• Kathleen Salisbury

Carol Lerner: Author and Illustrator


An illustration from Flowers of a Woodland Spring

I do not have children so it may seem strange that I do have an extensive collection of garden and nature books for children. Mostly they date back to the 60s and 70s. They appeal to me because they encourage action, exploration, dissection in ways the more modern books for children seem too lawsuit-averse to suggest.


In trying to highlight unsung women in horticulture, I happened upon Carol Lerner. A children’s book author, Carol’s work has made it into the collections on my bookshelves. There is not a lot of information out there about Carol Lerner, but I will put here what I have found out in the hopes that she can be recognized as a woman passionate about plants and the sciences who not only was educated in a public garden but who also worked to connect children to the nature around them through thoughtful content and stunning illustrations.


Turns out that Lerner started writing children’s books about plants for the same reason I started collecting vintage ones – there didn’t seem to be much out there about plants for kids during her time. Inspired by her own children’s love for the outdoors and a cottage near Lake Michigan she aspired to learn more. Being an author or an illustrator didn’t cross Lerner’s mind early on. A child of the Great Depression, a college education was out of the questions for her so she trained at secretarial school. Moved by a visit to the University of Chicago to visit a friend, she decided to enter college earning degree in General Studies and a master’s degree in history. Eventually, as a middle-aged adult, she took classes at the Morton Arboretum in botany, ornithology, botanical illustration and plant communities because she was curious about the natural world around her.



Illustration from Flowers of a Woodland Spring

Lerner chose to write about such topics as tallgrass prairies, cacti, forests, bogs, deserts and other nature topics not previously explored by children’s book authors. At first considered too obscure for publish, Lerner finally earned a place among authors after spending time illustrating a number of books for other authors. Her first book happened to be about ecotones. Ecotones!! When is the last time you saw a children’s book about ecotones? This endears me to Carol Lerner. Seems she was a fearless author inspired and motivated by her curiosity more than what would sell or what was popular at the time.


Lerner’s books are noted for their meticulous attention to scientific detail both in their content and illustrations. Though sometimes cited for using incorrect names in her simplification of the plant descriptions – stem of a rhubarb leaf instead of petiole for example, her seemingly simple books would take a year to research, would be sent to various experts for review and spend hours studying in the field in order to accurately depict the plants and ecosystems about which she was writing. Her passion and attention to detail resulted in numerous awards including Notable Children’s Book from the American Library Association; Outstanding Science Trade Book for Children; Honor Book form the NY Academy of Sciences; Carl Sandberg Award and a Special Artistic Merit Award from the Friends of American Writers.


Cover of Flowers of a Woodland Spring


In a review of one of her books, Indiana University Northwest English Professor Mary Harris Russel states “this book will make readers young and old enthusiastic observers of garden life.” I think this sums up exactly the appeal of Lerner’s books. They are written using terminology even the most novice naturalist can understand but researched so well we can all learn something.


Is there a book you can remember reading when you were young that may have jump-started your adventures in horticulture? Perhaps Carol Lerner has her name written all over it.


Carol Lerner's Body of Work

Lerner has written and illustrated 19 books and illustrated a number more.







Carol Lerner Titles:

Butterflies in the Garden

Backyard Birds of Winter

Moonseed and Mistletoe: A Book of Poisonous Wild Plants

My Indoor Garden

My Backyard Garden

Backyard Birds of Summer

Plant Families

On the Wing: American Birds in Migration

A Biblical Garden

A Forest Year

Pitcher Plants: The Elegant Insect Traps

Flowers of a Woodland Spring

The Forest Edge

Cactus

A Desert Year

Sons of the Tallgrass Prairie

Plants that Make You Sniffle and Sneeze

Dumb Cane and Daffodils: Poisonous Plants in the house and Garden


A Selection of Titles illustrated by Carol Lerner:

Green Darner: The Story of a Dragonfly by Robert McClung

The North Woods of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota by Glenda Daniel and Jerry Sullivan

The 100 Year Old Cactus by Anita Holmes

Dune Country: A Hiker’s Guide to the Indiana Dunes by Glenda Daniel

Tree Flowers by Milicent E. Selsam


Color illustrations from Moonseed and Mistletoe: A Book of Poisonous Wild Plants


References:

https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2002-05-26-0205250057-story.html

https://books.google.com/books?id=T6XzQNWE1rMC&pg=PA114&lpg=PA114&dq=Author+Carol+Lerner&source=bl&ots=mJhB8TTsnV&sig=UpKsfuWR5CUwb375qflK7J8VMbQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwio_uSP_dTeAhUimeAKHS3sA_IQ6AEwCHoECAAQAQ#v=onepage&q=Author%20Carol%20Lerner&f=false

http://www.illinoisauthors.org/cgi-bin/illinoisAuthors/getSpecificAuthor.pl?uid=7942

Schmid, R. (1991). Botanical Juvenilia II. Taxon, 40(1), 164-168. doi:10.2307/1222968



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