Friday, September 14, 2018

Leaf Stone Beetle by Ursula Dubosarsky illustrated by Gaye Chapman

A meditation on nature and transience ...

This is a remarkable, unique and truly special book. Why do these words spring to mind?

Remarkable - in a world where we seem to work in categories for books the publisher Dirt Lane Press have taken a risk (thank you) and published this small format book that is not quite a picture book, not quite a junior novel. It has 24 pages with three double pages used for the almost tactile etching-style illustrations.

Unique - I cannot think of another book with such a quiet focus in this format, especially one that features a leaf (plant), beetle (animal) and stone (object).

Truly Special - this is a book with layers of meaning. It is simple enough to share with a young child and complex enough to sustain an in depth discussion with older students and adults.

Leaf is young. Leaf is the "littlest and greenest of them all. It had been the very last to grow." Leaf watches as the other leaves turn gold and yellow and then in a storm they fall off the tree. I love the idea that the leaves collectively make this decision to let go of the branch. The little green leaf is left behind until later "that afternoon there was a breeze so gentle that only the little green leaf could feel it. ... The little green leaf floated like a snowflake through the air, all the way down down."

Look at the key words here - a gentle breeze so gentle only the leaf can feel it.  This seems so important because by now it is the end of the first story and as a reader, somehow in just five pages, via the internal monologue of the leaf, we have come to like, perhaps even love, this little character. I am glad the breeze was gentle. The leaf also has a quiet wisdom. Waiting patiently for when the time is right and not feeling compelled to follow the crowd of other leaves.  We read that the leaf floated, like a snowflake - perhaps this anticipates the season to come. Best of all the leaf is safe.

In the second "chapter" we meet Stone. Up until now the world of Stone has been under the river but during the same storm from earlier in the story the river swells and Stone is washed up on the bank -  "with a lurch and a thump, the stone was dragged amongst the gnarled roots of the tree. When the water receded, Stone found itself alone in the dry breath of the world."

The upheaval of the storm is such a contrast with Leaf gently falling. In this scene we have words like spinning, twisting, gushing and hurtling! Look at that final sentence. The dry breath of the world. Can Stone survive out of the water? Will the world that Stone knows change in confusing or positive ways? I felt such a jolt as Stone is left alone on the bank. This is so odd because Stone is not alive but we have heard what Stone is thinking and Stone feels "alive".

The third section of this 24 page book focuses on Beetle. Like Leaf and Stone, Beetle is an individual. Beetle wants to take her time and quietly observe the world. She looks at pollen, spider webs, and even the footprints of ants. How wonderful is that idea! Beetle lives near the tree where we met Leaf and the stream where we met Stone. It is the same day. The storm arrives. Beetle grabs hold of a little green leaf - yes it is our Leaf. The pair fall into the river.  "On they tumbled together, rushing and plunging and swooping." By chance Beetle sees a stone - yes it is our Stone. The stone provides a perfect shelter for her.

"For now we are together and safe, but in a moment we may be washed away again. And whatever happens, wherever we are washed to, we will always be in the world, like the stars in the sky."

Can I just say again that this book has just 24 pages and yet here we have a way to talk about philosophy and perhaps even the meaning of life.

This story first appeared in our NSW School Magazine in 2007. I wish I could find a copy to see the evolution of this story. You might like to use this video of Red Leaf Yellow leaf by Lois Ehlert with a younger group of children as a comparison text. You could also compare the art in this book by Gaye Chapman with Narelle Oliver especially her book The Hunt. I loved reading that Gaye based her Beetle on our Australian Christmas Beetle - one of my favourites beetles. One more thing to think about - the way the title is presented without commas - Leaf Stone Beetle.

Image source:

Three other books to read alongside Leaf Stone Beetle would be Aranea,  Silence and  Life

Take a look at Ursula's web site.  Make sure you read through this excellent set of Teachers Notes where Ursula explains her motivation for writing this book and you can also find a set of questions which will allow your students to think more deeply about this text.

I hope you can tell I love this book. AND yes I am going to predict it will be short listed for our CBCA Awards in 2019. Surely the judges will not let this treasure slip away.

It’s simple yet layered, and it invites interpretation and discussion around ideas as complex as individuality, transition and community.  Books and Publishing

Here is a quote from Dirt Lane Press which explains their philosophy and neatly matches the content of Leaf Stone Beetle. Click on their name to read more about their work.

Dirt Lane Press:

Research tells us that literature, like life, leaves its mark on our minds and bodies.

The richer the literature, the more profoundly we are affected.

1 comment:

donna said...

What a beautiful response - so evocative. I want to read the book for myself immediately! I've ordered it but it hasn't arrived yet. I knew it would be good but now I can't wait to immerse myself in it!
Donna Gibbs