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Review of THE FLOWER HUNTER by Deborah Kogan Ray

by Cay Geisler

Ray, Deborah Kogan. 2004. THE FLOWER HUNTER: WILLIAM BARTRAM, AMERICA'S FIRST NATURALIST. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0374345899

Billy Bartram was America's first botanical artist. This picture book biography is told in first person journal entries, beginning when he is just eight years old. We are treated to his interest in plants and drawing, as well as the world of colonial America. That the entries are told from his personal viewpoint make the story immediately accessible to the audience and assist in establishing the intimate tone of a diary. Not only does Billy love natural plants of all kinds, but birds and animals as well. Billy's passion for his subject is obvious in his writings and results in the reader sharing his interest. The journal entries continue until he returns home from his travels to share his findings with his beloved father, John.

Reading Billy's journal is also enjoyable from an historical view. His father's best friend is Benjamin Franklin who explains electricity to him. His father is appointed Royal Botanist to King George III. Billy becomes a great friend of the native peoples and they nickname him "Puc Puggy," which means "flower hunter". He also witness the war of independence, but only from afar when he is exploring Florida.

The illustrations are gorgeous watercolor, gouache, and colored pencils mostly in a warm earth-toned palate. Not only do we get the feel of days gone by, we also feel the warmth and beauty of the natural world that Billy and his father, John, loved so well. The text blocks are depicted with a darker edge giving the feeling of an actual, old journal. The endpapers are elegant maps of the United States and show where the Bartrams traveled. The book of his travels that Billy published in 1791 influenced Thoreau and Darwin and was taken along with Lewis and Clark on their overland journey.

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