It is a very great challenge for writers to communicate environmental imperatives to young people (and their teachers and carers) without sounding gloomy, preachy or mawkish. It can be a similarly hazardous undertaking for illustrators who must navigate the narrow channel between empathetic and objective representation of serious issues.
Catherine Barr who has written the text for Red Alert! Fifteen Endangered Animals Fighting to Survive and Anne Wilson, who illustrated the work throughout, were clearly aware in advance of such pitfalls, for they avoid them in their entirety. Instead, they come up with a frank, insightful and informed narrative that is presented in the most novel and engaging way.
The subject matter is very serious indeed, for it concerns some of the most profoundly endangered animals on Earth. The source material is the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s famous Red List, the wildlife conservationist’s bible that organizes the world’s fauna into categories of threat ranging from (of) Least Concern to Critically Endangered.
A cursory glance at the organisation’s website tells you all you need to know about humankind’s toxic relationship with other animals. The combined list of vulnerable, threatened and endangered animals is extremely long, and the in-situ protection measures too limited for many of them to survive beyond the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren.
Conservationists often find themselves talking to the next generation of world citizens, mainly because the contemporary one seems to be perpetually cursed with selective deafness when it comes to wildlife protection. Barr and Wilson are the latest in a long line of professional communicators pleading the case for rare wildlife, but this time around the message is more substantial.
Their grasp of the complexities of modern wildlife conservation is expert, and it is for that reason, perhaps, that the book is set out in the most unconventional way. An index of habitat types is placed at the front of the book, rather than the usual contents page. The endangered animals, the threats they face, the measures needed to help them (and who is significantly involved) are cross-referenced in subsequent sections. It therefore has the feel of a global exploration through a disappearing world, where field scientists, wildlife rangers, fishermen, photographers, filmmakers and (even) ordinary folk are all invested in a rear-guard action on behalf of the natural world.
The species selected are far from random, but they include relatively few examples of the ‘charismatic megafauna’ that commentators once professed would be flagship species for the wider protection of habitat. This thinking leapt like a critically- endangered, Panamanian Golden Frog over the more urgent imperative to persuade humanity, a relatively young species, to grow up and take blanket responsibility for its actions.
Among the other weird and wonderful, disappearing animals featured in Red Alert! are the persecuted Pangolin, the nosy Gharial, and the vividly venomous Peacock Tarantula. In fact, several of the species featured are equipped with lethal or sub-lethal means of defence. Perhaps this is the authors’ subliminal way of suggesting that the best way to protect wildlife (and ourselves) is to leave it well enough alone.
Neither is this a morbid hit parade of the dying species most likely to snuff it soonest. The fifteen animals in Red Alert! are certainly terribly endangered, but they are presented here, in isolation from dozens of other on the red list, as the mere tip of the extinction iceberg. These are serious times for our planet’s fauna, and the illustrated endpiece constitutes a sobering headcount and a silent indictment of the cost borne by nature for our incursions.
Barr’s writing is bright, simple, direct and informative. Yet, it also has personality, and she comes across as an interesting friend of the family who knows loads of interesting things about animals. Her knowledge extends from the desert island of Santa Catalina in the Gulf of California, through African forests, across the seven oceans, and on up to the High Himalayas. She knows a lot about animals, and can immediately name fifteen endangered animals, and tell you all about them; where they live, how they live, why we should worry about them, and what we can do to help them.
Teachers will immediately understand Red Alert!’s educational worth, but one of the first things that any child will appreciate about his book is the captured colour of a wild world that still dazzles the senses. The illustrations are as direct as the prose, and there is a fragment of information in every detail, from the accusing eye of the Blue Whale to the deliberately upright posture of the Bonobo. The book is also immediately attractive as a tactile experience, with ever so slightly embossed illustrations on the hardy cover and textured paper, which feels reassuringly like recycled material.
There are, however, no re-treads in Red Alert! It breaks fresh ground in non-fiction books for children, for it neither condescends nor compromises. Barr and Wilson offer their readers new knowledge, from which an informed worldview may be possible. That cannot be a thought just for birthdays and Christmases. Red Alert! is a book to treasure and lock into the memory, much like the ones I had given to me as a boy, long lost but still fondly remembered as formative and inspiring reading.
Michael Stephen Clark
Red Alert! by Catherine Barr and Anne Wilson is published by Otter-Barry Books and is available from all good retailers priced £12.99