Judith Li’s Ellie’s Log: Exploring the Forest Where the Great Tree Fell
Reviewed by Jenny Fan
Judith Li’s new children’s book, Ellie’s Log: Exploring the Forest Where the Great Tree Fell, is a fine example of a well-written and gorgeously illustrated book that teaches scientific method through storytelling. Told from the point of view of 11-year-old Ellie Homesly, Ellie’s Log takes the reader on a journey filled with a child’s adventures of living and learning amid an old growth forest—and an actual research site—in the Pacific Northwest. Designed as a teaching tool for eight- to 12-year-olds as well as science educators, the tale will also be an informative and appealing read for the general reader, young and adult alike.
Ellie lives in a cabin with her parents in the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest (a very real research forest in Oregon); she plays soccer like any normal schoolgirl, but Ellie’s home has a microscope in the kitchen and a bookshelf of field notebooks and photo albums filled with images of animals taken by forest cameras. Her father is a wildlife biologist and a forest manager with the U.S. Forest Service while her mother studies insects as a university researcher. The reader is quickly surrounded by characters living in a scientific world. Ellie is a bright and eager learner, with a talent for drawing and observation. But her story really begins when she hears the crack of a giant tree falling during a winter snowstorm. What follows is an exploration of the natural world told through Ellie’s eyes. She wants to learn about the fallen tree, study why it fell, and learn about the animals around it. Her curiosity, paired with the receipt of her first field notebook and in addition to the friendship she strikes up with Ricky Zamora—a new friend she meets at the fallen tree—set the stage for the storytelling.
The book does double duty by teaching while telling this fictional tale. Ricky, a newcomer, acts as one of the conduits of learning for the reader as Ellie shares her knowledge of the forest and answers his questions, teaching him how “to see” the forest. By applying scientific observations and using skilled, colorful illustrations, author Judith Li and illustrator M.L. Herring chronicle Ellie and Ricky’s adventures thematically through seven chapters following the habitat’s change in weather and passage of time. As the snow melts, we learn about the landscape, the “forest of fallen trees,” the habits of chickarees, the growth of conk mushrooms, the prevalence of Lobaria, and the rarity of finding of a red tree vole nest.
We view moss under a microscope to glimpse invertebrates and red mites. Ricky says, “there’s layers of life and layers of life—within the moss, the forest, the mountain range, the continent!” and this shows what Judith Li is trying to do with each chapter while her characters study the forest. Subsequent chapters look at decomposition, birdwatching and birdsong, nocturnal animals, and ways to observe the forest in the moonlight. The final chapter, “Into the Future,” takes place on the last day of school and provides both reflection and a forward glance. As part of the traditional last day of school, Ellie’s mother marks on the pantry doorframe Ellie’s height to compare her growth. In measuring Ellie’s growth, Judith Li brings home the scientist’s work of taking measurements and making observations so that one may look back and observe change. This is done throughout the book: we consider the snow level from this year to last year, consider whether there was a bobcat sighting last year or not, check the height of the creek, and assess the number of plants from one month to the next.
Each chapter ends with pages from Ellie’s field notebook, a two-page spread that looks as if it’s hand-written on spiral-bound lined paper and is filled with observant and imaginative sketches from the day. Ellie’s daily logs are not to be skimmed; they’re worth taking time to absorb as they’re carefully rendered. There’s a lot to learn. M.L. Herring makes Ellie’s entries fun and playful, typographically enlarging words like “crack” or “wet sponge,” modeling to student readers that they can use color, tell stories, and access different ways to record data.
The field notes in the last chapter do a beautiful job comparing and contextualizing the passage of time in nature, teaching that all things have their own phases of life. Li teaches the reader that “Change happens . . . all the time . . . at all different speeds.” Herring illustrates the life cycle of different organisms with life cycles in drastically different time frames: a mayfly (days); Douglas iris (weeks); maple leaf (months); creek (seasons); people (years); tree growth (decades); and old growth forest and log decay (centuries). Whether transitions occur in one day or 100 years, the reader will learn that all these observations are equally worth documenting.
The book ends with a journal entry from Ellie on how to keep a log book and then Li provides a list of suggested readings. Ellie’s Log has a companion website, as well: an online resource for students and teachers that extends the teaching the book attempts.
Ellie’s Log is an interesting story teaching about the work and lives of a family in the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest. Perhaps we could have learned more about the community Ellie lives in and her relationships with her friends, and there were moments when the dialogue between Ellie and Ricky seemed too instructive and unnatural for the speech patterns of two 11-year-olds, but these are minor quibbles, given the book’s goals. Judith Li accomplishes her task of incorporating scientific method in a fictional story, and the reader will appreciate the opportunity to learn new vocabulary in order to study and understand the forest. The storyline is here to serve the science. As an educational tool, this book brightens and improves what can be a trying subject for some children. Most importantly, the Ellie’s Log spreads the word for future generations about the value of old growth forests.
Jenny Fan lives and works in Irvine, California, and is the administrator for the Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion. She received her MFA in fiction from the University of Washington, and when she’s not working, she spends time with her husband and two children, often hiking the state parks and wilderness of the California coast.
Header illustration by M.L. Herring, courtesy Oregon State University Press.