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