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Jan. 14, 2002

Contact: Steven Schultz (609) 258-5729,

Artist-in-residence Lynne Cherry draws on Princeton for inspiration

Princeton NJ -- No one walking into Lynne Cherry's office in Guyot Hall would mistake it for one of those belonging to the scientists and administrators all around her. The textbooks-on-a-shelf style of décor common to academics has given way to rows of brightly colored children's book covers, sketchpads and colored pencils.

Cherry, an author of best-selling children's books, is spending a year at the Princeton Environmental Institute as artist-in-residence.

Artist-in-residence Lynne Cherry will present a lecture on "Making a Difference in the World: Writing Children's Books That Are Scientifically Accurate and Encouraging Children To Be Involved Citizens, Locally and Globally" at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 17, in Guyot 10.

photo: Denise Applewhite



While her audience and medium of publishing may be nothing like those of scientific journals, her subject matter is in many ways just the same. Cherry works side-by-side with faculty members, absorbing their work in detail and translating it into books aimed at introducing children to environmental issues and motivating them to take an active part in solving problems.

"Kids can have a great impact," said Cherry who gears her books toward children at about the third-grade level. "At that point, kids are ready to be taught a little about environmental issues."

Cherry held a similar position at Princeton 17 years ago under the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies. She returned this year after attending a biology conference at which she heard a talk by Simon Levin, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. Levin was speaking on the subject of "ecosystem services" -- the idea that parts of an ecosystem provide critical benefits to humans, such as trees that reduce carbon buildup in the atmosphere and moderate the climate.

"He was terrific," recalled Cherry. "It was exactly what I wanted to write about in my next book."

The two spoke and quickly arranged the yearlong residency. For the environmental institute, Cherry's work fit perfectly with its research grants from the National Science Foundation, which both require and provide money for outreach programs.

"I was very impressed with her work," said Levin. "She does a very good job of getting the facts right. She gives it to them straight."

Far from technical treatises, however, Cherry's books tell simple stories that incorporate the underlying science almost invisibly. In her 1990 bestseller, "The Great Kapok Tree," she tells a story of a man who starts to cut down a giant tree in a rain forest, but then, exhausted by his effort, falls asleep under the tree. As he sleeps, many animals from the forest whisper in his ear reasons why the tree is a vital part of their world and the world in general. When he wakes, he drops his axe and walks out of the forest.

Cherry accompanies her stories with rich illustrations that draw children into their many details. She has been absorbed in noticing and capturing details of the natural world since she was a child growing up in rural Pennsylvania, where she recalls spending much of her time outdoors.

"I was out in the woods and having these adventures, and I came back and wrote about them," she said. At age 10, she wrote and illustrated a book about the adventures of her cat Kitty. Years later, it was published, with revised artwork, under the title "Archie Follow Me."

Cherry earned her bachelor's degree in art from Tyler School of Art and a master's in history from Yale University. She has held artist-in-residence positions at such places as the World Wildlife Fund, the Smithsonian Institution, Cornell University, and the Marine Biological Lab and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

In the last few months at Princeton, she has completed the text and is working on the illustrations for one book, and has started several others. She also led a workshop for the Teacher Preparation Program at which she spoke to about 75 elementary and middle school teachers about engaging students in environmentally related projects.

Showing children constructive ways to become involved in environmental issues has been a consistent theme in Cherry's work. "I am not going to introduce them to a topic unless they can do something about it," she said. "After reading one of my stories, I want them to be able to go out and take some action."

Her book "Flute's Journey" tells the story of a bird's often difficult migration from a tropical forest to a northern forest and encourages children to help develop bird-friendly environments in their yards and communities. Another book, "A River Ran Wild," tells the true story of people who cleaned up the once highly polluted Nashua River in Massachusetts.

These books are used regularly in classrooms across the country, and Cherry often receives letters from children who read them. "I have heard many stories of kids pressing their parents and communities to clean up rivers and streams in their areas," she said.

When she is not working on books, Cherry herself is active in environmental causes, from letter-writing campaigns to local cleanup projects. In Princeton, she is working with a group of students to restore natural habitats to their schoolyard. And she is incorporating that idea into a forthcoming book. "It's about gardening," she said. "It's going to be about making your yard a habitat, rather than just a lawn."

No matter what the story, Cherry's books are sure to have a happy ending.

"I really believe that with children you can present a lot of negative, even scary things, but at the end there has to be a resolution," she said. "There has to be a happy, empowering ending."