Book Review: Moth: An Evolution Story

Written by Isabel Thomas, illustrated by Daniel Egnéus, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2018

We are very lucky to live close to a wonderful public library here in Connecticut, and as we emerge from our pandemic cocoon, it has been a joy to take our children there. My 4-year-old daughter couldn’t contain her excitement on a recent visit. She kept vanishing, rushing between the stacks, rounding the corner, crouching down to look at something, running off again. When I asked her not to keep disappearing, she looked me in the eye and said, sternly, “Daddy: I’m exploring. By myself!” It was a good reminder—can I think of anything I enjoyed more as a child than getting lost in a library? It’s probably no accident I eventually chose a career as an academic.   

The gem among the books we borrowed is Moth: An Evolution Story, written by Isabel Thomas and illustrated by Daniel Egnéus. I discovered it thanks to an especially thoughtful display of books on the natural world—we owe so much to the curatorial superpowers of librarians.

Moth is a story about peppered moths and how they have evolved: “a story of light and dark. Of change and adaptation, of survival and hope.” It brings the familiar form and narrative drama of picture books to a work of nonfiction, and does so more effectively than anything else I’ve seen recently.

Peppered moths evolved their “freckled, speckled wings” to protect themselves from predators; a few had wings “as dark as charcoal,” but they stood out and made easy prey. The story pivots as, suddenly, human actions begin to change the moths’ habitat. As people burned coal to power factories, “pollution”—the word jumps off the page, in larger font—“stained the clouds and blackened the branches where peppered moths slept.”

Moth uses questions brilliantly to engage young readers. It asks: “Now the world was darker. Which moths were disguised?” My daughter paused, thought for a moment, and said “the dark ones, Daddy, the ones with the dark wings!”

By that point in the story, my 7-year-old son had slipped into the room behind us and had started listening too. He’s the artist in the family, and he piped up: “Daddy, the pictures in this book are amazing!” And so they are. This is the most gloriously illustrated book that has come my way in a long while. Egnéus uses collage to stunning effect. The pages are full of visual contrast—light and dark, factory smokestacks and textured tree bark. The speckled moths are rendered  in exquisite detail, their wings look almost like mottled black and white photographs.

Isabel Thomas gives us a gentle and hopeful conclusion. The story doesn’t end with the choked skies; “…people decided to clean up the air,” she tells her readers, and each year “cities grew greener. The air all around became cleaner.” And now peppered moths—speckled and charcoal alike—thrive again. Nature adapts; we humans can change our ways too.

It’s a conclusion that inspires, but it also makes me sad. Only in the wealthiest cities in the world is it true that “the air all around became cleaner.” In most of the world, air pollution is only getting worse. And it causes profound harm to the health of children as well as to the rest of the living planet.

It’s such a difficult line to tread: how do we give our children reasons to be hopeful, while also teaching them that this hope is not equally shared? How do we celebrate the resilience of nature while also seeing that the human impact on the planet may have reached a point beyond recovery, driving many species to the brink of extinction?

By chance, my own bedtime reading this week is Richard Powers’s moving Bewilderment, which asks of us grown-ups: “How can we tell our children the truth about this beautiful, imperiled planet?” Two very different books, but their answers to that vital question share a starting point—a wide-eyed sense of wonder about the life all around us.

My daughter has asked for Moth five times in the two days since we borrowed it. My son is just as taken with it; he has started linking it to what he is learning in second grade science, and he is ready for the difficult conversations it inspires. Moth is truly a beautiful book—and a necessary one, too.

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