By Ashley Benham Yazdani
In most picture books the characters that we write about are humans, or animals, or at least some kind of organism. But what if you want to tell the story of a place? When writing my nonfiction book, A Green Place to Be: The Creation of Central Park, I sought to tell the story of one of America’s beloved landscapes and its two designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.
My own interest in Central Park began long ago, and was initially driven by curiosity about its creators. When I learned that there was truly nothing natural about the seemingly nature-made landscape of the park, I absolutely had to learn who had made it, how, and why. Olmsted and Vaux’s environmental and social motives were deeply inspiring to me, and I desperately wanted to tell their story. But as I researched and wrote, I discovered new questions. How did the land get to the state where it needed such healing? Who was there before it was a park? How did the land transform into a park, and (I still wonder) how does it compare to how it was before it was occupied by white people? After researching the answers to these and other questions, I found the land emerging as a third character in my writing.
Giving a voice to the land is something that has long interested me, and the need to do so now feels more urgent than ever. Our planet has existed long before us, and will continue to go on long after we are gone, but what state do we want to leave it in, really? The Earth is at a tipping point because of our lifestyles, and every word, every action, every book we make on its behalf matters in the fight for a healthier planet. So when I approached my work on Central Park, I felt a real sense of urgency. Olmsted and Vaux sought to preserve the land, bringing it closer to its natural state and healing decades of harm through careful engineering. The end result of their work is a landscape that has flourished, drawing in both wild creatures and humans alike with the magnetic serenity of a natural landscape in perfect alignment with the qualities of its native climate. Theirs is a story that could be recreated almost anywhere today with a bit of work.
Unfortunately, we humans seem to have a hard time empathizing with things that don’t look like us, especially landscapes, which have no apparent consciousness. So how do we craft a written portrait of a landscape that makes the reader care? In the case of my book, the success of the landscape was tied with the success of my two other main characters, and I reasoned that if the reader was invested in them, then they would care about the fate of the land as well. Painting a picture of the land through the eyes of humans is just one way to go about it, but you could do the same thing with animals or other organisms, or you could directly give the land a voice and have it speak for itself. These are only a handful of the possible approaches to this, and connecting with the land you are writing for will provide deeper inspiration.
You might want to do some character development exploration work when writing for the land. Here are a few of the questions I asked myself when writing for Central Park:
•What is the current state of the land?
•What is the land’s history? Especially consider its history before vs. after white people were there, or even before indigenous people arrived.
•Has the landscape experienced any major changes, or were they gradual?
•Who directly made it the way it is today? What can you learn about them? What was their motivation?
•Who were the land’s first caretakers? Present caretakers? How do the two differ in ideals or goals?
•Was there ever any controversy regarding the land? Did anybody ever damage or exploit it? If so, has the land healed, or does it still need help?
•What effect, if any, can you have on the land today? Is there a localized cause that needs attention there?
The Earth does speak to us, if we listen carefully enough. It may be slow and quiet, with a pulse that beats at a seasonal pace rather than a human one, but all land does have stories to tell. These are discovered by geologists, archaeologists, historians, and regular unscientific people who simply pay attention to the patterns of nature. Children are particularly wonderful observers in this way. By telling these stories to children (and to the adults that read to them), we can help others to cultivate empathy for the most essential character in all of our lives: the Earth.
Bio: Ashley Yazdani is a picture book author/illustrator, reader, and nature lover. She received her MFA from the Illustration Practice Program at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and her BFA in Illustration from California College of the Arts. She has taught illustration courses at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and Towson University. Her debut book, A Green Place to Be, is currently available from Candlewick Press and can be found at your local bookstore. Her tools of the trade are watercolors, colored pencils, and Photoshop, but she also enjoys embroidery, block printing, and screen printing. When not pushing pigment or pixels around, Ashley can be found reading, sewing, or running around in the great outdoors. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and son.
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