured dyes to bufflehead ducks to middle linebackers. I was overwhelmed by this truly diverse ecosystem, and I felt compelled to show everything. However, I didn’t like the way many ecology books tried to show every last creature in an ecosystem in one contrived “Peaceable Kingdom” type of shot. So, my solution was to isolate the different creatures along the borders. That layout gave me the opportunity to label each inhabitant, and allowed me to use fun terms like “polychlorinated biphenyl” and “beardtongue.” By depicting each inhabitant in exactly the same objective way, I hoped the reader would get a sense of how everything is an equal member of our living ecosystem.
Have you shared your Meadowlands project with children yet?
Midway through the 10 years of writing this book, I became nervous that the story would be way over kids’ heads. However, I had forgotten…that kids love factual information. They love knowing every little last detail about something. Knowledge is empowering to children in the very way that I wrote this book to empower myself in the face of the daunting Meadowlands landscape. The responses I’ve gotten have been lots more questions, as if the kids and I are colleagues trying to figure this whole thing out.
What inspiration do you hope readers of all ages will take from this story?
At first, I just thought it would be funny to write a biology book about a place everyone thinks of as a disreputable wasteland. The message was just “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Of course, I was guilty of that myself, because I realized while researching the Meadowlands that it’s not just an urban wetlands. It’s a place with a story, with real live people who really care and really do something about making the world a better place. It’s a place where life does not give up easily in spite of long odds. Humans are the only inhabitants of our ecosystem who have the power to learn and make change happen for the better.