In the belly of an ox: The unexpected photographic adventures of Richard and Cherry Kearton, written and illustrated by Rebecca Bond
Richard and Cherry Kearton - brothers, cap-wearers, English guys - loved the outdoors, and they loved taking pictures. They published the very first natural history book illustrated with photographs instead of drawings.
Now. How can I put this without sounding boring?
Their work democratized the study of nature in England and abroad. Ok that's boring. But listen: before these guys, natural history books were illustrated with beautiful etchings, color lithographs, et cetera.
Even the least idealized images of birds, beasts, and habitats in even the least intimidating book on natural history (such as the 40-volume, moderately-priced The Naturalist's Library) could not bring the real, observable natural world into a person's hand the way that one of the Kearton's photographs of a nest could. Before the Keartons, it might be said that the habit of observing nature for its own sake was limited to upper-class eccentrics, scientists, and eccentric scientists. The Keartons' photographs showed that the wonders of nature were accessible to anyone, and that even a goose on her nest was in its own way wonderful.
Still boring. Crap, sorry. It's a subject I know a lot about. I helped manage the photo collection at the American Museum of Natural History for a few years. So I get a little excited.
But don't think that I'm giving this book an enthusiastic endorsement only because I find the subject interesting. I just read a new kids' biography of George Eastman, and I had to say meh, even though I think he was fascinating, and even though I was very pleased that the book emphasized his philanthropy. I just found it to be over-story-fied. Not every person's story resolves into exciting little mountain ranges of plot, and trying to force it to do so is doing nobody any favors.
The Kearneys, for example, did not have the most electrifying lives. They were happy boys in the country, then they were somewhat less happy men in the city. The story ramps up slowly, until Richard and Cherry are designing their own blinds so that they can photograph wildlife without scaring off the critters. Cherry hides under a blanket, in a haystack, and in a fake tree. They commission a fake ox from a taxidermist in London, and Cherry hides inside that, too.
When their book comes out, in 1895, it is a success. They spend the rest of their lives traveling and taking pictures.
Rebecca Bond does not try to blow this story up big. Her prose, like her watercolors, is calm and warm as she strolls through the Kearneys' lives up to and including publication of that first book. She bases many of her illustrations on photographs that they took of each other in the field - Cherry rappelling down a cliff, carrying the fake ox, standing in a river. Most satisfyingly, these photographs are reproduced in the back of the book, along with endnotes and a bibliography.
This book contains plenty of information for a brief report, or to get a kid started on his own research - and yet, it is simple (and interesting) enough to be read aloud to a group. I also have every confidence that there will be children who absorb the information about the Kearneys' methods and results, and who go out to try some wildlife photography of their own. Maybe my kids.