The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Watcher: A Children’s Book about How Jane Goodall Became Jane Goodall

Great children’s books celebrating science are few and far between, and in a general publishing landscape where only 31% of books for young readers feature female protagonists, great children’s books celebrating female pioneers of science are especially rare. How refreshing, then, to come upon The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps (public library | IndieBound) by writer and artist Jeanette Winter — the illustrated story of how the legendary primatologist, who once authored a little-known children’s book herself, became the icon that she is and forever changed not only her field but also the course of cultural attitudes toward animals.

From cultivating the powers of observation as a little girl, obsessively tracking the family’s hens as they lay eggs and quietly watching the robin outside her window for weeks on end, to reading voraciously the stories of Tarzan and Dr. Doolittle as she aspired to go to Africa and live with the apes, to the realization of her dream as she buys a one-way boat ticket to Kenya upon graduation and soon meets the pioneering paleoanthropologist and archaeologist Louis Leakey, the story captures in plain words and simple drawings Goodall’s remarkable determination, tenacity and clarity of conviction.

We see young Jane set up camp in Gombe, at last feeling a deep sense of homecoming — “This is where I belong,” she would later write in her memoir. “This is what I came into this world to do.” We follow her to the top of the forested hills as she looks for the chimps, and between the trees as she anticipates the timid creatures. Befallen with malaria and still alone, she lurches on the brink of losing hope.

And then, one fateful day, she makes contact with the chimps — all the patience pays off when one trusting male, whom she names David Greybeard, takes a banana from her hand and, by displaying his own trust, encourages the other chimps to admit her into their lives. There she is, at last observing them as they play, hold hands, kiss, and fight, confirming empirically her deep intuition that we share a great deal more than previously thought with our misunderstood evolutionary relatives.

We see her sitting in her tent at night, recording the day’s observations as she listens to Mozart and Bach on an old turntable.

But after she leaves Gombe, poachers and intruders begin cutting down the trees, shooting grownup chimps, and kidnapping their babies to sell to circuses, labs, and as pets.

We see Goodall at a lectern — devastated by the prospect of her beloved chimps becoming extinct, she becomes a spokesperson and educator. Even as she travels the world advocating for conservation, Goodall returns to Gombe every chance she gets and, reunited with David Greybeard, sits atop the familiar beloved hills once again, listening for her friends.

For a grownup complement to The Watcher, see Goodall on science and spirituality and her answers to the famous Proust Questionnaire.

For more wonderful illustrated biographies, see those of Julia Child, Pablo Neruda, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and Maria Merian, another grand dame of science.

Published December 4, 2014




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