Book Review: Zonia’s Rain Forest – lessons the children have to teach us

Written and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal, Asháninka translation by Arlynder Sett Gaspar Paulino, Candlewick Press, 2021

Like many children, our two have been recognising Earth Day at their schools this week, and have been coming home with stories and songs, writing acrostics, and telling us about a host of fun and fascinating things they have been learning. Our three year old has been teaching her brother a song called the Earth is Our Mother, and watching her sing is the cutest thing I’ve seen in years – except that I have to remember that for her, it’s not cute, it’s serious. Like so many of the things our kids show us, it’s cute for us, but so so serious for them. Earth Day is serious – this is the world they have to grow up in.

The timing was right then for us to read Juana Martinez-Neal’s beautiful, heartfelt book, Zonia’s Rain Forest, all together. Zonia, an Asháninka girl lives in the rain forest of the Peruvian Amazon ‘where it is always green and full of life’. Every day, the forest ‘calls to’ her and she ‘answers’, greeting the creatures living there as her friends. The children spot some favourite animals, sloths, a jaguar, and learn some new ones, Amazon river dolphins, spectacled caiman. They connected with the book immediately. The book makes you feel ‘calm’, my seven-year old says, but also ‘sad for the Earth’ because on her way home, Zonia comes across an area where the trees have been cut down and the forest destroyed. Why would that happen?, we ask. There are brief notes at the back. We talk about logging and farming, the demand for land, for beef cattle, and – even though it sounds funny to talk about cows farting – the impact on the Earth of those demands.

Did they notice the red on Zonia’s face? What does it mean?, my son asks. That’s the right question – the notes at the back help me answer – the red achiote paint is a sign of Zonia’s strength and determination. We’ve read about another determined girl protecting something recently. Of course, we read Carole Lindstrom and Michaela Goade’s We Are Water Protectors (reviewed here). Two young girls from Indigenous peoples standing up to economic might for their people and for the Earth. Zonia tells her mother ‘the forest needs help’ and without pause says that she will answer, ‘as I always do./We all must answer.’ There’s so much to talk about and learn from this strong, simple, loving book – for us as much as the kids.

Why does the Earth only get one day?, my son asks. ‘Yes,’ comes the immediate response from his three year old sister, ‘Every day should be Earth Day.’ They are sincere. Quite serious. The children have a lot to teach us.

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