Tuesday, May 28, 2024


Deborah Frenkel (author) and Ingrid Bartkowiak (illustrator)
Storytorch, $26.95 (HB)

“In the city, nature can feel far away – but is it?”

This question lies at the heart of Naturopolis – a new, creative non-fiction picture book for readers in years K to 6.

The book’s elegant, double page spreads both describe and explore the natural phenomena found in “the great grey city” and children are drawn to ponder a creature in the garbage, a river in the gutter, a cave on the underpass, a meadow in the footpath, a glade in a laneway, a woodland in the wires and more.

As the children look and listen closely, lyrical phrases like “feathery fronds”, “seeds spun away with the wind”, silence “easily bruised”, a “quick, slick trickster” and gems “as gentle as breath” are used to evoke feelings and intricacies relating to the flora and fauna illustrated.

While Deborah Frenkel’s words are often poetic, Ingrid Bartkowiak illustrations leave no doubt that the creatures and plants described are in a city – on kerbsides, near drainpipes, peeping from cracks in the pavement, across rubble and in the eaves.

The patches of green and growing things are scattered, not dense, and yet, early in the book readers are entreated to look with care because they “may find a forest”.

It is on the final pages that we realise the ant (Iridomyrmex purpureus) depicted in each spread – and who has been leading us through these scraps of wilderness – has in fact led us to a “forest” … of sorts. It’s an even more invisible world that lies beneath our skyscrapers and city streets – a world of intricate organisation and burgeoning population.

I saw this ending as a nod to the tenacity of nature and a pointer to the hubris of humans who think our world is pre-eminent and our infrastructure and organisational ways are more potent and deserving than those of other species.

It reminded me of how quickly a jungle will grow up in tropical places where buildings are abandoned; the foliage covering the bricks and steel – making it harder and harder to see that there was ever any human habitation there at all.

I really enjoyed Naturopolis – and think it’s been beautifully and thoughtfully put together. The story is evocative, the illustrations are harmonious and the bite-sized factual information about species (on the page) and the glossary of the fauna and flora (at the back) will help children understand more details of the natural world.

My hope is that the book is a stepping stone – a way to intrigue city children about the nature that is surviving and thriving around them but is often overlooked.

A further step would be to encourage (older?) readers to ask why they have to look so hard for the green shoots and traces of the insects and animals around them; why concrete, brick and bitumen have replaced forests and why habitats have been disrupted to create houses and workplaces for humans; what it would take to plant more trees and flowers in our urban environments, to cultivate forests and havens for animals in the heart of our cities, to create houses, offices and transport that are safe and conducive for humans and nature to better coexist?

I read a news story today that said more and more Australians have never planted a plant and don’t understand how pollination works.

If you want to make sure this isn’t your kids, grab Naturopolis – and use it to kickstart their journey of discovery of urban flora and fauna. Discuss with them early and often how humans depend on plants, insects and animals to survive. Encourage them to start a garden “between the cracks”.


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