Jan Thornhill (1955-)
Jan Thornhill is an award-winning author and illustrator whose detailed paintings complement prose which teaches young children about the value and fascination of nature. Thornhill captured critical attention with her first work for children, The Wildlife A-B-C: A Nature Alphabet. Reviewers found charm in the book's rhyming prose and colorful illustrations framed by borders incorporating each highlighted animal. The Wildlife A-B-C also features a section that offers additional information about each animal as well as other species and plants featured in Thornhill's paintings. Mary Ellen Binder, a reviewer for Canadian Children's Literature, remarked: "While this book is aimed at two-to-six year olds, the wealth of informative detail in its illustrations and the additional notes at the end make it enjoyable and educational for older children as well."
Thornhill used the same format for her next effort, The Wildlife 1 2 3: A Nature Counting Book, in which detailed pictures of animals in their natural habitats are represented within ornamental frames. It also includes notes instructing children about the wildlife featured in the book. While some reviewers felt that Thornhill's presentation was too complex for children just learning how to count, her artwork was largely praised. Patricia Feltham, reviewing The Wildlife 1 2 3 in Canadian Children's Literature, stated: "This enchanting book is a must for the budding biologist or for that special pre-schooler with small hands." In a review for Junior Bookshelf, Marcus Crouch commented that Thornhill's "book is as beautiful as it will be useful in teaching children."
A Tree in a Forest spans two hundred years in the life of a sugar maple as it grows from a seed and eventually weathers a fire, an ice storm, drought, and being struck by lightning. When the tree finally dies, it becomes the host for a new seedling. Through detailed illustrations, Thornhill also offers a view of the changing lives of humans in North America, for the background of each picture contains Native Americans, then pioneer settlers, farmers, and finally suburban commuters. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly remarked: "This compelling presentation of the interdependency and rhythmic round of life will surely nourish readers." And in the School Library Journal, Sharon Levin concluded that A Tree in a Forest is "a good read-aloud for ecology units, while individual readers will enjoy poring over it."
Thornhill's next effort was Crow and Fox and Other Animal Legends, a collection of interwoven animal folktales. Each story leads into the next: "Elephant and Hare," then "Hare and Tortoise," then "Tortoise and Crane" and so on, with Thornhill showing how similar stories develop in cultures all over the world. In a School Library Journal review, Denise Anton Wright called the retellings "succinct yet graceful, and . . . ideal for sharing aloud," and also praised Thornhill's "accomplished, vibrant" illustrations.
Wild in the City continued Thornhill's animal theme but put it in a new context: the city. A little girl hears an odd noise outside her window as she is falling asleep, and this leads into a dramatic display of all the wild animals leading their lives in the city at night while the people are asleep. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted that "Thornhill's . . . text and illustrations weave in entertaining elements" along with the educational information, which is provided in endnotes about the various species and ecologies portrayed.
In Before and After: A Book of Nature Timescapes, Thornhill explores the effects of time on a scene from nature. This book is a wordless collection of paintings; the "before" is an isolated moment of time and the "after" is another moment, anywhere from a few seconds to a year later. While they hunt for the locations in the second picture of the various animals from the first, children learn about animals, the environment, and the passage of time. In a review for Booklist, Susan Dove Lempke called Before and After "a well-executed, clever idea for a book" that would bring back readers "again and again."
In 2000, Thornhill turned her focus from an audience of children to one of adults with her short story collection Drought and Other Stories. Her stories focus on the hardships in women's lives and are noted by reviewers for both their sense of humor and their underlying violence and sadness. Jim Bartley, in a review for Globe and Mail, wrote that "every tale here is humming with elemental forces" and "filled with sumptuous and fecund images." A reviewer for Quill and Quire noted that the main problem she saw in Drought was that "the women and their stories are largely indistinguishable," but added that this voice was "articulate and compelling enough to keep things interesting." Thornhill's previous themes of animals and nature return in this book, both in the characters' relationships with animals and in the vivid descriptions of weather and scenery.
With The Rumor: A Jataka Tale from India, Thornhill returned to books for children. The Rumor is a traditional Indian folktale that is similar to the story of Chicken Little; a hare gets hit on the head by a falling mango and panics, thinking that the world is falling apart. She runs through a variety of habitats with her bad news and a stampede of animals from the various habitats follows her until they are finally stopped by a brave lion. Many reviewers praised Thornhill's rich, detailed illustrations of the animals and settings, and Heather Hamilton, writing in Resource Links, called the text "fluid and humorous." Gillian Engberg, reviewing for Booklist, wrote that The Rumor was a "well-told parable about the danger of rumors." In addition to this primary message, readers also learn about the dangers faced by endangered species, both through the story and the explanatory notes at the end.
Thornhill once told SATA: "By 1987, I'd been doing magazine and newspaper illustration for almost ten years and was getting pretty darn tired of drawing computers and money. At the same time, I was living deep in the heart of Toronto and got swept into the environmental movement because of a severe lead pollution problem in my neighbourhood. So out of the blue I decided to kill a few birds with one stone—I'd do a kids' book. The concept was an alphabet book about North American wildlife so that a) I could draw animals again like I used to when I was a happy, young, naturalist kid, b) I could do my part for the environment by educating kids, and c) I could get rich. Ha ha.
"I haven't become rich, but my husband and I did manage to escape the city—a long-time goal—first to a rented farm with friends, and then to a little piece of wooded land in central Ontario where we have since built a house.
"It was a spring of making maple syrup that inspired A Tree in a Forest. We were out in the sugar bush every day for a couple of weeks, collecting sap, boiling sap, skimming scum off boiling sap, and staring at naked maple trees. I couldn't help but ponder their lives as I watched huge pileated woodpeckers flying from trunk to trunk looking for the perfect nesting hole. It just seemed natural after that to write the biography of a tree."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, October 1, 1997, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Before and After: A Book of Nature Timescapes, p. 335; December 15, 2002, Gillian Engberg, review of The Rumor: A Jataka Tale from India, p. 769.
Canadian Children's Literature 59, 1990, Patricia Feltham, review of The Wildlife 1 2 3: A Nature Counting Book, p. 107; 60, 1990, Mary Ellen Binder, review of The Wildlife A-B-C: A Nature Alphabet, pp. 116-117.
Globe and Mail, January 13, 2001, Jim Bartley, review of Drought and Other Stories, p. D7.
Junior Bookshelf, February, 1990, Marcus Crouch, review of The Wildlife 1 2 3, p. 19.
Publishers Weekly, October 27, 1989, p. 63; April 13, 1992, review of A Tree in a Forest, p. 57; October 7, 1996, review of Wild in the City, p. 73.
Quill and Quire, August, 2000, review of Drought and Other Stories, p. 23.
Resource Links, April, 2003, Heather Hamilton, review of The Rumor, p. 7.
School Library Journal, July, 1992, Sharon Levin, review of A Tree in a Forest, p. 71; January, 1994, Denise Anton Wright, review of Crow and Fox and Other Animal Legends, p. 111.*