Author Anne Mazer captures the expansive enthusiasm of a small child, yet keeps his ideas grounded in ecology. As a result, this charming story is also an effective educational tool. Through Brian, we learn about the salamander's needs for survival (food, water, shelter, appropriate temperature, etc.), its place on a food web within a temperate forest habitat, and even hear about the components required for photosynthesis. These messages come through without being weighed down by scientific terminology that would confuse and distract young readers. Also integral to the story is an ethical question that will spark the thinking of older kids: Should wild animals be kept as pets?
Steve Johnson, a native Minnesotan who studied at St. Paul's School of Associated Arts, provides illustrations that almost seem to come alive on the page. If that description sounds trite, consider this progression of events. The first two-page spread depicts Brian as he discovers the salamander under a pile of autumn-dry leaves. Here, the art is tidily framed by a white border. When the boy returns home and begins answering his mother’s questions, the illustrations become less contained. At first the changes are small—just a few leaves hanging over the edge of a frame here, a salamander's tail dangling there. Within a few pages, however, a multitude of creatures are creeping and fluttering around the text. Eventually an entire forest—complete with mature trees and a lily pad-studded pond—spills across the pages. The transition is so complete that Brian's dialogue must float atop foliage, tree trunks, and a luminous sky.
Mazer offers no grand moral to wrap up the package. Brian and the salamander simply fall asleep, side-by-side in a starlit forest. We understand, without being told so, that this is the salamander's "room.” It’s equally clear that Brian can imagine loving the forest like his own home.
While adults may recognize elements of magical realism in The Salamander Room, young children might reply that reality is magical. Until they are taught otherwise, children often don’t lay boundaries between humanity and the natural or metaphysical worlds. They value stories that show this perspective, and will return to them again and again. With that in mind, expect your copy of The Salamander Room to become ragged with use. Not to worry. As we learned from the Velveteen Rabbit, this only proves that it is Real.
I’ve included a partial list below. Can you locate these animals? What can you add to the list?
- Northern cardinal
- American goldfinch
- Eastern bluebird
- tree swallow
- black-capped chickadee
- painted bunting
- vermillion flycatcher
- monarch butterfly
- Eastern swallowtail butterfly
- woolly bear caterpillar
- red skimmer dragonfly