Minn of the Mississippi / by Justine Lee Hirten

When I first began collecting books featuring natural history illustrations I spent most of my time following the signs for art, science, nature, or wildlife genres when visiting book sales and second-hand shops. I was looking for meaty books to weigh down my bag — a big collection of wildlife art or a fat encyclopedia were staples of a good haul. It took time for me to find my way into the children section’s crowded shelves of spindly-looking books. It’s overwhelming — there are more little books crammed into each square foot than anywhere else and the subject matter is completely random, you have to squint your eyes to read through all the tiny titles squeezed into all the little spines, it’s a true rummage.

My first pick ever from the piles of picture books was Minn of the Mississippi, which caught my eye with its gorgeous cover art. I crack open any kid’s book expecting to see wise-cracking animals and cutesy forest friends, but Minn was a revelation. Almost every one of its scant 86 pages features natural history illustrations spanning the fields of zoology, geology, anthropology, engineering, and beyond, all interspersed among rich full-page color illustrations depicting the journey of the protagonist, Minn, a baby snapping turtle navigating the Mississippi River without gimmicks or magic. Minn faces the natural perils that threaten animals in travel, predation, and human encounters in a story that is true to life and permeated with facts about the habitats and history of the Mississippi River. This was my missing link; this unassuming little storybook converted the children’s section into a glowing treasure trove for my natural history collection.

Minn of the Mississippi was written and illustrated by Holling C. Holling in 1951, and it was not until preparing this blog entry that I realized Holling and I had traced the same paths as alumni of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and again by working at the Field Museum of Natural History — a nice surprise. The book is well-researched and includes an extensive acknowledgements section thanking a rambling list of contacts for contributing their expertise, more than I had expected to see in any picture book. Holling is an expert in his own right, and a real powerhouse: a dedicated researcher, keen observer, sharp technical illustrator, and expressive painter and writer — this book clearly required an enormous amount of time and effort and is a great merger of art and science. The writing shows an empathetic perspective on its animal subjects; the wildlife have feeling without being overly anthropomorphized and the style of writing and illustration is effectively simplified to communicate facts to young and adult readers alike. It’s an excellent example for contemporary science illustrators to look at for creating images for the general public that are engaging, concise, and tell a story without sacrificing the educational content.

I love that our main character is a snapper — an unconventional choice for a starring species. She is brought to life by full-page illustrations that are lush and charming. There’s the nostalgia hit from the margins' graphite drawings framing the text, it's a classic look that dates the book in a good way. In a less good way, several passages portray Native Americans and African Americans as caricatures, there are some parts of the text that I really fumbled through.

Nearly every page features an illustration including charts, schematics, and maps. Some of my favorite margins are the ones explaining the natural history of snappers:

I was curious about how the topic of conservation would be addressed in a 1950’s children’s book. Holling provides this quote less than halfway in:

“Children grew, went away to college, and returned with new wisdom and a new word — CONSERVATION. They replanted wasted woodlands. When they cut old trees for timber, they planted new trees. They built dams, restocked waters with fish, brushlands with gamebirds, protected game. People who had grown up in a wasteland gave their grandchildren lakes and streams churning with fish again, and wide, green forests in which to play…”

Here Holling explicitly highlights education as a driving force behind wildlife conservation and environmental protection. Like some other books I have read from this era, conservation is addressed through the lens of direct, hands-on impact — help replace the wood you gathered for your home, help restock the game you gathered for your plate. Holling addresses the reader and asks them to give more than they take with their own hands, it is not until later books in my collection that I see conservation more frequently discussed on a societal level. The sentiment to make a personal, positive impact reaches me 70 years since it was written, but today we also grapple with a greater sense of detachment from the effects of our actions as people ask how the choice to not use a straw affects sea turtles on the other side of the world, or how one can offset the global ripple effects of our daily consumptions and purchases. These concerns feel much more overwhelming (often defeating) than worrying about whether your local game preserve will be fully stocked for your grandchildren’s hunting needs. Part of this pain of detachment is what drives me to be an activist on the local level as a wildlife rehabilitator; seeing the direct impact of my actions to help an animal in need and educate the public helps give me the kind of affirmation and validation that keeps me from falling into pessimism. I too believe that education has to take centerstage, and I hope that the art I produce can help contribute to this mission.

A vivid book like Minn may have made quite an impact on a curious young mind and inspired them to learn more beyond its pages. I think authors of children’s books must be seeking to create the kind of books they would’ve been enthralled with when they were children — they remember what originally inspired them and must hope to give that same feeling to the next generations. I am interested in seeing which scientists or naturalists are out there today writing and illustrating the picture books that will spark the next wave of nature-lovers, so I am expanding my book collection more and more out of vintage-only and into contemporary books.

The glowing emerald palette and swirling light beams of Holling’s underwater scenes give Minn’s journey the same magical and epic quality of any fantasy book. Flipping through these pages generates the same feeling as when you find one of those remarkable fantasy books that has gone to great lengths to explain and diagram all of its fictional geography, societies, and creatures. This style of book is very effective in illuminating the reader’s mind to every detail of the world so they can be fully immersed in the adventure. The joy of natural history driven fiction like Minn is that when you close the cover, that world doesn’t close with it — the adventure continues right off the page and into the natural world.