Zonia's Rain Forest by Juana Martinez-Neal


Zonia's Rain Forest 
Review Copy from Candlewick Press

Like a rain forest itself, Juana Martinez-Neal's new book, Zonia's Rain Forest, is lush and beautiful at first glance, revealing layers with deeper reading.

Zonia's story begins in the embrace of a loving family, in a place where it is "always green and full of life." Every morning, "the rain forest calls to Zonia," and every morning, Zonia answers by heading into the jungle, a blue morpho butterfly leading the way. Zonia's joy filled journey through the jungle, punctuated by visits with inhabitants like a family of sloths, a South African coati, an Amazon river dolphin and a giant anteater, to name a few, ends when she reaches an area that has been slashed and burned. Distraught, Zonia returns to her mother to show her what she has found, burned bits of the forest in her hands. Zonia's mother tells her that this is the forest speaking to her. Knowing that the forest needs her help, Zonia responds, "Then I will answer." The final spread shows Zonia at the edge of a clearing, newly painted red designs on her face, the blue morpho flying out ahead. The only words on the page, "We must all answer."

While some readers may need to be told that the devastation Zonia encounters is both man made and forcing indigenous people off their native land, they are probably already familiar with environmentalism and the desperate need for humans to stop destroying nature. The back matter, which includes facts about the Asháninka people, the Amazon and threats to it, and a glossary of the flora and fauna Zonia encounters. Noting the significance of the designs Zonia paints onto her face as she returns to help the forest she loves, Martinez-Neal shares that the Asháninka people use "plant-based paint on their faces and bodies to compliment their actions or abilities." Zonia's red paint, made from achiote, signals "strength and determination." Of the Asháninka people and the continued threats they face, Martinez-Neal writes,

they have a long history of being disenfranchised and forced from their homelands. They have just as long a history of insisting on self-determination. Today, much like Zonia, they are answering the call to protect the rain forest - their home -  through activism, community organization, and legal action. Sadly, their rights continue to be ifnored and violated, and harassment grows because of others' impatience to develop, cultivate and mine the world's tropical forests for profit.

Best of all, back matter includes, "Antamishite Zonia," the translation of Zonia's Rain Forest into Asháninka by Arlynder Seth Gaspar Paulino, translator and interpreter recognized by Peru's Ministry of Culture. As Martinez-Neal writes, "This was a book about Zonia and her lands. She had to be able to read the story in her mother tongue."

Martinez-Neal was born in Lima, Peru, and "The Story Behind Zonia's Rain Forest" (which can - and should - be found here) shares details of what she learned while on a research trip through the Amazon rain forest in 2019 (which is where she was when she got the call from the Caldecott Award Selection Committee telling her she had won the Caldecott Honor for Alma and How She Got Her Name!) Images from her travels, as well as those from her studio as she created this book, are engrossing. On her travels, Martinez-Neal learned about a small group of women from Chazuta making paper from banana bark. The colors and texture were perfect for her book and, being "handmade by women from the Amazon with the Amazon itself," her book became a living thing, "just like our Amazon breathing for and with us." The effect is stunning, adding yet another layer to the book.

Written and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal

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