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“It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm. We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons, without their consent and often without their knowledge. If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.”
--Exerpted from Silent Spring
Rachel Louise Carson was born May 27, 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania. She was the youngest of three children. The Carsons lived on 65 acres of wooded land. The family “loved to wander in the woodland world. They saw all kinds of animals and birds. They ate apples from their orchard and fresh vegetables from their garden. . . The Carsons respected all the life on their land. Mrs. Carson didn’t even like to kill insects.” (Sabin, 1993, p. 13)
Rachel loved to read and write from an early age. Her first story was published in the children’s magazine, St Nicholas, when she was ten. At twelve years of age, her second story, “A Message from the Front” was published in 1919 and this story won the “Gold Badge”, the highest honor from St. Nicholas magazine.
By the end of high school, Rachel charted a course to become a professional writer. From 1925-1929, she attended The Pennsylvania College for Women, a small school with 300 students. “Every penny from home went toward the cost of her tuition, room, and board.” (Ransom, 1993. p. 15) In Rachel's sophomore year, she took her first biology class and was so greatly influenced by Professor Mary Scott Skinker, that she changed her major from literature to biology. “In the 1920’s, science was not considered a “proper” career for a young woman. Rachel was aware that there were few jobs open to a female biologist.” (Ransom, 1993, p. 18) However, her passion for nature fueled her interest in biology and after graduating magna cum laude she was accepted as a scholarship student in the zoology graduate school program at Johns Hopkins University.
Rachel’s graduate studies unfolded during the Great Depression, and due to the difficult circumstances of the time, her family moved to Maryland to be with her. When her scholarship ended following the first year of studies, Rachel worked at two part-time jobs to continue paying tuition. In June, 1932, Rachel graduated from Johns Hopkins University with an MA in Marine Biology. For several years following graduation, Rachel worked in a part-time capacity, but when her father died in 1935, she had to find full-time work to support herself and her mother and her deceased sister’s two grammar-school age daughters. Fortunately, Rachel’s writing ability and previous professional contacts opened the door to a full-time job at the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1940. At 33 she became the chief editor for the information division of the Fish and Wildlife Service, and served the agency in this position until 1951 when her first book, The Sea Around Us was published. Upon publication, Rachel became famous at the age of 44.. Following a grueling speaking engagement schedule, Rachel retired from her government job and purchased a cabin by the sea in Maine. This became a happy refuge for her and her remaining family members and friends over the years.
Rachel went on to write Under the Sea Wind, published in 1952 and then The Edge of the Sea, published in 1955. The Edge of the Sea focused particularly on ecology and the interrelatedness of sea, shore, and marine creatures. While writing these books, Rachel’s mother passed away. A few years later, Rachel’s niece also died, and her niece’s five-year-old son, Roger, was left without any parents. In 1957, Rachel adopted Roger. Her time with him inspired her to write A Sense of Wonder. Rachel had always held her family together during times of trouble, and when she adopted Roger she continued in her role as provider and caretaker for family members.
When we hear the name Rachel Carson, Silent Spring always comes to mind. This book changed the world when it was published in 1962. Prior to publication, chemical companies were spraying DDT to control mosquitoes and consequently poisoning birds and wildlife in the process. Following Rachel’s careful research and the publication of Silent Spring, the Kennedy administration set up a commission to study the effect of DDT, and their findings agreed with what she had written in Silent Spring. DDT was banned from use in in the United States in 1964.
Unfortunately, Rachel Carson did not live to see the result of her work enacted into legislation. She died of cancer on April 14, 1964, just one month before the law came into effect. However, her legacy lives on in the field of ecology and environmental conservation. Her books prove that the pen is mightier than the sword, and that informed and courageous women scientists can change the world.
PICTURE BOOK BIOGRAPHIES ABOUT RACHEL CARSON
Ransom, Candice F. and Haas, Shelly (illus), Listening to Crickets, A Story about Rachel Carson. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1993.
Listening to Crickets is a lovely illustrated biography for upper-elementary age readers. Soft-toned, evocative black-and-white illustrations appear on every three to five pages and capture images of Rachel Carson as a young girl, student, and professional scientist and writer. The portraits are realistic and easily compare to photographs.
The narrative of the biography is clean and to-the-point. Key moments in Carson’s life are included, and the challenges she faced are clearly outlined. One walks away from this book with a sense of Rachel Carson’s determination to accomplish her life goals and her commitment to persevering in spite of life’s hardships. Her courage and independent spirit, as well as her commitment to family, are revealed in both the text and illustrations. They resonate with a fluid quality, like sun on water or birds moving about in tree leaves.
Sabin, Francis and Miyake, Yoshi (illus). Rachel Carson, Friend of the Earth. New York: Troll Communications: 1993.
While the illustrations in this biography make it more of a picture book in so far as nearly every page is illustrated, there is an “old-fashioned” quality to the images that may be off-putting for some young readers. Granted, the images realistically reflect the clothing and hair styles of the time period; nevertheless, there is a flatness to the images of women and Rachel that is not very flattering. Her mother, for example, is portrayed in a dowdy apron while hovering over the stove on page 11. Her father, and men, are shown as the "readers." For example, on page 18 there is a picture of young Rachel with her father reading her “First Book” and a man is dominant in the only other picture of a couple reading on page36. Perhaps I'm drawing more attention to it than it merits, however, I think a more conscientious editor or illustrator could have been more careful, particularly because Rachel’s mother was highly influential in teaching her daughter to read.
The book is targeted for early elementary age children; however, the amount of text per page as well as type size seems to me more fitting for upper-elementary readers. The text in Listening to Crickets is larger in size; and while there may be more details in that narrative than would fully hold the attention of a young reader, it seems a better read for any elementary age child and could be digested in small sections with lots of discussion based on the illustrations.
Other Juvenile Biographies
Kudlinkski, Kathleen and Lewin, Ted (illustrator), Rachel Carson, Pioneer of Ecology. New York: Viking, 1988.
Wadsworth, Ginger. Rachel Carson. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1992.